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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Sunday, September 27, 2015

THE BRAVADOS (Fox, 1958)




DIRECTOR: Henry King;  PRODUCER: Herbert B. Swope, Jr.;  WRITERS: screenplay by Phillip Yordan based on novel by Frank O'Rourke; CINEMATOGRAPHER: Leon Shamroy


CAST: Gregory Peck, Joan Collins, Stephen Boyd, Albert Salmi, Henry Silva, Kathleen Gallant, Barry Coe, George Voskovec, Herbert Rudley, Lee Van Cleef, Andrew Duggan, Ken Scott, Gene Evans, Joe De Rita


Click on the picture below and through the courtesy of You Tube you can view the film's trailer:




THE PLOT.
Frankly, this movie could have and should have been better.  After all, it had an accomplished director at the helm, starred one of the best actors to appear in Western films, featured outstanding location photography, a stirring musical score, an interesting supporting cast, and a talented actress -- no, wait -- I went too far.  Erase that last part.  That was part of the problem.

Perhaps part of the fault also lies in Yordan's screenplay or O'Rourke's novel, but something is missing.  Despite its component parts, the sum of which are greater than the whole, it is not a classic film, perhaps not even a great one, but it isn't a bad one either.

Jim Douglas (Gregory Peck) has been on a mission. For some time he has been searching for four men that he believes raped and murdered his wife.  They have been described as two white men (Stephen Boyd and Albert Salmi), a "half-breed" (Lee Van Cleef), and an Indian (Henry Sliva).  Now he learns that the four are locked up in the jail in the border town of Rio Arriba, sentenced to hang for attempted bank robbery and the killing of a teller.

Douglas rides into the village because he wants to look the killers in the eye and to witness their hanging the next day.  However, that evening, while most of the community is in church, the outlaws break jail, abducting a merchant's daughter, Emma Steinmetz (Kathleen Gallant), while making their getaway.

Stephen Boyd and Albert Salmi above and Lee Van Cleef and Henry Sliva below are the four "bravados"



Since the sheriff (Herbert Rudley) is seriously wounded during the jail break, a posse is formed and led by his deputy, Primo (Ken Scott).  Primo and the other posse members defer to Douglas as the manhunt begins.

Douglas taking the lead is successful in tracking down the fugitives one by one. Each time he shows them a picture of his deceased wife and small daughter and asks them if they have ever seen them before.  Each man swears that he hasn't, but Douglas doesn't believe them and kills the first two (Van Cleef and Salmi) in a coldblooded fashion. After Emma is found, alive but having been raped by Zachary (Boyd), Douglas tracks him down and kills him in a shootout in a Mexican cantina.
After trailing Lujan (Silva) to his home in the mountains, Douglas learns that he has been wrong about some things -- some rather important things.  After Lujan's wife subdues Douglas by conking him on the head with a pot and Lujan has a gun on him, Douglas shows Lujan the picture and, like the other three men, Lujan claims he has never seen the woman or the child.  Eventually, Lujan persuades Douglas that neither he nor the other three had anything to do with his wife's death. The realization leaves him speechless with remorse.

Nevertheless, when he returns to Rio Arriba he is greeted as a hero by the community.  It is grateful to him for what he has done.  After all, the four men had attempted to rob the bank and had killed one of the town's citizens. When the assembled townspeople offer their gratitude, Douglas asks for their prayers.

Many, many times, before and after THE BRAVADOS, the vengeance plot has been adapted for the screen, sometimes featuring the hero tracking the killer or killers of his brother or maybe his father.  In numerous films, B-Western star Bob Steele found himself searching for the mangy coyote who killed his father. In fact, it happened so often that "the Bob Steele plot" became shorthand for such a story (One reason it may have been so prevalent in the Steele films is that many of them were written and directed by his real-life father.)

But in other films, as in THE BRAVADOS, the avenger was searching for his wife's murderer(s).  An excellent example is SEVEN MEN FROM NOW (1956), the first of several classic collaborations by director Budd Boetticher and star Randolph Scott.  At least Peck's character only had to track down four men.



THE DIRECTOR.
Henry King (1915)
Henry King (1886-1982) was one of the most talented and certainly most versatile directors in Hollywood's history.  He was equally adept at directing musicals, melodramas, and epics. Unfortunately, that versatility resulted in him directing precious few Westerns for people like us. But he was good at that, too.  He never failed us the few times he was given the responsibility of filming one.

An actor in silent films, he began directing in 1915. During the silent era he directed a few Westerns, the most noteworthy being THE WINNING OF BARBARA WORTH (1928), a film that went a long way in launching the long successful career of a young actor named Gary Cooper.

His first Western during the sound era was a classic: JESSE JAMES (1939), starring Tyrone Power and Henry Fonda.  His second was also a classic: THE GUNFIGHTER (1950), starring Gregory Peck.  His only other Western was THE BRAVADOS, perhaps not a classic, but nevertheless a good one.  And that was it.  Just three Westerns during the sound era, but each is a winner.



THE CAST.
Completely out of character, Gregory Peck's first Western movie role found him portraying an unlikable, unreformed scoundrel in the overblown epic, DUEL IN THE SUN (1947).  But things quickly took a turn for the better a year later when he gave an outstanding performance as a bad man who does reform in YELLOW SKY (1948).  He was even better in THE GUNFIGHTER, which as noted earlier, was Henry King's second sound Western, and was one of Peck's greatest performances.    

The '50's, the best decade ever for Westerns, was a great one for Peck, with THE BRAVADOS being bookended by THE GUNFIGHTER and THE BIG COUNTRY (1959).

Joan Collins appeared in only three Western features -- or maybe only one depending on what one considers to be a Western.  One was a comedy spoof, one was a Northerner set in the Yukon during its gold rush, and the other is THE BRAVADOS.  Collins looks uncomfortable in the film, especially when she is astride a horse, and there seems to be absolutely no chemistry between the two stars.  Peck does often seem ill at ease in romantic scenes, but with the right actress he comes across as believable, even in Westerns.  For proof see his scenes with Jennifer Jones in DUEL IN THE SUN or Anne Baxter in YELLOW SKY



The production does have an international flavor.  It was filmed on location in Mexico (before that became common); Joan Collins was born in London; and though Albert Salmi was born in Brooklyn, his parents were Finnish immigrants; and Stephen Boyd was a native of Northern Ireland.  

In 1956, Boyd signed a seven year contract with Twentieth Century-Fox, but is best known for his role as Messala in BEN HUR (1959), while on loan-out to MGM.  He appeared in only three Westerns, with THE BRAVADOS being the best by far.  The others were SHALAKO (1958) and HANNIE CAULDER (1972).  He was only in his mid-forties when he died in 1977.

Albert Salmi began his acting career on the stage.  One of his early roles was in the Broadway production of The Rainmaker.  In 1955, he was cast as rodeo cowboy Bo Decker in Bus Stop.  As a result of the critical praise he received, he was offered the role for the movie version with Marilyn Monroe.  He turned it down because he preferred the stage over movies.  Another notable performance came in 1953 on the TV anthology series, The U.S. Steel Hour, when he portrayed a major league catcher with a terminal illness in the dramatization of Mark Harris' novel, Bang the Drum Slowly.  A young actor by the name of Robert De Niro played the part in the movie version.


Paul Newman as pitcher Henry "Author" Wiggen and Albert Salmi as catcher Bruce Pearson in the U.S. STEEL HOUR production of BANG THE DRUM SLOWLY (1953) 
THE BRAVADOS was Salmi's second movie role and his first in a Western. Through the years the busy character actor would appear in several more, perhaps the most notable being THE UNFORGIVEN (1960) and HOUR OF THE GUN (1967).  He seemed to enjoy his Western roles and became a ubiquitous and welcome presence in TV Westerns during their heyday.

He was still acting right up until his death in 1990, which occurred under tragic circumstances.  It was ruled that he shot and killed his estranged wife before committing suicide.

Henry Silva, like Salmi, born in Brooklyn and in the same year (1928), gives one of his better performances as the Indian Lujan.  He did not appear in a lot of Westerns, but was rather impressive as one of Richard Boone's henchman, a cold-blooded killer, in the Boetticher-Scott film, THE TALL T (1957).

Clarence Leroy Van Cleef, Jr. was born in New Jersey in 1925.  It is quite ironic that both Van Cleef and Jack Elam were accountants before launching careers as two of the most recognizable and despicable villains to appear on the screen.  In the end, however, Elam became a latter-day comic actor in the tradition of Walter Brennan and against all odds Van Cleef became a star.  

Van Cleef broke into movies as the result of producer-director Stanley Kramer spotting him in a touring company of the play, Mister Roberts.  Kramer wanted to cast the young actor as Deputy Harvey Pell in HIGH NOON (1952).   However, Kramer did have one request.  He asked the young actor to have his hawk-like nose fixed.  To his credit, Van Cleef refused.  He was still cast in the film, but as one of the four gunmen who stalk Marshal Will Kane (Gary Cooper) in the streets of Hadleyville.  Lloyd Bridges was chosen to portray the deputy.

The year after THE BRAVADOS, Van Cleef headed the gang of outlaws who pursued Randolph Scott in the Boetticher-Scott film, RIDE LONESOME, and in 1962 he was one of Liberty Valance's (Lee Marvin) henchmen in THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE.  During these years he also appeared on virtually every TV Western series in production, even those aimed at juvenile audiences.

Then in 1965, Sergio Leone cast him in support of a fellow named Eastwood in FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE and an international star was born.  It wouldn't be correct to call him a hero in the spaghetti Westerns that followed, because there was no such character in any of those films.  But like Eastwood before him, he became an antihero.   



REVIEWS.
"It's a grim, hard, pursuit drama, brutal at times, with a pointed messge about the futility of revenge.  Tough and tight, it has a big look and a heroic stirring score; the acting is very good.  There are moments when one must wince -- the lame tip of the hat to religious faith; the turgid romantic interludes; a tailored and curiously Tom Mix-ish costume worn by the hero -- but Henry King...always seemed capable of eliciting [Peck's] best performances.  This one is a superior and often quite moving Western." -- Brian Garfield, Western Film: A Complete Guide

"Distilled to essentials, THE BRAVADOS is, simply, a manhunt.  But it is executed intelligently in fine, brooding style against eye-filling, authentic backgrounds, so that its basically familiar ingredients glisten with professional polish." -- A.H. Wieler, New York Times

Now for an opposing viewpoint:

"A routine, would-be prestige Western....both King's direction and Peck's acting lack the intensity needed to animate it." -- Phil Hardy, The Western 









Sunday, September 6, 2015

QUICK HITS III

Here are some quick looks at a few more books that I have given a rating of 5 out of a possible 5 stars.  All deal with the world of sports.  Two are novels about professional boxing while all the others are nonfictional looks at professional baseball.



THE PROFESSIONAL by W.C. Heinz (originally published in 1958)

This debut novel by notable sports journalist W.C. Heinz is the story of the quest of a boxer to become the middleweight champion.

Here are what some other writers thought about the book:

"....one of five best sports novels ever written." -- Pete Hamill   

"....the only good novel I've ever read about a fighter." -- Ernest Hemingway

"The way I remember it, I read The Professional when it came out in January 1958, and for the first and only time in my life wrote to the author to tell him how much I liked his book." -- Elmore Leonard

And finally this:

"Heinz is not just one of the great sportswriters this country has produced, he is one of the great American writers." -- Mike Lupica




THE KILLINGS OF STANLEY KETCHEL by James Carlos Blake (published in 2006)


Stanley Ketchel
"The short brutish life of Stanley Ketchel, the middleweight champion of the ragtime era who ruled the ring until his murder at age 24, serves as inspiration for Blake's action-packed novel....From Gibson Girl Evelyn Nesbitt, who enjoys a passionate liaison with Ketchel, to Emmett Dalton, last of the old-time outlaws, Blake brings to life a huge cast of characters across a glittering, vital America. -- Publishers Weekly

Yes, Blake's book is a novel, but it is based on the life of a fighter that many experts believe to be the greatest middleweight champion in history.

He won forty-nine of his sixty-four fights by knockout and lost only four.  A handsome, dapper, lady's man, he was murdered in 1910. 




STEINBRENNER: THE LAST LION OF BASEBALL by Bill Madden (published in 2010)



Bill Madden is a veteran baseball writer who has covered the New York Yankees for the New York Daily News for many years.  He has been there for many of the ups and downs in the life and times of George Steinbrenner and his team. 

Love him or hate him (being a lifelong Cardinals fan, I confess to being in the latter camp), it is impossible to argue with the man's success as the owner of the New York Yankees -- or is it?  Well, the team did win seven World Series during his stewardship, but Michael Shapiro argues in his review of the book that those victories were not always the result of his actions -- but sometimes in spite of them.  

Shapiro goes on to say that if Steinbrenner "had limited his involvement to writing checks, there is every reason to believe the Yankees might have fared better."  In the end, he says, Madden's book is "a devastating account."

At the time of the book's publication, Steinbrenner, at age seventy-nine, was retired and in bad health. He died later that year.



SEASONS IN HELL: WITH BILLY MARTIN, WHITEY HERZOG AND "THE WORST BASEBALL TEAM IN HISTORY" -- THE 1973-1975 TEXAS RANGERS by Mike Shropshire (originally published in 2005)



Billy Martin makes his point with the man in blue
Mike Shropshire, who covered the Rangers for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, wrote a humorous, irreverent, politically incorrect, funny book about that team and its cast of characters. If Hunter Thompson had written a "Ball Four" book about the Texas Rangers this would have been the book.

Here is a sample:

"Even before the start of spring training, Herzog had said, 'If Rich Billings is the starting catcher again, we're in deep trouble.' When that evaluation was passed along to Billings, he simply nodded and said, 'Whitey, obviously, has seen me play.'"

If one reads the reader reviews on the Amazon website, one will find that Texas Rangers fans hate the book and everybody else loves it. I'm not a Texas Rangers fan.




THE LAST REAL SEASON: A HILARIOUS LOOK BACK AT 1975 -- WHEN MAJOR LEAGUERS MADE PEANUTS, THE UMPIRES WORE RED, AND BILLY MARTIN TERRORIZED EVERYONE by Mike Shropshire (originally published in 2008)


This is Shropshire's sequel to the above book.  It is a humorous, irreverent, politically incorrect, inside view of the 1975 baseball season, starring Billy Martin and the hapless Texas Rangers, a team that began the season with playoff aspirations. Unfortunately, it didn't happen and the Rangers had to wait another twenty-one years before it would happen.

Shropshire had the job of covering the Rangers when they were one of the most incompetent teams in the major leagues. He was able to survive with the aid of certain mood enhancers and a sense of humor.

If you are a baseball fan and old enough to remember the escapades and exploits of Alfred Manuel "Billy" Martin, I think you will really enjoy The Last Real Season. If not, you might still enjoy it; but maybe not if you are a Rangers fan.




CULT BASEBALL HEROES: THE GREATS, THE FLAKES, THE WEIRD AND THE WONDERFUL -- edited by Danny Peary (originally published in 1990)



This is an anthology of essays written about fifty-nine baseball players -- the greats, the flakes, the weird and the wonderful -- by a varied collection of writers.  As Peary writes in the introduction, the essays "were written by sports columnists from around the country, broadcasters, and former players, as well as actors, directors, and an assortment of writers who have a deep love of baseball."

My personal favorite among the essays is the very first one. Film director Ron Shelton writes about minor-league phenom Steve Dalkowski, whose fastball even scared Ted Williams -- yes, that Ted Williams!  

You probably never heard of Dalkowski because he was so wild that he never made it to the major leagues.  But could he ever throw hard!  He once hit an umpire with a wild pitch and broke his mask in three places.  An attempt was made to measure the speed of his fastball with a primitive radar gun, but it took him almost an hour to hit the target.  Due to the fact that he had made so many pitches and consequently had lost so much off his fastball the measurement when he finally did hit the target was meaningless. The actual speed of his legendary fastball remains a mystery.