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 









5 comments:

  1. Excellent western, well directed with good performances, although I agree Joan Collins is a bit stiff - her role's an important enough one all the same.
    Just a minor correction since I'm a fan of Stephen Boyd (there weren't too many cowboy stars from my neck of the woods growing up!) - he made a few more westerns than you mentioned: One I've never seen called Montana Trap, a spaghetti by the name of Charge and The Man Called Noon, a fairly good Euro effort adapted from the Louis L'Amour novel.
    Colin

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  2. My apologies, Colin. The holiday season was a hectic one and I just saw your comment.

    Thanks for the additional information on Stephen Boyd. I must have overlooked those films.

    Henry King directed many enjoyable films, but I often wish that he had done more Westerns.

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  3. My opinion,an extraordinary film.Peck and Silva were very "attuned" to their characters.
    I agree that the Tall T and Silva were exceptional.
    Westerns created an obsessive wanderlust for my Dad,myself and son.
    Countless trips to wilderness and desert destinations.

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    Replies
    1. Hello Timothy,

      Sorry for being tardy with replies to your messages, but I just discovered them.

      I also grew up with Westerns and like you have made those same treks. One of my favorite destinations is Monument Valley, of course. But I also like the Sedona, AZ area where a number of Westerns were also filmed. Another favorite place is the Palo Duro Canyon in the Texas Panhandle.

      Thanks for dropping by and commenting.

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    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

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