Category: Westerns

Apr 20 2014

‘The Big Trail’ on TCM

The defining word in the title of Raoul Walsh’s The Big Trail is big. The 1930 drama built around a wagon train traveling the Oregon Trail from the banks of the Mississippi to the lush forests of the Pacific Northwest was the first outdoor epic of the young sound era of cinema. It’s a simple story with a vast cast of characters embarking on the promise of a new start in the untamed wilderness of the American west, led by a strapping, plainspoken young scout in buckskin named Breck Coleman. And it introduced American audiences to the actor who would become one of the biggest stars to ever dominate the big screen: John Wayne, who anchors the film in his first significant screen role as Breck.

The silent cinema had presented its share of grand western epics and pioneer odysseys, among them James Cruze’s The Covered Wagon (1923) and John Ford’s The Iron Horse (1924) but nothing approaching that scale had yet been attempted since the transition to the talkies. Walsh had already embarked on Hollywood’s first outdoor western with In Old Arizona (1928), but he had to hand the directorial reins of that film over to another when he lost his left eye in a freak automobile accident; a jackrabbit jumped through the windshield of his car and he lost his left eye to the shattered glass. He was determined to make The Big Trail his own and he had big ideas for the film.

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Plays on TCM on Monday, April 21

Apr 20 2014

‘Sagebrush Trail’ on TCM

John Wayne was a busy actor in the 1930s. After taking his first lead in the epic The Big Trail (1930), an ambitious early sound western that became an expensive failure for Fox, the strapping young actor was tried out in college films, sports movies, dramas, and comedies, but it was in westerns and action films where he found the success. He quickly established himself as a reliable young hero in dozens of low budget westerns, most of which ran under an hour. The double feature was coming into popularity and westerns were an inexpensive way to get a second movie on the bill, or even play top of the bill in rural theaters.

Monogram was just the company to supply those films and in 1933 they hired Wayne to an eight-picture deal. Sagebrush Trail (1933) was his second picture for Monogram.

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Plays on TCM on Tuesday, April 22

Dec 31 2013

Videophiled: ‘The Big Gundown’ and ‘Nightmare City’


It’s hard to believe that The Big Gundown (Grindhouse, Blu-ray+DVD Combo), easily one of the best spaghetti westerns ever made, has never been on home video in the U.S. in any legitimate form before. It features Lee Van Cleef in a rare heroic role as Jonathan Corbett, a dogged lawman without a badge who applies an unwavering and unforgiving sense of justice, and Tomas Milian as Cuchillo, the Mexican peasant outlaw accused of raping and killing a 12-year-old girl. Cuchillo is more con man and frontier rascal than hardened criminal, but his antics and his survival instincts still manage to get a few unsavory types killed in the proverbial crossfire while Corbett’s obsessive pursuit of justice brings its own collateral damage. But in the savage frontier societies of this spaghetti western culture, that still makes them the good guys.

Director Sergio Sollima is not the stylist that Sergio Leone was and doesn’t have Leone’s operatic approach to conflict on the desert frontier, but with his screenwriting collaborator Sergio Donati he certainly had a way with portraying the corruption of the American dream on the frontier. Van Cleef’s Corbett is a humorless, unstoppable force and Milian’s Cuchillo a wily, earthy Bugs Bunny playing pranks on his escape, but both are pawns in a game of power and money. Which, of course, they learn in due course as the pursuit crosses the border into Mexico and the forces of law and order sent by a would-be railroad baron become ruthless vigilantes. Ennio Morricone provides a suitably spare score and Almeria, Spain, and surrounding areas double for the towns and the beautiful but hostile desert plains.

Continue reading at Cinephiled


Nightmare City (Raro, Blu-ray, DVD) (Dec 31), also known as City of the Walking Dead, is the notorious goremeister Umberto Lenzi’s 1981 pseudo zombie thriller. These are actually radioactive mutants, the victims of a deadly spill from a local nuclear plant disaster, but they have an unhealthy hunger for human flesh just the same. Hugo Stiglitz (yes, the inspiration for the name of the Tarantino character in Inglourious Basterds) is the journalist sent to cover the accident and Laura Trotter is his medical doctor wife, who do their best the evade the flesh eating ghouls while the army (led by Mel Ferrer) just seems to annoy them. Previously on DVD in the US, this edition features a new HD master. Italian and English language versions with optional English subtitles, plus an interview with director Umberto Lenzi, trailers, and a booklet.

More releases at Cinephiled

May 08 2013

‘Canadian Pacific’ on TCM

Fifteen years after the American transcontinental railway was completed, construction began on the Canadian Pacific Railway to connect British Columbia to Eastern Canada. For the purposes of the 1949 film Canadian Pacific, it’s simply a setting for a western in the mountains and forests of western Canada, where the challenge of finding a route through the Rocky Mountains is compounded by the opposition of local trappers and Indian tribes. It is, shall we say, a portrait that refuses to let history dictate the details of the story.

Randolph Scott stars as Tom Andrews, the buckskin-clad surveyor and “trouble boss,” a kind of foreman who has an instinct for spotting troublemakers and intervening in a very physical way before they have a chance to make any trouble. Scott plays Tom as a classic Scott cowboy: ramrod straight, with a big smile, quick fists, and fast draw. He instantly clashes with the railway’s new doctor, Edith Cabot (Jane Wyatt), a cultured pacifist who abhors violence, before returning to Cecille (Nancy Olson), the frontier girl he met in the local trapper settlements while searching for the pass. It’s a classic dichotomy: the man of the west torn between the wild frontier gal and the civilized society woman. In this pairing, trapper’s daughter Olson is the gentler, more romantic of the two, while Wyatt plays the doctor as a fiery, obstinate woman under the corset and severe speeches.

Needless to say, circumstances toss Tom together with Edith while Cecille’s people are whipped up into an anti-railway frenzy by the wonderfully-named villain Dirk Rourke (Victor Jory), a fur trader who fears his monopoly on the trading posts will be broken by the railway. Stir in stolen dynamite, Indian tribes on the warpath, and liquor-induced labor unrest, and you’ve got a war over the rails. Prolific character actor J. Carrol Naish, usually relegated to roles as villains or even Indians, provides color and comic relief as the sourdough Dynamite Dawson, an old coot with a bushy beard who drawls tall tales (“I once won the Kentucky Derby!”) as the railway munitions man and Tom’s most trusted ally.

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Plays on Saturday, May 11 on TCM

Jul 29 2012

‘Tall in the Saddle’ on TCM


John Wayne was still paying his dues as a leading man when he made Tall in the Saddle (1944). 1939’s Stagecoach had made him a star after a decade of headlining B-westerns, but he was under contract to Republic, which was still a “poverty row” studio that made its money on B-movies. With a budding star in its stable, Republic cashed in by casting him in one western after another, with a smattering of action and war films tossed into the mix. Budgets increased and production values improved, but most were still being cranked out at a rapid rate. With few exceptions, his best films in the years following Stagecoach – The Long Voyage Home (1940) for John Ford, Reap the Wild Wind (1942) for Cecil B. DeMille, The Spoilers and Pittsburgh (both 1942) with Marlene Dietrich and Randolph Scott — were made for other studios.

Tall in the Saddle, Wayne’s second film in a six-picture deal with RKO, is a classic western tale of the stalwart hero who stands up against corruption and injustice, the old west version of a knight errant. It’s arguably his best western since Stagecoach and it even references that breakthrough as Wayne enters the film by hitching a ride at a stage stop. Five years later, Wayne is older and more confident and it shows in his portrayal of Rocklin, a decent, modest cowboy with a rustic but respectful manner, a respect for cussed old frontier survivors like stage driver Dave (George ‘Gabby’ Hayes), and the strength and spine to stand up to bullies without even pulling a gun. While he faces down the corrupt sheriff and his minions, he develops a crush on a society girl, Clara Cardell (Audrey Long), who arrives in the same stagecoach with her disapproving spinster guardian, and strikes romantic sparks in his clashes with the fierce, feisty cowgirl Arly (Ella Raines), the beautiful and dangerous daughter of another rancher. Ward Bond, Wayne’s close friend and drinking buddy, co-stars as the jovial but ethically questionable Judge Garvey.

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Plays on Turner Classics Movies on Wednesday, August 1

Jul 19 2012

Classic: A New Edition of ‘High Noon’

High Noon (Olive), one of the best loved westerns of all time, has been called an old-fashioned celebration of courage and responsibility in the face of impossible odds, an ironic dissection of the western myth, and a blast of moral outrage at the silence and passivity of American citizens. Howard Hawks claimed this film inspired him to make “Rio Bravo,” because he couldn’t fathom a sheriff who went around begging for help. There’s so much loaded weight attached to the film (from famously right-wing lead Gary Cooper to famously liberal screenwriter Carl Foreman, who was blacklisted by Hollywood) that it can overwhelm what is essentially a lean, dusty western classic set to the real time of a ticking clock, counting down the minutes until a gang of killers ride in looking for revenge on Sheriff Cooper.

Grace Kelly plays Cooper’s Quaker bride, anxious for him to set aside all thoughts of violence on this their wedding day, and Thomas Mitchell, Lloyd Bridges, Otto Kruger, Lon Chaney, Henry Morgan, Lee Van Cleef, and Katy Jurardo co-star. Fred Zinneman directs for producer Stanley Kramer, and Tex Ritter sings the legendary theme song: “Do not forsake me, oh my darling.”

It’s been on DVD before but has been remastered in HD for this edition from a finegrain 35mm print for a new DVD edition and its Blu-ray debut. Features the 23-minute documentary “The Making of High Noon,” a 1992 featurette narrated by Leonard Maltin, but not any of the other supplements from the previous DVD special edition.

More classics on DVD and Blu-ray at Videodrone

Jun 21 2012

Blu-ray: ‘Django Kill’ – The Most Cynical Spaghetti Western Ever Made

Django Kill (aka … If You Live, Shoot!) (Blue Underground) is one of the great spaghetti westerns, perhaps the best you’ve never heard of it. Directed by Guilio Questi and starring Tomas Milian as “The Stranger” (the “Django” title was added for American release), opens as a simple revenge film (simple at least simple by spaghetti western standards) but disposes of the revenge quickly and then sets the Stranger against the thoroughly mercenary schemers of a town even worse than the cutthroat gang. “The people of the Indian tribes call it The Unhappy Place,” we’re told, an understatement that is almost bitterly comic. This is a place where a wounded man is literally torn to pieces by the townsfolk when they discover the bullets in his wounds are made of gold!

Questi was a committed leftist and, while the film is apolitical as such, he lets this vision serve as his satire of capitalism at its most mercenary and vicious. Milian isn’t exactly the messiah, but he has his share of Christ-like trials as the townsfolk nearly tear one another apart looking for stolen gold, while another subplot twists “Jane Eyre” into gothic horror in the desert. There may not be a more cynical portrait of frontier greed and human corruption in the spaghetti genre, and that’s saying something.

The Blu-ray debut features both the uncut version of the film with both Italian and English language soundtracks (the English version momentarily slips into Italian for scenes that were cut for American release), both in mono, with English subtitles. Pick your preference, as both are sloppily post-synched and at times the Italian soundtrack is a more dramatic mismatch to the actors’ mouths than the English dub. Also features the 20-minute interview featurette “Django, Tell!” with director Giulio Questi and actors Tomas Milian and Ray Lovelock.

More Blu-ray releases at Videodrone

May 31 2012

Classics: James Cagney Has To ‘Run For Cover’

Run For Cover (Olive), directed by Nicholas Ray, is a rare western starring James Cagney, an actor usually known for his street smarts and urban snap. Here he’s a drifter who is almost lynched in a case of mistaken identity and a trigger-happy coward of a sheriff. He’s tough as a coil of barbed wire, this guy, and he’s made sheriff by the townsfolk, not merely by way of apology but out of respect for his character and his cool under pressure. But against his story of a juvenile delinquent drama with John Derek as the angry young man on the frontier: an orphan crippled by the posse and bitter about the hand that life has dealt him. Curiously this came out the same year as Ray’s other story of misunderstood teens, Rebel Without a Cause, but John Derek has none of James Dean’s anxious energy or expressiveness and “Run For Cover” is an otherwise conventional western with some interesting edges. Watch for Ernest Borgnine in a small role. Blu-ray and DVD, no supplements.

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May 24 2012

Blu-ray: ‘A Bullet for the General’

A Bullet For the General (Blue Underground) – The rich, brutal, cynical culture of Italian westerns (aka spaghetti westerns) is dominated by Sergio Leone’s great movies, but there is a whole legacy of cynical, hard-edged, and even politically daring Italian westerns of the sixties and seventies. A Bullet For the General (1966), set in the culture of mercenaries and bandits operating in the lucrative chaos of the Mexican revolution, is one of the best of these.

Gian Maria Volonté stars as a charismatic bandit leader who passes himself a revolutionary guerilla as he robs military transports and sells the arms to the revolution for hard cash. Klaus Kinski gets second billing as Volonté’s brother, a wild eyed warrior priest in bandoleros dedicated to the cause, while Lou Castel (who became a regular in Fassbinder’s movies) plays the American gangster who signs on with the crew as cover for his own mission, riding through the desert in a neatly-pressed three-piece suit even on the hottest days. Damiano Damiani directs it like a twenties gangster picture in the sun-baked desert and white-dust hills of the cutthroat west, where life is cheap, loyalty is rare, and rival gangs constantly battle for guns and contraband. But it is also a portrait of the evolution of a bandit from mercenary to revolutionary, a transformation that puts him at odds with his own gang and especially Castel, the devil on his shoulder and his strangely loyal comrade in crime. There is a sophisticated story of personal commitment and political awakening behind the brutality and cowardice and betrayals, and an unexpected twist on friendship and loyalty.

The Blu-ray debut features the International cut with both English and Italian soundtracks and the slightly shorter American cut (English only), plus a five-minute interview with director Damiano Damiani (he explains that his intention was to make a parody of a western, but it doesn’t come off that way) and a bonus disc with a feature-length Italian documentary on actor Gian Maria Volonté.

More Blu-ray at Videodrone

Feb 21 2012

Blu-ray: ‘Unforgiven’ at 20

Unforgiven: 20th Anniversary (Warner)

“I don’t deserve this, to die like this. I was building a house.”
“Deserve’s got nothing to do with it.”

Clint Eastwood’s 1992 western earned the director his first Oscars, for Best Picture and Best Director. In a way, it finally made official what critics and fans had slowly come to  realize over the last decade (and at least since his 1988 “Bird”): Clint Eastwood—legendary as both the iconic western drifter with no name and Dirty Harry—was one of America’s best directors. He had directed 15 features before Unforgiven and has made as many again since, but “Unforgiven” is still the film that defines Eastwood the director for most audiences.

Aged and sunbaked into a leathery hardness, he plays a former gunfighter roused from his retirement (he’s a widower, single father, and floundering farmer) for one last bounty, and Morgan Freeman (in his first appearance in an Eastwood film) is his old friend and former partner invited along for a piece of the bounty. Eastwood also directed Gene Hackman to an Oscar as the seemingly affable sheriff, a pragmatist who measures justice in terms of expediency, and gave Richard Harris the equivalent of a spotlight solo in a small role as a flamboyant British gunslinger managing his own legend through pulp stories.

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Jan 03 2012

This Second Season is Completely ‘Justified’

Justified: The Complete Second Season (Sony) confirms the FX original series as one of the best shows on TV.

U.S. Marshall Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) is still stuck in the Kentucky county he fled years before, this season reconnecting with his ex-wife (Natalie Zea) as he gets pulled into a complicated stand-off involving a family syndicate running the dope trade, meth, moonshine and other interests in Kentucky coal country. Margo Martindale won a well-deserved Emmy Award as the wily matriarch of the backwoods mafia taking on a corporate mining concern while her less disciplined sons (notably Jeremy Davies as a schemer with a grudge against Raylon) stir up trouble around the fringes of the business. What’s a mother to do?

The series, adapted from an Elmore Leonard short story, is an exceedingly smart piece of pulp fiction with the rough edges of fascinating characters and storylines with dramatic blowback. Case in point: the journey of Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins), Raylon’s old friend turned criminal nemesis who begins the season trying to go straight with a job in the mines and finds himself drawn back to his strengths as the balance of power in the rural crime world shifts. Goggins’ measured performance and controlled intensity makes Crowder the most dangerous character in the series, and the conviction of his principles and loyalties makes him a marvelous complement to Raylon, whose own loyalties and ideas of justice continue to get him in trouble. Timothy Olyphant’s Raylon may be equal parts pulp cowboy and maverick TV cop, but he’s the real deal with lived in flaws that tell us as much about the past he’s trying to outrun as the man it turned him into.

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Jun 06 2011

“True Grit” – The Coen Bros. Craft a Classic Western

True Grit (Paramount) on DVD and Blu-ray Combo Pack (with DVD and Digital Copy)

The Coen Brothers insisted that their “True Grit” was not a remake of the 1969 film that earned John Wayne his Academy Award but a faithful adaptation of the Charles Portis novel. Whether or not it’s true that they had not seen the Henry Hathaway film since they were kids, it is interesting to see how close both hew to the story and the dialogue of the Portis novel, and how the difference in the details makes the Coens’ film uniquely their vision, and the most accessible and successful (financially speaking) film of their career.

Jeff  Bridges practically croaks his lines as Rooster Cogburn, a veteran manhunter, unapologetic killer and well-practiced drunk, yet for all his leathery character and wry humor of his performance, newcomer Hailee Steinfeld holds her own as the driven young Mattie Ross, a slip of a girl who armors up in the clothes of her dead father and sets out for revenge against the man who murdered him. And next to the lush mountain landscapes and daylight beauty of Hathaway’s 1969 film, the Coens offer a tougher, more scraggly frontier, often shrouded in fog and darkness.

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