Monday, February 28, 2022

#2,716. The True History of the Kelly Gang (2019) - 21st Century Westerns Triple Feature


While it may not be as historically accurate as its title suggests, director Justin Kurzel’s The True History of the Kelly Gang is an engaging account of a real-life outlaw, and features a lead character who is equal parts folk hero and violent desperado.

As a boy, young Ned (played superbly by Orlando Schwerdt) quickly learns the harsh realities of life. His father (Gentle Ben Corbett) is often either drunk or absent, leaving his mother Ellen (Essie Davis) with little choice but to prostitute herself, sleeping with Sgt. O’Neill (Charlie Hunnam) of the Queen’s Colonial Army just to make ends meet. When Ned’s father dies in prison (arrested for a crime actually committed by Ned), Ellen “sells” Ned to outlaw Harry Power (Russell Crowe), who tries to instruct the reluctant boy in the finer points of killing and stealing.

After serving time himself (for shooting and wounding Sgt. O’Neill), a grown-up Ned (George MacKay) returns home, only to find his mother has hooked up with American horse thief George King (Marlon Williams). What’s more, Ned’s younger brother Dan (Earl Cave) is King’s accomplice!

At first, Ned rejects the criminal lifestyle embraced by his family, only to become an outlaw himself when he’s pushed too far by British Constable Fitzpatrick (Nicholas Hoult), who threatens to arrest Dan and Ellen while at the same time insulting Ned’s new girlfriend Mary (Thomasin McKenzie). Joined by Dan as well as good friend Joe Byrne (Sean Keenan), Ned spends his days one short step ahead of the law, and is only too happy to shoot every colonial policeman that crosses his path.

Stylistically, The True History of the Kelly Gang is positively electric, with director Kurzel bringing plenty of 21st century flash and flare to this story of 19th century outlaws. Shoot-outs are filmed on the fly with handheld cameras, and some of the music used throughout, composed by the director’s brother Jed Kurzel, has a very modern feel. The film also does a fine job recreating the time period in which its set, and walked off with three AACTA Awards (the Australian equivalent of the Oscars) for costumes, hair & makeup, and production design.

As the title character, George MacKay effectively portrays both the reserved Ned who initially wants nothing to do with crime, and the madman gunning down colonial policemen (at one point, Ned even cuts the ear off one of his victims as a souvenir). Throughout the movie, Ned Kelly proves to be a complex character, and MacKay does a wonderful job bringing his seemingly conflicting nuances to the surface.

Matching MacKay every step of the way are Essie Davis as Ned’s feisty, no-nonsense mother; Russell Crowe as the savage Harry Power; and Nicholas Hoult as the slimy Fitzpatrick, whose methods of enforcing the law often cross the line (he goes so far as to hold a gun on a baby to coerce information out of the child’s mother).

The True History of the Kelly Gang does get a bit too frantic in the second half, when Ned is in full-blown outlaw mode (matching its lead character’s state of mind, the pacing becomes frenzied, even confusing, jumping from one sequence to another so quickly that we occasionally lose our bearings). Fortunately, it doesn’t spoil what came before it (Ned’s childhood and early adulthood are handled brilliantly). An Australian western with plenty of punch, The True History of the Kelly Gang is well worth a watch.
Rating: 7.5 out of 10

Saturday, February 26, 2022

#2,715. The Last Rites of Ransom Pride (2009) - 21st Century Westerns Triple Feature

Though unquestionably a unique entry in the western genre, writer / director Tiller Russell’s The Last Rites of Ransom Pride, with its jump cuts, quick flashbacks, and rapid-fire images, can, at times, be more than a little grating.

When outlaw Ransom Pride (Scott Speedman) is gunned down in a Mexican village, his girlfriend Juliette Flowers (Lizzy Caplan) tries to make good on her promise to lay his body to rest on his family’s homestead. But Ransom’s remains are being held by Bruja (Cote de Pablo), and she’s refusing to turn him over.

So Juliette strikes a deal: she’ll lure Ransom’s brother Champ (Jon Foster) to Mexico and turn him over to Bruja in exchange for her lover’s body.

Despite the objections of his father Early Pride (Dwight Yoakum), a Reverend who was once an outlaw himself, Champ agrees to accompany Juliette, though the two will face a number of challenges before reaching their destination, including a pair of hired guns (Jason Priestley and W. Earl Brown) sent to kill Juliette by Early’s former partner Shepherd Graves (Kris Kristofferson).

There’s a hell of a lot of style on display throughout The Last Rites of Ransom Pride, with Russell pulling out all the stops; random images flash across the screen, often jarringly so (sometimes there are even brief clips of future events mixed in), and the action shifts from one timeline to the next without warning (though he’s killed in the opening scene, Speedman’s Ransom turns up occasionally in black and white flashbacks).

The characters are an odd bunch, though a few of them, including Caplan’s Juliette and Yoakum’s Early Pride, are damned interesting. Yoakum is especially strong as the drunken Early, a former Confederate guerrilla who still mourns the death of his wife, which he blames on his youngest son Champ (she died giving birth to him). There are also a few colorful side characters that drop in and out, including Bill Mankuma’s Sergeant and a sideshow dwarf played by Peter Dinklage.

In the end, though, it’s a case of too much glitz and not enough story, making The Last Rites of Ransom Pride yet another entry in the very crowded “all style, no substance” category.
Rating: 5.5 out of 10

Friday, February 25, 2022

#2,714. The Salvation (2014) - 21st Century Westerns Triple Feature


An American western produced in Denmark and shot in South Africa, director Kristian Levring’s The Salvation is a gritty, hard-hitting revenge movie that, right out of the gate, punches you square in the gut.

The year is 1871. Having avenged the murder of his wife (Nanna Øland Fabricius) and son (Toke Lars Bjarke), Danish soldier turned American settler Jon Jensen (Mads Mikkelsen) finds himself a wanted man.

The newly deceased slimeball who killed his family, an outlaw named Paul Delarue (Michael Raymond-James), was the brother of Henry Delarue (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), a former Cavalry officer and the most powerful man in the territory. After taking his anger out on the residents of the small community of Black Rock, Henry Delarue orders the town’s Mayor (Jonathan Pryce) and Sheriff (Douglas Henshaw) to find his brother’s killer. DeLarue has promised his now-widowed sister-in-law, a mute known only as “Princess” (Eva Green), that the man who gunned down Paul will soon be brought to justice.

With Jon’s back against the wall, he and his brother Peter (Mikael Persbrandt) make a stand against the tyrannical Delarue, leading to a showdown of epic proportions.

The opening scene in which Jon is reunited with his wife and son is immediately followed by their murder, getting The Salvation off to an incredibly tense start. From there, director Levring never lets us off the hook, delivering one blood-soaked encounter after another, often with the innocent serving as victims. When the sheriff doesn’t find his brother’s killer quickly enough, Delarue shows his displeasure by gunning down several citizens of Black Rock in cold blood.

Mikkelsen is outstanding as the grieving husband and father who has no problem exacting a little frontier justice, and Morgan is equally superb as the villainous Delarue, whose penchant for violence makes him a formidable foe. The supporting cast is good, with Pryce turning in a nuanced performance as the Mayor who does what Delarue tells him. But it’s Eva Green as the mute Princess (her tongue was cut out by Native Americans when she was a child) who steals the show; a late scene, where she also betrays Delarue, is one of the film’s high points.

While it doesn’t exactly bring anything new to the table, The Salvation is so damn good at what it does deliver that you won’t want to miss it.
Rating: 9 out of 10

Wednesday, February 23, 2022

#2,713. How the West Was Won (1962) - The Wild West


Man, would I love to see this movie in Cinerama!

A process that utilized three projectors working in unison, beamed onto a large, curved screen, Cinerama was the ultimate widescreen experience, and only a handful of movies over the years utilized it (including It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and, most recently, Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight). With action and excitement aplenty, not to mention some gorgeous scenery, How the West Was Won is as grand an epic as Hollywood ever produced.

Narrated by Spencer Tracy, How the West Was Won was such a monumental undertaking that it required the combined talents of three directors (Henry Hathaway, John Ford, and George Marshall) to bring it to life. Spanning 50 years, the film focuses on several generations of the same family, starting in 1839, when Mountain trapper Linus Rawlings (James Stewart) met and fell in love with Eve (Carroll Baker), daughter of Zebulon Prescott (Karl Malden), who was heading west with his family via the Erie Canal.

Eve’s sister Lilith (Debbie Reynolds) eventually makes her way to St. Louis, where she headlines as a singer in a music hall. To her surprise, Lilith inherits a California gold mine, left to her by an elderly admirer. Her good fortune draws the attention of shady gambler Cleve Van Valen (Gregory Peck), who accompanies Lilith on her trip west to claim her property.

Several years later, the Civil War breaks out, and both Linus Rawlings and his son Zeb (George Peppard) enlist in the Union Army. Though initially excited at the prospect of fighting for his country, Zeb becomes disillusioned as the war drags on.

By 1868, Zeb is a Lieutenant in the U.S. Cavalry, and finds himself in the middle of a tense standoff when railroad man Mike King (Richard Widmark) breaks a treaty with the Cheyenne Indians. Resigning from the military, Zeb and his wife Julie (Carolyn Jones) head to California, where he finally meets his aunt Lilith.

Unfortunately, the dangerous outlaw Charlie Gant (Eli Wallach) has also arrived in the territory, and Zeb is convinced he intends to rob a large shipment of gold that’s headed out on the next train.

That’s one hell of a cast, isn’t it? But How the West Was Won features even more stars than I listed above, including Agnes Moorehead (as Eve and Lilith’s mother), Robert Preston (as Roger Morgan, a wagon master who falls in love with Lilith), Henry Fonda, Thelma Ritter, Lee J. Cobb, Raymond Massey (as Abraham Lincoln) and John Wayne (as Union General William Tecumseh Sherman).

How the West Was Won is also an action-packed motion picture. From an early scene where the Prescott family’s raft is caught in a raging current to the buffalo stampede that levels a railroad camp, the movie is as exciting as they come. Not to be outdone, the showdown on a moving train between Zeb Rawlings and Charlie Gant is a thrill-a-minute, and closes the movie out on a high note.

A sprawling, grand, and glorious epic, How the West Was Won stands as a monument to the Hollywood of yesteryear, a reminder of just how magical, just how spectacular the Dream Factory could be when they got it right.
Rating: 10 out of 10

Monday, February 21, 2022

#2,712. The Hallelujah Trail (1965) - The Wild West


I first saw The Hallelujah Trail on television in the '80s. My father noticed it was playing one afternoon, and told me it was “hilarious”, so the two of us sat down and watched it.

Admittedly, I remember very little about this initial viewing, in part because it occurred about 40 years ago, but also because the movie itself isn’t particularly memorable. There are a few good performances and a funny scene or two, but other than that, The Hallelujah Trail doesn’t linger in the mind once it’s over.

It’s 1867, and the small mining town of Denver, Colorado is days away from running out of whisky. To ensure their next shipment arrives before winter sets in, they place an emergency order with whisky manufacturer Frank Wallingham (Brian Keith).

Fearing that his wagon train will be attacked by Indians, Wallingham requests that a nearby Cavalry brigade, under the command of Col. Thadeus Gearhart (Burt Lancaster), accompany his shipment into Denver. But Wallingham and Gearhart will have more than an Injun raiding party to contend with, because temperance leader Cora Massingale (Lee Remick) also caught wind of the whisky shipment, and along with her army of volunteers she intends to prevent this “evil brew” from ever reaching its destination.

The Hallelujah Trail was directed by John Sturges, who helmed such classics as The Magnificent Seven, Gunfight at the OK Corral, and The Great Escape. While this 1965 comedy / western may seem a bit out of his wheelhouse, the movie features some well-executed action scenes, chief among them a desert showdown (during a sandstorm) between the Cavalry, the Native Americans, the Temperance volunteers, and a Denver Citizens Brigade intent on protecting Wallingham’s valuable cargo. This sequence, as well as a handful of others, showed that Sturges, even in a comedy, could still generate plenty of excitement.

Burt Lancaster is also predictably excellent in what is essentially the lead role, playing a gruff commanding officer who finds himself in a very difficult predicament. Alas, the supporting players are more hit-and-miss; as Col. Gearhart’s subordinate, Tim Hutton isn’t given much to do at all, while Brian Keith is often over-the-top as the agitated businessman set to profit from the whiskey. Lee Remick, though, is strong as the leader of the temperance movement, and her character proves a good foil for Gearhart’s by-the-book mentality. The film’s best comedic performance, however, is delivered by Donald Pleasance, who plays Oracle, the drunken fortune teller.

Unfortunately, aside from Pleasance’s scenes, I didn’t laugh all that much through the rest of The Hallelujah Trail; the sequences featuring the Native Americans (one of whom is played by Martin Landau) fell flat, as did the entire finale at Quicksand pass (bet you can guess what happens there). On top of that, the romance which slowly blossoms between Col. Gearhart and Cora Massingale isn’t the least bit convincing.

When all was said and done, The Hallelujah Trail had Lancaster, Pleasance, a few strong Sturges-helmed action scenes, and not much else. And for a movie that runs 165 minutes, that’s a definite problem!
Rating: 5 out of 10

Saturday, February 19, 2022

#2,711. No Name on the Bullet (1959) - The Wild West


Audie Murphy was one of the most decorated U.S. soldiers of World War II. Having lied about his age, he enlisted in 1941 when he was 16, and three years later was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for single-handedly holding off an entire German company.

After the war, Murphy became an actor, most notably playing himself in the 1955 autobiographical war film To Hell and Back. Over the years, he appeared in a number of westerns, and 1959’s No Name on the Bullet is one of the best.

When John Gant (Murphy) rides into Lordsburg, more than a few of the townsfolk start to worry. That’s because they know Gant is a hired gun, and his arrival means someone is going to die.

But Gant is also smart; he always provokes his target into drawing their gun first - usually in front of witnesses - so that when he outdraws them, he can claim he acted in self-defense.

The Sheriff, Buck Hastings (Willis Bouchey), would like nothing more than to throw Gant in jail. But since there are no warrants out for the gunman’s arrest, his hands are tied. Luke Canfield (Charles Drake), the local doctor, tries to reason with Gant, while a few of the town’s more nervous citizens, including Earl Stricker (Karl Swenson) and Thad Pierce (Whit Bissell), want to put a bullet in his back; both assume Gant was hired by their former partner Ben Chaffee (John Alderson), who they had cheated out of his share of a local mine. Ironically, Chaffee himself is convinced that Stricker and Pierce hired Gant to kill him!

With Gant in no hurry to reveal his target, all of Lordsberg is on edge. And when paranoia sets in, people start to die.

Audie Murphy may have been a great soldier, but he was only a so-so actor, and while he didn’t set the world on fire with his portrayal of John Gant, this 1959 movie didn’t really suffer much as a result. Murphy received top billing, but it’s the chaos his character stirs up - mostly by sitting around and doing nothing - that makes the film so memorable. In fact, there are more scenes without John Gant than with him. Charles Drake essentially becomes the lead as he tries to deal with Gant and calm everyone else down.

As Sheriff Hastings says at one point, most men have made an enemy or two, which means Gant’s target could be just about anyone. The film spends the majority of its time focusing on the hired gun’s potential victims and how they’re dealing with the possibility their time may be up. Along with Stricker, Pierce, and Chaffee, there’s Lou Fraden (Warren Stevens), who ran off with another man’s wife (played by Virginia Grey). Hell, even the Sheriff admits he may have crossed a few people over the years! And some of the good citizens of Lordsburg have no intention of waiting around to find out if it’s them Gant is after. The tension in No Name on the Bullet intensifies with each passing scene until it finally reaches a boiling point, resulting in violence and even murder.

Who John Gant’s intended victim might be makes for an intriguing mystery, but it’s watching the townsfolk turn on each other, and let their paranoia get the better of them, that transforms No Name on the Bullet into a first-class motion picture.
Rating: 9 out of 10

Thursday, February 17, 2022

#2,710. Cattle Annie and Little Britches (1981) - The Wild West


Now here’s a fun-filled western for you!

Directed by Lamont Johnson and based on a true story, Cattle Annie and Little Britches stars Amanda Plummer as Annie, a teenage orphan who, along with her younger friend Jennie (Diane Lane), hops a train heading west to meet her “hero”, outlaw Bill Doolin (Burt Lancaster), whose exploits she has read about in a series of articles.

Unfortunately, Doolan and his gang - which includes Bill Dalton (Scott Glenn), Little Bill Raidler (William Russ), and Native American Bittercreek Newcomb (John Savage) - have fallen on hard times. Their latest robbery was a bust, and Federal Marshal Bill Tilghman (Rod Stieger) is hot on their trail.

Annie, however, refuses to accept that Doolin is finished, and with her help the aging outlaw is soon back in the saddle, one step ahead of the law. But how long can he and his gang, which now includes “Cattle Annie” and Jennie (nicknamed “Little Britches), avoid capture?

It’s the cast that makes Cattle Annie and Little Britches such a rollicking adventure. Lancaster seems to be having the time of his life as Bill Doolin, who, despite his advancing years, still has a few tricks up his sleeve. Amanda Plummer, making her screen debut, has charisma to spare as the boisterous Annie, whose determination and spirit wins over Doolin and the others. And while the film centers more on the lawbreakers than the law, Rod Stieger shines in his few scenes as Tilghman, the Marshal who always gets his man.

Throw in a handful of humorous moments (at one point, Doolin, Annie and the gang play baseball, using equipment and uniforms they netted during a train robbery); a dramatic scene or two (Doolin’s realization that his days as a famous outlaw are drawing to a close loom heavy over the entire movie); and some nail-biting action (Annie gets her nickname when she stampedes a herd of cattle through a small town, thus allowing Doolin and the others to escape Tilghman’s posse), and you have a western that, from start to finish, is an absolute winner.

I had a great time watching Cattle Annie and Little Britches, and I think you will, too.
Rating: 9 out of 10

Tuesday, February 15, 2022

#2,709. Forty Guns (1957) - The Wild West


A horse-drawn wagon carrying three men makes its way down a lonely dirt path. Suddenly, dozens of gunmen on horseback, led by a woman riding a white steed, appear on the horizon, galloping towards the men at full speed. These gunmen - 40 of them, to be exact – follow the woman as she flies past the wagon, never once breaking stride.

These are the opening moments of Forty Guns, a tense, action-packed western, and a tale of power and love as only director Samuel Fuller could tell it.

The three in the wagon are the Bonnell brothers: Griff (Barry Sullivan), Wes (Gene Barry), and Chico (Robert Dix). Griff is a former gunslinger who now works for the Arizona Attorney General, bringing lawbreakers to justice, and his brothers help him out as best they can.

The lady on the white steed is Jessica Drummond (Barbara Stanwyck), a wealthy landowner and the most powerful woman in Cochise County. The 40 men accompanying her, which includes Jessica’s out-of-control younger brother Brockie (John Ericson), are her bodyguards (her “Dragoons”, as she calls them). Griff is in the area to arrest Howard Swain (Chuck Roberson), one of Jessica’s Dragoons, for stage coach robbery.

Though seemingly on opposite sides of the law, Griff and Jessica soon find themselves falling in love. But some bad blood between their families, which starts when Griff arrests Brockie for shooting a nearly blind Federal Marshall (Hank Worden), kicks off a feud between the Bonnells and the Drummonds that grows nastier by the day.

Fuller packs plenty of style into Forty Guns, utilizing the widescreen Cinemascope to great effect. The opening sequence (detailed above) is spectacularly staged, as is the initial showdown between Griff and Brockie (Griff walks slowly up to a drunken Brockie, who is in the middle of the street, shouting threats at Griff to stay away. Once they are face-to-face, Griff coldcocks him). There’s also a very impressive scene that features a tornado, which surprises Griff and Jennifer while they’re out riding one afternoon (Stanwyck reportedly performed the stunt where Jennifer is dragged by her horse, which panics when the wind kicks up). Adding to the fun is co-star Judge Carroll, whose character Barney owns the local bath house; Carroll performs a couple of songs, including “High Ridin’ Woman”, a ballad about Jennifer Drummond.

Stanwyck is excellent as the strong-willed Jennifer, who, despite her influence, has no time for lawlessness. She turns Howard Swain over to Griff without a fight, and though she protects Brockie, Jennifer does her best to steer her younger brother away from trouble. Sullivan, essentially playing a fictional version of Wyatt Earp, is equally strong as the no-nonsense Griff, a man who abhors violence but will never back down from a fight.

The supporting cast, including Gene Barry (as Griff’s loyal brother Wes), Dean Jagger (as Sheriff Logan, who does whatever Jennifer Drummond tells him to do), and John Ericson (whose Brockie serves as the film’s chief villain), is also good, and Harry Sukman’s musical score adds the perfect amount of bombast to the film’s more intense scenes.
Rating: 8.5 out of 10

Sunday, February 13, 2022

#2,708. The Culpepper Cattle Co. (1972) - The Wild West


A revisionist western directed by Dick Richards and co-produced by Jerry Bruckheimer (his first ever credit as a producer), The Culpepper Cattle Co. stars Gary Grimes as Ben, a young man who has always wanted to be a cowboy.

Ben somehow convinces hard-nosed cattle man Frank Culpepper (Billy Green Bush) to hire him on, and joins his new boss and company as they drive a herd of cattle to Fort Lewis, Colorado. Though he finds “cowboying” more difficult than he first thought, Ben is soon accepted by his peers, even the ornery Caldwell (Geoffrey Lewis) and his pals Luke (Luke Askew) and Dixie (Bo Hopkins).

Though adept at handling everything from rustlers to thieves, Culpepper and the others soon find themselves in deep trouble when they move their cattle across property belonging to land baron Thornton Pierce (John McLiam), who orders both Culpepper and some religious pilgrims who have settled on his land to vacate as soon as possible, or face the consequences.

Grimes does a fine job as Ben, a young man learning the ropes and making a few mistakes on his way to becoming a bona-fide cowboy. One blunder results in Ben falling victim to horse thieves, who make off with the company’s horses. It’s the rest of the company, though, almost all of whom blur the line between hero and villain at one point or another, that I found most intriguing.

Expertly played by Billy Green Bush, Culpepper is a determined individual who isn’t afraid to do whatever is necessary to get the job done, even if it means killing a few outlaws. But then, late in the movie, Culpepper backs down from Pierce and his gang, who seem to get a kick out of pushing him around. Having come to respect his strength through much of the movie, Culpepper’s turning tail and running from Pierce has everyone, his employees as well as the audience, scratching their heads, wondering why he won’t stand and fight.

A few of the men working for Culpepper, namely Caldwell, Luke, and Dixie, are just as hard to figure out. As portrayed by the always-reliable Geoffrey Lewis, Caldwell has a short fuse, and we’re never quite sure if he can be trusted. He butts heads constantly with Culpepper, and at one point even challenges another employee to a gunfight. But in the end, when the chips are down, Caldwell, Luke, Dixie and even Ben show us a grit and determination we never quite expected from any of them.

A strong coming-of-age tale forms the nucleus of The Culpepper Cattle Co., but it’s the characters that director Dick Richards and his writers, Eric Bercovici and Gregory Prentiss, surround Ben with that carry this movie to the next level.
Rating: 8.5 out of 10

Friday, February 11, 2022

#2,707. The Stranger Wore a Gun (1953) - The Wild West


Director Andre De Toth followed up his 1953 horror classic House of Wax with yet another 3-D movie: the Randolph Scott western The Stranger Wore a Gun. And while the gimmick can sometimes be a tad distracting (with guns, lanterns, and the occasional fist flying towards the screen), the film itself has plenty else to offer.

Having served as a spy for guerrilla leader William Quantrill (James Millican) during the Civil War, Jeff Travis (Scott) wants nothing more than to leave his shady past behind him. Unfortunately, people insist on reminding him of it, causing the former spy to run for his life on more than one occasion.

Following the advice of his longtime girlfriend Josie Sullivan (Claire Trevor), Jeff makes his way to Prescott, Arizona, where he agrees to work for Jules Mourret (George Macready) by posing as a federal agent. Jeff’s “job” is to spy on the local stagecoach line, passing information to Mourret so that he and his henchmen can hijack as many of the stage’s gold shipments as possible.

But when Jeff cozies up to Shelby Conroy (Joan Weldon), daughter of the stagecoach company’s owner (Pierre Watkin), he finds himself working against Mourret instead of for him, realizing all the while that crossing a man like Jules Mourret is the quickest way to end up dead.

Scott, who played the hero in such Budd Boetticher westerns as 7 Men From Now and The Tall T, is predictably strong throughout The Stranger Wore a Gun, despite playing a less-than-scrupulous character whose past often catches up with him (Scott would go on to play an even darker gunman nine years later, in Sam Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country). Macready is equally effective as Jeff’s villainous employer, and Claire Trevor delivers as Jeff’s love interest.

The film also features Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine (in early roles) as Mourret’s henchmen, both of whom have a mean streak a mile long, and Alfonso Bedoya - best remembered as the Mexican bandit who didn’t need no stinking badges in John Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre - plays Degas, a thief and Mourret’s chief competitor.

Most of the action in The Stranger Wore a Gun is of the standard variety (stagecoach robberies, shoot-outs, etc), but the opening scene (Quantrill’s raid on Lawrence, Kansas) and the finale (a showdown between Jeff and Mourret inside a burning building) are impressively staged. This, as well as the moral ambiguity of Scott’s Jeff (at times even the audience isn’t sure whose side he’s on), helped make The Stranger Wore a Gun a fascinating entry in the western genre.
Rating: 7.5 out of 10

Wednesday, February 9, 2022

#2,706. Barbarosa (1982) - The Wild West


The Mexicans have a saying: what can’t be remedied must be endured”.

This line is spoken early on by the title character of director Fred Schipisi’s 1982 western Barbarosa. Played wonderfully by Willie Nelson, Barbarosa is already a celebrated character by the time this movie begins, and over the course of ninety minutes we watch his legend grow to near-mythic proportions.

Farm boy Karl (Gary Busey) is on the run after inadvertently killing his brother-in-law. He eventually meets up with Barbarosa (Nelson), who is himself being hunted by his father-in-law Don Braulio (Gilbert Roland).

A skilled gunfighter, Barbarosa takes Karl under his wing, teaching the young man how to survive in the untamed west. But fate has a way of catching up with you, and even a seasoned hero like Barbarosa can’t stay on the lam forever.

Written by William D. Wittliff, Barbarosa tells the fascinating story of a larger-than-life character whose renown grows bigger by the day. Everyone in the territory knows the name Barbarosa, and songs are sung about his exploits. In one of the film’s more humorous scenes, Barbarosa and Karl overhear a new song, in which Karl is referred to as “the boy” accompanying Barbarosa. Needless to say, this doesn’t sit well with the younger fugitive.

Don Braulio himself only adds to Barbarosa’s notoriety, telling the younger members of his family how ruthless and bloodthirsty his son-in-law can be. As with most such stories, however, the truth is something else entirely.

Though not necessarily known for his acting, Nelson does a remarkable job as the complex lead character. Barbarosa isn’t above stealing gold from an old couple he finds wandering in the desert, yet hates the fact that those pursuing him are members of his extended family, and he mourns every time he must shoot one of them dead (Don Braulio sends his young relatives to kill Barbarosa, fueling their hatred for the gunfighter by saying he murdered their fathers and uncles).

Gary Busey is also good as the inexperienced farmer who slowly learns how to survive on his own (his clumsiness in the early scenes is almost comical), and the two make for an intriguing duo. As a side note, both Nelson and Busey also served as the film’s executive producers.

Barbarosa was Fred Schipisi’s first American film, and only his third movie overall, having directed The Devil’s Playground and The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith in his native Australia. Thanks to its larger-than-life title character, as well as the performances of its two stars, Barbarosa proved to be as strong a U.S. debut as any filmmaker could hope for.
Rating: 8.5 out of 10

Monday, February 7, 2022

#2,705. The Hunting Party (1971) - The Wild West


Though released the same year as a handful of lyrical westerns (McCabe & Mrs. Miller, The Hired Hand), director Don Medford’s 1971 film The Hunting Party, with its bloody shoot-outs and chauvinistic leanings, has more in common with the cinema of Sam Peckinpah.

Hoping to improve his status, outlaw Frank Calder (Oliver Reed) decides it’s time he learns how to read. So, with the help of his gang, including best friend Doc (Mitchell Ryan), Calder kidnaps pretty schoolteacher Melissa Ruger (Candice Bergen) and orders her to teach him his A-B-C’s.

What Calder doesn’t know is that his new prisoner is the wife of wealthy landowner Brandt Ruger (Gene Hackman).

At the time of the abduction, Brandt was off on a hunting expedition, where he and his pals were going to try out a new rifle, one so powerful that it can hit a target with perfect accuracy from 800 yards (to that point, no rifle had been effective from more than 350 yards). When he receives word that his wife has been kidnapped, Brandt and the rest of his hunting party form a posse and set off in search of Calder and his gang.

As with Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, the violence in The Hunting Party is often savage; once Brandt Ruger and his pals catch up with Calder, they pick his men off one at a time while hiding well out of sight in the surrounding hills. And the poor souls who find themselves on the wrong side of Brandt’s new rifle do not die a quick death (one victim, shot in the head, twitches a while before finally succumbing to his wound).

Even more troubling than the violence is the film’s out-and-out misogyny; Bergen’s Melissa is clearly an intelligent woman, yet is given little to do in the film aside from being raped by the two male leads (in the opening scene, Brandt is forcing himself on her in their bedroom), and to make matters worse, she not only seems to enjoy Calder’s sexual attack, but falls in love with the outlaw afterwards!

The Hunting Party does have its strengths. The showdown between Brandt and Calder features a few tense moments, and the violence, though brutal, is convincingly portrayed. In addition, Reed delivers a strong performance as the introspective Calder, while Ryan is quite good as his trusted sidekick (their camaraderie is the film’s most realistic relationship).

Alas, its seedier moments, coupled with a few plot holes (Brandt, in one scene, proves himself a sadist when he tortures an Asian prostitute played by Franesca Tu, but this personality trait is never explored any further), make The Hunting Party little more than a dated curiosity for fans of the genre.
Rating: 5 out of 10

Saturday, February 5, 2022

#2,704. El Topo (1970) - The Wild West


To say Alejandro Jodorowsky’s El Topo is a strange motion picture is an understatement, and perhaps even an injustice.

This trippy 1971 film is as much a fantasy as it is a western, following the exploits of a black-clad gunfighter named El Topo (played by Jodorowsky) as he encounters one eccentric character after another on his quest for spiritual enlightenment.

El Topo’s journey will take him through the desert, accompanied first by his young son Hijo (Brontis Jodorowsky) - who he eventually abandons – and later by Mara (Mara Lorenzio) and a Woman in Black (Paula Roma). Urged on by Mara, El Topo sets out to defeat the desert’s four greatest gun masters (played by Hector Martinez, Juan Jose Gurrola, Victor Fosado and Augustin Isunza), each of whom teaches him a little something about religion, philosophy, and life in general.

Guilt-ridden for having challenged these masters, a wounded El Topo is taken in by a society of outcasts, who treat his wounds and, over time, look upon him as a God.

Years pass, and El Topo and his new lover, a little person (Jacqueline Luis), work to free the outcasts, who have been imprisoned in a cave. Performing odd jobs in a nearby town to raise money, El Topo is reunited with Hijo (played as an adult by Robert John), who, still bitter about being left behind, vows to shoot El Topo once the outcasts have been freed.

At times a violent film (In an early scene, El Topo and Hijo ride through a town whose citizens have been massacred by bandits), El Topo also sports an art house mentality. The lead character’s interactions with the quartet of gun masters, as well as his eventual wounding and redemption, have religious connotations. The Woman in Black betrays El Topo at one point and shoots him while he’s crossing a bridge, inflicting injuries that are consistent with those of a stigmata.

Teetering back and forth between art film and exploitation (there’s nudity, graphic violence, and even a scene in which the title character rapes Mara in the desert), El Topo may leave you scratching your head at times, wondering what’s happening. But Jodorowsky’s unique approach coupled with the film’s imagery (the stark desert landscape is, at times, quite beautiful, and the film boasts plenty of colorful costumes and set pieces) is enough to keep you watching all the same.
Rating: 8 out of 10

Thursday, February 3, 2022

#2,703. Another Man, Another Chance (1977) - The Wild West


One of the most unique westerns I’ve come across in some time, writer / director Claude LeLouch’s Another Man, Another Chance opens not in Montana or California, but in 1870’s France!

As the result of its recent war with Prussia, France is in turmoil, its citizens impoverished. After refusing to marry her fiancé (an officer in the French Army), Jeanne (Genevieve Bujoud) falls in love with photographer Francis (Francis Huster), who convinces her to accompany him to America. Arriving in New York, the couple joins a wagon train heading west and eventually settles in a small frontier town.

When Francis is killed, Jeanne, who now must operate their photography business by herself, has little choice but to send their daughter Sarah (Linda Lee Lyons) to a boarding school run by Alice (Susan Tyrell).

It’s during her visits to the boarding school that Jeanne meets veterinarian David Williams (James Caan). Years earlier, David had to abandon his practice when his wife Mary (Jennifer Warren) was raped and murdered (some in town were convinced David himself was the killer).

When he’s not busy inspecting cattle for the railroad, David is visiting his son Simon (Rossie Harris), who also resides at Alice’s boarding school. The moment he meets Jeanne, David falls instantly in love with her, and goes so far as to enter a horse race to impress the pretty widow. But will Jeanne, who is still reeling from Francis’ death, ever return David’s love, or will she choose to remain alone the rest of her days?

Along with its unique opening in France, director LeLouch brings a singular cinematic style to Another Man, Another Chance by way of long, uninterrupted takes. The sequence where David returns home and searches for Mary, only to discover her half-naked corpse out back, is heartbreaking, made doubly so because we follow behind him the entire time, and already know what it is he'll find (we witnessed the rape - carried out by a trio of bandits - a scene or two earlier).

In addition, LeLouch toys with the timeline throughout Another Man, Another Chance, occasionally returning to the past to define his characters’ current state of mind. We know Francis is dead well before we actually see the scene where he is gunned down, and the fact that Jeanne was there to witness his murder might explain why she's reluctant to fall in love again.

Though Caan occasionally hams it up (at times he seems uncomfortable with the long takes), Bujoud is strong as the self-reliant Jeanne. The supporting cast, which also features (albeit briefly) Richard Farnsworth as a stage coach driver, Rance Howard as a Wagonmaster, and Michael Berryman as one of the bandits who murders David’s wife, is, for the most part, quite good.

A new and refreshing take on the American West as seen through the eyes of a French filmmaker, Another Man, Another Chance is a movie you won’t want to miss!
Rating: 8.5 out of 10

Tuesday, February 1, 2022

#2,702. The Hired Hand (1971) - The Wild West


Westerns are our way of exploring our own mythology”.

So said director Peter Fonda in the DVD commentary for his 1971 revisionist western The Hired Hand. Inspired, no doubt, by his buddy Dennis Hopper, who a few years earlier had helmed the classic Easy Rider, Fonda’s The Hired Hand features complex characters, a multi-layered story, and style to spare.

Harry (Fonda) and Arch (Warren Oates) have spent the last seven years drifting from territory to territory. Both Arch and their newest riding partner, a young man named Dan (Robert Pratt), think it would be best if they all head west to California. But Harry is tired of life on the open trail, and decides it’s time he return home to his wife Hannah (Verna Bloom) and young daughter Jamie (Megan Denver).

Before they set out, Dan is shot dead by a man named McVey (Severn Darden), who claimed he caught Dan in bed with his wife (Rita Rogers).

After avenging Dan’s murder (by shooting McVey in the feet), Harry and Arch make their way to Harry’s homestead, where, at first, Hannah is none too happy to see either of them. Harry, however, insists that he’s back for good, and convinces Hannah to give him a chance by taking he and Arch on as hired hands.

But is Harry truly ready to settle down, or will he grow restless, as Hannah fears, and ride off again?

There’s a lot going on in The Hired Hand, from symbolism to deep-seated emotions that occasionally bubble to the surface, all explored in a tender, artistic manner. When describing his three main characters in the DVD commentary, Fonda said that Harry represented ambiguity, Arch was wisdom, and Dan was innocence, adding that, when innocence is killed, ambiguity and wisdom ride off together in the hopes of building a better life for themselves. By allowing his camera to sit back and observe, Fonda continually clues us in on the fact that there’s more to The Hired Hand than any synopsis could reveal, and as a result we pay close attention to the details, to ensure we take in everything this amazing picture has to offer.

Fonda and Pratt play their parts well, as does Verna Bloom as the lonely wife who cannot forget the heartbreak of being left behind. But it’s Warren Oates as Arch, the grizzled cowboy with advice at the ready (as Fonda calls him, the “wisdom”), who delivers the film’s most nuanced performance. From the moment they settle down with Hannah, it’s Arch who knows what must be done to rekindle the love between the estranged couple, usually well before Harry himself has figured it out.

As good as the performances are, it is Fonda’s stylistic approach that truly distinguishes The Hired Hand from its contemporaries. Utilizing slow-motion at regular intervals throughout the film and exploring everything the picturesque landscape has to offer (the movie was filmed on-location in New Mexico), Fonda and his cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond (who also shot Easy Rider) give the movie a look that is damn near ethereal, even during those moments that feel 100% genuine (Dan’s death is particularly gruesome, yet has a mystical quality to it).

This, coupled with Bruce Langhorne’s melancholy musical score, helped make The Hired Hand one of the most beautiful, creative, and engaging westerns to emerge from the 1970’s.
Rating: 9.5 out of 10