Nevada Smith (1966) – The Convoluted, The Drawn-out, and The Forgettable

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“Nevada Smith” begins mediocrely, caries on badly, and ends hysterically with Karl Malden bleeding to death in a mountain stream and screaming at Steve McQueen. Yes I just spoiled the ending, but I also saved you from sitting through two hours of convoluted chaos. This film takes a simple premise and turns it into a jumbled Western that you’ll ultimately forget.

At the beginning of the film we meet Max Sands who is played by Steve McQueen. Max (again played by 35 year old, blond-haired, blue-eyed McQueen) is a 16 year old, half-Kiowa boy, and if that’s hard to imagine then buckle up because this movie will push your suspension of disbelief to the limit. Max’s parents are tortured to death by three desperadoes, (Karl Malden, Martin Landau, and Arthur Kennedy.) Burning with rage, Max sets out on a very long quest to get revenge on the men who killed his family. Along the way he meets Jonas Cord (Brian Keith) a gunsmith who transforms the kid into a gunslinger in a two-minute montage. Now able to wield a gun, Max sets out on a journey that is 40 minutes too long. As he journeys across the West, Max doe despicable things to get revenge and ignores everyone who tells him he should stop. In the end after being a terrible person Max rides away into the sunset with no ramifications whatsoever.

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The most frustrating part of “Nevada Smith” is that it’s a missed opportunity. There are countless wonderful Westerns about revenge that manage to keep it simple, There are great Westerns which contemplate the morality of the hero’s actions. “Nevada Smith” is neither of these films. Instead it’s a movie that fails to pick a lane. It could just be a simple 90-minute revenge Western where Steve McQueen hunts down the bad guys. Yet the film wastes so much time pointlessly moralizing on McQueen’s actions, and in the end it leads nowhere because McQueen’s character doesn’t change.

Ultimately, “Nevada Smith” is a mediocre picture that lacks all tonal cohesion. The cinematography is gorgeous, but it feels wasted on this film where everyone’s just muddling through. McQueen just stands there and seems happy to cash a check. Karl Malden chews the scenery, and everyone else spews bland dialogue that you’ll eventually forget. Sadly the film is a missed opportunity, and really there are better Westerns out there.

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The Horse Soldiers (1959) – John Ford’s Descent into Cynicism

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On multiple levels, “The Horse Soldiers” is the halfway point between “The Searchers” and “The Man who shot Liberty Valance.” The eleventh collaboration between John Ford and John Wayne, the film was released in 1959, three years after “The Searchers” and three years before “Liberty Valance.” Yet the “The Horse Soldiers” is not only a bridge between these two films chronologically. The film marks a shift in Ford’s perspective on the West, as he slowly grows disenchanted with its myths.

The film takes place in 1863 during Grant’s siege of Vicksburg. Colonel John Marlowe (John Wayne) is a tough as nails cavalry commander who is ordered to lead his brigade behind enemy lines and destroy a Confederate rail hub. Cut off from supplies and surrounded by hostile rebels, Marlowe must complete his objective and lead his men safely back to Union lines, or else he’ll spend the rest of the war in Andersonville prison. To make matters worse, Marlow must deal with Major Henry Kendall (William Holden) a military doctor who is just as stubborn as Marlowe. There’s also the issue of Hannah Hunter (Constance Towers) a Southern Belle captured by Marlowe who is not too eager to assist the Yankees.

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“The Horse Soldiers” is by no means Ford’s best film. Which is not to say that it isn’t entertaining. John Wayne and William Holden do an admirable job disliking each other on screen. (Holden and Wayne also disliked each other off screen as well, and both vowed never to work together again.) Ford is the master of actions scenes, and there are great shots of the cavalry silhouetted against the horizon. Yet the film lacks the vision present in Ford’s other films. It doesn’t have the grandeur of “The Searchers,” nor the introspection of “The Man who Shot Liberty Valance.”

In fact, the film’s greatest fault is that it lacks identity. Hokey scenes of the brave cavalry riding off to fight for the good old US of A are intercut with ghastly moments of brutal warfare. Ford shows us the inside of a war hospital, and we see young boys beg for comfort as they succumb to their wounds. Tonally the film feels stitched together, like a Frankenstein monster of myth and reality.

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A tension pervades the film, and there’s a frenetic energy that makes it uncomfortable to watch. It’s as though Ford is trying to hold onto the last vestiges of the Western myth, but cynicism keeps creeping into his vision. It’s not until “The Man who Shot Liberty Valance,” that the cynicism will blossom, and we’ll see Ford’s final disillusionment with the myth he created.

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The Big Country (1958) Review

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William Wyler’s “The Big Country” is big, so big it’s unwieldy. At two hours and forty-six minutes long, the film is meant to be an epic, and while there’s breathtaking cinematography and towering performances from the supporting cast, the overall pace of the film is uneven. We shift from epic stampedes and gunfights to painfully slow reactions shots that feel like the editor fell asleep at the Steenbeck.

The film opens with James McKay (Gregory Peck) arriving at a dusty small town in the middle of nowhere. McKay is an ex-sea captain from back East, a literal fish out of water who has come to marry Patricia Terrill (Carroll Baker). Patricia is a spoiled ranch heiress who is doted upon her father Major Henry Terrill (Charles Bickford), a wealthy landowner who is embroiled in a water war with the Hannassey’s, a rival clan of uncouth cowboys. As McKay adapts to life in the West, he soon finds himself in the middle of this war. To make matters worse, he must deal with the jealousies of Steve Leech (Charlton Heston), the ranch foreman who is not impressed with the dude from the East.

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The film’s plot is like a mile long train. It takes a long time to get going. The first scenes are slow and meandering, and it’s a chore to sit through some extremely long shots. Yet the film picks up the pace when we’re introduced to the real star, Rufus Hannassey (Burl Ives) the patriarch of the rival family. Like Olivier’s Lear, Ives’s performance is staggering and Biblical in scale. He truly makes the film epic and steals every scene he’s in. (Burl Ives would win Best Supporting Actor for his performance.)

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The other saving grace of the film is its second act, where we see both sides march headlong into oblivion. The building tension is nearly perfect, and the film shifts from a standard Western into a Greek tragedy. At the end we realize that this massive country is capable of consuming all who dare to tame it.

Released in 1958, the film was President Eisenhower’s favorite movie, and it’s easy to see why. The cinematography is so gorgeous it would make John Ford proud. Gregory Peck and Charlton Heston do admirable jobs, but Ives overshadows them. At one point Heston and Peck duke it out, which should be the fight of the century. Yet like many scenes, the set piece is plodding, uneven, and really could have been left out of the film. There is also a terrific performance by Alfonso Bedoya who starred in “The Treasure of Sierra Madre” and has arguably the greatest line in movie history (“Badges? We ain’t got no badges.”)

“The Big Country” tries to impose its will through size alone. The scenery is epic, the music is swelling, and the performances are awe-inspiring. Yet like the Big Bertha howitzers of World War One, the film sometimes misses the mark.

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