Mackenna’s Gold (1969) – Gregory Peck and the Temple of Dumb

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Sometimes when the stars align and the cinema gods smile upon you, you see a film that defies all thought and reason. A film so bad, so bizarre that you’re not sure of your own sanity. “Mackenna’s Gold” is not a film. It is a Lovecraftian nightmare designed to push you to the edge of sanity. It is a picture so poorly crafted that it feels like it was made specifically for Mystery Science Theatre 3000. How else could you explain the poor editing, ridiculous shots, incomprehensible story, and this song? This movie goes beyond the description of “bad movie” and descends into the realm of the surreal.

“Mackenna’s Gold” tells the story of Sheriff Mackenna (Gregory Peck) a lawman who at the beginning of the film shoots an Apache chief. As the chief dies, he tells Mackenna about CURSED APACHE GOLD. Let me repeat that. The MacGuffin for this movie is CURSED APACHE GOLD.

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Mackenna learns the location of the gold, but then a desperado named John Colorado (Omar Sharif…yes that Omar Sharif from Lawrence of Arabia) kidnaps Mackenna. Colorado is also seeking the CURSED APACHE GOLD and forces Mackenna to lead him to the treasure. The raiders of the CURSED APACHE GOLD set on the expedition while eluding the cavalry, and a band of Apaches who wish to protect their CURSED APACHE GOLD.

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There’s so much I could list about what’s wrong with this picture. The story makes no sense. The editing is a mess. Halfway through production they switched from 65mm stock to 35mm stock that was blown up, so a lot of the shots are grainy and have bad color. I’ve watched student films with better green screen effects than this movie. And again this song.

Yet the most amazing thing about this movie is the cast. When I first saw the credits I couldn’t believe who was in it. If I told you there was a movie staring Gregory Peck, Omar Sharif, Eli Wallach, Burgess Meredith, and Edward G. Robinson you’d be right in thinking that had to be the greatest movie of all time. Yet it’s not. Wallach, Meredith, and Robinson are nothing more than glorified cameos, and Peck and Sharif have zero chemistry. Sharif is doing his best to play a Mexican bandit, which is problematic on so many levels, and Peck just looks miserable.

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That all being said, I would strongly recommend this film to everyone. If you’re a fan of “The Room”, or “Trolls 2,” or any other film so bad it’s good this is definitely worth a watch. It’s a nice reminder that bad films have always been around, and they will always be around for us to make fun of.

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For another Gregory Peck Western check out my review of “The Big Country.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Cimarron (1931) – Citizen Lame

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It’s hard to believe in the same year “Dracula” and “Frankenstein” were released; Wesley Ruggle’s “Cimarron” won Best Picture. This film is not a great movie, and by no means an essential Western. The picture is a relic, imprisoned forever by the era of its release. Unlike the horror classics that came out in 1931, it fails to transcend its limitations. Instead it plods along, an epic only in run time.

“Cimarron,” tells the story of Yancey Cravat (seriously that’s his name) played by Richard Dix, a newspaper editor who settles in Osage, Oklahoma with his wife Sabra (Irene Dunne). The film chronicles the Cravats’ 40-year saga as Oklahoma goes from cowboy filled Indian territory to oil rich state. At the heart of the story is conflict between Yancey and Sabra. Yancey’s wanderlust drives him to seek out new frontiers and adventures, while Sabra is forced to stay behind and build a community. As the 19th century turns into the 20th the couple face the challenges of a changing America.

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“Cimarron” is a monument to half measures. On the one hand it discusses the issues of Native Americans, anti-Semitism, and women’s rights. On the other it propagates stereotypical representations of black people and idolizes a juvenile man-child who abandons his family to pursue his own interests. The film’s greatest crime is that it follows the wrong character. We focus on Yancey who walks in and out of the story without consequence. Yet the true heart of the narrative is Sabra. Hiding behind her husband’s flamboyant personality, Sabra slowly transforms the town into a thriving metropolis. She runs the newspaper, puts her children through college, and becomes a congresswoman. Sabra brings civilization to the West, which is what every great Western is about. She is the film’s true protagonist. And while she plays a prominent role in the film, she falls into the background as Yancey’s charisma suffocates the story.

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If they were to remake this film again (there’s a 1960 version starring Glenn Ford) I would like to see it focus more on Sabra. It’s her story that’s captivating, her story we’re drawn to. I would like to see more films about the women who had to actually stick around and civilize the West. “Cimarron” missed an opportunity to tell a compelling story. Even though it won Best Picture it fades into history as another mediocre Western about a strapping man of action instead of focusing on the real force of change. Trailer

 

 

Springfield Rifle (1952) – The De-Horsed

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“When I was your age they said we could become Yankees or Confederates. Today, what I’m saying to you is this: when you’re facing a loaded six shooter, what’s the difference?”

Long before “The Departed” and long before “Infernal Affairs” there was “Springfield Rifle.” Released in 1952 and starring Gary Cooper, this film is a much more colorful and hokey Western than the masterpiece “High Noon” which came out the same year. While this film comes nowhere near the brilliance of “High Noon,” it is still an entertaining, tightly structured Western.

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Set during the Civil War, Cooper plays Major Kearny, a Union officer charged with providing horses for the war effort. However Confederate guerillas keep hijacking his stock. Suspecting there is a mole among the Union ranks, Kearny poses as a dishonored soldier discharged for Southern sympathies. Under this new cover, he attempts to infiltrate the Confederates and expose the mole before the Union war effort is permanently sabotaged.

Obviously there are parallels between this film and “The Departed.” Yet while this film possesses a lot less profanity and gore than Scorsese’s masterpiece, it elicits the same amount of tension as any crime thriller. The film throws us into a nerve wracking 90 minutes as Cooper descends into a morally gray world of violence and deception. The film’s strongest trait is its structure. Story elements build off one another, and rarely do we feel like the film is dragging.

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That said, “Springfield Rifle” is not a spectacular movie. The acting is mediocre at best, with the notable standouts being Cooper and Lon Chaney Jr. (who also starred in “High Noon”.) The ending is extremely hokey, and the Springfield Rifle itself is clumsily shoehorned into the storyline. Yet at an hour and a half, the film is refreshing breather from today’s cinema where scripts are incredibly bloated.

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For another Civil War Western check out my review of The Horse Soldiers

The Sons of Katie Elder (1965) – Motherboys

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For all intents and purposes, Henry Hathaway’s “The Sons of Katie Elder” is the third remake of “Rio Bravo.” Starring John Wayne and Dean Martin, this film shamelessly tries to recapture the magic of their previous collaboration. And while this movie is fun to watch, it comes nowhere near to the joy and brilliance of Hawks’s masterpiece.

The film begins with the four sons of Katie Elder coming back to Clearwater, Texas to bury their mother. There is Bud (Michael Anderson Jr.), the youngest, Matt (Earl Holliman), an unsuccessful hardware dealer, Tom (Martin), a gambling knave, and finally John (Wayne), the eldest who is a notorious gunfighter. Reunited under the same roof after a decade, the sons set out to settle their family estate. Yet all is not well in Clearwater. The boys discover that their father was murdered, and their family ranch stolen. They set out to unmask the culprits, and soon bullets start flying.

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The main issue with “The Sons of Katie Elder” is that it tries to capture lightning in a bottle. It’s obvious from the casting of Wayne and Martin that Hathaway is banking on nostalgia for “Rio Bravo.” Yet while “Rio Bravo” soared this film falls flat. Not much really happens in the picture. “Rio Bravo” wasn’t action packed, but the character interactions were more than enough to keep the audience entertained. Walter Brennan and Ricky Nelson were fantastic as the supporting cast to Wayne and Martin. Every scene where the four of them were together was fantastic, especially this scene where they’re singing in the jail. “The Sons of Katie Elder” lacks that esprit de corps. The two younger brothers don’t contribute to the narrative. They merely ride on coattails of Wayne and Martin.

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That being said, “The Sons of Katie Elder” is by no means a bad film. Some of the best moments are where we the see the four brothers interact and be a family. There is a wonderful score by Elmer Bernstein, and towards the end there are great action set pieces. Also there are fantastic performances by George Kennedy, Paul Fix, and a young Dennis Hopper.

Perhaps it’s unfair to compare this movie to “Rio Bravo,” which Quentin Tarantino called the ultimate hangout movie. “Rio Bravo” after all is nearly a perfect Western. “The Sons of Katie Elder” is fine, and I enjoy watching it. Yet as I see Wayne and Martin playing off each other, I keep thinking of Chance and Dude, and the other characters I actually want to hangout with.

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For another John Wayne move check out my review of “The Horse Soldiers.”

Are Comic book movies Westerns?

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Comic book movies and Westerns. Two genres could not seem more different. One has heroes who wear primary colors and have the strengths of gods. The other focuses on lonely dust-covered men who only have a horse and a six-shooter. One looks beyond the stars and into the future. The other examines the past. One is at the zenith of its power. The other has long faded into obscurity.

Yet are these genres really so dissimilar? Couldn’t one argue “The Magnificent Seven” was “The Avengers” of its day? Was any right hook more devastating than John Wayne’s? Was there any hero more indestructible than Clint Eastwood? Aren’t Westerns and comic book movies hugely influential overseas? Don’t both fetishize the military, and aren’t they both problematic when depicting women and people of color?

Upon closer examination, we see that the two genres have more in common than we would originally guess. Yet these cosmetic similarities do not begin to scratch the surface of the deep connection the two genres have. If we examine their history, we discover how large an impact they’ve had on our culture. By studying Westerns and comic book movies, we glimpse into the American character.

 

PRINT THE LEGEND

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The Western began with the dime novels. Long before they appeared on the screen, Wyatt Earp and Wild Bill Hickock were popularized in cheap pamphlets that spread across the nation from the 1860’s-1900’s. These pamphlets popularized the Western story in the American consciousness.

In 1903 Edwin S. Porter directed “The Great Train Robbery,” which is cited as being the first Western. As cinema grew as an art form, Western movies became more and more popular. For nearly 70 years the Western was the dominant genre at the box office. Even during the Counterculture movement of the 1960’s, John Wayne was still the number one box office draw.

 

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For seven decades the Western reigned supreme. At Halloween kids would dress up as cowboys. They would argue who would win in a fight, Wayne or Eastwood. Images like Monument Valley, the Man with No Name, and the Winchester influenced popular American art. For much of the 20th century, the genre was supreme. Yet as time marched on, it slowly faded into obscurity. As America grew older, the public thirsted for a different kind of legend.

 

THE COMIC BOOK RISES

 

In 1938 the first issue of Superman was published. Superman by all accounts became a truly American symbol. An immigrant who fled to the United States, he was assimilated by its culture and became its greatest champion. With the coming of Superman a whole new genre was born. The kids who went to see John Wayne on the big screen also picked up comic books starring their favorite superheroes.

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In 1978, just as the Western was dying, “Superman” starring Christopher Reeves appeared and was an instant success. There had been several comic book adaptations for the large and small screen, but none were as culturally affective as “Superman”. Like a prophet of the Old Testament, the movie heralded the future to come. The film was followed by three decades of comic book movies with mixed success. Then in 2008, Marvel launched its cinematic universe.

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Today we can look forward to decades of comic book movies. Marvel has a set schedule of releasing three a year, and have mapped out their cinematic universe well into the 2020’s. DC fans can look forward to however many reboots it will take before Warner Brothers can find something that works. Today children dress up for Halloween as Captain American and Ironman. They argue about who would win, Superman or the Hulk. The tiny subculture has now just become American culture. And with films such as “Black Panther” making over a billion dollars, it’s unlikely that the genre will go away anytime soon.

 

SUPERMAN AND THE COWBOY

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By looking at the history of the comic book movie, we see it share its origin with the Western. Both started as cheap pulp stories made for children, and both grew into mainstays of American pop culture. But does that mean they are the same thing? Are comic book movies Westerns?

Yes, and Westerns are superhero movies. When we look at Westerns and comic books, we see that both genres, at the most fundamental level, are the American mythology. More so than Paul Bunyan or Johnny Appleseed, Superman and the cowboy are the images that define American culture. Whether you believe the legends are good or evil, the simple truth is, these two genres are our myths, and myths are how civilizations see themselves.

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When the Western was popular, America was still a young nation. It had not stepped out onto the world’s stage. At the turn of the 20th century, Americans gravitated to the image of the cowboy, because that was how they saw themselves. Lone gunmen bringing democracy and justice to an untamed land. There was a romantic quality to the imagery, no matter how inaccurate or false it was. Americans flocked to the cinema to see that image reflected back at them. The cowboy pervaded the culture and soon influenced our own perception of history.

Look at how World War II is taught in our schools, and you’ll see the classic Western narrative played out. The story we’re taught is that America was a lone drifter who rode in at the nick of time to save the day. For most of the 20th century we saw ourselves as cowboys. But now…

Now, after winning two World Wars, winning the Cold War, and being the richest and most powerful nation on the planet, our perception of ourselves has changed. As the 20th century dragged on, we stopped seeing ourselves as cowboys. As our place in history was cemented, we began to see ourselves as gods. Persecuted gods, who found that with our great power came the great responsibility of protecting the world.

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Today, comic book movies will be around as long as we keep going to them. And we’ll keep going to them as long as they show us what we want to see. We flock to the images that confirm our perceptions of ourselves. Is it any wonder that the most popular idols are Batman and Ironman, whose only power is wealth? Don’t these heroes just feed into the mythology that you can do anything with enough money?

The Western and the comic book are part of the tapestry of American culture. They are how we define and see ourselves. The Western evolved into the comic book movie just as Americans evolved as the society shifted beneath our feet. And yes they are part of a narrow tapestry that does not reflect the whole, but to study these genres and understand why they are popular is to glance at the American psyche, and perhaps see where that psyche will lead us, for good or ill.

Hombre (1967) – The Revisionist “Stagecoach”

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Martin Ritt’s “Hombre” is both a racial allegory and a parable about the tragedy of civilization. Like all revisionist Westerns, it dwells upon the reality of the frontier and how entire populations were sacrificed to the machine of “progress.” Minimalist in tone the film is unflinching in its portrayal of the West and the brutality that created it.

The film tells the story of John Russell (Paul Newman) an Apache-raised white man who boards a stagecoach with seven other passengers. Among the commuters are Jessie (Diane Cilento), a world-weary widow, Dr. Alexander Favor (Fredric March), an Indian agent, and Cicero Grimes (played by the wonderful Richard Boone.) As the stagecoach sets out on its journey, Russell deals with the prejudices of his co-travelers, who are not comfortable journeying with someone raised by Apaches. Things get worse when a gang of road agents, led by Grimes, holds up the stage. They attempt to steal money Favor embezzled from the Apache reservation, but the robbery is botched. Low on water and ammunition, Russell is forced to lead the survivors to safety before the road agents kill them.

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Clearly an allegory for racial tension in America, “Hombre” does not shy away from obvious imagery. From white cowboys harassing Apaches at the bar, to Russell being asked not to sit with the whites in the stagecoach, the film is on the nose with what it is saying. Yet it avoids the traps that other allegorical movies fall into. Usually when narrative films attempt to be political, plot and character are ignored in order to fully proclaim the message. Yet “Hombre” manages not to sacrifice these elements. The story is nice and simple, and characters are fully developed. The overall message doesn’t detract from our enjoyment of the film.

That being said, “Hombre” would not hold up to contemporary scrutiny. Feminists would certainly raise an eyebrow at some of the scenes and dialogue in the picture. Also the fact that the story focuses on a white man raised by Apaches instead of an actual Apache would not pass muster with today’s SJW’s. Yet that’s always the risk when watching films that came out over 50 years ago.

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Despite its flaws, “Hombre” is still an enjoyable movie. Taken at face value, the film is a great chase movie, with gripping action and tension. Paul Newman gives an excellent minimalist performance. Diane Cillento is wonderfully grounded as a worn out frontier woman, and Richard Boone is terrific in everything. The cinematography feels like it was lifted out of a Leone movie. Sparse in scenery and dialogue, there is a profound emptiness in “Hombre.” It’s a movie that will haunt you.

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Calamity Jane (1953) – Buckskin has the Queerest Subtext

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When examining cinema, one must tread lightly into the world of subtext. All too often, critics and academics impose unrelated messages onto films. They create elaborate meanings for texts when there is no evidence to support their theories. Yet sometimes there are films where the subtext is so obvious, it flashes in you eyes like a giant neon sign. The musical “Calamity Jane” is gay. And by gay, I mean it’s about homosexuality. Just as “Lethal Weapon,” was a coming out film disguised as a buddy cop movie, “Calamity Jane” is a lesbian love story disguised as a charming musical starring Doris Day.

“Calamity Jane” is an extremely loose interpretation of the life of Martha Jane Canary (Doris Day), who in real life scouted for the U.S. Army, appeared in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, and didn’t have bleach blonde hair. It takes place in Deadwood, a town much cleaner and less vulgar than the HBO version. The story begins when a drag show goes wrong, and the proprietor of a local theater gets in a sticky situation with Deadwood’s men. Promising to help the owner, Calamity Jane travels to Chicago to find a famous singer to bring back to Deadwood. She meets Katie Brown (Allyn Ann Mclerie) a maid with dreams of performing on the big stage. The two women head back to Deadwood in order to make both their dreams come true.

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On the surface, the film appears to be an apocryphal love story between Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickok (Howard Keel). Yet the real love story is between Jane and Katie, who are a proto-lesbian couple tramping through this musical. The signs are so obvious it’s incredible this picture was released in the 1950’s. For instance when the women first meet, Katie is in a state of undress. Jane notices this this and remarks how pretty Katie is.

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Later in the film, Jane and Katie move into a secluded cottage in the forest. The two begin sprucing up the cabin while singing the unsubtly titled “Woman’s Touch.” Yet the most damning piece of evidence is the film’s best-known song, “Secret Love.” Near the end of the film, Doris Day, sporting a smart buckskin suit and tie, sings about having a secret love, hiding her true feelings, and finally throwing her love out into the open. And while the song is supposed to be about Wild Bill Hickok, anyone who’s paid any attention will know whom Jane is really singing about

Apart from “Secret Love” there are great musical numbers, and genuinely funny moments throughout the film. Social Justice Warriors be warned, this movie came out in 1953, so don’t expect any politically correct representations of the Lakota. That being said, I think this film is worth a watch if only for the subtext. As I said before, one should be wary of finding a hidden meaning where there is none. Yet I challenge you to watch “Calamity Jane” and tell me I’m wrong.

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