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

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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.

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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