Custer

TV classics: aka The Legend of Custer

USA 1967, one season, 17 episodes, approximately 50 minutes each, ABC, color. Cast: Wayne Maunder, Slim Pickens, Michael Dante, Robert F. Simon, Peter Palmer.

Plot summary: After the Civil War, Lieutenant Colonel Custer takes command of the 7th Cavalry, a group of misfits, criminals and ex-Confederates at Fort Riley, Kansas.

220px-Wayne_Maunder_Custer_1967Review: In the late 1960s, one of America’s most popular genres slowly began saying farewell to television in its traditional form. Often considered too rough, Westerns were replaced by modernized versions that used the Old West as a mere setting for whodunits or family-friendly stories. Starring Wayne Maunder in the title role, Custer was one of the last original Westerns, a show suggested by Larry Cohen and produced by 20th Century Fox. Although blessed with popular guest stars of the time such as Agnes Moorehead, William Windom or Barbara Hale, the show failed to become a success. Based on George Armstrong Custer’s life, the program was violent and often historically incorrect. Protested by Native Americans and opposed by The Virginian and Lost in Space on NBC and CBS, the show never really stood a chance. Canceled the same year it was launched, Custer became TV history after only seventeen hour-long episodes. Still remembered and cherished by die-hard Western fans today, the show can be revisited on DVD or on Youtube. For anyone who enjoys the style of the 1960s, Custer may be a real gem that deserves re-evaluation. The same goes for anyone who’s fond of TV classics in general, including those the majority of us has long forgotten – unfortunately or not. It’s your decision.

Watch Custer: Death Hunt here, guest starring Barbara Hale and Patricia Harty.

The Far Horizons

Talkie of the Week: The Far Horizons

USA 1955, 108 minutes, color, Paramount Pictures. Director: Rudolph Maté, Written by Winston Miller, Based on the novel Sacajawea of the Shoshones by Della Gould Emmons. Cast: Fred MacMurray, Charlton Heston, Donna Reed, Barbara Hale, William Demarest, Alan Reed, Eduardo Noriega, Larry Pennell, Julia Montoya, Ralph Moody, Herbert Heyes, Lester Matthews, Helen Wallace, Walter Reed.

Plot summary: After purchasing the Louisiana Territory in the early 1800s, President Jefferson sends Meriwether Lewis and William Clark out West to explore the new territory and claim the adjacent land leading to the Pacific Ocean for the United States.

The_Far_Horizons_1955Review: There are a lot of things one could say about Paramount Pictures’ The Far Horizons, historically correct is not one of them. As one of the few features (if not the only) ever made about the Lewis and Clark expedition (1803-06), the film is a piece of fiction rather than a serious rendition of actual events. Dominated by a dramatic love story, the film borrowed an exciting setting to weave a colorful story around an adventure that in itself bears enough material for two feature-length adaptations. Based on Sacajawea of the Shoshones though, a novel by Della Gould Emmons, The Far Horizons falls sadly short of paying tribute to a now famous team of brave explorers.

Sacajawea, although praised as a key figure of the successful expedition, is but a mere shadow of the actual historic figure. Donna Reed – refurbished with a wig, her skin a deep made-up brown – did a decent job transforming herself into a native teenager who, as fiction would have it, falls in love with Charlton Heston’s philandering Lieutenant Clark. But the spark is strangely missing. Reduced to an unfortunate loser in love, Fred MacMurray did his best to flesh out his version of Meriwether Lewis, a man who (in real life) presumably committed suicide a few short years after completing his expedition but was on friendly terms with his fellow explorers. Barbara Hale played Julia Hancock, a young woman who choses Clark over Lewis in the beginning of the movie and has to deal with her fiancé’s change of heart when he returns to Washington in the end. Although none of the heartache ever happened, Barbara Hale’s scenes with the main characters are heartbreaking and one of the reasons to give this picture an honest chance. It’s also a plus to see this film released in widescreen format on DVD. Produced in Technicolor and VistaVision, the nature shots are beautiful and even breathtaking at times, the quality genuinely mid-1950s.

In general, The Far Horizons is not the kind of film you may turn to more than once (unless you are a fan of one of the above mentioned actors). Rated by Time Magazine as one of top ten historically most misleading films in 2011, the plot definitely leaves a lot to be desired. It is still a film, however, that – despite its many controversies – also has acting highlights towards the end and even offers discreet comments about society, including the status of the female sex.

Watch the original trailer here.

The Lone Hand

Talkie of the Week: The Lone Hand

USA 1953, 80 minutes, color, Universal International Pictures. Director: George Sherman, Written by Joseph Hoffman and Irving Ravetch. Cast: Joel McCrea, Barbara Hale, Alex Nicol, Charles Drake, Jimmy Hunt, James Arness, Ray Roberts, Frank Ferguson, Wesley Morgan.

Plot summary: In order to secure the survival of his family, Zachary Hallock gets involved with the wrong side of the law and thus puts the trust of his son and newlywed wife to the ultimate test.

The Lone Hand 1953Review: As a widowed father who is trying to start a new life with his son (Jimmy Hunt), Zachary Hallock (Joel McCrea) works hard on a little farm he only recently purchased and soon occupies with his new wife. In order to overcome the sudden loss of his harvest, he gets involved with a local gang of outlaws who are notorious for their robberies. His son, raised to be inquisitive and righteous, gets suspicious of his father’s new source of income and soon starts asking questions like his stepmother Sarah Jane (Barbara Hale). Unable to tell them the truth behind his actions, Zachary loses his son’s respect and his wife’s trust. It takes an unexpected turn of events to win them both back and make them understand the situation.

Shot in Colorado in 1953, The Lone Hand would be the first out of two movies starring Joel McCrea and Barbara Hale. As a reliably gifted Western star, McCrea governed the movie from the start, supported by Jimmy Hunt’s touching performance and Barbara Hale’s always hearty and wholesome presence. Together, they turned this little film into a memorable experience for anyone who is fond of family Westerns with a dash of suspense. Unavailable on DVD so far, the film is a gem that can be seen in occasional reruns on TV and deserves to be passed on from one generation to the next.

Watch a teaser here.

Seminole

Talkie of the Week: Seminole

USA 1953, 87 minutes, color, Universal Pictures. Director: Budd Boetticher, Written by Charles K. Peck Jr., Cast: Rock Hudson, Barbara Hale, Anthony Quinn, Richard Carlson, Hugh O’Brian, Russell Johnson, Lee Marvin, Ralph Moody, Fay Roope, James Best, John Dahaim.

Plot summary: When Lt. Caldwell returns to his Florida home to serve at Fort King, he is faced with a strict commander who endangers the peaceful co-existence with the Seminole Indians.

Review: Set in 1835, Seminole tells the story of Lt. Caldwell who is accused of murder of a sentry at Fort King near the Everglades where the Seminole Indians lived in peace with the white settlers until Major Degan took command. Played by Rock Hudson, Caldwell is an honest soldier who grew up in the area and thus knows the Everglades as more than just hostile land. Familiar with the territory, he is a helpful asset to Fort King, but it is his love for Revere Muldoon (Barbara Hale) that actually made him return to his childhood home. Originally a peaceful tribe in the region, the Seminole Indians are now fighting the soldiers at Fort King, first and foremost by their leader Osceola (Anthony Quinn). Seeking a way to negotiate with Osceola, Lt. Caldwell finds his plans thwarted by Major Degan (Richard Carlson) whose misguided ambition poses a threat not only to the settlers and Seminoles, but also to his own men. With the help of Revere, Caldwell tries to avoid a conflict before it gets out of hand, only to find himself charged with murder at the end of a gory battle in the midst of the swampy Everglades.

Blessed with a convincing cast, Seminole was primarily shot in the Everglades National Park in Florida, a place that added to the sweltry atmosphere of this unusual Western. Led by Rock Hudson as handsome and righteous Lt. Caldwell, the actors did a wonderful job breathing life into characters whose destiny is connected and tied to the swamps, especially Osceola’s. Anthony Quinn, always strong as a “noble savage”, shined particularly in the presence of Barbara Hale whose Revere Muldoon is a heroine on her own merit, alluring and strong.

Available on DVD, the film is the perfect treat for anyone who enjoys an ensemble of good actors whose leading stars created a sizzling chemistry on screen. The story itself is suspenseful and dramatic, turning this classic into a perfect gem, especially for those of us who prefer some romance over a blanket to keep ourselves warm in this cold October season.

Seminole trailer

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

Talkie of the Week: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

USA 1962, 123 minutes, black & white, Paramount Pictures. Director: John Ford, Written by James Warner Bellah and Willis Goldbeck, Based on the short story by Dorothy M. Johnson. Cast: James Stewart, John Wayne, Vera Miles, Lee Marvin, Edmond O’Brien, Woody Strode, Andy Devine, John Carradine, Lee Van Cleef.

Plot summary: Rance Stoddard and his wife return to their roots to bury a friend and tell the real story behind a legend that started his political career out West.

Review: John Ford. James Stewart. John Wayne. Three legends of their own merit. Three men whose names stand for quality in entertainment. In The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, they worked together for the first time and created a masterpiece that is every bit as gripping now as it was fifty years ago when the film was released by Paramount Pictures. Build up like a mystery within a character-driven plot, the film focuses on the lives of Ransom Stoddard (Stewart), Hallie (Vera Miles) and Tom Doniphon (Wayne) in a small town called Shinbone. Starting with the arrival of an elderly Senator Stoddard and his wife who return to town to bury their friend, the story soon sheds light on the past to begin where it ultimately ends – with the truth behind Stoddard’s political success and the question who actually shot Liberty Valance. Filmed in black and white, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance benefits from an atmosphere that is unbearable at times; dark and depressing, the lack of color adds to a reality of hopelessness and violence, a situation only Stoddard seems to wish to change. New in the West and with a law degree in his hands, he is eager to make a difference in a place he has chosen to be his home, a place he wants to improve through justice and education. Confronted with arbitrary laws and fear, Rance soon has to learn that it takes resilience, allies and courage to reduce his ideas to practice, and that outlaws only understand the argument of a gun.

Available on DVD. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance trailer

Last of the Comanches

Talkie of the Week: aka The Sabre and the Arrow

USA 1953, 85 minutes, color, Columbia Pictures. Director: André de Toth, Written by Kenneth Gamet. Cast: Broderick Crawford, Barbara Hale, Johnny Stewart, Lloyd Bridges, Mickey Shaughnessy, George Mathews, Hugh Sanders, Ric Roman, Chubby Johnson, Martin Milner, Milton Parsons, Jack Woody, John War Eagle

Plot summary: Stuck in the desert without water and food, six soldiers and a handful of civilians are fighting for survival against Black Cloud and his Comanches.

Review: Shot in color as a diverting yet exhausting Western, Last of the Comanches tells the tale of six surviving soldiers from wiped out Dry Buttes who are struggling to escape Black Cloud. Together with a small group of civilians, they are trying to survive in the desert, desperately looking for water until they meet an Indian boy who has escaped Comanche captivity. With his help, they find the last resources his own people used to rely on in the dry season, giving them strength to make a last stand against an overpowering number of Comanche warriors.

Starring Broderick Crawford as Sergeant Matt Trainor, the film is dominated by a group of weathered, hardened men who are fighting for their lives. Barbara Hale supports the cast as Julia Lanning, a young woman whose quiet resilience leaves a lasting impression on the commanding officer without resulting in a romance. The film focuses on the hopelessness of the situation, the fears and frustrations of a group of strangers who are forced to work together in order to preserve a glimpse of hope about their own survival. The images are hot, dry and dusty, leaving the audience thirsty and hungry along with the protagonists. It is the unobtrusive performance of Barbara Hale and her undeniable talent to be the perfect supporting actress that doesn’t turn this film into a draining experience. She is subtle about her character’s fears and growth, and manages to create a believable bond between Julia Lanning and the Sergeant without including too much tenderness.

All in all, the film was blessed with a convincing cast and a quiet, adventurous script that still works its magic on an audience who is fond of classic Westerns. Once available on VHS, the film has not yet been released on DVD but can be seen in occasional reruns on TV. It is one of those gems that grows on you the more often you see it, so be on the lookout and enjoy this rather atypical Western of the 1950s.

Last of the Comanches sample scene

True Grit

Talkie of the Week: True Grit

USA 1969, 128 minutes, color, Paramount Pictures. Director: Henry Hathaway, Written by Marguerite Roberts, Based on “True Grit” by Charles Portis. Cast: John Wayne, Glen Campbell, Kim Darby, Robert Duvall, Jeff Corey, Dennis Hopper, Strother Martin, John Fiedler, Jeremy Slate, Alfred Ryder, Ron Soble, James Westerfield, John Doucette, Donald Woods, Edith Atwater, Carlos Rivas, Isabel Boniface, H. W. Gim, John Pickard, Elizabeth Harrower, Ken Renard, Jay Ripley and Kenneth Becker

Plot summary: 14-year-old Mattie Ross hires Marshall Rooster Cogburn to hunt down her father’s murderer and bring him to justice with a little help of Texas Ranger La Boeuf.

Review: True Grit was my first John Wayne Western, a fact I admit with some shame because he was such a heavy weight in Hollywood and a talented star in his fifty years on the silver screen, I should have started exploring his work much earlier than I did. But there are so many beautiful classics out there, so many favorites whose work I haven’t completely gotten my hands on just yet, John Wayne somehow fell behind as a priority. Once I did see him in True Grit, however, I felt inveigled to put him up high on my list. After all, his portrayal of Rooster Cogburn spoke to me much more than the only recently celebrated interpretation by Jeff Bridges.

Remake or original, that may be the question here to ask. Although, in 1975, John Wayne himself already reclaimed the part that had brought him his well-deserved Academy Award. In Rooster Cogburn, he starred with Katherine Hepburn, chasing after the murderer of her father, a plot that may sound slightly familiar to everyone who has seen True Grit in 1969 or 2010.  So was it so bad for the Coen Brothers to re-imagine this John Wayne classic? Well, it probably depends on how fond you are of contemporary interpretations. I didn’t like True Grit much when I saw the adaptation from 2010, but liked it better with John Wayne, Glen Campbell and Kim Darby. That said, I should add that the story itself is not my favorite, not so much for its general content, but for the character of Mattie Ross. But the original film in general is a real gem, telling the story of an interesting journey with an interesting end. So for anyone who enjoys a Western without any Indians, do pick this one as your after-dinner treat. You may be surprised how fast two hours can evaporate by watching a decent movie.

Available on DVD and BluRay. True Grit trailer available here.