ROUGHSHOD (I Watch Westerns: Take Eight)

Roughshod (1949)
D. Mark Robson

Hectic week, but I found time for a second viewing of Roughshod,  a 1949 effort from Mark Robson that occupies a unique space among both westerns and the career of Gloria Grahame.

I originally sought it out because I want to see Gloria Grahame in anything and I especially wanted to see her in a western, where being ahead of her time (as she always was in the noirs that made her legend), would be more a challenge than an advantage.

Challenge it may have been, but she made it work. This was probably her first really strong multi-dimensional role, and it can be seen as a bridge between the hardcore sheen she had perfected in the likes of Crossfire (and even It’s a Wonderful Life), and the complex, truly unsettling performances she would give shortly after in In a Lonely Place, Man on a Tightrope and The Big Heat.

I wouldn’t say she’s quite as unsettling here, though she didn’t have it in her to be comforting. But the quality she brought to everything works beautifully in a western–at least in this western, which has a sharp, perceptive script that offers a far more nuanced, sensitive and realistic portrayal of  Old West prostitution than the “modern” takes seen in the likes of Unforgiven or Deadwood or even Lonesome Dove.

Grahame’s Mary Wells (there’s a prescient name for you!) is hardly the whole show in Roughshod. There’s the usual fine work by the period child actor Claude Jarman, Jr., a menacing, typically understated turn by John Ireland as the villain (a shot of his face replaces a scene where the last “showgirl” in Grahame’s little troupe is presumably raped and murdered and it’s a wordless forerunner of Johnny Cash’s offhanded line, delivered a few years hence, about shooting a man in Reno just to watch him die). Robson–not known for being exactly actor friendly–gets good work all around here, and keeps a complicated story moving at a brisk pace, helped along by a sharp script that keeps on delivering, both visually and verbally. Robert Sterling is better than I thought on first viewing as the stoic lead, forever trapped by his classic westerner’s inability to convey any emotion not rooted in the mastery of violence and physical hardship it takes to survive in an untamed land.

I could go on. This is not a movie with any weaknesses. It’s the sort of movie where two people whose honor is suspect on every level, give up their lives trying to protect each other from men who don’t care about them one way or another except as a means to finding the man they really want to kill…and don’t much care that killing them will only make their own vengeance task more difficult.

Yes, I could certainly go on.

But Grahame is the center piece.

It’s her dilemma–her skepticism that any new life will really be better than the one she has, tempered by her fragile hope that the one she glimpses behind the Sterling character’s “roughshod” demeanor, just might be–that lifts the movie into something better than fine craftsmanship.

Turns out she didn’t need Nicholas Ray or Elia Kazan or Fritz Lang after all. At least not any more than they needed her.

I wasn’t entirely sure of it on a first viewing, but this one’s going on my frequent watch list. It really does set the stage for the great theme of Grahame’s career–it’s her first three-dimensional character (at least the earliest I’ve encountered) and that character wants what all her great characters want: to be taken on her own terms.

And Mary Wells refuses what all Grahame’s great characters refuse.

To be taken any other way.

If the great western theme–that Civilization should not merely exist, but be worth something–happens to get reinforced along the way?

Well, you won’t hear me complaining about that, either.

JOHN FORD’S PEOPLE….LANA MARTIN (Drums Along the Mohawk)

Film: Drums Along the Mohawk
Character: Lana Borst Martin
Played by: Claudette Colbert

[NOTE: This is the latest installment in a series on major and minor characters in the films of John Ford. I’m breaking the routine this time in order to write about Drums Along the Mohawk for the blog-a-thon at Krell Laboratories. (to whom, much thanks for allowing me to participate) Please be sure to follow the link and check out the other participants! For newcomers here, the first three installments in this slow-l-y-y-y developing series concern minor characters from The Searchers, and can be found by accessing John Ford’s People under the category listing at the right.]

TO BEGIN…

Let’s pause a little for the expression of some common sentiments (however passing strange), concerning Ford and the fairer sex:

“What he (John Ford) brought to the screen that made me admire him more than any other filmmaker was a kind of poetry, specific to the screen and specific to men. Granted his women were not his best creations….” (Elia Kazan)

“For a long time, I criticized his view of women–which I found too 19th century.” (Francois Truffaut, who, to be fair, had softened his view somewhat–though only somewhat–by the time he said this)

AND THEN…SINCE WE’RE GRANTING THINGS:

Grant this first: Hollywood being what it was, not even John Ford could make every film his.

Grant this second: He made more of Hollywood’s inevitable product “his” than virtually anyone else.

So…

Every Ford film is familiar. Every great Ford film, no matter how familiar, is unique, a world unto itself and, irrespective of its particular adherence to, or departure from, “realism” (which, with a certain kind of critic, and most often with the kind who strives to be influential, always means whichever version of the “facts” they themselves find most convenient), amounts to a steadfast refusal to allow human history and behavior to be turned into hard sciences after the manner of physics or engineering.

Drums Along the Mohawk, which has a certain amount of realism and a great feel of authenticity (which, accounting as it does for irrationality, mythology, imagination, isn’t really the same thing) seemed ultra-familiar when I first saw it roughly a quarter-century ago. As generally happens with Ford’s best films, it has grown more singular–more authentic–with each repeated viewing in the long years since.

And, by now, that’s a lot of viewings.

One reason it seemed so familiar in the beginning was because I recognized the people–not from other Hollywood product, where (except for John Ford’s other films) such folks are virtually absent except when they are being caricatured–but from the communities I grew up in during the sixties and seventies.

Maybe that was the last time such people will be familiar. I don’t get out enough anymore to speak with much authority on the matter. Suffice it to say that Ford’s signature gift for portraying ordinary lives (unique in the history of Hollywood, sure, but also, lest we forget, highly unusual in the history of anything) was never more fully on display than here.

One of the clearest markers of delving into the ordinary–lives as they might actually have been lived–is the cycle of destruction and renewal that sufficiently authentic lives tend to accumulate. Ford caught these cycles to a degree no other American filmmaker has approached. As I hope to demonstrate below, he never caught them more fully than here.

I suspect the intensity with which such rare qualities are presented in Drums, and its place as probably the least written about of Ford’s major films, are not unrelated phenomena. Hollywood has gone through a lot of changes in a century-plus. Its addiction to fantasy (to the studied and persistent absence of authenticity)–fully enabled by the audiences of successive generations (meaning, of course, us)–has, however, remained fundamentally unchanged.

To all of that, add this–Drums defies genre even more readily than the usual Ford masterwork. Nobody was quite so adept at confusing such issues–at reminding us that a film might be a Homeric epic despite modest length, that it might be a comedy of manners despite ultra-serious subject matter, that it might be about the future even though it is set firmly in the past, that it might be a “woman’s picture” despite the presence of forts (a recurring Ford theme) and muskets and Red Coats and Redder Indians.

Cue the music!

Ford was the best at a lot of things and the thing he was very best at–besides narrative depth–was overturning expectations.

The first thing worth noting about Drums Along the Mohawk, then, is the billing, which, despite a title and subject matter that seems to speak pretty directly to the misguided notions quoted above, places Claudette Colbert first.

That might have happened anyway. Henry Fonda was the male lead. His star was still on the rise, and, despite his eventual iconic status, he would arguably never be quite the glittering box office star that Colbert was in the thirties. In 1939, if she was in a picture, she was pretty much guaranteed top billing.

That didn’t necessitate it being her character’s story to anything like the extent Drums Along the Mohawk is–or that the character would be anywhere near as challenging or fulfilling.

For all that to happen, on a picture like this one, Ford had to trust he was working with a first-rate actress (as he certainly was), and he had to do his usual bang-up job of blurring conventional genre lines (as he certainly did).

Result? A picture that–once viewed a sufficient number of times–sneaks up on us slow-learner types and resists easy exegesis.

So, in a tale that includes a multitude of Ford’s usual arc-within-an-arc narratives, a story where even minor characters and by-the-way settings, take remarkable journeys, one journey stands out.

It isn’t this one, which goes from here:

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to here.

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Or this one, from here:

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to here.

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Or yet again, this one, from here

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to here…

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It’s not even the more general journeys, such as that from here…

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to here…

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or this one, from here…

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to here…

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Not any of those, or any of a dozen others….But this one…

From here…

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To here.

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…is where Ford chose to put the center.

No doubt he could have found other centers for a narrative as rich as Drums. Given a story set in the Revolution (America’s great un-examined subject) and also on the Frontier (America’s–and Ford’s–great familiar subject), he no doubt would have done just that, if he had been a man who truly misunderstood women.

But Lana’s story is the one he chose to build everything else around. If modernity doesn’t quite get her, (if Truffaut was unhappy with the women of the 19th century, one can only imagine how he felt about the 18th) then I suspect we’ve lost something. In America, at least, that amounts to something like where we came from.

What Kazan, Truffaut and, oh so many others, seemed to miss, is that Ford-the-director (I’ll leave speculation on Ford-the-curmudgeon, Ford-the-monster, Ford-the-terrible-person to others) was imminently interested in women.

He just wasn’t very interested in Hollywood’s ideas of women.

That being the case, Claudette Colbert, who had, by 1939, already personified, just about as perfectly as anyone could, nearly every type of wondrous woman Hollywood was interested in (the Dizzy Heiress, the Screwball Dame, the long-suffering Madame of Melodrama, the Queen of the Nile, all that just for starters), might have seemed the last possible choice for Lana Martin. Given the stories that have circulated regarding their conflict on the shoot, she might have been Ford’s last choice.

But that doesn’t mean she wasn’t the best choice.

However she got the job, she put everything she had into it. And everything she had was consummate skill and artistry–including the ability to diffuse her star power in order to fully represent a gentle, naturally subservient spirit that must have been as far from her own as it was possible to get. On the evidence of this single time they worked together, she certainly understood both big-picture arc and small-picture moments (the long and the short) as exquisitely well as any of Ford’s regulars. And, whatever his feelings about her insistence on glamour makeup, Ford was right to put the story in her hands.

Truth be told, I love just about every element of Drums: Edna May Oliver’s Mrs. McClennar (okay that’s an easy one); the wealth of period detail (especially the interiors); the genuine feel of Appalachia–the American Frontier’s first barrier–rendered glorious for once (and in Utah no less); the you-are-there aspect of the pioneer experience (especially the barn-raising scene that turns into an Indian raid). All that and so much more.

But the real reason I keep watching is to find out how Lana got through.

How the rich girl from Albany survived (and survives) not just the frontier, but The Frontier–the process of winning the hard ground the Mohawk valley represents, and the weight of Myth that winning created.

Drums Along the Mohawk keeps this balance perfectly, and it does so in large part because Lana is such a well-drawn character, an exemplar of the quiet, essential, forgotten women, generally ignored by both history and literature (fact and myth).

In order to understand such women, Ford had to be not only a poet of community (something that is generally acknowledged) but of community’s historical foundation stone: marriage. Which meant he also had to understand just how and where women stood in the very particular stories he was telling.

Women generally, yes, but also specific women–and not always the most familiar types.

Even when Ford was making his films, Americans already had a long-demonstrated preference for the firebrand–the kind of women played in their respective primes by Maureen O’Hara or Vera Miles, or Ava Gardner or Anne Bancroft (to stick to obvious examples from Ford’s own oeuvre).

I suspect the main reason  Lana Martin is infrequently–if ever–mentioned among Colbert’s finest performances, is that she does not fill this bill. Lana is genteel (a strike against her already), but she’s also genuinely eager to please. Give her almost any circumstance through the first parts of the film and she will look to someone else for approval.

Most often that someone is Gil–as definitive an example of the stolid husband as she is of the demure, even submissive wife.

Fragile as a flower you might say:

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With that vivid image established, we’re hardly surprised, then, to find her forever seeking approval, assurance, a new kind of self-worth. Be it in a tavern:..

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On the road…

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In a cabin…

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In a field…

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In church…

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In a crisis:

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At a turning point:

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One could go on. One could even note that Lana’s persistent need for some sort of assurance isn’t limited to Gil (who you will note, is generally not indifferent, but rather oblivious, as though he can’t imagine anyone of Lana’s background needing such assurance from the likes of him)….Meanwhile, Mrs. McClennar, in particular, operates on a lot of levels, none more important than as a kind of anti-Lana, an assurance to all and sundry that the firebrand spirit is alive and well!

Where Lana fusses…

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Mrs. McClennar asserts:

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Where Lana, fearful of the future, pines…

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Mrs. McClennar (wife of the late Captain Barnabas “Blast his eyes lovin’ it” McClennar and mindful of the past), pontificates:

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Where Lana demures…

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Mrs. McClennar snorts with derision…

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To this point, even the most generous critique might have us wanting to leave Lana where we found her–to share what is evidently her low opinion of herself (and that’s without the screaming and fainting that were much more accepted as dramatic norms at the time than any right-thinking modernista is willing to put up with at this distance….heaven forbid any woman should act effeminate in the movies these days, when they would only be taking jobs from all the leading men so eager to shoulder the burden).

But, Ford being Ford, it’s a safe bet there’s a convergence coming–that we won’t leave Lana there. That there will be a moment when Lana starts to show that, while she’ll never be Mrs. McClennar (that sort of obviousness would do for most filmmakers, never for Ford), the differences between her and her de-facto mentor, don’t cut all the way to bone either.

Let the crisis rise to a sufficient level and likenesses–specific to them, general to woman’s accepted place in the times being portrayed–begin to emerge.

What Mrs. McClennar already knows about men returning from battle…

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Lana will know soon enough. If not here:

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Then certainly here (where the care she gave Gil’s immaculate clothes upon his departure, pictured above, is finally turned to something genuinely useful as she applies it, in heightened degree, to his torn body):

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[I’ll pause to note that the sequence referenced here–where Gil recounts his experience in battle (a battle, incidentally, which was genuinely significant in the foundation of the country and during which the colonials won despite suffering the horrific casualties Gil mentions, and which Ford shows us only through this scene), has been justifiably praised for its striking portrayal of a soldier suffering what is now called PTSD. Fonda has received plenty of well-earned praise for his harrowing performance. But Colbert had perhaps an even harder task–to both support Fonda’s performance and, simultaneously, to bring forth, for the first time, the full measure of Lana’s residual toughness. To focus on the nuances she deploys throughout this very long and compelling scene–to achieve the considerable accomplishment of tearing your eyes away from Fonda throughout–is to be awed.]

A simpler narrative, moving on straight lines, would mark this as Lana’s ascendance, perhaps even the moment when she swaps places with Mrs. McClennar. No such simplicity occurs. Lana gets tougher, Mrs. McClennar eventually goes a little dotty. But neither woman loses her essence. Being molded by time and circumstance is not the same as having your basic character overthrown.

Hard to imagine Mrs. McClennar, for instance, ever being afraid of Indians. Certainly not this afraid:

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Or even this afraid:

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Let alone still this afraid…

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Right after she has done this:

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No, However much bonding Lana and the older, saltier woman do, Mrs. McClennar will always be more apt to respond this way…

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Or this…(mounting the barricades, instead of cowering below):

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This separation of natures, does not preclude an essential sisterhood, of course…Mrs. McClennar does hate sewing:

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And, it being the 18th century, it will still be woman’s lot to watch and wait…

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And tend the wounded…

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And mourn the dead…

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Strong bonds indeed.

Still, for all that, we know that, if Lana, young and beautiful, were to find herself a widower, she would not be caught cavorting with handsome young men…

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Or leading cheers…

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No, her own lot will still be to quietly validate the passage of the seasons. The living…

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The dying…

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The high tide…

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And the low…

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And, most significantly of all…the worrying…

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And the hoping…

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Hoping, perhaps, that this…

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And this…

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And all of this…

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Will somehow, finally, be validated by all of this…

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The future that had not quite arrived in Ford’s time…and has not quite arrived in ours…That remains tantalizingly out of reach…NVE00724 NVE00725 NVE00726 NVE00727

A future that was once brought into view by those John Ford was forever reminding us we would forget only at our peril…

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