STUDIES IN COMMAND ON FILM (A Handy Ten)

These were harder to choose than I thought. I could easily have come up with another ten and covered several new angles. But I wanted a mix of good commanders and bad, intimate situations and world-shaping ones–or sometimes both. If you watch these ten, you can get a good sense of just how difficult it is to lead under pressure…and perhaps intuit why we are no longer good at it. It might even be a decent guide to answering whether we ever will be good at it again.

Me, I dunno. When we no longer have actors who can even imagine how to play these parts in a movie, I would say the signs aren’t good…but history exists to surprise us. I left aside such magnificent portraits as Herbert Lom’s definitive Napoleon in King Vidor’s War and Peace and George C. Scott’s Patton to focus on small unit command: the ship’s crew, the wagon train, the cavalry patrol, the lonely outpost. Mastery of such things is the root of Western Civilization’s military success and relentless civilizational advance for three thousand years. Any other sort of progress, real or imagined, that has been made the meanwhile is because people like these won the space for it when they succeeded and were punished by God and the courts of law when they failed.

Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)
D. Frank Lloyd

Like most of the films here Bounty‘s story was based on a real incident. Pure fictions involving small unit command are usually adventure stories like The Guns of Navarone or Where Eagles Dare, wonderful films that alas, can do no more than reflect the qualities that shape the real world. The Nordhoff-Hall novel upon which this and the several remakes are based was already famous. But if we ponder the miracle of its two iconic characters–the able but sadistic sea captain William Bligh and the reluctant leader of his crew’s resistance, Fletcher Christian–being so definitively portrayed in the same movie, it becomes a little less miraculous when we consider that, at least outside Great Britain, Charles Laughton and Clark Gable helped make them iconic. The Bligh/Christian template–a vicious leader driving his men to the brink of mutiny by insisting on the letter of the law transcending its spirit to appease his own cramped soul–has found its way into a lot more than Bounty remakes…as we shall see. In any case, this is the exemplar in how not to lead free men. The refusal of the British Admiralty’s judges to shake Bligh’s hand after they, too, have followed the letter of the law and upheld his conduct, is a great lesson in the power of unspoken honor codes to rule men’s thoughts, irrespective of what the law demands of their actions.

Northwest Passage (1940)
D: King Vidor

A fictionalized account of Rogers’ Rangers, the famous militia who performed miracles on the frontier during the French and Indian War. Robert Rogers had a checkered career afterwards, descending into alcoholism, fighting for England in the American Revolution he had done as much as any man to make possible if not inevitable, and being exiled for his troubles. But, as portrayed by Spencer Tracy during the Rangers’ glory days, this is a finely etched character study of the kind of man needed to both drive and inspire men to the very limits of their capacities and perhaps a bit beyond. By the end, you can understand why such a man comes to need conflict and why, so often, only his kind can ensure victory. Always assuming they don’t turn into Captain Bligh. Vidor was one of the great, under-sung period directors who, especially with the aid of glorious Technicolor, can make you feel the sheer physical effort and sacrifice required of anyone who served under a man like Rogers and why those who survived took exceptional pride in being one of his men. It wouldn’t surprise me if George C. Scott, or George Patton himself, learned a thing or two by studying Rogers or Tracy or both.

Wing and a Prayer (1944)
D. Henry Hathaway

Of course, World War II brought many studies in command to the screen. Few were better than this relatively forgotten film which loosely re-creates the Bounty triad on an aircraft carrier preparing for Midway, with Charles Bickford’s captain serving as a stand-in for English sea law, Don Ameche’s second-in-command serving as Bligh and Dana Andrews serving as Christian. Except Ameche, in the performance of his career, is a better man than Bligh, able to play the hard-ass who stands between order and chaos, make the brutally hard decisions about life and death that are required for the mission to succeed, and take the slings and arrows that come with it, without losing himself. His satisfying but lonely walk in the rain at film’s end speaks quiet volumes about the emotional cost of middle command. (A good companion piece is 1948’s Twelve O’Clock High, with Gregory Peck playing a similar role to perfection.)

They Were Expendable (1945)
D. John Ford

Of course John Ford made a career of studying small group command. His films could make up the whole Handy Ten and then some. But I’ll confine myself to this one and the next as they represent the extremes of effective and ineffective leadership. The quality of the times brought out a new level of seriousness in actors usually associated with lighter fare. Like Don Ameche in Wing and a Prayer, Robert Montgomery, who had served as a naval officer, gave the performance of a lifetime in Ford’s even greater film, perhaps the finest ever made on the subject and certainly the best-titled. He’s bolstered by an excellent John Wayne, bringing unusual depth to the standard role of the hot-headed second, and Ford’s usual superb stock company, some playing men who are forced into command themselves as Montgomery’s PT unit is whittled down, down and further down under the withering Japanese assault on the Philippines in the wake of Pearl Harbor. Perhaps the best thing that can be said about this film is that it captures the demands of leadership in war–most of which are boring and mundane and as likely to be made in the service of managing defeat as of procuring victory–as opposed to combat, where heroes are made.

Fort Apache (1948)
D. John Ford

And on the flip side, there’s Henry Fonda as the disgruntled, glory-seeking colonel of an outpost contending with renegade Apaches in the desolate southwest of the late nineteenth century. His unwillingness to learn from more experienced, but lower-ranking (and, as he sees it, ethnically inferior) men, ultimately dooms himself and his command. It might be Fonda’s very best performance as a man who is thoroughly professional, a loving father (to a luminous, teenage Shirley Temple), brave to a fault…and completely unlikeable. The ending is still controversial. Has John Wayne, again playing a strong second, except this time he’s the level-headed one, accepted Fonda’s example…or only seemed to? I’ll tackle all that some day when I write about the film in the depth it deserves, but as a study in how to destroy your command despite doing everything “by the book” this could hardy be bettered.

Little Big Horn (1951)
D. Charles Marquis Warren

This one features Lloyd Bridges and John Ireland leading, and competing for the heart of, a small squadron assigned to ride through Indian Country and warn George Armstrong Custer that he is about to be ambushed at the Little Big Horn. Of course you know going in their mission will fail–but just how it fails is compelling from beginning to end and holds up on repeated viewings. Bridges and Ireland were outstanding second-line stars who rarely got the chance to shine as they do here, playing tough men who are learning on the job while carrying out what they don’t know is a doomed mission. The film’s claim to historical accuracy may be dubious but as a study in not just command–but the competition the desire for command is bound to engender (especially when the ghost of Marie Windsor is lurking in the shadows)–this is one of a kind.

Westward the Women (1951)
D. William Wellman

A unique film on every level. This one isn’t based on any specific event but on a plausible summary of an aspect of frontier experience dreamed up by Frank Capra. When Capra himself, post-war, was deemed insufficiently credible or commercially viable to be entrusted with directing it, he passed it to his good friend, Wild Bill Wellman, who toughened the script and made a masterpiece. As a wagon train movie it might be matched by John Ford’s Wagon Master or Anthony Mann’s Bend of the River. But as a study in the vicissitudes of running a wagon train it has no equals. That it involves Robert Taylor reluctantly accepting the job of leading a hundred and fifty mail order brides through the toughest part of the American frontier, and then seeing it through, is an unusual twist that puts the icing on the cake. Not recommended for anyone who accepts the modern idea that men and women don’t really need or want each other. For everyone else, a great film waiting to be rediscovered.

Zulu (1964)
D. Cy Endfield

Less than three years after George Custer’s cavalry command was wiped out at Little Big Horn in the American west, a couple of green lieutenants were faced with similar odds at a mission post they had little choice but to defend in South Africa at a place called Rorke’s Drift. They were leading about a hundred and fifty men, nearly a third of them sick or wounded, against four thousand Zulus who had broken off from an even larger force which had annihilated 1,300 British troops at Islawanda earlier in the day. While it’s superb on every level, with some of the greatest battle scenes ever filmed, Zulu rises highest when viewed as a study in improvisation of the sort that western armies have excelled at for several millennia. As a heroic military feat, the stand at Rorke’s Drift is on a par with the Spartans’ delaying action against the Persians at Thermopylae in 480 B.C., a tactical defeat that may have nonetheless prevented Western Civilization from being snuffed in the cradle. And if you think the Brits losing the land they fought for to the Boers a few decades later, and the Boers losing it back to the natives within a century, makes the historical importance of Rorke’s Drift less monumental, you might be right. Then again, if you accept that the spirit of Rorke’s Drift had more than a little to do with the spirit of the Battle of Britain, fought sixty years hence and without which the history of everything would probably look very different today, you might be righter. In any case Stanley Baker and Michael Caine (in his star-making role) give unbeatable performances as men who don’t particularly like each other showing grace under pressure over a twenty-four-hour period in 1879 when nearly one man of every ten they commanded earned a Victoria Cross, the British equivalent of the Medal of Honor.

Gettysburg (1993)
D. Ron Maxwell

I’ve sung the praises of Ron Maxwell’s film about the most important battle ever fought on American soil several times here. But, in addition to being one of the great war films, and, in my opinion, the greatest battle film ever made, it’s also a detailed portrait of several levels of command: watch it for Martin Sheen’s Robert E. Lee, Tom Berenger’s James Longstreet, Stephen Lang’s George Pickett, Richard Jordan’s Lo Armisted, Andrew Prine’s stinging, poignant cameo as Dick Garnett, Sam Elliot’s John Buford (who may have saved the war on the battle’s first day) and, especially, Jeff Daniels’ Joshua Chamberlain (who almost certainly saved the Union army on the second day). There may have been a few better films on small unit command and a very few better films on command at Robert E. Lee’s level. But there has never been a film to equal it as a study in command at all levels during an existential battle in an existential war. Please don’t call yourself informed about American history if you haven’t seen this one.

Meek’s Cutoff (2010)
D. Kelly Reichardt

Not strictly speaking a film about command but a great look at how force of personality can trump all previous presumptions about who is fit to lead when everyone’s life is at stake. Michelle Williams gives another of her eerily natural performances as Emily Tetherow, a woman travelling with Stephen Meek’s half of a wagon train that has split in two along the Oregon Trail in 1845, who gradually takes on the role of leader and decision maker as the group loses confidence in Meek himself. Calling this film nuanced is an understatement. It moves at a glacial pace and Reichardt takes “realism” to such extremes it is often hard to follow the muffled talk or read the characters’ expressions in night scenes lit only by the tiny flames of candlelight available to pioneers of the period. And the film reaches no conclusions on the wisdom (or lack thereof) in transferring allegiance from Meek to Tetherow. But it makes you understand why the switch takes place–and why you might have cast aside your own assumptions in their place. The underlying message is that humans gravitate towards natural leaders and if the circumstances are desperate enough, all other presumptions grounded in nature will be cast aside. You make enough right decisions and people will follow you anywhere. Whether in war, commerce or adventure, it’s the first lesson of command: The strongest lead. Whether to success or disaster depends on what else they bring.

GOLDEN AGE WESTERNS–THE CANON (A Handy Ten, Times Two)

There is no way to limit Hollywood’s Golden Age westerns to a mere ten, or, as you’ll see, twenty, without seeming silly. You can do it with every other genre, even war films, even noir. The western is deeper at the high end, low end and every level in between, so I won’t be stopping here. A similar list of movies that aren’t as well known, will follow at some point.

But what with civilization crumbling faster every day, this seems like a good time to ruminate on the 1939-1962 period that defined what we thought of ourselves then and what troubles us now, as the thrashing about that was bound to follow the breakup of the Frozen Silence (1980-2016) proceeds apace and the past threatens to repeat its well-established pattern of eternal return to the anti-utopian verities. It won’t be long now before any discarded lessons contained herein will become valuable again.

Stagecoach (1939)
D. John Ford

There were other good westerns made in the late 30s, but John Ford’s return to the form–his first since his great silent Three Bad Men in 1926–is rightly regarded as lifting the game for his favorite genre. It wasn’t the first or last time he managed the trick, but it may have been the most influential. Rightly so. It made the western’s definitive star, John Wayne, solid box office, won Thomas Mitchell a well-deserved Oscar, and set Claire Trevor on a path to winning one later, some year when Vivien Leigh wasn’t making Gone With the Wind. They headed a deep, faultless cast, and the story, a series of intertwined character studies, grows like a fresh flower from the oldest dirt in the hills (or anyway Guy de Maupassant by way of Ernest Haycox).

After this, perhaps Ford’s most purely exciting and entertaining film, with action informing character, and character action, at lightning speed, the cliches that had propped up thousands of dime novels, silents, and serials for half a century were at last so well-defined the western–and the western alone–could go anywhere.

Destry Rides Again (1939)
D. George Marshall

And one of the first places it went, in the very same year, was a wiseacre spoof of itself. It’s prevented from stooping to parody by being a full-blooded western first, with a strong, well-developed, town-taming story that was pure Hollywood, owing little more than its title to Max Brand’s fine source novel. Highlights: Marlene Dietrich’s loose, unmannered performance, proof she should have done more westerns; Samuel S. Hinds’ tobacco-chawing judge, dispensing Boss Brian Donlevy’s mayhem with a firm, laconic hand; Mischa Auer’s seriously whipped “deputy”; and, the big screen’s greatest catfight, courtesy of Dietrich, the priceless Una Merkel, and “eight gallons of water.” Jimmy Stewart? Well, that’s a given, but it’s high even on his endless list of indelible performances.

The Ox-Bow Incident (1943)
D, William Wellman

Wellman made better westerns (my later list will feature at least a couple of them), but none quite so iconic. Matching Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s superb source novel scene-for-scene, it’s not an easy watch. Henry Fonda and Harry Morgan (neither ever better) are a couple of cowhands caught up in a lynch mob. Jane Darwell, two years after her salt-of-the-earth Oscar turn in The Grapes of Wrath, plays the Spirit of the Mob, a kind of Rocky Mountain Madame LeFarge, with such conviction you might never see her the same way again. Here and there it’s a touch heavy-handed, but given the subject matter, that’s almost unavoidable and easy to bear. Certainly easier than the final scenes which put a noose around the neck of anyone who has studied enough history to know how often man’s gift for folly, from which God has not made him exempt, is the real source of horror in the universe.

My Darling Clementine (1946)
D. John Ford

Returning after a seven-year break, Ford remakes the Western again and sets the stage for everything it would become. Henry Fonda and Victor Mature play a Wyatt Earp and Doc Holiday who are sufficiently removed from history that Ford asked studio head Darryl Zanuck for permission to change the names. Zanuck had a studio to run. No way was he going to give up those names. Ford, typically, doubled-down and vouchsafed the historical accuracy of the obligatory gunfight, claiming Earp had told him all about it in their silent-era bull sessions. But Ford the tall tale-spinner never got in the way of Ford the Artist. Ford the Artist knew the real story was about the epic Loneliness of the Gunfighter and how thin the line between lawman and outlaw was in a lawless land. In other words, the tall tales were what mattered, not the tawdry facts, which would have held nobody’s interest for more than thirty seconds. A century-and-a-half later, the Earp story is still being told and retold. No one has come close to giving it the significance it acquired here, as a cautionary fable.

Canyon Passage (1946)
D. Jacques Tourneur

This isn’t a town-tamer epic so much as a town-being-born Narrative, with all the nuances and complexities that implies. Susan Hayward was on her way up, and you can already see why she will make it to the top. Playing friends who are growing apart and beginning to compete for the same woman, Dana Andrews and Brian Donlevy are at their respective peaks as are the arts of cinematography (courtesy of Edward Kronjager) and Technicolor. Not even Ford’s westerns ever looked more spectacular. Ward Bond shows yet again why he was Hollywood’s supreme character actor, this time portraying a terrifying, animalistic thug who would have been at home in Deadwood…or Deadwood. As usual, the second romantic subplot is a little weak, but not fatally so–once Susan Hayward’s on the screen, it’s not likely the hero will end up with anyone else. As with Stagecoach, the story is from Ernest Haycox, another fine western writer who has been neglected by our urgent need to forget. The fate of Andy Devine’s family is all the more devastating for being handled with gravitas but no fuss. Not as famous as most of the films here, but like all the rest, it grows with time and distance.

Red River (1946–Released 1948)
D. Howard Hawks

Proof that Howard Hawks could conjure an “all is now right with the world” ending out of any scenario. But don’t let that deter you. According to Joanne Dru, Hawks needed editing advice from Ford. That seems to have been the principal reason for the film’s release being delayed for two years. We have Hawks’ own word–every bit as reliable as Ford’s–that this is where Ford saw Wayne’s performance and said, “I never knew the big sunnava-bitch could act!” The discovery would alter the course of the western for decades to come. As for Red River itself, it has more than enough going for it to justify its place in the pantheon: It made Montgomery Clift’s reputation, there’s stellar work from Dru, John Ireland, Walter Brennan and a host of sidekicks. The story, about the first trail-drive from Texas to Kansas after the Civil War, is epic and intimate in equal measure. And, yes, as only the very stupid or the very misinformed would doubt going forward, the big sunnava-bitch could act.

THE CAVALRY TRILOGY (1948–1950)
D. John Ford

Fort Apache (1948)

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949)

RIo Grande (1950)

John Ford’s three late-40s cavalry films have been considered a loose, informal trilogy almost since they were made. Themes certainly unite them, as does a keen eye for the details of cavalry life as men and women actually lived it in the post-Civil War generation during the conquest of what became the American Southwest. I’m treating them as one entry because there’s nothing else here I could leave off in good conscience–and certainly, none of these three could be left off!

What’s interesting narratively, is that each story stands alone at least as well as the three hang together. Ford viewed cavalry life as a continuum in three distinct modes, first as Tragedy (Fort Apache) then as a Comedy of Manners (She Wore a Yellow Ribbon) and finally as Elegy (Rio Grande). Anyone who thinks Ford glossed the men in “dirty shirt blue” should give his subsequent takes on the subject a gander (Sergeant Rutledge, Two Rode Together, even The Searchers) for a stark, sometimes corrosive contrast.

Most of Ford’s stock company features throughout this cycle of Tragedy-Comedy-Elegy, keeping things lively in one, two or all three pictures. Beyond that, look for a teenage Shirley Temple, luminous in Fort Apache, John Wayne at his most moving and eloquent in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Maureen O’Hara’s twirling parasol in Rio Grande (If Ford had given it to Phil Sheridan it would have been yet another historical touch he was accused of manufacturing). Those and a thousand other things. (Stanley Crouch, lifetime Crit-Illuminati member paid in full, once described Shirley Temple in Fort Apache as “somewhat monstrous.” Has any actress ever done a more valuable service than making Stanley Crouch look under the bed?)

And keep going back to them. There’s always more to learn.

Where they rode, that place became the United States of America.

Colorado Territory (1949)
D. Raoul Walsh

Perhaps the greatest western heist flick. It’s a train robbery this time (as opposed to a bank or stage), and a redemption story to boot. Walsh remade his own High Sierra, setting the modern gangster story that had made Humphrey Bogart a star back three-quarters of a century and mining even more gold from it. Joel McCrea didn’t know how to give a bad performance but this time, as “nothing but a big Kansas Jay,” he had a script that allowed him to be far better than good. Same for Virginia Mayo as a girl who’s been run out of all the best saloons in the territory and proves more honorable than either the thieves McCrea’s character has fallen back in with or the good girl (Dorothy Malone, always a welcome sight even in a stodgy role) he has fallen for. A strong story, a sterling character study of a man trying to escape his past, and nobody, but nobody, ever said Raoul Walsh was anything less than an action master of the highest order. The climax stings, no matter how often I watch it.

The Gunfighter (1950)
D. Henry King

The pinnacle of the gunfighter-tries-to-lay-down-his-guns narratives. Gregory Peck proved one of many western leading men who were more convincing playing an older man than a younger one. He’s not grizzled exactly, but there’s an old soul watching every single thing from behind those eyes. This is one where the bullets hit the bone. You can feel the weight of the lives, and souls, at stake, including eternal sidekick Millard Mitchell in the role of a well-spent lifetime. Peck’s aging gunfighter keeps looking for answers and the film doesn’t let you believe he’ll find them–but it lets you believe he believes.

Leads to killing in the end. One of those films where you know where it’s going but you can’t stop watching just the same.

WInchester ’73 (1950)
D. Anthony Mann

Outside of John Ford’s very best, perhaps the greatest and most influential western of the era. It remade Jimmy Stewart’s career, allowing him to keep all the associations of his past everyman roles while he re-invented himself as a western hero who, while still on the side of the angels, serves them with a touch of warrior madness in his soul. It also vaulted Anthony Mann, who had already made several fine noirs and historicals, to the top shelf of Hollywood directors, where he was to remain for more than a decade. It’s great enough that, except for Rock Hudson, who didn’t make a very convincing Indian, everyone associated with it would be remembered even if they had never done anything else.

Just on a side note, it was seeing Winchester ’73 on a big screen (after a dozen viewings on video), that made me realize no great film can be appreciated on a television set. When the bullets hit the rocks in the famous final shootout between Stewart and Stephen McNally, I felt like the shards were knicking my cheek.

High Noon (1952)
D. Fred Zinnemann

Of the many good things that can be said for High Noon, the best thing is that it troubles hidebound souls straight across the political divide. No ideology you bring to it can survive its scrutiny, which is why so many feign boredom or derision or simply run out of the room to keep from confronting it. Its primal power has rarely been matched even in this most primal of genres.

The constant repetition of the theme song, the ticking of the endless  array of clocks, Gary Cooper’s stone face, all work to set the audience on edge (or drive them batty), as the plot keeps us invested in that most nerve-wracking of existential questions: What happens under the pressure of time that doesn’t happen any other way?

It’s the question that drove Howard Hawks, John Wayne, Louis L’Amour and other giants of the genre to distraction when they came to assess the film as Realism. That is, they, and others felt compelled to demand strictures from High Noon they rarely paid the least attention elsewhere, including much of their own best work.

I love it myself, for all those reasons and more. But it really doesn’t matter. Like the next film here (which seems to elicit similar discomfort from the tepid and the passionate alike), it needs to be confronted. Be careful, though. Like the next film on the list, If you pay too much attention it might start to work you over. You might start finding a lot of elements, like Katy Jurado’s face, that won’t let you run and hide.

Priceless exchange overheard in the men’s room by the director following the not-very-promising debut of his only western: “What does an Austrian Jew know about making a western anyway?”

Shane (1953)
D. George Stevens

Jack Shaefer’s source novel has a gem-like purity. George Stevens, with memories of Dachau still playing in his head, both toughened and expanded it without losing the story’s central iconic force. Among the more famous exchanges, including the last one between Alan Ladd’s Shane and Jack Palance’s Jack Wilson so oft-quoted elsewhere, I like this one best:

Shane: What’s your offer, Ryker?
Rufus Ryker: To you, not a thing!
Shane: That’s too bad.
Ryker: Too bad?
Shane: Yeah, you’ve lived too long. Your kind of days are over.
Ryker: My days! What about yours, gunfighter?
Shane: The difference is I know it.

The tragedy is that Ryker’s “kind of days” are never over.

Except in the valley Shane rides out of, slumped in his saddle, the dreamland where he has obliterated himself and there is no more need for his guns…or any guns at all.

The man who filmed the ashes and bones at Dachau, another man who made only one western, must have wished it could be so–and must have known it could never be.

The Man From Laramie (1955)
D. Anthony Mann

Anthony Man and Jimmy Stewart again. Each of the five westerns they made together is a masterpiece and ranking them by quality is a fool’s errand. But, after Winchester ’73, this is the one that seems to carry the most canonical weight. Stewart ratchets up his a-man-against-himself-is-a-man-against-the-world persona to Shakespearean proportions. The story and cast (exceptional: Donald Crisp, Arthur Kennedy, Aline MacMahon, Alex Nicol and the great Cathy O’Donnell who makes even the obligatory ingenue role sing) are up to the task. It’s a stranger-in-town saga (Stewart, with a secret and a purpose of course), crossed with a family drama of an aging cattle king (Crisp) reaching the time of life when he must choose between the son he has (Nicol) and the son he wishes he had (Kennedy).

Anyway, he thinks Kennedy is the son he wishes he had.

Like I said, Shakesperean. At least.

The Searchers (1956)
D. John Ford

The apex, a narrative so densely layered it can no more be plumbed than Hamlet or the Illiad or War and Peace. It’s also a hellishly entertaining Saturday Matinee western. John Wayne’s performance was one of the handful that makes awards irrelevant. The greatest American director’s greatest film. If Ford had made noirs or musicals or horror films, one of those would be the defining American genre.

He made westerns.

7 Men From Now (1956)
D. Budd Boetticher

The first of the Ranown western cycle made by Boetticher, producer Harry Joe Brown, writer Burt Kennedy, and star Randolph Scott. They are all endlessly rewatchable. At least four, including this one, Comanche Station, The Tall T, and Ride Lonesome, are masterpieces. People debate endlessly about which is best but the four are on a level where rankings are silly. I’m choosing this one because it’s first, it has an astounding performance by Gail Russell which has grown with time (and which, according to the great critic Blake Lucas, who had a good bit to do with restoring 7 Men From Now, Boetticher’s favorite of his western leading ladies, all of whom were excellent), and it’s Lee Marvin’s definitive bad guy turn.

If there had been Oscar justice, Marvin would have won for his supporting role in the same year John Wayne won for his lead in The Searchers.

Oscar ain’t about justice.

3:10 to Yuma (1958)
D. Delmer Daves

A morality/mystery/miracle play all in one, which I wrote about at length here.

I said most of what I had to say there, so I won’t pontificate. This about sums it up:

However, he got there, Daves must have recognized that 3:10 to Yuma was a chance to merge the presumably old-fashioned prestige genre with the just-about-to-be-cool one (noir) he had helped pioneer in a way that was rare, if not unique.

I say “must have” because films that are better on the eighteenth viewing than on the first don’t happen by accident.

It’s a lot more than eighteen now. And it’s better still. Glenn Ford and Van Heflin, each at their very best, give one of the top ten “dual-performances” in any Hollywood film and I doubt I need to restrict that to Hollywood.

The film’s prestige has grown sufficiently to have a Criterion release in recent years. Any list of a hundred American films that fails to include it doesn’t have my serious attention.

Avoid the pointless remake.

Rio Bravo (1959)
D. Howard Hawks

The story has been told, again and again, that Howard Hawks and John Wayne were disgusted by films like High Noon and 3:10 to Yuma, where professional lawmen seek help from amateurs. It was the seeking that disturbed them, not whether Gary Cooper failed to find a Van Heflin in his particular town. It’s our good fortune that by the time they actually made  Rio Bravo, their “answer” film, all that preaching was conveniently tabled and they just went out and made one of the all-time pure entertainments (one where it should be said Wayne’s John T. Chance is helped by amateurs whether he likes it or not–it’s okay, apparently, as long as he didn’t ask for it!). Everyone’s great, with special kudos to Angie Dickinson, Walter Brennan in what might be his defining comic role, and Claude Akins, playing that rarest of men–one with no redeeming virtues whatsoever.

The story doesn’t bear too much scrutiny measured against history or common sense. Just as a for-instance, drunks don’t dry out after a two-year bender and start shooting like Annie Oakley the next day, as Dean Martin’s Dude does here. But it works within its own miracle play assumptions and achieves its own kind of perfection.

The reason I know is that except for The Searchers, I’ve watched it more than any film here.

The Magnificent Seven (1960)
D. John Sturges

John Sturges made better westerns (more on that later)..but this is by far his most iconic and well worthy of the canon. It’s a remake of Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. You can fall short of that standard and still be damn good. The Magnificent Seven falls a bit short of that standard–and is still damn good. (Sturges said no less than Kurosawa told him so.) The story has professionals putting their lives on the line for Mexican villagers who are plagued by a band of outlaws. No doubt Howard Hawks and John Wayne approved!

Truth be told, the village scenes drag a bit and Horst Bucholz, a good actor, was a bit miscast, not so much because he doesn’t seem Mexican as because he seems urban and modern, which might just be a way of saying too European (a problem that did not extend to Yul Brynner, who according to Bucholz, was the only cast member to extend him either courtesy or respect).

But Sturges was an action master and there’s a raft of career-making performances by Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, James Coburn, Robert Vaughn. That plus the great presences of Brynner and Eli Wallach as the outlaws’ leader make this an easy watch.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)
D. John Ford

The direction of the country since its release–beginning with John Kennedy’s assassination a year later–has lifted this into competition with The Searchers as John Ford’s greatest, most prescient work. It would be great in any case. There’s definitive work from James Stewart, John Wayne, Lee Marvin, Woody Strode, Edmond O’Brien. Vera Miles gave one of the finest performances in American film. It’s also one of the great language films, the source of “Well, Pilgrim,” “Print the legend,” “You don’t own me” and much more.

And it contains the greatest line in American fiction, and the greatest line reading in American film, spoken by Miles’ Hallie Stoddard near the end:

Look at it. It was a wilderness. Now it’s a garden. Aren’t you proud?

Well, aren’t we?

Ride the High Country (1962)
D. Sam Peckinpah

Well, aren’t we?

There is almost no way to reconcile this film with Bloody Sam’s later, more famous exercises in style. It’s laconic, elegaic, sure-footed, unhurried, character-oriented, without a single false note. Here, he seems all but fated to pick up John Ford’s torch and carry it forward.

Fate, as it often does, had other plans. Peckinpah’s most famous film, The Wild Bunch, made a mere seven years later, is a lynchpin of another age, one that sought to extinguish not only all assurances but the traditions upon which they were based.

His later approach met with considerable short term success.

Whoever replaces us will get to decide what that’s worth. I don’t short The Wild Bunch‘s considerable virtues and I understand its reputation even if I don’t agree with it.

But for me, this film is worth far more.

Joel McCrea’s aging sheriff would have heard Hallie Stoddard’s question and answered: “Hell yes, I’m proud!”

But whoever was listening might have noted–might still note–that he was dying.

[NOTE: As I mentioned above, I’ll be doing another list of less well-known westerns from the same era. Give or take The Searchers, I think I can come up with a list of twenty that are just as good as what’s here, if not as iconic. Heck, I already have, and it wasn’t even hard.]

Til then….

ROMAN HOLIDAY IN THE REAR VIEW MIRROR (And Then There Was Hollywood….Fifth Rumination)

Roman Holiday (1953)
D. William Wyler

There’s a famous anecdote about the discovery of Audrey Hepburn, from the notoriously unreliable Anita Loos, which is too good not to be true.

Colette, the famous French authoress of the Gigi stories, had reportedly refused all English language requests for rights to the stories for decades until she saw Loos’s stage adaptation of her own Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. She agreed to sell the Broadway rights to Gigi if Loos would do the book. Loos signed on.

The rights were bought, Loos wrote her adaptation, the theater was booked and the cast and crew assembled. As the date for official rehearsals drew nigh, the only thing missing was an actress right for the title role. In the midst of the New York producers developing itchy scalps and premonitions of doom, Loos received a telegram from Colette that read:

Have found Gigi. Come at once.

Loos rounded up her pal Paulette Goddard (the actress who David Selznick had finally settled on for Scarlett O’Hara once upon a time, until the last second discovery of then virtually unknown Vivien Leigh altered the Cosmos) and they caught the overnight express to Paris.

When they arrived at their hotel, they were told that Colette had sent a package to their room.

In the room, they found a model’s portfolio lying on the bed. No message.

Loos thumbed through the portfolio without comment. Then she handed it to Goddard.

Goddard leafed through the pictures, put the portfolio back on the bed and said:

“Maybe she lisps or something.”

Within a few weeks Audrey Hepburn was cast for the lead in the Broadway version of Gigi.

A star was born.

Except not quite.

Hepburn won good reviews on Broadway, but with only bit film roles to her credit (her cameo in The Lavender Hill Mob is dazzling) might well have been destined for a career limited to stage stardom….except that, just as her touring obligations to Gigi were winding down, Elizabeth Taylor and Jean Simmons turned out to be unavailable for a script written by blacklisted screenwriting ace Dalton Trumbo, and William Wyler spotted her for his upcoming film, the first comedy he had done in nearly twenty years.

He called for a screen test. She passed. Gregory Peck got the male lead (which Cary Grant had turned down). They were off.

A few weeks into the shoot, Peck, who had a contract that stated only his name would appear above the title, called the producers and insisted Hepburn’s name be moved above the title as well.

It wasn’t altruism or self-deprecation, he later claimed.

He just didn’t want to look like an idiot.

Thus….a star was born.

I knew exactly none of that the first time I saw Roman Holiday.

TBS ran it after midnight when I was in college circa the very early eighties. I was then living in a studio apartment two blocks from FSU’s campus where I had learned to kill fleets of German cockroaches with my bare hands because I couldn’t always afford traps.

I could never reach the spray fast enough, and it was better than letting the nasty buggers get away.

The television was black and white. Nineteen inch.

Cable came with the rent and had maybe thirteen channels.

Roman Holiday had three and half stars in Leonard Maltin’s movie guide.

If  VHS existed, I didn’t know about it.

I was nineteen or twenty years old and didn’t know Audrey Hepburn from a stripper. Gregory Peck I’d heard of, which was more than I could say for William Wyler.

I’m setting the scene so you’l have a sense of the atmosphere in which I was struck by the lightning that struck Collette and Anita Loos and Paulette Goddard once upon a time.

I didn’t even have the defense mechanism available to Goddard.

Roman Holiday was a talkie and the talk was by Dalton Trumbo.

And Audrey Hepburn, she did not lisp.

*   *   *   *

For the next twenty-five years–until I grew old enough to understand John Ford–Roman Holiday was my favorite movie.

I only saw it half-a-dozen times, far less than I saw other movies that were nowhere near my favorite. Anyone who has seen it once might understand.

Yes, it is a comedy. But it is also an elegy and elegaic comedy is the hardest kind of comedy, not to mention the hardest kind of elegy. Even now, I’m not sure I want to examine its effects too closely. The degree to which Civilization has receded since 1980–let alone 1953–has made the final scene, a scene that made a friend of mine once declare “that’s the saddest movie I’ve ever seen,” punch even harder.

Was it really not so long ago that you could make a mainstream film introducing a breakout star (on her way to becoming a universally acknowledged icon and, less acknowledged, one of the best scene-for-scene actors in the history of film) with the expectation of an audience who understood that life, like glory, is fleeting?

Now there is no “mainstream,” hence, nowhere to for concepts like breaking out or iconography or history or film to go.

That’s the Lost World effect these days of a film that can, in production pitch terms, be described as a simple fairy tale: The Princess and the Peasant, though we’ve also traveled a distance that makes this variation–the Princess and the Newspaperman–even more far-fetched.

This is one of those rare movies that I revisit in hopes I’ll spot some way it might have taken a different turn, might have somehow come out different, knowing all the while such hopes are in vain.

I wonder if it would matter as much–hurt as much–if the social types who provide the narrative engine for Roman Holiday (or any romance, comedic or otherwise) were still recognizable in an Age when the human types barely are.

Whatever the consequences for Civilization, the consequences for story-telling have been devastating. Hard to expect individual stories to resonate when humanity itself has no narrative and, increasingly, no excuse for its own existence except consumption and excitement, the emptiest excuses us humans have so far been able to imagine.

More of everything please. That will sustain us!

Sure it will.

I think one reason Roman Holiday‘s absurdist tone and melancholy ending hit so hard in 1980 (harder as the years went by and I read the teeth-clenching reviews from the old codgers–Stanley Kaufman, David Thomson, the usual suspects–who wondered if you had to have lived through the War to really connect with it), is that I already knew the kind of stories I wanted to write weren’t going to have any agency in the world I was going to have to live in.

Looking back, I’m not surprised I was “clinically depressed” in those days and that Roman Holiday, wonderful as it was and is, only deepened that depression. It’s a bit disorienting to realize, all at once, that the world isn’t going to produce any more Audrey Hepburns, not even in the fantasy world of the movies–that we’re all doomed to live in a time and place where, one way or another, everyone lisps.

ALABAMA GOODBYE (Harper Lee, R.I.P.)

Harper Lee...Author of To Kill a Mockingbird Harper Lee, in her father's law office while visting her home town. (Photo by Donald Uhrbrock/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)

In one of the few interviews she gave for public consumption before she ducked down the rabbit hole for good, the chain-smoking, Scotch-swilling, Methodist church lady, Nelle Harper Lee said what she really wanted to be was the Jane Austen of Southern Alabama. Austen being Austen and Alabama being Alabama, she was probably therefore doomed to be misunderstood, misinterpreted, misconstrued, misrepresented and misappropriated.

Nelle being Nelle, she was also bound to let it lie.

Her one great novel was immediately hijacked by the same style of do-goodism which had long since suffocated Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to within an inch of their respective lives. What those flawed masterpieces had done for slavery–provide balm for White America’s troubled soul–To Kill a Mockingbird would do for Jim Crow. It thus entered the small library of prickly pear texts that must have all their thorns pulled by journalistic-cum-academic discourse so they can serve a higher good.

The movie, fine as it was, didn’t help. The shaded, human-scale Atticus Finch of To Kill a Mockingbird disappeared immediately under Gregory Peck’s ruggedly handsome mien, never to return, which was most of why the not-entirely-detached version of him (Atticus, not Greg) who appeared last year in Lee’s prequel/sequel) caused such an odd mixture of consternation, dismissal and “say it ain’t so.”

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The small town lawyer shouldering a necessary, not particularly welcome, burden on the page, became a hero in a western, with a lonely courtroom replacing a dusty street. Watching the movie by itself, detached from the understanding of the source which has eluded the book’s admirers as frequently as its detractors, it’s actually hard to understand what the big deal with racism is. All the good white people in the movie are on Atticus’s side, after all–the Sheriff, the Judge, Miss Maudie (turned from a salty old broad familiar to every southern childhood into a cupcake familiar to no one outside of a movie set). From Hollywood’s version, you’d think Maycomb County was run by white trash, against whom lawyers and judges and sheriffs and such stood all but helpless.

And, of course, it is that vision which has stood–so much so that lots of people who have read the book over and over still write as though they can only see the movie in their head while those who have never read the book at all insist they don’t have to because the movie and the crit-illuminati have already told them everything they need to know. In the American imagination, the black people rising in the balcony for Atticus’s “stand up MIss Jean Louise. You’re father’s passin’.” moment are forever doing so over an empty courtroom, paying an homage unseen by anyone but his children.

It made for a great visual.

In the novel, Atticus leaves first, while the white people are still there.

All of them.

So it’s undeniably an homage, yes, but also an act of defiance, one Lee was far too skilled to draw a line under.

For those who ever get around to reading what’s there, instead of what they expect to find, the whole novel is like that: quiet, skilled, defiant. Like it was written by a sharp-minded lawyer’s girl, grown to womanhood, remembering.

It was meant to take the noise out of your head, draw a circle around a particular time and place, one which Lee herself felt deserved to be remembered.

She feared it wouldn’t be and not without reason.

It was vanishing as she spoke, in the sixties, though it could still be glimpsed when I moved to North Florida (a hundred and fifty miles from Lee’s hometown of Monroeville, with a state line between, and one county over, minus the state line, from where her father grew up). Within a decade of my arrival, the old black man who drove his mule-cart through town weekdays and the old white men who sat around in overalls and spat tobacco in the shade above the tiered-stone sidewalks in front of the drugstore nobody called a pharmacy would be gone from everything but memory.

For better and worse, that small town south, with it’s old men and soda fountains and lynching trees, has its own place in the American imagination. It’s a place that would not be nearly as well defined–for better or worse–if the Jane Austen of Southern Alabama had not captured it so well.

Believe me. I’m from here. My being born on Florida’s rocket-launching Space Coast was a fluke. Before that, my small-town southern roots went back a long way on both sides (on my father’s side, to the founding, of Tennessee anyway), and, once I was brought back, at thirteen, I never left. The world imagined by our famous Goths–Faulkner, O’Connor, Williams, McCullers–is hardly untrue. But it isn’t all there is. If anybody not from here wants to feel what it was once like–for better and worse–to actually live here, it’s Harper Lee’s novel that will tell you quicker than anything I know.

That might not be much of an achievement next to driving a spike in Jim Crow’s temple, which she also did. But it was what she set out to do, and, if she happened to become part of some grander design along the way, I’m no less grateful for small favors.

As to why she never wrote another book, I recommend Charles Sheilds’ fine biography, Mockingbird, which will likely remain definitive, for this and other insights. I’ll also state that I tend to disagree with his well-researched and delicately nuanced conclusions (which involve the usual sound reasons: an aversion to fame, a loss of confidence, deaths in her publishing team etc.).

One of the other things that happened when I moved to North Florida is that my father became a home missionary, responsible, among other things, for ministering to prisons, jails, reform schools and mental homes throughout the panhandle, which, in Florida, is where the state tends to build such things.

I did not go into a lot of “yards” with him. Just enough to know what the air in prison is like.

Let’s just say I do not consider it entirely coincidental that Nelle and her even more sensitive childhood friend, Truman Capote, were, even before TKAM was published, already collaborating on In Cold Blood.

He’d take credit for that….and, at least sometimes, To Kill a Mockingbird, too.

Most likely it was closer to being the other way around (Shields is very convincing on this score).

Either way, neither wrote anything of note again.

I don’t find that surprising.

Breathe prison air for more than five minutes and you learn one thing.

It isn’t only murderers who leave their souls on death row.

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Wherever she is now, enjoying her earned peace, I hope she’s found what she lost.

And that they have a better class of critics there.

STIRRING THE POT ONE LAST TIME (WHAT WE SHOULD EXPECT FROM CRITICS…BUT WILL NEVER GET)

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(Mary Badham and Harper Lee on the set of To Kill a Mockingbird)

I’ve been reading To Kill A Mockingbird for forty years and tracking lit-crit theory on it for thirty. I’ve read volumes of praise and damnation in about equal measure. I’ve read what is likely to be Lee’s definitive biography (by Charles Shields and quite good). I’ve seen the movie ten or twelve times, most recently a couple of weeks back in Birmingham’s restored movie palace, the Alabama Theater, with an enthusiastic full house on Father’s Day.

I’ve read reams of speculation about Lee’s personal life, numerous theories on why the book is so popular and its author so reticent, seen the relevant documentaries about book, film and Lee herself.

I’ve read an awful lot about why she never published again (until this week, of course), including her own theories, which were mostly what you’d expect (pressure of expectations, nowhere to go but down, etc.) and mostly interesting because, even coming from her, they were clearly never more than theories.

One thing I’ve never read is anything remotely intelligent about the book itself.

That lack of intelligence–the willingness to let emotion rule every single mindset, for or against, over half a century, bridging every conceivable cultural or political divide–is par for the course when an enormously popular, era-defining book touches the Race Nerve.

If you can’t explain it, put gauze on it. Kick the can down the road. That’s the American way.

It happened with Uncle Tom’s Cabin (better to fight one of history’s bloodiest wars than get at the root of the problem). It happened with Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (which was finally bound to be turned into a tract for Good-Liberals-Who-Love-Them-Some-Negroes-and-Rednecks, no matter how many times Huck sold Jim down the river). It happened with Gone With the Wind (an insider’s thorough damnation of Confederate folly which naturally became the lasting touchstone for Lost Cause nostalgia).

And it happened, most intensely of all, with To Kill a Mockingbird, a warning shot across the bow of the then-ascending Civil Rights movement. That movement crested with a series of legal victories that had begun with Brown vs. Board of Education, several years before Lee took an editor’s advice/command to heart and started revising the book now being released (Go Set a Watchman), and would end with Lyndon Johnson signing a Voting Rights Act and a Civil Rights Act which, between them, amounted to the Federal Government’s century-in-coming solemn promise to finally start enforcing the Fourteenth Amendment.

It’s a measure of both our collective reading comprehension and how little we expect of ourselves that Atticus Finch came to be regarded (by worshippers and skeptics alike) as “saintly.” Evidently, the mere presence of a conscience is enough to give a man such qualities, because the Atticus of the book certainly possesses no others that could be called extraordinary and, despite some previous reservations, after having finally seen the movie the way it was meant to be seen, I have to say, neither does Gregory Peck’s film Atticus.

It’s true that Peck’s Atticus is loftier than Lee’s original conception. He’s Gregory Peck. How could he not be? But the nuance he brought to the role is a lot more evident when his face is writ larger than life. Make him thirty feet tall and the human element emerges. The movie is, in every respect then, excellent. There’s a reason I’ve watched it a lot. A reason I was willing to drive five hours to finally see it the right way.

But the movie still misses the book’s essence. Narratively, it doesn’t change anything vital, but, in pursuing a necessarily streamlined narrative, it does leave something else out.

What it leaves out was defined in another context before the sixties were done.

What it leaves out are hearts and minds.

It’s hard to change the law, Harper Lee essentially said, over and over, as she gave matchless dimension to the small town Alabama she meant, in her own words, “to be the Jane Austen of.”

It’s a lot harder to change people.

That message went missing from fifty years of snark and praise.

It’s still missing.

Fifty million people read her “children’s book.” A few hundred literati took occasion, year by year, to sneer at it for its “obviousness” and simple-mindedness.

But I keep wondering.

If it was all so obvious and all so simple, how was it we failed so thoroughly to look under its New Testament message and heed its Old Testament warning?

I have no idea whether an aging, infirm Harper Lee knew what she was about when she approved the release of Go Set a Watchman (with what all the folks who misread the first novel for half a century are assuring us is a very different Atticus). I ordered the book today so I’ll find out soon enough whether it’s worth writing about.

But whatever its worth is, it won’t change the long-misidentified import of Mockingbird itself.

Fifty years ago, Harper Lee had a better handle on the future than any of her celebrated southern colleagues who have Library of America volumes dedicated to them.

Despite the disappointment she later expressed over the failure of the Civil Rights era to finally do much more than put yet another band aid on America’s festering wound, (a failure some of her friends have speculated was perhaps another reason for her writer’s block), she wasn’t really Atticus, looking up from his paper for a moment and wondering aloud if maybe some day we’d get it right, if maybe the trial he’d lost was a small stepping stone in the right direction.

She knew better.

She knew Atticus hadn’t changed a thing.

Then, of course, she had an advantage. Believe it or not, the writer always does.

She already knew the Atticus of Go Set a Watchman, a fact that seems to have been lost in the “what’s-this-now!” hornet’s nest the book’s fifty-something-years-in-coming release has now stirred up as we sit and watch some more cities burn.

And which kind of hornet’s nest might that be?

Oh, you know.

The kind the chain-smoking, whiskey-drinking, church-going Methodist lady from Monroeville always did such a fine job of avoiding herself.

What else are you gonna do, when you’re surrounded by the very fools who set the world on fire just so they could watch it burn?

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…Okay, I better quit now. Before I get all emotional.