“They Went That-a-way” Pt.1

Later today Sony Movie Channel is showing The Man From Colorado with Glenn Ford and William Holden.  Had to set my DVR to “record”, because this is the first flick I saw in America, at a theater in Times Square.  Only a day or two off the boat, we were bound for Colorado in just a few days.  Given its title, I suppose my folks were hoping to learn something about our impending new home from this movie.  Kinda doubt they learned much, but it’s worth remembering that in 1949 Colorado was considered remote and even exotic.  Goes to show you how a few ski areas can louse a place up.

In his intro, Ben Mankiewicz, the affable and urbane host of Turner Classic Movies, says movies are in his blood, that the flicker of a film is like a heartbeat.  I know how he feels, and have felt the same way for as long as I can remember.  Ben, given his job, devotes his attention–and affection–to all of classic moviedom.  Me, I tend to lean in the direction of Westerns.  Not all of them, by any means, just those that are good and memorable (in my not-so-humble opinion).

The Searchers, directed by John Ford and starring John Wayne, is considered by many to be the best Western ever made.  Wayne certainly considered it his best, but Ford (a four-time Oscar winner) was his usual cryptic self.  Personally, I was a member of the best-ever club for years, but lately I’ve begun to hedge somewhat, drifting in favor of….

Shane, with Alan Ladd and Van Heflin, was filmed in Grand Teton National Park in the days before the arrival of jet airliners and Dick Cheney.  I remember my folks took us to see Shane at the East Drive-In out in Aurora, way out past the streetlights, and maybe even the pavement back then.  I remember because my dog had been shot that afternoon,  and a night at the drive-in was the best they could do to make up for it.  There’s a stunning scene in Shane where Jack Palance guns a man down in a muddy street, followed by a mournful funeral on a windswept hillside.  Could be that’s the reason the movie is growing in my estimation, that funeral in the sagebrush.  The director, George Stevens (in his one and only Western), shows us a brilliant sky cut by the sharks teeth of the Teton Range, the dead man’s dog whining over the coffin.  Pretty heavy going, but then he somehow caught those kids playing with the foal, oblivious to the nearby burial of an adult.  A brief glimpse of humor, until Stevens cuts away to Ben Johnson sitting on a bench in front of Grafton’s saloon, his face a mask of remorse and regret.

And then there’s Red River, what some wag (probably Bosley Crowther in the New York Times), called “Mutiny On The Bounty on horseback”.  The best of the “cattle drive” school (until Lonesome Dove) has John Wayne made to look older than his actual years, playing a man driven to the edge by the prospect of losing a lifetime’s work unless he can get his cattle to market.  As he becomes more Bligh-like (and murderous), his adopted son takes the herd (instead of his ship) and sets him adrift on the prairie (instead of the ocean).  Clift’s character is a soft-hearted gunfighter–a character flaw his rival (John Ireland in a memorable turn as a rattlesnake ready to coil at a moment’s notice) tells him is likely to get him killed–this when Clift wounds, instead of killing, a hapless cowboy who caused a stampede.  Stampedes, by the way, are an essential ingredient of “cattle drive” epics.  Apparently Texas Longhorns can be set off by the fluttering of a butterfly’s wings.

That’s it for Pt. 1 of “They Went That-a-way”.  Other parts will follow, but not all at once.  Not everyone’s as interested in cowboy movies as yours truly.