Favorite Movies: Rio Bravo and El Dorado

Ricky Nelson, John Wayne, and Dean Martin in Rio Bravo (1959)

Over a period of eight years, director Howard Hawks filmed virtually the same story twice—both films starring John Wayne—with the only differences being some minor script changes and a different set of supporting actors. The films were Rio Bravo (1959) and El Dorado (1967). Interestingly, both films hold up pretty well today.

Both films were a reaction to Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon (1952), in which Sheriff Gary Cooper tries and fails to enlist the help of his fellow townspeople in fending off an attack of several bad guys seeking vengeance for having jailed several of them. In contrast, John Wayne turns away several offers of help in the Hawks pictures and beats the bad guys anyway. Both times, the sheriff is under attack by wealthy ranchers who bring in hired guns to assist them.

Here are the major cast differences:

  • John Wayne plays himself in both pictures, though in El Dorado, he is a gunfighter assisting his friend, the sheriff, played by Robert Mitchum.
  • Dean Martin plays the drunk lawman in Rio Bravo; Robert Mitchum, in El Dorado.
  • The young gun is played, respectively, by Ricky Nelson and James Caan, in his first major role.
  • The female lead is played, respectively, by Angie Dickinson and Charlene Holt.
  • The deputy comic sidekick is played, respectively, by Walter Brennan and Arthur Hunnicutt.

John Wayne and James Caan in El Dorado (1967)

I just saw Rio Bravo again for the nth time yesterday afternoon. I will summarize it here because it is fresh in my memory. John Wayne and Dean Martin arrest Claude Akins for shooting an unarmed man. Unfortunately, scapegrace though he is, he is the brother of powerful rancher John Russell, who is determined to spring him before the U.S. marshal comes to town in six days. He besieges the jailhouse with his men and orders the musicians in his saloon to play El Deguëllo nonstop. This was a bugle call played by Santa Anna’s Mexican troops during the 1836 siege of the Alamo. Eventually, Russell’s men manage to kidnap Dean Martin. Wayne arranges for an exchange of Martin for Akins at a warehouse at the edge of town. The good guys prevail.

There is a third Howard Hawks film with a similar story, Rio Lobo (1970), which was the director’s last film. Although I love Hawks’s works, this is one you can skip.

 

 

Favorite Films: Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973)

Kris Kristofferson as Billy the Kid and James Coburn as Pat Garrett

Film is an art form that involves the work of teams of people: producers, directors, writers, crew, and actors. As a result, virtually no film is perfect. That is particularly the case when directors like Sam Peckinpah are at odds with studio heads like MGM’s James Aubrey. Aubrey didn’t give Peckinpah anywhere near the resources he requested, partly because his attention was turned to completing the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas.

And yet Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (PG&BK) is a wonderful film. It is certainly a violent one: Martine left the theater at the Autry Center about a half hour into the film. There is a lot of swearing, a number of characters die bloody deaths; and yet … there are scenes of such beauty that one rarely encounters. I am thinking particularly when Slim Pickens as Sheriff Baker is gut-shot, and his wife, played by the splendid Katy Jurado, throws away her rifle and follows him to the side of a pond where he has gone to die. In the background, the lovely song “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” is playing.

The sound track is by none other than Bob Dylan, who wrote and performed all the music—and who also had a minor part in the cast, playing the part of Alias. (It is quite evident that Dylan never acted before, but the film is great enough to encompass a host of minor flaws.)

PG&BK plays with the whole Billy the Kid legend. James Coburn as Pat Garrett is the unwitting tool of the Santa Fe politicians, led by General Lew Wallace, author of the novel Ben Hur. In the past, Billy the Kid (Kris Kristofferson) had been a lawman, and Pat Garrett the outlaw. Now the roles have been reversed.

Martine Going Down the Stairs at the Lincoln County, NM Courthouse Which Billy the Kid Used to Escape

In June, Martine and I visited the town of Lincoln, New Mexico. Pat Garrett was the sheriff of Lincoln County. Peckinpah did a wonderful job of recreating the courthouse room where Billy was held prisoner and guarded by deputies J. W. Bell and Bob Olinger, both of whom were shot during his escape. In the photo above, Martine is obscuring with her left shoulder a bullet hole which Billy may have created when he shot his way out of captivity.

There is a strange quality to PG&BK. It seems as if Billy and Pat spend most of the film avoiding each other. Only at the end does Pat seem to feel pushed to catch up with his old pal Billy at Fort Sumner and kill him. Even there, there is a certain delicacy on his part as he waits for Billy to finish making love to Maria (played by Kristofferson’s wife, Rita Coolidge) before making his presence known and killing him.

 

Westerns Then and Now

Harry Carey Jr and John Wayne in The Searchers (1956)

The Westerns have been with us since the very beginning of motion pictures: The Great Train Robbery (1903) by Edwin S. Porter was shot in the un-Western-like setting of New Jersey. Within little more than a decade, William S. Hart was turning out reasonably good Westerns which he shot at Inceville, near Santa Ynez Canyon. And in 1917, John Ford did his first oater starring Harry Carey Sr, Straight Shooting. The remainder of the silent period saw a number of stars, including Tom Mix and Hoot Gibson, with Hart and Carey continuing their careers.

It was in 1939 with John Ford’s Stagecoach that the first great sound period for the Western began. Until his death in 1979, the Western was almost synonymous with The Duke. But there was also Henry Fonda as Wyatt Earp in My Darling Clementine (1946), with Victor Mature as Doc Holliday.

Henry Fonda as Wyatt Earp in My Darling Clementine (1946)

The real glory days of the Western came in the 1950s. Not only was John Ford still active, but there were great series directed by Budd Boetticher (Decision at Sundown, 1957) and starring Randolph Scott and by Anthony Mann starring Jimmy Stewart (Bend in the River, 1q952).

The great period of the Film Western was illuminated by the bit of dialog from Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962):

Ransom Stoddard: You’re not going to use the story, Mr. Scott?
Maxwell Scott:  No, sir. This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.

Beginning in the 1970s, Hollywood lost sight of the legend. The Westerns were being demythologized by new filmmakers up from television. There were few real heroes, and a lot of scruffy, violent guys with beards. I suppose that Clint Eastwood was the new Western hero paradigm. Although I enjoyed his films, they were not up to the standard set by William S. Hart, John Ford, Sam Peckinpah, Budd Boetticher, and Anthony Mann.

 

Garryowen

Charles Schreyvogel’s “A Sharp Encounter”

There are many stories braided into the history of the American West. There were the settlers, the outlaws, the railroads, the Chinese, the Mexicans—and there were the Indians in their battle against the U.S. Army. I have just finished reading Robert M. Utley’s Frontier Regulars: The United States Army and the Indian 1866-1891 (New York: Macmillan, 1973). According to Utley, there were “more than 1,000 combat actions, involving 2,000 military casualties and almost 6,000 Indian casualties.”

And yet, most of us know about the Indian wars from a handful of Hollywood Westerns, such as Raoul Walsh’s They Died with Their Boots On (about Custer) and John Ford’s Cavalry Trilogy: Fort Apache, Rio Grande, and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (about the Apache wars). In most of these films, we heard the military bands playing “Garryowen,” which was adopted by Custer for his Seventh Cavalry.

From Ford’s films, one would naturally assume that most of the cavalrymen were either Irish or unreconstructed Johnny Rebs. In fact, far more of them were black. Several entire regiments consisted of 100% black enlisted men—and, of course, 100% white officers. (In all fairness, John Ford covered the subject in his little-known Western Sergeant Rutledge.)

Frederic Remington Photo of Black 10th Cavalry Troopers

The Black Troopers, popularly known as Buffalo Soldiers, had a distinguished history, which, today, is largely forgotten. They were every bit as brave as the White troopers, and they were more likely to re-enlist.

If you want to see depictions of the U.S. Army in the West, I recommend to look at the photos and paintings of Frederick Remington and the paintings of Charles Schreyvogel.

John Wayne Never Fought Them

Old Photo of Jemez Pueblo Architecture

The Indians we know most about are the ones that appeared in the old Westerns: The Navajo, Apaches, Comanches, and Sioux. There are some twenty Indian tribes in New Mexico and Arizona that, insofar as I know, never appeared in any. John Wayne never fought them, nor did Randolph Scott or Jimmy Stewart or Audie Murphy. I am referring to the Pueblo Indians, most of which are located around Albuquerque and Santa Fe, New Mexico.

We know that the Navajo, Apaches, Comanches, and Sioux have been warlike. But did you know that the only successful Indian revolt against Western colonization was fought by an alliance of Pueblos in 1680. It was not until twelve years later that the Spanish reconquered the territory, but even then with difficulty. Many of the most warlike Pueblos simply united with the Hopis and Navajos.

I have just finished reading The Pueblo Revolt: The Secret Rebellion That Drove the Spaniards Out of the Southwest by David Roberts (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004). The key word in the title is “secret.” To this day, the Pueblos do not choose to discuss the conflict—even one that occurred over four centuries ago. Consequently, most people do not know about it.

Pueblo Revolt Scene Painted on a Hide

Why the secrecy? I think it is a cultural trait. Years ago, Martine and I spent the night on the Zuñi Reservation at a time when most of the town and surrounding areas were off limits to non-Zuñis because some tourist had misbehaved at a ceremonial in the distant past. One cannot just waltz into a Puebloan reservation and have the run of the place. You will be referred to the tribal authorities, who most likely will ignore your request as a matter of course. It’s not that they are unfriendly: For them survival involves buttoning their lips, even if it involves a 450-year-old secret that just happens to be none of your beeswax.

Favorite Films: Stagecoach (1939)

The First Shot of John Wayne in John Ford’s Stagecoach

The First Shot of John Wayne as the Ringo Kid in John Ford’s Stagecoach

Until John Ford filmed Stagecoach in 1939, the Western was in sad shape as a genre. There was a lot of galloping horses chasing other galloping horses. In one fell swoop, Ford opened up the Western. For starters, it was the first Western to take advantage of the stunning scenery of Monument Valley on the Arizona/Utah border. The Indians in the picture were real Indians—even if they were Navahos playing Chiricahua Apaches.

Although it was John Wayne’s first major release, it was by no means a John Wayne vehicle: Rather, it was an an ensemble production (see poster below) in which Claire Trevor received top billing as a prostitute driven out of the town of Tonto by the forces of morality. At roughly equial billing were Thomas Mitchell as a boozy physician; George Bancroft as a sheriff; Andy Devine as the stagecoach driver; John Carradine as the gambler Hatfield; Louise Lasser as the pregnant wife of a U.S. Cavalry officer; Berton Churchill as an obnoxious banker; and Donald Meek as a, well, meek whisky salesman.

Stagecoach is a film that is always in motion, even when the scene moves indoors. Ford plays one character off against the other. Their stage ride to Lordsburg takes them through an area where Geronimo, having broken out of the reservation, is attacking ranches and preventing the stagecoach from having a reliable Cavalry escort.

Poster Emphasizing the Ensemble Acting in Stagecoach

Poster Emphasizing the Ensemble Acting in Stagecoach

The Apache attack on the stagecoach contains some of the most outstanding (and dangerous) stunt work to appear in a Western. At one point, stuntman Yakima Canutt, dressed as an Indian, jumps on the lead horse of the coach’s team, is shot by John Wayne, and falls under the team and under the wheels of the coach, being dragged by the lead horse for several feet before letting go. The chances for such a shot to end in tragedy are almost overwhelming.

In the end, the film leaves me with the impression of all the legendary elements of the Western in a single film: Cavalry, Indians, gunfights, thieves, Mexicans, and—above all—the wide-open spaces of Monument Valley.

This is a great film; John Ford is a great (if not the greatest) film director; and, together with Samurai films, Westerns are my favorite film genre. That’s a pretty formidable combo.