Union Pacific (1939)

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First time I’ve discarded aces for a queen! President Lincoln signed off on the 1862 Pacific Railroad Act to authorise pushing the Union Pacific Railroad west across the wilderness toward California. However now that Lincoln is dead financial opportunist Asa Barrows (Henry Kolker) hopes to profit from obstructing it. Chief troubleshooter Jeff Butler (Joel McCrea) has his hands full fighting Barrows’ agent the gambler Sid Campeau (the wonderfully devilish Brian Donlevy). Campeau’s partner veteran Dick Allen (Robert Preston) is Jeff’s war buddy and rival suitor for Irish rail engineer’s daughter Molly Monahan (Barbara Stanwyck). Who will survive the effort to push the railroad through at any cost? And who will win Molly? Cecil B. DeMille’s rousing, sprawling western was in the vanguard of historical tales bringing together the rival attempts at forming a national history – and this all culminates at Promontory Point Utah when Leland Stanford drove a ceremonial spike to unite this with the Central Pacific Railroad in 1869. Filled with great starry performances this is history on a human scale. Despite Stanwyck’s typical luminosity and McCrea’s decency and likeability,  it’s probably Preston who comes off best, even photographically, in his showy role. Filled with fighting, shooting, murder, building and dismantling, Indian attacks, drinking, gambling, love and death, with one killing from the window of a train that is shocking to this day, this is truly a film for the ages. A splendid, zesty example of the power of classical Hollywood. Written by Walter DeLeon, Jack Cunningham and C. Gardner Sullivan, adapting Ernest Haycox’ novel Troubleshooter. This is the first ever winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes – awarded in 2002 due to the debut Festival’s cancellation following the outbreak of WW2!

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Buffalo Bill (1944)

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They were all my friends. William ‘Buffalo Bill’ Cody (Joel McCrea) is the legendary hunter and scout who rescues Senator Federici (Moroni Olsen) and his daughter Louisa (Maureen O’Hara). They fall in love and marry and Louisa bears him a son, named for Kit Carson. Bill becomes good friends with Yellow Hand (Anthony Quinn), chief of the Cheyenne but Bill is forced by a collection of businessmen, politicians and the Army to fight them – a fight he doesn’t want. Writer Ned Buntline (Thomas Mitchell) immortalises his escapades and when he arrives in Washington is stunned that even little kids know who he is. When he receives distressing news of his baby son’s illness he blames his wife for their coming East and leaves her while his political disagreements become newspaper fodder. He is basically destitute until he’s offered work in a Wild West show … This more or less fictionalised biography is told with customary efficiency and verve from Twentieth-Century Fox with a screenplay by Clements Ripley, Aeneas MacKenzie, John Francis Larkin, Frank Winch and Cecile Kramer. It’s an absorbing yarn, shot in gorgeous Technicolor and moving like quickfire and has interesting touches, such as Dawn Starlight (Linda Darnell) trying on Louisa’s ‘white woman’ clothes for size and of course the marvellous action scenes, expertly choreographed.  Directed beautifully by ‘Wild’ Bill Wellman who is under-remembered now but is the subject of a great big new coffee table book which I am anticipating under the Christmas tree. Just sayin’!

The Naked Jungle (1954)

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I’ll go a long way to see an ant movie but this is only worth it if you’re feeling in the mood for a masochistic melodrama with a two-mile-wide by twenty-mile-long column of bugs at the tail end. Eleanor Parker is the proxy mail order bride who fetches up on Charlton Heston’s South American cocoa plantation at the turn of the century but he doesn’t much like her and takes agin her when he realises she’s a widow. He hasn’t really been there or done that way out in the Amazon jungle so she has him at something of a disadvantage. Some torrid and rather suggestive arguments lead him to send her back to N’Oleans but their gallop upriver is halted by the insects, he greases up to burn them out and she sleeps through the worst of it. Golly, they sure don’t make them like this any more! Based on a story by Carl Stephenson this was adapted by Ranald MacDougall and blacklistees Ben Maddow and Philip Yordan, directed by Byron Haskin and produced by George Pal. This was released March 3rd 1954 so it’s practically an anniversary screening. Personally I prefer Them! and Phase IV. Oh my heaving bosom!

Jeremiah Johnson (1972)

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The wilderness is the location chosen by the titular character to recover from what we would call PTSD nowadays as Robert Redford has had a bad war in Mexico and needs time away from everything. He lives in the Rocky Mountains, keeping himself in food by trapping and enduring a horrendous winter, resorting to fishing by hand from mountain streams. He finds a rifle in a dead man’s hands, meets Bear Claw (Will Geer) who mentors him, and has repeated encounters with Paints-His Shirt-Red (Joaquin Martinez) from the Crow tribe. He takes in a boy he names Caleb (Josh Albee) whose mother has gone mad, then rescues Gue (Stefan Gierasch) who’s buried up to his neck in sand by the Blackfeet, then he marries into the Flatheads to save his own. He’s pressured to lead US troops to a wagon train of settlers through burial ground and is seen:  he returns to find his squaw and Caleb murdered and he takes revenge… The biography of Liver-Eating Johnson  and a book called Mountain Man were adapted by John Milius in a project originally intended for Sam Peckinpah with Lee Marvin replaced by Clint Eastwood. Eastwood and Peckinpah did not get along, so it was acquired for Redford, who persuaded Sydney Pollack to come on board to direct – they had worked together well on This Property Is Condemned. Pollack was a meddler with writers;  Edward Anhalt and David Rayfiel did rewrites but Milius was brought back, repeatedly, to do the dialogue, for which he had such an uncanny ear. If you want to know how Milius got his reputation, watch this. The budget was so constrained that Pollack mortgaged his home to get through production, an arduous seven-month shoot in Utah, Redford’s adopted home. Weather conditions meant more than one take was rarely possible. The changing seasons are beautifully captured by Duke Callaghan, in this splendidly judged, humane, funny, touching piece of work. Redford turns in a very well honed performance and the ensemble are brilliant. Quite the best wilderness film you’ll see, probably, with a marvellous soundtrack composed by actors Tim McIntire and John Rubinstein.

River of No Return (1954)

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Marilyn Monroe didn’t want to make this. Director Otto Preminger didn’t want to direct it. They both had contracts to fulfill at Twentieth Century Fox under Darryl F. Zanuck and he brooked no opposition. Monroe believed she was better than the material but weirdly had no confidence in her acting abilities – she wanted a coach at all times;  paradoxically DFZ had more belief than she did. She wanted to be taken seriously, he thought Cinemascope and Technicolor showed her to great advantage. We see both sides of this argument. There was trouble on set but Mitchum knew Monroe through her first husband during WW2 so he at least was a friend. She has several songs – one forgets that she sang so much in her films.She’s a saloon singer whose fiance Rory Calhoun wants to make good on a gold claim that’s not his and he leaves her with settler Mitchum and his young son, with whom he’s been reunited, who knew her from the mining camp. Indians burn them out and they take off on a raft downriver to find the welshing no-good  SOB and MM fibs about her intentions and just might know more about Mitchum than she’s letting on …Monroe’s costumes and makeup were a source of concern (but boy does she fill a pair of Levis) and she looks ill at ease in the big dialogue scenes but holds her own despite the ludicrous enunciation which drama coach Nathasha Lytess insisted upon and hurts her performance:  Preminger was shooting wide and didn’t break up the shots. Some of them are plain odd. The more you look at Monroe’s filmography the more you realise how narrow her roles were and even as Fox’s biggest moneymaker she was refused a Star dressing room. Just what did she do to deserve that?

Drums Across the River (1954)

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Audie Murphy and pop Walter Brennan are living a pretty decent life until smiley-faced Lyle Bettger decides to make some money by fomenting a war with the local Ute tribe to open up their lands and mine some gold. Audie’s got an Unreasonable Hate as his pop tells him because a young Ute brave killed his mama. Now there are bigger things at stake so he sorts out a peace deal with the tribe only for Bettger to renege on his word – as villains always do. It’s the hanging block for Audie when he’s wrongly accused of a heinous crime, all to get his pop from the gang’s clutches. There’s some gorgeous scenery at Barton Flats in the San Bernardino Mountains with Mara Corday providing a little bit of romance. Directed by noted art director Nathan Juran.

A Ticket to Tomahawk (1950)

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There were musical comedy Westerns prior to Blazing Saddles and this was one of them. Co-written by Anita Loos’ niece Mary with director Richard Sale, it’s a total hoot from start to finish. Dan Dailey plays travelling salesman Johnny Behind-the-Deuces who inadvertently gets mixed up in a war between a stagecoach proprietor and a train company to get the contract to open up the town of Tomahawk in the Colorado Territory in 1876. He winds up as the train’s first passenger, corralled by Anne Baxter as the cowboy sharpshooter Kit Dodge, looking after her grandpa’s business. She’s seduced by the attractive Rory Calhoun as Dakota, a spy in the ranks, whom Johnny suspects and Pawnee her Indian friend despises. They pick up a Sextet of four ‘ladies’ who perform with Madame Adelaide as a song and dance troupe, including Marilyn Monroe in their number. Madame uses Kit’s preferred gun-oriented language to teach her how to look better. Between ambushes, an Indian war party and double-dealing, there’s a whole lotta gunfire and barbed remarks traded en route to Tomahawk:  at one point, the train has to be taken apart and carried piece by piece. The ‘ladies’ polish it back to shiny perfection while Dakota shows his hand, Johnny proves pretty useful with weapons himself and persuades Kit not to marry him and they of course wind up together at the end:  there’s a cute bit when their daughters are given the real names of the actresses playing the (ironic but appositely christened!) sextet … Curiously, Monroe doesn’t ‘pop’ off the screen at this time (even in her song with Dailey), any more than she did in the other dozen or so early films like this that she did for Fox. David Thomson says her face was ‘blank and pursed’ and she was the ‘archetypal forlorn starlet.’ Perhaps. But not for long. Really good fun and a diversion from Westminster’s extraordinary Week of the Long Knives!

The Law and Jake Wade (1958)

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This was one of a handful of westerns directed by John Sturges and it’s up there with his best. Working from a tight screenplay by William Bowers (adapting a novel by Marvin Albert), Robert Taylor plays the reformed outlaw turned marshal whose old Civil War buddy (Richard Widmark) turns up to find a stash of money they robbed back when the law was something quite different. Henry Silva does his usual stuff as a smiley-scary-faced baddy, Bones from Star Trek gets offed, Patricia Owens impresses as Jake’s feisty sweetheart, there are terrific set piece shootouts in a ghost town and the cinematography by Robert Surtees is just superb: watch Jake on his white horse looming out of the town at night … Excellent stuff. And for minutiae addicts, Sturges did uncredited work for Robert Parrish on Taylor’s other western that year, Saddle the Wind, in which he also essayed a reformed outlaw… Bowers also wrote those brilliant westerns The Gunfighter and Support Your Local Sheriff. It’s a living.