Archive for the ‘Westerns’ Category

“Wagon Master” (1950)

March 6, 2014

Shot in between the final two installments of his famous “Cavalry Trilogy,” John Ford’s Wagon Master is a piece of personal filmmaking which expresses its director’s sensibility just as purely as Mean Streets reflected the young Scorsese. Adamantly not a “significant” work and devoid of any A-list stars, it was shot on a budget that was probably strained by the cast’s bologna sandwiches, yet it represents the zenith of Ford’s optimism. It remains one of the most satisfying films in his body of work, a road movie that moves at 5 mph, whose pliant laidback vibe, closeness to nature, and menagerie of offbeat characters make it a cousin to Renoir’s A Day in the Country and Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller.

The story follows a wagon train of Mormon settlers as they journey to a distant river valley; along the way they hire a pair of exuberant young horse-traders as guides, rescue a dissolute medicine-show troupe, share an evening’s entertainment with a band of Navajo, and cope with a gang of degenerate outlaws. On paper that may look like a lot, perhaps even too much. But plot takes a backseat in Wagon Master, which instead focuses on such intangible pleasures as mood, time of day, the interplay of dust and sunlight, and the stirring sight of man and horse moving as one over the mesas of Monument Valley. Nothing is forced or rushed, and one comes away from it dwelling not on its moments of confrontation or violence (indeed, it’s pacifist to the core of its soul), but on the myriad small delights that give it flavor: the way a young, almost absurdly appealing Ben Johnson flips a poker chip into a shot glass without moving in his chair, the now reassuring, now spectral tones of the Sons of the Pioneers on the soundtrack, the communal shadings of an impromptu square dance, or the moment when the camera turns away from a large-scale river crossing, content instead to follow a colt picking its way on its spindly legs up the steep bank. People will always have their reasons to criticize John Ford—for his occasionally shabby treatment of Native Americans, or the broad Irish shenanigans shoehorned into some of his movies—but the low-key lyricism of Wagon Master reveals its creator at his most generous and alive.




Ken Curtis Does Tom Blog

September 4, 2012

All Gone

July 8, 2012

Hold That Position

May 26, 2012

I was just watching pieces of Taxi Driver, in particular the quiet hero scene just after the massacre, and while usually all I do there is wonder if Jodie Foster’s father is supposed to sound like Jimmy Stewart, this time I froze the frame and read the newspaper clippings hanging on Travis’ wall. They describe the shootout exactly as we see it—Travis really is considered a hero for entering a building and blowing away almost everyone he meets in there—but the grafs identifying his victims refer to Harvey Keitel’s character as “Charlie Rain” instead of Matthew or Sport, which makes him a liar on top of the only white pimp in New York City. And when it wouldn’t quit ringing a bell, I remembered that “Charles Rane” is also the name of William Devane’s character in Rolling Thunder, Paul Schrader’s other script about a vengeance-minded veteran from that era.

Oddly enough, the only other nugget I recall ever gleaning from freeze-framing a movie came in The Searchers, a movie that’s practically Taxi Driver’s grandfather. For those who haven’t seen it—and I know for a fact at least a few of you haven’t—movie-buffs have been arguing for half a century about the exact motives of John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards, a bitter racist with some unexpectedly tender corners in his character. (If you haven’t seen it, just trust me and order the Blu-Ray today, for no movie ever looked better than this one. In fact, it’s the best possible argument there is, not just for John Wayne movies, but for Monument Valley, Technicolor, fleet horses, and the infinite genius of John Ford’s eye for composition; from the opening shot it looks like one of the most beautiful paintings you’re ever going to see. I’ll go so far as to say that if you have a problem with the movie itself, let me know and I’ll pay you for the disc. Just don’t expect me to ever speak to you again.)

Anyway…I digress! In the scene where little Debbie hides from the Comanches out by “Grandma’s” grave, we catch a quick glimpse of the tombstone:





MAY 12, 1852



Now, when I say a “quick glimpse”, I mean exactly that: you have all of one frame, two at the most, before Debbie runs into the scene and crouches down in front of the epitaph—nowhere near enough time to read and absorb the information that’s written there. Knowing that Indians killed Ethan’s mother 16 years before the start of the movie goes a long way towards explaining his ringing hatred for them, but Ford, being Ford, and loathing pedestrian a=a kind of motivations, did what he could to obscure the connection. He did the same thing at the end when he cut a crucial line from Frank Nugent’s script—“You sure do favor your mother”—just before Ethan spares Debbie’s life, instead relying on his audience to remember a series of important moments early in the picture.

Anyway, I’m very proud to have this trivia at my fingertips. Now if some fine day I can only get onto Jeopardy

William S. Hart in “Hell’s Hinges”

October 7, 2011

The Ten Commandments, High Plains Drifter, Taxi Driver, Titanic, There Will Be Blood—they all owe something to this bad-ass motherfucker.

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