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Monthly Archives: May 2014

The Golden Stallion (Nov. 15, 1949)

The Golden Stallion
The Golden Stallion (1949)
Directed by William Witney
Republic Pictures

Of the more than 70 oaters that starred Roy Rogers, Dale Evans, and Trigger (the smartest horse in the movies), The Golden Stallion is the best known by today’s film geeks.

The reason for this is an article published in the September 15, 2000, issue of the NY Times called “Whoa, Trigger! Auteur Alert!”, in which Quentin Tarantino waxed rhapsodic about the films of William Witney.

I remember reading the article when it was first published and being immensely pleased. The writer of the piece accurately called Witney “a now all-but-forgotten journeyman director,” but I’ve been a fan of his serials since I was in high school. I watched a lot of serials when I was younger, and it was hard not to notice that the cream of the crop all bore his name as director. Along with his frequent co-director, John English, Witney made one memorable Republic serial after another, like Drums of Fu Manchu (1940), Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941), Jungle Girl (1941), Spy Smasher (1942), The Crimson Ghost (1946), and others too numerous to list here.

In the postwar era the market for serials started to dry up, and Witney turned to making westerns for Republic Pictures, including many with Roy Rogers. Tarantino loves what Witney did with Rogers’s films during this period.

“After their first few movies together,” Tarantino said, “Witney had gotten Roy out of his fringe-and-sparkle attire and was dressing him in normal attire, blue jeans and stuff. They stopped being these crazy musicals. He turned them into rough, tough violent adventures.”

Golden Stallion lobby card

Tarantino is absolutely right. Witney was an old hand at directing knock-down drag-out fistfights in serials, and he brought this experience to his features with Roy Rogers.

The best fight I’ve seen in a Roy Rogers film that Witney directed is probably the one in Bells of San Angelo (1947), but all of their collaborations had plenty of action, and The Golden Stallion is no exception. What I found most impressive about The Golden Stallion were not any of the fight scenes, but rather the scenes of Trigger galloping at the head of a herd of wild horses. These sequence appear to have been filmed from a jeep, and they’re full of speed and drama.

So is The Golden Stallion — as Tarantino claims — the best film that Witney and Rogers made together?

That’s hard for me to say, because their films were of such a consistent level of quality (for better and for worse). Like all of their other films, The Golden Stallion had a low budget, a tight shooting schedule, and hokey humor. But it has a better-than-average plot (about a gang smuggling uncut diamonds over the border hidden in horseshoes nailed to the hooves of wild horses), a great scene where Roy has to make an enormous sacrifice to save Trigger’s life, and some really beautiful filmmaking.

If you like B westerns — especially if you like B westerns with singing cowboys — you really can’t go wrong with any of the Roy Rogers films that Witney directed. But if you’re unsure about B westerns and you want to see just one, check out The Golden Stallion. Just make sure you watch the full version, which is 67 minutes long. There’s a truncated version that’s less than an hour long currently on YouTube, but the full color version is available to stream if you’re an Amazon Prime member.

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Battleground (Nov. 9, 1949)

Battleground
Battleground (1949)
Directed by William A. Wellman
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

A lot of reviews of Battleground claim it was the first World War II movie to portray servicemen as fully human characters who experience fear and doubt, and not just as inspirational patriotic figures.

Whoever thinks this has probably not seen very many World War II movies made between 1941 and 1945. While Americans have never been great at understanding our enemies, we have always been good at exploring the vulnerability, fears, and doubts that our own soldiers experience in combat. Everything from Stephen Crane’s novel The Red Badge of Courage (1895) to Lewis Milestone’s film version of All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) presented nuanced views of men under fire.

During World War II, Hollywood films about the war tended to lionize servicemen and depict America’s involvement as vitally necessary, but the better ones, like Mervyn LeRoy’s Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944) (with script by Dalton Trumbo), were also great human dramas.

I think the most significant antecedents to Battleground were two other films about men in the infantry: The Story of G.I. Joe (1945) and A Walk in the Sun (1945).

A Walk in the Sun was directed by Lewis Milestone, the man who directed All Quiet on the Western Front. It attempts to depict the mind of the American infantryman, through both dialogue and rambling internal monologues (a technique Terrence Malick would later use in The Thin Red Line). In keeping with the POV of the soldiers, the viewer is kept mostly in the dark about the larger significance of the violence, which punctuates the film in terrifying and confusing bursts.

The Story of G.I. Joe starred Burgess Meredith as embedded combat reporter Ernie Pyle and co-starred Robert Mitchum as the commanding officer of Company C, 18th Infantry. It was directed by William A. Wellman, the man who directed Battleground. Just like Battleground, the scenes of violence were swift and brutal, but the focus for most of the film was on the infantrymen themselves, and the boredom, extreme physical discomfort, and drudgery punctuated by fear that everyone who serves in combat experiences. Also like Battleground, most of the extras in The Story of G.I. Joe were actual soldiers who had served in combat.

Johnson and Hodiak

The big studios dumped most of their existing war movies in theaters not long after V-E Day and V-J Day in 1945, rightly assuming that the public had little interest in war movies once the war was over. In the few years that followed, plenty of movies dealt with veterans’ homecomings (The Best Years of Our Lives, released in 1946, was the finest of these films), but I’m hard pressed to think of any American films from this period that directly dealt with the experience of combat. The only one I can think of is Mervyn LeRoy’s Homecoming (1948), but all of the fighting in that film was just the backdrop for a passionate and illicit romance between Clark Gable and Lana Turner.

So Battleground was unique in that it was a return to films about World War II that focused on the combat experience. Producer Dore Schary brought the project with him to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer when he left RKO Radio Pictures. It was a passion project for him, and he really had to fight to get it to the screen, since MGM head Louis B. Mayer believed that the public was still tired of war films.

Schary’s persistence paid off. His tribute to the “battered bastards of Bastogne” was a huge hit with audiences, and was nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director. (It took home two Oscars, one for Best Story and Screenplay, and one for Best Cinematography, Black & White.)

As I said earlier, Battleground is firmly in the tradition of humanistic portraits of ordinary soldiers like The Story of G.I. Joe and A Walk in the Sun, but it does go further than any films made during World War II depicting how scared many ordinary infantrymen really were, and how strongly they could desire to be far, far away from the fighting.

One character in Battleground is counting the days until he rotates out of the Army, and is furious when he’s told that they’re surrounded by the Germans, and he’s not going anywhere. But typically of the film, he steels his courage and eventually manages to make jokes about how the Germans are committing war crimes by shooting at him, a civilian. Another character has a full set of false teeth, which he loses and then tries to be given medical leave for a few days. (That character is played by Douglas Fowley, who really did lose his teeth in an explosion while serving on an aircraft carrier in the Pacific.)

At one point in the film, two soldiers retreat and have to leave behind a wounded man, who hides himself from the Germans by crawling under the wreck of a jeep and covering himself with snow. The film never depicts any of the men’s acts as cowardly; they are badly outnumbered, and doing anything else would have been suicide for all of them.

The Oscar-winning screenplay of Battleground was written by Robert Pirosh, who served as a master sergeant with the 35th Infantry Division during the Battle of the Bulge. Pirosh based his script partly on his own experiences, but the film details the exploits of the 327th Glider Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division, so Lt. Col. Harry Kinnard, who had been the deputy divisional commander of the 101st at Bastogne, served as technical advisor. More than a dozen veterans of the 101st appeared as extras in the film and worked with the actors to ensure accuracy. (The film is relatively accurate except for a plot about German soldiers moving through the lines who are disguised as Allied soldiers, but this can be forgiven in the interest of creating suspense and tension. It is, after all, “only a movie.”)

SPAM

The actors are all great, and many of them had actually served in combat. James Whitmore, who plays Sgt. Kinnie and was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for the role, served in the Marine Corps in World War II. James Arness, who would go on to star in the 20-year run of Gunsmoke on TV, has a small role in the film, and was the most decorated soldier among the cast. (Arness was severely wounded at Anzio, and received the Bronze Star, the Purple Heart, the World War II Victory Medal, the Combat Infantryman Badge, and the European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with three bronze battle stars.)

Consequently, Battleground is one of the most authentic World War II movies you will ever see, even though it might not seem that way to a viewer who has been weaned on the bloody CGI horrors of 21st-century war movies. However, if you’re conversant in the language of film, and can read what is being written on and off the screen, there’s one sequence that’s as brutal as anything you’ll ever see in a war film. Our heroes are surprised by German troops and in a fast-moving sequence, Ricardo Montalban rips a German soldier’s throat out with his teeth, Van Johnson stabs a German soldier to death with his bayonet, and John Hodiak bashes in the skull of a German soldier with the stock of his rifle.

I’ve read reviews of Battleground that refer to it as an “anti-war film.” I don’t know if this point of view springs from Steven Spielberg’s ridiculous assertion, made around the time that the philosophically incoherent Saving Private Ryan (1998) was released, that “every war movie, good or bad, is an anti-war movie,” but it couldn’t be further from the truth.

Although very few Hollywood films can simply be called “pro-war” films, a truly “anti-war” film would have to condemn any kind of armed conflict and celebrate pacifism as a viable and noble alternative. A truly “anti-war” film could not depict death and destruction in a highly aestheticized way, like Apocalypse Now (1979). And it could not celebrate the value of brotherhood under fire, as do Saving Private Ryan and Black Hawk Down (2001). No film that celebrates soldiers nobly putting their lives on the line for the greater good can ever be called an “anti-war movie,” any more than The Passion of the Christ (2004) can by called an “anti-crucifixion movie.”

I’m not condemning Battleground because it’s not an anti-war movie. I even thought the short, moving scene in which an Army chaplain explains why he thinks America’s involvement in the war is vitally necessary was one of the best bits of the movie.

But today is Memorial Day, and I think it’s worth considering, as we honor the sacrifice of people who laid down their lives overseas, that no war movie can ever replicate the experience of combat. No matter how realistic, the viewer is watching from a position of safety. And every war film is a tale told by survivors. The dead no longer have a voice.

All the King’s Men (Nov. 8, 1949)

All the King's Men
All the King’s Men (1949)
Directed by Robert Rossen
Columbia Pictures

Director Robert Rossen’s film adaptation of Robert Penn Warren’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel All the King’s Men was a big winner at the Oscars in 1950.

With seven nominations and three wins, All the King’s Men just trailed behind William Wyler’s The Heiress (an adaptation of Henry James’s 1880 novel Washington Square), which had eight nominations and four wins.

At the 22nd Academy Awards, All the King’s Men was nominated for Best Motion Picture, Best Director (Robert Rossen), Best Actor (Broderick Crawford), Best Supporting Actor (John Ireland), Best Supporting Actress (Mercedes McCambridge), Best Screenplay (Robert Rossen), and Best Film Editing (Robert Parrish and Al Clark).

It took home the awards for Best Motion Picture, Best Actor for Crawford, and Best Supporting Actress for McCambridge.

Broderick Crawford

These were huge wins for both actors. Broderick Crawford had appeared in a lot of movies, but probably hadn’t made a big impression on the movie-going public. Prior to All the King’s Men his biggest acting success had been playing Lennie in Of Mice and Men on Broadway, but when the film version was made in 1939, he was passed up for the role and Lon Chaney, Jr., was cast instead.

Mercedes McCambridge was an accomplished radio performer who did a lot of work on the air with Orson Welles, but this was her first appearance in a film. Not too shabby!

Rossen did a lot of work as a screenwriter before making All the King’s Men, but it was only the third film he directed. The first two films he directed were Johnny O’Clock (1947), which not very many people saw, and Body and Soul (1947), which was a hit with both critics and audiences.

All the King’s Men was an even bigger success than Body and Soul. In the 1950s, Rossen had trouble with HUAC, eventually “named names,” and continued directing films, but it would be a long time before he would make another widely acclaimed film (The Hustler, with Paul Newman, in 1961).

Just as Citizen Kane was a thinly veiled gloss on the life and career of William Randolph Hearst, All the King’s Men is a thinly veiled gloss on the life and career of Louisiana politician Huey Long.

Huey Long was Governor of Louisiana from 1928 to 1932 and a U.S. Senator from 1932 until his death in 1935. He was a political operator who could turn wild dreams into massive public projects, he was a passionate advocate of wealth redistribution, and he was a divisive figure.

The film twists and amplifies Long’s legacy for dramatic effect, but enough of the details are close enough that speaking the name “Huey Long” was forbidden on the set.

Rally

As Willie Stark, Broderick Crawford doesn’t attempt a Southern drawl, but it’s probably better that way. I didn’t even think about the way Crawford was speaking while I was watching the movie. His performance is raw and powerful, and is the perfect mix of bonhomie, sincerity, menace, and naked ambition. Through the eyes of reporter Jack Burden (John Ireland) we see Willie Stark transform from an honest but inexperienced politician to a canny operator in charge of an enormous political machine.

Unlike Citizen Kane, which is one of the most highly stylized films ever made, Rossen and his cinematographer, Burnett Guffey, shot All the King’s Men in a naturalistic fashion. It’s mostly shot in real locations (which are occasionally very drab) and employs a lot of non-actors (a.k.a. “real people”) in small parts. The only really over-the-top visuals occur at Willie Stark’s political rallies, which often take place at night and are full of torches and rows of jackbooted police officers, which makes the rallies resemble the Nuremberg Rally.

I especially liked some of the casting choices. Dark-haired pretty boy John Derek plays Willie Stark’s son, college football star Tom Stark. He is oddly mirrored by Walter Burke as “Sugar Boy,” Willie Stark’s nefarious bodyguard. Derek and Burke have similar bone structure and coloring, but while Derek is handsome and charming, Burke is reptilian and creepy.

All the King’s Men is far from being a docudrama about American politics, but its over-the-top tale of ambition perverted by corruption is still relevant.

Border Incident (Oct. 28, 1949)

Border Incident
Border Incident (1949)
Directed by Anthony Mann
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

If you think that Mexico-U.S. border security and illegal immigration are relatively new issues, check out Anthony Mann’s Border Incident. Watching it today, it’s remarkable how familiar the social and political backdrop feels.

Border Incident is a fictional film, but it’s a composite of actual cases. It begins with the stentorian narration that opened nearly every docudrama from the 1940s, and explains how important migrant labor from Mexico is to the U.S. agricultural industry. The narrator goes on to say that while the vast majority of Mexican farm workers play by the rules, wait their turn, and arrive in the United States with working papers, some go through back channels and slip across the border in order to work illegally.

In Border Incident, Mexican and U.S. law-enforcement agencies join forces not to combat illegal immigration but to protect illegal immigrants who are being victimized in the lawless borderlands. (Police officers going undercover to protect illegal immigrants was also the subject of Joseph Wambaugh’s 1984 nonfiction book Lines and Shadows, which I highly recommend.)

The police officers on the front line of the operation are Pablo Rodriguez (Ricardo Montalban) and Jack Bearnes (George Murphy). Pablo and Jack have worked together before and have an easy friendship, but they don’t get much time together onscreen in Border Incident.

George Murphy

Jack goes undercover as an American fugitive looking to flee the country and cozies up to the vicious leader of the gang who are robbing and killing illegal immigrants. The gang’s leader is named Owen Parkson and he’s played with understated relish by dependable heavy Howard Da Silva. (And speaking of dependable heavies, the great Charles McGraw is also on hand as one of Parkson’s lieutenants.)

Meanwhile, Pablo goes undercover as a migrant laborer looking to put himself at the mercy of the human traffickers who transport desperate men in dangerous and cramped conditions. Will his soft hands give him away? You’ll just have to watch the movie to find out.

Mitchell and Montalban

Border Incident was one of the last films Anthony Mann made with cinematographer John Alton. Earlier in their careers, Mann and Alton made two of the most visually innovative noirs of all time; T-Men (1947) and Raw Deal (1948).

I didn’t find Border Incident quite as involving as either T-Men or Raw Deal, but visually it’s every bit the equal of those films, maybe even better. It’s full of deep-focus photography that frames two people’s faces — one in the foreground and one in the background — in a way that dials up the tension and paranoia. Day-for-night shooting rarely looks good, but Alton makes it work in Border Incident, which is replete with stunning desert landscapes that are dominated by jagged mountains and that have a sense of claustrophobia despite taking place outdoors.

While Border Incident doesn’t have any of the “We don’t need no steenking batches” types of Mexican caricatures, aside from Montalban’s protagonist, the Mexican characters don’t have much depth. And it’s odd that a film with so much authenticity would cast an Anglo actor, James Mitchell, as the second most prominent Mexican character. (If you’re a fan of soap operas, you might know Mitchell as Palmer Cortlandt on All My Children.)

Minor quibbles aside, however, Border Incident is a top-notch entry in the film noir docudrama genre. It’s a tough, tense, violent film that features extremely impressive cinematography and continually mounting tension. It also made me wonder what Orson Welles’s masterpiece Touch of Evil (1958) would have been like if Ricardo Montalban (an actual Mexican) had been cast in the lead role instead of Charlton Heston (a fake Mexican).