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Tag Archives: James Arness

The Thing (From Another World) (April 27, 1951)

The Thing
The Thing (From Another World) (1951)
Directed by Christian Nyby
RKO Radio Pictures / Winchester Pictures

I’m probably one of the few people my age who fell in love with the original version of The Thing before seeing John Carpenter’s 1982 version. Back in high school, I’d watch any piece of 1950s sci-fi schlock at least once, but The Thing (From Another World) was far from schlock, and I watched my VHS copy at least six or seven times when I was a teenager, maybe more.

In fact, I loved The Thing so much that I didn’t really like John Carpenter’s remake the first time I watched it. I loved the optimistic, capable characters in the original and all their rapid-fire, overlapping dialogue, and I found Carpenter’s version pessimistic and depressing. However, like most of Carpenter’s films from the ’70s and ’80s, The Thing gets better every time I watch it, and it’s now easily one of my favorite sci-fi/horror films.

Revisiting the original version of The Thing was a strange experience, at least for the first 20 minutes. I hadn’t seen it in a long time, and Carpenter’s version has in many ways replaced it in my heart.

Once you’ve seen the innovative, gory special effects of Carpenter’s version, it’s hard to go back to James Arness in a bald cap, spacesuit, and claw hands. The 1951 version also lacks the central idea of a shape-shifting alien who can mimic human form, so there isn’t the same level of paranoia, which is a huge part of Carpenter’s version.

arness

After the first couple of reels, however, I settled back into the rhythm of the original and enjoyed it as much as I always did. It’s a completely different movie from Carpenter’s version, and what it does, it does brilliantly. It may not have much in the way of paranoia, but it’s a suspenseful film that establishes a real sense of isolation and claustrophobia.

One thing that struck me on this viewing of The Thing is how much of its gruesomeness and horror is dependent on the viewer’s imagination. Descriptions of things like a plant-based alien-humanoid who lives on blood or scientists hanging upside down with their throats slashed are only referred to in dialogue. This probably played better for audiences weaned on radio dramas, and I’m not sure how well it will hold up for younger viewers accustomed to explicit shocks. On the other hand, the decision of the filmmakers to keep the alien monster mostly off-screen has dated the film well.

The Thing holds up as superior entertainment that is head and shoulders above most ’50s sci-fi movies. The cast is full of actors who never became household names, but they deliver deft character work and seem like real people. What the film lacks in budget it more than makes up for with an intelligent script and tight pacing. It’s a terrific movie that I can watch over and over, and it still feels fresh.

flying-saucer

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Wagon Master (April 19, 1950)

Wagon Master

Wagon Master (1950)
Directed by John Ford
Argosy Pictures / RKO Radio Pictures

I have mixed feelings about John Ford.

I absolutely love some of his films, and consider them masterpieces, but he also made a lot of films that I’m not crazy about even though every other classic film fan seems to revere them, like She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949).

After watching Wagon Master, which was the western that Ford directed after She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, I’m beginning to think that my expectations might play some role. (In between these two westerns, Ford directed the comedy When Willie Comes Marching Home, which I haven’t seen.)

High expectations and the reverence of others can sometimes make a film tough to enjoy. I thought that She Wore a Yellow Ribbon was stunningly photographed, and I liked some of the performances, but overall I found it poorly paced, historically inaccurate, and unbearably sentimental. I also really didn’t like John Wayne’s performance. I love it when the Duke plays variations on himself, but whenever he plays a “character” I find it hard to watch. His role as Nathan Brittles in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon isn’t as bad as when he played Genghis Khan in The Conqueror (1956), but I still found his “old man” schtick disingenuous and poorly acted.

Johnson and Bond

Wagon Master, on the other hand, is a film almost no one ever talks about. When I sat down to watch it, I had no expectations, nor anyone else’s reverence to contend with.

I really enjoyed it. I thought it was a poetic and leisurely paced western that I’d love to see again some day. Unlike Ford’s last two westerns, which were both shot in Technicolor, Wagon Master is shot in black and white. (At least until the 1960s, I think I prefer my westerns in black and white.)

In Wagon Master, Ben Johnson and Harry Carey Jr., who both had supporting roles in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, play a pair of horse traders named Travis and Sandy.

They’re approached by a group of Mormons who are led by a recent convert to the faith, Elder Wiggs (Ward Bond), whose constant struggle to not use profanity is a running joke in the film. The group of Mormons are heading west through desolate stretches and need experienced range riders like Travis and Sandy to guide them. The Mormons plan to found a settlement and begin growing crops so a much larger group of their brethren will be able to join them in their promised land a year later.

The range is full of dangers, including human ones, who come in the form of the murderous Clegg gang. They’re led by Uncle Shiloh Clegg (Charles Kemper). If you pay close attention you’ll spot future Gunsmoke star James Arness as another member of the gang, Floyd Clegg.

Kemper and Arness

The Clegg gang is menacing, but there are also friendly strangers who join the wagon train along their journey — a drunken snake-oil salesman named Dr. A. Locksley Hall (Alan Mowbray) and his two female companions, Fleuretty Phyffe (Ruth Clifford) and Denver (Joanne Dru).

Perhaps if I were to proclaim Wagon Master a masterpiece, it would collapse under the weight of my approbation. But I thoroughly enjoyed it, and thought it was a beautifully made film that unfolds at a perfect pace.

I especially enjoyed seeing Ben Johnson come into his own as an actor. The Oklahoma-born Johnson was a ranch hand and rodeo rider in real life, and he’s convincing and charismatic in this role. I liked his supporting role in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, but he carries the film here, and emerges as a great western star. He has no false bravado or unrealistic heroics, and even decides against pulling his gun at several times when the audience might expect him to.

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.

The Farmer’s Daughter (March 25, 1947)

H.C. Potter’s The Farmer’s Daughter has a title that makes it sound as if it might be an extended dirty joke that also involves a traveling salesman, but it’s not. It’s a funny, romantic, and inspiring film about a young woman whose life takes a very different direction than the one she expected it to take when she left home for the big city.

Katrin Holstrom (Loretta Young) lives on a farm in “Redwing County” with her Swedish father and mother (Harry Shannon and Anna Q. Nilsson) and her three brothers, Peter (James Arness), Olaf (Lex Barker), and Sven (Keith Andes). She goes to Capital City (a thinly veiled Chicago) to pursue a nursing degree, but an unscrupulous “friend” of her family named Adolph (Rhys Williams) weasels all of her money out of her and she’s left penniless.

She takes a job as a maid in the palatial home of Agatha Morley (Ethel Barrymore), a grand dame and behind-the-scenes political figure whose son, Glenn Morley (Joseph Cotten), is a congressman. When asked about her qualifications, Katrin tells Ethel that at home, she makes six beds every morning, does the washing and ironing for her three brothers, herself, and mama and papa, cleans all seven rooms and does dishes, helps mama with the canning — preserves, meat, eggs, dill pickles, smoked ham, and bacon — waits on tables (40 hands at harvest time), and makes glögg at Christmas. And that’s just what she does indoors. Outdoors, she plows with a horse and tractor, hoes potatoes, shucks wheat, milks cows, beds horses, butchers pigs, kills and dresses chickens, and cuts wood for both mill and stove.

She’s hired.

She doesn’t mention that she also give back-cracking, limb-twisting, lung-emptying Swedish massages, which she does for Glenn while he’s recovering after falling through the ice while skating with her.

Katrin is also a whip-smart young woman who speaks her mind as easily as she breathes. During a party for political bigwigs at the Morley home, where Katrin is serving drinks, a congressman named Wilbur Johnson (Thurston Hall) says it’s too bad Katrin has only just moved to town, because a vote from a pretty girl like her would have made his victory complete. She responds, “Oh, I’m sorry, sir, if I could have voted, I wouldn’t have voted for you.” He’s taken aback, but her Swedish-accented, lilting, matter-of-fact delivery leaves him speechless.

After the party, Glenn asks Katrin why she doesn’t like congressman Johnson, and she says it’s because he opposes a higher minimum wage. She agrees with Johnson that people should be responsible for themselves, but she believes in a living wage. When Glenn asks her what she means, she responds, “A living wage depends on whether you’re getting it or giving it.”

After Katrin stands up at a political rally and poses a series of hard questions to the Morleys’ candidate, Anders J. Finley (Art Baker), including a number of very specific questions about his record that show she’s done her homework, the opposition party asks her if she’d like to run against Finley for a seat in Congress.

Katrin’s no-nonsense, can-do, take-charge attitude takes her as far in politics as it did back on the farm, but her opposition to the Morleys’ candidate threatens the budding romance between her and Glenn. It also drives her back to her family farm in despair after a vicious smear campaign is launched against her.

As with most political movies, the film is careful not to offend anyone by getting too deeply into hot-button issues. It’s also not very nuanced. By the end of the film, Finley has gone from being a condescending chauvinist to a figure of pure evil who is in league with both gangsters and home-grown fascists.

But The Farmer’s Daughter still manages to be a very funny and occasionally sharp political satire. The script by Allen Rivkin and Laura Kerr is wonderful, and the actors all play their parts to perfection. Ethel Barrymore conveys much without even speaking, and Charles Bickford is especially good as the Morley’s crusty old butler, Joseph Clancy.

Loretta Young was the surprise winner of the Oscar for best actress at the 20th Academy Awards for her role in this film. (Rosalind Russell had been heavily favored for her performance in Mourning Becomes Electra.) I can’t compare Young’s performance to any of the other women who were nominated, because I haven’t seen their films yet, but I think her win was well-deserved. Katrin Holstrom, with her blond hair tied up in coiled buns and her Swedish accent, could have easily been a caricature, but Young imbues her with so much liveliness and depth that I fell in love with her, and was rooting for her all the way.

The Farmer’s Daughter has a light touch, and is very funny, but it’s still an inspiring film. Remember that when it was made, women had only had the right to vote at the national level for slightly more than 25 years, and only 41 women had served in the United States Congress.

It might not be the best movie I’ve seen so far this year, but it is the funniest, warmest, and most moving. Wait … maybe it is the best movie I’ve seen so far this year.