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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
09/13/02 -- Vol. 21, No. 11
Table of Contents
Best Western (film comments by Mark R. Leeper):
The last couple of weeks I wrote some of my thoughts about on western stories, movies, and just the legend of the American West in general. Today most people who come in contact with the mythos of the Old West do so through the movies. Different people seem to have different ideas as to what are the great Western movies. The Westerns listed below are the ones I have enjoyed the most. I list them in alphabetical order. There will be some surprised that none came from luminaries like Sergio Leone, John Ford, or Howard Hawks. I don't have a single John Wayne movie on my list. But then there can only be five films in the top five and this is a VERY subjective list.
THE BIG COUNTRY: This is one of the most gloriously over-blown Technicolor Westerns of the 1950s. William Wyler directs the story of a range war going on between two old enemies, played by Burl Ives (in an Oscar-winning performance) and by Charles Bickford. Into the battle comes a new element, Gregory Peck, a former sea-captain who came west to marry Bickford's daughter. Almost immediately on his arrival Peck is tested for where he will stand in the (very obviously important) macho pecking order. When he refuses to play that game he is assumed to be a coward, especially by the jealous top hand played by Charlton Heston. (Heston nearly refused the part figuring it would hurt his career to take a supporting role, but he was convinced it would be a good idea to work with Wyler. Wyler's next film was BEN HUR.) The film is beautifully held together by what has become a classic musical score by Jerome Moross. It is interesting that such a big film is a fairly accurate rendition of a relatively modest novel. The novel is by Donald Hamilton, best known for a series of spy novels.
HIGH NOON: This is just about the antithesis of THE BIG COUNTRY. HIGH NOON is a modest, short little Western shot in black and white. It comes very close to having been shot and edited so the story proceeds in real time. It is Will Kane's wedding day and the last day of his tenure as town marshall. A killer Kane sent to prison returns to this town that Kane has often risked his life to protect. Not one person is both willing and able to stand with Kane against the killer and Kane comes to question the values he has sacrificed so much to protect. Even Kane's Quaker wife wants him to run rather than participate in violence. Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly star. The film was directed by Fred Zinnemann who later directed a great film with some interesting parallels, A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS.
THE JAYHAWKERS: This film seems to have been inspired by the career of Napoleon Boneparte and by the last part of Joseph Conrad's THE HEART OF DARKNESS. I have been told that it is a film popular only in France, but for once I agree with French taste. In the years of chaos before the Civil War, a convict (played by Fess Parker) is sent by the U.S. Government to kill the would-be founder and emperor of a new country to be carved from Kansas. Instead the would-be assassin falls under the spell of his grandly ambitious quarry. Jeff Chandler plays the enigmatic and hypnotic Luke Darcy, at once ruthless, grand, and benevolent. This film also has a score by Jerome Moross, though much of the score became more familiar when it was recycled as the main theme of the TV show "Wagon Train." Parker is usually watchable, but Chandler turns in a really charismatic performance.
THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN: John Sturgis's remake of Akira Kurosawa's SEVEN SAMURAI is more fun for Americans if for no other reason than that one does not have the language barrier. Seven gunfighters, working nearly pro bono, ride to fight off a large outlaw band who preys on a Mexican village. The characters are more interesting than the plot. Steve McQueen, Yul Brynner, and Charles Bronson are in fine form, but the show (among other things) is stolen by Eli Wallach who gives a terrific performance as the personable bandito Calvera. (Wallach nearly turned down this, which is probably his greatest role. He complained to his wife he would have one scene at the beginning and then not turn up until the middle of the film. She told him he was nuts. He may not show up, but through the whole film he is the reason everybody is doing what they do.)
THE OUTLAW JOSIE WALES: This film was all set to be directed by Philip Kaufman (who later directed THE RIGHT STUFF) but Eastwood decided to direct it himself. It was a good choice and he probably made it his best Western. While most Eastwood films to this point were action driven, this one is character driven with a collection of strange, but not unlikable people. Most memorable is a great performance by Chief Dan George. The film also delves into the meaning of being a gunfighter. Wales goes from being a man of peace to having his humanity stripped away and becoming a soulless killer. Then he slowly allows his humanity to return. There are several good bits in the film, but the final scene is classic and one I tend to replay in my memory over and over. [-mrl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: Life being what it is, one dreams of revenge. -- Toulouse-Lautrec
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