Richard Widmark was one of the principal Western actors. He appeared in 19 examples of our noble genre from 1948 to 1988. Of slight build, with blond hair, and at well under six foot, he didn’t have the obvious physique for a Western lead, and he wasn’t the sort of matinée idol that women viewers would have swooned over when he was in his prime. I mean Victor Mature he wasn’t. But he was a superlative actor and, especially in my view as a bad guy, he could be magnificent in oaters.
He wasn’t always. His Western career was a bit front-loaded: he started brilliantly as the ruthless Doc Holliday-ish bad guy in Yellow Sky and followed that with a whole series of fine performances in some excellent pictures. He was one of the adventurers (with Gary Cooper and Cameron Mitchell) in Garden of Evil; the angry son of Spencer Tracy in Broken Lance; he led for the first time in Backlash; he was very strong as Comanche Tod in The Last Wagon; The Law and Jake Wade with Robert Taylor was splendid; and he finished the glorious decade with his Johnny Gannon in Warlock, technically top-billed though really playing second fiddle to Henry Fonda. It was a seriously impressive start, and all six of his first Westerns are part of the canon. He was directed by William A Wellman, Henry Hathaway, Edward Dmytryk, Delmer Daves, John Sturges and Dmytryk again. No wonder the movies were good.
But his later career was not quite so glittering. He was unhappy on the set of John Wayne’s The Alamo, and it was a ponderous picture, then he joined the famous John Ford but only for Ford’s last and weakest pictures, when the great man had lost his mojo, Two Rode Together and Cheyenne Autumn. Alvarez Kelly with William Holden was not the greatest Western, The Way West was a major big-budget epic but was poorly directed and written and turned out to be a plodding picture and a flop. Death of a Gunfighter was an only moderately successful late-60s Western, when the genre had lost its magic, and Widmark’s last Westerns, TV movies, were very average to say the least in some cases. I think that if he’d stopped after Warlock he would be remembered as one of the truly great Western actors. As it is, he has some superb oaters to his credit but also some, well, less stunning ones.
I don’t care. Widmark is worth watching even in the bad ones.
The early days
Born in Minnesota in 1914, Widmark grew up loving the movies and was a particular fan of Tom Mix. He was intelligent and studious and shone at oratory at school and planned a legal career. But the acting bug bit (he was a great admirer of Spencer Tracy). He moved to New York and worked in radio, doing very well and earning financial stability. He appeared on Broadway in 1943, was refused war service because of a perforated eardrum, and was talent-spotted by Fox, winning a seven-year contract in 1946. His first major part was as the giggling psychopath Tommy Udo in the studio’s 1947 noir crime drama Kiss of Death, directed by Hathaway, for which Widmark was nominated for Best Supporting Actor Oscar. He was now, in his mid-30s, a star.
His first Western
The following year (and what a great year for our genre 1948 was) he had a crack at a Western. Fox put him in the William Wellman-directed black & white noirish oater Yellow Sky, with Gregory Peck and Anne Baxter in a ghost town. Widmark was an Easterner who had difficulty in mastering some of the Western essentials, such as riding, and as the picture was shot in Death Valley, where gila monsters and scorpions were common in the 120° heat, it must have been something of a shock to the urban-noir actor. Widmark’s character of Dude, the consumptive, frock-coated gambler member of Gregory Peck’s gang, was really memorable. He played the baddies’ baddy: as Peck’s character of Stretch Dawson moves slowly towards goodiness, Dude moves the other way, becoming more and more ruthless and vicious. It was a superb performance. His delivery is spare and harsh. “Never mind the girl. Where’s the gold?”
With Hathaway in Mexico
For the next six years Widmark built his stature as a fine actor in other genres, directed by some of Hollywood’s most glittering names. But in 1954 he came back to the Western for Garden of Evil. He wasn’t yet considered as Western lead but he was definitely a draw in a supporting role, and this time it wasn’t Peck who led but, aahh, Gary Cooper. And it was Hathaway again. Widmark hadn’t got on well with Hathaway on Kiss of Death (Hathaway thought him unsuited to the part, wrongly as it turned out) but this picture seems to have gone OK in that regard. Widmark was a tinhorn gambler again, probably referencing his part in Yellow Sky, but he is less vicious. There’s excellent repartee between Widmark’s and Coop’s characters, the first garrulous, the other a classic taciturn Westerner, and in fact the two actors hot it off also off the set. Widmark dies again, but this time heroically, sacrificing himself to save Coop and Susan Hayward. It’s a fine film due in no small part to Widmark’s contribution.
Myself, I’m not the greatest fan of Broken Lance, released a month after Garden of Evil, and I find much of it an over-talky family saga, but there’s no doubting it’s an ‘important’ Western. It gave Widmark a chance to play with his great hero as an actor, Spencer Tracy, though for me Tracy never really shone in Westerns (except in Bad Day at Black Rock but many don’t think of that as a Western). Robert Wagner as Tracy’s son Joe got most of the screen time while Widmark played another son, Ben, who is argumentative, sneering and bitter – and it’s hard to come off as sympathetic when playing a character like that. He dies again, but not well this time.
Widmark now left Fox, taking on his own projects, and they didn’t include Westerns for another couple of years, until in March 1956 Backlash was released by Universal. Finally, he topped the billing in an oater. It had good production values (though perhaps not quite the ones his first three Westerns had had), it had a strong cast of Western character actors and furthermore it had Westernmeister John Sturges directing. It’s a revenge plot (among other strands) with Widmark as the psychologically hurt Jim Slater seeking out the bad guy who left him and his family to die at the hands of Apaches. He also has an on-again, off-again romance with Donna Reed. The picture has its weaknesses (it’s not Sturges’s best) but it also has its strengths, among them Widmark, whom Variety described as “tough and mean”. Widmark never played an out-and-out goody in a Western. Even when he was the hero he was damaged goods, or bitter, or had “a past”.
A really classy Western
Later that year it was back to Fox (though not under contract) for The Last Wagon, directed by the highly talented Delmer Daves. In this one Widmark is Comanche Todd, a white man who once lived with the Indians, now on the run from the law. He is tough, uncompromising and a killer. But he saves youngsters in a wagon train, survivors from an Apache massacre. The movie deals with racial prejudice, teen rebellion (a fashionable theme at the time) and redemption. Todd ends up forming a new nuclear family, with the beautiful and slightly fey Felicia Farr and young Tommy Rettig (the Lassie boy) – this is a well-worn story in Westerns (Hondo, Yuma, The Tin Star, and many others). This could be Widmark’s best Western as lead and his hard-as-nails yet curiously sympathetic hero is supremely well done.
Two more years passed and then came a real snorter, Sturges again, this time The Law and Jake Wade, with Widmark, guess what, as a bad guy in a ghost town. His Clint ranks with his Dude in Yellow Sky for sheer malevolence, and his sniggering brutality harks back to Tommy Udo. It’s a violent picture, as late-50s Westerns were starting to be, and once again there are dangerous Indians, this time Comanches. Taylor was absolutely excellent (he was so good in Westerns) and Widmark plays brilliantly off him. Taylor is still, steely, stoic, while Widmark is fluid, garrulous, sarcastic. It’s like a cobra and a mongoose. It’s a really good Western and Widmark was now perfectly at ease in the genre and entirely convincing.
Third fiddle in the Hank and Tony show
The 50s ended for Widmark’s Westerns with Warlock, another high-quality oater, again for Fox, again helmed by Dmytryk. Widmark won top billing for the picture though his part was definitely smaller than that of the central character, an Earpish clean-up-the-town marshal, Clay Blaisedell, played by a superb Henry Fonda, and Widmark’s Johnny Gannon was even somewhat overshadowed by Blaisedell’s partner, the Doc Hollidayesque saloon man Morgan (and equally fine Anthony Quinn). Nevertheless, Widmark handled the part very well indeed. He plays a former henchman of the ruthless rancher bad guy (Tom Drake) who, disgusted with his boss’s loathsome ways, changes sides and pins on a deputy’s star. He is conflicted and unsure, and even afraid. He knows he is not the super-fast gunman that the professional Blaisedell is. It was a huge commercial success, almost the last hurrah of the classic 50s Western done ‘straight’.
This, Richard Widmark closed that great and glorious decade of the Western with a picture the equal of his others. He was excellent in them all but I would highlight Yellow Sky, The Last Wagon and The Law and Jake Wade.
I wouldn’t say it was all downhill from there on, because there were still some excellent performances to come, but it is also true that taken as a whole, the 60s Westerns were not the equal of the 50s ones – mind you, that was pretty well true of everyone’s Westerns.
The decade started with Widmark’s less than happy experience as David Bowie in John Wayne’s The Alamo. Widmark didn’t get on at all well with Wayne (he objected to Duke calling him Dick, for some reason) and it is true that they were political opposites in many ways. He certainly didn’t rate Wayne’s directorial abilities very highly (and he’d worked with the crème de la crème). ‘Dick’ wasn’t comfortable on the set in Texas (which was infested with rattlesnakes) and he also didn’t think that, at well under six foot, he should have taken the part of the famously tall Bowie. He did the job and left as soon as he decently could. The movie had a massive budget (including millions of Wayne’s own wealth) and a huge cast but it was poorly written, desperately long, slow and ponderous, moving at the pace of an obese snail on valium.
Widmark may then have thought that he was about to achieve Western greatness because he landed two parts in John Ford pictures, Two Rode Together (1961) and Cheyenne Autumn (1964). Was he going to out-Wayne Wayne? Nope.
Tragically, the great man, now pushing 70, had pretty well lost it. These two pictures were probably Ford’s weakest and worst Westerns. In both, Widmark was, for the first time, a US Cavalry officer. In the first he played second to the great James Stewart but in the second it was Widmark who led and Stewart only had a (ghastly) cameo. Two Rode Together was a flop, and in fact a poor film by anyone’s standards, though the famous scene in which Widmark and Stewart talk on the riverbank was a memorable highlight. Cheyenne Autumn three years later was a visually fine (William Clothier) picture but no better as a film. It was a lengthy mea culpa for Ford’s previous treatment of Indians and also a final homage to Monument Valley, and it was too long and boring. Widmark did his best as the short-tempered cavalry officer having to deal with the Cheyenne’s exodus (and a lackluster Caroll Bright as a pro-Indian schoolteacher) and he is forceful, but it wasn’t a success. He thought of Ford as likeable but “a nutball”.
A bloated epic
Between the two Ford Westerns Widmark was drafted to do another monstrously overblown Western, even more ponderous than The Alamo, MGM’s frankly dreadful (yet commercially very successful) How the West was Won. The idea was to assemble all the great Western stars (and three directors and four cinematographers) in a giant three-strip Cinerama epic that told the whole story of the West in vignettes. Each of the stars got little more than a cameo, though, and there was little or no interaction between them. Widmark was assigned the part of the ultra-tough railroad boss, and his screen time totaled 8 minutes. The picture won three Oscars, including, incredibly, for the screenplay, which was lousy, and people waited in lines to see it. So what do I know? I just think it’s huge-budget junk.
Junk or not, as the mid-point of the decade came and went, Widmark’s record of Westerns was sadly less glorious than his career’s beginning.
The late 60s
In the second half of the decade Widmark did three big-screen Westerns, none of them all that good. It is hard anyway to find a really good late-60s Western. Spaghettis were coming in and the traditional Hollywood Western was in the doldrums. We had The Professionals in 1966, Hombre in 1967 and Will Penny in 1968, all quite good, but these were the exceptions that make the rule. Fortunately, 1969 was better, with Support Your Local Sheriff, The Wild Bunch and True Grit, but there were few Westerns per year in the late-60s and those that did appear were, generally, pretty poor.
First up for Widmark was Columbia’s Alvarez Kelly in 1966, with William Holden. I like Holden in anything and he was good in this as the cynical Mexican-American Kelly neutral in the Civil War and only out for profit. Widmark wasn’t bad either, as the battle-weary eye-patched Confederate soldier opposing him. It was directed by Dmytryk again, but it was a much less vital picture than his other Westerns. Much of the middle part of the picture is slow and uninteresting, with flirting and an overlong brothel scene. Widmark’s Southern accent is somewhat iffy. It perks up in the actionful last reel but all in all this one was not a dud, exactly, no picture with Holden and Widmark leading it could be a dud, but it was pretty ordinary.
United Artists’ The Way West the following year was another big-budget ‘epic’, trying to hark back to the great wagon-train pictures of the past but failing. It was directed by AV McLaglen, who was better suited to TV shows, and the script was heavy-handed. It had a trio of leads, Widmark joining Kirk Douglas and Robert Mitchum. Douglas was a tiresome prima donna who wanted to run the whole show and Mitchum was bored out of his skull and just going through the motions (though he was still the best). Widmark is the tough, hard-working farmer wanting to make a new life but he soon comes to question the ruthless leadership of Kirk’s character. Widmark shouts a lot. Not my favorite Widmark Western, I fear.
And to finish his 60s feature Westerns Widmark starred in Universal’s Death of a Gunfighter, released in May 1969 and directed by, well, no one, actually. The credited director, ‘Alan Smithee’, didn’t exist. Robert Totten started it off but it didn’t go well at all and at Widmark’s insistence Don Siegel was called in to finish it. They compromised by giving the credit to a fictional person. It was an end-of-the-West tale with Widmark as a slightly Gary Cooperish marshal forced to stand up alone with his gun when the pusillanimous townsmen won’t back him. There’s a late-60s amount of sex and blood. The spotlight was entirely on Widmark (though Lena Horne was rather good) and so the picture stands or falls on his performance. Fortunately, his grit and toughness hadn’t deserted him, and while he once again does not come across as the most sympathetic character, we still identify with his courage and sense of duty.
Widmark finished the decade with a TV movie, screened by ABC in 1969, the Western spoof/farce shot in Spain, A Talent for Loving. I haven’t seen it – it’s quite hard to source – and to be frank I haven’t tried too hard because it doesn’t seem to have been splendid, to say the least. Writing about Widmark’s Westerns (rather well, actually), author Barry Atkinson says it has a “ramshackle farrago of a plot” in which “one ridiculously convoluted situation after another [is] piled on to dull, rather than heighten the senses.” It co-stars Topol and was apparently first conceived as a vehicle for the Beatles, who turned it down. The mind boggles. Widmark is at one point “excruciatingly embarrassing to observe.” Enough said about that one.
The other Widmark Western (or semi-Western anyway) I haven’t seen – it’s not available on DVD or up on YouTube – is Fox’s When the Legends Die, which got a theatrical release in October 1972. It was a rodeo movie in a time when there was quite a little flurry of them. Atkinson says that Widmark gave “a marvelous performance as Red Dillon, a whiskey-loving huckster who takes shameless advantage of Ute Indian Frederic Forrest’s natural skill as a bronco buster, promoting him on the rodeo circuit to earn a fast buck, by fair means or foul.” The New York Times called Widmark’s performance “tough and funny.” Atkinson says, “It may not have set the box-office alight and remains one of Widmark’s least seen pictures, but When the Legends Die, a modern-day Western par excellence, exudes charm, is good to look at and undoubtedly is worth seeking out.” There you go. I’ll review it when I get to see it.
Richard Widmark’s last three Westerns were made-for-TV affairs.
The Last Day, a weak picture in my estimation, was another telling of the Daltons’ demise in Coffeyville. Widmark is that classic Western figure, a once-feared gunman trying now to live the peaceful life but whose past comes back to haunt him so that he is obliged to strap them shootin’ irons on one last time. AC Lyles, of ‘geezer Western’ fame, produced it and provided the story. He couldn’t get it to the big screen by 1975 (those days were over) so it went straight to the small one. It was directed by Vincent McEveety, a mainstay of Gunsmoke and other TV Westerns who never successfully made the transition to the big screen (Firecreek was about his best) but who was OK on TV. The final shoot-out is very well done.
Mr Horn, for CBS in 1979, when Widmark was 65, was the story of Tom Horn, with David Carradine as Horn, and Widmark played a key figure in Horn’s life, Al Sieber. Now, I am interested in Sieber and I think Widmark was the best screen Al there ever was, much as I like Robert Duvall’s in Geronimo and John McIntire’s in Apache. Widmark does Al on crutches (though in reality there is no evidence that the scout used crutches until the Apache Kid incident) but I guess it adds color. He had now got to the stage in his career when he could do a cranky-old-timer act, and I must say he does it very well.
The movie was related in a way to 1980’s Tom Horn with Steve McQueen because writer William Goldman came up with a script, McQueen to star, Siegel to direct, but then fell out with those two and so Goldman revised his writing and turned it into a two-part three-hour show for the small screen. Carradine was hired to play Horn (and very well too) and Widmark, 65, to play Sieber – and it is Sieber’s character who dominates the first part. The script monkeys about with the historical truth quite a bit but well, we don’t watch Westerns for factual accuracy. A minor TV movie it may have been, but I really like this one, and I think Carradine and Widmark were excellent.
Once Upon a Texas Train (CBS, 1988), Widmark’s adieu to the Western, was an old-guys-rule picture. There is a genre of movie comedies which relies on the gag of lots of old-timers getting back together, with much humorous bickering and badinage, comically demonstrating their frailties and unsuitability for a tough task, then showing up the youthful pretenders: when the going gets tough, the oldies get going, that kind of thing. Space Cowboys was a recentish example. These pictures appeal to an old-fogey audience that has fond memories of the movies of older (or former) stars and wallows in nostalgia as they return to the screen. In Western vein, such a picture was The Over the Hill Gang (1969) and its sequel the following year. And in fact Once Upon a Texas Train is a remake of that geriatric outing. Yes, TV movies are now remaking TV movies. Widmark plays a former Texas Ranger brought out of retirement to track down Willie Nelson’s gang of outlaws. There are some good line (Burt Kennedy). It’s harmless fun.
And for Richard Widmark’s Western world, that was all she wrote.
Widmark was an advocate of gun-control laws all his life and detested violence, so it’s odd in a way that he did so many Westerns and so often played a bad guy, or semi-bad guy in them. He said, “I know I’ve made kind of a half-assed career out of violence, but I abhor violence. I am an ardent supporter of gun control. It seems incredible to me that the United States are the only civilized nation that does not put some effective control on guns.” But he was a professional actor who was doing a job and though he said he felt some guilt, on the whole he just got on with it. 25% of his output were Westerns.
He retired in 2001. In 2002, he was inducted into the Western Performers Hall of Fame at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. He died after a long illness in 2008, at his home in Connecticut, at the age of 93.