George dons the coonskin cap
As we are on a bit of a George Montgomery jag at the moment I thought I’d continue with one of his three oaters from 1952, The Pathfinder.
Well, I say oater. It’s not really. They hardly have any horses to feed oats to; they seem to walk everywhere in this one, or paddle there in a canoe. I’m not normally too keen on these sword-and-tricorn-hat dramas. They’re Easterns more than Westerns. Though I guess they are still frontier tales. It was just that in those days the West began in upper New York State, or whatever it was called in 1754. One of the thirteen colonies, I suppose.
But many Western stars swapped their Stetson for a coonskin cap and their Winchester for a single-shot musket at one time or another. Henry Fonda was gallant forJohn Ford along the Mohawk, John Wayne was The First Rebel in Allegheny Uprising, and Randolph Scott was Hawkeye in the 30s version of The Last of the Mohicans. George did the same, also in a screen
treatment of a James Fenimore Cooper tale.
Often, a movie compares unfavorably with a great novel. However good the films, Shane, True Grit, The Searchers and many more are never quite up to their source books. But in the case of Fenimore Cooper, the motion pictures are infinitely superior. This is because the books were so desperately long and boring, while the movies just took the best bits. And changed a whole lot too.
The adaptation from book to screen was done by Robert E Kent, who had been tapping out screenplays for studios since 1937 (and would still be doing so in the 1970s) and had started penning Westerns (or semi-Westerns) with a John Payne logging picture in 1940. Some of them were a lot of fun, such as Bad Men of Missouri, Utah Blaine or Noose for a Gunman. Later he would move into producing, with his company Peerless Productions, and he worked quite a lot with Montgomery. Fort Ti in 1953 was another colonial drama, Seminole Uprising took us down to Florida, the excellent Gun Duel in Durango was a more classic Western, then there was The Toughest Gun in Tombstone (another great title), and Badman’s Territory. Bob and George seem to have got on.
Another frequent collaborator was director Sidney Salkow. Three of Sid’s twelve Westerns were Montgomery pictures. He was no John Ford or Howard Hawks, to be sure, but he was a solid journeyman who could turn out a fast-paced picture with all the requisite action.
So with Sidney at the helm and Bobby at the typewriter things were looking good. And the great Sam Katzman produced the picture. I say great. He was, in his way. He started as a prop boy at Fox in the year dot, worked his way up to assistant director on low-budget fare and would be a Hollywood producer for forty years. Westerns for minor studios were something of a specialty with him. Director William Castle wrote that Katzman “was a smallish man with a round cherubic face and twinkling eyes. Few people in the motion picture industry took him seriously as a producer of quality films, but to me, Sam was a great showman.” Many Katzman Westerns were, ahem, at the cheaper end of the spectrum, but occasionally there was a darn good one – Utah Blaine, for example. He worked six times with Montgomery.
The story opens in 1754 with the French and the British both wanting to take over the Great Lakes area, and “the warlike Mingos” siding with the French while “the peace-loving Mohicans” back the British. It’s clear from the outset that the French are the bad guys. The Mingos slaughter the Mohicans, leaving only Chingachgook and his son Uncas alive – the last of the tribe. Well, apart from George. He’s a white man who was brought up by the people.
Good news: this Chingachgook is played by Jay Silverheels. You’d think Jay would have had enough sidekicking a bossy white man telling him wat to do all the time – he’d been Tonto since 1949. But I guess he just put up with it. When Katzman offered him the role he probably sighed resignedly and said, “Me do.”
The ruthless leader of the Mingos, Chief Arrowhead, is our old pal Rodd Redwing. Rodd was, he said, a Chickasaw, and he was a gunsmith with Stembridge Gun Rentals, the largest and best known firearms rental company in Hollywood. He pioneered realistic shooting scenes and taught many actors how to draw. It was said that he could draw his gun out of its holster and fire it in two-tenths of a second, although he claimed that actual gunfighters in the West were slow on the draw and usually shot their victims in the back by waiting in ambush. But that was less Hollywood. He often appeared in Westerns too.
Well, Pathfinder (he’s never called Hawkeye in this one) agrees to spy for the posh British colonel with a fake Scotch accent (Walter Kingsford) to get back at that swine Arrowhead. He is assigned an interpreter as he doesn’t speak the Frenchy lingo and wouldn’t you know it, it’s a glam dame, Welcome Alison (Helena Carter, whom you might also spot in Fort Worth, Bugles in the Afternoon and River Lady).
Actually, it turns out that she doesn’t speak very good French either. Not even the French officers do. They are led by Colonel Brasseau (Stephen Bakassy, a Hungarian).
I won’t go into the ins and outs of the plot. There are many. But there’s much action. Pathfinder is suitably heroic and Chingachgook is frightfully supportive. Oh, there’s another baddy, I forgot to say, a renegade Brit, Captain Bradford (Bruce Lester), who is a bounder. He was the fair Welcome’s intended but he turned to drink, then deserted and collaborated with the Frogs. What a cad. Of course he gets his come-uppance in the last reel.
A big-budget epic this was not, far from it, but it rattles along, and George is tall, tough and terrific, as per usual, even if he didn’t have that splendid Texan Stetson he so often wore.
There is some quite classy music by Mischa Bakaleinikoff with variations on the theme of the Marseillaise every time the French appear, though the score is padded out with a lot of stock music from other movies also.
Anyway, you could watch it. It certainly wasn’t the best Western of 1952 and it wasn’t George’s best either, but well, you know, when you undergoing Covid-induced “self-isolation” (what a stupid term, as if there were any other kind of isolation; I even heard someone on the radio the other day saying “I’m going to self-isolate myself”, doh) you might as well give it a go.