A brief guide
Howard Hughes’s book on Western movies Stagecoach to Tombstone: The Filmgoers Guide to the Great Westerns (IB Tauris) came out in 2008. It’s a readable romp through some fine Western films.
Of course, readers’ definitions of “great” may differ from the author’s, but all the movies chosen are ‘significant’ ones, in any case.
It might be worth listing them:
My Darling Clementine
She Wore a Yellow Ribbon
The Man from Laramie
Gunfight at the OK Corral
The Magnificent Seven
Ride the High Country
The Sons of Katie Elder
Once Upon a Time in the West
Support Your Local Sheriff!
The Wild Bunch
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
McCabe & Mrs Miller
The Outlaw Josey Wales
Mr Hughes has written about James Bond films, as well as the Filmgoers’ Guide volumes Crime Wave, Outer Limits and When Eagles Dared. In the Western domain he is author of Once Upon a Time in the Italian West, The Kamera Guide to Spaghetti Westerns, The American Indian Wars and Aim for the Heart: The Films of Clint Eastwood.
In his preface the writers says, “Stagecoach to Tombstone is the story of the west on screen, through its shooting stars and the directors who shot them.” That’s a bit of a big claim, I reckon, but the book is certainly enjoyable.
Hughes starts with a ten-page survey of the silent Western and a further eleven pages on the talkie Western of the 1930s. There are some bold, not to say tendentious claims there too, such as that Bill Hart’s Tumbleweeds was “the most famous silent Western”, and a few shibboleths, such as that in The Iron Horse John Ford used the actual Jupiter and #116 locomotives when filming the meeting of the railroads at Promontory Point (he didn’t), or that for the 1930 Billy the Kid Hart lent Johnny Mack Brown one of Billy the Kid’s actual pistols (it wasn’t). But that’s OK. Many people believe those yarns.
He then gives “Ten Top Tens”, the Western movie ‘greatest hits’ of different critics. Myself, I’ve sometimes tried to make such a list (though I’d never be able to get it down to ten, or even Mr Hughes’s 27) and I’ve always given it up as not being worth the effort. I can’t imagine it would serve any useful purpose. Is anyone going to watch just those ten as a distillation of the genre? Not likely.
We’ve reviewed all Hughes’s 27 pictures on this blog – and in fact over the years I have occasionally quoted him – so you can find those articles in the index but here today I’ll just comment on a few of the points Hughes makes, perhaps because they were new to me, or controversial (or wrong!)
Hughes reminded me that the stagecoach stopped at Al Schrieber’s ranch, burnt out as it was, and I’d forgotten that. Al Schrieber, Al Sieber, pretty close. He says Claire Trevor played Dallas Jeffries. Was she Ms Jeffries? I never heard her surname before and it’s not in the cast list or in the screenplay. He says Geronimo was played by an Apache named Many Mules. I didn’t know that either. He suggests that John Carradine’s Hatfield, “complete with cane and cape” resembled “villainous Bill Freel from Tumbleweeds.” I hadn’t made that connection. The writer reminds us of the modesty of the production: the budget was $546,000, of which Ford received $50,000 –Fox’s Jesse James released the month before had cost $1.6m. Rather like the ‘actual’ locomotives in The Iron Horse, the Concord used in Stagecoach, he says, was an authentic coach which had seen 85 years of service on the El Paso to San Diego route. Maybe that’s true. And Hughes remarks that the final duel in Lordsburg, Ringo versus the three Plummers, “recalls Cheyenne Harry facing Placer Fremont in Straight Shooting (1917); one of the Plummers is even played by ‘Fremont’ – actor Vester Pegg.” I hadn’t made that connection either. So there we are. You live and learn.
My Darling Clementine
Hughes calls the central character of the so-called OK Corral gunfight “Marshal Wyatt Earp”. He is not the only one to believe that (Hugh O’Brian sharing the blame). Hughes swallows Ford’s claim that he knew Earp, who told him all about the gunfight. For example, Earp timed the gunfight so that the arriving stagecoach would give him dust as cover. Well, believe that if thou wilt, ye of gullible demeanor. Hughes says that Ford “claimed not to have seen Dwan’s Frontier Marshal”, which was more bunkum. In fact “evidence proves he screened it in October 1945, when preparing his own version”. Hughes says Charles Stevens (as Indian Charlie) was “the grandson of Geronimo.” Stevens himself often claimed this. It was more nonsense. Hughes says, rightly, that Linda Darnell appeared in more of the publicity artwork than Cathy Downs, “inferring [Hughes means implying] that she was the Clementine of the title.” The tagline “She Was Everything the West Was – Young, Fiery, Exciting!” certainly cannot have applied to Downs’s meek and rather wishy-washy Clementine.
Hughes tells us that “Hawks bought the rights to The Chisholm Trail [a five-part serial by Borden Chase] for his own Monterey Productions.” He says this was Hawks’s “first Western”. Well, it was in a way, the first proper Western he directed entirely anyway, but he was production manager on North of 36, and edited The Heritage of the Desert, both in 1924, was again production manager on The Light of Western Stars in ’25, he directed part of Viva Villa! in 1934, helmed all of Barbary Coast in 1935, which can lay some claim to be being a Western, and was famously fired from The Outlaw by author Howard Hughes’s namesake. Montgomery Clift couldn’t ride a horse and had to take lessons. “Joanne Dru (real name Joanna LaCock) was cast after Margaret Sheridan became pregnant”, Walter Brennan was an ex-stuntman, at first scheduled for only a small part but he “was a friend of Hawks and his initial three day’s [sic] work was expanded to six weeks.” Hughes says that it was John Ford’s idea in post-production to have Brennan narrate. Production was suspended when Hawks was hospitalized by a centipede bite. Hughes says that the film has appeared on TV “in a colourised version that looks great in Technicolor, much better than other ‘tinted’ prints.” I haven’t seen that.
She Wore a Yellow Ribbon
Interesting that the first four of Hughes’s 27 were all John Wayne pictures and there would be more. In fact over a quarter of Hughes’s total featured the Duke. Duke recalled of Yellow Ribbon that “Ben [Johnson] liked to ride and Pappy [Ford] liked to shoot him doing it.” Hughes says that “Ford wanted two essentials from his cinematographer, Winton C Hoch: a colour quality emulating Frederic Remington’s paintings, and a guarantee that one of the Indians would wear a red shirt.” Ford also admired the work of Charles Russell and Charles Schreyvogel, and “The three artists’ work can be seen in Hoch’s photography.” Hughes thinks, and he may not be wrong, that “The classic scenes of Ford’s 7th Cavalry riding through canyon country in column of two’s towards Sutros Wells, are among the greatest scenes that Ford put on film.” Nathan Brittles’s spectacles were Wayne’s idea – a masterly one. Hughes thinks that “If She Wore a Yellow Ribbon has a failing, it is the heavy emphasis on the love triangle between Olivia and her two suitors” and “The constant bickering between the two officers on the trail does become tiresome.”
High Noon was “praised by Pravda for its depiction of ‘the grandeur of the individual’.” Gregory Peck was the first choice for Kane but Peck had recently made The Gunfighter and was afraid of getting stuck in a Western rut. Other prospective candidates were Kirk Douglas, Henry Fonda and (the mind boggles) Marlon Brando. Eventually Coop took the part for $60,000 plus a percentage (Hughes doesn’t say what percentage) of the profits. As for Grace Kelly, Stanley Kramer remembered, “I wanted someone unknown opposite Gary Cooper. I couldn’t afford anybody else, so I signed her.” Zinnemann thought her “far too demure” but “ideal for the displaced Quaker in the western settlement.” She was so unimpressed with her own performance after seeing the final cut that “she immediately enrolled in Sanford Meisner’s acting class” in New York. Kramer apparently originally cast Lee Van Cleef, whom he had seen on stage in Mister Roberts, as Kane’s deputy but wanted him to have plastic surgery to alter his hawk-like nose, Van Cleef refused and so was cast as henchman Jack Colby instead. Zinnemann and cinematographer Floyd Crosby were nearly killed when they set up a camera on the railroad tracks and the locomotive’s brakes failed. It was Kramer’s idea to have the ballad narrate the story, though test audiences laughed at the repetitive refrain. Hughes calls the town ‘Handleyville’.
Some nuggets: Hughes says Paramount was unsure about casting Alan Ladd. “His films never grossed more than $2.6m and the producers worried that they were putting a low ceiling on their film as a Ladd vehicle.” Following his (superb) role as Chris Calloway in Shane, Ben Johnson went back to the rodeo circuit for two years before returning to acting. A subplot in which Chris had a romance with one of Lewis’s daughters was cut. The Tetons wreathed in clouds resembled the Paramount logo. The Grafton store and other buildings were dismantled after the shoot and were later used in Will Penny. Shane clearly wears a wedding ring. The scene in which Shane teaches Joey about shooting took two days, 45 camera set-ups and 119 takes. Gunshot sounds were amplified by firing into trashcans. Cliff Robertson appeared in a send-up in Batman on TV in an episode titled Come back, Shame!
“A Freudian psychological drama masquerading as a genre piece”, Hughes calls Johnny Guitar “home on derange”. The writing: “[Philip] Yordan’s cryptic script has some of the best dialogue ever written for a western.” Hughes says, “Throughout Johnny Guitar there are several barbed digs at McCarthyism, especially its mob ethic – a subtext intended by [director Nicholas] Ray and Yordan.” The picture received mixed notices and only a fair box office return. A review in Cue said the film “frequently stumbles over its own artiness.” But it was a major critical hit in France. In 1966 Le Western put Johnny Guitar top of the critics’ best Westerns, with Rio Bravo second. Hughes suggests that Johnny Guitar might have been influenced by a 1951 picture, Sam Newfield’s Outlaw Women. Later, two of Roger Corman’s Westerns, The Oklahoma Woman and Gunslinger, owed much to Ray’s film. During the 1950s Western TV-show boom, an unsuccessful 30-minute pilot Johnny Guitar was made with William Joyce as Johnny but no sign of Vienna.
Burt Lancaster was on a high in the early 50s after such medieval action pics as The Flame and the Arrow which saw him “modelling some technicolor tights and spouting contemporary-sounding dialogue like ‘Tell da boys I’ll meet ‘em in da tavern’.” He was cast by Robert Aldrich “not wholly convincingly” as Apache warrior Massai in Apache. But in Vera Cruz his character was “the most stylish anti-hero of the fifties.” The background: “When Hollywood lost its lucrative European audiences during the Second World War, it discovered that films set in Mexico and South America … opened up a whole new market.” Gary Cooper was again offered a percentage deal – he made a million bucks from it. “Lancaster spent most of the film showing off his newly acquired $5000 capped teeth.” Budgeted at $850,000, the picture’s production costs rose to $1.7m. Hughes says, “Vera Cruz is the first western to send its mercenary heroes to Mexico and it was also the first Hollywood western to be filmed there.” Nope. The “pyrotechnic finale” was also “the first in a western.” Aldrich called his stylized close-ups of faces “Big Rushmores”. Once again the French adored it though many US critics found its unrelenting cynical tone too much.
The Man from Laramie
There had to be an Anthony Mann/James Stewart Western in Hughes’s selection and he went for The Man from Laramie. Fair enough. He also makes a few comments about the others. Stewart kept his precious hat in a vault between films – there’s a nugget for you, a gold one. “[Donald] Crisp movingly played the atypical role” while “Alex Nicol went completely over the top as wild-eyed, uncontrollable Dave.” All location filming, on 18 separate sites, was within 100 miles of Santa Fe” with “electrical poles … removed to give authenticity”. Hughes opines that “The Man from Laramie is the most violent fifties western, though it only features three killings in the whole film.” The film and Bad Day at Black Rock were the highest-grossing Westerns of 1955 and as a result Stewart toppled John Wayne in the rankings. It remained Stewart’s favorite Western and of all his performances, he only preferred It’s a Wonderful Life.
Ford developed the screenplay with Frank S Nugent and took the idea to Warners, who agreed to provide the $2.5m budget. During the famous last shot, with Wayne walking away from Jorgensen’s door, he had a major hangover. Ethan was “the most complicated character Wayne was ever asked to play.” He is “only just in control of his actions.” The New York Times complained that the ‘exteriors’ filmed on the RKO-Pathé soundstages looked like “sporting-goods store window displays.” Hughes thinks “The music by Max Steiner is the best Ford film score.” During post-production, “a scene depicting the Washita River massacre by Custer was cut from the film”. The Searchers was the third most successful Western of the 1950s, after Shane and The Tall Men, taking $4.9m.
Gunfight at the OK Corral
Written by best-selling novelist Leon Uris, Gunfight at the OK Corral was based on an article in Holiday magazine, The Killer by George Scullin. Paramount producer Hal Wallis considered several actors for the part of Wyatt Earp, Van Heflin, Humphrey Bogart, Richard Widmark and Jack Palance, before settling on Burt Lancaster, whose portrayal is “irritatingly self-righteous.” The Dodge City scenes were shot on the Paramount Western street lot with a vast ‘Blue Sky’ wall behind it, to hide the rest of the studio from view. This had mountains painted on it, which are well known in Kansas, of course. Stuart Lake worked on early drafts of the script till he was fired by Paul Nathan, the studio’s head of publicity, who called him “a tired old man … and a big phoney to boot.” The film “offers a comic-strip version of American history.” Billy Clanton (Dennis Hopper) is a classic misunderstood fifties teenager. “The film has a stagey look, with much of the action in medium shot” and “there is little tension until the finale.”
“Jessica Drummond [Barbara Stanwyck] is one of the most powerful female roles in the genre.” In Fuller’s pessimistic ending, vetoed by Fox, “Griff was to have killed Jessica and Bronky with the same bullet.” The film wasn’t a success in the US, with the critics largely ignoring it, though Village Voice called it “the most phallic western ever made.” It was one of Fuller’s favorites. “In France it was dubbed a masterpiece.” After this film Fuller wanted to cast Stanwyck as Eva Peron but the project never materialized. Instead she did The Big Valley, in which her Victoria Barkley has more than a touch of Jessica Drummond. Fuller’s work was, Hughes says, “totally convincing as great cinema.” Right.
Hughes discusses the other Westerns in this Budd Boetticher/Randolph Scott cycle but concentrates on Ride Lonesome, which is justifiable. In it, “bombshell Karen Steele”, whom Hughes says was then Boetticher’s wife, with “her immovable platinum blonde hair, sculpted conical bustier and tiny waist recalled fifties pin-up Mamie Van Doren rather than Cattle Kate.” There isn’t a single interior shot in Ride Lonesome. The “rugged cinematography, when coupled with the vast widescreen of the sparsely populated CinemaScope vistas, makes for some of finest looking western cinema of the fifties.” Yup.
Hawks went to Warner Bros with the idea for Rio Bravo so he could produce for his own company, Armada, in a 50-50 deal for the profits. Wayne agreed to star for $750,000. The picture was budgeted at $1.95m with Hawks receiving $100,000 – modest compared with Wayne’s fee. Hawks tried to cast Montgomery Clift as Dude but he refused. Instead, Dean Martin is “the epitome of lounge cool, western style.” Then “pop singer Ricky Nelson was cast as Colorado to attract the teenybopper audience.” According to Hughes, “Lightweight Nelson isn’t a great actor and struts around like he’s still got the coat-hanger in his shirt.” Harry Carey Jr was originally hired to appear but allegedly arrived on the set drunk and was fired. “Wayne gives one of his finest performances”. Variety called it “somewhat long.” Saturday Review said it was “as standard fare as has ever turned up on the Hollywood menu.” The New York Times dubbed it “well-made but awfully familiar.” The London Observer said “the film dwindles off and long before the end becomes confused and repetitious.” Nevertheless, “it was one of Wayne’s most successful films, taking $5.75m in the US.”
The Magnificent Seven
Hughes describes the ins and outs of the production history, with Lou Morheim originally producing, Yul Brynner directing, Anthony Quinn starring as Chris, but then Martin Ritt directing, with Brynner starring and Quinn as Vin, Walter Bernstein writing, and then Mirisch coming in and Sturges hired to direct, Quinn suing Brynner but losing, Sturges hiring Walter Newman to write, and so on. Apparently Sturges was a fan of Wanted: Dead or Alive and keen on McQueen, who took the role of Vin for $100,000, his biggest fee to date, though he wanted the part of Chico and that caused friction with Horst Buchholz, who was chosen to attract the European market. James Coburn got the part of Britt after Sterling Hayden and John Ireland pulled out.
Hughes details the Magnificent Seven-like machinations at the origin of this film, how Sam Peckinpah spent months on a screenplay from Charles Nieder’s novel The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones, a vaguely Billy the Kid story, how Marlon Brando planned to make a film from it titled A Burst of Vermilion and brought in director Stanley Kubrick, who fired writer Peckinpah but then fell out with Brando and went off to make Spartacus, how Elia Kazan and Sydney Lumet got interested as directors and Niven Busch to write it, with Spencer Tracy acting as Dad Longworth, and how finally Brando decided to both direct and star in it, and said “Forget the script … that’s what they did in the silent movies”. Paramount assigned $1.8m to the picture. Brando had no sense of urgency (he would wait days for the right cloud formation and was binge-eating in 5-star Monterey restaurants), exposed a million feet of footage (a record) and eventually spent $6m+. The first cut was five hours’ long. Hughes doesn’t say that after all that it was still rotten; that’s my own viewpoint. And Peckinpah’s: “Marlon screwed it up.”
Ride the High Country
After The Deadly Companions, edited without Peckinpah and released with little success, MGM asked the director to make Guns in the Afternoon, for $15,000 out of an $800,000 budget (Peckinpah eventually spent only $852,000 – that was under-budget for him). Peckinpah reworked the NB Stone Jr screenplay and re-titled the picture Ride the High Country. On release, Variety thought the result was stuck halfway between a modest A-Western and an expensive B and doubted if aging Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott “can draw the mainstream crowds.” Hughes thinks Warren Oates with his raven “looks more Poe than prairie” and maybe has a point. The tent canvas in the mining camp was stolen from MGM’s storeroom and had been the sails in Mutiny on the Bounty. The picture was shot by Lucien Ballard, “a part-Cherokee Indian.” Is that right? Hughes talks of “The lyricism of the mountain journey – scored by George Bassman’s theme, majestically rising and falling, like the landscape.” Once again, Peckinpah was not allowed to assemble the final cut. MGM president Joseph Vogel hated the film so much he almost didn’t release it but Newsweek thought that “everything about the picture has the ring of truth” and voted it film of the year. In Europe it beat Fellini’s 8 1/2 to win the International Film Award (suck on that, Fred).
The Sons of Katie Elder
Hughes calls Katie Elder one of Wayne’s finest films. OK then. Although the picture had come to Paramount years before via John Sturges, producer Hal Wallis developed it for Wayne. In 1965 Sturges was too busy and it passed to Henry Hathaway. It was the first of the Wayne movies to be filmed in what would become his favorite location of Durango, Mexico. “With a rousing Elmer Bernstein score, plenty of action and hints of pathos, The Sons of Katie Elder is the archetypal Wayne vehicle.” Fair enough. Hughes reminds us that Elmer was known as ‘Bernstein West’ after The Magnificent Seven, to distinguish him from West Side Story’s ‘Bernstein East’, Leonard. Katie Elder is more brutal than most Wayne Westerns. Johnny Cash released a tie-in single, The Sons of Katie Elder, which, however, didn’t feature in the movie (I don’t remember it).
Once Upon a Time in the West
There were rumors in the press that Sergio Leone was going to remake Gone with the Wind. Instead he embarked on C’era una volta il West. He now had “an international reputation and a $3m budget.” Composer Ennio Morricone wrote much of the music before Leone shot the film so the director was able to play it on the set “to establish mood.” Hughes doesn’t say what mood but I can think of a few. Hughes gets a bit hi-falutin’ when he says, “These re-orchestrations resemble Alessandro Marcello’s adagio ‘Oboe Concerto in D Minor’.” Hughes says that the film was very popular in Europe, “especially in France, where the dusters became the height of fashion.” TIME called the film “Tedium in the Tumbleweed” and said that “the intent is operatic but the effect is soporific.” Hughes says that “Many critics now see Once Upon a Time in the West as the last truly classical western and Leone as the last master craftsman of the genre.” You may agree with that but I sure don’t. Henry Fonda once apparently told James Coburn that Leone was the finest director he ever worked with. Che?
Support Your Local Sheriff!
After a rather cursory survey of the comedy Western genre, Hughes says that Support Your Local Sheriff! was a send-up of Rio Bravo, High Noon and My Darling Clementine. James Garner’s own company Cherokee Productions financed the picture. “In the screen ratio 1.85:1 [it] often looks like a TV western.” It was a big hit, taking $5.1m in the US. The New York Times scathingly noted that Burt Kennedy’s Westerns resembled Andrew V McLaglen’s: “They are imitations of imitations.” I admit to finding that rather droll (and perceptive).
The Wild Bunch
After Yul Brynner fired Peckinpah from Villa Rides!, Sam thought he would probably never direct again. But his research for the Villa picture did come in useful in the end. Peckinpah received $72,000 for the script and $100,000 for directing The Wild Bunch, out of a Warner Bros-Seven Arts budget of $3.5m (the final cost, classic Sam, was $6m). “Working nine-hour days in extreme heat, it took 12 days to film the shootout.” Hughes says, “Pike Bishop is Peckinpah himself – clean-shaven Holden even wore a Peckinpah-style moustache and adopted the director’s posture and mannerisms.” Also, “Jerry Fielding touchingly scored the film according to the ‘love affair’ he saw between Bishop and Thornton.” Apparently, “Arthur Penn’s blood-spattered finale to Bonnie and Clyde (1967) was a major influence on Peckinpah.” The famous walk-down to a dusty death “was largely improvised on set by Peckinpah – it was only three lines in the script.” Peckinpah cut blood, lewdness and profanity from the picture in order to gain an R rating. John Wayne hated it, describing it as “Bodies opening up and liver flying out at you.” The picture grossed only $5.3m in the US but $6.3m from foreign markets.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
This film, according to Hughes, is “the quintessential example of sixties counterculture chic.” The writer accurately says that although the film begins “Most of what follow is true”, most of what follows isn’t. In 1967 William Goldman approached Paul Newman on the set of Hombre with a script, The Sundance Kid and Butch Cassidy. Newman was to be Sundance with Jack Lemmon as Butch. Steve McQueen then replaced Lemmon but lost interest in what he thought of as the minor role. Warren Beatty was a possible. Eventually “relatively unknown” Robert Redford got the gig. Newman got $750,000 and a credit as co-executive producer. The famous jump was filmed in matte shot, with Redford and Newman’s stuntmen leaping off a 70-foot crane into a lagoon at the Fox Ranch in Malibu. “The sustained tension of the inexorable pursuit was the responsibility of cinematographer Conrad Hall, who designed and filmed the entire sequence.” Reviews were generally disappointing. Vincent Canby in the New York Times said the film had “a gnawing emptiness” and Pauline Kael in the New Yorker saw it as “the bottom of the pit.” But it was a huge commercial hit. The (appalling) song Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head stayed at #1 in the charts for four weeks. Redford and Newman “succeeded in creating a western that is loved by filmgoers who don’t even like westerns.” That’s true.
McCabe & Mrs Miller
Made under the working title The Presbyterian Church Wager, the film was based on the novel McCabe by Edmund Naughton, adapted by Brian McKay and director Robert Altman. According to producer Mitchell Brower, John Wayne and Raquel Welch were suggested for the title roles. Good heavens. Altman wanted Elliot Gould for McCabe but settled for Warren Beatty, with Beatty’s then lover the English Julie Christie as Miller, “an opium-fuelled Eliza Doolittle.” Former singer Hugh Millais, also English, was Naughton’s suggestion for the killer Butler. The picture was budgeted at $2.4m and finally cost $3m. The film is “one of the most authentic depictions of the frontier on film.” Altman’s trademark overlapping dialogue and half-heard conversations made Beatty livid and he ended up “looping some of his lines to make them audible above the mumble.” McCabe is not really a John Wayne Western hero: he “shoots Kid in the back (in the bathhouse), shoots Breed in the back (through a window) and kills Butler with a typical gambler’s trick – a Remington Derringer concealed up his sleeve.” The reviews were distinctly mixed. The New York Daily News called Altman “once talented” and generously described the picture as “an incoherent, amateurish, simple-minded, boring and totally worthless piece of garbage”; Variety said the “moody photography backfired into pretentiousness”. Partly as a result of this, and a lousy trailer, the film bombed. Beatty lobbied Warners to re-release it and it eventually took $4m. “McCabe & Mrs Miller is now hailed as one of the jewels of seventies cinema.”
“Conceived as an allegory of Vietnam, Robert Aldrich’s Ulzana’s Raid is the most gruesome, hard-hitting western of all concerning the southwestern guerrilla warfare of the Apache wars.” Hughes says that writer Alan Sharp recalled that Burt Lancaster was interested in the Vietnam parallels but Aldrich cared more for the action. Hughes wrongly says that it was not until 1950 that the cycle of films showing Indians as “savages on screen as cinematic cannon fodder” was broken (he clearly hasn’t seen any Thomas Ince or DW Griffith silent Westerns). But after Broken Arrow, “instead of saying ‘How’, the Native Americans were now asking ‘Why?’”. The budget was a “modest” $2.4m. “There is no finesse or poetry to the images,” says Hughes, “it’s the script that counts here – and the gallons of blood.” Two versions of the film were prepared. Lancaster assembled the European version, removing Ulzana’s pre-title escape from San Carlos, while Aldrich did the US cut. Both are now available on DVD. In East Germany, Gojko Mitic starred as Ulzana in two further adventures: Apachen: Teil 1 and Apachen: Teil 2 aka Ulzana, in 1973 and ’74. Ulzana’s Raid “will never be shown in its entirety on television. In the seventies it was edited for the bloodletting; now it’s abridged for the horse falls.” Such cuts have irreparably damaged Frank DeVol’s music.
The Outlaw Josey Wales
Hughes cruises briefly through Clint Eastwood’s earlier Westerns, such as Hang ‘em High, “a spaghetti-style spin on one of Eastwood’s favourite films: The Ox-Bow Incident”, and Two Mules for Sister Sara, “Eastwood’s laziest western”. He quotes John Wayne: “Of all the actors of the new generation, it is Clint Eastwood who gives me the most hope. He is the best cowboy of modern cinema.” Philip Kaufman was going to direct but was fired after disagreements with the star. Josey Wales was budgeted at just under $4m. Variety said that the film was “a Formula Eastwood slaughter film” and called it “a prairie Death Wish.” On the other hand, Orson Welles called it “one of the best-directed films of all time.” Not that either was guilty of any exaggeration, of course. At any rate the picture grossed $13.5m on first release and became one of the top twenty most successful Westerns of all time. Hughes says of the sequel, The Return of Josey Wales (1986), that Michael “Parks the actor should have fired Parks the director.” Eastwood has said that Josey Wales is the film people most want to talk about when they meet him.
The 1976 screenplay The Cut Whore Killings by David Webb Peoples arrived at Eastwood’s office in 1983, Francis Ford Coppola having passed on the option. “Initially reluctant to appear in such a violent film, [Little Bill actor Gene] Hackman explained, ‘[Eastwood] was very explicit about his desire to demythologize violence. I’m really glad Clint convinced me this was not a Clint Eastwood film!’” Hackman also said of his character, “he’s a fascist, a control freak, but he’s not the villain of the piece. The villain is the violence – he just gets dragged into it.” The town constructed “is one of the most convincing western movie sets”. Eastwood wouldn’t allow any trucks or cars on set for the risk of leaving tire tracks and the cast traveled in period wagons. The picture took over $100m, “making it the most successful western of all time.” Spaghetti expert Christopher Frayling said of Unforgiven that it was “Eastwood’s best western – the most distinguished film he has appeared in and directed” but then spoiled it by adding “since The Outlaw Josey Wales.” Hughes says the picture is Eastwood’s The Shootist or Ride the High Country, “his last hurrah.”
Hughes is certainly not the only one to think that Tombstone the better of the two early-90s Wyatt Earp pictures. He describes Costner’s Wyatt Earp as “a muddled, meandering saga” and “an empty film.” In Tombstone, “director [George P] Cosmatos was trying to make “a great saga of a family – like The Godfather but about the west.” The film “shifts towards dime novel legend” towards the end. “Wyatt fires a shotgun from the shoulder, at full gallop, one handed, when in actuality the recoil would have put him in traction.” Hughes says that “Stephen Lang, as cowardly maniac Ike Clanton, is as convincing a westerner as the genre has seen.” The New York Times called Val Kilmer’s Doc Holliday “a frontier-era Jim Morrison.” Hughes thinks that “Kilmer’s Doc dominated the screen and steals every scene.” Every scene he was in, maybe. He praises “the period script, peppered with frontier twang.” The publicity for Tombstone stressed that the film was “the true Earp story”, a dangerous claim, though to be fair, the picture is more historically accurate than many Earp dramas, and Hughes says, “Costner’s gunfight at the OK Corral is probably the most authentic of all Hollywood interpretations.” Hughes says of the Western in our own century, “Like Tombstone itself, the western is just too tough to die.”
So those are the snippets I have extracted from Howard Hughes’s survey of what he regards as great Westerns.
The book needed better editing. The English is distinctly ropey – poor punctuation, misuse of words, that kind of thing, and there are also errors of filmic fact. The author refers to Western actors ‘Albert Decker’ and ‘Joseph Cotton’, for example, and Pernell Roberts is ‘Adam Cartright’ from Bonanza. He says 3 Godfathers came out in 1946, he refers to the ‘Mascalero’ Apache people. In Lincoln, John Tunstall went into business with ‘Jeremy McSween’, and the Sundance Kid’s real name was ‘Harry Longbaugh’. Tom Horn was one of the Wild Bunch. General Mapache uses a ‘Model T Ford’ in The Wild Bunch. Some of Butch Cassidy was filmed on the “Durango and Silvertown” railroad. DP Vilmos Zsigmond used ‘lens flair’ on McCabe. Dances with Wolves was filmed by “Dean Selmer”. High Plains Drifter was released as ‘Il Straniero Senza Nome’ in Italy.
And there are some subjective opinions, even odd opinions, presented as fact, such as that “The Professionals looks like an Italian western”, Pale Rider is “overtly contrived and hollow” (does he mean ‘overly’? But both are wrong), in For a Few Dollars More, Van Cleef’s Colonel Mortimer is “a Wyatt Earp-style bounty hunter”, or that Wayne’s film Chisum is “based on fact”, “with most of the events depicted as they actually happened.” I think we must have seen different versions. I don’t want to be picky and we all make mistakes but if there are too many it does rather undermine the credibility and integrity of the narrative.
Still, I did learn a lot from the book, and enjoyed most of it. You might too.
Buy Jeff’s new Western novel!