Wednesday, November 27, 2013

12 Years a Slave (2013) - Directed by Steve McQueen

Steve McQueen, the black, London-born director of such artsy fare as the self-important Hunger and sex-addiction focused Shame, has taken on the topic of American Slavery with perhaps the most direct and accomplished portrayal that anyone has yet seen on the subject. Eschewing his favored embellished takes and political/social maneuverings of his previous films for a more direct and emotionally involving style, 12 Years a Slave is filled with the kinds of moments that are essential to tell this story, but is without the sort of Hollywood colloquialisms, overt sentimentalization and politically correct quagmire that we might expect were this film coming from a more American/Hollywood minded perspective. Thus, the film feels remarkably clearheaded. Maybe for too long, Hollywood has been too afraid of hurting certain people's feelings by making a film about slavery. Or maybe the wounds are still too fresh. That is except for certain "safe" portrayals like Tarantino's hollow and superficial Django Unchained. Spielberg also mostly sidestepped the issue in Amistad (basically a courtroom drama) and last year's Lincoln (a biopic of the president), as neither really went into the subject completely. Perhaps McQueen’s nationality allows an objective portrayal to come forward. 12 Years a Slave brings us face to face with one of the greatest evils in the history of humanity. Perhaps not since television's "Roots", has the subject been approached with any degree of importance, and let’s not forget….that was, amazingly, 36 years ago!

“12 Years a Slave” was a memoir written in 1853 by Solomon Northup. It concerned his personal story of how he was taken from his life in Saratoga Springs, NY. He had a wife and two children when he was kidnapped while traveling in Washington D.C. and taken as a prisoner and traded on the slave market, shipping him down to a plantation in Louisiana, where he began 12 years enslaved to a couple of masters, all the while attempting to find a way to notify his family up north. The film bases the story upon this memoir and stars Chiwetel Ejiofor in a gut-wrenching performance as Northup, who eventually has his name changed to Platt by force. Throughout the film, he is under servitude to two masters, played by Benedict Cumberbatch as William Ford, and Michael Fassbender as Edwin Epps. Under Ford, Northup is exposed to the vengeful treatment of John Tibeats (played with a bit too much crazed bravado by Paul Dano), a carpenter on the plantation. In a scene almost unbearable to watch, Northup is nearly hung by Tibeats and his cronies, but ends up dangling by his neck, standing on his tiptoes in the mud all day, while Northup's fellow slaves look on, unable to help him. After this incident, Ford sells Northup to Epps, an extremely racist and violent man, prone to verbal, physical, and sexual abuse upon his slaves. Of particular note, his attentions paid to a slave named Patsey (an amazing Lupita Nyong’o) bring the ire of Epps’s cruel and vengeful wife Mary (Sarah Paulson). All the while, Northup tries to maintain secrecy of his education and ability to read and write, biding his time until he can find a way out of this bondage if possible. That is until he meets an honest and kind man named Samuel Bass (Brad Pitt), who helps him send a letter home, providing an impetus for his return to freedom.

Because the film focuses on such a personal story, rather than on such a large swath of slavery, it makes the film so much more streamlined and taut than a longer or more broad film might be. This focus on Northup and his particular predicament is not necessarily common to the slave experience, though. His story of being enslaved as a freeman is not typical, yet it’s alarming and jarringly shocking in ways we may not be used to, somehow taking a type of story we think we know everything about, and unveiling a new degree of moral corruption and human torment through that. Ejiofor gives the performance of the year as Northup, where he emotes even while he must often refrain. It’s a balancing act that is best seen in a few of the film's most memorable moments. One is the scene where Patsey is begging Northup to kill her to put her out of her misery. Much of the dialogue in this scene and in the film in general actually feels a bit formal and almost pre-determined. Yet in a way, this effect comes across as a most tragic kind of poetry reading. The second is the moment where Epps confronts Northup with having asked a white man to deliver a letter for him. They stare each other down in the dark, in the candlelight like two men waiting for the other to crack. Finally, in a penultimate kind of scene, Northup breaks down and reveals his story on the plantation to Bass, and Northup is shocked to tears that he's actually telling the story to someone.

McQueen makes the choice to include elements of religion as it became part of the justification for the white south. Epps and Ford preach the Bible to the slaves, while the slaves reach out to God in their own way. Each speaks of the same God, yet the corruption of power led the southern plantation owners to utilize certain passages of the Bible for their own ends. Through the corruption of un-checked power, slavery became a reality, while religion was used a "justification” and this point hits home several times. If Ejiofor is the main focus of the film, the point of view sometimes seems to drift toward Fassbender’s Epps, which may be the only flaw in an otherwise spectacular film. Fassbender has a tendency for one too many pregnant pauses for my taste, and some of the passages involving Fassbender’s perspective are the most overwrought elements just because the story isn’t really about him. One might wonder how a film about slavery, featuring a character who is free at the beginning and freed at the end can really fully examine the integral experience. Somehow, and it's to McQueen's credit, the ending leaves us not elated or relieved, but instead broken and enlightened. Through Northup's journey, we are able to experience an amazing story of perseverance and also the slavery experience as a whole, providing a voice to those still left in bondage at the end of the film. There is no attempt to sensationalize, sentimentalize or politicize the experience. Northup’s memoir, suppressed for nearly 100 years, provides for a framework for McQueen's film that makes us feel the injustice first-hand, giving us a cinematic portrayal as penetrating and moving as any film could. Few movies are ever truly important culturally anymore. Let’s hope that this one becomes such a film. 

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Shane (1953) - Directed by George Stevens

Note: This review appears at Wonders in the Dark for the Top 50 Westerns Countdown, coming in at #14.

There are westerns with greater size and scope (The Searchers). There are westerns that are more taut and suspenseful (High Noon). There are westerns that are more pure (Seven Men From Now) and filled with more psychological depth (The Naked Spur). But there is no other western that is as emotionally resonant as Shane. Weaving throughout its running time is a point of view of a young boy, perhaps not so dissimilar from young boys over the last 150 years or so, brought up first on dime novels and cheap western stories and then eventually silent films and the boom of Hollywood cinema, pushing a brand of western and selling a mythology that continued to further the daydreams of millions of youth across this nation. I too fall into that group. I can remember playing in the backyard with my brother when we were kids growing up in the 80’s. Inevitably we would end up playing cowboys and Indians or some sort of old west themed adventure, utilizing things we’d picked up in movies, tv, and books in order to build a repertoire of dialogue and action, that in our minds resembled some sort of reality, when in fact we were recalling a western mythology, and even though this mythology has basis in reality, it became larger than life through stories and lore that were told and retold generation upon generation. Shane is in fact a film about the mythology itself, taking an examination of our western hero worship and adding incredibly rich layers of emotion which remain remarkably effective in their ability to maintain an honest sweep, unchallenged by any other film in the genre, with everything seemingly put together to achieve a definitive emotional arc.

Taking Jack Shaeffer’s popular novel Shane from 1949 and improving it for the screen, was director George Stevens. The plot actually resembles stories of chivalrous knights in shining armor, roaming the countryside in search of people in need of help. Shane begins at this sort of moment, as a lone gunfighter rides down from the mountains into a valley, where a young boy named Joey Starrett (Brandon De Wilde) is watching him from his family’s farm. Shane meets Joey, and his parents, Joe (Van Heflin) and Marian (Jean Arthur), but before he can be properly welcomed, Joe mistakes him for being part of the Ryker gang, a group of bullies who happen to arrive to Joe’s claim moments later. They charge that the Starret’s land belongs to them. Joe nearly runs Shane off his land. But, Shane senses trouble, hanging around the back of the house as the Rykers catch a glimpse of the mysterious stranger and ride off. Joe realizes his mistake and invites Shane to stay for dinner, and soon asks Shane to stay on as hired help. From the word go, young Joey and Marian are in love with Shane: Joey, idolizing his gun and mannerisms and Marian showing off for Shane, bringing out her fanciest china for dessert and enlivening her femininity. It’s not long before Shane becomes a family favorite and entrenched in the local atmosphere, trading in his white buckskin and gun for farm clothes. This attempt at normalcy for him is continually threatened, as the Rykers to try to push Joe and all the other homesteaders off the land, finally resorting to hiring a cold-blooded gunman out of Cheyenne named Jack Wilson (Jack Palance) to do the dirty work. As one character remarks, “That’s the trouble with this country. There isn’t a lawman for 100 miles.” Joe is soon prodded to come to town one night to meet with Ryker, but Shane realizes this is a suicide mission for Joe and comes to grips with the fact that he’s the only one equipped to save the Starretts and the other families in the valley, strapping on his gun and white buckskin, heading into town for a final showdown with Wilson and the Rykers.

Shane has a far reaching influence upon many western films since it’s creation, providing inspiration to elements in Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars, and Once Upon a Time in the West, and in fact Clint Eastwood’s entire career was built upon the sorts of themes and motifs in Shane (let’s do forget about his awful Pale Rider, a terrible remake of Shane that is often so similar and hokey as to induce chuckles), especially when we think about everything from High Plains Drifter to Unforgiven. There’s also elements that can be seen again in Cimino’s excellent Heaven’s Gate, with the similar Johnson County War as context. What sets Shane apart from all this is the emotional pull of the film, derived from the homespun point of view of the Starrett family, and usually by the young boy Joey. He is privy to both the entrance and exit of our hero Shane, and to many of the critical moments in the film, particularly the fight in the saloon between Shane and Callaway (Ben Johnson) where he’s looking from under the saloon door, the brawl between Shane and his father in their yard, and primarily the final shootout scene between Shane and Wilson after he has followed Shane from their home all the way into town. Though he is na├»ve and trusting, there is a certain innocent and unfiltered quality to Joey’s portrayal that allows for a great deal of understanding between the audience and this character. Seeing events through the eyes of a child creates a significantly different emotional response for the audience, taking a story that could be rationalized and analyzed and instead making it instinctual and emotional. It’s not always Joey’s point of view though, as we also regard the situation from the character of Marian. Played with divine sensitivity and fragile femininity, Jean Arthur came out of a 5-year retirement to make this movie for George Stevens and the 52 year-old veteran actress came up with one of her greatest performances, simultaneously playing the devoted wife, caring mother, and pining woman who looks at Shane with significant amounts of feeling which she can barely begin to hold back or express, remaining stuck in the middle. Her longing is best conveyed when the family has all returned from the saloon fight and she’s bandaging Joe’s and Shane’s cuts. She leaves the group to say goodnight to Joey in his room and returns to the main room to find Shane has gone outside. She watches him from the open door. She turns around to see her husband….walks over to him and says, “Hold me. Don’t say anything. Just hold me.” It’s not just we the audience that notice her and Shane could have a thing together. Ryker mentions to Shane about how lovely Marian is, invoking a harsh response from Shane. Even Joe at the end of the film relates to Marian he believes she will be taken care of if he were to die. One of the film’s significant improvements upon the book is in fact the characterization of Marian. In the book she is rather flighty and unsubtle. Jean Arthur brings an authenticity that isn’t present in the book. The loveliest and most tender moment in the film occurs between Marian and Shane, after Shane has knocked Joe cold in their fight in the yard outside the house. Joey is tending to his father after feeling betrayed by his hero for hitting his father with his gun. Marian comes over to Shane and in their moment together, so much is said by what is unsaid….

Marion: You were through with gun-fighting?
Shane: I changed my mind.
Marion: Are you doing this just for me?
Shane: For you, Marion - for Joe - and little Joe.
Marion: Then we'll never see you again?
Shane: Never's a long time, ma'am. Tell him, tell him I was sorry.
Marion: No need to tell him that.

At this moment it might appear that Marian will in fact lean in for a kiss….but Joey calls to his mother, reminding her of her own moral code. She instead reaches out for a handshake that means so much more than that.

Marion: Please, Shane. Please (and then there’s this long and beautiful pause)………….. take care of yourself.

Alan Ladd, a rather undersized actor, is actually the perfect choice by Stevens to play Shane, as the book describes Shane as “not much above medium height, almost slight in build.” Ladd needs to portray a sort of handsome boyish quality that would make Joey and Marion attach to him, and also display a quiet perseverance and calmness. Another improvement upon the book is in fact the character of Shane. In the book, he’s far more dangerous, mysterious and unpredictable. Ladd makes him more likable and gentle, allowing the audience to emotionally invest in his relationships with the family members, without us questioning his motives. Some have claimed Shane is out to lay down his guns from the beginning of the film and seek refuge in community and domesticity. I disagree. It’s only after he sees the opportunity to stick up for the Starrett family in the face of the Rykers does he see the need to stay with them. You can also see how he relishes the opportunity to take Joey’s soda bottle from him to turn it into the bar, as an opportunity to challenge Callaway to a fight. This is not the action of someone ready to lay down his fighting spirit. He knows what he’s doing and is rather charmed by the Starretts, but even he knows there is a destiny at play here. Many have sensed a Christ-like portrayal and even some have claimed that Shane dies at the end. I disagree with this reading as well, and even the book doesn’t go this route. If Stevens wanted to sacrifice him that way, he could have done it more blatantly. 

Jack Wilson (Jack Palance) as the hired gun out of Cheyenne is a larger than life figure to rival Shane’s back history, forcing Shane into action to confront an evil only he can defeat. Palance’s portrayal of the archetypal “bad guy in black” is loaded with mythology and a quiet, focused sense of impending death, like some grim reaper out to collect souls. Even his entrance for the first time into the saloon causes a dog to cower away in fear. One of my favorite moments occurs upon his first visit to the Starrett home as Wilson gets down from his horse and gets a drink of water. Despite the fact that Shane is in farm uniform, they eye each other with a certain regard, sizing each other up, a precursor to their iconic showdown at the end. Their final duel actually hinges upon Wilson gunning down the rather small character of Torrey (Elisha Cook Jr.) midway through the film. Wilson understands Torrey is a “hothead” and knows he can goad him into a draw. He knows once he kills Torrey, the rest of the homesteaders will begin to get scared and leave the valley. This dark and somber sequence begins with Torrey and his friend Shipstead riding into town. Wilson calls to Torrey and asks him to come over to where he’s sitting by Grafton’s Saloon. Torrey can’t resist the temptation, and he slips and sloshes through the muddy street to reach Wilson. They both walk parallel to each other toward Grafton’s saloon…and then stop and face each other, Wilson taunting Torrey with southern degradations, standing 5 feet above Torrey who’s at street level. Wilson guns Torrey down in the saddest and most unglamorous death that side of McCabe and Mrs. Miller.

There are two additional things that make this scene incredibly impactful. One was the fact that Stevens wanted Torrey’s body to be launched backward violently from the impact of the bullets. To achieve this, Stevens had Elisha Cook Jr. fastened with a harness that was yanked to create the illusion that he’d been pushed back 10 feet from the blast. It’s an effect that makes the gunshot and the death seem that much more violent without actually showing blood, lending the death a strong sense of gravity. Second, with Stevens being a war veteran, he didn’t want anyone underestimating the destruction that a gun could do, and this was emphasized even to the sound of the gunshot. Gunshot sounds in most westerns are rather weak and muted on the soundtrack and are usually that particular stock gunshot sound that can be heard across hundreds of westerns. It starts to become unimpressive when you hear the same thing over and over again. To achieve a unique, deafening, and fearsome gunshot effect for Shane, Stevens experimented and recorded the sound of a Howitzer cannon firing into a garbage can, thus capturing a shocking and explosive sound which helps to deglamorize the violence and emphasize the lasting impact of a loss of life. Stevens also understood that if you heard the gunshots too often, it would no longer have impact. It’s almost a full hour into the film before Shane teaches Joey to shoot. Once those enormous gun shots go off on the soundtrack, it’s incredibly jarring and sounds unlike any other gunshot in any other western. It’s literally the loudest thing you hear in the movie…which is as it should be. Torrey’s death is given further magnitude with much emphasis paid to the funeral sequence involving all the homesteaders. This becomes a polarizing moment for many….some convinced they should stay and some convinced they should leave. Thus, Torrey’s death provides the hinge upon which the mechanics of the finale swing, emboldening the homesteaders, in particular Joe Starrett who realizes something must be done to respond to this death. It can probably be argued there is no other death in any western in which a side character’s passing provides such an important impact upon the story.

The iconography of the final showdown between Shane, Wilson and the Ryker brothers, as Shane jarringly reappears in his white buckskin riding into town, is enhanced by the pounding and propulsive score leading up to  that sequence. Indeed, the score written by Victor Young is astounding throughout the film, as he seemingly wrote a theme for most of the characters, from the playful tune to mark Joey’s perspective, to the romantic ballad given to Marian, to Ryker’s descending notes of doom upon every appearance and also Shane’s larger than life nostalgic notes. I think the highlight is that finale march by Shane into town with Joey and his dog running after. Young’s music builds the stakes and the suspense as it leads us to Shane’s entrance into the saloon, with Shane taunting Ryker and then challenging Wilson’s manhood, dictating the scene’s action.

Shane: So you're Jack Wilson.
Wilson: What's that mean to you, Shane?
Shane: I've heard about you.
Wilson: What have you heard, Shane?
Shane (pausing): …….I've heard that you're a low-down, Yankee liar.
Wilson (softly): ……Prove it.

Then the sudden and swift power of this final shootout unloads with a deafening roar, young Joey looking on from under the door as Shane shoots both Wilson and Rufus Starrett in quick succession. Joey involves himself in the proceedings when he yells “Shane lookout!”, giving Shane a chance to shoot Morgan Ryker off the upstairs balcony, probably saving his life. After the final shootout, Joey must say goodbye to his hero, as Shane rides across the valley and up into the mountains, with those iconic words said by Brandon De Wilde, "Shaaaaaaaaane........Come Baaaaaaaaaaack!!!"

Though filmed in 1951, the film didn’t release until 1953, due to Stevens’s remarkable diligence to editing and re-editing. One can see from the way he incorporates different points of view, angles, edits, sound effects, and musical scoring, that he paid so much attention to the look and feel of the final product. It is reported that the scene when Shane teaches Joey how to shoot took 116 takes. Jack Palance in fact had so much trouble mounting horses that Stevens had to use a shot of Palance dismounting and then played it in reverse to show him mounting. Additionally, the whole shoot was plagued with terrible weather in Jackson Hole, with rain often postponing the schedule. The shoot went over-budget and overtime significantly, but the film did huge business at the box office, raking in $20MM with a budget of $3MM. Shane has been a highly popular western throughout the decades, yet I would wager that even 10 or 15 years ago, this film wouldn't have placed anywhere outside the top 10 of any western countdown, maybe even top 5. I wonder whether today’s audiences find the emphasis on emotion as fulfilling as audiences in prior decades? We seem to be ingrained these days to distrust or even to mock honest emotion. Thus, more subversive works, and particularly the spaghetti westerns get more interest these days, or at least films that are filled with more psychological shading. Call it old-fashioned if you want, but the sort of story and execution on display in Shane is actually what many of the more modern westerns are built upon, including the spaghettis. Without the mythology, there is nothing to subvert. Without the traditions inherent to the genre, there is no need for revision. This film plays better as an emotional experience than as a revisionist western, and for some, that may be a drawback. But, for my money, Shane is the grandest and most emotionally involving examination of western mythology and thus my personal favorite western. Stevens has such a terrific sense of pacing throughout that allows a beautiful emotional arc to unfold, giving weight to life and death, to childhood and family, and to a man’s code of honor. This is Steven’s most lasting legacy with this beautiful film.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Gravity (2013) - Directed by Alfonso Cuaron

Alfonso Cuaron has accomplished something that I had started to believe was becoming an impossibility in this age of Hollywood decline.  And that is making an intelligent, visceral, and fun popcorn movie that re-establishes a reason to go to the movie theater in the first place. Here is a film that makes a case to get out of your house, go to a darkened movie theater packed with other people, and be dwarfed, engulfed, and nearly absorbed by a film. When I say absorbed, I sort of mean that. This is a survival film set in space, but one in which the act of watching it places the viewer into the film, into space with the astronauts where one literally feels the weightlessness of space and of the exertion that must be made to get from here to there, with little control of one's spatial surroundings. There were moments in the film where sitting in the theatre, I literally felt short of breath. I do believe it was the most tense I’ve ever felt in a theater, as the peril the astronauts are under plays out in basically real time over the course of about ninety minutes. Most of this credit can be given to Cuaron and his excellent design and photography team who made use of camera technology, CGI, animation, and some solid work from George Clooney and especially Sandra Bullock.

Matt (Clooney) and Ryan (Bullock) are two astronauts who are working outside their Explorer shuttle making repairs when they learn of a satellite that has been blown up. They are told to make it back inside the ship, but the shrapnel and debris from the wreckage passes through their orbit, damaging the ship, taking lives of others on the mission, and sending Matt and Ryan free floating off into space. We watch as Matt and Ryan work together to stay alive, and then eventually, the film hones in on Ryan as she attempts one of the great survival tales in the history of cinema, turning the film into a nearly one-woman show in the second half as Bullock commands the screen with a balance of humanism, grace, and athleticism as the script subjects her to one peril after another, without much of a let-up. Ryan has a backstory whereby she had a daughter who had died at age 4, leaving her struggling to find ways of coping. This comes into play as she reaches a point of no return where she is ready to give up on life, but thoughts of her late daughter spur her to not give up.

This is the rare film that allows a woman to be a strong heroine, not forcing her into a pigeonholed existence where she has to be macho, sexualized, or violent to get there. Bullock gives an athletic and physically intense performance. We often hear her heavy breathing in her space suit as the soundtrack is overwhelmed by her shortness of breath during her moments of fear. It’s almost enough to make one start breathing heavy as well just listening to it. Bullock has often taken roles that don't require a lot of range from her, but here she shows what she's truly capable of: Fear, despair, strength, compassion, sadness and utter believability throughout. Moments where she’s floating, crashing into space stations, closing hatches, reaching desperately for anything to grab onto….all of this spatial acting is accomplished with a real sense for physicality and the enormous strain that her body and mind is under. Often, the first person point of view comes into play, as the camera switches to Ryan as if we are her. These moments engulf us, as if we ourselves are floating and reeling through space with her, trying to reach for anything we can grab onto as we pass by the space station. It’s unbelievably tense filmmaking and cinematography using new technology to create nearly-invisible transition shots that flex the point of view and allow for such fluid movements. Cuaron and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki don’t just film scenes statically. They film them in such a way that it gives the viewer a feeling a flotation and zero gravity. When the blackness of space opens into the blackness of the movie theatre, all of this becomes the large and immersive experience it was designed to be, with the size and scope of the visuals overwhelming the viewer, transporting them to a world the likes of which we’ve never experienced this way.

Though some have recalled Kubrick’s 2001 when mentioning this work, I tend to only reflect upon the usage of special effects wizardry when comparing them. Surely, the depth of plot and size of ambition is different in each case, with Kubrick's film more cerebral and Cuaron's humanistic. What becomes of comparison is the way that the films put you in these places and make you feel part of the mission by using advancements in technology, not to overcompensate for other lacking elements, but to ground the audience in a reality, immersing one in the environment. Thus helping shape and define the experience so it is believable, tangible and relatable. As the film occurs in real time, we feel the weight of accumulated peril, as nothing comes easy for Ryan with sequence upon sequence building the tension and the desperation. We gradually sympathize and identify with her in increasing measures throughout the film, building to the moment she has a breakdown and is in tears when she realizes she is facing her hour of death. These incredibly personal moments leave a real impression. I’m not sure if watching the film at home will bring the same level of excitement, but I’m certainly glad my first viewing was in the theater. Cuaron, who has a penchant for long takes (making a legendary one in 2006’s Children of Men), ups the ante with a 13-minute take here, building suspense at the beginning of the film, enhancing the real-time feel. All of the design elements, like the soundtrack, sound design, and effects design all enhance the aural and visual focus. Yet Cuaron knows that what elevates works like this isn't is the human element, and through Bullock’s assured portrayal, she keeps it from becoming all about the effects, shrinking down the narrative to a mother who has lost her daughter and might lose her own life now, but will fight and claw and not give up. This is the most excitement I've had watching a movie in the last 5 years.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) - Directed by John Ford

Note: This review appears at Wonders in the Dark in the Top 50 Western Countdown, placing at #24. 

"Sentimental" is often a pejorative term used to describe a certain kind of art that wears its heart on its sleeve. Regarding film in particular, Ford, Capra and Spielberg have had the term flung at them in condemnation at times. Sentiment is actually neither good nor bad in and of itself though. It is simply a mode for conveying a certain feeling that the director is trying to express, but more often than not, the term has significant negative connotations for some. John Ford was certainly fond of sentiment, or nostalgia or whatever you want to call it, and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon is probably his greatest use of it in westerns at least, wrapping the film with a heartwarming charm. As the second film in The Cavalry Trilogy (and best to my mind), it followed Fort Apache and came before Rio Grande. It’s significantly memorable for several reasons even among Ford's films. Among them the beautiful cinematography by Winton C. Hoch, in color, as he made iconic use of Monument Valley and incorporated imagery borrowed from the paintings of Frederic Remington; furthermore, this just might be the prime example of Ford’s “kitchen sink” approach to making westerns….meaning everything but the kitchen sink….where he weaves action, romance, sentiment, comedy into the plot and often turns on a dime to switch gears. And I would be remiss if I didn't mention the most memorable thing about the film: John Wayne’s epic and beautiful evocation of traditional Fordian values as he portrays an aging hero, cavalry officer Captain Nathan Brittles.

Wayne stars as Brittles, Cavalry Captain of a troupe of men stationed in the southwest at Ft. Starke. He is a week away from retirement and is charged with one final task, which is to escort the Major’s wife Abby (Mildred Natwick) and niece Olivia (Joanne Dru) to a stagecoach post where they will be catching transportation back east. As added backdrop to the storyline, General Custer has just been killed at the Little Bighorn and many of the American Indian tribes are joining efforts, becoming a threat in the area. There’s also a charming subplot that has Olivia being courted by two cavalry gentleman named Flint Cohill (John Agar) and Ross Pennell (Harry Carry Jr.). When Brittles leads the troupe to the stage coach post, he finds that it’s been attacked by the American Indians as part of the uprising and he retreats back to the fort, failing in his mission and feeling like he has let everyone down. On his final day on the job, he redeems himself by fending off a potential war, stampeding the tribe's horses out of their camp, forcing their retreat to the reservation.

Ford has a way of emphasizing the rituals of daily cavalry life, infusing a knowing recognition of tradition, values, and nostalgia into the story. Early on in the film, we see flags and bugle calls, the early morning assemblies and inspection of the troupes. We also see the picture display on Nathan’s desk of his late wife and daughters. This touching memorial sets off another type of tradition, whereby Nathan seems to spend every evening out in the little adjacent cemetery where the three of them are buried. Their tombstones read their death was in 1867, and knowing that the current year is 1876 (Custer’s Last Stand was this year), that means Brittles has been doing this little ritual for 9 years. It is these rituals and traditions and the camaraderie of the troupes on display that make the film so uniquely Fordian, as one of his defining traits as a director was his emphasis on upstanding values…..heroism, loyalty, sacrifice, determination. These aspects lend themselves toward the sentimental side of things, but the film succeeds because of it, not in spite of it, generating a significant amount of sincere emotion and warmth from the American spirit on display and a sort of homespun catharsis begins to form. Comedy helps offset the sentiment, and Ford weaves in a great deal of comedy relief courtesy of Irish actor Victor McLagen as the often drunk Sergeant Quincannon, allowing for Wayne’s comedic sense of timing to play off him nicely… “You got a breath on ya like a hot mince pie!”.

Photographer Winton C. Hoch won the Academy Award for best color photography for 1949, and his work here at framing individuals with Monument Valley in the background is often breathtaking. You could just press pause once in a while and look at it like a painting. I particularly love the way that Hoch framed and filmed the scene where Wayne sits and talks with his late wife on the ridge of the cemetery with the rose-colored hues of a sunset bathing the scene in a lovely pink color. Of particular note is the interesting scene filmed on the plains during a thunderstorm, which was apparently not pre-planned, but Ford wanted to keep filming once the storm came up, forcing Hoch to continue filming in the darkening light, something uncommon considering this was a Technicolor film (and at a cost of $1.6MM, the most expensive western ever made up until that point). But it’s one of the most memorable scenes in the film, perfectly capturing the flailing mood of Brittles and his troupe at that critical moment in the film. Richard Hagemen (a Ford favorite) donated a wonderful score to this film, as he captures the myriads of moods on, going from jaunty and comedic to melancholy and sentimental, flipping the tone as deftly as Ford is able to do, even incorporating snippets of Irish music and the lovely strains of “Dixie” at one point.

Last but certainly not least, is Wayne’s performance, which has to be one of his very best, even among performances in Red River, Rio Bravo, The Searchers, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence. In this challenging role, Wayne plays a man about 20 years older than he was, with graying hair, a mustache and a few extra wrinkles on display at times. He is able to incorporate many of his masterful acting traits throughout the film, from his commanding sense of leadership and duty, to comedic timing, to romantic sentiment, it’s all here on full display and he rarely ever expressed such brilliant range as in this film. There are even a few critical moments, like when Brittles receives that silver watch, or when he is talking of his failures with the Major, that tears begin to well up in his eyes. One can see that Wayne really put a lot of effort into this one. I was talking with my 5 year-old daughter a week ago and she told me her favorite actor was John Wayne. I said that’s a great choice. We sat down and watched this film together, and in the middle of the film, she remarked, “John Wayne is such a good actor.” My personal favorite moment is when Wayne gets upset at the two young soldiers for preparing to fight over the love of Olivia with a poor choice of timing. 

Brittles: "Button your shirt Mr. Pennell. Thought better of you. 4 years out here and still acting like a wet eared "kaydet" on the Hudson. What is this all about Mr. Cohill?"
Cohill: "Sir I decline to answer…..respectfully."
Brittles: "Mr. Cohill. It is a bitter thing indeed to learn that an officer who has nine years experience in the cavalry…. The officer to whom I am surrendering command of this troupe in 2 more days…. Should have so little grasp of leadership….. as to allow himself to be chivied into a go at fisticuffs…. while taps still sounds over a brave man’s grave..... God help this troupe when I’m gone."

Wayne uses his inflections and his eyes tremendously during this scene and I could literally watch this scene over and over again. Some may complain that the film is too sentimental for its own good, but I would hearken to say that with the sensitive portrayal by Wayne and the careful balancing act of the script and Ford's handling of values, that Ford was intending everything with a high degree of sincerity, and not taking shortcuts. Some also may complain about the portrayal of the American Indians in the film. I would agree that the portrayal certainly isn't all that enlightened, but the film isn't really about them or about personalizing their story. That would come much later in Cheyenne Autumn. It's about Brittles and the Cavalry and about military tradition and honor. Everything in this film comes together for this to be one of the most Fordian of all Ford films, as it contains so many elements that make Ford great and is a prime example of his effective storytelling. It’s simply a lovely film that gets better every time I see it.