I must admit that of all film genres, my least favorite, at least as an adult, has been the Western. Of course, I recognize those masterworks of John Ford and the works of the later career of Howard Hawks. I too love the great showdown of High Noon. But by and large, the film Western seldom appealed to me.
IN THE MIDDLE OF NOWHERE
Burt Kennedy (screenplay), based on a story by Elmore Leonard, Budd Boetticher (director), The Tall T / 1957
On his way into town to buy a bull, homesteader Pat Brennan (Randolph Scott) stops by the stagecoach waystation to visit his friend Hank Parker and his young son. In this early scene we already sense the dangers and tension in director Budd Boetticher’s vision of the frontier, as, observing someone riding his way, Parker immediately grabs his rifle. The boy, however, has better eyes than his father and recognizes the man immediately as their friend, ignoring the calls of his father warning him to remain still, instead running forward with anticipation. As Parker soon after tells Brennan, living “stuck out in the middle of nowhere, all by yourself, knowin’ nobody but stage drivers and shotguns,” “ain’t no fit life at all"; certainly it is not a life he wishes for his son.
PAT BRENNAN: Did you love him?
DORETTA MIMS: I married him.
BRENNAN: That’s not what I asked.
DORETTA: Yes! Yes, I did.
BRENNAN: Mrs. Mims, you’re a liar. You didn’t love him, and never for
one minute thought he loved you. That’s true, isn’t it?
DORETTA: Do you know what it’s like to be alone in a camp full of
roughneck miners, and a father who holds a quiet hatred
for you because you’re not the son he’s always wanted?
Yes, I married Willard Mims because I couldn’t stand being
alone anymore. I knew all the time he didn’t love me, but
I didn’t care. I thought I’d make him love me….by the time
he asked me to marry him, I’d told myself inside for so long
that I believed it was me he cared for and not the money.
Such language seems to belong more to the psychological stage dramas of the day—works by William Inge and Tennessee Williams—than the adventure genre of Western movies.
Soon after, moreover, Boetticher’s screenplay writer, Burt Kennedy, takes the drama even further into new territory as the cruel murderer Usher reveals in a conversation with Brennan that he hopes one day to get himself a place, “something to belong to,” and settle down. Usher goes so far as to insult the two men with whom he rides as “nothin’ but animals.” Brennan sees through the murderer’s self-delusions, however, reminding Usher, “You run with ‘em.” “Nothin’ you can do with ‘em,” Usher replies. “Nobody ever tried,” rejoins Brennan.
Los Angeles, October 17, 2001
BURNING THE PAST
Burt Kennedy (writer), Budd Boetticher (director) Ride Lonesome / 1959
Boetticher’s Ride Lonesome begins where most Westerns end, with its bounty-hunter hero Ben Brigade (Randolph Scott) catching up with the murderer Billy John (James Best). Billy, thinking he has outwitted Brigade, is waiting for him, threatening a show-down before revealing he has hidden his men behind nearby rocks, and warning Brigade that if he doesn’t turn around and leave, he’ll be killed. The wily Brigade, however, admits that he may die, but not before he “cuts” Billy John “in half.”
An overnight stay at the way station reveals the increasing attraction of the men to Mrs. Lane, in particular Boone, who has “seen…in her eyes” that she is “the kind that got a need.” To Boone’s description of Carrie as a beautiful thing to look at, Brigade replies, with the laconic wit of Burt Kennedy’s writing, “She ain’t ugly.”
Their leisurely movements forward brilliantly reveal the potential dangers through composer Heinz Roemheld’s music, which begins as an almost familiar horse ambling tune which sickeningly spirals down into the minor scale before returning to its original cowboy-like melody. Repeated over and over throughout the movie, we sense the dread of all those concerned.
When the group finally beds down near an old hanging tree, Boone realizes he must act. Trying to explain to Carrie his position:
BOONE: I got ‘a kill him.
CARRIE: Two dogs fighting over the same bone.
Yet Boone and Whit have come to realize that Brigade’s trip to Santa Cruz has been an inordinately slow one, as he meanders toward his destination in the open, for all—Indians and Frank and his gang—to witness. In a conversation with Carrie, Brigade’s actions become apparent: it is not Billy John in whom he is interested, but his brother Frank, who years earlier—when Brigade was sheriff—abducted Brigade’s wife, hanging her on the tree beneath which they now stand.
To his horrific crime of the past, Frank has nothing to say but, “I ‘most forgot.” History, as it is for Boone and Whit, is something to be forgotten. Only moral men such as Brigade can allow memory to guide their acts.
Los Angeles, October 14, 2001
AMOUNTING TO SOMETHING
Burt Kennedy (writer), Budd Boetticher (director) Comanche Station / 1960
The last of Budd Boetticher’s westerns with actor Randolph Scott, Comanche Station, presents a familiar pattern for those who have seen his films. Although the movie begins with hero Jefferson Cody seeming to be captured by Comanche Indians, it soon again becomes apparent that the more dangerous of enemies are the renegade cowboys. For Cody has purposely sought out the tribe to trade for a white woman whom they have captured. Although we are not told until late in the film, we discover that Cody’s wife has been taken ten years before, and during the lonely years since he has continued to seek her out, trading for the lives of many captured pioneer wives.
It soon becomes apparent that in order to claim the money, Lane and his boys will have to kill Cody and, in order to escape suspicion, Mrs. Lane as well; after all, her husband has offered the money for his wife, dead or alive! But since they must first pass through the remainder of Comanche country, they now need Cody’s help, and Cody needs them to help get him and the woman back to civilization.
DOBIE: A man does one thing, one thing in his life he could look back
on…go proud. That’s enough. Anyway, that’s what my pa used
FRANK: He talked all the time, didn’t he.
DOBIE: Yeah. He was a good man. Sure is a shame.
DOBIE: Yeah, my pa. He never did amount to anything.
Unlike the other villains of this series, however, Ben Lane has no intentions of giving up his evil ways and settling down to farm life. Accordingly, he is perhaps one of Boetticher’s least appealing villains. But the other two men, particularly the young, “gentle” Dobie, who cannot abide the idea of killing the woman, offer Cody more kinship.
DOBIE: Me and Frank were riding together up Val Verde Way. Frank was
alone, same as me. And we heard about this fella who was looking
for some guns. We’ve been with him ever since.
JEFFERSON CODY: You’ll end up on a rope, Dobie. You know that.
DOBIE: Yes, sir.
JEFFERSON CODY: You could break with him.
DOBIE: I’ve thought about that. I’ve thought about that a lot. Frank says, “A man
gets used to a thing.”
JEFFERSON CODY: Dobie, when we get to Lawrenceburg, you can ride with me
for a ways. A man gets tired being all the time alone.
The boy practically gushes in appreciation like a courted maiden. Sadly, fate determines that Dobie will not escape. While on lookout, Frank is killed by the Comanche’s, and Dobie is forced to stay with Ben. After crossing Comanche territory, Cody steals their rifles and sends them off into the wilds in order to protect the woman and save his own life.
Los Angeles, October 19, 2001