Saturday, January 7, 2017

Another Look: THE MAN FROM THE ALAMO (starring Glenn Ford, 1953)

This is an interesting Western drama from director Budd Boetticher, who a few years later would direct a string of Randolph Scott Westerns that are considered minor classics of the genre.
In and of itself, THE MAN FROM THE ALAMO is also a noteworthy oater. Its execution perhaps does not match its ambitions, but it nevertheless is solid entertainment with some different twists.

Glenn Ford (always easy to watch) plays protagonist John Stroud, who, as the title suggests, is a man who fled the battle of the Alamo before it fell under the superior forces of Santa Ana. His reasons for leaving, however, have nothing to do with cowardice. In fact, in an early scene where the Mexican army's bombardment of the mission fort results in its flag pole being blown off the wall, Stroud risks danger from further blasts by climbing up and re-posting the flag while the bombardment continues. Shortly after this, however, we learn that Stroud is one of about a half dozen volunteer defenders who have property and families not far to the north. Since word is out that Santa Ana is issuing land grants to Texcians who will fight on his side and harass settlers as his army is otherwise occupied, Stroud and his neighbors are worried for the safety of their families while they are away in battle. When a rider makes it through the enemy lines with word that no reinforcements are coming to aid the embattled garrison, he also mentions that raids are taking place up north by a band of Mexican sympathizers who are burning homes and re-claiming land for themselves. Based on this, Stroud and the others hold a secret meeting to try and decide how to fight Santa Ana and keep their families safe at the same time. “One man more or less here ain't gonna make that much difference,” one of them says. “But one man up there might be enough to round up our wives and kids and get them to safety.” They then agree to draw lots to see who will be the one man to try and make it out … Stroud draws the black bean.
When Travis assembles the garrison and gives permission for any man to leave who doesn't want to stay and fight to the death, Stroud takes a horse and rides out with no clear explanation for why he is making the choice. The rider who brought in word that no reinforcements are on the way is also sent back out by Travis, but not before he sees Stroud leave and is left to think him a coward.

Weeks later, Stroud arrives back home only to find he is too late. His home and those of his friends have all been raided and burned to the ground, his own wife and child murdered. He learns from the lone survivor, the young son of a faithful servant who also killed, that this was the work of a Mexicn sympathizer and gang leader named Jess Wade.
Stroud takes the boy to the nearby town of Franklin where he seeks to leave the orphan with someone who will care for him while Stroud returns to the war. In town, he learns that the Alamo has fallen and he ends up branded a coward and the “man who left the Alamo”. Things go from bad to worse when Stroud is taken into protective custody to save him from a lynch mob. When a Texican army patrol shows up to evacuate the town ahead of the advancing Mexican army, a wagon train is formed and Stroud, still a prisoner, is taken along. Unknown to any of them, the Jess Wade gang takes out after them in order to get the bank money that is traveling on the train. After they've started out, the army patrol is suddenly called away to go fight with Sam Houston in the battle of San Jacinto, leaving the train of mostly women and children to fend for themselves. Stroud steps forward at this point, showing his true bravery and cunning, and leads this unlikely force in a successful fight against the attacking gang. In the process, the truth is finally revealed and accepted of why he left the Alamo. He even ends up with a new sweetheart before he rides off to also join Sam Houston in winning Texas independence.

Like I said, interesting and with some different twists. Also with a sizable dollop of hokiness (like why didn't Stroud or any of his buddies reveal, right from the get-go, his reason for riding away from the Alamo in the first place).
Also noteworthy and curious: In the opening scenes at the Alamo, everybody was firing flintlock rifles and pistols (as it should be). After Stroud got away and showed up in Franklin, he was packing a revolver holstered on his hip—as were the sheriff and other men in town. And the Wade gang members were also packin' revolvers. But then, when the ladies of the wagon train were armed by Stroud to fight off the gang, they were issued flintlocks again. This is a pretty glaring inaccuracy for the time period.

Also of note (to me anyway) is the presence here of actor Chill Wills in a significant role. Seven years later, in John Wayne's big budget version of THE ALAMO, Wills would play another significant role and even get a Best Supporting Actor nomination for it (which he lost, and deserved to—largely due to his overzealous lobbying for the vote). Truth to tell, in THE MAN FROM THE ALAMO he played a better, stronger part.
Hugh O'Brien, Neville Brand, and Julia Adams also turn in good performances. And Victor Jory, as gangleader Jess Wade, is convincingly menacing, but to me he seems oddly out of place in a Western.

Still, quibbles aside, this is a pretty entertaining flick. Well worth 80 minutes of your time if you catch it on the tube or spot it in a DVD bargain bin.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

THE UGLY SANTA MASK

This week, my son-in-law out in Washington is playing Santa Claus for the kids there (his grandchildren, my great grandchildren). They're still very little, so we'll see how that goes. 
But hearing about this made me think of another Christmas many years ago when my dad decided to dress up as Santa at our house. That one, I can report, definitely did not work out so hot.
Here's story:
It was Christmas eve (when we've always opened presents in my family). I was about 12, my two little sisters, Lorie and Pam (the only ones born at that point) were like 3 and 2. We had it set up so that Dad would slip out of the living room at a certain point and go upstairs and dress up in his Santa get-up. It wasn't a full-fledged, bona fide suit, mind you; I don't know if there wasn't any available or the folks just couldn't afford one back then. Anyway, he dressed in a pair of bright red long underwear, a pair of high-topped rubber boots, and a Santa mask, hat attached.
My recollection of said mask, even after all these years, was that it was a pretty sorry creation. The accompanying picture doesn't begin to match it. Like I said, money was kinda tight back then so I suspect it was the best my folks could afford.
Mom and I entertained the little girls while Dad was getting ready. The upstairs was accessed by a closed stairway with a door at the bottom. The deal was, Dad (as Santa) would come down and knock on the door. Then we'd go through the whole “Who could that be?” bit and send one of the girls (Lorie, I think, because she was the oldest) to open the door and see. At which point, Dad/Santa would step out saying “Ho-ho-ho” … Which was exactly how it went.
At that point, however, the master plan careened off the rails. One look at this big stranger in red underwear wearing a ghastly mask and my two sisters let out screams that may still be echoing somewhere yet today. They bolted into the arms of me and my mom, howling and hiding their faces like it was the Frankenstein monster coming after them. Dad, in the meantime, was frantically trying to get shed of his bag of presents and pull off that stupid mask, hollering, “It's Daddy, honeys … Don't be afraid … It's Daddy!” But the howls of the little ones kept drowning him out for several chaotic minutes.
Finally, the mask was removed and hidden away, the kids could see it was Dad, and everything calmed down. There were still presents to open and that was the ultimate healing balm that saved the evening and helped turn everything into a Merry Christmas.
Now ... as Mr. Paul Harvey used to like to say … Here's THE REST of the story:
Remember me --- the innocent little 12-year-old “helper” to the foregoing? Not surprisingly, I was often called upon to babysit my little sisters in those days. Now I loved them very much but, being on the brink of my teen years and beginning to feel my oats a bit, craving to be “cool” and having interests of my own to pursue, it should also not come as a surprise that babysitting didn't exactly thrill me a whole lot. Plus, truth be told, my sweet little sisters could be stinkers and didn't always mind me like I thought they should.
Re-enter the dreaded Santa Claus mask which, like the aforementioned Frankenstein monster, was not so easily destroyed. I knew where it had been stashed. And, I'm not proud to say, pukey little 12-year-old me wasn't above resurrecting it and putting it to use …
I don't think I ever resorted to actually putting it on. But one one day when the little darlings were acting up, I yanked the mask out from hiding and waved it at them, threatening to put it on. That was enough. They snapped to attention and jumped to Best Behavior like soldiers in basic training. In the weeks and months that followed, all I had to do was say the words “I'll get that Santa Claus mask” and I suddenly had two golden children.
Eventually, though, I overplayed my hand and the effectiveness of the threats wore off. Plus, as the girls got older, they simply no longer found the mask so scary. But, for a while there, whenever I was babysitting I had me some mighty well behaved little girls.
Now I'm not recommending this --- or any form of it --- as an effective form of controlling your kids. In hindsight it was pretty mean and I probably deserved to have had somebody scare the crap out of me for payback. But, come on, you gotta admit that using a Santa mask as a non-violent tool to control a couple of sometimes-brats was quasi-clever and has a kind of humorous side to it, too. Don't it? The saving grace, I hope, is that my sisters still did (and do) love me, and for any nasty trick I ever played on them there were also many hours of love and affection showered on them (and the rest of my siblings as they came along) by me.
You forgive me, Lorie and Pam … don't you?

Friday, December 16, 2016

Noteworthy Reads: SEASON OF ICE by Richard Prosch

I've written before in these pages about the work of Richard Prosch and my admiration for same. This latest collection of short stories by Prosch only increases that admiration and therefore becomes yet another offering that I highly recommend.

For the most part, Prosch's previous work fell, broadly-speaking, into the category of Westerns --- his more traditional tales featuring John Coburn, the gunman known as the Perigrene; another series featuring the more laid-back Deputy Whit Branham; and numerous stand-alones, including the Spur Award-winning “Scalpers”. Not to mention his turn-0f-the-century YA series starring rambunctious Jo Harper.

In SEASON OF ICE, the tales are contemporary crime stories. Some are set in larger cities, some have nameless settings, several take place in Prosch's fictional Meadows Ford, Nebraska. Prosch is at his very best when writing about his beloved Cornhusker State. But, no matter the setting, the characters are real and memorable, the stories make an impact --- often with a skillful twist, and the writing is crisp and distinctly Prosch.
Do not pass this up.
As stated at the outset, I strongly recommend it.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Noteworthy Reads: BLAZE! THE CHRISTMAS JOURNEY by Stephen Mertz


For anyone who hasn't wised up to the fact that a good Western yarn can reach far beyond being just another “shoot-'em-up”, this entertaining tale by Steve Mertz would be a good place to start getting your attitude adjusted.


This latest entry (number 14) in the Blaze! adult Western series --- chronicling the adventures of J.D. and Kate Blaze, the Old West's only husband-and-wife team of gunfighters, as created by Mr. Mertz himself --- has just about everything you'd want in a rousing page-turner: humor, romance, tragedy, adventure, some surprising twists including nice touches of nostalgia and inspiration … and, oh yeah, plenty of gun-blazing action. The cast of characters is well drawn and colorful and along the way we also get a little deeper insight into the backgrounds of J.D. and Kate themselves.

All in all, another fast-paced and enjoyable read from creator Mertz. If you aren't already familiar with the Blaze series, this is a good place to start … and then go out and catch up on the other titles by a variety of veteran writers. You'll be glad you did.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Another Look: LAWMAN (1971, Burt Lancaster)

This largely overlooked Western is a tight, tough action drama with an all-star cast, several of whom give particularly effective performances that help elevate the film to an above-average oater well worth 99 minutes of your viewing time.

The plot is pretty basic. Six cowboys deliver some cattle to the railhead in the town of Bannock. That night they get drunk and rowdy and shoot up the town before riding out. Unknown to them, an old man is is killed by a stray bullet.

Some weeks later, the marshal of Bannock, Jared Maddox (Burt Lancaster), shows in the town of Sabbath, home base for the cowboys. He was out of town chasing a fugitive when the cowboys hit his town and now he's bent on taking the six men back to stand trial --- minus one he already caught up with, who he brings belly down over a horse when he rides into town. “He called me out,” he tersely explains to Cotton Ryan (Robert Ryan), the sheriff of Sabbath. When he solicits Ryan's help in bringing in the others, he learns that the men had been hired by Vince Bronson (Lee J. Cobb), the wealthy rancher who has the town and the whole surrounding area in his pocket --- including the sheriff. The latter won't go up against Bronson to help Maddox, but he is willing to take a message to the rancher to see if he'll cooperate in returning to Bannock with the others to face charges. Maddox agrees to give them 24 hours to turn themselves in before he starts going after them one by one.

Bronson, who genuinely did not know anybody had been hurt or killed in the Bannock shooting, feels remorse for the incident. He figures he could easily buy the judge in Bannock and get everybody off with little or no jail time, but doesn't really want to go to all that trouble. After putting it to a vote among the other men involved and finding none of them wanting to go back either, he's not willing to force them to do so. So he sends the sheriff back try and buy off Maddox.


But Maddox can't be bought. Like a grim, obsessive, borderline psychotic Ahab, he won't be swerved from his mission. With no hand raised to help him and even knowing full well that the judge in Bannock will be bribed by Bronson if it ever gets that far, he sets out to do his duty as he sees it. After the 24 hours are up, he sets out after each of the men. In a series of bloody confrontations, he takes two of them into custody and ends up killing most of the others until it comes to a final violent showdown in the streets of town.

The nuances and undertones of the story and characters are what sets LAWMAN apart. The performances by Ryan and Cobb as two men tormented by their violent pasts and no longer having the stomach for more of the same are especially effective. Same for Robert Duvall in a somewhat minor role that he makes memorable. Sheree North, appearing in a brief romantic angle that seems somewhat forced into the storyline, nevertheless comes across well. Then there's Lancaster, who at first seems almost wooden in his performance --- until you realize he is actually nailing the stoic, emotionless character he is portraying.

Good stuff. Recommended.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

My Take: THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (2016)



Let me get it out of the way right up front: I liked this film a lot.
It has flaws and some plot holes you could drive a Humvee through --- but what big-budget action flick these days doesn’t? And, when all is said and done, that’s exactly what it is and all it sets out to be … a big, sprawling, rip-snortin’ Western actioner.
I’m not familiar with the original Seven Samurai, so I can’t/won’t try to compare how this newest version stacks up against that. As for the Yul Brynner/Steve McQueen 1960 Western that most readers of this blog are likely more familiar with, I think this one holds its own.

The basic plot remains the same. A peaceful community of lower/middle class working folks is overrun by a ruthless force of hardcases against which they have no chance of fighting back and winning. In desperation, they pool all their meager resources of any value and seek to hire professional gunmen who will fight back on their behalf. The first man they approach for the job – Sam Chisolm, a bounty hunter - is moved not by the price they are willing to pay but rather by what it represents to those offering it. (“I’ve been paid a lot for my services before, but never everything.”) Chisolm takes the job and begins gathering up some other professionals to aid him.
This time around, the community is not a humble Mexican village besieged by bandits out of the mountains but rather a small mining community being overrun by a greedy, vicious corporate industrialist looking to drive everyone out of the valley in order to mine all the land for himself. The villain is named Bartholomew Bogue and is a supremely evil cur written to such an excess that it’s like the old Snidely Whiplash/tie-the-fair-maiden-to-the-railroad-tracks days

Denzel Washington, of course, is Sam Chisolm. Joining him are: Christopher Pratt as Farraday, the gambler who dabbles in explosives; Ethan Hawke as Goodnight, the ex-Confederate sharpshooter who is haunted into current inaction by all of his past killings; Vincnet D’Onofrio as mountain man/Indian fighter Jack Horne; Byung-hun Lee as Billy Rocks, an assassin indebted to Goodnight; Manuel Garcia-Rulfo as Vasquez, a Mexican outlaw; and Martin Sensmeier as Red Harvest, a Comanche warrior.

My first reaction upon first hearing the changes to the plot structure the listing of characters who would make up “ the Seven” was: OK, here we go again: Political Correctness on steroids --- everything from the greedy, nasty Big Industry guy to Diversity in the form of representation by every ethnic group known to mankind. But you know what? Except for the over the top uber-villainy of the Bogue character, everything else works just fine. Each character has his moment, his back story, and his purpose to the group. And the camaraderie that develops amongst them plays out nicely.
What’s more, the female lead --- Haley Bennett as Emma Cullen, a widow from the town --- brought so much to the story via her strength as written and the power of Ms. Bennett’s performance that it wouldn’t have been too far out of line to have made her one of the Seven … or perhaps called it The Magnificent Eight. (Yeesh, now who’s getting caught up in this PC crap!)

The action sequences throughout and especially the big climax (although a bit excessive and too drawn-out) are exceptionally well staged. In fact, all the production values --- acting, photography, set designs, music --- are all top notch. And did I say music? During the closing credits we even get the swelling, stirring strains of Elmer Bernstein’s famous theme from the 1960 classic.

All in all, IMO, this movie is just what we need the most right now --- a big, boisterous, good old-fashioned Western!
Recommended.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Another Look: Walt Disney's DAVY CROCKETT AND THE RIVER PIRATES



As a youngster growing up in the mid-1950s, I was swept up in the phenomena that was Walt Disney’s Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier like nobody’s business. Knew every verse of the song, which wasn’t hard to learn because for a couple of years you could hear it playing practically EVERY-flippin’-where you went.
Born on a mountain top in Tennessee
Greenest state in the land of the free
Raised in the woods so he knowed every tree
Killed hisself a bar when he was only three
Da-vee, Da-vee Crockett
King of the Wild Frontier 
Many a young vocal cord was strained trying to hit the high note on that last syllable of “Da-VEE”, let me tell you. And many a barbered and carefully combed head of hair was turned into a sweaty tangle by having a coonskin cap clamped over it for a hours on end, too. The “official” Davy Crockett hat (and all sorts of other gear and related toys) were channeled through a dime store chain called Kresgie’s (sic?). My folks, God bless ‘em, couldn’t afford the official version so the coonskin cap I got was some ratty, roadkill-looking thing (probably more authentic than the official version) but I nevertheless wore it proudly and constantly for a long time.
Getting back to the Kresgie stores, they were making so much money off the arrangement that they pumped “The Ballad of Davy Crockett” over their public speakers with religious fervor. I can only imagine how frazzled the adult employees of those stores must have gotten after hours and days on end of listening to that. I mean, at the time, as a kid, I thought the song was so great that there was no need for any other song to ever be written or performed … But now, as an adult (no wisecracks), I gotta admit that a little bit of that catchy little ditty goes a long way.

So, anyway, the three-part airing of Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier on Disney’s TV show in 1955 was so incredibly popular that it left Mickey Mouse’s papa and his staff scrambling on how to milk its success even more. They re-aired it, they edited the episodes together into a full-length color feature that played in theaters, and they had the marketing department cranking out related products like crazy. But the public wanted more Crockett and Disney wanted to give it to them (and reap additional profits for himself in the process).
A problem arose, however, from the fact that the character of Davy in King of the Wild Frontier (following the fate of the real-life Crockett) died at the Alamo.
How to tell more tales about a popular character you’ve gone and killed off? The answer was, although I don’t believe the term was in common use at the time (maybe not even in existence) --- a prequel. Go back to an earlier point in Davy’s life and tell some more adventures from there.

Hence, Davy Crockett and the River Pirates.
It first aired in 1956, as a two-parter, once again on Disney’s popular TV show. Davy Crockett’s Keelboat Race was shown in November, Davy Crockett and the River Pirates came in December. The following year, the two segments were spliced/edited together for another full-length color feature that played in theaters.
I had the pleasure of watching this version again (probably for the third or fourth time – though not for many, many years) when it played the other night on TCM. Both the little kid in me and what pretends to be an adult found it to hold up very well. The tale stems from a meeting between Crockett and the legendary/quasi-mythical river man Mike Fink. As the segment titles pretty clearly indicate, at first the two are pitted against one another in a rough and tumble keelboat race; then they join forces to battle a pack of marauders pretending to be Indians who are attacking/sacking boats that pass by their hideout at Cave-Inn Rock on the Ohio River.
The leaders of the gang are the notorious Harpe brothers --- vicious, real-life characters, who truly committed river piracy, among other crimes, and were serial killers responsible for as many as 50 victims. As you might imagine for a Disney feature, this aspect of their villainy is not presented as part of the story here. As a matter of fact, the whole treatment of this adventure is done mostly as broad, semi-slapstick comedy. Jeff York, in the role of loud, boisterous Mike Fink (“I’m half wild horse, half cockeyed-alligator, and the rest o’ me is crooked snags and red-hot snappin’ turtle; I can out-run, out-jump, out-drink, out-cuss, and out-fight any man on both sides of the river!”), pretty much steals the show. And Buddy Ebsen, in the role of Davy’s pal Georgie Russell, displays masterful comic timing honed from years of vaudeville and earlier supporting roles. Fess Parker, as Davy, is the stalwart. And, over-arcing all the fun, there is plenty of excitement and rough-and-tumble action.
The production values --- color, music, period touches, supporting players --- are all top notch.

As already mentioned, I enjoyed the heck out of viewing this gem all over again, even after so many years. And you know what else? If I still had that ratty old coonskin cap from decades ago, I likely would have clapped it on and wore it while once again trying to hit the high notes of the ballad whenever it played in the background.
Recommended.