Monday, July 17, 2017

Another Look: THE LAST COMMAND (1955, starring Sterling Haydden)

I first saw this film when it aired on TV (probably WGN out of Chicago) in the late Fifties. Since then it has been little seen and largely out of circulation, though I understand it was available in VHS and only recently on DVD.

It made an impact on me for a number of reasons. First, by then (at the tender age of 9 or 10) I had become quite interested in all things Alamo. (This stemmed, at that point, mainly from the Disney-Davy Crockett phenomenon that swept the country through the mid-Fifties and from a great uncle who told me about visiting the actual Alamo down in Texas and being able to still see bullet holes in the structure.) Secondly, the Alamo sequence in this film had a number of things in stark contrast to what had been presented by Disney --- mainly that there were women and children present in the fort (which I thought had to be an error) and then the portrayal of Davy Crockett by actor Arthur Hunnicutt (more on that later). Third it was my introduction to actor Sterling Hayden, whose work I would seek out and enjoy in many movies thereafter --- and then enjoy as an author much later on.

The film is constructed around legendary Jim Bowie (played by Hayden). It starts out a little slow and talky during the months leading up to the breakout of the Texas war for independence from Mexico, portraying Bowie (correctly) as a wealthy land owner and quite close friend (exaggerated) of Mexican tyrant-on-the-rise Santa Ana. It touches on the death of Bowie's wife and children due to the plague, covers a restless period where Bowie is on the fence about which side he should take, and then culminates in him taking charge of the Texican volunteers at the Alamo and sharing overall command with William Travis (played by Richard Carlson in probably his finest role).
You all know the story from there. The decision is made to defend the Alamo at all costs, costing Santa Ana days and weeks of delay while Sam Houston builds a true Texas army. Crockett, expected to arrive with hundreds more volunteers only shows up with 29; Fannin's reinforcements due to come from Goliad breaks down and can't make it in time; the line in the sand is drawn --- cross over if you're willing to fight to the death, take your chances and flee if not (with all crossing over). And then the rousing final battle where 180 go down fighting bravely against several thousand.

Produced and released through Republic Pictures, this is a considerably more ambitious feature than the Disney feature (which was originally made for TV) though not nearly on the scale of John Wayne's epic THE ALAMO which would come five years later. The well known back story is that Wayne, who was Republic's biggest star for many years, had long wanted to make a film about the Alamo. Herbert J. Yates, the head of Republic, strung him along for a number of years. A script was even written and approved. But Wayne, wanting control to tell the Alamo story his way, insisted on producing and directing the film; Yates wanted him only as a star. Wayne left Republic Pictures over the dispute and Yates refused to release the prepared script to him. In the end, once Wayne's version was completed and released in 1960, there are a couple key scenes that closely mirror each other and of course the overarching story is the same. But otherwise the two films have their own distinctions and both, in my opinion, turned out pretty good.

Though THE LAST COMMAND did not receive an extravagant budget (such as Wayne's later version) it nevertheless was made to high production standards. It was produced and directed by Frank Lloyd (a two-time Academy Award winner). The musical score was by acclaimed Max Steiner (complete with title lyrics sung by Gordon MacRae, at that time super hot as the star of Oklahoma! on Broadway).
As Bowie, Hayden does his usual competent, low key job. As Travis, Richard Carlson (fresh from appearances in numerous sci-fi and horror B movies, including Creature From the Black Lagoon the year before) gives perhaps one of the best Travis portrayals I've seen to date; his speech upon drawing the cross-over-if-you're-willing-to-fight scene (which may not have ever truly happened in real life, but is great drama nevertheless) is stirring and the intensity on his face and in his eyes during the final battle seems to fit perfectly. In a relatively small role as a fictional love interest to Bowie, Anna Marie Alberghetti does an okay job (come on, for an Italian opera star playing a Mexican contessa, you gotta cut her some slack). The previously mentioned, Arthur Hunnicutt plays the Crockett role as yet another cantankerous old Indian fighter, the mold he fit comfortably in on so many other occasions (The Big Sky, El Dorado, to name a couple classics); he's always a joy to watch and listen to, but his Crockett is not only a distinct departure from other interpretations but somehow seems a little too backwoodsy for a man who traveled the country and served in Congress. The rest of the cast is filled out nicely by numerous character actors giving solid performances --- Ernest Borgnine, John Russell, Jim Davis, and Slim Pickens among them. Finally, J. Carroll Naish gives an interesting performance as Santa Ana, making him pompous and ambitious yet at the same time a bit sympathetic, something never done in other Alamo films.
When the final battle comes, it is rousing and exciting and very well done, even though the budget allowed, appearance-wise, for a very scaled down version of the old mission and the “horde” of Mexican soldiers seems stretched a mite thin in a few scenes.

All and all, THE LAST COMMAND is rousing and entertaining. As big a John Wayne fan as I am and much as it pains me to admit it, it stacks up very well in many regards against Duke's bloated, long-winded epic (which I still like a lot) and is considerably better than the dark, dour 2004 ALAMO starring Billy Bob Thornton.
It is now playing regularly on the Starz Western channel and well worth keeping an eye peeled for.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Noteworthy Reads: THE PECOS UNDERTAKER by Colby Jackson

Mel Odom, under his Colby Jackson byline, has been on a real tear across the Western fiction landscape this summer. Recently on these pages I wrote about THE MATAMOROS BULL, his latest novel in the Rancho Diablo series. On the heels of that, though not covered here, was the novella THE ARMADILLO'S HOLE SALOON. Both are mighty fine entries not only in the series, but in the Western genre overall.

Now comes the just-released THE PECOS UNDERTAKER, the first book in a projected new series featuring protagonists Charlie Stark and Maggie Buchanan. It is one of the most original and exciting page-turners I have come across in a long, long time!

At the start of the book, Charlie is an assistant undertaker to his mentor Mr. Henson; Maggie is a deputy working for her father, the town marshal. Both are loners with troubled pasts and few friends, though they have a rather tenuous relationship with each other.
Mr. Henson is tortured and killed for mysterious reasons by the vicious outlaw Angel Blunt and Charlie is shot and left for dead. Not long after that, Maggie's father is also killed by Blunt and his gang as the result of a raid that leaves many other Pecos citizens injured and dead as well. The worlds of Charlie and Maggie have been turned upside down and the two loners (now more so than ever) gradually strengthen their friendship and unify to put the pieces of their lives back together, always with the end goal of seeing Angel Blunt brought to justice. Charlie – even though a bit hot-tempered and handy with his fists – is nevertheless the calmer and more practical of the two; Maggie – cool, deadly with her brace of pistols and also quick to throw a punch – is the force that propels them forward.
Charlie no longer pursues the undertaker trade, though he still prefers dressing in a suit and tie such as he's become accustomed to; hence he is often still referred to as “the undertaker”. Maggie, discharged from her deputy duties by the new town marshal, continues to wear jeans and colorful blouses and to pack a pair of guns. Together they form a bail bond service and bounty hunt their own fugitives when the need arises.
They have several encounters with nasty hombres, learning as they go and becoming quite good at their trade. But they're always alert for something that will eventually lead them to Blunt and his gang and, without giving too much away, they achieve that in the rousing climax.

This is one of those books you never want to see end because it is that good, and you will definitely want to see more of Maggie and Charlie. The pace is fast, the action plentiful, the characters colorful and memorable, and the writing is top-notch.
I strongly, strongly recommend this book!