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Sunday, June 5, 2016

COUNT THREE AND PRAY & TOMAHAWK - the Van Heflin & George Sherman collaborations

It's a role that arguably no other actor would suit the way Van Heflin suited it -- the Civil War veteran and former bad boy who finds God and returns to his southern town to take over as preacher.  The character is Luke Fargo and the movie is COUNT THREE AND PRAY (Columbia, 1955). The film plays to all of Heflin's many strengths. The film is also notable for the debut of Joanne Woodward, in a completely non-glamorous but fabulously fun role.  For those reasons alone, although there are more, it's worth a look.  It doesn't appear to be available on DVD.  A copy is on YouTube at the moment and I took the opportunity to view it before it disappears.
Original Film Poster ( with the tag
line "Luke Fargo was through with sin....
but sin wasn't through with Luke Fargo!"

The director, George Sherman, is known most commonly as a workhorse director of "B" Westerns, although his prolific career spanned the late 30s through the mid 70s.  In the 40s and 50s he primarily worked for Columbia and then Universal Pictures. The first picture Van Heflin made after leaving MGM was for Universal under Sherman: TOMAHAWK (1951) (more on this one below).    I highly recommend this post at the Movie Morlocks blog for a re-assessment of Sherman's work.

IMDb calls this film a Western but that doesn't seem 100% accurate.  It's more a period post-Civil War comic melodrama, with some good guy/bad guy dynamics typical in Westerns, along with some gorgeous outdoor scenery.  Adapted by Herb Meadow from his own short story "Calico Pony", the film adopts an overall joyful and lighthearted tone, punctuated with some more serious moments.  It begins with Heflin's character, Luke Fargo, dressed in Union blue uniform, outdoors with two other men who are dressed in Confederate gray.  It becomes clear they are heading home from the Civil War.  A series of visual clues and short scenes establish that the townsfolk have a great distaste for union soldiers, and Fargo in particular.  His own place having been burnt down, Fargo shows up at the place belonging to the former parson, who was killed in the war. There he encounters a wild young teenage girl, Lissy (Woodward), who is orphaned and has been living there. After clumsily pulling a rifle on Fargo, Lissy settles in to a tentative peace with him, and the two decide to share quarters. Then, attempts to prove he's a changed man to the local suspicious townsfolk, and to set up a new church and take over as pastor, meet with resistance from local boss Raymond Burr, and two women who were involved with him before he got religion. The townsfolk goad him into fistfights, gambling, and other sins that he swore he'd given up.  Will he become a successful pastor and gain the respect of his flock? Will he end up with one of the women carrying a torch for him? Will Lissy ever be tamed and become a productive member of the community?  These are the questions the narrative hangs on.  
Civil War soldiers on their way home (Heflin is at right).
Heflin (right) confronts town boss Burr (left)
Struggling to find words in his first
attempt at preaching.
Van Heflin nailed this portrayal - perhaps because as a multi-faceted character, Fargo required Heflin to draw on his experience as both a serious and comic actor.  Able to display conflicted emotions and motivations so well as showcased in many films noir, Heflin easily convinced as a rabble-rouser turned preacher. He could also be earnest without cloying, and scenes in which he attempted to justify his conversion were utterly believable.  In two scenes he made me very nervous with him as he struggled with serious stage fright when trying to preach. The monologue he delivers after the failed church dedication, where he is wrestling with his self worth and his future, is brilliantly delivered.  His subtle comic talents and timing, on display in earlier films such as PRESENTING LILY MARS and THE FEMININE TOUCH, were essential to his banter with Joanne Woodward's character. Pay special attention to the scene where he's just taken a bite of chicken when Lissy tells him she stole the bird from the neighbor's henhouse.

Don't mess with Joanne!
In this, Joanne Woodward's debut, she was 25 years old, and delightfully impish and funny in her attempts to be tough, and convince Fargo she was going to be in charge. With dirt smeared on her face most of the time and a pageboy haircut, she only showed glimpses of the beauty she displayed in later films.  Her southern accent and roots were used to enhance this comic character, and she had a comfortable chemistry with Heflin.  She delivers an hilarious moment during the first preaching scene outdoors, when Fargo was unable to get started with his sermon.  After a pregnant pause, Lissy shouts from a her perch in a tree top, "Why don't you preach about hell, you oughta know about that, you raised enough around here!"  The "congregation" broke out in laughter while Fargo's embarrassment deepened.  Woodward enjoyed her experience in this film (Derek Sculthorpe, Van Heflin, A Life in Film, cited from a contemporary Hedda Hopper piece).  She also apparently nicknamed her second daughter "Lissy" after her character (IMDb),

It's not a perfect film, and while Sherman does a great job at the pacing, and deftly balancing the serious and comic elements, it seemed that Raymond Burr's character didn't have enough to do as a villain, and the characters of Georgina and Selma (the local madam) were unfortunately primarily one-dimensional and cliched.  In a minor quibble, today's sci-fi fans will likely be distracted, as I was, by a musical theme that starts identically to that of Star Trek original series (!)
Georgina (Allison Hayes) confronts Luke (Heflin) as the Bishop (Robert Burton) contemplates his next move. 
Yancey (Raymond Burr) and Georgina prepare to start a new life.
The dynamic between Fargo and Lissy throughout the film is one of a kindly uncle taking care of a wild teenage girl who, not surprisingly, develops a crush on him. That the two might take their relationship in an adult direction seemed remote, and there were only minor hints that Fargo ever felt an interest in her beyond paternal, and those perhaps were seen that way only in hindsight.  Additionally, the audience, throughout the entire film, believed that Lissy was about 15 and only near the end is it revealed she is actually 18.  At that time Fargo's restored as a rightful pastor by the bishop, who knows something needs to be done about the 18-year-old girl and the pastor sharing quarters--he decides that the two need to be married right away.  Lissy is thrilled with the idea and hands the bishop her rifle in case of any trouble. After a brief and half-hearted protest, Fargo seems to acquiesce to this turn of events and the film ends with them walking toward the chapel arm in arm. Initially I wasn't sure if I felt comfortable with this -- considering Fargo is old enough to be Lissy's father, and played that kind of role through the film.  Then I reflected that in the 1800s, marriages of convenience, and between men and women of vastly different ages, would not have been seen as unusual.  I came to terms with the end of this film; despite that I would have been fine if Lissy had just gone off to boarding school or the like, with her life bettered thanks to Fargo.

Eager to see another Sherman film, I picked TOMAHAWK (1951) -- on DVD as part of a 10 Movie western collection from Universal-- because it also starred Heflin. This one is a more traditional western, with a screenplay (Silvia Richards & Maurice Geraghty) that revolves around, although takes liberties with, the real-life fateful encounters between the U.S. Cavalry and the Sioux tribes in the Black Hills in the 1860s. The main character is Jim Bridger (Heflin) who was a real explorer and scout, and famed for the "Bridger Pass".  He was a character in two other films in made in the classic era.

Heflin giving the U.S. Army officers an earful about
their treatment of Native Americans
The film is shot almost entirely on location outdoors in the windswept plains and hills of South Dakota.  The color looks gorgeous.  Like BROKEN ARROW, the story portrays the plight of the Native Americans sympathetically, with Heflin taking their side as the peace broker during an intense time.  If anything, that intensity is reflected almost a bit too much in Heflin's performance, who commands the screen but comes across early as a bit self-righteous, which may have been a flaw in the script.  He does a fine job in the role but I suspect it didn't stretch him the way Luke Fargo did.  Jack Oakie in a supporting role brings a bit of levity, if not outright comedy, to the film, and is splendid. Yvonne De Carlo is beautiful and spirited as a young woman trapped in the Cavalry fort and torn in her affections between evil cavalry officer Alex Nicol, and Heflin.  The Native American cast was headed by John War Eagle as Chief Red Cloud, and many Native Americans filled the ranks of the cast in minor roles. Unfortunately the part of the young native girl, Monahseetah, is played by white Susan Cabot. (In a parallel to COUNT THREE AND PRAY, here there is key relationship between Heflin's character and a young girl/woman, which in this film is left undefined for about 2/3 of the film).

Warriors on both sides line up in anticipation of a key
 peace conference
The script did a good job of revealing key backstories and relationships little by little, to enlighten the underlying motivations of the characters and build tension.  While not a character study, per se, there was a degree of development, and not always predictable.  The action sequences were not extensive but were well done.

Heflin enhanced his local celebrity as a result of this film, as recounted in his biography (Van Heflin, A Life in Film (2016) by Derek Sculthorpe).  He was fascinated with the history of the local Native Americans, and even went so far as to learn the Sioux language, which he periodically speaks in the film.  Honored by the local Sioux tribe, he was adopted by the chief as an honorary grandson, and given the name 'Looking Horse'.  He spoke at various civic gatherings in Rapid City as well during his time on location.  The conviction he felt for the cause of the Native Americans was no doubt reflected in the intensity his performance.

There was an emotional heft to this film, with credit to Sherman and the actors.  I felt immensely sad at the bloodshed that accompanied this time in history.  While it's not a classic, and occasionally falls victim to cliches, I do recommend it highly for all western film fans.  For further reading, check out this perspective (by Colin at Livius1 blog). Some parting images below.
Alex Nicol romances the beautiful Yvonne De Carlo
Jack Oakie (right) and friendly cavalry office Russ Conway
As stated by R. Emmett Sweeney for the Movie Morlocks blog post on George Sherman, "The final shootout is more like a Holocaust, Van Heflin’s severe face colored with nausea." Shown here with Preston Foster as the Colonel.
John War Eagle as Chief Red Cloud is overcome with emotion as he witnesses the slaughter of his warriors.

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