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Sunday, July 24, 2016

Western Movie Summer Part 3: Two 'Border Westerns' from the 1950s

It's been about a month since I last posted an update from my 'Western Movie Summer', but despite that I've been watching as many Westerns as I possibly can squeeze in.  Following the general outline of the podcast course I'm well into in the 1950s now.  For this post I contrast two films from the beginning and end of that decade: John Ford's RIO GRANDE from 1950, and THEY CAME TO CORDURA, (1959) directed by Robert Rossen.  While having somewhat similar themes, the two films approach them very differently, and in many ways the first feels like a late 1940s film, while the second prefigures the more gritty 1960s.

Any classic movie buff or Western fan will no doubt be intimate with much of John Ford's exceptional and award-winning directorial work.  His output is staggering: 146 films starting in the silent era through the mid 1960s.  While not exclusively focusing on Westerns, he viewed himself as a storyteller of that great American frontier:  "I'm John Ford. I make Westerns," he was quoted as saying.  RIO GRANDE falls near the middle of Ford's career and is the last of the now-dubbed 'Cavalry Trilogy', which also included SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON and FORT APACHE.

John Wayne sporting a mustache, with O'Hara
This one stars Ford favorite John Wayne as a Union Cavalry Fort commander in Texas near the Mexican border.  He must confront a threat of marauding Apaches who threaten the U.S. settlers from their base camp in Mexico.  He's told initially that he cannot take his troops across the border under any circumstances.  At the same time he must also deal with an estranged wife (Maureen O'Hara) who shows up looking for their son (Claude Jarman), who dropped out of West Point and has enlisted in his father's regiment to the dismay of both parents.  The film is in black and white, which apparently was not the choice of Ford, but Herbert Yates, head of Republic Pictures, nixed color photography.  The B&W is effective though, as it somewhat distances us and makes us feel the 'myth' of the west as opposed to the reality.  Ford's characteristic humor emerges often in this one, especially through Victor McLaglen's befuddled sergeant.  The romance engages us, and the first pairing of Wayne with statuesque, strong-willed beauty Maureen O'Hara would strike cinema gold.  The camaraderie among the troops, both enlisted and officers, feels natural with Ford's 'stock company' actors including Ben Johnson and Harry Carey Jr. all acquitting themselves well.  With the beautiful photography and great action sequences, the film struck me as emblematic of the best output of the studio era:  although it doesn't question the social and political consensus, it presents a psychologically layered and complex character drama.

Gorgeous, strong Maureen O'Hara
Prof. Slotkin makes the case that the film projected a political/military view that in order to protect the world from communism, which was emerging as the next major threat, the U.S. government might have to break laws to take right action (e.g. in Korea).  In the film, the law broken here is 'crossing the border' into Mexico, which the film presents as ultimately the right thing, to save the children taken captive.  That Maureen O'Hara's character comes around to approving this action validates this view.  The other major theme Ford subtly tackles here is the familiar one -- the definition of manhood and passing the torch to the next generation.  We see this struggle in how Jarman's character tries to gain the approval of his father, and the difficulty Wayne has in accepting his son when he hasn't proven himself.  Well, ultimately Jarman does, by pulling an Apache arrow out of his father's chest; O'Hara comes around to her husband's world view, and all is reconciled to the man's view of heroism and right action.  

While Victor Young composed the score, the highlights for me were the songs interspersed through the movie, performed by the 'Sons of the Pioneers' western music group.  They were written into the script as a regimental troupe of musicians, and when they played, the action stopped and you were treated, along with the cast, to a gorgeous bit of musical history.  This added to the nostalgic tone of the film.  Check out this video clip of a key scene with the musical serenade:

Based on a 1958 novel by Glendon Swarthout, adaped by Ivan Moffat and director Rossen who had been blacklisted, this is a very different film.  First, I admit to watching this for Van Heflin, clearly a current obsession, but who elevates every film he's in. This one is no exception.  The star, though, is Western film hero Gary Cooper, near the end of his career.  He plays an army officer who had been disgraced because of actions seen to be cowardly, and must now earn his pay by identifying those soldiers whose bravery should earn them the Congressional Medal of Honor.  He's stationed with a Cavalry outfit in 1916 that is ordered to raid a hacienda in Mexico against a band of Pancho Villa's soldiers who are taking refuge there in their ongoing rebellion.  The hacienda is owned by none other than Rita Hayworth, here an American ex-pat on the 'wrong' side.  Ultimately, the battle is won, Hayworth's taken prisoner, and Cooper must remove several men along with Hayworth -- these men Cooper himself witnessed acting heroically, and will see that they escape from further harm to claim their award and thus be examples for all other fighting men.  He's required to get this disparate group, including Heflin, Tab Hunter, Dick York, Michael Callan, and Richard Conte, back to Cordura in the U.S., and the main part of the film is their difficult journey.
The film's theme after the opening titles
It's a film that isn't subtle about probing the concept of bravery, cowardice, and manhood.  In fact, contrary to RIO GRANDE, actions in battle against the enemy are not what define a man, but instead  how he treats his fellow humans in the ordinary struggles of life.  So here, each of the soldiers who appeared brave in battle are found to be vain, opportunistic, or criminal, and all treat Cooper with contempt.  Heflin's character, a sergeant, is a particularly nasty piece of work. After the group loses their horses to hostile native Americans, they find themselves lost in the desert, growing desperate as their food and water supplies dwindle.  In that literal and figurative cauldron, the moral drama plays out -- man against man, man against woman.  And, there is no question here about the legality of crossing the border to carry out a military action.
Rita Hayworth openly taunting her captors by pouring away liquor, as Cooper looks on
After a set-up similar to many Westerns of the era, with the portrayal of the men in the army outpost and then the raid on the hacienda, it quickly comes a different movie, an unrelentingly brutal one with just the main characters fighting the elements and each other.  Rita Hayworth sets aside her glamorous image, and while she's still beautiful, she has to fight throughout to retain her personal dignity.  Her strength matches Cooper's, who, overall stoic as usual, ultimately finds his inner hero.   The production was plagued with problems. Dick York suffered a back injury that limited his career.  Most scenes had to be re-shot due to a mid-filming unplanned location change. Heflin said it was the most physically demanding film work he'd done.  Yet, it marked a turn toward a less romanticized view of the western myth, and the U.S. military in particular.
The men find a source of water, only to find out it's contaminated.


  1. From my post of a couple of years ago. "Rio Grande is at its core a story about healing, the coming together of a broken couple, a broken family and a broken country." The film is a sentimental favourite of mine that I can recite (and sing) in my sleep. Often dismissed as the film Ford had to do in order to get the funding for "The Quiet Man", I think it works on many levels.

    "They Came to Cordura" is a film I have only seen once and now that I have read of the difficulties of the shoot I understand a little bit more of what kept it at arms length. Next viewing I shall put that aside and dig a little deeper.

    1. I really like the 'healing' perspective. Yes, there is great beauty in that theme in the film. I can believe it is one of your favorites, as it's so well done on many levels. Nothing to throw away here.

      TCTC is a very bleak film and while there are redemptive elements it doesn't have an optimistic tone. It can be a bit overdone at times. I'd be interested to hear your thoughts if you watch it again sometime.

      Are you enjoying the TCM Western festival? My DVR is working overtime. I wish they'd continue it through August but then I guess we wouldn't have "Summer Under the Stars"!

    2. You can never have too many westerns, I always say. I think TCM has done a fine job with the series, but can do more. Perhaps later in the year they could bring in experts like Jim Kitses who wrote "Horizons West: The Western from John Ford to Clint Eastwood" and really do it up right.

    3. Thanks for the reading recommendation. I'm currently reading 'The Westerner' essay in 'The Immediate Experience' by Robert Warshow. My 'professor' is the author of 'Gunfighter Nation' which looks to be good although I haven't approached it yet.

  2. I really only watched "THEY CAME TO CORDURA" for Van Heflin, as well. B) Good sum up. I have seen it a bunch of times. I find the ending unsettling. It brings the point of the movie across nicely, but only by ignoring some things that happened in the story. I know I cannot say specifically the problem I have because that would ruin it if someone has not seen it, but do you think everything is played out enough for the ending to fit. I just am not sure. B)

    1. Hi, thanks for stopping by and commenting! Yay, another Heflin fan! He is so good he really makes you believe he's a nasty excuse for a human in this. The ending is strange, but it didn't bother me that much...I know it's controversial and I believe the book ended differently. I do think there were some things left unresolved here. I'm not a huge fan of ambiguous endings :-). I may watch again soon to see if my perspective changes!