The Films of Delmer Daves


Were one to run a poll on the best or most influential directors of westerns during the classic era, I feel sure that the “holy trinity” of John Ford, Anthony Mann and Budd Boetticher would come out on top. That, of course, is fair enough given the quality of work produced by that trio. Were the range to be widened to take in directors in general from that era, I feel less confident of predicting the outcome, although I would be surprised if Ford didn’t feature prominently once more. And while such exercises are fun and provide a useful launch pad for discussion and debate  among aficionados, there is that tendency for certain names to dominate and a corresponding likelihood of others getting swept aside or at least shunted further down the line to a point where attention among participants has faded or their enthusiasm has grown muted. All of which leads me to Delmer Daves, a director I have grown to regard as a personal favorite, and the subject of a new book by Douglas Horlock, The Films of Delmer Daves – Visions of Progress in Mid-Twentieth Century America.

As the title suggests, this is a study of the films as opposed to a biography of the man. It is also a book which takes a broadly academic approach too, which is consistent with the author’s background as a former history and education lecturer. This means there are copious footnotes and references to the writings and views of assorted academics, critics and commentators, including Joseph McBride, Andrew Sarris, Blake Lucas, Jim Kitses, and Pauline Kael to name just a few. It is divided into four main sections concentrating on the films in general, the political and social values represented, race, and gender.

Horlock opens with an overview of the films, those directed as well as those scripted by Daves, and takes a look at the critical response to the body of work. There is a presentation of some of the more dismissive or less appreciative critical reactions and an attempt to root out the reasons for such views. There is too an acknowledgment of positive responses, a viewpoint which is shared by Horlock and supported by reference to some of the most memorable and cinematically effective scenes in his films. Horlock also discusses the character of Daves and how he fostered a sense of positivity on the set, something I feel shines through in many of his movies.

Horlock examines Daves’ technical prowess, from his framing and spatial awareness in CinemaScope productions to his carefully rationed use of the subjective camera in Dark Passage. He takes pains to convey how Daves’ use of technical innovation was always backed by the need to create or enhance the humanity of what he was putting up on the screen. He also addresses the criticism sometimes leveled at the director’s endings, an area I once regarded as problematic myself. To my horror, it came to my notice that Bosley Crowther, the prince of critical curmudgeon, took such a view. In my defense, however, I’m pleased to say I have grown beyond that position. Thankfully.

“Daves’s stories are about physical or spiritual regeneration and redemption, and how characters can be fulfilled and benefit their community as well as be served by a society that has the potential for tolerance and benevolence. His films focus on the innate goodness of humans and their potential to make the world a better place, bringing together communities and individuals separated by prejudice and intolerance.”

The whole thrust of the book is, as its subtitle indicates, an effort to link the films of Delmer Daves to the mores and attitudes prevalent at the time they were made. Thus we have a detailed analysis of his war films, such as Destination Tokyo and Hollywood Canteen, and the way they reflect the war effort during WWII, as well as a title like Pride of the Marines, which tackles the difficulties of rehabilitating veterans in the aftermath of the conflict.

Personally, I found the sections which look at the director’s portrayals of both race and gender to be the most absorbing, possibly due to the fact there was increased scope for analysis of his westerns. Drum Beat, Broken Arrow, The Last Wagon and White Feather are all given in-depth and appreciative treatment in the section on race. The chapter on gender has interesting points to make on the way Daves portrayed men and women and their interactions on screen, with his late career melodramas being well represented as well as major works such as 3:10 to Yuma.

All told, the book offers a comprehensive analysis of Daves’ body of work, both as a director and as a writer. It’s fully indexed and sourced and it is at its best when Horlock is presenting his own theories and views, where the writing has more of a flow to it. Where it does feel drier and less readable (or less enjoyable at any rate) are the quoted sections from the writings of some academics. There are a smattering of black and white photos throughout and I feel a few more would have added to the visual appeal. As a fan of the director’s work,I enjoyed it for some of the insights presented and some of the background information I hadn’t been aware of, and it has to be said the author’s research is thorough, not least his use of Daves’ own papers.

The Films of Delmer Daves – Visions of Progress in Mid-Twentieth Century America by Douglas Horlock

242 pages Published 2022 by University Press of Mississippi

(Photos used in this article are for illustrative purposes only and, with the exception of the cover image, do not appear in the book)

47 thoughts on “The Films of Delmer Daves

  1. I’m surprised how few of his movies I’ve seen. I’ve seen Dark Passage, which as its interesting moments although it’s not a favourite of mine and I’ve seen Demetrius and the Gladiators which I liked. I know there are quite a few of his movies that I should see, but I have such a long list of movies that I really should see!

    Like

    • He has become one of my top directors over time and I get a great deal of pleasure from his movies. Yes, his filmography is quite extensive and pretty varied too, which is generally true of many studio era directors. There is much to enjoy in his movies and I’m happy to encourage anyone to sample it for themselves.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Good to hear Delmer Daves’ s career is being chronicled,though, as you describe it, it sounds far too academic for me. I’ll always be an admirer of this director for four films which I love – The Hanging Tree, 3.10 to Yuma, Dark Passage, The Last Wagon.
    I’ d love to see a tribute along the lines of “The Films Of…” series.

    Like

    • I think there is room for a book on Dave’s that would be more generally accessible. That said, the author of this book writes quite cleanly and accessibly when he is communicating his own thoughts and insights, less so in some of the quoted sections.

      Like

  3. This sounds great Colin. Dave’s is certainly deserving of such a tome. If it’s not too pricey I’ll get it! Very curious to know what they think of the later family dramas with which he rounded out his career.

    Like

    • God question. I thought the writer was remarkably fair and balanced in his assessment of those films. He looks at the less complimentary reactions that were common and then presents his own take, one which, as I say, feels balanced. He doesn’t shy away from an acknowledgment of some of their weaknesses but also focuses on the more successful aspects (some of the good performances of Suzanne Pleshette, for example) and how some of the themes tackled tie into his work as a whole.

      Like

  4. A typically balanced and thoughtful review, Colin. I like that the book focuses on the films rather than being a biography and that you see value in it despite its dryness in some sections. I’m off to buy the book on Kindle. I had a chuckle about your references to Bosley Crowther. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him positively review a movie, including many that are now regarded as classics.

    Like

    • I admit I much prefer books that focus on films as opposed to the private life of the subject, the latter aspect rarely interesting me much.
      To give Mr Crowther his due, there are references in there to his more enthusiastic reactions as well.

      Like

      • I much prefer books that focus on films as opposed to the private life of the subject

        I prefer not to know too much about the personal lives of directors and stars I admire. If they did good work I’d prefer just to enjoy that work without being distracted by the fact that they may not have been overly pleasant people.

        Like

        • Quite. It’s that point about distinguishing between the art and the artist, isn’t it? Of course there are times when something in a filmmaker’s life has had a demonstrable effect on the work produced. It can be helpful to be aware of such things but too much tittle tattle or gossip becomes tiresome to me.

          Like

          • Yes. The sad fact is that brilliant creative people are often troubled and unstable and their personal lives are often chaotic and messed-up. A lot of the great writers, painters and composers would have been nightmares to be associated with. But if they created great art (or great movies) then we just have to put aside our feelings about their private lives.

            Like

            • Personally speaking, aside from the fact I don’t feel it’s my place to be passing judgement on anyone’s personal affairs, it seems more than a little pointless in the case of people whose business is creating something necessarily and indeed by definition removed from their private characters.

              Liked by 1 person

  5. Good choice for a slightly different subject matter here, Colin. I have come to appreciate Daves’ work quite a lot in recent years though it is his westerns that satisfy me the most. I think, like Vienna, I would find the book more academic than I like on movies.
    I have a fondness for those later-day films that he made for Warner’s in the early 60s, chiefly because I was a teenager then, had a crush on Connie Stevens and the films ‘grabbed’ me. Now – I don’t know really. Daves made them though so they probably stand up quite well still.

    Like

    • I still need to catch up on a few myself. They are variable, or what I’ve seen of them anyway, but I can’t say I actively dislike any of those I have seen. I have both Parrish and Youngblood Hawke nearby and I’ll have to try to make time to check them out.

      Like

  6. Coming up on TCM here next week is a Jacques Tourneur film that I have never seen, THE FEARMAKERS 1958. Dana Andrews is the lead. So do any of you good folks have an opinion on if it is worth recording?
    Gord

    Like

    • The Fearmakers seems to be a love it or hate it movie among Tourneur fans. It’s often dismissed as a Red Scare movie. I think it’s a bit more than that. I see it as a movie with a more general point to make about public manipulation. I think it’s worth watching, and Dana Andrews is very good.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Being concerned or frightened of the reds, especially as manifested at the time by Stalin’s USSR, is perfectly reasonable. Should still be in play living as we are in a world of so-called presidents for life.

        Like

        • I agree. I can never understand why ‘red scare’ movies from the late 40s to late 50s would be ‘dismissed’. There wasn’t a ‘red scare’ for no reason.
          Today our friends in Ukraine can testify to it.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Something the book brings out, and which impressed me even if it didn’t particularly surprise me, was the fact while Daves was a Republican and tended towards conservatism, he had a low opinion of the blacklist and HUAC, taking a characteristically nuanced and tolerant view which meant he was happy to collaborate with people like Albert Maltz, Donald Ogden Stewart, Dalton Trumbo and Leo Townsend even if he didn’t always share their politics. He was also astute enough to recognize that the studios’ inbuilt filters meant that producers and executives who ensured the “studio line” was adhered to were actually more effective in preventing any supposedly subversive content leaking through.

            Like

  7. I understand that Daves stopped makingv Westerns due to health issues. The only films of his later work that I have seen is SPENCER’S MOUNTAIN which I enjoyed at the time of it’s release but would find overly sentimental if viewed today. DARK PASSAGE is a top notch Noir with a wonderful supporting cast-I guess it’s my favourite of his non Westerns. Yes, we discussed THE FEARMAKERS recently Barry is a fan but I’m not and nor was Tourneur by all accounts. The low budget does not help either-I thought Dick Foran’s nasty villain was the best thing in the movie,Barry again does not. What a boring world it would be if we all liked the same stuff. THE FEARMAKERS has been released by Kino Lorber as a 3 part Noir set with CHICAGO CONFIDENTIAL and THE BOSS. The only film that I want in the set is THE BOSS which is being shown on the UK’s London Live TV channel this week. I hope that the print is better than the terrible MGM/UA MOD/DVD that surfaced several years back. THE BOSS is top drawer Byron Haskin if that means anything to anyone.

    Liked by 1 person

    • John,
      The reason for my dismissal of Tourneur’s comment is that often these brief near angry words either do not exist in reality or are the product of exhaustion. Either way, a good deal less than reasonable to dismiss your own work and something more is almost surely at play.

      Like

  8. Thanks for your review, Colin. I also got to read this analysis earlier this year, and it gave me a more comprehensive view of Delmer Daves than I had ever had before. He gets disregarded, but between the WWII pictures and westerns, there is a lot of interesting work.

    Like

    • I have a very attractive Blu-ray of that one that is probably due a rewatch. I recall first seeing it as part of a season of Sci-Fi movies on TV back in the early 1980s and it impressed me a lot then.

      Like

  9. This Friday my 10 gallon hat and cowboy boots come out. Hitting the Calgary Stampede grounds for a day of rodeo, and best of all, the chuckwagon races. Been a decade or so since the last time I went. Temp could reach 33-34 C. That is 10 degrees warmer than I like.

    Gordon

    Like

  10. Obviously rolling on the success of “Broken Arrow” (1950), Delmar Daves wrote and directed “Bird of Paradise” (1951) a remake of King Vidor’s much dicier “Bird of Paradise” (1932). The storyline follows that of “Broken Arrow” and stars Jeff Chandler and Debra Paget as Polynesians and Louis Jourdan as the French man who becomes intimately involved in their lives. The design of the opening credits is very similar to those of “Broken Arrow”. While it is not among Daves’ best films, it nonetheless has magnificent production values. Winton C. Hoch’s color photography, shot on location in Hawaii, is stunning. Everett Sloane delivers a frightening performance as a nihilistic White man who is trapped in paradise. Jack Elam is magnificently slimy as a bigoted island hopper. Jeff Chandler is once again strong and noble and Debra Paget is the beautiful maiden who falls in love with an outsider. Where “Broken Arrow” ended on a hopeful note despite the death of Sonseeahray, “Bird of Paradise” seems very fatalistic to me.

    I have to give a nod to “Demetrius and the Gladiators” which I think is much better than “The Robe”. I loved it as a kid and I think it is still fun to watch with Daves allowing Jay Robison to take Caligula completely over the top.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Colin, although it was way back in February that you reviewed Delmer Daves’ “KINGS GO FORTH” (1958) and I bought the MGM DVD at that time based on your writing, it has taken until now for me to take it off the pile and watch.
    A most superior movie IMHO with all of Daves’ strengths on display – his sensitive story-telling, ability to bring out the best from his actors and the feature of redemption whilst showing human beings as what they are – human.
    Sinatra was, as you said, at the top of his game at this time, both as singer and actor. I admire Tony Curtis for taking on such an unsympathetic character ultimately although even then with shades of grey.
    Natalie Wood and Leora Dana are both superb, bringing out fully 3-dimensional characters.

    Thanks for bringing me to this movie.

    Liked by 1 person

        • Agreed on his pacing, Frank. Broken Arrow is a movie where the theme and handling of its subject matter gets almost all the attention of critics and commentators, which is fair enough and quite understandable. However, other aspects of the filmmaker’s art seem to get pushed to one side in the process.

          Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.