Mogambo

Doing the right thing – a trite phrase in some respects, and yet it also goes straight to the heart of the personal dilemmas which form the basis of and indeed drive so many dramatic works. Ultimately, what does it mean to “do the right thing”, or to “go noble” as one of the characters in Mogambo (1953) puts it? Isn’t this just one aspect of our human condition, that perennial struggle for primacy between head and heart? Of course there’s an argument to be made that neither head nor heart can act entirely independently, and perhaps the way this movie resolves the internal conflicts which confront its characters is a reflection of that.

The notion of the fish out of water is a useful and much used dramatic device and whole movies have been hung on this particular peg. Nevertheless, it can be a tiresome conceit if the filmmaker decides to rely on it alone. John Ford was nothing if not a great artist and therefore had the wisdom to know that while this could act as a hook initially, far more substantial morsels were necessary to build a story around. So it is that Eloise Kelly (Ava Gardner) is introduced, turning up in the East African bush where the sass and sex appeal of Manhattan are of, let’s say, limited effect. It appears she has been stood up in style by a high class date, and the philosophical way she accepts this suggests that she’s no stranger to such setbacks. Stranded in an alien environment, with no way out till the next boat arrives in a week’s time, she decides to make the best of it. Making the best of it includes trying to find something useful to do and hopefully avoiding the censure of her grudging host, game trapper Vic Marswell (Clark Gable). Nature has a habit of taking its course in even the most civilized and sophisticated of settings so it ought to come as no surprise when wilder climes hurry that process along a little. To cut to the chase, Kelly and Marswell embark on a brief affair, but only one of them is looking any further at this stage. When the supply boat arrives it brings a couple of green innocents on a scientific expedition, and signals an abrupt end to Kelly’s dreams. The young couple are the Nordleys, Donald (Donald Sinden) and his wife Linda (Grace Kelly), and it won’t be long before Marswell’s eye is roving once more. However, it would be a dull and disappointing business if that’s all there were to it; either the tides of the river or maybe the more persuasive tides of fate see the old steamboat run aground and an unexpected reunion effected.

The consensus view on remakes seems to be that they are rarely a patch on the originals. Whether or not one subscribes to that approach, it’s generally advisable to assess everything on its own merits. Mogambo is a reworking of the 1932 movie Red Dust, which also featured a young Clark Gable in the lead. Even though it’s been many years since I viewed the original I feel secure in my view that Ford’s retread is by far the better film. Of course the fact that it’s Ford’s hand guiding it makes all the difference. His little quiet touches, his grace notes, are everywhere; from the resigned drop of Gardner’s head as she watches Gable walk off to greet his new clients, to the way Gable himself contemplates his smouldering cigarette as his own chances dwindle correspondingly. There is too the seamless blending of landscape and environment into the narrative, with key moments played out against the backdrop of moonlit lakes and waterfalls. Mogambo was made in the middle of a run of movies for Ford where this professed “director of westerns” avoided the genre with which his name has been so closely linked. From Rio Grande in 1950 until The Searchers in 1956 he didn’t touch westerns, but there remains something of the spirit of that genre on show here. Ford was always drawn to the intimacy of frontier living, the  minutiae of existence of those living on the edge of civilization, particularly in the Cavalry trilogy. Mogambo recreates some of that in the comfortable and companionable remoteness of Marswell’s lodge, while the beauty and hazards of the wilderness become apparent as the safari gets underway. And underpinning it all is the threat to existential connectedness, the essential symbiosis that links everything, which is posed by the arrival of the civilized Nordleys; this is quietly underscored by the frustration felt by Gable when he finds himself forced to kill animals on two separate occasions in order to save the lives of these two interlopers.

In addition to Ford’s motifs and sensibility, a more mature and experienced Gable adds another dimension to the movie. There is that gruff individualism that he so often traded on but it’s tempered somewhat by his playing a man who has lived too long in isolation, detached from emotional connections and therefore able to bond freely only on the most superficial levels. Still, those extra years add depth to his portrayal, the passage of time, or his awareness of it at least, seem to give a greater urgency to his character’s hunger, that knowledge of the need to grasp whatever opportunities come his way before it’s too late. In fact, as the story unfolds it is possible to read the internal conflict he’s experiencing, that head and heart business again, where he’s forever trying to balance some yearning for fulfillment against his personal code of ethics. In so doing, he runs the risk of losing the greater prize.

When all is said and done, the movie really belongs to Ava Gardner. Gable was top billed and, as I’ve said, he does excellent work, but the screen genuinely sparkles whenever Gardner is there. She is the main driver of events and acts as the emotional core. It’s a superb performance by an actress at the very top of her game and the height of her allure – I’ve been delving into that purple patch she struck in the mid 1950s after having recently enjoyed a rewatch of The Sun Also Rises. This was her third time playing opposite Gable, after The Hucksters and the extremely disappointing Lone Star, and it’s far and away the best of their collaborations. Her role played to her strengths, her earthy free-spirited sensuality is always to the fore, but also presented her with more subtle challenges. An example of this is the way she gets across very clearly the illusory nature of her free and easy demeanor. There’s a beautifully telling moment just after she embarks on the steamer where she’s pacing back and forth on the deck in front of a cage containing a captured leopard, the animal inside mirroring her moves. It’s evident that Gardner is trapped too, confined in life by the limited choices available to her. Despite this, she remains the most positive aspect of the movie, representing Gable’s chance for redemption and fulfillment – she is the siren whose song doesn’t lure a man to his doom but instead leads him toward salvation.

Grace Kelly had just come off High Noon but her biggest and most famous roles were still ahead of her. Her character is immature, a girl playing at being a woman, self-centered and plagued by indecision. Kelly nails the breathlessness and deception but is limited somewhat by the one dimensional nature of the role. Donald Sinden has the rather thankless part of the cuckold but does elicit sympathy due to his forthrightness and inherent dignity. Further support is provided by Philip Stainton as Gable’s plummy-voiced friend, Eric Pohlmann as a lazy and vulgar drunk, and a quiet Denis O’Dea, whose wordless confessional scene with Gardner provides another of those delightfully Fordian grace notes.

To the best of my knowledge, Mogambo has still not had a Blu-ray release. The old DVD has been around for many years now and is pretty solid, though this is the kind of movie which could look spectacular with a bit of a cleanup and a HD upgrade. It may not rank among John Ford’s more celebrated films but it’s long been a favorite of mine and one I am always keen to recommend.

3 Godfathers

 

MPW-9143There haven’t been too many westerns that are set around Christmas, in fact I’m struggling to think of any others apart from 3 Godfathers (1948) and the earlier versions of the same story. While it starts out as a fairly standard western it soon turns into a play on the nativity story and the journey of the three wise men. It’s one of John Ford’s more sentimental pieces and the symbolism is laid on a little thick at times, but the cast and visuals carry it through the sticky patches. I’ll grant that the whole thing can seem a bit contrived yet the story, and its message of redemption and the good that lurks within all of us, remains affecting.

The movie opens in fairly conventional fashion, with the three main protagonists Robert Hightower (John Wayne), Pedro (Pedro Amendariz) and The Abilene Kid (Harry Carey Jr) surveying a town they’re about to enter and rob. Before they can get down to business, however, they get chatting to a local resident (Ward Bond) who turns out to be the local lawman. Thus far much of the action is played for laughs, and broad Fordian laughs at that, and the light heartedness even extends to the raid on the bank. The first really serious note is struck when The Abilene Kid takes a bullet to the shoulder as they attempt their getaway. As the three men race out into the desert with the law hot on their heels, one shot finds its target and punctures the vitally important water bag. Safe in the knowledge that no one is going to travel far in the parched wilderness with only a limited supply of water the lawman eases back and sets about laying a trap. That singe shot has essentially sealed the fate of the three outlaws, as they discover that the law (with the help of the railroad) is one jump ahead of them and bent on keeping them away from any source of water. In an effort to outsmart the authorities, the men double back but in so doing stumble upon a situation that will bring about profound changes within them all. They come across an abandoned wagon containing a pregnant woman who’s about to give birth. Their most basic human instincts are aroused by this pitiful scene and, after seeing that the baby is delivered, find themselves giving their oath to the now dying mother to protect her infant son. From this point on a gradual transformation takes place wherein each man suppresses his own selfish needs in order to ensure the fulfillment of their promise. As they trudge across the gruelling desert, shedding their possessions along the way, they come to view the protection of their new godson as the only purpose in their lives. As such, their trek turns into a kind of pilgrimage to cleanse themselves of the evil that had motivated them until that time. As I said the symbolism can be a little heavy handed (following a star to the town of New Jerusalem etc.) but the hardship of the journey and the fact that these hardened criminals are willing to sacrifice themselves for the sake of an innocent and a promise prevents the film from becoming a parody.

John Ford opened the film with an onscreen tribute to his departed friend Harry Carey Sr and then took the further step of casting the latter’s son in the pivotal role of The Abilene Kid, the conscience of the three bad men. However, that’s about as far as the old man’s sentimentality went for it’s well documented that he drove his cast mercilessly in the searing heat of Death Valley. Despite, or maybe because, of this the performances of the three leads are first rate. Carey in particular is touching as the callow youth who’s simultaneously running from and striving to retain some of his boyish innocence. The way he calmly accepts his fate before such thoughts enter his companions’ heads is a fine piece of acting. In fact, Ford granted the young man some of the best scenes in the movie: singing over the grave of the baby’s mother and then his own death scene. Both Armendariz and Wayne were handed more straightforward roles as the older and more experienced men and they don’t disappoint either. The part of Robert Hightower has none of the complexity of Wayne’s more famous and prestigious performances yet he does all the script and director ask of him, and carries the picture alone for a significant time. The bulk of the action takes place outdoors on location in Death Valley and Ford creates some beautiful and bleak images – the dust storm (with all its attendant symbolism) being a particular highlight. The support cast is filled up with all the familiar faces from the “Stock Company”, Ward Bond and Mae Marsh getting the lion’s share of the screen time.

3 Godfathers is widely available on DVD from Warner. I have the R2 disc, but I’ve heard that the US version is the same, and the transfer is a good one. Print damage is minimal and the colour is strong, the outdoor scenes faring best to my eyes. The only extra included is the theatrical trailer, and a variety of subtitle options. While this is not one of Ford’s very best, it remains a top film by anyone’s standards. In a way, it’s what you might call a typical Ford movie in that it contains most of his trademark visual and thematic motifs. All in all, it’s a satisfying and uplifting production that works well both as a seasonal film and as a traditional western.

Finally, as this will be my last post before the holidays I want to take the time to wish all those who have followed, commented or just stopped by a very happy and peaceful Christmas. Be seeing you again in the New Year.

 

Two Rode Together

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“The worst piece of crap I’ve done in twenty years.” Those were John Ford’s own words when assessing Two Rode Together (1961). Even now, critics never seem to have anything very positive to say about this film. Ford’s work in the 60s was certainly patchy, even more so when it’s held up for comparison against his earlier movies. I’m not sure this is as much of a dog as its reputation suggests; it’s a weak John Ford film for sure, but even a lesser work from the great man always had some points to recommend it.

Two Rode Together is frequently referred to as a rehash of themes explored in The Searchers, and that’s one of the problems identified right away. Where the earlier classic had depth, gravity and passion this film feels superficial and, at times, cartoonish. However, I’m not convinced the two movies ought to be compared too closely. For one thing, The Searchers focused on the quest and those involved in it, whereas Two Rode Together is really about the consequences of rehabilitation for the rescued captives. Guthrie McCabe (James Stewart) is a marshal in the town of Tascosa, an enviable position in that it entitles him to a 10% cut of everything in the place. His idyllic lifestyle is interrupted, however, when Lt. Jim Gary (Richard Widmark) and his troops arrive to escort the dissipated lawman back to the fort. The army intend to press the reluctant McCabe into acting as a scout/intermediary in order to make contact with the Comanche Quanah Parker (Henry Brandon) and trade for the release of white captives. McCabe is nothing if not a coldly realistic man, and he knows full well that what the army is asking is basically a fool’s errand. Although his cynicism is viewed with contempt by the soldiers, subsequent events will prove that it’s his assessment that’s more grounded in reality. Lt. Gary is sent along to keep a watchful eye on McCabe (he’s regarded as an amoral mercenary at best), and in so doing has his eyes opened and his preconceptions challenged. When it becomes apparent that the surviving captives have been so deeply integrated into Comanche life as to be unrecognizable the decision is taken to return with only two captives: a teenager, Running Wolf, and a Mexican woman, Elena (Linda Cristal). Instead of being greeted as heroes and saviors, both McCabe and Gary find themselves viewed as being partly responsible for the tragedy that ensues. The fear, hatred and suspicion of the Comanche are so deeply ingrained in the whites that there can be no happy homecoming for anyone, and McCabe’s cynicism and skepticism that were initially painted as repugnant are now seen to be vindicated.

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John Ford’s penchant for broad, knockabout comedy is very much an acquired taste, and you’re either OK with it or you’re not. I mention this because Two Rode Together is liberally laced with instances of trademark Fordian humor. A good deal of this is centered around Andy Devine’s grossly overweight Sgt. Posey and it’s of the hit and miss variety. What’s altogether more successful is the gentle jibing that takes place between Widmark and Stewart as it helps to flesh out and humanize their characters. Ford’s direction is unaccountably flat in general, and really only strikes home in the scenes that focus on the desperation and emotional pain of the homesteaders who yearn for news of their loved ones. Even the landscapes look dull and uninspiring, which is atypical for a Ford film. Of course, news came through during shooting of the passing of the director’s old crony and frequent collaborator Ward Bond, and that may go some way to explaining the slightly detached feeling that permeates the whole picture. If it weren’t for the performances of Widmark and Stewart then this movie would be a real tough slog. Their scenes together constitute the core of the film and help keep it afloat. Widmark is good enough but I didn’t get the impression that he was operating at full throttle, whereas Jimmy Stewart throws himself into the part completely. By this time Stewart had mastered the art of icy indignation and half-suppressed emotion, and it serves him well in the later scenes where he confronts the ugly face of naked racism back at the fort. Of the female characters Shirley Jones received third billing but her part is an undeveloped one and seems to peter out just when it should have taken center stage. Linda Cristal fares much better as the former captive who’s deeply unsure of her place in society; her discomfort is nearly tangible when she’s paraded in front of the army wives, and she visibly wilts before their prying eyes.

Two Rode Together remains absent on DVD in the US but it’s widely available in R2. Sony’s UK disc offers an anamorphic widescreen transfer that’s goodish without being in any way exceptional. It could use a bit of a clean up but there aren’t any serious flaws. Both colors and sharpness are reasonable enough but, like the movie itself, don’t exactly pop off the screen. There are absolutely no extras at all but this title can be picked up very cheaply, so one shouldn’t complain too much. Well, this is a long way from classic Ford but the playing of the two leads does raise it above the mundane and lends some class. The truth is it’s not a bad little western – it’s just not a great John Ford western.

Cheyenne Autumn

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John Ford made Cheyenne Autumn in 1964 and with it he bade farewell to the western, the genre with which he was and is most frequently associated. By his own admission, Ford wanted this to be his attempt at setting the record straight with regard to the injustices visited upon the American Indians. Taken as such, it is fairly successful in depicting a people hounded almost to the point of extinction, without indulging in the politically correct schmaltz that more recent Indian centered epics have fallen prey to. Yet it is not a perfect film and does have its faults, not the least of which are the uneven tone and, to a lesser extent, some of the casting decisions.

The story concerns the Cheyenne who, having been moved to a reservation in Oklahoma, were dying a slow death as a result of disease, starvation and neglect. When a promised meeting with a Congressional committee fails to materialise, they take the bold and, in their minds the only viable, decision to strike out on a march back to their tribal homeland in Montana, 1500 miles to the north. Their journey is seen from the perspective of both the Cheyenne chiefs (Gilbert Roland & Ricardo Montalban) and the soldiers (under the command of Richard Widmark) charged with running them to ground. While the film’s sympathy lies with the hunted, the main focus is on the the various soldiers and civilians who pursue or encounter them. This is both a strength and a weakness of the film; a weakness because the characters of the Cheyenne are never explored in any great depth. The strength comes from the way the white characters are represented as holding a whole variety of, often conflicting, views on the fugitives.

The roles of the principal Cheyenne characters are filled by Mexicans (Montalban, Roland & Dolores Del Rio) and an Italian (Sal Mineo). In truth, this doesn’t work out too badly (I’ve never felt that a part can/should only be played by an actor of the same ethnic origin as the character – it’s called ‘acting’ fer chrissakes!) although Sal Mineo is far too much of a wuss to be taken seriously as a fiery Cheyenne warrior. Richard Widmark is good, as always, as the reluctant cavalryman who knows he has a job to do but also knows he doesn’t have to enjoy it. Pat Wayne is quite wooden as a young Lieutenant who experiences a “road to Damascus” type conversion, going from rabid bloodlust to outraged empathy over the course of the story. Karl Malden is a caricature of a Prussian officer whose blind devotion to duty and orders ultimately leads to tragedy. There are also small roles for George O’Brien (a ‘the-only-good-Indian-is-a-dead-Indian’ Major) and Sean McClory (a professional Irishman). Ben Johnson and Harry Carey Jnr appear as cavalrymen and get to show off some mighty impressive horse-riding skills – and there’s a nice running joke where Widmark can never remember that Carey is playing a character called Smith, referring to him variously as Jones, Murphy etc.

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Now a word about the Wyatt Earp scene in the movie. To be blunt, I hated it when I first saw it and I still hate it. The whole thing feels wrong, like it was grafted in from another picture. It’s the kind of sequence that wouldn’t be out of place in a ‘Carry On’ film – that bad! We get twenty minutes of Earp (James Stewart) and Doc Holliday (Arthur Kennedy) playing poker in Dodge City and having their game interrupted by the news of the Cheyenne being sighted nearby. There follows a Wacky Races type chase through the desert, culminating in a saloon girl losing her dress and winding up with her legs around Stewarts neck. Laugh, I thought I’d never start. In his biography of Ford, Joe McBride claims that the director used this sequence as a means of highlighting (through satire) the casual racism of the civilian population, but I don’t buy it. That bigotry had already been shown when a trail hand (Ken Curtis) callously murdered and scalped an Indian begging for food. In fact, the power of the aforementioned scene is effectively ruined by the subsequent clowning of Curtis in Dodge. I can’t think what came over Ford but this part of the movie definitely didn’t need to be shot.

Warners put Cheyenne Autumn out on DVD as part of their ‘John Ford Film Collection’. As far as I know it is still only available as part of that set. The transfer is probably the best of all the films in the collection. It’s anamorphic scope with no damage of any consequence and strong true colors. The disc carries a commentary from Joe McBride and a featurette on the film and the historical events that inspired it. Maybe it’s not Ford’s best film but it works well enough for the most part, offering a different perspective from the director yet retaining his trademark visual and narrative touches.

My Darling Clementine

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John Ford always maintained that his version of the events at the OK Corral was based on conversations that the director had had with Wyatt Earp himself. While Ford probably did know Earp (the old lawman reputedly spent a lot of time on and around the early Hollywood sets in his later years) and likely talked with him about what happened in Tombstone, the story played out in My Darling Clementine (1946) is most assuredly not the truth. Despite Ford’s grandiose claims of authenticity, his film is really a remake of Dwan’s Frontier Marshal. Both movies were based on the Stuart N. Lake book, and both are highly romanticized accounts. The difference is that, where Dwan’s film is a workmanlike effort, Ford’s take has all those little artistic touches that move it onto another level. Of course Ford was known for spinning the most outrageous yarns when it suited him, but the huge historical errors don’t change the fact that his film is still the best version by far of the famous story.

The Earp brothers actually feature in this film unlike the earlier version from Dwan. Wyatt (Henry Fonda), Morgan (Ward Bond), Virgil (Tim Holt) and James (Don Garner) stop off outside of Tombstone while on a cattle drive. On the recommendation of Old Man Clanton (Walter Brennan) they take a trip into town, leaving little brother James to stand watch over the herd. On their return the three older brothers find their cattle have been rustled and James killed. Suspecting the Clantons of perpetrating the crime, Wyatt accepts the position of town marshal. What follows is a picture of the emergence of civilization (most notably represented by the founding of the town’s first church), and the effects it has on the characters.

Wyatt is transformed from a dusty, unshaven trail hand into the coiffed and suit-wearing face of the law and civic respectability. The scene where Wyatt primly escorts Clementine Carter (Cathy Downs) along the main street of Tombstone towards the new church, with the strains of ‘Shall we gather at the river’ playing in the background, is deservedly famous and remains one of the most touching and romantic sequences ever put on film. This contrasts sharply with the Clantons, who are shown as a bunch of barely human barbarians. A marvelously sadistic moment takes place when Old Man Clanton savagely horse whips his sons before berating them : “When you pull a gun, kill a man.” The bridge between the two extremes is provided by Doc Holliday (Victor Mature) – a man with a cultured background (at one point quoting from Hamlet to help out a drunken actor) who is consumed with self loathing at the knowledge of what he has become.

Henry Fonda plays Wyatt with nobility and that quiet dignity that he seemed to bring to all his roles. The self-conscious diffidence he shows fits perfectly for a man who has been more accustomed to living rough in the wilds. It’s no bad thing either that Fonda always seemed comfortable in a western setting, able to mount and sit a horse naturally. I wish I could say the same thing for Victor Mature but, however hard I try, I just cannot accept him in western roles. I’ve seen Mature in many other genre films and thought him fine, but when it comes to westerns – no thanks. I know this is just a personal prejudice but, for me, his casting doesn’t work at all*. Walter Brennan’s Old Man Clanton makes for a wonderful villain, a figure of pure evil who has molded his sons in his own image – especially the leering Billy (John Ireland) and the slow-witted, and vaguely psychotic, Ike (Grant Withers). Linda Darnell’s Chihuahua is something of a caricature of the typical Mexican spitfire, but she does elicit a lot of sympathy as a woman passionately in love with a man who repeatedly spurns her.

Since the bulk of the story takes place in and around Tombstone, Ford makes less use of Monument Valley than he would in other pictures. However, there are a few scenes that feature his favorite location and they look magnificent as always. Much attention is paid to the town, to all the little rituals of frontier life, and the variety of characters who inhabit it. The celebration of community is pure Ford and you get the feeling he enjoyed recreating this much more than he did the action scenes. Having said that, the inevitable shootout at the OK Corral, though wildly inaccurate, is both stylish and excitingly executed.

My Darling Clementine has been available for some time now on DVD from Fox, but has recently been reissued with the addition of Frontier Marshal as an extra. The transfer is exactly the same on the new disc, but that’s not a criticism since there wasn’t much that needed improvement anyway. You get to choose between the final release version of the film and the pre-release cut, and I’m not really sure which I prefer. I feel the edited version is tighter but I also think Ford’s original cut of the farewell scene between Wyatt and Clementine is better. I suppose we should be grateful that we have both versions to compare. Either way, this is a special film and one that does reward repeated viewings.

*EDIT – Sometimes we speak dismissively of hindsight, but sometimes now I look back on pieces I wrote many years ago and see that old adage about the viewers changing but not the movies as gaining in truth all the time. I now feel that I was overcritical of Mature, and quite unfair in my assessment of his performance here,  when I first put this up well over a dozen  years ago.