Backhanded Continent

Lyricism and sarcasm (oh, damn it, “snarkasm”) are two “sm”s that rarely go together; but, in the underrated 1959 western masterpiece THE WONDERFUL COUNTRY (now, at last, on Blu-Ray from Kino Studio Classics/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment/MGM Studios), based on Tom Lea’s excellent 1952 novel, they go fist in glove.

Lea’s book was the closest thing to the genre’s evocation of narrative poetry prior to the emergence of Cormac McCarthy.  Oscar-winning editor (Body and Soul) turned director Robert Parrish saw the possibilities and strove to convince his former leading man Gregory Peck (The Purple Plain) and fellow coworker Henry Fonda (Parrish was an editor on Young Mr. Lincoln) to sign on as the conflicted protagonist Martin Brady.  Both hands-down refused.  This proved to be a blessing in disguise, as the project then came under the auspices of Robert Mitchum (likely the only actor who had actually read the Lea work before a movie deal had ever been bandied about).  So adamant was Mitchum about bringing this correctly to the screen that the now-indie-minded star not only signed on for the lead, but took the entire package under his wing for his new production company, DRM (Dorothy and Robert Mitchum).  Mitchum approved wholeheartedly of Parrish, as they had gotten along swell when the latter assistant-directed on another seminal Mitchum title, 1952’s The Lusty Men; in fact, Parrish took over direction for several days when Nick Ray became ill (they had also recently completed the uneven drama Fire Down Below).  This was a celluloid partnership made in movie heaven, as THE WONDERFUL COUNTRY remains one of Mitchum’s greatest works (and performances) and unquestionably the finest movie Robert Parrish ever made.

The story, as indicated above, is a cynic’s delight (even the title is a sham), filmed with visual beauty and spoken with sparse but eloquent dialog (a terrific script by Robert Ardrey with uncredited assist from Walter Bernstein).  Martin Brady is an enforced ex-pat (he’s undeservedly wanted for justifiable homicide in the States), residing in Mexico as a top pistolero.  His employers are the notoriously powerful and wealthy Castro brothers.  The Castros are vengeful and vindictive dictatorial sibs, sort of like The Koch Brothers with a Cain and Abel complex.  One is the General of the military (Victor Manuel Mendoza), the other the governor (Pedro Armendariz in a bravura cameo); each wants the other liquidated – a decision an unswervingly loyal Brady can’t make (“You are so white American,” he is told by Armendariz when Mitchum’s character voices reservations about killing “my abominable brother”).

While yearning to cross the river into a U.S. border town, Brady’s magnificent ebony Andalusian stallion (a gift from the Castros, appropriately named Lagrimas, Spanish for “Tears”) spooks, leaving him on American soil with a broken leg.  The town, like everything in this movie, is a contradiction of terms – one side ‘Murican, the other Mex.

Brady is taken under the hamlet’s wing by a kindly doctor (the superb Charles McGraw in an uncharacteristically sympathetic role), the hard-boiled head of the local Texas Rangers (Albert Dekker) and a family of Jewish immigrants – whose Uncle (John Banner) has “gray” dealings with the Castros, and, thus reports to them as to Brady’s day-to-day actions.

Things become increasingly complicated as Brady begins to assimilate back into his American roots, and contemplates remaining in the land of his birth.  This is made further difficult when his services are requested by a martinet Major (Gary Merrill) who wants him to assist in annihilating a band of Apache renegades (forced out of their country by the U.S., and now living in Mexico, where the Castros, too, want them gone).  Brady’s plight worsens when he falls for the Major’s abused trophy wife (Julie London), whose sexual history mirrors Deborah Kerr’s in From Here to Eternity.

When Brady resorts to killing an anti-Semite bigot who murders his immigrant friend (Max Slaten) in a hate crime, the now-recovered gunman must sneak back into Mexico, and into the Castro’s good graces.  His refusal to assassinate either brother puts a price on the expat’s head (“You belong nowhere!” decrees the relentless Governor), resulting in the now-wanted “foreigner” wandering into the Mexican hills, where he is befriended by a self-exiled mountain family (headed by Mitchum’s real-life best bud Anthony Caruso).

And there you have it – the underlying scenario and theme of THE WONDERFUL COUNTRY, the cruel joke being that the title is a myth.  There is no wonderful country; like El Dorado and Xanadu, it exists only in hypocritical minds and for unrealistic dreamers.  And Brady is not the only outcast – EVERYONE in the movie is.  The Castros are “cast out” from each other via blood, the immigrant family can’t fit into the violent land, the Major’s wife is a stunning misanthrope in a failed marriage, the Mexican mountain brood can’t function within their society, and, of course, the Apaches have been tossed into a human ping-pong match to and fro across the borders.  Even the Major’s troop are a sore-thumb pariah unit – a battalion of “buffalo soldiers,” an all-black regiment, led by a conservative white guy.

THE WONDERFUL COUNTRY is an extraordinary movie on every level.  Natch, prime kudos go to star-producer Mitchum, who has never been better (and that’s saying plenty).  His performance is subtly spectacular, quietly voicing his problems of adjusting to humanity.  But it goes beyond that level.  At the beginning of the movie, Mitchum speaks with a slight Spanish accent, the result of decades living in Mexico; as he convalesces in Texas, he gradually loses the Latino speech patterns, but slowly regains them when forced to seek refuge back with his former employers.  Mitchum’s uttering of the word “gringo” is tantamount to the worst four-letter word ever spoken on the uncensored screen.

The supporting cast is aces too; aside from the aforementioned participants, THE WONDERFUL COUNTRY also features Jack Oakie as a traveling salesman, Chuck Roberson as the racist, Jay Novello, Mike Kellin and sports legend Leroy “Satchel” Paige as an officer with the African-American cavalry.  Author Lea thought enough of the project to appear in a small role as a barber who attempts to help Mitchum literally clean up his act.

And the praise continues.  Not only does Parrish’s forceful yet sensitive direction make its mark, but it’s splendidly rendered via the striking widescreen Technicolor photography of Floyd Crosby and Alex Phillips.  And, last but certainly not least, there is the absolutely brilliant score by Alex North, one of his most beauteous and optimum achievements.  For years, the Brady theme appended a plethora of those UA Movie Soundtrack compilation albums (you know, with themes from The Magnificent Seven, The Apartment, The Pink Panther, Exodus, etc.) that were perennial bestsellers for the studio’s music subsidiary from the late 1950s-early 70s.  Finally, in the 1990s, I found a complete import CD soundtrack.  I play it constantly to this day.

The Kino Studio Classics Blu-Ray of THE WONDERFUL COUNTRY is…well, wonderful.  Crystal clear and luxuriant in its depiction of the sensational Mexican location work (although it’s not quite as jaw-dropping as an actual Technicolor print I once saw).

I defy anyone not to have lagrimas-filled eyes when this movie ends.  My love for this picture can be extended to the following brash claim, simply that I unabashedly consider it to be one best westerns ever filmed!

THE WONDERFUL COUNTRY.  Color.  Widescreen [1.66:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA.  Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment/MGM Studios.  CAT # K1736.  SRP:  $29.95.

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