How the West Was Done

No movie buff worth their salt denies that John Ford is one of the greats.  It’s easy to roll-call a plethora of classic titles from the iconic director’s canon naming some all-time favorites and/or defining moments in Hollywood history.  That said, when adapting the “sick child demanding special care” theory to cinema, flicker aficionados couldn’t do better than to cite the aging maestro’s 1961 dark entry TWO RODE TOGETHER, now available in a stunning limited-edition Blu-Ray from Twilight Time/Columbia Pictures Industries.

I have to admit that I always had a soft spot for this Machiavellian version of The Searchers, even when (as a beardless yoot) I didn’t fully understand just how cynical and downright mean it was.

Ford, himself, emerged from World War II even more bitter than before he entered battle (which many who knew him considered an impossibility).  His rose-colored visions of the West became hardened, the magenta tinge of nostalgia being reinvented as one massive blood-spattered crime scene.  The west wasn’t won as much as it was bought, the people who pioneered it were nothing but grifters, outcasts, felons and worse – spurred by lust, greed and racism.  Creatively, this reached its peak with The Searchers, featuring John Wayne’s monumental performance as the bigoted Ethan Edwards.  It was the movie that Ford coworkers wished had ended the director’s career (on a high note), but he kept chugging on, perpetrating that sardonic view of his once beloved mythical playground.  TWO RODE TOGETHER might be the epoch of Ford’s Wild West hell at its most sinister.  The “hero,” corrupt Marshal Guthrie McCabe (James Stewart), makes Ethan Edwards look like a choir boy.  The movie itself was begun to capitalize on the 1956 Ford masterpiece, basically re-channeling the same story, but from a mercenary rather than emotional point of view.

McCabe serves only himself and the Madame who actually controls the town (a nifty turn by Annelle Hayes as whore supreme Belle Aragon).  She and McCabe split proceeds on every penny that ker-chunks into town, cautiously watching each other’s spidery fingers that dip into the hamlet’s various lucrative pies in order to maintain their comfort.  When old pal First Lieutenant Jim Gary rides in with his regiment, all that changes.  In one of the great fake-outs in American history, a huge charade on human suffering is in play – to give false hope to surviving family members about their loved ones, captured years earlier during Indian raids.  McCabe, conman extraordinaire, immediately sees right through the b.s., correctly christening it as a mission of madness – sort of how Ernest Borgnine dubbed the exercise in The Dirty Dozen.  McCabe is recruited because of his friendship with Quanah Parker (the real-life half-breed chief who ended up working the Wild West Show circuit along with Sitting Bull, Geronimo, Rains in the Face and other former warriors).  Parker (Henry Brandon) and McCabe perfectly understand each other, as they’re both depicted as avaricious scoundrels.  Gary must also perpetrate a lie, going along as a renegade scout (since riding as a representative of the US Cavalry violates a sanctioned treaty).  In an instance of poetic license, McCabe is essentially blackmailed into participating in this fool’s errand, but agrees by informing the Fort commandant (John McIntire) that he intends to fleece each of the suffering families for all they’re worth to return their sons/daughter/wives, etc.  To this end, he asks these pathetic farmers and small businessmen to provide detailed descriptions, as he will pass off any white who comes close to the physical requirements.

Ford genuinely detested this story (which originated from a Will Cook novel), but agreed to do it as a promise to an ailing Harry Cohn (who wanted a piece of that Searchers dough) along with a hefty quarter of a million up-front paycheck and a percentage.  An existing script was excised, and Ford brought in his old reliable scribe Frank Nugent to doctor it up, throw in some snazzy one-liners – anything to make the Stewart character more likeable (Stewart himself was unhappy with the picture, claiming McCabe was way too diabolical; this from a dude who denied his Anthony Mann portrayals were disturbed individuals).  Even with the throwaways, Ford publicly decreed the screenplay and final result as the “worst piece of crap I ever made” (and we’re assuming he meant cinematically).  The cast (Andy Devine, Harry Carey, Jr., Willis Bouchey, Olive Carey, Ken Curtis, John Qualen, Anna Lee, O.Z. Whitehead) was predominantly Fordian, and the pic was mostly shot in Brackettville, TX, at Fort Clark and in the Alamo Village, built several years earlier by John Wayne.  Wayne was initially considered for one of the leads, but was booked up until late 1961; former Ford thesp Henry Fonda was suggested by producer Stan Shpetner, to do a satanic version of his Wyatt Earp from My Darling Clementine, but that was out of the question, as Fonda and Ford now detested one another, due to their acrimonious working relationship during Mister Roberts.  Richard Widmark, in his first John Ford picture, was thrilled to be working for the director, but, too, thought himself inappropriate for the trappings, specifically that he was ten or fifteen years too old for the part.  Critics would later agree, further lambasting Jimmy Stewart (also in his initial Ford outing), who was more than twenty years too long in the tooth to play McCabe.

Ford’s hatred of the material gave rise to the movie’s most celebrated sequence (and one of my favorite in any Ford pic), the largely improvised long take between Stewart and Widmark resting by a river.  Their camaraderie is genuine, the chemistry of friendship perfectly achieved.  It’s natural, funny and otherwise thoroughly out of place with the nastier aspects of this story.  But it’s also fucking great.

Ford let everyone know that his two movie star leads wore toupees and had hearing problems (“Great, so this is what my career has come to – directing two deaf hairpieces!”).  Stewart, not to be outdone, stirred the simmering pot by harping on Ford’s own increasing deafness, whispering “That pretty much makes three of us,” to which a slightly paranoid Ford, yelled back “WHAT, what was that?”  Widmark recalled having the time of his life on this movie, and likely responded with his infamous Kiss of Death Tommy Udo snicker.

The supposed casting coup was Shirley Jones as the female lead, fresh from her Best Supporting Actress win in Elmer Gantry (a much-hyped piece of ballyhoo in TOGETHER‘s promo campaign).  For Jones it was a horrific experience that began early on what was generally a leisurely, pleasant shoot (always the death knell for a movie, according to director Henry Hathaway).  Jones innocently approached Ford, wanting to know if he could answer a question.  “Sure,” replied the director.  Jones then inquired how he wanted her to wear her hair.  Ford flew into a rage, releasing a barrage of epithets and chastising the actress for wasting his time.  “Hey, Oscar-winner, how the fuck should I know how a woman should wear her hair?!  It’s your character, figure it out – and don’t bother me with that kind of stupid shit for the rest of this picture!”  She didn’t, virtually not speaking or having any contact with Ford, other than when she was required to be before the cameras.  And it shows; it’s a pathetically uneven performance, wildly jumping from the sensible woman she played in Oklahoma! to a version of Debbie Reynolds’ Tammy persona on smack auditioning for the same show’s  Ado Annie.  What’s more troubling is Widmark’s attraction to her.

More dignified is Linda Cristal as Elena, a Mexican captive, freed by Stewart and Widmark.  It’s a quiet, sedate believable enactment of a fragile, damaged woman, perpetually terrified after years of sexual abuse.  The racism she experiences by the “good Christians” after her liberation is yet another example of Ford’s growing animosity with hypocrisy and so-called paragons of civilized society.  It even appalls the Stewart character.

On a cheerier note is the casting of the aforementioned Harry Carey, Jr., and Ken Curtis as the lowbrow Clegg brothers (a name retained from the villainous family in my favorite Ford movie, Wagonmaster).  “Dobe” Carey told me that Ford called him and Curtis almost before anyone else.  “I’ve got parts for two morons – so I know you’ll be perfect.”

The Linda Cristal episode (like Widmark, she was previously on-view in Wayne’s Alamo) is the most dastardly segment of the movie.  The ravishingly beautiful captive is the woman of Stone Calf (a ferocious, psychopathic Woody Strode).  Stone Calf is politically dangerous to Quanah Parker, and “giving” her to Stewart (who lusts after her upon first sight) guarantees the madman will follow to extract revenge, thus allowing McCabe to kill him in self-defense (using Cristal as bait).  It’s all planned, an out-and-out conspiracy – murder for lust and power that bests the Borgias.  And all the more prophetic for a 1961 motion picture that hails from a decade soon to be synonymous with political assassination (Strode’s arrival at a campfire, seemingly out of a wisp of smoke like some Manitou evil spirit, is goose-flesh frightening).

Additionally, it further tarnishes Stewart’s character, making him one of the most risible leads in any pre-ratings Hollywood offering.  Nevertheless, it is the blatant racism and derision Cristal/Elena is exposed to in white Texas that helps transform Stewart’s lust to respect and then love.

When back in his and Belle’s town after the disastrous odyssey (which culminates in more murder, lynchings and deceit), McCabe discovers that his simpleton deputy (Chet Douglas) has taken over as Aragon’s sex and one-horse-tank partner.  The Madame’s bigoted comments toward Cristal enrage Stewart and reveal the only sliver of decency in his DNA.  He joins the woman on her trek to California, as a stunned Belle gazes is disbelief.  “I guess old Guth finally found something he wanted more than ten percent of” offers a sneering Widmark to the whore, providing a snarky albeit apt closing line to a crazed journey that never could have ended well.

As one might expect, TWO RODE TOGETHER did not wow either critics or audiences (at least outside of France) upon its release.  It has since picked up some steam among western/Ford fans (and, as I said, I always kinda liked it).  The Twilight Time Blu-ray looks excellent, doing justice to cinematographer Charles Lawton, Jr.’s, crystal-clear images and eye-popping colors (not usually not experienced from earlier incarnations of its Eastmancolor roots). The one consistently grand element of this picture is the excellent score by George Duning (available as an IST).

In retrospect, I believe TWO RODE TOGETHER deserves another chance, but I warn you, it ain’t a pretty picture.  I will, however, close this piece on a sorta “up” note, not that death is a positive thing, but rather to give readers a brief idea of what it was like on a Ford shoot.  Dobe Carey told me that production momentarily halted on November 5, 1960, when word came that Ward Bond had suddenly died.  Ford took it upon himself to organize the funeral arrangements.  As Dobe told it:  “Ford chartered a plane out of the nearest landing strip, and asked if any of us wanted to join him.  Me, Widmark and a handful of the cast and crew volunteered to go along.  It was weird, a real walking on eggshells kind of thing, as no one knew how this might affect him because, well, because that was Ford.  On the evening we returned, most of the company, in a show of solidarity, met us at the air field.  Ford was the last one to exit the plane.  No emotion on his stone face, behind his dark glasses.  He solemnly descended the gangplank stairs and slowly walked over to Andy Devine.  Then, very audibly, in front of the entire group, announced, ‘Now you’re the biggest horse’s ass I know!’”

TWO RODE TOGETHER.  Color.  Widescreen [1.85:1; 1080p High Definition]; 1.0 DTS-HD MA.  Twilight Time/Columbia Pictures Industries.  CAT# 8-51789-00390-0.  SRP:  $29.95.

Available exclusively through Screen Archives Entertainment (www.screenarchives.com) and Twilight Time (www.twilighttimemovies.com).

tworodetogetherCOVER

 

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