The Lone Star Trail

The Lone Star Trail (1943)Indian Prairie recently acquired Johnny Mack Brown: classic westerns collection. Of the four movies, this is the best.

Johnny Mack Brown was a star football player at the University of Alabama in the 1920s. His good looks got him a start in Hollywood in the late 1920s. At first his career appeared to be taking off as he starred with Hollywood heavyweights such as Mary Pickford, Joan Crawford, Jean Harlow, and Clark Gable. In the early 1930s though, he began regularly making "B" westerns.

The plot for Lone Star Trail is a fairly standard one. Rancher Blaze Barker returns to the town of Dead Falls to clear his name after spending two years in prison for a robbery he didn’t commit. The actual robbers do what they can to either send him back to prison or to kill him. Comic relief is provided by veteran actor and sidekick Fuzzy Knight.

Of particular interest in this film is that one of the "bad guys" is played by a future Hollywood legend very early in his career. Even if you don't like westerns, it would be fun to watch the first few minutes of the film to see if you can identify him (if you're impatient, just click here).

Hangman’s Knot

Hangman’s Knot (1952)
Around the end of the Civil War, Major Matt Stewart (Randolph Scott) leads a successful ambush against a Union gold wagon. After wiping out the Union guards, they find out the war is over. Instead of an act of war, Major Stewart and his men will be regarded as murderers and robbers. Their last chance to prove their innocence is destroyed when Rolph Bainter (Lee Marvin) kills their liaison, a man who could have informed Major Stewart of the war's end, but chose not to because he wanted the gold for himself.

Things go from bad to worse when a collection of armed riffraff masquerading as peace officers get on their trail and trap them in stagecoach station. Molly Null (Donna Reed) and Lee Kemper (Richard Denning) are stagecoach passengers. Molly is an army nurse with a strong sense of duty. She initially despises Major Stewart as she regards him as a murderer and thief. Kemper has been wooing Molly but she has proved hesitant because she is suspicious of his character.

This is the first movie in which Lee Marvin had a significant role and he does a good job of playing a coldblooded killer, a role he would repeat many times in his film career. There is plenty of action and drama in this movie, numerous plot twists, fine acting, and gorgeous photography. I strongly recommend it.

The Westerner

The Westerner (1940)
I am not usually a fan of Gary Cooper, but he shows a wry self-deprecating humor in this western about the classic struggle between homesteaders and cattlemen. Judge Roy Bean, played by Walter Brennan, hates homesteaders and loves the actress Lily Langtry. Cooper, a drifter enamored of a local girl, uses Bean’s adoration of the actress to save his own hide from the hanging judge and help out his homesteading friends.

For more on the film and its impact on Cooper's career, check out this TCM article.

Night Passage

Night Passage (1957)Night Passage is an action packed western about former railroad troubleshooter Grant MacLaine (Jimmy Stewart), who lost his job after letting his outlaw brother, the Utica Kid (Audie Murphy), escape. After spending five years wandering the west and earning his living playing the accordion, he is given a second chance by his former boss. The train has been robbed several times by Whitey Harbin (Dan Duryea), the Utica Kid and their gang.

This film is like a wonderful meal that is full of both contrasts and surprises. There’s the obvious contrast between MacLaine and the Utica Kid of good vs. bad and older vs. younger. In addition, Whitey is nervous and constantly on edge while the Kid is calm and collected. MacLaine's former loves are also a contrast. Verna, a blonde, chose an older and wealthier man over MacLaine preferring security to romance, and Charlotte, a brunette, has chosen the younger and wilder Utica Kid over MacLaine.

There is one unintended contrast in the film. Two TV dads have small roles in the film: Hugh Beamont, the Beaver's dad in Leave it to Beaver and Herbert Anderson, Dennis' dad in Dennis the Menace. Both men play railroad employees but one of them is honest while the other is not.

Among the surprises, the film features two wonderful songs, a beautiful romantic ballad "Follow the River" and a lively jig "You can't get far without a railroad." Stewart plays the accordion and sings the latter song. Besides Duryea, the film also features character actors Robert Wilke and Jack Elam. All three of these actors made careers out of playing sadistic killers. And the photography is gorgeous.

There is a lot to like in the film. So check it out, get some popcorn and sit back and enjoy.

The Searchers

The Searchers (1956)
John Wayne, actor, and John Ford, director, have collaborated successfully for more than a dozen films. The Searchers offers a realistic view of the West after the Civil War. The acting, the scenery, and the music produce a touch of the innocent beauty and of the awful brutality of life in the old west. Big John Wayne is the macho king, driven to find his niece, a captive of the Comanche. This film is a classic of its kind.

For more on the movie, check out and TCM. If you want to see a special event on TV, TCM will be airing the film on Wednesday, December 22 at 12:45.

Welcome to Hard Times by E.L. Doctorow

Welcome to Hard Times by E. L. Doctorow (1960)
If you’ve read Doctorow’s recent novels, you may want to go back and read his first novel Welcome to Hard Times. If you like westerns, you’ll enjoy this book. The story is set in a Dakota mining town and recounts the lives of people going west to find their fortunes. The hard times of western towns is portrayed though the characters' personalities and  and past experiences. The plot is suspenseful and the ending completes the circle from the beginning of the story. You’ll especially enjoy Doctorow’s wonderful words describing the scenes and people throughout the story.

Visit the author's website and read a  New York Times review.

Ride the High Country

Ride the High Country (1962)
In this beautiful and poignant story, two old lawmen take on one last job, bringing the gold down from a mining camp in the California mountains. Along the way, they pick up an unhappy young woman who thinks her happiness can be obtained my marrying a good-looking miner she had once met. When the miner is less than a prince, they must get both the girl and the gold back to town safely. The cinematography is matchless and the acting by two western veterans, Joel McCrae and Randolph Scott, was never better. Directed by Sam Peckinpah who later directed the ultraviolent western classic The Wild Bunch.

Check out the original New York Times review; read a recent review on the Western Wednesdays column of The Flick Cast; and visit TCM's website to watch a movie clip, watch a trailer, or view photos.

Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry

Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry (1985)
McMurtry has written 29 novels (and more than 30 screenplays). Predominantly set in the American Southwest, McMurtry’s novels are as much about the place as about the people who live there. His depictions of harsh, rugged landscapes are beautifully written and give a balance to his hapless, roguish heroes and villains.
Lonesome Dove, Larry McMurtry's vast, wild tale of a cattle drive is full of action and unforgettable characters. The western epic won him the Pulitzer Prize. The story follows two longtime friends and former Texas Rangers, Woodrow Call and Augustus McCrae, at the end of the 1800s. Their lives as cattle ranchers along the Rio Grande have lost the excitement of their younger lawman days, so they set off on a long and difficult cattle drive to Montana.

McMurtry's immense talent takes the myth out of the cowboy legend with such a master’s touch that the reader never feels the sting. His has the ability to create believable and lovable characters no matter what the setting. Larry McMurtry is one the finest writers in the world of American fiction. His novels are compelling, unforgettable, and fun.

Check out the television drama based on the novel, read a review and preview the novel.

My Darling Clementine

My Darling Clementine (1946)
This is one of the best, although probably not the most accurate, movies about Jesse James and the OK Corral. Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda) rides into town with his brothers, meets a hard drinking Doc Holliday, almost immediately gets on the wrong side of the Clantons and shyly woos a young lady. John Ford directed this beautifully filmed black and white movie. My favorite scene is when Fonda dances with his lady love against the background of the wide open western sky. With Victor Mature, Linda Darnell, and Walter Brennan. I have a fond memory of a MASH episode where the doctors and nurses watch My Darling Clementine and the old film keeps breaking and needs to be spliced.

Breakheart Pass

Breakheart Pass (1975) PG
Starring Charles Bronson, Jill Ireland, and Ben Johnson, Breakheart Pass is a combination of mystery and action and is set in the old West. It was adapted from an Alistair MacLean novel. Many of his titles have been adapted for film – The Guns of  Navarone, Force 10 from Navarone, and Where Eagles Dare are among the most famous.

A crowded troop train is on its way to Fort Humboldt to relieve the fort. At a brief stopover, two of three officers on the train mysteriously disappear and the train acquires two new passengers, John Deakin (Bronson) an accused murderer and arsonist and in the custody of marshal Pearce (Johnson). Along the way, more people disappear or die mysteriously. Who is the killer and why are people being murdered?

I think this is one of Bronson's best films and one of the best murder mysteries I have ever seen. (Do not read the back of DVD because you will the find the film more enjoyable and the mystery more difficult to solve.)

The photography in this film is beautiful and the film score gives the feeling of a moving train. The film may also interest sports buffs as Archie Moore (former light heavyweight champion), Doug Atkins (former Chicago Bear), and Joe Kapp (former Minnesota Viking) all have supporting roles – and all three performed well in this film.

If you like mysteries or westerns, you will enjoy this film.

Spotlight: Larry McMurtry

Spotlight: Larry McMurtryLarry McMurtry, author of 29 novels, has also written more than 30 screenplays. Predominantly set in the American Southwest, McMurtry’s works are as much about the place as about the people who live there. The TV miniseries Lonesome Dove (1989) is McMurtry's epic tale of a cattle drive full of action and unforgettable characters; the book won him the Pulitzer Prize. The story follows two longtime friends and former Texas Rangers, Woodrow Call and Augustus McCrae (Tommy Lee Jones and Robert Duvall) at the end of the 1800s. Their lives as cattle ranchers along the Rio Grande have lost the excitement of their younger lawman days so they set off on a long and difficult cattle drive to Montana.

At his best when he thoroughly removes romanticism of the American West, McMurtry's immense talent takes the myth out of the cowboy legend. His ability to create believable and lovable characters, no matter what the setting, may be the reason his movies are so successful. And McMurtry’s explanation of this phenomenon? "I can write characters that major actors want to play, and that's how movies get made."

He is perhaps best known for the film adaptations of his work, especially Hud (1963) (from the novel Horseman, Pass By), starring Paul Newman and Patricia Neal; the Peter Bogdanovich directed The Last Picture Show (1971); and James L. Brooks's Terms of Endearment (1983), which won five Academy Awards, including Best Picture (1984).

In 2006, he was co-winner (with Diana Ossana) of both the Golden Globe and the Academy Award for the screenplay of Brokeback Mountain (2005).

The Sheepman

The Sheepman (1958)
This 1958 comedy western stars Glenn Ford and Shirley MacLaine.  There are a lot of funny moments in this film.  In one scene, Ford tells Edgar Buchanan that he is looking for a man who is completely without honor, a man who is willing to sell out anybody and everybody for as little as fifty cents.  Buchanan tries to look offended but when Ford starts to walk away, Buchanan says, "My price for that sort of thing starts at least a dollar."

The story is pretty familiar to western fans but the first 15 minutes are full of surprises.  (Do not read the back of the DVD case or you will spoil the surprise.) The chemistry between Ford and MacLaine is delightful. The photography in this film is beautiful and the musical score is both tender and heartwarming. If you like westerns with a bit of romance and a lot of laughs, this movie is for you.

Union Pacific

Union Pacific (1939)
This epic starring Joel McCrea, Barbara Stanwyck, and Robert Preston tells the story of the building of the Union Pacific railroad which met the Central Pacific in Promontory, Utah, in 1869. There is plenty of hard-hitting action and some very impressive special effects (which garnered the film an Academy Award nomination). McCrea is the troubleshooter for Union Pacific and sees to it the company succeeds despite the efforts of Preston and his cohorts to sabotage the railroad.

It’s also a romantic triangle between McCrea, Stanwyck, and Preston. Preston loves Stanwyck but she loves McCrea. However, she agrees to marry Preston to save McCrea’s life.

Union Pacific is not the best movie I ever saw, but I enjoyed it more than any other movie I’ve seen this year. Somehow this movie has been overlooked, probably because it came out in 1939, which is certainly the most celebrated year in American film history.

Check back on Friday for a more about the movies of 1939.


Hombre (1967)
Paul Newman perfected the role of the anti-hero. In Hombre, Newman plays a white man who had been raised by the Apache Indians and adopted their way of life. When John 'Hombre' Russell unexpectedly inherits a lodging-house, he sells it and heads to Bisbee, Arizona. He joins a party on a stagecoach – travelers who are incapable of protecting themselves or coping with the Western badlands. He becomes the natural leader of the group in its survival against a robber band headed by Richard Boone. In doing so, he becomes the hero, the guy who can handle things and defend the weak.

This could just be the best western ever made! Critics praise the performance of Newman and the writing of Elmore Leonard. All of the performances are excellent, making it an intelligent and important entry to the Western genre. It gets better with time, and the message is universal brotherhood.

Rawhide: Season 2

Rawhide: Season 2 (1959-1960)
Somehow I missed this exciting western when it was on television in the late 1950s and early 1960s. I am glad that I did, since I now have a new western television series to watch.

This TV series is one of the best I’ve ever seen. Eric Fleming brought a lot to this series, as did his young costar Clint Eastwood, along with a very able supporting cast. Some of the stories are very fresh and creative, and even the more traditional plots are done very well. Season 2 (32 episodes) has a surprising number of stories dealing with the supernatural, with almost a Twilight Zone feel. Some of the villains are females and they are very good at being very bad.