Top Ten Favorite Movies Set in the 1870s

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Below is my current list of favorite movies set in the 1870s:

 

TOP TEN FAVORITE MOVIES SET IN THE 1870s

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1. “The Age of Innocence” (1993) – Martin Scorcese directed this exquisite adaptation of Edith Wharton’s award winning 1920 novel about a love triangle within New York’s high society during the Gilded Age. Daniel Day-Lewis, Michelle Pfieffer and Oscar nominee Winona Ryder starred.

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2. “The Big Country” (1958) – William Wyler directed this colorful adaptation of Donald Hamilton’s 1958 novel, “Ambush at Blanco Canyon”. The movie starred Gregory Peck, Jean Simmons, Carroll Baker and Charlton Heston.

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3. “True Grit” (2010) – Ethan and Joel Coen wrote and directed this excellent adaptation of Charles Portis’ 1968 novel about a fourteen year-old girl’s desire for retribution against her father’s killer. Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon and Hattie Steinfeld starred.

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4. “Far From the Madding Crowd” (2015) – Carey Mulligan, Matthias Schoenaerts, Tom Sturridge and Michael Sheen starred in this well done adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s 1874 novel about a young Victorian woman who attracts three different suitors. Thomas Vinterberg directed.

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5. “Around the World in 80 Days” (1956) – Mike Todd produced this Oscar winning adaptation of Jules Verne’s 1873 novel about a Victorian gentleman who makes a bet that he can travel around the world in 80 days. Directed by Michael Anderson and John Farrow, the movie starred David Niven, Cantiflas, Shirley MacLaine and Robert Newton.

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6. “Stardust” (2007) – Matthew Vaughn co-wrote and directed this adaptation of Neil Gaman’s 1996 fantasy novel. The movie starred Charlie Cox, Claire Danes and Michelle Pfieffer.

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7. “Fort Apache” (1948) – John Ford directed this loose adaptation of James Warner Bellah’s 1947 Western short story called“Massacre”. The movie starred John Wayne, Henry Fonda, John Agar and Shirley Temple.

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8. “Zulu Dawn” (1979) – Burt Lancaster, Simon Ward and Peter O’Toole starred in this depiction of the historical Battle of Isandlwana between British and Zulu forces in 1879 South Africa. Douglas Hickox directed.

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9. “Young Guns” (1988) – Emilio Estevez, Kiefer Sutherland and Lou Diamond Phillips starred in this cinematic account of Billy the Kid’s experiences during the Lincoln County War. The movie was directed by Christopher Cain.

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10. “Cowboys & Aliens” (2011) – Jon Favreau directed this adaptation of Scott Mitchell Rosenberg’s 2006 graphic novel about an alien invasion in 1870s New Mexico Territory. The movie starred Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford and Olivia Wilde.

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“REAP THE WILD WIND” (1942) Review

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“REAP THE WILD WIND” (1942) Review

I really do not know what to say about Cecil B. DeMille. His movies have always produced mixed feelings within me. But there are a few that I would have no trouble watching over again. And one of them is his 1942 film, “REAP THE WILD WIND”.

Following the success of Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 novel, “Gone With the Wind” and its 1939 cinematic adaptation, Hollywood spent nearly two decades trying to repeat the success of the latter. This campaign began with Warner Brothers’ 1938 film,“JEZEBEL” and probably ended with MGM’s 1957 epic, “RAINTREE COUNTY”. Among the “moonlight-and-magnolias” films that hit the movie theaters during this period was “REAP THE WILD WIND”, which DeMille both produced and directed.

“REAP THE WILD WIND” was based upon Thelma Strabel’s 1940 novel, which was serialized in “The Saturday Evening Post”magazine. The movie tells the story of an antebellum Florida belle named Loxi Claiborne, who runs a Key West salvage business founded by her late father. Following his death, she assumed control of the business to keep her family financially secure. Loxie’s mother deplores her participation in such rough business and would prefer her to follow the example of her Cuban-American cousin, Drusilla Alston, by behaving like a well-bred Southern belle. Loxie eventually finds romance when a hurricane forces a ship called The Jubilee to founder off the Key West coast, leading her crew to rescue its master, Captain Jack Stuart. Because Loxi and her crew did not arrive first to the scene, another salvage crew led by Lexi’s Yankee-born business rival, King Cutler, acquires the wrecked Jubilee’s cargo. It is also revealed that Cutler had hired Jack’s first officer to deliberately wreck the ship. And unbeknownst to Loxie and Cutler, her cousin Drusilla and his younger Dan have fallen in love. Loxi and Jack fall deeper into love, as she nurses him back to health. When they both realize that Jack might be fired by Charleston lawyer Steve Tolliver, who serves as manager of the Devereaux Lines, the shipping company that owns the Jubilee; Loxi schemes to win a plum captain’s position for Jack by seducing Steve and convincing him not to fire Jack. Instead, a surprising romantic triangle ensures, when Loxi finds herself becoming attracted to Steve. And this romantic triangle, leads to surprising tragedy for several of the movie’s characters.

The 1942 movie not only benefited from Hollywood’s fascination with the Old South, but also from Cecil B. DeMille’s “Americana” phrase that may have began with 1936’s “THE PLAINSMAN” and ended with either the 1947 movie,“UNCONQUERED” or the 1952 Best Picture, “THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH”. Who knows? What I find interesting is that I ended up enjoying “REAP THE WILD WIND”, despite its shortcomings. And it certainly had plenty of those. One flaw that caught my interest was the ridiculous trial in which Jack Stuart faced prosecution for deliberately wrecking the pride of the Devereaux Shipping Lines – the Southern Cross. I found it ludicrous for a few reasons. One, Steve Tolliver was a Charleston maritime lawyer. How on earth was he able to serve as prosecutor for a criminal case that originated and was held in another city and state – namely Key West? And it seemed wrong for Steve to be prosecuting a man for a crime that personally involved him. The trial also featured the testimony of a free black sailor named Salt Meat. Were free blacks allowed to serve as a witness for the prosecution . . . against a white defendant? I rather doubt it.

But the real problem I had with “REAP THE WILD WIND” were the one-dimensional characterizations that permeated the story. At least four of the movie’s characters proved to be complex – Loxi Clairborne, Steve Tolliver and Dan Cutler and especially Captain Jack Stuart. Unfortunately, I cannot say the same for many of the other major characters. One of those one-dimensional characters proved to be the movie’s main villain, King Cutler. Many stories about the Antebellum South have featured villains that were usually the following – an expatriate Yankee, a slave ship captain or a plantation overseer. Sometimes, the villain would be a combination of two or all three. Cutler turned out to be a sea captain and Loxi’s rival . . . who shipped slaves on the side. He was also the personification of one-dimensional evil. The Drusilla Alston character proved to be your typical Southern belle of the Old South . . . a second-rate Melanie Wilkes, but with only the mild manners. And of course, “REAP THE WILD WIND” had to feature not only its share of African-American stereotypes, but also a virtual rip-off of the Mammy character from “GONE WITH THE WIND” in the form of the Clairbornes’ maid, Maum Maria. Loxi’s rival for Steve’s affections, Ivy Devereaux, proved to be another cliché – namely the bitchy and spoiled Southern belle. The movie also features another cliché, Captain Philpott, who was not only Loxi’s ship master, but also the personification of the “salty” sea captain. Even worse, he was forced to spout “I’m a good Yankee” in nearly every other scene he was in . . . as if being a New Englander was not only a crime to the other (and Southern-born) characters in the movie, but also to moviegoers from all over the country.

Thankfully, “REAP THE WILD WIND” still had plenty of virtues that managed to overcome its flaws. One, it is a beautiful looking film, thanks to cinematographers Victor Milner and William Skall’s outstanding work with Technicolor. Below are examples of their work:

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Milner and Skall were not the only ones that contributed to the movie’s visual style. Roland Anderson and Hans Dreier, along with George Sawley’s set decorations and Natalie Visart’s colorful costume designs certainly maintained the movie’s early 1840s setting. But I have to commend Edward Overstreet and Barney Wolff’s special effects; along with the visual effects team of Farciot Edouart, Gordon Jennings, William L. Pereira, and Louis Mesenkop did a stupendous job with the movie’s two special effects scenes – the hurricane at the beginning of the film, the giant squid that both Steve and Jack encountered underwater. The Hollywood community must have took notice of the film’s visual style. Milner and Skall earned Oscar nominations for their photography. Anderson, Dreier and Sawley all earned nominations for Best Art Direction. And the visual team of Edouart, Jennings, Pereira and Mesenkop won Oscars for the movie’s visual effects. The nominations and wins were all well deserved, as far as I am concerned.

I must admit that despite the barrage of one-dimensional characters, “REAP THE WILD WIND” proved to be a first-rate story. It was nicely balanced with romance, drama and adventure. It featured a fascinating heroine who proved to be a complex character and not some one-note cliché. Even the love triangle proved to be interesting, especially since two parties of the triangle – Loxi and Jack – ended up underestimating Steve a great deal. I found that fascinating. And although I originally found the love story between Drusilla and Dan a bit sacchrine, it proved to have great consequences in the end. I read somewhere that the screenwriters – too numerous for me to list – made many alterations to Strabel’s novel. Since I have never read the novel, I see no point in comparing the two. I only hope that Strabel’s novel proved to be as exciting and well-paced as the 1942 movie.

Despite my complaints about the one-dimensional characterizations in the film, I must admit that the cast managed to give some pretty good performances. Raymond Massey injected a great deal of energy and style into his portrayal of the villainous King Cutler. Despite being saddled with a remake of the Mammy character, Louise Beavers was equally entertaining as Maum Maria. There was one scene in which her character complained of Loxi taking her for granted that had me on the floor laughing, thanks to Beavers’ sharp performance. Both Susan Hayward and Martha O’Driscoll were solid as the two one-dimensional Southern belles, but it seemed obvious to me that they were better than the material given to them. And also Lynne Overman proved to be entertaining as Loxi’s loyal Yankee Captain Philpott. DeMille managed to capture another aspect of “GONE WITH THE WIND” by casting Oscar Polk (who portrayed Pork in the 1939 film) in the role of the free black sailor, Salt Meat. And Polk made the best of it in a well-acted scene in which he described the sinking of the Southern Cross during Jack’s trial.

But four cast members had the opportunity to shine in roles that proved to be complex. Ray Milland did a great job in portraying the intelligent and somewhat sly Charleston lawyer, Steve Tolliver. I was impressed at how he skillfully balanced Steve’s strong-willed nature and gentlemanly nature – a balance that kept the other two major characters offguard. One of those characters is Captain Jack Stuart, who thanks to the script and John Wayne’s skillful performance, proved to be the most complex in the movie. Jack Stuart also proved to be Wayne’s first character with an obvious dark side and he made the best of it. Paulette Goddard, who was one of the four final actresses considered for the Scarlett O’Hara role, was cast as the movie’s main heroine, Loxi Clairborne. And she was excellent as the headstrong Loxi, whose heart seemed to be bigger than her sense. I was also impressed at how Goddard did an excellent job in conveying Loxi’s reluctance to admit the latter’s true feelings for Steve. More importantly, not only did she create a strong screen chemistry with Wayne; she and Milland proved to be a sizzling screen team. In fact, this was the second of their four screen pairings. Robert Preston, who has proven to be a favorite of mine, was excellent as King Cutler’s younger brother, Dan. Preston did a great job in conveying Dan’s torn feelings over his admiration for his more ruthless brother and his love for the ladylike Drusilla.

I am not going to pretend that “REAP THE WILD WIND” was the epitome of Cecil B. DeMille’s career. It suffered from some unrealistic plot moments and plenty of one-dimensional characterizations. But the movie did benefit from a gorgeous visual style, an exciting and well-paced plot and some pretty damn good performances from a cast led by Ray Milland, Paulette Goddard and John Wayne. More importantly, all of this was crafted together with style, verve and excitement by Hollywood icon, Cecil B. DeMille.

“THE BIG COUNTRY” (1958) Review

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“THE BIG COUNTRY” (1958) Review

William Wyler and Gregory Peck first worked together in the 1953 comedy classic, “ROMAN HOLIDAY”. The director and the actor became close friends and spent a few years trying to find the right property for which they could co-produce and work on together. Peck finally came across a magazine story, which eventually transformed to the movie screen as 1958’s “THE BIG COUNTRY”

The magazine story in question happened to be the 1957 Saturday Evening Post serialized article called “Ambush at Blanco Canyon”. Written by future Matt Helm author, Donald Hamilton; the story was basically about a Baltimore sea captain, who travels to Texas to claim his bride, the daughter of a wealthy rancher; and finds himself in the middle of a bitter feud between his future father-in-law and less wealthy rancher.

“THE BIG COUNTRY” began with the arrival of sea captain Jim McKay to a small, dusty town in western Texas to join his fiancée Patricia Terrill at the enormous ranch owned by her father, Major Henry Terrill. Terrill has been feuding with Rufus Hannassey, the patriarch of a poorer, less refined ranching clan. Patricia’s friend, schoolteacher Julie Maragon, owns the “Big Muddy”, a large ranch with a vital water supply. Although she cannot afford to hire men to operate her ranch, Julie is caught in the middle of the Terrill-Hannassey feud, as she has been allowing both Terrill and Hannassey to use her water for their cattle, while both ranchers long to buy her land in order to put the other man out of business. McKay refuses to be provoked into proving his manhood, having sworn off such behavior since his father died in a meaningless duel. He does nothing to stop Hannassey’s trouble-making son Buck from harassing him during his and Patricia’s ride to the Terrill ranch; and he declines a challenge by Terrill’s foreman, Steve Leech, to ride an unruly horse. When McKay decides to purchase Julie’s ranch and maintain her promise to provide water for the two rivals, matters eventually escalate into romantic problems and more violence between Terrill and Hannassey.

During his first three years as a director, William Wyler worked only on Westerns. Then between 1929 and 1940, he directed two Westerns – “HELL’S HEROES” (1930) and “THE WESTERNER” (1940). Wyler waited another seventeen-to-eighteen years before he worked on his final Western, 1958’s “THE BIG COUNTRY”. Although many movie fans seemed to like “THE BIG COUNTRY”, very few seemed to regard it as one of his finest films. I cannot decide whether or not I would view it as one of his best films. But if I must be honest, I do consider it as one of my favorite Wyler movies . . . even if my opinion of it has declined slightly over the years.

My recent viewing of “THE BIG COUNTRY” made me realize that it might be at least 40 minutes too long. A tight story about an Easterner getting caught in the middle of a land feud did not seem epic enough for a movie with a running time of 165 minutes. After he had finished production on the film, Wyler rushed into pre-production for his next film,“BEN-HUR”. Co-producer and star Gregory Peck had feuded with him over a scene that he felt needed some serious editing. tried to convince him to finish “THE BIG COUNTRY” with some much needed editing – a feud that lasted two years. And their feud was not helped by Wyler’s preoccupation with “BEN-HUR”. In the end, I believe that Peck had a right to be concerned. I feel that the movie needed a good deal of editing. Wyler wasted a good deal of film on Buck Hannassey and his two brothers’ hazing of Jim McKay during the latter and Patricia Terrill’s ride to her father’s ranch. The movie also wasted film on McKay’s self-challenge to ride the very horse that Steve Leech had earlier dared him to ride – Old Thunder. That scene took too damn long. Wyler also seemed enraptured over the eastern California and western Arizona landscape that served as Texas in the movie. Perhaps he became too enraptured. In the end, it seemed as if Wyler’s interest in Western culture and landscape had almost spiraled out of control. Even worse, “THE BIG COUNTRY” almost became a series of far shots to indicate the size of the movie and its setting.

Despite its flaws, “THE BIG COUNTRY” still remains a big favorite of mine. Robert Wilder, along with Jessamyn West, James R. Webb and Sy Bartlett did a first-rate job in adapting Hamilton’s story. Their efforts, along with Wyler’s direction, produced what I believe turned out to be one of the most unique Westerns I have ever seen. What I enjoyed about “THE BIG COUNTRY” was that it took the public’s image of what a Western – whether made in Hollywood or published in novels and magazines – and turned it on its head. Rarely one would find a Western in which its hero is a mild-mannered personality with the guts to reject the prevailing ideal of a Western man. The 1939 movie “DESTRY RIDES AGAIN” came close to it, but its quiet hero was an expert gunman, despite his “pacifist” ways. Even the Jim McKay eventually gives in to his own aggression, due to his developing feelings toward his fiancee’s best friend, Julie Maragon. But he also ends up learning a good deal about himself, thanks to Rufus Hannassey. I found it interesting that movie made a big deal over an eventual conflict between Terrill and Hannassey’s two “lieutenants” – Terrill’s foreman Steve Leech and Hannassey’s oldest son Buck. And yet, both ended up clashing with McKay over two women – Pat Terrill and Julie. And their clashes with Jim ended with ironic twists one rarely or never finds in many other Westerns.

“THE BIG COUNTRY” featured an excellent cast led by the always remarkable Gregory Peck. I cannot deny that he gave a first-rate portrayal of a character many might find uninteresting. I think that Peck’s Jim McKay would not have been that interesting in a modern-day tale. But as a character that upset the notions of manhood in the West . . . he was perfect for this story. As I had stated earlier, even McKay could not contain his emotions any longer. And Peck did a fine job in slowly revealing his character’s contained emotions – whether it was his dislike of Steve Leech, who constantly taunted him out of jealousy toward his engagement to Patricia; his frustrated anger at both Henry Terrill and Rufus Hannassey’s unwillingness to end their destructive feud; or his anger at Buck Hannassey, whom he viewed as a threat to a woman he eventually grew to love, namely Julie. Not surprisingly, Peck did an excellent job in holding this movie together.

But there were other performances that also caught my eye. The always dependable Jean Simmons gave a charming and solid performance as schoolmarm Julie Maragon. Charles Bickford, who had first worked with Wyler in “HELL’S HEROES”, did a fine job in revealing Henry Terrill’s malice and ego behind a dignified facade. “THE BIG COUNTRY”proved to be the last movie for Mexican-born actor Alfonso Bedoya (known for a famous line from the 1948 movie,“THE TREASURE OF SIERRA MADRE”. What I enjoyed about Bedoya’s portrayal of Terrill ranch hand Ramón Guiteras was his ability to reveal his character’s wisdom behind the cliché of the childlike immigrant. I would go even further to state that Bedoya’s Ramón proved to be the wisest character in the story.

Chuck Connors is finally receiving some recognition of his performance as the blowhard Buck Hannassey and I say that it is about time. Most people tend to dismiss his character as a one-note bully . . . a typical cliché of what one might find in a Western. But thanks to Wyler’s direction and Connors’ acting skills, the latter also revealed the pathetic boy who had more or less longed for the love and respect from a parent who never liked him and who may have bullied him. Charlton Heston’s Steve Leech also proved to be a surprise. His character also started out as another cliché – the solid and virile Western cowboy. Thanks to Heston’s skillful performance, he developed Steve into a mature man who began to question the West’s code regarding manhood and who realized that the man he admired – Henry Terrill – may not have been as admirable as he had perceived for so long. One of Heston’s best moments on the screen was his quiet and determined effort to stop Terrill from the leading their cowboys into an ambush set up Hannassey in Blanco Canyon.

I was surprised to realize that the Patricia Terrill character, portrayed by Carroll Baker, struck me as more of a contrast to Buck Hannassey than Steve Leech. Whereas Buck longs for his father’s respect and admiration, Patricia has her father’s love in spades. Perhaps too much of it. Buck has spent most of his life being bullied by Hannassey. Patricia has spent most of her life being spoiled. Buck reacts with violence or bullying tactics when he does not get his way. Patricia resorts to temper tantrums. And she turns out to be just as childish and pathetic. I was shocked to learn that Baker now possesses a reputation for being a sex symbol. It seemed the public has tacked this reputation on her, based upon a handful of movies she appeared in the 1960s. I find this criminal, for it is plain to me that she was a very talented actress, who did a superb job in capturing the spoiled and childish nature of Pat Terrill. I feel she gave one of the best performances in the movie. But the one cast member who walked away with an award for his performance was singer-actor Burl Ives, who portrayed Henry Terrill’s rival, the seemingly brutish and sharp-tongued Rufus Hannassey. I might as well say it . . . he deserved that Best Supporting Actor Oscar. Some have claimed that he actually won for his performance in another movie, “CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF”. Others have claimed that he won for his performances in both movies. I have never seen “CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF”. But I cannot deny that he was SUPERB in “THE BIG COUNTRY”. Ives had all of the best lines and he did wonders with it . . . especially in his scenes with Chuck Connors. His Hannassey seemed to be, without a doubt, not only the most interesting character in the movie, but also I feel that Ives gave the best performance.

Even though I found some of the movie’s photography excessive and its editing almost non-existent, I still found myself enraptured over cinematographer Franz Planer’s work. He really allowed the eastern California and western Arizona locations to live up to the movie’s title. Without Wyler’s post-production input, Robert Belcher and John Faure’s editing pretty much came up short. However, there was one scene in which their work, along with Wyler’s direction and Planner’s camera, made it one of the most memorable in the movie. I am sure that very few have forgotten that moment in which a silently exasperated Leech changed his mind about following Terrill into Blanco Canyon. This entire sequence was enhanced by the stirring score written by Jerome Moross. Speaking of the composer, Moross received a much deserved Oscar nomination for the movie’s score. Personally, I would have preferred it he had actually won. In my opinion, his score for “THE BIG COUNTRY” is one of the best ever in Hollywood history.

Is “THE BIG COUNTRY” one of the best movies ever directed by the legendary William Wyler? I really cannot say. I have seen better movies directed by him. The movie has some series flaws, especially in regard to editing and too many far shots. But thanks to an unusual story, an excellent cast led by Gregory Peck, a superb score by Jerome Moross and some not-too-shabby direction by Wyler, “THE BIG COUNTRY” remains one of my favorite Westerns of all time.