A Movie A Day #143: The Bull of the West (1972, directed by Jerry Hopper and Paul Stanley)


Welcome to the American frontier.  The time is the 1880s and men and women everywhere are heading out west in search of their fortune.  While stowing away on a train, veteran cowboy Johnny Wade (Brian Keith) meets the naive Steve Hill (Gary Clarke) and becomes a mentor to the younger man.  Johnny teaches Steve how to shoot a gun and, when they get off the train at Medicine Bow, Wyoming, they get jobs working on the ranch of Georgia Price (Geraldine Brooks).  When Georgia and Johnny plot to overgraze the land, Steve must decide whether he’s with them or with a rival rancher, Judge Garth (Lee J. Cobb).

At the same time, Ben Justin (Charles Bronson) has arrived in town with his son, Will (Robert Random), and his new wife (Lois Nettleton).  Ben is determined to start his own ranch but, because of his taciturn and stubborn personality, he alienates the Cattleman’s Association, which led by Judge Garth and Bear Suchette (George Kennedy).  Will wants to help his father but Ben keeps pushing him away.  It’s up to Judge Garth’s foreman, the Virginian (James Drury), to bring the family together.

Just like The Meanest Men In The West, The Bull of the West was created by editing together footage from two unrelated episodes of The Virginian.  It works better for the Bull of the West because the two episodes had similar themes and the footage mixes together less awkwardly than it did in The Meanest Men In The West.  But Bull of the West is still just a TV show edited into a movie.  The main reason to see it is because of all the familiar western faces in the cast.  Along with Bronson, Keith, Cobb, and Kennedy, keep an eye out for Ben Johnson, DeForest Kelley, and Clu Gulager.

A Movie A Day #142: The Meanest Men In The West (1978, directed by Sam Fuller and Charles S. Dubin)


The Meanest Men In The West may “star” Charles Bronson and Lee Marvin and Sam Fuller may be credited as being one of the film’s two directors but don’t make the same mistake that I made.  Don’t get too excited.

There was once a TV western called The Virginian.  Starring James Drury as a ranch foreman, The Virginian ran for nine seasons on NBC.  A 1962 episode, which was written and directed by Sam Fuller, featured Lee Marvin as a sadistic outlaw who kidnapped The Virginian’s employer, a judge played by Lee J. Cobb.  Five years later, another episode features Charles Bronson as a less sadistic outlaw who kidnapped the Judge’s daughter.

The Meanest Men In The West mixes scenes from those two episode with western stock footage, a bank robbery that originally appeared in The Return of Frank James, an intrusive voice-over, and an almost incoherent prologue, all in order to tell an entirely new story.  Now, Charles Bronson and Lee Marvin are brothers and rivals.  After Marvin snitches on Bronson’s plan to rob a bank, Bronson blames his former friend, The Virginian.  In order to get the Virginian to come to his hideout, Bronson kidnaps Cobb’s daughter.  The Virginian manages to convince Bronson that he didn’t betray him, just to arrive back at the ranch and discover that Cobb has been kidnapped.  Meanwhile, Bronson and his gang set off after Marvin and his gang.  It ends with Charles Bronson, in 1967, shooting at Lee Marvin, who is still in 1962.

The Meanest Men In The West is so clumsily edited that the same shot of Charles Bronson holding a gun is spliced into a dozen different scenes.  Filmed on different film stocks, the Bronson scenes and the Marvin scenes look nothing alike and, since the two episodes were filmed five years apart, James Drury literally ages backwards over the course of the film.

The Meanest Men In The West is for Charles Bronson and Lee Marvin completists only.  I think Bronson and Marvin are two of the coolest individuals who ever existed and even I had a hard time making it through this one.  If you do watch it, keep an eye out for a young Charles Grodin, thoroughly miscast as a tough outlaw.

Thank You, Mr. Peckinpah: Ride the High Country (1962, directed by Sam Peckinpah)


rideIt’s the turn of the 20th century and the Old West is fading into legend.  When they were younger, Steve Judd (Joel McCrea) and Gil Westrum (Randolph Scott) were tough and respect lawmen but now, time has passed them by.  Judd now provides security for shady mining companies while Gil performs at county fairs under the name The Oregon Kid.  When Judd is hired to guard a shipment of gold, he enlists his former partner, Gil, to help.  Gil brings along his current protegé, Heck Longtree (Ron Starr).

On their way to the mining camp, they spend the night at the farm of Joshua Knudsen (R.G. Armstrong) and his daughter, Elsa (Mariette Hartley).  Elsa is eager to escape her domineering father and flirts with Heck.  When they leave the next morning, Elsa accompanies them, planning on meeting her fiancée, Billy Hammond (James Drury), at the mining camp.

When they reach the camp, they meet Bill and his four brothers (John Anderson, L.Q. Jones, John Davis Chandler, and the great Warren Oates).  Billy is a drunk who is planning on “sharing” Elsa with his brothers.  Gil, Judd, and Heck rescue Elsa and prepare for a final confrontation with the Hammond Brothers.  At the same time, Gil and Heck are planning on stealing the gold, with or without Judd’s help.

Ride the High Country was actually Sam Peckinpah’s second film but it’s the first of his films to truly feel like a Sam Peckinpah film.  (For his first film, The Deadly Companions, Peckinpah was largely a director-for-hire and had no say over the script or the final edit.)  Peckinpah rewrote N.B. Stone’s original script and reportedly based the noble Steve Judd on his own father.  All of Peckinpah’s usual themes are present in Ride the High Country, with Judd and, eventually, Gil representing the dying nobility of the old west and the Hammond brothers and the greedy mining companies representing the coming of the “modern” age.  Ride The High Country‘s final shoot-out and bittersweet ending even serve as a template for Peckinpah’s later work in The Wild Bunch.

Much like the characters they were playing, Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea were two aging veterans on the verge of retirement.  For these two aging stars, who had starred in countless westerns before this one, Ride The High Country would provide both fitting farewell and moving tribute.  This would be the last chance that either of them would have to appear in a great movie and both of them obviously relish the opportunity.  The best moments in the film are the ones where Judd and Gil just talk with the majestic mountains of California in the background.

Among the supporting cast, Ron Starr and Mariette Hartley are well-cast as the young lovers but are never as compelling as Gil or Judd.  Future Peckinpah regulars R.G. Armstrong, L.Q. Jones, and Warren Oates all make early appearances.  Seven years after playing brothers in Ride the High Country, L.Q. Jones and Warren Oates would both appear in Peckinpah’s most celebrated film, The Wild Bunch.

The elegiac and beautifully-shot Ride The High Country was Sam Peckinpah’s first great film and it might be his best.

Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea in Ride The High Country

Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea in Ride The High Country