The Last Wagon (1956, Directed by Delmer Daves) English 7

Starring Richard Widmark, Felicia Farr, Tommy Rettig, Nick Adams, Susan Kohner, Timothy Carey, Stephanie Griffin

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(7-Very Good Film)

Potboiler. Thrilling. Simple.

A fugitive, Comanche Todd (Widmark), is caught by a sadistic Sheriff and dragged along with a wagon train of civilians to some town where he’ll be hanged. Comanche Todd, a white man raised by Indians, is given some sympathy by a few of the travelers but feared by most. When the wagon train is attacked by vengeful Apache, Comanche Todd is called on to lead the few survivors to civilization. This is a classic old Hollywood western in a number of ways but manages some moral ambiguity which is rare for westerns of the period. It also depicts Indians as something more than mindless killing machines, which is rarer still. Although a bit hokey at times, all in all, it’s a rousing adventure filmed beautifully in Cinescope by director Delmer Daves who filmed many excellent westerns.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-


Man in the Saddle (1951, Directed by André De Toth) English 5

Starring Randolph Scott, Ellen Drew, Joan Leslie, John Russell, Alfonso Bedoya, Richard Rober, Alexander Knox

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(5-Okay Film)

Lackluster. Ill-defined. Dutiful.

Owen Merrit (Scott) has been thrown over by Laurie (Leslie) for a wealthy land baron, Will Isham (Knox), but can’t quite give her up, believing that she still loves him. Isham, for all of his wealth and power, is a jealous, insecure man and he sees Merrit as a threat. Isham’s plot to destroy Merrit leads the latter to hiding out with a schoolmarm, Nan (Drew), and biding his time to get revenge.  Man in the Saddle hits all the familiar notes in unspectacular fashion but westerns, even at their most derivative, can be great fun. Man in the Saddle is not much fun, despite all of its technical competence, mainly because it’s too muddled early on and the characters aren’t distinct enough until too late in the film. By that time, I was pretty bored. The romance/ love triangle is also uninteresting.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-


The Hired Hand (1971, Directed by Peter Fonda) English 8

Starring Peter Fonda, Warren Oates, Verna Bloom, Robert Pratt, Severn Darden, Ann Doran

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(8-Exceptional Film)

Spare. Thoughtful. Poignant.

Two life-long ramblers in the old west, Harry (Fonda) and Arch (Oates), attempt to give up their nomadic lifestyle when the former decides to return home to his estranged wife, Hannah (Bloom) and daughter. Arch goes with him and, as it’s been several years since Harry left her, Hannah isn’t all that excited to see him again. After some coaxing, she agrees to let the pair work around the house as “hired hands” and sleep out in the barn, and thus begins an odd, intriguing triangle between the three lead characters. Dear, loyal friendship between Harry and Arch. Love, responsibility, vows between Harry and Hannah. And a complicated, mostly unspoken attraction between Arch and Hannah (reminiscent of the classic western, Shane). This is a strange, fascinating film. Like many great westerns before it, The Hired Hand is deceptively simple, so much left unsaid. It focuses on a trio of memorable characters and performances and takes it time letting things unfold.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-


Rawhide (1951, Directed by Henry Hathaway) English 7

Starring Tyrone Power, Susan Hayward, Hugh Marlowe, Dean Jagger, Edgar Buchanan, Jack Elam, George Tobias

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(7-Very Good Film)

Violent. Suspenseful. Strong.

Heir to the family business, Tom Owens (Power), is given his ticket out of Rawhide, an outpost in the west dead in the middle of nowhere. His father sent him there so that Tom would understand the business. Just as Tom’s getting ready to leave, however, four outlaws-Rafe (Marlowe), Tevis (Elam), Gratz (Tobias), and Yancy (Jagger)-who’ve escaped from prison show up and take Tom, along with a woman named Vinnie (Hayward) and her baby, hostage, planning to rob a shipment of gold set to pass through the outpost. Complicating things for everybody is the loose cannon Tevis, ready to kill anybody at any second, including his own running mates. Rawhide is an effective, surprisingly suspenseful western that blends in elements of the home invasion subgenre. On one side, you have the crafty heroes desperately trying to find a way to escape, and on the other side, you have a disparate group of villains ready to combust at any minute. Jack Elam steals the show as a sleazy, cowardly, violent criminal, giving Rawhide its sense of danger and edge. I actually wouldn’t mind a remake.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-


The Man From Snowy River (1982, Directed by George T. Miller) English 6

Starring Kirk Douglas, Tom Burlinson, Sigrid Thornton, Terence Donovan, Tommy Dysart, Jack Thompson

(6-Good Film)

Old-fashioned. Solid. Appealing,

Australian western made in the 1980s when westerns were beginning to die out, The Man from Snowy River follows Jim Craig, a young man from the mountains, who goes to the lowlands and works for the tyrannical Mr. Harrison (Douglas) while falling for the man’s daughter. It’s a simple story, sweet and earnest. Very old-fashioned, but the Australian accents add a new color.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-



The Magnificent Seven (2016, Directed by Antoine Fuqua) 6

Starring Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D’Onofrio, Lee Byung-hun, Peter Sarsgaard

(6-Good Film)

Inferior. Entertaining. Unambitious.

I could have written my bottom line before seeing the movie. I knew how I was going to feel. This Magnificent Seven isn’t as good as the original Magnificent Seven, which in turn isn’t as good as Seven Samurai. Antoine Fuqua’s remake starring Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D’Onofrio, Lee Byung-hun, and Peter Sarsgaard retells the story of a small town, bullied by what seems like a small army, that enlists the help of seven rogue men to save them.  Maybe a second viewing would be more revealing. It’s very easy to be unfair to this kind of film. It’s stepping into the shoes of a cultural giant and trying to take a different path to the same place. I commend the approach. They could have coasted off the aura of the original. That movie abandoned the austerity of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai and instead went for a sense of pure adventure, on its way to becoming iconic. The score, by Elmer Bernstein, is a classic. The cast of heroes, most notably Yul Brynner, Steve Mcqueen, James Coburn, and Charles Bronson, was emblematic of 60’s era cool, linking hyper-masculinity and toughness with integrity. The latter three men would go on to be leading action figures for the next two decades. However, that Magnificent Seven achieved its immense popularity and esteem over time. Looking back at initial reviews, the consensus is pretty typical, and not dissimilar to reviews of this 2016 model. “Pallid reflection of the Japanese original,” said New York Times. So perhaps the final word on this new western is a decade or two down the line, in the hands of the millions of people who have never seen the original. After all, fifty-six years is a long time ago, and The Magnificent Seven 2016 does have pleasures of its own.

Any strong feelings about a Magnificent Seven film must start with the cast of characters:

Denzel Washington leads the gang as Sam Chisolm. He’s the only character in the group that is given a clearly defined motive in helping the town (one of the film’s weaknesses in my opinion). Washington is one of Hollywood’s biggest stars, and he’s more than compelling enough to stand out and distance himself from the original’s shadow.

Chris Pratt has the tricky assignment of being the film’s most charismatic personality. His Farraday character mixes some of the traits of Steve Mcqueen and Toshiro Mifune which means he will be compared to them. He comes up short in my estimation.

Ethan Hawke is one of the more interesting side characters. He is Goodnight Robicheaux, an old Rebel soldier and dubious friend from Chisolm’s past.

Vincent D’onofrio is Jacke Horne. D’onofrio is a proven character actor and does a lot with little screen time in this picture. His sheer size is one of the more memorable aspects of the film.

Manuel Garcia-Rulfo is a Mexican outlaw, Vasquez, coerced into helping the town by Chisolm. He largely gets lost in the shuffle of such a big cast. He adds diversity which is nice, but he brings more to the poster than to the film.

Lee Byung-hun is Billy, a former railroad worker and outlaw from…(they don’t ever say that I can remember, but the actor is Korean). The strong silent type in the mold of James Coburn from the original or Seiji Miyaguchi from Seven Samurai. His main purpose is to be cool, and he is, with a nod to the Coburn knife throwing scene for his introduction.

Martin Sensmeier a wandering Comanche named Red Harvest ends up being a pretty memorable character. I was sure he was going to be a token figure but he is given his moments to stand out, though without significant dialogue or motivation.

Overall, this new cast of seven is pretty good as they face off against a wealthy robber baron, played by Peter Sarsgaard, with his own private militia working for him. The action sequences are exciting for the most part, and the script manages moments of humor to make the proceedings feel a little more fun. My quibbles with the film are first, the way the film manages to fill out its diverse cast in a very politically correct fashion. Race never seems to be an awkward point in this 19th-century setting, and that’s kind of crazy. I was struck, watching Denzel Washington ride into town as the people’s savior, with the thought of how much more realistic Blazing Saddles (of all things) felt in the scene where Cleavon Little rides in and is eventually greeted with angry surprise by the white townspeople. Second, and to me, the most glaring flaw is the score or the total absence of a theme song to be more specific. It’s The Magnificent Seven. How can there not be a theme song? As escapism and as a setup for an action showcase, the film works, and the ride is never dull. Just don’t expect a whole lot more than that.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-


Son of Paleface (1952, Directed by Frank Tashlin) English 7

Starring Bob Hope, Jane Russell, Roy Rogers, Bill Williams, Lloyd Corrigan, Paul E. Burns

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(7-Very Good Film)

Inventive. Zany. Fun.

A loose sequel to The Paleface (1948), Bob Hope and Jane Russell return in new roles, once again facing off against the Indians (played by white people), outlaws, and ravenous townspeople who have been cheated out of money by Hope’s father. Like all Hope films that I’ve seen, there is a lot of witty one-liners, clever use of the fourth wall, and self-deprecating humor. Standing out from some of his others though, this film has some truly incredible stunts that rank among the best and most creative put on screen.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-