Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Underrated Westerns - Hal Horn ""

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Underrated Westerns - Hal Horn

Hal Horn is a longtime friend of Rupert Pupkin Speaks and has contributed many many lists over the past few years. I love his blog, The Horn Section(www.hornsection.blogspot.com) and give it my highest personal recommendation!

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HAL HORN’S FAVORITE UNDERRATED WESTERNS
Forrest Tucker Edition

The Horn Section’s patron saint, Forrest Tucker is best known to today’s audiences as Sgt. O’Rourke on the 1965-67 TV comedy classic F TROOP.  But prior to landing the hit sitcom, Tucker was a fixture in action films for over two decades.  His contributions to the Western genre made him part of the inaugural class of 24 to receive the Motion Picture and Television Fund’s Golden Boot Award in 1983.  

HELLFIRE (1949)
“Man by his misdeeds kindles his own hellfire.”  So begins this unusual Wild Bill Elliott vehicle that combines born-again Christianity with secular feminism.   Elliott is a crooked cardsharp whose life is spared when a minister H.B. Warner takes a bullet meant for him.  In gratitude, Wild Bill vows to honor Warner’s dying wish: to raise the funds needed to build a church and to do so “strictly by the Good Book”.  Meanwhile, female bandit Windsor has a $5,000 reward on her head, money that could be the means to Elliott’s goal.  The reformed gambler has competition for the reward from marshal Forrest Tucker, who we learn is married to Windsor’s sister.

A western about an outlaw who gets religion might sound like a preachy, tiresome endeavor.  HELLFIRE is far from it, deftly avoiding the potential pitfalls.  Elliott’s fundraising attempts consistently meet with indifference and contempt.  According to director R. G. Springsteen, Elliott told him HELLFIRE was his best picture.  In addition, it may well contain Marie Windsor’s finest performance.  Recently removed from Netflix Instant, HELLFIRE is currently streaming on Epix Instant.

ROCK ISLAND TRAIL (1950)
Filmed in my home state of Oklahoma (McAlester), ROCK ISLAND TRAIL was Tucker’s graduation to leading man following his breakthrough role in the prior year’s SANDS OF IWO JIMA.  He plays railroad pioneer Reed Loomis, drawing the ire of steamboat owner Bruce Cabot by providing competition both professionally and personally (for the hand of leading lady Adele Mara).  While Keokuk Princess Adrian Booth tries to woo Tuck away from Mara, Forrest convinces Mara’s father Grant Withers to invest in his railroad.  Meanwhile, Cabot attempts to thwart the path of progress by hook or crook.

ROCK ISLAND TRAIL gave Tucker the opportunity to play an unreserved hero for once.  He inspires undivided loyalty to the extent of keeping Booth’s friendship after sidestepping her pass.  It isn’t Tuck’s best by a longshot, but ROCK ISLAND TRAIL is a fast-paced saga that takes a kitchen sink approach: a race between the train and a stage, an exploding bridge, several fist fights, the inevitable Indian attack, and in a truly inspired moment, a duel between Tuck and Cabot using mops dipped in boiling soup(!).  There’s even a courtroom trial with the railroad represented by young Abraham Lincoln (played by Jeff Corey).  

CALIFORNIA PASSAGE (1950)
Tucker and Jim “Jock Ewing” Davis are uneasy partners in a Maricosa saloon, and also in competition for beautiful eastern transplant Adele Mara.  Unbeknownst to Tuck, Davis is also in partnership with stagecoach robber Bob Williams, Mara’s brother.  After Tuck appears to gain the upper hand for Mara’s affections, Davis frames his partner for his extracurricular activities.

Both Republic western vets get plenty of sharp one-liners in James Edward Grant’s screenplay, and Estelita Rodriguez gets a meatier part than usual (and two songs, “Goin’ Round in Circles” and “Second Hand Romance”).  Slightly offbeat, with Tuck’s truculent Mike Prescott almost an anti-hero and a suspenseful final reel in the foggy mountains.  CALIFORNIA PASSAGE is also currently streaming on Epix Instant.

THE QUIET GUN (1957)
It is surprising to learn that of the hundreds of Western novels written by the prolific Lauran Paine (1916-2001), only two (to date) have landed on the big screen: OPEN RANGE (2003) and this tight, effective sleeper directed by TV vet William Claxton.  Tuck is the sheriff of Rock River, and if the arrival of hired gun Lee Van Cleef doesn’t give him enough on his mind, he also has to deal with the town busybodies, who are outraged that Tuck’s friend Jim Davis is cohabitating with underage half-Indian girl Mara Corday on his ranch.  (Side note:  Mara Corday!!  I wouldn’t be casting stones, myself…)  Davis is eventually forced to shoot an attorney in self-defense over the accusations, and Tuck has to apprehend him before a posse of vigilantes can get to him first.

Claxton (who helmed 56 episodes of BONANZA) delivers a lean, mean 79 minutes, with no redemption for the townspeople who caused a double tragedy, but no sermonizing either.  THE QUIET GUN may be brief, but it’s ambitious, tackling McCarthyesque witchhunts, racism, and powerful people manipulating morality for personal gain.  Short and sweet, with a great cast, THE QUIET GUN is scheduled for a long overdue release on DVD and Blu-Ray by Olive Films in 2014.

BARQUERO (1970)
The very first film to inspire me to ask “Why the Hell isn’t this on DVD yet?”.   Warren Oates and Kerwin Mathews are the leaders of a band of ex-military mercenaries.  Their carefully thought out plan?  Looting and massacring an entire border town, then escaping with their booty across the deep river to Mexico after disabling the lone form of passage, Lee Van Cleef’s barge. The latter doesn’t go so smoothly, as Van Cleef gets a timely assist from mountain man Tucker and a standoff ensues with Oates stranded on the American side (with the cavalry surely coming) and Van Cleef and friends on the Mexican side with the barge.  

Director Gordon Douglas (a replacement for the late Robert Sparr) lacks the flair of a Leone or Peckinpah, but BARQUERO is still an ultraviolent, action packed guy movie if there ever was one, and an allegory for U.S. involvement in Vietnam to boot.  Screenwriters George Schenck and William Marks were daring in making psychotic, callous and wrongheaded Oates their metaphor for the American in this regard.  He kills prostitutes immediately after sex, underestimates an enemy carrying out guerilla tactics, turns violent when transparent monetary offers are rejected, and stubbornly sticks to his strategy after a changed situation renders it obsolete.   

BARQUERO was Tucker’s final theatrical Western.  As Mountain Phil, he all but steals the film, which isn't an easy task with Van Cleef and Oates around and eye candy provided by Mariette Hartley and a sharp-shooting, cigar smoking Marie Gomez (THE PROFESSIONALS).  Still yet to be released on home video in the U.S. despite its cult-worthy cast, it is well worth setting your DVR for and frequently turns up on Encore’s Westerns Channel.

3 comments:

fiftieswesterns said...

Hal, thanks for including Hellfire. Since I stuck to the 50s, I had to leave it out. What a wonderful film it is.

Like you, I cannot wait to drop The Quiet Gun into my Blu-ray player.

john knight said...

Only recently discovered your wonderful blog and I too am a huge
Forrest Tucker fan.I thought that he was wonderful in the totally
underrated FORT MASSACRE.
What upsets me the most though is that all these great Westerns Tucker
made for Republic are just not getting released.
Have you seen Joe Kane's wonderful SAN ANTONE which has just about
the most twisted ending that I have ever seen in a Western.
To add further insult to injury an outfit in Germany are soon to release
OH! SUSSANAH but with a German only soundtrack.

Hal said...

Hi, John, thanks for reading!

I have seen FORT MASSACRE with Joel McCrea (I agree, another good one) and SAN ANTONE, one of Tuck's best villains.

I think OH! SUSANNAH is on Netflix Instant now.