Springfield Rifle (1952) Review

Director: André De Toth

Genre(s): Action, Adventure, Thriller, War, Western

Runtime: 93 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Two years after the popular Winchester ’73 (1950) was released, another rifle-themed western was put in theaters, this one starring Gary Cooper and titled Springfield Rifle. The plot follows Alex “Lex” Kearney (Gary Cooper), an officer in the Union military during the American Civil War who is branded a coward after surrendering a herd of horses to Confederate raiders out West without a fight. The story can be somewhat complicated at times, but I’ll just leave it at that to avoid spoilers (it should be mentioned that the plot description on its IMDb page gives quite a bit away).

Springfield Rifle isn’t the most straightforward film of all time, featuring enough twists and turns to justify its existence. Gary Cooper is at the center of all of this, and the guy’s a real badass. This is perhaps one of his most memorable action and/or adventure movies. The picture contains some material related to Cooper’s character’s relationship with his wife, Erin Kearney (Phyllis Thaxter), but it’s well-integrated into the rest of the flick, not feeling like it was shoehorned in by studio executives. Max Steiner’s musical score is fine.

Fortunately for the film, it’s blessed with some above-average action scenes, whether they be oriented around people punching each other or riding around, shooting at moving targets. There’s a couple of instances of “yowza” stuntwork and an early use of the “Wilhelm scream.” The “smoke-’em-out” action finale would not be approved of by Smokey Bear.

Even if its name is “Springfield Rifle,” Cooper never lets the titular firearm outshine him (although the gun is still pretty cool). Thanks to things like the leading actor’s presence, the beautiful scenery, the thumbs-up-worthy action sequences, and an interesting plot, this war/western/action-adventure movie deserves to be watched. It’s sort of a shame that this feature is largely forgotten about today (maybe because it was sent to theaters the same year as High Noon [1952], another Cooper western that’s even better), because it still satisfies.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957) Review

Director: John Sturges

Genre(s): Biography, Western

Runtime: 122 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Gunfight at the O.K. Corral is a bit on the disappointing side, considering it was directed by John Sturges, one of the better (possibly the best) action-adventure directors out there at the time of its release. Still, it has a few redeeming values that may make it worth a watch for the curious. During the Wild West period, lawman Wyatt Earp (Burt Lancaster) befriends dentist-turned-gunslinging-gambler Doc Holliday (Kirk Douglas), with their camaraderie coming in handy when the former needs to face down the villainous Clanton clan at the O.K. Corral.

This movie is, well, pretty talky. Sure, sometimes guns or knives do the talking, but most of the film is jibber-jabber. Add to this a loose plot that doesn’t get focused until about halfway through and there is trouble. The feud between the Earp family and the Clantons feels a little undercooked, with that conflict not really getting explained until relatively late in the flick’s runtime (okay, it’s not that late, but it should’ve been introduced sooner). Both Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday have separate romantic subplots (well, if you could call Holliday’s “romantic”) that further bring the feature down.

Despite these flaws, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral benefits from a sensational final shootout that just might be the best firefight in western movie history up to the point of this picture’s release. Dimitri Tiomkin’s musical score is appropriately epic, complete with a catchy theme song sung by Frankie Laine. The macho bonding between Burt Lancaster’s Earp and Kirk Douglas’ Holliday is also cool to watch.

I wouldn’t consider this to be one of the Sturges’ best movies, thanks to a story that sometimes meanders. It would’ve benefited from a tighter script. However, the titular action sequence, the music, and chemistry between the two leads may draw in some viewers. Also, don’t come here looking for historical accuracy. At the end of the day, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral is just okay.

My rating is 6 outta 10.

Last Train from Gun Hill (1959) Review

Director: John Sturges

Genre(s): Drama, Western

Runtime: 95 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

One of the movies that director John Sturges brought to the world before his two masterpieces – The Magnificent Seven (1960) and The Great Escape (1963) – was 1959’s Last Train from Gun Hill. In the Old West, Marshal Matt Morgan (Kirk Douglas) sets out to the town of Gun Hill to arrest the two men who raped and murdered his Native American wife, Catherine (Ziva Rodann). However, that town is now completely under the domination of his former best friend Craig Belden (Anthony Quinn), now a mob-boss-like cattle baron. To complicate matters, Belden’s son, Rick (Earl Holliman), is one of the killers.

The film’s plot may sound a bit unwieldy in text, but the relatively straightforward storytelling keeps things understandable. The only aspect slowing down the action is a subplot involving the character of Linda (Carolyn Jones), which probably could’ve been reduced to tighten up the picture. Still, physical action is fairly common in Last Train from Gun Hill, although these moments are pretty short. For a while, the film feels like Die Hard (1988) set in a Wild West hotel.

The feature’s musical score is average, despite being provided by the great Dimitri Tiomkin. Although the primary draw of this western is to see Kirk Douglas and Anthony Quinn face off against each other, I feel the need to point out a couple of members of the supporting cast. Brad Dexter, who would play Harry Luck in The Magnificent Seven, shows up as Beero (nice name), Quinn’s character’s head henchman. Also, the guy who plays Lee Smithers, the member of the raping duo who’s not Earl Holliman’s Rick, is Brian G. Hutton, who would go on to direct Where Eagles Dare (1968) and Kelly’s Heroes (1970).

Fans of John Sturges will probably enjoy this no-frills, pro-law-and-order western film. It’s no life-changing experience, but it is a rock-solid movie with a respectable amount of action and an intriguing plot. If you’ve seen it and liked it, I’d highly recommend the other two classics directed by Sturges that I mentioned at the beginning of this review.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

The Dawn Rider (1935) Review

Director: Robert N. Bradbury

Genre(s): Action, Western

Runtime: 53 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

This early John Wayne western doesn’t even run an hour, but still manages to be a worthy entry into the iconic actor’s filmography. It’s rough and unpolished, but it gets the job done. The straightforward story is about John Mason (John Wayne) seeking revenge on the man who murdered his father, Dad Mason (Joseph De Grasse), during a heist. There’s very little that could be considered complicated here, it’s just a solid action-packed western movie.

This is one of those micro-budget western films where tough guys bond by beating the shit out of each other. It’s definitely a picture aimed at men, but there is some minor romance thrown into the mix. While John Wayne is clearly the star of the show, one should keep an eye out for Yakima Canutt, the famed stuntman and second-unit director, who plays a villainous saloon owner here.

Other than Wayne and Canutt, a good reason to watch The Dawn Rider is for its plentiful action. It’s not exactly spectacular (I mean, this is a low-budget production and all), but there’s quite a bit of shooting, punching, and chasing crammed into the 53-minute runtime. The highlights include a fist fight on a speeding wagon, which is pretty well-shot for the time (no rear projection here!), and the final punch-up.

If you enjoy western movies for their sweeping, grand scenery and morally-complex plots, The Dawn Rider may not be for you. This is a cheapie actioner made before Wayne struck it big, so keep that in mind. I enjoyed it because of its short length and because it’s fun to see the Duke in a mayhem-filled pre-major-fame role. It’s certainly not boring.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Hell or High Water (2016) Review

Director: David Mackenzie

Genre(s): Crime, Drama, Thriller, Western

Runtime: 102 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

Hell or High Water is a very good modern-day western that was nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. Set around the time of the Great Recession, this film taps into the populist sentiment that was all the rage at the time of its release. The plot follows a pair of bank-robbing brothers, Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner Howard (Ben Foster), and the pursuit of them by lawmen Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham).

Generally well-paced (thanks to the lack of a substantial romantic subplot), this one has smart, colorful dialogue and well-drawn characters, thanks to its screenplay, written by Taylor Sheridan (who shows up as a cowboy here), who also penned other quasi-westerns, like Sicario (2015) and Wind River (2017). Hell or High Water, while mostly serious, has more comedic touches than those pictures, making it lighter viewing. It’s an interesting dive into Texan culture.

I would not describe this movie as an actioner, but it does have some crisp action scenes that largely kick in during the third act. The body count is quite low, but the amount of gunfire and speeding cars that the flick has feels appropriate and satisfying. The violence isn’t too graphic, being just bloody enough to cross the line into R-rated territory.

Hell or High Water isn’t my favorite modern-day western movie…that would be Extreme Prejudice (1987) (I’m not including Westworld [1973] here, as that’s more futuristic than anything else). However, it will definitely scratch that itch for viewers who want to see tough guys in the American Southwest performing or trying to prevent criminal activities in a time period that’s familiar to them. If you’re getting tired of watching westerns set in the 1800s or early 1900s, this is a welcome change of pace.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) Review

Director: John Huston

Genre(s): Adventure, Drama, Western

Runtime: 126 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

This dirty, sweaty western picture is notable not only for starring Humphrey Bogart, but also for featuring Walter Huston, director John Huston’s father. This makes The Treasure of the Sierra Madre perhaps the most famous film to have a father/son tag-team in movie history. In 1925 Mexico, two down-on-their-luck American drifters, Fred C. Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart) and Curtin (Tim Holt), recruit an old, experienced prospector, Howard (Walter Huston), to aid them on a gold-digging expedition deep in the wilderness. This film starts strong, but suffers from a less energetic third act.

One of the first things the audience notices about The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is its thick atmosphere of desperation. The main characters start out as little more than beggars, constantly on the prowl for money for their next meal. The movie maintains this sense of fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants adventure as the trio move into the hills of Mexico to search for gold. Max Steiner provides a good musical score and the whole thing is mercifully devoid of romantic subplots. Humphrey Bogart’s paranoid performance could’ve easily veered off into hamminess, but this is largely avoided.

Unfortunately, the third act is noticeably weaker and slower than the first two. Bogart’s character spends too much time worriedly talking to himself and the subject matter isn’t as exciting as the content seen in the first two-thirds. The final act isn’t a total flop, but I missed the urban drifting, dive bars, shootouts with bandits, gold-mining, etc. from earlier on in the motion picture. Also, Walter Huston’s character’s prospector dance about midway through hasn’t aged well.

I can’t say that I enjoyed The Treasure of the Sierra Madre as much as the critics did (it currently holds an 100% approval rate among professional reviewers on Rotten Tomatoes). Sure, it’s still a highly watchable flick, but the third act just isn’t as entertaining as what came before. The film’s message that greed is bad is, of course, true, but it strikes me as an obvious statement to make. I’ll recommend it, even though I don’t find it close to perfect.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

High Noon (1952) Review

Director: Fred Zinnemann

Genre(s): Drama, Western

Runtime: 85 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG

IMDb Page

In 2008, the American Film Institute named High Noon the second greatest American western movie of all time as part of their AFI’s 10 Top 10 retrospective (The Searchers [1956] was named number-one). It’s not my second favorite (or overall favorite) western ever made (although I do like it a lot more than The Searchers), but this film basically lives up to the hype. The story is about Wild West marshal Will Kane (Gary Cooper) on his last day as a lawman before retirement and his first day as a married man (his wife being Amy Fowler Kane [Grace Kelly], a pacifist Quaker). However, he must soon organize a posse to help him confront a gang of outlaws planning on killing him at noon.

This is one of cinema’s most famous tales of courage and cowardice. It’s all about integrity, heroism, and standing one’s ground against the forces of darkness and apathy. Gary Cooper’s towering performance (which he won an Oscar for) is what keeps the picture together. He’s greatly aided by Dimitri Tiomkin’s exemplary musical score, which also took home an Academy Award. The feature has two action scenes, a livery stable fist fight and the final shootout, both of which are more realistic than sensationalized.

If I had to find a fault with this psychological western, it would be the subplot involving Cooper’s character’s ex-lover, Helen Ramírez (Katy Jurado), which distracts from the flick’s otherwise laser focus. These scenes don’t add much to the experience, and, in my opinion, probably should’ve been written out of the movie. Sometimes it seems like they were included to pad the film’s (admittedly short) runtime in order to further the picture’s taking-place-in-real-time shtick. I could be wrong, of course.

High Noon is rightfully lauded as a classic, thanks to its performances, thought-provoking subject matter, music, cinematography, and generally taut pacing. This is a landmark film because it showed a western hero who was vulnerable and sometimes even scared and because it focused more on drama and escalating tension than on the shoot-’em-up antics and hyper-macho posturing that were common in the genre. Don’t forget to keep your eyes peeled for Lee Van Cleef as Jack Colby, a member of the villainous gang, and Jack Elam as Charlie, the town drunk.

My rating is 8 outta 10.