Fighting Caravans (1931) Review

Directors: Otto Brower and David Burton

Genre(s): Adventure, Romance, Western

Runtime: 92 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Fighting Caravans is an early sound western that stars the great Gary Cooper. To be frank, it’s nothing that special. Clint Belmet (Gary Cooper) is a Wild West scout who pretends to be married to lone Frenchwoman Felice (Lili Damita) on a covered wagon caravan headed to California. Of course, the journey will be perilous (those Native Americans aren’t going to give up their land without a fight), and Clint and Felice just might fall in love for real.

This flick is decidedly an old-timey affair. There are times when it feels creaky, even by the standards of the time. The comic relief, provided by drunken mountain men Bill Jackson (Ernest Torrence) and Jim Bridger (Tully Marshall), will probably provoke as many eye-rolls as actual laughs. The action scenes, such as a large barroom brawl and a battle at a river crossing with some Native Americans, feel somewhat clunky, but they’re alright, I suppose.

The movie is not particularly friendly to the indigenous populations of North America, who’re treated as faceless baddies to be gunned down. The “i-word” (the one with a “j” in the middle) gets thrown around incessantly. This contributes to the Pre-Code nature of film, since this picture was released prior to the enforcement of the Hollywood Production Code. Other Pre-Code content includes Gary Cooper’s character trying to bed Lili Damita’s character as part of their husband-wife act.

If you’re going to watch Fighting Caravans, please keep in mind its 1931 release date. Cooper and Damita (who’s probably better known as being the wife of Errol Flynn for a while) can’t really rescue this oldie. That being said, it looks like it had a decent-sized budget and there is some action to be found here. The feature was quickly remade as Wagon Wheels (1934) with Randolph Scott in the the Cooper role.

My rating is 6 outta 10.

The Americano (1955) Review

Director: William Castle

Genre(s): Adventure, Western

Runtime: 85 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The Americano is a thoroughly mediocre western movie only notable for its setting. American rancher Sam Dent (Glenn Ford) travels to Brazil to deliver some cattle, but finds himself embroiled in a range war. Apparently this adventure picture was actually partially filmed in Brazil, which is a nice touch, but it’s certainly not enough to redeem the work.

One of the very first things I think of when I try to remember The Americano (Heaven forbid) is the animal footage. Being shot in South America, there’s plenty of exotic wildlife on display here (probably mostly photographed by the second unit), with these creatures often stealing the spotlight from the humans. Glenn Ford is his usual tough guy here, and Cesar Romero (who would later play the Joker in the 1960s Batman television series) gives an Anthony Quinn-esque performance as bandit Manuel Silvera.

The biggest flaw with this picture is the severe lack of action. A shoot-’em-up this ain’t, although we do get a sweet pitchfork fight towards the end. A western doesn’t have to have wall-to-wall action to be good, but it certainly helps elevate generic material…and generic this is. The film is almost more concerned with a quasi-musical number than the rough-and-tumble stuff. I guess the filmmakers wanted some dancing to appeal to as many viewers as possible.

Yes, it’s set in Brazil, but take that away, and it’d be even more forgettable than it already is. The Americano isn’t really a bad feature, but it could’ve been so much more. I wouldn’t describe it as “offensive,” even if the the Goofs section of its IMDb profile reports that, despite being set in the Portuguese-speaking part of South America, most of the Brazilians either speak Spanish or “a terrible mix of the two.” Nice.

My rating is 5 outta 10.

Blowing Wild (1953) Review

Director: Hugo Fregonese

Genre(s): Action, Adventure, Romance, Western

Runtime: 90 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Could Blowing Wild be considered a western movie? It’s set in South America around the time of its release date (1953), but it still involves tough guys wearing cowboy hats wielding six-shooters in confrontations with outlaws on the fringes of civilization. I’d say it has enough western film tropes to qualify as one. The plot of this flick is about a group of oilmen – Jeff Dawson (Gary Cooper), Ward “Paco” Conway (Anthony Quinn), and Dutch Peterson (Ward Bond) – fighting for survival in bandit-infested territory in Latin America.

Blowing Wild features two of the greatest tough customers to ever grace the silver screen: Gary Cooper and Anthony Quinn. They’re in top form, as you would expect, and they’re backed up by an exquisite sense of atmosphere. At times it feels like an oil-oriented (rather than gold-oriented) version of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948). Backing up all of this is a surprisingly good theme song: “Blowing Wild (The Ballad of Black Gold)” sung by Frankie Laine, with music by the great Dimitri Tiomkin.

This is an excellent look at adventurous, hardy men trying to make a living on the edge of human advancement. There’s lots of action (by 1950s cinema standards) to keep you on the edge of your seat. We’ve got gunfire, punches, explosions, and speeding vehicles. Blowing Wild also has a bit of a romantic triangle, but it’s nothing that can’t be solved with a little violence.

This is one of the best action-adventure movies of the 1950s. It has a unique plot and setting, with quite a bit of physicality and excitement. It takes the western genre and sets it in mid-twentieth-century South America, which succeeds like gangbusters. I find it shocking that this picture isn’t more popular. It does contains a brief moment of unintentional humor, though. When the opening credits end, a title proclaims that “All events, places and persons depicted in this film are fictional,” which is immediately followed by another title saying that this story is set in “SOUTH AMERICA.” I didn’t know that that continent was fictional.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

Gunsight Ridge (1957) Review

Director: Francis D. Lyon

Genre(s): Action, Western

Runtime: 85 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

If you like your western movies short, simple, and action-oriented, Gunsight Ridge might be worth looking into. During the Wild West period, lawman Mike Ryan (Joel McCrea) investigates a series of stagecoach robberies orchestrated by bandit Velvet Clark (Mark Stevens). This film is best thought of as a piece of cinematic comfort food…and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Gunsight Ridge benefits from a notable amount of action. It’s not the most hectic western ever made, but it has enough shots fired and fists thrown to keep viewers from nodding off. The highlights are a horse stable punch-up and the final, mano-a-mano shootout at the geographical formation in the flick’s title. The body count’s small and the carnage is all bloodless, making it relatively family friendly by the standards of the genre.

This feature definitely fits the “traditional western” mold. There’s no moral ambiguity here, with the white-hat-black-hat tropes largely being in place (well, except for the fact that Joel McCrea’s good guy wears a black hat and the villain wears a white one). Gunsight Ridge is undemanding entertainment, and that’s okay.

All aspects of this picture are adequate. It doesn’t really go above and beyond the call of duty, but it does give off those cozy, lazy-Saturday-afternoon vibes that some audiences are looking for. Joel McCrea’s a solid action hero and the moments of physicality prevent the pace from lagging. Gunsight Ridge is no Earth-shaker, but I don’t regret viewing it.

My rating is 6 outta 10.

The Riders of the Whistling Skull (1937) Review

Director: Mack V. Wright

Genre(s): Action, Adventure, Western

Runtime: 58 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The 1937 b-movie The Riders of the Whistling Skull is an early cinematic entry into the “Weird West” subgenre. That phrase refers to western genre media with fantasy/supernatural, horror, or science-fiction elements. This flick is about three cowboys – Stony Brooke (Robert Livingston), Tucson Smith (Ray Corrigan), and Lullaby Joslin (Max Terhune) – who go on a quest to find a lost city out West that’s been overrun by Native American cultists. Oh, yeah, they also bring a ventriloquist dummy with them.

This is a very low-budget affair, but that’s part of its charm. The Riders of the Whistling Skull is cheaply-made, yet it manages to keep the audience’s attention. It’s the fourth entry into the The Three Mesquiteers series, a franchise of Poverty Row westerns that featured a trio of Wild West gunslingers. John Wayne actually appeared as the Stony Brooke character in several of the pictures in the prolific series, but this isn’t one of them.

The action sequences here are fair-enough, but nothing that special, as the heroes battle against a small army of Native American cultists. Speaking of indigenous peoples, the movie’s depiction of them is somewhat racist, but what do you expect from a micro-budget 1930s b-western? If you’ve come here looking for an enlightened look at racial minorities in such a picture, then you’re barking up the wrong tree.

As of right now, Wikipedia and IMDb refer to this feature as “Riders of the Whistling Skull,” without the “The” at the beginning of the title (I’m pretty sure that I saw a “The” at the beginning of the title during the movie’s opening credits sequence). Anyway, this is a pretty solid action-adventure film all things considered. It’s less than an hour in length, so it’s a painless viewing. This western is good, corny fun with a unique plot

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Winchester ’73 (1950) Review

Director: Anthony Mann

Genre(s): Action, Adventure, Drama, Western

Runtime: 92 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Winchester ’73 is a fabulous fusion of the psychological western and the action-adventure-western, combining the brains of the former and the brawn of the latter. This movie helped reinvent actor James Stewart’s career, allowing Hollywood’s iconic Mr. Nice Guy to be cast in somewhat tougher roles. The plot here is about cowboy Lin McAdam (James Stewart) hunting down a Winchester rifle across the Wild West that was stolen from him after he won it in a sharp-sho0ting competition.

Action-packed by the standards of its original release, this western packs a surprising amount of content into its ninety-two-minute runtime. From the contest for the titular rifle at the beginning to the bullet-ricocheting finale, this is a constantly engaging movie. James Stewart is violently obsessed with tracking down his gun, which is a notable departure from the sort of roles he enjoyed before 1950.

This firearm-filled film even has some slight war picture elements, thanks to a battle that erupts between American government troops and some Native Americans. The depiction of said Native Americans is a mixed bag for sure. On one hand, the leader of the indigenous rebels, Young Bull, is played by, uh, Rock Hudson. On the other, he does get a brief opportunity to mention the atrocities committed against his people by the White man, but it’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment.

This acclaimed western movie is a treat for fans of the genre. It makes a few references to the famous events and people of the Wild West era while also creating its own legends. Jimmy Stewart plays a very slightly darker character than usual, but the psychological aspects of the picture never get in the way of the rousing action. Winchester ’73 is a flick worth cherishing.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

Duck, You Sucker (1971) Review

Director: Sergio Leone

Genre(s): Action, Adventure, Comedy, Drama, War, Western

Runtime: 157 minutes, 120 minutes (initial American version)

MPAA Rating: PG (initial American version), R (longer cut)

IMDb Page

The final western that legendary director Sergio Leone helmed was the sprawling, war-themed epic Duck, You Sucker, originally titled “GiĆ¹ la Testa” in Italian and also sometimes known as “A Fistful of Dynamite” in English. The plot is about a Mexican bandit named Juan Miranda (Rod Steiger) and an Irish revolutionary named John H. Mallory (James Coburn) teaming up to rob the Mesa Verde bank, but ending up involved neck-deep in the Mexican Revolution. This one’s a real genre-buster, combining elements of action-adventure, comedy, drama, war, and western, with some hetero “bromance” thrown into the mix.

When it comes to directing, Sergio Leone really knows what he’s doing, so every frame of the film is electric. Frequent Leone collaborator Ennio Morricone provides the brilliant musical score, and it’s the best work of music I’ve ever heard from him (and that’s saying something!). The cinematography is top-shelf and the performances (especially those from Rod Steiger and James Coburn) are nothing short of fantastic.

The biggest downside to the masterpiece Duck, You Sucker is how muddled its thesis is (well, that and its unfortunate misogyny). The movie’s take on the nature of revolutions is frustratingly incoherent, as it veers from showing savage atrocities by Mexican government forces and displaying their malevolence to the poor of Mexico to being an “anti-Zapata western,” where politically-motivated violence by the rebellious factions is essentially condemned (think of the song “Won’t Get Fooled Again” by The Who). I don’t even know what this motion picture is trying to say…and it’s desperately trying to say something.

Okay, this work doesn’t make a lot of sense on the political side, but just about everything else is magnificent. The humor is quirky and delightfully broad, and the drama is heartrending. On the action front, this feature boasts some truly massive explosions and an apocalyptic body count. It’s a tragicomic war-western that commands the audience’s attention and gets beneath their skin.

My rating is 10 outta 10.

The Texican (1966) Review

Director: Lesley Selander

Genre(s): Action, Western

Runtime: 91 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Audie Murphy does a Euro-Western? Whaaaaa?!? Technically, it’s not a “spaghetti western,” as Italy apparently wasn’t involved in its production (IMDb says it was a co-production between Spain and the United States), but it sure looks and sounds like one. Filmed in Spain, this western is about gunslinger Jess Carlin (American World War II war hero Audie Murphy) seeking revenge on town boss Luke Starr (Broderick Crawford), who’s responsible for the murder of his newspaperman brother, Roy Carlin (Victor Vilanova).

The Texican definitely feels like a “spaghetti western,” or Italian-made western, thanks to its distinctive sound effects, Ennio Morricone-wannabe musical score (from Nico Fidenco), and the obvious dubbing done for some of the non-English-speaking cast. It’s a bit strange seeing Audie Murphy in such a movie, but I suppose that that’s part of the novelty. Being one of the last films that Murphy made, it appears that he was trying to jump on the Clint Eastwood Train by invigorating his career with a Euro-Western.

This picture has a reasonably tight story, which helps it enormously. Action comes along fairly frequently, which is another plus. The low budget doesn’t really hinder the production much, only adding to the sense of atmosphere (those lonely, remote way-stations are characters of their own). Murphy is pretty much his typical white-knight hero, while Broderick Crawford makes a satisfactory villain.

As far as obscure action-westerns go, this one is pretty darn good. The plot’s easy to follow and it’s fun seeing Murphy out for vengeance. It’s not exactly high art, but not every motion picture has to be Citizen Kane (1941). Sometimes you just want to watch one of the greatest heroes of the Second World War play cowboy and beat up people in scenes where punches sound like gunshots.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Seven Angry Men (1955) Review

Director: Charles Marquis Warren

Genre(s): Biography, Drama, War, Western

Runtime: 90 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The 1955 biopic Seven Angry Men was actually the second time that actor Raymond Massey played John Brown on the big screen. The first film was the pro-slavery propaganda piece Santa Fe Trail (1940), where Brown was the villain. Anyway, this historical drama details the life of that famed American abolitionist, as he battles against pro-slavery forces in Kansas and what-is-now West Virginia in the years leading up to the American Civil War. It’s a very nifty movie that does justice to the legendary figure at its center.

People who have studied the life of John Brown, one of my heroes, will recognize various incidents in the picture inspired by real-life events. Yes, some of these highlights of Brown’s life – like the Sack of Lawrence and the Battle of Osawatomie – are exaggerated to make them more cinematic, but the flick often sticks surprisingly close to the facts. A few major events are omitted from the feature, like the Battle of Black Jack and the raid into Missouri to rescue several slaves.

This is a morally complex film that doesn’t shy away from asking the big questions about extralegal violence. Raymond Massey gives a dynamite performance as the central character, although it may be too much to keep track of all of his grown sons, considering how little fleshing-out some of them are given (they make up the other six angry men of the title). The action scenes that show up are serviceable, but not above and beyond the call of duty.

Seven Angry Men is an excellent look back at the history of militant abolitionism in the years prior to the breakout of the American Civil War. However, it should be noted that an unnecessary romantic subplot occasionally brings the movie to a standstill. This, right here, is the proper John Brown motion picture to view, not that Santa Fe Trail stuff. If you enjoy this work, I’d recommend reading the book John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights by David S. Reynolds as a companion piece.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

Breakheart Pass (1975) Review

Director: Tom Gries

Genre(s): Adventure, Mystery, Thriller, Western

Runtime: 95 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG

IMDb Page

It may just be me, but it doesn’t seem like Hollywood cranks out too many mystery-western movies. If that’s a genre combo that you’ve been looking for a film from, Breakheart Pass is worth looking into. Set, of course, in the Wild West, outlaw Deakin (Charles Bronson) finds himself on a train full of medical supplies headed for a diseased military outpost. To complicate matters, people are constantly disappearing or winding up dead on the locomotive.

Written by Alistair MacLean, who wrote the novels that pictures like The Guns of Navarone (1961) and Where Eagles Dare (1968) were based off of, this flick has a solid mystery at its center that never gets too confusing. It’s not too complicated or convoluted, but it is appropriately satisfying. Plus, who doesn’t want to see Charles Bronson in the middle of a murder mystery on a train in the Old West?

Famous stuntman and action choreographer Yakima Canutt served as the second unit director for the movie, handling the set-pieces (it was the last time he would have such a position on a film). I can’t say that it’s his best work, but there is a mighty fist fight atop a moving train car that’s a bit hair-raising. It appears to be death-defying. Sure, the ending gets a little on the silly side, but Breakheart Pass works just as well on the adventure side as it does on the mystery front.

I think that this movie, while not top-of-the-line, is a success. Train aficionados will probably like it, thanks to most of it being set on a locomotive or the immediate exterior of one. Two of Charles Bronson’s notable co-stars here are his real-life wife Jill Ireland (as Marica) and Ed Lauter (playing Claremont), who Bronson would later team up with in the accidental masterpiece Death Wish 3 (1985).

My rating is 7 outta 10.