In Pursuit of Honor (1995) Review

Director: Ken Olin

Genre(s): Adventure, Drama, Western

Runtime: 111 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

IMDb Page

Would you have the courage to defy an order from a superior that you considered immoral? That is the dilemma presented in the 1995 made-for-HBO adventure-drama In Pursuit of Honor. During the 1930s, the American cavalry is phasing out horses in favor of vehicles, and several American servicemen run off with horses targeted for mass-extermination by the higher-ups. This is an inspiring story of men of conscience fighting against the odds to do what they believe is right.

When describing In Pursuit of Honor, it’s probably best to just say that it’s a good story that’s told well. It’s not an action extravaganza, but there are a few nice moments of that sort of stuff. Characters (mainly the “good guys”) aren’t always as clearly defined as I would’ve hoped, but it certainly doesn’t sink the picture. Douglas MacArthur (played by James Sikking) is, more or less, the villain of the piece, giving the order to massacre the horses. However, even his portrayal here is not entirely unsympathetic, as he articulates his desire to see the United States prepared for war with the rising fascist states of the time.

There is a minor controversy over whether the events depicted in the film are a true story. The opening insists they are, but, with the exception of the suppression of the Bonus Army (a large group of World War I veterans who marched on Washington, D.C., during the Great Depression to demand benefits they were promised) at the very beginning, the story appears to be completely made up. I don’t hold this against the movie, since flicks are based on fictional stories all the time. However, if you’re a stickler for historical accuracy, pass this one by.

Fictional or not, In Pursuit of Honor shows that fighting for what’s right isn’t always as easy as following somebody’s orders. It’s a well-paced drama (with western elements) that animal lovers should want to check out. Okay, there’s some scenes that show simulated fatal violence against horses, but, if you can stand that, this one is recommended. Its message of standing up to immoral authority is still relevant.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

A Town Called Hell (1971) Review

Directors: Robert Parrish and Irving Lerner

Genre(s): Action, Western

Runtime: 95 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

A Town Called Hell, which was titled “A Town Called Bastard” in some places (no, that’s not a joke), largely lives up to its reputation of being a piece of crap. The plot is about a wandering widow named Alvira (Stella Stevens) searching for the person who murdered her husband, offering a gold reward to anybody who will point her in the right direction. Done in a spaghetti western style, this incoherent movie offers little in the way of actual entertainment.

Okay, before we get started I should point out that the version of A Town Called Hell that I watched was the one on Amazon Prime…and it was sub-optimal to put it kindly. It was a rubbish-quality print of the film with poor audio and presented in fullscreen, without any panning or scanning. It was also several minutes short of the standard runtime of 95 minutes, I believe. A Blu Ray has been released of this picture, and maybe that is of superior quality, but I’m certainly in no hurry to go buy it.

How could a western with such a badass title go so wrong? I feel like I know less about the flick now that I’ve watched it than before. It’s a confusing and, more importantly, boring mess with just enough gunplay to prevent audience members from nodding off. Why are these people shooting at each other? I couldn’t tell you, but at least it’s better than people talking to each other with almost inaudible dialogue. Also, where’s Telly Savalas? The guy gets top-billing, yet is barely in the movie at all.

Armed with what I think is a flashback that goes on forever, this is a film that seems barely concerned with actual storytelling. Of course, the trashiness of the feature may have been amplified by the crumby version of the picture that I viewed. Rather than watching A Town Called Hell/A Town Called Bastard, I’d recommend coming up alternate titles for it, like “A Town Called Shit” or “A Town Called Sumbitch.” Yeah, that’s more amusing than just about anything in this movie. I’ve seen worse, but this is still pretty bad.

My rating is 4 outta 10.

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.