Comfortable and Furious

20th Century Duvall: Part 4-Westerns

The Westerns: True Grit (1969), Lawman (1971), The Great Northfield, Minnesota Raid (1972), Joe Kidd (1972) & Geronimo: An American Legend (1995)

I don’t know too much about John Wayne, except he always seemed to play a similar character: tough, gruff and self-reliant. A man’s man. Didn’t dress in pink much, you know? In the handsome True Grit he’s an aging, drunken, eye patch-adorned U.S. marshal pursuing a pair of murderous fugitives, accompanied by a young Kim Darby. She’s savvy, precocious, forthright and insistent. Oh, and also one of the most irritating brats I’ve ever had the misfortune to endure.

I think we’re supposed to admire her pluck as she helps hunt down her father’s killer, but I kept praying the scarred outlaw Ned Pepper (Duvall) was gonna shoot her in both kneecaps and bury her alive. Alas, he lets me down, leaving only the faintest of cheers when his partner instead gives her a couple of well-earned slaps. Such mild violence is a disappointing outcome in a talky, unbelievable and overlong borefest, but at least Duvall (during an otherwise forgettable appearance) gets to call The Duke a ‘one-eyed fat man’.

True Grit was a big success, netting Wayne a (generous) Best Actor Oscar while prompting Duvall to tackle three more westerns in short succession. First up was Michael Winner’s tremendous Lawman, a brisk, nicely written flick with an excellent cast that explores the hell that dedication can bring.

Burt Lancaster is the terse, unbendable titular character, a man who travels to the town of Sabbath to bring back a gang who’ve inadvertently killed one of his citizens during a bit of drunken ‘cowboy fun’. Here he butts heads with the all-powerful cattle rancher Lee J. Cobb and Sabbath’s ‘kicked dog’ sheriff Robert Ryan. Cobb might be corrupt but he’s also level-headed and pragmatic, prompting him to make an offer to pay for the damage and generally try to put things right. Lancaster can’t go for such a responsibility-evading proposition, quickly resulting in a cocksure member of the gang being shot dead in the street. “I want him broken,” Cobb then snarls of Lancaster. “I want his face in the dirt. And I’ll hang what’s left of him.”

As for Duvall, the gory, hard-edged Lawman is another of his early movies in which he does precious little. When Lancaster turns up, he runs away, tries to assassinate him, whines and generally behaves like a weasel. He’s not pivotal to proceedings, but once again provides reliable, if unspectacular support in a fairly high profile picture.

In the disjointed, poorly titled, tonally uneven mess Great Northfield he plays the fabled Jesse James, but the script doesn’t allow him to take part in any interesting scenes, let alone enjoy a whit of character development. Although he’s a self-centered sonuvabitch that shoots people dead in cold blood, most of the flick is taken up with irrelevant stuff like comedy baseball, supernatural mumblings and some whorehouse frolicking.

Duvall again plays nasty in the minor Clint Eastwood western, Joe Kidd. He’s a cigar-smoking big shot who organizes a ruthless posse to hunt down a Mexican revolutionary (John Saxon) to make sure he can keep the lands he’s already stolen from the poor. “If these people wanna fight me,” he boasts, “I’ll blow ’em straight to hell.” True to his word, he threatens to kill five innocent Mexicans at a time if Saxon doesn’t come down from the mountains and give himself up.

Kidd is nowhere near the same class as something like Josey Wales. It grows implausible and muddled, but it’s still a concise, fast-paced watch in which Clint drives a train into a saloon to gun down the baddies. A mustachioed Duvall does all right, but is stuck with an obnoxious, one-note character that expects everyone to do his bidding without question.

After a two-decade layoff, Duvall returned to the genre with 1993’s Geronimo: An American Legend, perhaps green lit after the huge success of Dances with Wolves and Unforgiven. Directed by Walter Hill (The Driver, 48 Hrs.), this was a handsomely shot box-office dud, perhaps sunk by a lack of compelling characters, a screenplay that seems uncertain about which character to follow, and the baby-faced Matt Damon’s boring, interminable voiceover. Duvall is a brave, vastly experienced officer in charge of recruiting Apache scouts for the US army, having already suffered seventeen gunshot and arrow wounds in his years suppressing the redskins.

He has healthy respect for their fighting capabilities and overall toughness, prompting me to compare his character with the much more interesting Burt Lancaster in the superior Ulzana’s Raid. At least Duvall’s got the right sort of crusty face for his role, which is more than you can say for the bland Jason Patric and Damon. However, despite a slow opening half-hour and a stop-start narrative, the balanced and not-too-PC Geronimo is an acceptable watch. Fuck knows how accurate it is, but as you know, that sort of stuff never concerns me.

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2 responses to “20th Century Duvall: Part 4-Westerns”

  1. John Welsh Avatar
    John Welsh

    Dave boy, you hit the nail on the head with Ulzana’s Raid. Let’s move on to Joe Kidd.
    Directed by John Sturges (The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape) from a screenplay by Elmore Leonard (Valdez is Coming, Hombre, Get Shorty, 3:10 to Yuma, the one with Glenn Ford, not the crap 2007 remake). I enjoyed it. Not the best, no, but enjoyable.

    Geronimo had a story by John Milieus (Jeremiah Johnson, Apocalypse Now) based on Capt. John Burke’s An Apache Campaign In The Sierra Madre, and On the Boarder with Crook. The screen story largely followed history, although Chief Scout Al Siebert, played by Duvall, did not die in a dirty saloon, but had banal death after he left the army. He was crushed by a bolder on a construction site. Wes Studi was a miscast as Geronimo, although perfect as Magua in The Last of the Mohicans. Yep, the movie lacked verve.

    Now we come to the dreadful 1969 version of Charles Portis’ novel True Grit (not just one of my favorite Western novels, but one of my favorite novels, period). The novel is narrated by an elderly Mattie Ross, who fifty years earlier at age 14 had engaged one of Judge Parker’s deputy marshals in Ft. Smith Arkansas to track down the man who murdered her father. She tells the reader on the last page, “This ends my true account of how I avenged Frank Ross’s blood over in the Choctaw Nation when the snow was on the ground.”

    The John Wayne version became a tedious Wayne late career vehicle with alterations to the story, the end is completely different, and miscast players. Critic Rex Reed said Wayne was perfect casting as a “smelly old drunk who falls off his horse”. The 2010 Coen Brother’s version is right on the money.

    The Great Northfield, Minnesota Raid was a largely fictional account of the 1876 attempted bank robbery that broke the James/Younger Gang. A Philip Kaufman axe to grind version of events. After I saw it I wanted to run Kaufman down with a pack of hounds and tree him up a telephone pole, the commie bastard. Every actor was too old to play the character they portrayed. The Long Riders is a far superior account to the same events.

    1. Goat Avatar

      John, thanks for the insight.

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