Tag Archives: The Kings of the Westerns

“GOD’S GUN”:
Corralling Three Tough Cowboys to Make One Helluva Film
by Sheri Warren Sankner

1. cross1976 saw the release of “God’s Gun” (also known as “Diamante Lobo”), an Italian–Israeli Spaghetti Western filmed in Israel and directed by Gianfranco Parolini (credited as Frank Kramer). The film starred several veteran stars famous in the Western film genre, most notably Lee Van Cleef, Jack Palance and Richard Boone. Any Western that corrals the talents and charisma of these three popular actors just has to be a memorable one.

2. Lee Van Cleef 1Van Cleef plays a dual role of twin brothers, a priest-turned-vigilante named Father John and his reformed gunslinger brother Lewis. Palance plays Sam Clayton, the leader of a sadistic group of Wild West bandits and rapists, who terrorize the town of Juno City. Boone portrays an aging, drunk, ineffective Sheriff in the small town, who is unable to protect his townspeople from the Clayton gang.

The story follows Father John, who is killed trying to uphold some semblance of justice in his sleepy little town, following the invasion of Clayton’s band of criminals. One of his young parishioners vows to avenge his death, by traveling to Mexico to seek the help of Father John’s brother. Together, they return to clear the town of all the violence once and for all. Great plot executed by a great cast!

3. God's GunA Cast of Characters Like No Other
During his career, the steely-eyed, hawk-nosed Van Cleef was revered as one of the all-time great movie villains, first in Westerns and then later in action films and martial arts. He began his career as an accountant after serving in the U.S. Navy aboard minesweepers and sub chasers during World War II. He became involved in amateur theatre. His performance in the touring company of “Mr. Roberts” was seen by Stanley Kramer, who cast him as henchman Jack Colby in “High Noon” (1952), a role that brought him considerable recognition despite the fact that he didn’t speak a word of dialogue. Rumor has it that Kramer wanted him to originally play deputy Harvey Pell, but first Van Cleef would to have his trademark nose fixed. Van Cleef declined to alter his looks and played the silent gunslinger instead. In the mid 1960s, Sergio Leone cast him as Col. Mortimer opposite Clint Eastwood in “For a Few Dollars More” (1965). A new career as a western hero (or anti-hero) was launched, and Van Cleef became known as an international movie star. His career culminated in 1966 with Leone’s “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.” In his roles in “God’s Gun,” Van Cleef demonstrated his acting chops and ability to juggle two demanding parts with skill and finesse.

4. Jack PalanceAnother memorable character actor on television and on the silver screen, Palance was a two-time Oscar nominee and Oscar winner for “City Slickers.” Proving his vitality and humor at the ripe old age of 73, Palance took to the floor, performing a series of one-armed push-ups on stage as he accepted the Best Supporting Actor Award in 1992. The son of a Ukrainian immigrant coal miner, he was born Volodymyr Palahnyuk. His career included stints as a miner, professional boxer, short-order cook, fashion model, lifeguard, and radio repairman. During WWII, he piloted bombers in U.S. Army Air Corps. His bomber crashed, knocking him unconscious and giving him severe burns. These injuries led to extensive surgery on his face, resulting in his characteristic gaunt, pinched look. Despite the haggard and hollow-cheeked appearance of a villain, Palance always had a bit of a comical, hammy edge to his acting prowess which was even visible in his role in “God’s Gun.”

5. Richard Boone 1After being expelled from Stanford University, Boone worked as an oil-field laborer, boxer, painter and freelance writer before becoming an actor. After WWII, Boone used the GI Bill to train at the Actors’ Studio, making his Broadway debut at 31 in “Medea.” Signed to a 20th Century-Fox contract in 1951, Boone’s first feature was “Halls of Montezuma.” From 1957 through 1963, Boone portrayed Paladin, an educated western soldier of fortune, on the popular western TV series “Have Gun, Will Travel.” A master of over 50 films and numerous TV series, Boone was cast in a pretty minor role as the drunken sheriff in “God’s Gun.” While he adds a brief bit of snarling menace to the film, his performance was affected by his late-career health issues. He later died in 1981 from throat cancer. Film insiders claim that after a drunken argument he walked off the film set and left the location before he had recorded all his dialog. Hence, his voice was dubbed.

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AMERICA’S HEROES ON HORSEBACK
Randolph Scott in “Rage at Dawn”
by Chris Hoey

1. Rage at Dawn poster copyFollowing the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Americans felt a loss – a loss of loved ones and the brave first responders, but also a loss of the sense of our vulnerability, a loss of our identity.

Americans have always identified themselves as the strongest, the best, the owners the high moral ground. When we face a loss of identity, to whom do we look to find our national persona? We seem to have rediscovered ourselves in the Western. If there is an American identity, it can be found sitting astride a leather saddle in films like “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly,” “Tombstone, Last of the Mohicans” and 2018’s “Hostiles,” as well as “Rage at Dawn,” featuring Randolph Scott.

Heroes on horseback are not new to national identities. The Bedouin warriors of the famous 1001 Nights, or Odysseus’ famous horse used to win the battle of Troy seem embedded in the human DNA. King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table provided a code for western civilization to follow. Where do we find our Knights in Shining Armor? American celluloid heroes on horseback hold a special place in our national identity.

2. Randolph Scott 2We look to the model set by the Lone Ranger when we find a righteous member of an enemy tribe – accept and form a strong partnership toward share goals. We admire the cowboy who takes on the impossible task and succeeds – giving up is not an option. We borrowed “pistols at dawn” from our British ancestors and we made it a showdown in the dusty town square outside the saloon. Our cowboys hold a mystical quality, like Curly from the film “City Slickers,” who reminds us all to focus on the “one thing.” Mel Brooks irreverently celebrated our national identity as well as our love of baked beans in “Blazing Saddles.” Our Marlboro Man helped prop up the tobacco industry in the U.S. for decades as the ideal American Man.

3. Randolph Scott 3“Rage at Dawn,” featuring Randolph Scott, highlights all the ideals of our national identity. There’s a tight family bond, but a belief in justice that trumps all. It’s a classic tale of the lone lawman versus the corrupt gang of outlaws. One lone cowboy, resolute in his righteousness, is able to infiltrate the gang that terrorizes this southern Indiana town soon after the Civil War.

4. Randolph ScottWhen the chips are down we can be sure that our hero will appear, take care of the black-hatted villain and ride off into the sunset, leaving behind a strong sense of who we are. Who was that masked man? It was all of us, more interested in seeking justice than we are of seeking celebrity and fame.

While the hero on horseback may be in the DNA of people the world over, Americans find their heroes in jeans.

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INSIDE THE MAKING OF “RED RIVER”:
How the Feud Between Duke and Monty Almost Derailed One of the Best Westerns Ever Made
by John Francis

1. Red River Lead ImageWesterns used to be a staple of American movie theaters, as much as charismatic gangsters, conflicted private eyes and gorgeous femme fatales.

The biggest names in filmdom starred in these “oaters,” including James Stewart, Gary Cooper, Henry Fonda, Alan Ladd, Errol Flynn, Spencer Tracy, Audie Murphy, Lee Marvin, Dana Andrews, Jeffrey Hunter, Victor Mature, Kirk Douglas, Gregory Peck, Dean Martin, Dan Duryea, Charlton Heston, Robert Mitchum, Joel McCrea, Randolph Scott and the biggest name in Westerns, John “Duke” Wayne.

Even female actresses got a lot of screen time, and not just as wives or girlfriends, but as strong individual characters with spine, grit and grace: Maureen O’Hara, Jean Arthur, Barbara Stanwick, Rhonda Fleming, Marie Windsor, Olivia de Haviland, Jane Russell, Maureen O’Sullivan, Vera Miles, Joanne Dru, Joan Crawford, Grace Kelly, Linda Darnell, and Vera Miles.

Renowned directors made their names with their iconic Westerns, including John Ford, Howard Hawks, John Sturges, Fred Zinneman, Nicholas Ray, Raoul Walsh, William Wellman, Anthony Mann, Robert Aldrich, Samuel Fuller, and even such out-of-left-field names such as Fritz Lang (“Metropolis”), Michael Curtiz (“Casablanca”) and Cecil B. DeMille (“Sunset Boulevard”).

And later, directors Sam Peckinpah, Robert Altman, Walter Hill, Sergio Leone, Kevin Costner, Don Siegel, and, of course, Clint Eastwood, who made a half a dozen great Westerns, including one of the best ever, “Unforgiven,” which garnered him two Oscars, made a name with their Westerns.

Two of the biggest names in Hollywood and one of the greatest Hollywood directors joined forces for a film in 1948, one that looked like it could be trouble from the start, but which actually benefitted from the combustible chemistry of its stars and director.

The resulting film, “Red River,” is considered one of the best westerns ever made, even though it could have been derailed before it even started.

For one, there was an issue between Hawks and actor John Ireland and his drinking and his lecherous behavior, as well as a love triangle involving Ireland, Hawks and actress Joanne Dru, that caused tension on set.

But the real conflict was between the big, brawny Wayne and the sensitive, moody Clift, an actor who was a student of the Method system of acting and whose political views were diametrically opposed to Wayne’s. Also, although not publically known at the time, Clift was bisexual, while Wayne was a right-wing Republican, although it’s not known if he knew about the rumors of Clift’s sexuality.

Wayne didn’t believe the slight Clift was “manly” enough to stand up to his rugged physique and character, especially in the final fight scene. His mind changed after his first few scenes with Clift, who was an excellent actor, but they still kept their distance and never interacted after their scenes were over.

In fact, Clift rarely took part in the nightly poker games, where he said “they laughed and drank and told dirty jokes and slapped each other on the back. They tried to draw me into their circle but I couldn’t go along with them. The machismo thing repelled me because it seemed so forced and unnecessary.”

Clift didn’t warm to Hawks either and later turned down Dean Martin’s role in “Rio Bravo” (1959) because he did not want to be reunited with Wayne, Hawk and actor Walter Brennan, who also didn’t like Clift.

Later, Wayne said in an interview with Life Magazine, that Clift was “an arrogant little bastard.”

Clift not only survived all the tension and hostility on the set, but also turned in a great star-making performance, especially in scenes with the larger-than-life Wayne. In fact, Clift’s character Matt Garth could be seen as the heart and soul of the movie. Wayne’s character, Thomas Dunson, was cruel, dictatorial and not well liked, one of Wayne’s rare non-hero good-guy roles (his role in “The Searchers” being the epitome).

Red River EndingAmerican Film Institute ranked “Red River” as the #5 best western in 2008 and Roger Ebert considered it one of the greatest Western films of all time. And, if not for a ludicrous ending that wrapped the film up in a laughably happy bow, its stock might be higher.

In screenwriter Borden Chase’s original Saturday Evening Post story, Wayne’s character is shot dead at the end, while his screenplay has a dying Dunson escorted home so he could die on Texas soil. Chase vigorously objected to Howard Hawks’ change to the ending, but to no avail. Hawks claimed the problem with the ending, which has drawn the most criticism, was not the scene itself but the way Joanne Dru played it. Wayne’s lofty position in Hollywood probably had a lot to do with the happy ending.

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