How the West Was Won (1962) – A Movie Review

“How the West Was Won” is a Western extravaganza with enough Hollywood stars for five films.  It consists of five vignettes that are strung together out of the fortunes of a family from the East caught up in the settling of the western frontier.

(Spoiler Alert – Skip down to last paragraph to avoid spoilers and read recommendation)

Karl Malden is Zebulon Prescott, a farmer in New York State who becomes disgusted with his rocky unproductive land and sells it to go west with his wife Rebecca, (Agnes Moorehead) and two daughters Eve (Caroll Baker) and Lilith (Debbie Reynolds).  Along the way they meet fur trapper Linus Rawlings (Jimmy Stewart) who saves them from some nefarious river pirates led by Col. Jeb Hawkins (Walter Brennan) but finally Zebulon and Rebecca are killed going over the rapids on their raft and Rawlings reluctantly gives up his wandering ways to marry Eve and start a farm by the river.

In the next vignette, Lilith has become a show girl and does a song and dance act in St. Louis.  A messenger informs her that a former admirer has left her a gold mine in California.  She joins another woman Agatha Clegg (Thelma Ritter) in a wagon train headed west.

When gambler/fortune hunter Cleve Van Valen (Gregory Peck) overhears her good fortune, he follows her to California.  At first reluctantly and then gratefully, after he saves her life during an Indian attack, Lilith partners with Cleve.

But when they get to California, they discover that Lilith’s gold mine is played out.  Cleve leaves Lilith in the lurch to pursue his gambler’s life.  She receives a proposal of marriage from wealthy rancher Roger Morgan (Robert Preston) but rejects him because she doesn’t want a conventional life as a wife and mother.  But when Cleve overhears Lilith singing on a river boat, he realizes that they will both be happiest if they marry and combine their two adventurous lives together into a partnership.  And they do.

In the next story the Civil War has begun.  To dramatize this we even have a brief look at Raymond Massey portraying Abraham Lincoln.  Eve’s son, Zeb Rawlings (George Peppard) wants to follow his father into battle on the side of the Union.  Eve tearfully says goodbye and Zeb is swept along by the tides of war.

During this episode he manages to save General Grant (Harry Morgan) and General Sherman (John Wayne) from a Confederate soldier who was trying to convince Zeb to desert.  After the war Zeb returns home to find that both his parents are dead.  He leaves the farm to his brother and heads west as a cavalry soldier.

In the next vignette Zeb is a cavalry officer tasked with helping the Union Pacific Railroad cross the Great Plains.  The ruthless railroad boss Mike King (Richard Widmark) is angering the Indian tribes by laying down the track through the Indian hunting grounds.  Zeb has help from buffalo hunter Jethro Stuart (Henry Fonda), an old friend of his father.

They convince the Indians to accept the latest route but finally when settlers start filling up the area the Indians revolt and we watch as they stampede a herd of buffalo through the railroad worksite.  Disgusted with the railroad’ treachery, Zeb and Jethro leave for happier circumstances farther west.

In the last episode, we see Lilith as an old woman in San Francisco.  Cleve has died and an auction is proceeding to liquidate their estate to pay off debts.  All that will remain will be a ranch in Arizona that she hopes to retire to with her nephew Zeb Rawlings and his wife Julie (Carolyn Jones) and children.

Zeb was a sheriff and while meeting his aunt at the train in Arizona he catches sight of an outlaw Charlie Grant (Eli Wallach) that Zeb put in prison years ago.  He figures out that Grant means to rob the train when the next gold shipment is aboard.  Zeb recruits his old friend Marshal Lou Ramsey (Lee J. Cobb) to go with him to guard the train.

The train robbery scene involves Grant and eight or ten of his men boarding the train and battling Zeb and Lou as they fight them off with rifles and hand guns.  In the ensuing violence the train is battered to pieces and finally derails in catastrophic fashion but Zeb puts a final bullet in Charlie Grant.  Then he returns to take up a peaceful life as rancher with his family.

The movie ends with a panoramic view of California including Los Angeles freeways and the golden Gate Bridge with a stirring speech by the narrator (Spencer Tracy) about the epic adventure that was the taming of the west.

So, you get the picture.  This is an extravaganza.  They put every actor they had into it.  I’ve even left out a few other for the sake of brevity.  So, what do I think?  As far as spectacle, the scene of the raft on the rapids and the buffalo stampede are exciting and in the wide screen of a theater must have been fun for the audience.  Some of the landscapes are truly beautiful.  The plot is very straightforward.  It covers the various stages of the westward expansion of the United States with a personal story.  The performances vary from competent to perfunctory.  This isn’t high drama.  I would restrict my recommendation to saying if you’re in the mood for an epic western movie (and you have three hours to spare) this movie would be fine.

Battle of the Bulge (1965) – A Movie Review

This movie purports to be a dramatic portrayal of the pivotal WW II battle of the same name.  But the liberties that have been taken with respect to plot and characters make it almost unrecognizable when compared with the historical event.

(Spoiler Alert – Skip down to last paragraph to avoid spoilers and read recommendation)

The beginning of the movie interweaves scenes from the American perspective and the German view.  We start out meeting Lt. Col. Daniel Kiley, played by Henry Fonda.  He is an American Army intelligence officer stationed on the supposedly quiet section of the front line near the Ardennes Forest.  But he suspects that the Germans are planning an offensive in the area.  He makes a surveillance flight in a small aircraft over the forest and manages to get photos of hidden German tanks and also a high-ranking German officer arriving at the German headquarters in the area.  He passes this intelligence to his superiors, Gen. Grey, played by Robert Ryan and Col. Pritchard, played by Dana Andrews at their headquarters in the town of Ambleve.  Pritchard rejects Kiley’s suspicions about a German offensive while General Grey demands more proof.

Next, we meet the German officer that Kiley photographed.  It is Col. Martin Hessler, played by Robert Shaw with an outrageously over the top German accent, who is being given command of a large force of Tiger II tanks with the goal of breaking through the American lines and capturing Antwerp thus crippling the Allied offensive in Europe.  The Germans are sending out a party of their soldiers who have lived in the United States dressed as American GI’s. They will sabotage communication lines and road signs and try to hold the bridge over the Our river to allow the Tiger Tanks to advance.

Kiley manages to get some intelligence on the tank attack back to HQ just as the attack begins.  We see the Tiger tanks destroy the American tanks while sustaining almost no damage from direct hits.  And we are shown the Germans machine gunning large numbers of American prisoners.  But one other thing that Kiley learns during his surveillance of the German advance is that they are gravely short of fuel for their tanks.  They have only enough fuel to reach a large American fuel depot that is along the route to Antwerp.  Even taking a few extra hours to destroy the town of Ambleve where the American HQ is located is sorely argued against by Hessler’s commanding officer General Kohler.

When General Grey receives this intelligence about the fuel, he decides on a plan to attack the tank force with his tanks before the Germans can reach the fuel depot.  He wants to use the attack to delay the tanks long enough for them to run out of fuel.  When Hessler realizes the delay tactic he heads for the depot with a force of his tanks to obtain the fuel.  But the Americans at the depot spill thousands of gallons of fuel and set fire to it just as Hessler’s tanks arrive.  Hessler’s tanks are engulfed in flames and he dies when his tank explodes.  Without fuel the rest of Hessler’s force have to abandon their tanks and the last scene shows a long line of men walking back to Germany.

I’ve left out a lot of details.  This movie is three hours long!  Charles Bronson plays an American major who fights a rearguard action against the Germans until he is captured at Ambleve.  Telly Savalas is an American sergeant tank crewman who also runs a black-market store in booze, stockings and chicken eggs out of his girl friend’s apartment.  Savalas ends up finally saving the day when he machine-guns the disguised Germans who have taken control of the fuel depot at the end of the movie.

My thoughts on this movie are mixed.  Some of the action is interesting to watch.  Shaw as Hessler gives a compelling performance.  I enjoy his style.  Other than Shaw a lot of the acting is competent but not memorable.  The tank footage looks pretty good.  But the thing that I hold against this movie is that it misrepresents the events of a very important battle for which the details are very well known.  There was no race to get to a fuel depot in the actual battle.  The movie doesn’t show the fact that the battle took place during an horrendous frigid snow storm where the weather was as awful as the fighting.  The real battle was fought hand to hand in towns, forests and trenches.  If you are interested in what it really was like watch the episodes in “Band of Brothers” that chronicles the Battle of Bastogne.  So, my recommendation is unless you really like war movies and don’t care about accuracy don’t watch this movie.

12 Angry Men (1957) – A Movie Review

12 Angry Men is a courtroom drama, or more accurately a jury room drama.  It almost entirely takes place in the jury deliberation room in a downtown Manhattan court building.  The star of the movie is Henry Fonda as Juror 8.  The setup (and it is a setup) has Fonda as the only juror unwilling to vote not guilty in a murder trial.

(Spoiler Alert – Skip down to last two paragraphs to avoid spoilers and read recommendation)

The eleven other jurors to a greater or lesser extent are convinced that the trial has proven the guilt of the young man accused of stabbing his father to death with a switch blade knife.  There was an eye witness to the killing and another witness heard the defendant threaten to kill his father and saw him running away from the murder scene just after the killing.  Another witness saw the defendant in possession of a switch blade knife the day of the murder.  The defendant’s alibi was that he was at a movie theater at the time of the killing but no one remembers him there and he could not remember the name of the movies playing or even the actors in the movie.  When questioned about the whereabouts of the switch blade he had been seen with, he claimed it had fallen out of his pocket without his knowing it and wasn’t the one found plunged into his father’s chest.

When the deliberations begin the foreman (played by Martin Balsam) asks them to start with a preliminary vote to see how many want to vote not guilty.  Fonda says he has doubts.  He is verbally challenged by Juror 3 (Lee J. Cobb) who is portrayed as a belligerent, irascible man who is determined that the verdict be guilty.  His behavior is so extreme that you can see he is being set up as the bad guy.  And what we are shown is that the other jurors are so annoyed by Juror 3’s behavior that regardless of the logic of the case they find themselves more sympathetic to Juror 8’s arguments.

Step by step Juror 8 attacks the details of the case against the defendant.  With regard to the witness who heard the fight and saw the defendant running from the building, Juror 8 uses the fact that a nearby elevated train was passing at the time of the murder to cast doubt on what the witness could have heard.  And then based on the disabled status of this old man he contradicts the idea that he could have reached the staircase in time to see the defendant running out of the building.  Next he shows that the switchblade knife that killed the defendant’s father was of a common design easily available by producing one he bought the day before in the neighborhood where the murder took place.  With the help of Juror 9 he makes a plausible case that the eye witness to the murder might have been unable to see the murder clearly due to poor vision.  To the question of the defendant not remembering the movies he’d seen that night Juror 9 questions Juror 4 about his memory of two movies he had gone to a week before.  And although he remembered the movies’ titles, he was incorrect on one of the actresses in the second feature.

As each of these questions was raised by Juror 8 one by one the other jurors changed their votes until finally it’s only Juror 3 who claims to have no reasonable doubts and still wants to declare the defendant guilty.  At this point we witness Juror 3 rant about the character of the young defendant and we realize from his speech that he has a grudge against his own son who has turned against his father because of his brutal strictness.  And finally relenting Juror 3 declares not guilty and the jury leaves the room to announce their decision, not guilty, in the court room.

This film is a leftist propaganda film.  The intent is to try and prove that no matter how much evidence there is against a defendant in a case there can always be enough doubt generated by clever obfuscation to justify a not guilty verdict.  The characters are defined so that the audience will obviously admire Juror 8 and despise Juror 3.  The first is presented as an educated, white collar, intelligent, polished speaker and the latter is a working class, obnoxious bully who can’t help but alienate all around him.  The defendant is portrayed as non-white, poor and coming from a criminal family background.  All these things are used as points against him by Juror 3 and by others of the jury.  This ethnic and class bias is highlighted as another factor in the unfairness of the opinions of the jurors.

Obviously I’m not a fan of the message that the film is meant to make.  However, I think the film is well made.  The cast is for the most part, very good.  I’ll list the below for your perusal but I’ll say that they are all pretty with Martin Balsam and E.G. Marshall providing particularly strong supporting roles.  Fonda and Cobb have the lion’s share of the camera and even though Cobb provides the strawman for Fonda’s attack I thought they both were pretty good.

As I’ve said this is propaganda and propaganda for the Left.  But the topic of the importance of the jury in our society is something that should be thought about and dramatized.  I served on a jury that tried to ignore its duty and decide against a defendant without any actual evidence.  I was forced to hang the jury.  Seeing how Americans were willing to abandon their duty and instead declare a verdict based on personal animus was shocking and enraging for me at the time.  I think a movie about the jury process is a worthy thing to make.  I would prefer a better one but I will admit I think watching this movie is worthwhile.  Intelligent people will know they’re being patronized and judge accordingly.  But it will still be an interesting experience.  I guardedly recommend this movie on those terms.

Martin Balsam                                 …            Juror 1

John Fiedler                                        …            Juror 2

Lee J. Cobb                                         …            Juror 3

E.G. Marshall                                      …            Juror 4

Jack Klugman                                     …            Juror 5

Edward Binns                                     …            Juror 6

Jack Warden                                      …            Juror 7

Henry Fonda                                      …            Juror 8

Joseph Sweeney                              …            Juror 9

Ed Begley                                            …            Juror 10

George Voskovec                             …            Juror 11

Robert Webber                                 …            Juror 12

Drums Along the Mohawk (1939) – An OCF Classic Movie Review

(Spoiler Alert – Skip down to last paragraph to avoid spoilers and read recommendation)

Henry Fonda and Claudette Colbert are the newlywed couple Gil and Lana Martin.  They have migrated from the settled and comfortable area near Albany, New York to settle in the frontier farming community of Deerfield in the Mohawk Valley.  But this is during the American revolutionary war and the Mohawk Valley is the scene of conflicts between Americans and their Indian allies versus British troops, loyalist settlers and their Indian allies.  The movie starts off with Lana learning to accept the rigors of frontier life after her more affluent existence with her well-to-do family.  But once the young couple begin to prosper the attacks begin.  The Indians burn down their homestead and they are reduced to living as servants in the house of a rich old woman Sarah McKlennar (played by the irascible Edna May Oliver).  Gil is enlisted in the local militia and they participate in the Battle of Oriskany where they are victorious but at a cost of nearly half their men.

Meanwhile Lana gives birth to their daughter and the Martins find a happy life working for McKlennar.  But eventually war returns to Deerfield.  An overpowering war party of Indians is approaching.  The settlers abandon their farms for the relative safety of Fort Schuyler.  The settlers resist the attack for as long as their ammunition holds out but eventually Gil is sent out on a desperate mission to get reinforcements from Fort Dayton.  Three Indian braves chase him for hours through forests and grasslands until finally he reaches the fort and brings help.  Just as the Indians have occupied the stockade and a desperate hand to hand battle is under way, the militia from Fort Dayton arrive to save the settlers.  They quickly defeat the enemy and restore order.  The commanding officer informs the settlers that the war is now over and the English have surrendered to General Washington.  Lana and her child have survived the battle but Mrs. McKlennar was mortally wounded and as she dies, she leaves her farm and money to the Martins.

The movie is a semi-historical account and the action of the story is dramatic enough and the characters interesting enough to keep the viewers’ interest.  I found Edna May Oliver’s portrayal of the cantankerous Mrs. McKlennar as probably the dramatic highlight of the movie.  Fonda and Colbert do an admirable job as the young couple trying to survive the war and various character actors such as Ward Bond and John Carradine add substantially to the effort.  I would rate this movie as a diverting historical adventure story.  Perfect for a winter evening when you don’t want to go to sleep too early.

The Films of Alfred Hitchcock – Part 12 – The Wrong Man (1956) – A Movie Review

This is sort of an oddball Hitchcock.  It’s based on a true story.  But being a Hitchcock film during his heyday, it is well worth discussing.

The “Wrong Man” is the true story of Christopher Emmanuel Balestrero a musician living in Queens, New York with his wife and two sons who in 1953 was accused of a series of armed robberies based on his close resemblance to the actual robber.  The movie walks you through Manny Balestrero’s life on the day of his arrest.  He’s coming home early in the morning from his job as a musician at the upscale night club, the Stork Club and after breakfast he discusses with his wife how to finance the dental work that she needs.  Because they live pay check to pay check he intends to get a loan on his wife’s life insurance policy.  But when he goes to the insurance office two of the women there think they recognize him as the man who robbed the office in the not-too-distant past.  After Manny leaves, their manager calls the police and gives them Manny’s name and address to have him arrested for the hold up.

The police call up Manny’s home and surreptitiously determine what time he is expected home.  Two plains cloth policemen, Lee and Matthews, are waiting outside his house in their car and intercept him before he gets inside.  They inform him there’s been a complaint against him and tell him to come with them to straighten it out.  The police have Manny walk through several local stores that were robbed by the same man and allow the store personnel to have a chance to identify him.  They then go back to the precinct where Manny is told to print up a note dictated to him to match the writing on a note that the actual robber handed the clerk at the insurance company.  When Officer Lee says that there is some resemblance to the printing in the note, he asks Manny to print it again.  This time Lee notes that a misspelling by Manny matches a misspelling in the original note.  This convinces the police officers that Manny is the actual armed robber.

Next, they have Manny in a lineup and the two insurance office clerks identify him as the robber.  Following this identification, he is formally charged with the crimes and remanded to the Queensborough lock up.  We see Manny being led to his cell and his tie taken away to prevent possible suicide.  And we are shown Manny desperate and confused as he awaits the next steps in his nightmare.

Meanwhile his family is frantically searching for Manny and assuming that he has met with an accident or some other misfortune.  Finally, much later the police leave a message at his home about his arrest and the arraignment in the morning.

At the arraignment Manny is told that his bail will be $6,500.  Lacking this large amount of money, he is remanded into custody and processed into the long-term jail.  He goes through all the usual indignities and is housed in a cell.  But very soon after his family manages to borrow the money and he is released on bail.

What follows is the process of Manny attempting to prove his innocence.  He hires a good lawyer and attempts to find witnesses to prove where he was on the day of the insurance company hold up.  Of the three possible witnesses two have died in the interim and one cannot be located.  At this point, Manny’s wife Rose suffers a nervous breakdown and goes into a clinical depression for which she is hospitalized.  The trial begins and the prosecutor paints Manny’s poverty in terms that make it reasonable that he would have been desperate enough to commit the robberies.  The witnesses are paraded into the court and dramatically identify Manny as the armed robber.  But during the summation, a juror irritably stands up and complains about the drawn-out nature of the testimony and causes a mistrial to be declared.

Manny has now reached the end of his rope.  His mother is staying over to watch the kids in his wife’s absence and in resignation he tells her that he wishes they would just convict him and end the agony.  She begs him to pray to God for strength and afterward we see him praying.  And then we see overlayed onto the scene of Manny praying, another face.  Another man, and the man’s face has a general similarity to Manny’s face.  Then we see the man enter a small grocery store and attempt to rob it.  He claims to have a gun in his pocket.  But the Mom-and-Pop owners of the store knock him down and subdue him.

The man is arrested and is in the precinct being processed for the robbery attempt.  Walking through the precinct and noticing the robber is Officer Matthews.  He walks out of the precinct but after a few moments he stops, looks puzzled and goes back into the precinct.

Now we see Manny at work at the Stork Club and his boss tells him they want him at the precinct.  Manny reaches the precinct and his lawyer is there and tells him the good news.  Now we hear the same two insurance clerks picking out the real robber in a line up.  When they walk out, they see Manny and embarrassedly hurry past him.  Officer Matthews smiles at Manny and pats his shoulder.  Then the robber walks by Manny and they both look at each other in surprise at their resemblance.  Manny accuses him saying, “Do you know what you’ve done to my wife?”  But the robber is just shuffled off to his fate.

In the final scene Manny visits his wife at the mental hospital where she is still deeply sunk into depression.  A post script says that two years later Rose is fully cured and the family has moved to Florida.

Hitchcock made a very good selection.  This story contains many of the components that a fictional account would include to provide human interest.  The innocent man caught in a circumstantial nightmare where his blameless life cannot protect him from a cruel twist of fate.  His accidental resemblance to a criminal and being in the wrong place at the wrong time almost destroy his life and that of his family.  Only another twist of fate saves him.

Hitchcock parades us through the police procedural but from the point of view of the innocent man trapped in the gears of a soulless large city’s law enforcement machine.  The dehumanization and callousness of the experience is mirrored in Henry Fonda’s haunted expression.  The harrowing details of his and Rose’s struggle is extremely effective in drawing out the audience’s sympathy.  Vera Miles as Rose and Anthony Quayle as their attorney Frank O’Connor are both very good.  But even Fonda isn’t the lead character.  The star of the show is terror, the terror of the wrongly accused.  The story reminds me of a Greek tragedy.  But in this case the sin is not hubris.  It’s living in New York City where no one knows their neighbors and no one is your neighbor.