“COWBOYS & ALIENS” (2011) Review

“COWBOYS & ALIENS” (2011) Review

Ever since its release during the summer of 2011, many have been contemplating on the box office failure of “COWBOYS & ALIENS”. I could go over the many theories spouted about its failure over the years, but I would find that boring. I am simply aware that the movie had only earned $34 million dollars short of its budget. And all I can say is . . . what a damn pity.

“COWBOYS & ALIENS” had some big names participating in its production. Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford were the movie’s stars. The cast also included well known names such as Sam Rockwell, Adam Beach, Keith Carradine, Paul Dano and Clancy Brown. Jon Farveau, the director of the two successful “IRON MAN” movies, helmed the director’s chair. At least five of the screenwriters – Damon Lindelof, Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, Mark Fergus, and Hawk Ostby – have been associated with projects like “LOST” and the “STAR TREK”. And big names in the film industry such as Ron Howard, Brian Grazer and Steven Spielberg acted as some of the producers. But despite all of this “COWBOYS & ALIENS” remained one of the flops of the 2011 summer movie season. Again, pity. I realize that I keep using the word “pity” as a response to the movie’s failure. But I cannot help it. I really enjoyed “COWBOYS & ALIENS”. In fact, I enjoyed it so much that it has become one of my favorite movies from the summer of 2011.

The movie was based upon the 2006 graphic novel by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg. It told the story of an alien invasion that occurred in the New Mexico Territory in 1873. The story focused upon a mysterious loner that awakens in the desert, injured and wearing a strange bracelet shackled to his wrist. He wanders into the town of Absolution, where the local preacher, Meacham treats his wound. After the stranger subdues Percy Dolarhyde, who has been terrorizing the populace, Sheriff Taggart recognizes the loner as Jake Lonergan, a wanted outlaw, and tries to arrest him. Jake nearly escapes, but a mysterious woman named Ella Swenson knocks him out. Percy’s father, Colonel Woodrow Dolarhyde, a rich and influential cattleman, arrives with his men and demands that Percy be released to him. He also wants Jake, who had stolen Dolarhyde’s gold. During the standoff, alien spaceships begin attacking the town. Percy, Sheriff Taggart and many townsfolk are abducted. Jake shoots down one ship with a device concealed in his wrist band, ending the attack. Realizing that the bracelet that Jake wears stands between them and the aliens, Colonel Dolarhyde, Meacham and Ella convinces Jake to help them find the aliens and the kidnapped townspeople, despite the fact that he has no memory of his own identity, let alone of any previous encounters with the aliens. Their expedition leads them Jake’s former gang and a band of Chiricahua Apaches, who have also been victims of the aliens.

“COWBOYS & ALIENS” is not perfect. It has its flaws. To be honest, I can think of one or two flaws. Perhaps one. Although I understood that the aliens were taking the gold found near Absolution to power their starship, the script never made it clear on why they were taking the populace, as well. The only thing that the script made clear was that the kidnapped populace were being experimented upon. When it comes to human experimentation of reasons behind an invasions, many plots for alien invasion movies and television series tend to be rather weak in this area, including some of the best in this genre. And my other problem was that the script failed to reveal how Ella, who turned out to be another alien whose people had been destroyed by the invaders, ended up on Earth.

But despite these flaws, “COWBOYS & ALIENS” really impressed me. I thought that Jon Favreau did an excellent job in combining action with the film’s dramatic moments. And his eye for location, greatly assisted by Matthew Libatique’s photography of the New Mexican countryside, gave the movie’s visuals a natural grandeur. In my review of “SUPER 8”, I had commented that it reminded me of an old “STAR TREK VOYAGER” episode. I cannot say the same for “COWBOYS & ALIENS”. But it did remind me of a “STAR TREK VOYAGER” fanfiction story called “Ashes to Ashes”. At least Jake’s experiences with the aliens before the movie began. And “COWBOYS & ALIENS” must be the only alien invasion movie I can think of that was set before the 20th century. It occurred to me that if the two most famous adaptations of H.G. Wells’ novel, “War of the Worlds” had been given its original setting, this would not have been the case. Unless someone knows of another alien invasion movie with a pre-20th century setting. Ever since I first saw the trailers for “COWBOYS AND ALIENS”, I wondered how the screenwriters would combine the two genres of Science-Fiction and Westerns. Hell, I wondered if they could. Mixing Jake’s history as an outlaw with his experiences with the aliens did the trick. At least I believe so. More importantly, “COWBOYS & ALIENS” provided plenty of opportunities for character development – and that includes the supporting cast.

The cast certainly proved to be first-rate. There have been British actors who have appeared in Westerns before. Come to think of it, Daniel Craig is not even the first James Bond actor who has appeared in a Western. But he is the only one I can recall who appeared in a Western as an American-born character. And if I must be blunt, the man takes to Westerns like a duck to water. More importantly, both Craig’s super performance and the screenwriters made certain that his Jake Lonergran did not come off as some cliché of the “Man With No Name” character from Sergio Leone’s DOLLAR TRILOGY”. Craig made him a man determined to learn of his past, while dealing with the sketchy memories of a past love and his attraction toward Ella.

The character of Colonel Woodrow Dolarhyde seems like a far cry from Harrison Ford’s usual roles. His Colonel Dolarhyde was not the solid Jack Ryan type or the rough, yet dashing Indiana Jones persona. In one of his rare, offbeat roles, Ford’s Colonel Dolarhyde was a ruthless, no-nonsense man who ruled his ranch and the town of Absolution with an iron fist. And Ford did a first-rate job of diluting Dolarhyde’s distasteful ruthlessness into something more . . . human and warm. I wondered how I would take Olivia Wilde’s performance as the mysterious Ella Swenson, who seemed determined to get Jake to help the rest of Absolution’s citizens find the aliens. After seeing the movie, I enjoyed her performance very much. She had a strong chemistry with Craig. More importantly, she gave a solid performance and possessed a strong screen presence. But I really enjoyed about Wilde’s performance was that she conveyed an other world quality about Ella that strongly hinted her role as an alien who landed on Earth to find the invaders who had destroyed most of her race.

The supporting cast was led by the likes of Sam Rockwell, who competently portrayed Absolution’s insecure saloon keeper, Doc; and Adam Beach, who gave a deliciously complex performance as Dolarhyde’s right-hand man, Nat Colorado. And actors such as Paul Dano as Dolarhyde’s s raucous son, a serene Clancy Brown, Noah Ringer (from “THE LAST AIRBENDER”), who portrayed the sheriff’s grandson, and a solid Keith Carradine gave firm support.

I do not know what else I could say about “COWBOYS & ALIENS”. I find it a pity that it had failed to become a hit. Because I really enjoyed it. The screenwriters, along with cinematographer Matthew Libatique, a first-rate cast led by Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford and fine direction by Jon Favreau made it one of my favorite films from the summer of 2011.

“BROKEN LANCE” (1954) Review

“BROKEN LANCE” (1954) Review

Six years had passed since I last saw a movie based upon a William Shakespeare play. Needless to say, I was not that impressed by it. In fact, I went out of my way to avoid another cinematic adaptation of one of the playwright’s works for years. Image my surprise when I discovered that the 1954 movie movie, “BROKEN LANCE” proved to be another.

Although set in the Old West of the 1880s, “BROKEN LANCE” is based upon elements from Shakespeare’s 1606 play, “King Lear”. It is also a remake of the 1949 movie, “HOUSE OF STRANGERS”, but critics have found connections to the play a lot stronger in the 1954 Western. The latter told the story of an Arizona cattle baron named Matt Devereaux, who has tried to raise his four sons – Ben, Mike, Denny and Joe – with the same hard-working spirit that has made him a successful rancher. However, Devereaux had never learned to express affection to his three older sons, as a consequence. His marriage to a Native American woman resulted in a fourth son – the mixed-blood Joe, to whom he was affectionate. Matt’s “tough love” attitude and affection toward Joe led the other three sons to harbor resentment toward their father and racial prejudice toward their half-brother. After disrupting a cattle rustling attempt by his sons, Mike and Denny, Devereaux discovers that 40 of his cattle had died from a polluted stream. He and his sons also discover that a copper mine, located 20 miles away, is responsible for the pollution. Devereaux’s violent reaction to his discovery will not only lead to legal ramifications, but also further disruptions and tragedy.

I have never read “King Lear” or seen any of the screen adaptations of the actual play. Nor have I ever seen “HOUSE OF STRANGERS”. So, I have nothing to compare “BROKEN LANCE” with. All I can say that I enjoyed most of the film and was especially impressed by the film’s strong characterizations. Despite its Old West setting, “BROKEN LANCE” is not your typical Western. In fact, it is easy to see that it is basically a character drama. One might add there are plenty of Westerns that feature strong character drama. True. But aside from a minor gunfight and a brawl in one of the movie’s final scenes, this is no real action in “BROKEN LANCE”. This is a drama set in the Old West. I had no problem with this. Why? Because “BROKEN LANCE” is basically a damn good story about the disintegration of a family. What makes “BROKEN LANCE” a tragedy is that Matt Devereaux is responsible. That “hard-working” spirit that led him to become a wealthy cattle baron and dominate his family, also led his three older sons to dislike and resent him. Devereaux’s “spirit” also affected his business operation, took away three years of his youngest son’s life and in the end, even affected his oldest son.

I was also impressed by how the movie handled the topic of racism in this film. Granted, all of the non-white characters in the film seemed ideally likable – something that human beings of all ethnic and racial groups are incapable of being on a 24/7 basis. But at least they were not portrayed as simple-minded or childlike. Joe Devereaux came the closest to being naive, but that was due to his age. And even he developed into a more hardened personality. One of the best scenes that conveyed the racism that permeated in 1880s Arizona Territory featured Matt Devereaux being asked by the Territorial Governor to keep Joe from furthering any romance with the latter’s daughter, Barbara. It struck me as subtle, insidious, ugly and very effective.

The production values for “BROKEN LANCE” struck me as very admirable. Twentieth-Century Fox, the studio that produced and released the film, developed the CinemaScope camera to achieve wide lens shots – especially for their more prominent films between the early 1950s and late 1960s. Joseph MacDonald’s photography of Arizona and use of the CinemaScope camera struck me as very colorful and beautiful. Also adding to the movie’s late 19th Arizona setting were Lyle Wheeler (who won an Oscar for his work on 1939’s “GONE WITH THE WIND”) and Maurice Ransford’s art direction, the set decorations by Stuart A. Reiss and Walter M. Scott, and the scenic designs by an uncredited Jack Poplin. I also thought that Travilla’s costume designs for the film greatly added to the movie’s setting . . . especially those designs for the costumes worn by Jean Peters and Katy Jurado.

If there is one aspect of “BROKEN LANCE” that bothered me, it was the film’s last scene. I wish I could explain what happened, but I do not want to reveal any spoilers. Needless to say, I found it vague, unsatisfying and a bit unrealistic. I realize that writers Philip Yordan and Richard Murphy, along with director Edward Dmytryk, were more or less trying to follow the ending for “HOUSE OF STRANGERS”. But in doing so, I think they had failed to consider the film’s Western setting, along with the racial and ethnic makeup of the Joe Devereaux character. Otherwise, I had no real problems with the movie.

I certainly had no problems with the movie’s performances. Spencer Tracy was larger than life as the domineering Matt Deveareaux. He has always been one of those performers who can either give a subtle performance, or be very theatrical without chewing the scenery. He managed to be both in “BROKEN LANCE”. I have read a few review of the movie in which some were not that impressed by Robert Wagner’s performance as Deveareaux’s youngest son, Joe. Yes, I could have done with the slight make-up job to indicate Joe’s racial status. But I was impressed by Wagner’s performance. He did a very good job in conveying different aspects of Joe’s personality – from the enthusiastic young man, who is desperate to maintain peace within his family to the embittered man, who finally realizes how much his older half-brothers disliked him. Another excellent performance came Richard Widmark, who portrayed Deveareaux’s oldest son, Ben. There were times when Widmark almost seemed as larger than life as Tracy. Yet, he reigned in his performance a little tighter. But what I really found interesting about Widmark’s performance is that despite his character’s resentment of Deveareaux and racist dislike of Joe, he seemed to have a clear head on his shoulders and an awareness of how business had changed in the later years of the Old West. The only acting Oscar nomination went to Katy Jurado, who portrayed Deveareaux’s second wife, “Señora” Devereaux. I am a little perplexed by this nomination. Granted, she gave a very good performance as a Native American woman trying to maintain peace between her husband and three stepsons. But there was nothing about her performance that I thought deserved an Oscar nod. Frankly, I found her performance in 1952’s “HIGH NOON” a lot more impressive.

Jean Peters portrayed the Governor’s daughter and Joe’s love interest, Barbara. I thought she gave a spirited, yet charming performance. I was also impressed by how Peters conveyed Barbara’s strong-will and open-minded nature in regard to Joe’s Native American ancestry. Remember my comments about that scene between Deveareaux and the Governor? I believe what made this scene particularly effective were the performances of both Tracy and E.G. Marshall as the Governor. In fact, I would say that Marshall’s skillful conveyance of the Governor’s insidious racism in regard to Joe really sold this scene. Although their roles seemed lesser as Deveareaux’s second and third sons Mike and Denny, I thought both Hugh O’Brian and Earl Holliman gave effective performances. O’Brian’s Mike struck me as an insidious personality, who seemed to hover in the background, watching older brother Ben and their father battle over the family’s fortunes. And Holliman was equally effective as the gutless pushover Denny, who seemed more interested in clinging to whomever could make his life more easy than any resentful feelings toward his father and younger brother. The movie also featured solid performances from Eduard Franz, Carl Benton Reid and Philip Ober.

In the end, I rather liked “BROKEN LANCE” . . . a lot. I knew from my past viewing of the film that it was not a traditional Western, but more of a character-driven drama. And I thought director Edward Dmytryk, along with writers Philip Yordan and Richard Murphy did a first-rate job of translating William Shakespeare’s “King Lear” to this family drama set in the Old West. The movie also boasted first-rate performances from a cast led by Spencer Tracy and Robert Wagner. My only problem with the movie proved to be its last five minutes or so. I found the ending rather vague and lacking any consideration of the Old West setting and the racial background of the Joe Deveareaux character. Otherwise, I no further problems with the film.

“EL DORADO WEST” [PG] – Chapter Nine

The following is Chapter Nine of my story about a pair of free black siblings making the journey to California in 1849:

Chapter Nine – Independence and Westport

May 2, 1849
Independence at last! After nearly six weeks on the road, Alice and I have finally completed the first stage of our journey to California. Only twenty-five years old, Independence had developed from a crude, frontier town into a rich metropolis filled with dry goods stores, barber shops, grog shops, harness shops, blacksmiths, wheelwrights and emporiums. Whatever an emigrant needed for the overland journey, Independence provided it.

Alice and I visited a livery stable that provided new stock to pull our wagon. Both Mr. James and Mr. Wendell had suggested we trade my horses for mules. We met a Negro named Hiram Young, who happened to be the best wagon maker in this part of the country. At least according to Mr. James. What supplies we could not find in Independence, we came upon in a meadow that stretched from the city to the little Missouri River port of Westport. Nearly every inch of that meadow was filled with tents, huts, sheds, and lean-tos. And from them, merchants, farmers and other workmen provided goods and services to the emigrants.

Traveling across that meadow, our little caravan seemed trapped by a sea of humanity, buildings and animals. Kanzas Landing, which was located at the edge of Westport, seemed no better. White, black, olive and bronze faces had assembled there. Mountain men of every color, the Mexican drivers for the Santa Fe Trail, soldiers, Indians,, merchants, river men and emigrants. Especially emigrants. There was a moment when I feared I would not be able to breathe.

We finally halted near the edge of a high bank that overlooked the Missouri’s brownish-gray waters. People, wagons and freight were disembarking from a two-deck sternwheeler. Our Pennsylvania companions finally bid the rest of us good-bye. It was time for them to search for an Oregon-bound wagon train. And not many of them were departing Western Missouri this year. Instead of searching for a wagon company bound for California, we decided to form our own company right there, with Mr. Robbins acting as president, Mr. James as our guide and Mr. Wendell as scout.

Two wagons joined us within three hours after the formation of the wagon company. Two brothers from Vermont – Richard and Warren Palmer – owned the first wagon. They were a gregarious lot who were talkative, inquisitive and always had a joke on their lips. Tall, burly and freckled, the sandy-haired Vermonters seemed quite a contrast to the staid image of New Englanders. The second wagon joined our little company at the end of the day. Unlike the Palmers, Horace Bryant and Joel Moore of Evansville, Indiana did not talk that much. I could almost say that they were not very social. During our first night at Westport, they remained inside their wagon, while the rest of us listened to Mr. James’ tall tales and the Palmers’ jokes.

Our newcomers had one thing in common – they possessed plenty of equipment for mining gold. They had picks, shovels, patent tents, some new-fangled machine for purifying gold (I do not have the foggiest idea what it was called) and believe it or not, mackintosh boats. A mackintosh boat in the gold fields? Whatever for? What the Palmers, Mr. Bryant and Mr. Moore lacked was food. In fact, they hardly had any room in their wagons for food. And both parties continued to use horses to pull their wagons. Mr. James announced his intentions to rectify their situation.

May 3, 1849
Two more wagons joined our company. The first wagon belonged to a Tennessee dry goods merchant named Ralph Goodwin and his twenty year-old son, Jonas. There were not exactly a friendly pair, but they seemed more approachable than the two friends from Evansville. The Goodwins seemed slightly uncomfortable by Alice’s presence and mine. Yet, they regarded Mr. Wendell with suspicious eyes. They had obviously heard about the runaway near Franklin. But since the town was clear across the state and the wagon company was scheduled to depart Westport tomorrow morning, they could do nothing.

The second wagon belonged to a family named Gibson from Western New York. Mr. James pointed out that this was rare for wagons heading for California this year. Most wagon parties with children were bound for Oregon. California may have been fine for families in the past. But with the Gold Rush, the former Mexican province seemed like the last destination for children, let alone women. I found myself wondering if I had been wise to bring Alice along on this journey.

End of Chapter Nine

“NORTH AND SOUTH” Trilogy Images

Below are images from the “NORTH AND SOUTH” Trilogy – the 1985-1994 adaptation of John Jakes’ 1982-1987 novels:

NORTH AND SOUTH” Trilogy Images

“EL DORADO WEST” [PG] – Chapter Eight

The following is Chapter Eight of my story about a pair of free black siblings making the journey to California in 1849:

Chapter Eight – New Franklin, Missouri

April 23, 1849
Two weeks have passed since our departure from St. Louis. Five days have passed since our encounter with the slave catchers. Despite failing to find a fugitive slave, Mr. Whiskers continued to follow our wagon company. I am beginning to realize that he might be a very stubborn and determined man.

“Ignore him,” Alice advised. “He is only trying to rattle us. He has failed to find his prisoner and needs something to bolster his self-esteem.” Deep contempt rang in her voice.

I wish that I possessed her nerve. But a running fear continued to nag at the back of my mind that sooner or later, the fugitive will appear. And our bewhiskered lurker will have an excuse to toss us – especially Alice and myself – into the nearest county jail. We nearly met that fate upon our arrival in New Franklin.

According to Mr. James, the old Franklin used to be the first jump-off site of the Santa Fe Trail, the first of many overland roads that led west of the Mississippi River. This lasted from 1821 – when a freight driver from Virginia named William Becknell led the first wagon caravan to Santa Fe – to 1828, when the flooding Missouri River finally engulfed it in 1828. The residents resettled their town on higher ground and renamed it New Franklin. I must say that the latter is a very pleasant community with numerous schools, churches and even an attorney’s office.

Alice, myself, Mr. James, the Robbinses and our two Pennsylvania families did not have much time to enjoy New Franklin. No sooner had we arrived, the law appeared with Mr. Whiskers in tow. They demanded to search our wagons. By now, I began to suspect that Alice had been right. Mr. Whiskers’ failure to find his fugitive slave had turned into harassment against our wagon company. Mr. James and Mr. Robbins insisted that we were not harboring a fugitive slave. But the lawmen insisted – backed by a show of force – upon searching our wagons. Again, we had no choice but to comply. And like before, no fugitive slave was found.

Our wagon company had intended to linger in New Franklin and purchase a few supplies. But the ladies, led by Mrs. Robbins, felt affronted by the community’s greeting and demanded that we continue our journey. Understanding how the women felt, the rest of us agreed and the company quietly left New Franklin.

May 2, 1849
Tonight is our last night before our arrival at Independence, tomorrow. Finally! I have had enough of Missouri to last me a lifetime. It is a beautiful state. But I would have enjoyed it more if did not have slavery within its borders.

Mr. Whiskers had continued to trail us, following our departure from New Franklin. Then two days later, he suddenly disappeared. Perhaps he had finally realized the futility of the chase.

Mr. James informed us that many wagon trains should be organizing in Independence by now. Surprisingly, Independence was not the only jump-off spot for the western trails. Rival sites had form in both nearby St. Joseph and Council Bluffs in Iowa. Both towns were easily approachable by a Missouri River steamboat. And an emigrant would save four days on the trail by departing from either town, since both were north of Independence. Despite all of this, our company voted to head for Independence.

Our little caravan has just received a late night visitor. His name is Elias Wendell, formerly of Baltimore, Maryland. He is on his way to Westport. And he is also a fellow Negro. At first, I wonder if he was the fugitive slave that half of Missouri had been searching for. In the end, I dismissed the idea for Mr. James seemed quite familiar with him. And yet . . . this Mr. Wendell happened to be wearing Mr. Whiskers’ royal blue waistcoat. Or something similar. Interesting.

Since he happened to be Mr. James’ old friend, our party welcomed him into our camp. I noticed that Alice exerted good deal of energy to prepare a plate of beans, roast quail and cornbread for our guest. Elias Wendell had been the apprentice of one of Mr. James’ old colleagues – one Thomas Ford. The name struck a familiar note.

Minutes passed before I realized that Mr. Whitman had once mentioned this Ford fellow. Apparently, the latter had been killed in a barroom brawl in St. Charles, a year ago. Since then, Elias had been roaming the state working at odd jobs. When he had learned about the gold found in California, he decided to try his luck and get himself hired to a wagon company.

His story seemed above board. Yet . . . why was Mr. Wendell wearing a waistcoat similar to Mr. Whiskers’? I decided to remain silent. Why create any suspicions that he might be the runaway Mr. Whiskers had been searching for? I had no desire to bring trouble upon his head. Apparently, neither did anyone else. After all, if I had noticed his waistcoat, surely some of the others had.

End of Chapter Eight

“EL DORADO WEST” [PG] – Chapter Seven

The following is Chapter Seven of my story about a pair of free black siblings making the journey to California in 1849:

Chapter Seven – Missouri Plains

April 16, 1849
Traveling through Missouri, I finally received my first glimpse of what a prairie looked like. I had imagined flatter land with no grass . . . not this rolling land filled with long tufts of grass. “You should see this land in full bloom in about a month from now,” Mr. James commented. “The grass becomes just as high as your knees.”

No wonder most emigrant guides insist that wagon trains depart at least by early May. Judging from the amount of prairie grass that now grows, I could see that it was not enough to sustain teams of oxen and mules during a 2,000-mile trek . . . let alone 200 miles.

Mr. James decided that it would be best for us to follow the Missouri River along the bluffs just north of it. Since it happened to be early spring, the river would be subjected to floods, which could be deadly due to its fast currents. Casting my eyes upon the Missouri below, I spotted a steamboat with a stern wheel churning westward. A brief longing to be aboard that boat rose within me. I still long to reach Independence as soon as possible, and finally begin the journey across the continent. Oh, the impatience of youth!

April 19, 1849
The wagon company experienced a chilling moment, early this afternoon. A group of riders appeared from the south and interrupted our small procession at a crossroads. Judging from their hostile expressions, along with the shackles and ropes they carried; a suspicion came to me that these men might be bounty riders or even worse.
Unfortunately, I proved to be right. The riders had turned out to be a group of lawmen and slave catchers searching for a black fugitive. One fellow, a swarthy creature with black whiskers demanded a search of our wagons. And considering that he and his companions were better armed than us, we had no choice but to comply.

It came to no surprise that the slave catchers had lingered around our wagon longer than the others. That same bewhiskered gentleman who led the bunch demanded to see Alice’s and my papers. Mr. James’ face turned red and insisted that we were free people of color. “And how would you know that for sure, Mister?” our tormentor demanded. “How long have you known these nigras?”

“Almost two weeks,” Mr. James replied. “They happen to be from Ohio.” The whiskered man shot back, “They could have said that. Maybe they’re lying.” This did not bode well for Alice and myself.

Fortunately, Mr. James never relented in his defense of us. “And how would you know?” he replied scathingly. “Can you recognize an Ohio accent when you hear it? And why are you harassing these two? Surely, you know who you’re looking for?”

I saw flashes of anger, resentment and sheer embarrassment in the slaver’s dark eyes. He murmured a quick oath and walked away. The other men continued their search through our wagons with no success. The fugitive could not be found. With no reason to delay us any further, the search party allowed us to continue our journey. However, our caravan had not traveled three miles when Alice noticed a figure in a thicket to our right – a lone rider.

“He looks like one of those slave catchers,” my sister commented. I squinted for a closer look. Sure enough, there was Mr. Whiskers riding by himself. Following our wagon party. If the fellow was so determined to capture this slave, he was surely barking up the wrong tree. Or was he merely determined to prove that we were slave stealers? If so, I pray that his fugitive never seek refuge with our group . . . at least until we manage to put Missouri and slave catchers behind us for good.

End of Chapter Seven

“HEAVEN AND HELL: NORTH AND SOUTH BOOK III” (1994) – EPISODE ONE Commentary

“HEAVEN AND HELL:  NORTH AND SOUTH BOOK III” (1994) – EPISODE ONE Commentary

If there is one chapter in John Jakes’ NORTH AND SOUTH saga that is reviled by the fans, it the television adaptation of the third one, set after the American Civil War. First of all, the theme of post-war Reconstruction has never been that popular with tales about the four-year war. More importantly, fans of Jakes’ saga seemed to have a low opinion of “HEAVEN AND HELL”, the 1994 adaptation of Jakes’ third North and South novel, published back in 1987. 

My opinion of the 1994 miniseries slightly differs from the opinions formed by the majority of the saga’s fans. The three-part miniseries failed to achieve the same level of production quality that its two predecessors had enjoyed. But unlike the second miniseries, 1986’s “NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK II”, this third miniseries was more faithful to Jakes’ original novel – as I had pointed out in a previous article. And to my surprise, I discovered that some aspects of the miniseries were an improvement from the novel.

Episode One of “BOOK THREE” struck me as a solid return to John Jakes’ saga. Not only did it re-introduce some of the old characters from the previous two miniseries, but also introduced new characters. Ironcially, one of the new characters turned out to be the oldest Main sibling – Cooper Main. As many fans know, his character was left out of the first two miniseries. Why? I do not know. But Cooper was introduced as a humorless man, embittered by the South’s defeat. And Robert Wagner gave one of the best performances in the miniseries in his portrayal of Cooper. Another praiseworthy addition turned out to be Rya Kihlstedt, who portrayed Charles Main’s new love interest, actress Willa Parker. Not only did Kihlstedt did a great job in portraying the idealistic Willa, she had great chemistry with Kyle Chandler, who took over the role of Charles Main. Many fans had howled with outrage over Chandler assuming the role of Charles, following Lewis Smith’s portrayal in the previous miniseries. So did I. But after seeing Chandler do a superb job of conveying Charles’ post-war angst and desperation to find a living to support his son. James Read gave a solid performance as a grieving George Hazard, who seemed to be having difficulty in dealing with the death of his best friend, Orry Main, at the hands of their former enemy, Elkhannah Bent. Cliff De Young made a surprisingly effective villain as Gettys LaMotte, the manipulative and vindictive leader of the local Ku Klux Klan.

Unfortunately, there were performances that failed to impress me. I got the feeling that director Larry Peerce harbored an odd idea on how a 19th century upper-class Southern woman would behave. This was quite apparent in the performances of Lesley-Anne Down as Madeline Fabray Main and Terri Garber as Ashton Main Huntoon. The performances of both actresses struck me as unusually exaggerated and melodramatic – something which they had managed to avoid in “BOOK I” and “BOOK II”. Fortunately for Garber, she occasionally broke out of her caricature, when portraying Ashton’s more sardonic nature. Down only got worse, when her voice acquired a breathless tone. Being a fan of character actor Keith Szarabajka from his stint on “ANGEL” and other television and movie appearances, I was shocked by his hammy performance as a vengeful Kentucky-born Union officer named Captain Venable, whose family had been ravaged by Confederate troops. His performance was one of the most wince-inducing I have witnessed in years.

Episode One possessed some bloopers that left me scratching my head. Cooper’s sudden appearance in the miniseries was never explained by the screenwriters. Neither was the introduction of former slave Isaac, who was portrayed by Stan Shaw. And I am still curious about how Gettys LaMotte learned about Madeline’s African-American ancestry, let alone the other neighbors in the parish. I do not recall Ashton or Bent telling anyone.

Fortunately, Episode One was filled with excellent scenes and moments. One of the scenes that really seemed to stand out featured George and Madeline’s argument about the state of post-war Mont Royal. Charles’ hilarious introduction to a Cheyenne village involved marvelous acting by Chandler and Rip Torn, who portrayed mountain man Adolphus Jackson. One other scene that had me on the floor laughing featured Ashton, who became a prostitute in Santa Fe, kicking a smelly would-be customer out of her room. The episode featured very chilly moments. One of them featured Gettys LaMotte’s creepy rendition of the KKK theme song (I forgot that De Young was also a singer). Another was the murder of Adolphus Jackson and his nephew Jim by a Cheyenne warrior named Scar. But the best scene in the entire miniseries (and probably the entire trilogy) was Elkhannah Bent’s murder of Constance Hazard, George’s wife. I found it subtle, creepy and beautifully shot by Peerce. Also, Philip Casnoff and Wendy Kilbourne acted the hell out of that scene.

Despite some bloopers that either left me confused or wincing with discomfort – including some hammy performances by a few members of the cast – I can honestly say that“HEAVEN AND HELL:  BOOK III” started off rather well.  Better than I had originally assumed it would.

“EL DORADO WEST” [PG] – Chapter Six

The following is Chapter Six of my story about a pair of free black siblings making the journey to California in 1849:

Chapter Six – Gateway to the West

April 4, 1849
St. Louis. Finally! I have never felt so relieved to leave the floating death trap that was the ALBERT P. SIMPSON. Four more passengers died before we finally berthed at St. Louis’ levee. I wondered why the city officials did not put the SIMPSON‘s passengers under quarintine before we could disembark.

“Why bother?” Alice had replied. According to her, half of St. Louis’ citizens have already keeled over from cholera since last December. She felt it would be a miracle if we manage to depart St. Louis . . . alive. Ever since leaving Cleveland, I have detected an increasing sharpness in my dear sister’s tongue. Am I now facing the real Alice Fleming? I hope not.

The city’s citizens have developed their own cure for the deadly disease – cholera masks. A person could perchase one for ten dollars. Alice says that I should not even bother. She claims that cholera came from bad food and milk and not the air. Naturally, I could not take the word of a nineteen year-old girl from a well-to-do family over any respectable doctor. So I went ahead and purchased two masks. Alice refused to wear hers.

St. Louis struck me as a grander city than Cinncinati. I was informed by a deckhand on the SIMPSON that it was the biggest city west of Pittsburg. However, Cleveland seemed a lot cleaner. The river traffic that docked near the levee seemed twice the amount we had encountered in Cinncinati. Just above the levee stood an elegant white building with an olive green, dome-shaped roof.

The mass of humanity that we had first encountered in Cinncinati seemed twice as big, here in St. Louis, only with added touches – red-skinned Indians, trappers, blue-coated Army officers and soldiers, and olive-skinned Mexicans. I gather that the latter were among those who drove the freight wagons along the Santa Fe Trail. And naturally there were slaves. After all, Missouri happened to be a slave state. Mind you, they were not the occasional fugitive slaves captured by bounty hunters. They were black men, women and children shackled together in long coffles and hearded into Lynch’s, the city’s slave pen on Market Street. What sad-eyed, ragged creatures they were! The expressions on their faces seemed to indicate resignation to their fate.

Alice suggested that we purchase more supplies for our trip west. I told her there was no need. We will have plenty of opportunities for that in Independence. “But the merchants there will charge the earth!” she insisted. Alice had learned this bit of news from an old fur trapper she had met aboard the ALBERT P. SIMPSON. When did she find the time to become aquainted with some trapper without my knowledge? This soothsayer of the Plains had recommended we travel to Independence by land, instead of a Missouri River steamboat. Alice added that it would be cheaper and we would not arrive at the jump-off point too soon.

“The perfect time for a wagon train to depart from Independence is early May,” she added. Leaving Independence before that period of time meant the possibility of being snowbound in the Sierra Nevadas. She also suggested that I trade the horses for mules or oxen. Horses were unsuited for pulling wagons over a long distance. And we should travel light as possible. “He also suggested that we never take short cuts.”

Feeling slightly intimidated by my sister’s surprising knowledge of traveling across the plains, I replied sardonically, “Anything else?”

Alice had nothing further to say. Thank goodness. I wish to God that mountain man had minded his own business. However, a voice at the back in my head whispered that I should heed the advice.

April 6, 1849
We spent two days in St. Louis, outfitting for our journey. We purchased lynch pins, rope, chains, barrels, flour, bacon, cornmeal, beans, dried apples, coffee and other equipment. And as Alice had suggested, I traded my team of horses for mules. It saddened me to bade farewell to those wonderful animals. They had accompanied us from Cleveland and I will miss them.

During our two-day shopping spree, our wagon joined three others to form a small camp not far from Jefferson Barracks – an Army outpost southwest of the city. Among our new companions were a middle-aged couple from Kentucky named Robbins. Alice managed to form a surprisingly quick friendship with Mrs. Robbins, a habitual gossip. We also became aquainted with two families from Pennsylvania on their way to Oregon. And lo and behold, the old trapper who had made Alice’s acquaintance on the ALBERT P. SIMPSON had joined our little company. His name was Lyman James and he did not look as old as I had imagined. At least somewhere between fifty and sixty years old. Like the Robbinses, Alice and myself, he was bound for California. Only he chose not to travel by wagon . . . just his horse and a pack mule.

We spent our last night around a campfire, listening to Mr. James’ recollections of his years as a mountain man. A night of tales about rendevouses, near escapes, Indian war parties and the Western landscape brought back memories of Mr. Whitman. I asked Mr. James if he ever knew my former benefactor.

“Ephraim Whitman?” he asked. A wistful expression appeared on his face. “By God! I haven’t heard that name in years! One of the best trappers I have ever known. And a good friend. He taught me and Joe Wright all about the fur trade. Heard he had settled somewhere in Ohio.”

I told him that Mr. Whitman had ended up in Cleveland. I also informed him about my benefactor’s death, last month. The former trapper seemed to age within seconds. “Poor old Ephraim,” he muttered. “At least he had lived a good life.” It was the best ephitat anyone could have given Mr. Whitman.

End of Chapter Six

“ESCAPE FROM FORT BRAVO” (1953) Review

“ESCAPE FROM FORT BRAVO” (1953) Review

Years ago, I used to watch a great deal of old movies on late night television. My two favorite channels that offered these movies were Turner Network Television (TNT) and the American Movies Classic (AMC), which used to air movies without any commercial breaks. On TNT, I had stumbled across a Western movie originally released by MGM Studios in 1953 called “ESCAPE FROM FORT BRAVO” (1953) and fell in love with it. After watching my recently purchased DVD copy of the movie, I could see why it became a favorite of mine.

Directed by John Sturges during the first decade of his directorial career, “ESCAPE FROM FORT BRAVO” told the story of a Union Army officer that served as the second-in-command of a prisoner-of-war camp located in the Arizona Territory in 1863. The movie’s opening pretty much set the stage of what kind of character Captain Roper was, as it depicted him dragging an escaped Confederate prisoner back to Fort Bravo. The fact that Roper was on horseback and his prisoner – a Lieutenant Bailey – was on foot pretty much established the Union officer as a hard-nosed and ruthless man. That flint-like personality was exacerbated by his cynicism, revealed in his reactions to the other characters’ disapproval of his treatment of Bailey. However, chaos soon arrived in the form of one Carla Forrester, a Texas belle who arrived at Fort Bravo to serve as maid-of-honor at the wedding of Alice Owens, the daughter of Fort Bravo’s commanding officer, Colonel Owens. Carla was also there to ensure the escape of the prisoners’ ranking officer, her fiancé Captain John Marsh and a few of his men. In order to keep their Union jailers distracted, Carla set out to seduce and romance the fort’s most feared man – Captain Roper.

When I first saw “ESCAPE FROM FORT BRAVO”, I never thought I would become such a diehard fan of the movie. Do not get me wrong. It was not the best or innovative Western I had ever seen. Screenwriters Frank Fenton and an unaccredited Michael Pate had created a solid character study about conflicts – both political and personal – between the Union and Confederate troops in the Civil War Southwest, and the conflict between the Apaches and everyone else. The movie even had a happy ending – somewhat. Yet, Sturges, Fenton and Pate managed to lift a solid tale into something more fascinating by infusing a great deal of emotion and complexity in the main characters And it were these complex characters that truly made “ESCAPE FROM FORT BRAVO” for me. The characters seemed to seethe with an array of emotions that eventually burst forth as the movie unfolded. Many of these emotions seemed to center around the story’s main character.

One of those characters happened to be Carla Forrester. And Eleanor Parker managed to do a top-notch job in portraying the bundle of contradictions that simmered underneath her ladylike façade. Parker portrayed Carla as a cool Southern belle with impeccable manners and a talent for seduction. Her Carla also possessed the ruthlessness to browbeat a reluctant pro-Southern storekeeper into helping Marsh and his men escape; a boldness that allowed her to chase after Roper in an age where women were valued for being passive; and a great deal of passion for Marsh and later, Roper. One of the more interesting aspects of Parker’s performance was expessing Carla’s struggles to suppress her feelings for Roper. Recently, I learned that Parker had earned the nickname Woman of a Thousand Faces. Judging from her portrayal of Carla Forrester, I would say that she deserved the name.

I have been a fan of John Forsythe since his years as Charlie Townsend’s voice in “CHARLIE’S ANGELS” (1976-1981) and his work on the ABC nighttime soap opera “DYNASTY” (1981-1989). But I must admit that I found his performance in “ESCAPE FROM FORT BRAVO” somewhat perplexing. On one hand, Forsythe did a excellent job in portraying John Marsh’s patience, intelligence and slightly caustic nature – especially in scenes that featured Marsh’s exchanges with his fellow Confederate prisoners. However, there seemed to be something not quite . . . right about the character. I do not know if the fault lay with Forsythe’s performance or Fenton and Pate’s screenplay. The problem with the Marsh character or Forsythe’s acting seemed to be Marsh’s successful ability to suppress his emotions. There were times when I wondered if the only true feelings that Marsh seemed able to truly express, centered around his desire to escape. And when he finally did express his his jealousy toward Carla’s feelings about Roper – it came off as slightly unconvincing. Either Forsythe had failed to sell it . . . or Fenton and Pate failed to allow Marsh to express his jealousy until it was too late in the story.

I certainly cannot accuse William Demarest and William Campbell for giving unconvincing performances. The pair portrayed two of the Confederate prisoners – the wise “old” man Sergeant Campbell and the cocky young Cabot Young. The pair seemed to be engaged in some kind of verbal warfare that I found a lot of fun. Yet, it also seemed to hint some kind of mild dislike between the two – until the ending revealed their true feelings for each other. Two other performances caught my attention – John Lupo as the cowardly Confederate officer Lieutenant Bailey and Richard Anderson (of “THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN” and “THE BIONIC WOMAN” fame) as the soon-to-be husband of Alice Owen, Lieutenant Beecher. What made these two characters interesting was that each man – in his own way – seemed capable of some kind of courage. Although a physical coward, Bailey possessed the courage to openly admit his limitations. And Beecher had no qualms about openly expressing his disapproval of Roper’s ruthlessness, despite being the captain’s subordinate.

While writing this review, it occurred to me that I had yet to comment on William Holden’s performance as the hard-nosed Captain Roper. The same year (1953) that MGM released “ESCAPE FROM FORT BRAVO”, Paramount released Billy Wilder’s movie, “STALAG 17” – the movie that featured Holden’s Oscar winning performance. If I had my way, I would have given Holden the Oscar for his performances in both movies. What I found amazing about his portrayal of Roper is that in the hands of a lesser actor, the character could have easily ended up one-dimensional. Ironically, most of the supporting characters seemed to view him as a one-dimensional hard ass. Yet, Holden managed to effectively convey Roper’s complexity by perfectly balancing the character’s ruthlessness with an intelligent, witty and passionate man. In the end, he actor did a superb job in combining the many aspects of Roper’s personality into a complex and interesting character.

MGM’s Oscar winning costume designer Helen Rose added color to the movie with some lush costumes befitting the movie’s early 1860s setting. Unfortunately, Rose made one serious misstep with a yellow evening gown worn by Eleanor Parker:

The gown seemed more befitting of a movie set in the early 1950s, instead of the 1860s. It is not surprising that Rose had received her Oscar nominations and wins for movies in a modern setting. I also have to commend cinematographer Robert Surtees for capturing the Southwest landscape (Southern California and New Mexico) without overwhelming the performers. Surtees also made use of the Ansco cameras to give the movie a rich and lush aura, allowing the desert to seem more colorful than usual.

Surprisingly, Frank Fenton and Michael Pate’s script for “ESCAPE FROM FORT BRAVO” seemed to bear a small, yet striking resemblance to John Ford’s 1939 classic, “STAGECOACH”. Both movies are basically character studies of a group of people in a Western setting – namely the Southwest – that included action against the Apaches in the final acts. And the Apaches in both films proved to be nothing more than plot devices to drive the characters’ situations forward. However, Sturges and the two screenwriters gave the Apaches’ roles a twist by portraying them as an organized military unit, instead of a bunch of rampaging “savages”, during a sequence that featured Roper, Carla, Beecher, Marsh, Bailey, Campbell and Young under besiege by the Apaches’ “bombardment” of arrow similar to Henry V’s use of English and Welsh longbowmen at the Battle of Agincourt. And unlike the John Wayne and Claire Trevor characters in “STAGECOACH”, this movie left the fate of Roper and Carla’s future romance in the air. After all, she had assisted in the Confederates’ escape.

It is a shame that “ESCAPE FROM FORT BRAVO” has never been considered when top Hollywood Westers are discussed. Or even when John Sturges’ career is discussed. Frankly, I believe the movie deserves to be considered. Sturges had taken Frank Fenton and Michael Pate’s sharp screenplay and a top notch cast to create a tense and complex Western that I feel is one of the best I have seen to come out of the Hollywood studio era.

“EL DORADO WEST” [PG] – Chapter Five

The following is Chapter Five of my story about a pair of free black siblings making the journey to California in 1849:

Chapter Five – Rollin’ on the River

April 1, 1849
Our journey down the Ohio River seems more like a pleasure cruise than a difficult journey. And I must add that the river must be one of the most beautiful bodies of water I have ever laid eyes upon, save Lake Erie.

Alice and I have claimed a spot for our wagon on the SIMPSON’s main deck, along with other westbound travelers with covered wagons. Other passengers on this deck include farmers, slave coffles (I fear I might be becoming familiar with the sight), livestock, mountain men and other ordinary folk. The topic on everyone’s lips seem to be gold in California.

A fellow emigrant from Pennsylvania expressed fear that all of the gold may have already been picked. After all, nearly fifteen months had passed since that fellow, James Marshall, had discovered that gold nugget. Another emigrant – a red-haired man who happened to be a fellow Ohioan – dismissed the idea. ”California was a vast land,” he said. Plenty of gold left for those who have yet to arrive.

April 3, 1849
We have finally reached Cairo, a small river port at the tip of Southern Illinois. And I cannot think of any other place I would rather not be. There is nothing wrong with the town’s physical appearance. Frankly, I found it very pleasant. Somewhat. It does seem slightly diminished. I had expected it to be slightly bigger. There is an unpleasant side to Cairo that I had learned from one of the boat’s deckhands. The city, like the rest of Illinois, has a reputation for hostility toward Negroes. In fact, the entire state does not encourage free Negroes to live within its borders. And those who do are subjected to a level of harassment not even known throughout the rest of the North. I suggested to Alice that we remain aboard the ALBERT P. SIMPSON.

Because of its position at the junction of both the Ohio and the Mississippi Rivers, Cairo has become an important river port. Many folks bound south for Memphis, Natchez and New Orleans were forced to disembark. In their place, the ALBERT P. SIMPSON acquired new passengers. Many were, like us, bound for St. Louis or further west. And now the main deck is filled with more covered wagons and emigrants.

The Mississippi River is not at all like the Ohio. Its majestic view is somewhat dimmed by its muddy coloring. Brown and thick, it is truly an ugly river. Alice and I have also learned that the Mississippi River Valley has been struck by a cholera epidemic. I am not that surprised. The river strikes me as the perfect breeding ground for diseases of all sorts. From New Orleans to St. Louis, folks have been dropping like flies. Two passengers have died since our departure from Cairo. Their bodies were dumped overboard and into the river. This whole matter does not bode well for Alice and myself. For the first time, I am wondering if I had been wise to leave Cleveland.

End of Chapter Five