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May 12, 2009

Trumpets, Westbound

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A Distant Trumpet
Raoul Walsh - 1964

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Westbound
Budd Boetticher - 1959
both Warner Brothers Archive Collection DVD

Growing up in the mid to late Fifties, the first movie studio I became aware of was Warner Brothers. This was not through there movies but through their television series, westerns such as Maverick, Sugarfoot, Bronco and Cheyenne. Each show was marked by a theme song performed by a male chorus, line drop title cards, and a stock company of actors who would periodically appear on one of the other shows. Warner Brothers studios were always seen in an overhead shot of the studios that appeared like giant barns. Growing old enough to see movies that weren't preceded by the words, "Walt Disney presents", I noticed that Warner Brothers actors not only would appear on a revolving variety of television shows, but also starred in movies. Immersing myself more in older films, I learned to recognize that certain actors frequently appeared in Warner Brothers movies.

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Part of whatever pleasure is to be had by watching films like A Distant Trumpet and Westbound has as much to do with seeing contract players, as much, and sometimes more, than viewing films by Raoul Walsh and Budd Boetticher. Boetticher may have directed the film as a favor to Randolph Scott, but his hand was in some of the casting with then-wife Karen Steele and Andrew Duggan among the actors he had previously worked with. In comparison, while A Distant Trumpet has a screenplay by sometime collaborator John Twist, the casting seems more imposed on Walsh with the young stars of the time.

The characters utter a "damn" and "hell" a few times, the violence is more graphic, and the treatment of Native Americans is marginally more enlightened, but A Distant Trumpet could have easily been made twenty years earlier by Walsh and Twist, with a score by Max Steiner. I tried to imagine the film with Errol Flynn as the heroic young West Point graduate sent out west, as in They Died with Their Boots On. Olivia de Havilland and Virginia Mayo would vie for Flynn's attention. I have no idea what Walsh thought of Troy Donahue or Diana McBain, but I suspect he might have liked Suzanne Pleshette. Donahue was big, boyishly handsome, and not much of an actor as he even admitted. Still Walsh treats him like most of his stars with frequent shots of his actors with the camera looking upwards against the sky. Walsh's visual motif in this film is as recognizable as Yasujiro Ozu's view of the world from a tatami mat.

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A Distant Trumpet probably needs to be seen on a large screen to be best appreciated. In color and wide screen, Walsh also frequently shoots expansive vistas with small characters seen in the distance, or considerably dwarfed by their environment. Much of the film was shot on location in New Mexico. One of the subplots involves Troy Donahue's officer's quarters, something of a makeshift oasis of civilization in an otherwise physically hostile environment. Walsh's red desert may be more literal than Michelangelo Antonioni's, but both filmmakers are interested in having the environments stand in for the emotions and viewpoints of their characters. In the final image of Raoul Walsh's last film, their is an overhead shot of Donahue, newly married to Pleshette, being saluted with raised swords by his troops. One could view this shot as one of resolution of unity, of the man with the right woman, a captain with his troops, but also of the characters with their environments of the fort and the surrounding desert.

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Claude Akins, the mustached villain of A Distant Trumpet also appeared in Budd Boetticher's Comanche Station. Virginia Mayo, appearing in Westbound no doubt as Scott, to fulfill contactual obligations, starred in several of Raoul Walsh's films, most notably White Heat. In his list of motifs to be found in Boetticher's films, Michael Grost lists "curved shapes". The curved shapes Boetticher seems most interested in belong to Virginia Mayo and Karen Steele. Mayo wears dresses that reveal the beginning of cleavage, while the form fitting shirts and dress of Steele speak for themselves. The story is virtually from the Scott template, taking place during the Civil War with Union officer Scott officially asked to take over his stagecoach line, which also serves to transport gold from California to "the East". Getting in the way is former partner Andrew Duggan who has bought his way into controlling the town of Julesburg, and has married Scott's old flame, Mayo. Some of the story is suggested by the real history of Julesburg, Colorado. That there was a Colorado town with sympathies towards the Confederacy would be pure fiction. The point of seeing a film like Westbound is not to see anyone doing anything different.

The fun is in seeing Duggan's weasel of an entrepreneur discover that while his claimed ideals might excuse his villainy, his henchman simply revel in villainy for its own sake as they increasingly are beyond Duggan's control. Michael Dante is affecting as the one armed war veteran who reclaims his sense of masculinity after being called "half a man". I don't know how much of their real life relationship was replayed on film, but Steele, Boetticher's muse at the time, is shown ready to jump in where the action is, even getting into a fist fight with a loudmouthed bad guy. A shot of Steele in form fitting jeans also says all that is needed about why Steele was Boetticher's favorite actress. The supporting characters' names provide a sense of the familiar with Michael Pate as the evil Mace, and Wally Brown as a stagecoach driver named Stubby. That Westbound is considered one of Boetticher's lesser films also suggests that screenwriter Burt Kennedy was a more significant collaborator than might have otherwise been acknowledged. The film is titled Wesbound, and sometimes it's nice to watch or rewatch a film that has no surprises, and follows a familiar path.

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Posted by peter at May 12, 2009 12:22 AM