Thursday, December 27, 2007

12/27: The Man From the Alamo; California

The Man From the Alamo is a Budd Boetticher Western dating from before the director's more well-known association with actor Randolph Scott. In this film, Glenn Ford plays John Stroud, the unfortunate man chosen by lot to leave the Alamo just before it's overrun, in order to head north and try to save his family, along with the families of several other soldiers, who were being attacked in northern Texas. This gesture gets Stroud branded as a coward by those who don't know his goal, and his stigma is heightened when the Alamo falls to the enemy and everyone left inside is killed. To make matters worse, when Stroud arrives in his home town, he finds that all the families he was sent to protect, including his own, have already been murdered — and not by the Mexican army, he learns, but by unscrupulous Texans posing as Mexicans and hoping to enrich themselves in the melee.

Stroud immediately plans to enact his revenge on these rebels, led by the nasty Jess Wade (Victor Jory), but his reputation as a coward precedes him and makes life difficult, particularly in a town where most of the women's husbands are dead at the Alamo. Boetticher seems especially interested in the line between cowardice and bravery, and the question of which side of the line Stroud's departure from the Alamo should fall on. Stroud is introduced, at the beginning of the film, committing a largely senseless act of bravery by leaping up onto the fort's ramparts in the midst of a firefight, running along the ledge and risking death, simply in order to replace the flag on the fort's ramparts, which had been knocked down by a cannon shot. This is conventional bravery, and certainly the movie version of bravery — risking death unnecessarily, even if the immediate aim of the risk is trivial. This action is implicitly contrasted with Stroud's later decision to leave the fort, which is perceived by all who witness it as a shocking display of cowardice. And yet, in this case Stroud has a definite and useful goal in mind, which is to some extent self-serving (protecting his own family) but also selfless and noble (protecting the families of others). That he risks his own reputation in order to achieve this goal adds an additional element of self-sacrifice to his decision.

This examination of bravery and cowardice plays out within a tautly constructed adventure narrative, which Boetticher tells in just 79 minutes, packing the film with action and just enough character detail to render his hero convincingly. Stroud's reputation as a coward also serves as a metaphor for all manner of prejudices and various signs of "weakness" in the harsh world of the American frontier. If being a coward is just about the worst thing with which a man can be branded, it places him only a few notches down from Mexicans, who earned a status of shame by virtue of being both non-white and members of a nation that was at war with Texas. Thus, Stroud further cements his outsider status by bringing around a young Mexican boy who used to work at his now-destroyed ranch, and who he has more or less adopted as a son. Also low in the pecking order are women, who are considered entirely defenseless and in need of a man, and the crippled, who are unable to engage in traditional "manly" pursuits like fighting in the army.

The film exposes all of these underlying assumptions of the Western in its denouement, in which the coward, the one-armed local doctor John Gage (Chill Wills), and a number of women, must defend a wagon train against Wade's marauding gang. With all the menfolk off fighting the Mexican army, it falls to this motley assortment of supporting players, usually relegated to the sidelines in Hollywood Westerns, to take center stage and fight to protect themselves. Boetticher privileges the sideline characters here, bringing them slowly forward in the narrative. When he first introduces them, they're part of the traditional Western structure, under the protective wing of an army detachment. But as the soldiers and all the other able-bodied men head off from the main plotline, into other stories, Boetticher sticks with the wagon train rather than following the soldiers, and all that's left is the bottom tiers of the Western's de-facto caste system.

This deconstruction of the Western is unexpected in a low-budget oater like this, but Boetticher manages to sneak in a great deal of subtext of this sort within the film's fast-moving framework. It's a solid, economical B-Western with a surprisingly complex moral examination at its core, as well as a subtle querying of the Western's biases and ideological blind spots.

California is director John Farrow's epic ode to the resiliency of the frontier spirit, and especially to the beauty of the eponymous state, whose statehood is the dilemma at the center of this film. Set in the period of the first gold strikes in California, and the ensuing mass migration to the largely unsettled land, the film charts the progression of the territory from a totally lawless frontier, to a speculative land ripe for exploitation, to the cusp of statehood and entry into the "civilized" boundaries of the Union. This civilizing narrative is often at the heart of the classical Hollywood Westerns, which as a body of work are about the tension between the "wild" West and the gradually spreading society of the then-nascent United States. Here, this tension is localized in California, where the twin aims of gold and power conspire to keep the territory uncivilized and free of laws for as long as possible.

When the film starts, John Trumbo (Ray Milland) is an army deserter who agrees to lead a wagon train of farmers west to California in order to escape his past. Along with the farmers, he reluctantly brings aboard the volatile Lily (Barbara Stanwyck), who is spurned by the locals as a woman of ill repute, though the film never makes it clear whether she's earned this reputation or not. But as soon as the wagons set off, the announcement that gold has been struck in California reaches them, and the farmers all immediately abandon the train in a mad scramble west, leaving behind only Trumbo and the Irish farmer Michael Fabian (Barry Fitzgerald). The two eventually make it west, and find the expected gold rush fever, with the town in the tight grip of the tyrannical former slave trader Pharoah Coffin (George Coulouris). As if his name isn't a good enough clue, Coffin is the film's villain, a cartoonishly exaggerated mustache-stroking kind of villain in the grand old tradition, pure evil kitsch. His evil is also shot through with a solid dose of fear and cowardice, especially from his slave-ship past — at one point, a breeze through the trees reminds him of the sound of "naked feet shuffling on the deck."

Once Trumbo and Fabian arrive in this Coffin-controlled town, the film begins leaping frantically forward, constantly shifting style and never quite settling on just what kind of film this is supposed to be. At one point, it's a rollicking gold rush adventure, then a gambling drama, then a chronicle of political manipulations, then an epic shootout. It even tries to be a folksy musical at intervals, though it falls entirely on its face at that — in the song Stanwyck tries to sing herself, she proves a much worse singer than an actress, and a later more tender song is obviously overdubbed. In another scene, the farmers' abandonment of their wagons to flee west is accompanied by a ludicrous chanted song about the lure of gold. Moments like this, and the stirring landscape montage and patriotic anthem that opens the film, are unavoidably cheesy and completely halt the film's pace.

Not that the pace is so carefully modulated otherwise. Rapid shifts in tone and a massive pile-up of plot elements keep the film rocketing from one thing to the next with only sporadic measured moments along the way. The film is only slightly longer than an hour and a half, and its complex narrative seems to demand much more. It only feels like an epic because so much happens, but the major events are often rushed by. Fabian's stint as a politician and subsequent election to represent the town in a statehood caucus is barely a blip in the narrative, though it represents a major turn of events, and it's a shock when, in the next scene, he talks about five weeks going by. Meanwhile, the local saloon changes ownership so many times in the course of ten minutes of screentime that it's dizzying. Farrow simply attempts to cram too much action and too many twists into a film not big enough to support them all, and as a result the uneven pacing leaves a lot to be desired.

If the film largely falters on the large scale, it's much more successful in short bursts, in individual scenes, and in Farrow's careful camerawork. Especially noteworthy is the way he handles space in two matching scenes set at Coffin's palatial hacienda. In the first, Trumbo comes to visit his adversary, and the two have a confrontational conversation, walking around the room as the camera tracks them. Finally, as they walk towards the door with Trumbo getting ready to leave, the camera pans around to catch them in a two-shot, revealing another room off to the side, with Lily standing behind a piano and watching them. Her appearance, as Coffin's fiancee and the object of a fierce love/hate relationship for Trumbo, unsettles the scene's tension and serves as the hidden anchor for the camera throughout the scene. Tucked off to the side, listening in, she's unseen until the very end and her appearance draws attention to the camera's careful movement, which is revealed to have been conspiring (with Coffin) to keep her hidden all through the preceding scene. This scene is mirrored towards the end of the film, when Trumbo and Coffin again have a confrontation in the same room, although this time it's much more violent. Lily is again off to the side in the adjoining room, unseen throughout the scene, as the camera follows the raving mad Coffin, walking around the room with a pistol and muttering to himself. His showdown with the unarmed Trumbo ends when Lily emerges from the other room and shoots Coffin from offscreen; as he falls, the camera pans over to the side, revealing her standing there, just as it had revealed her in the earlier scene.

California excels in small touches like this, in the moments at which the subtlety and dramatic weight of Farrow's direction overcomes the sweeping gestures and grandiose aesthetics of the film as a whole. The film hangs together very awkwardly, so that its individual parts are much more than the sum. Still, it's an enjoyable film that delves into the conflict between civilization and disorder, and even if its grand ambitions fail, it works quite well as a rough-and-ready B-Western.

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