Friday, May 6, 2016

Monte Walsh (Remake)

Review | Alias Smith and Jones in the Movies & More About the Old West
Credit: Wikipedia
I shouldn’t have resisted watching this movie for so long!  I hesitated viewing this remake of Monte Walsh because I really enjoyed the original version and didn’t think a made-for-TV show could equal it.  But it did and, in some ways, I liked it even better.

Tom Selleck stars as the eponymous character in this 2003 Monte Walsh.  The opening was completely different here but just as amusing.  It starts off in a town – a title card says Antelope Junction, 1892.  After some hijinks by a couple boys and a practical joke on the lawyer in the town, Monte Walsh and Chet Rawlins (Keith Carradine) are seen riding into town.

After the opening scenes, most of the rest of this Monte Walsh is the same as the 1970 movie.  The plot concerns a group of cowboys in Wyoming who are slowly being forced into new ways of life because the era of “cowboying,” as they put it, is coming to an end.  (Which is, of course, the same reason Heyes and Curry get outta their business.)  The same characters populate this version and it’s interesting to see how different actors play them.

There are a few significant changes in this Monte Walsh.  The first is a long fight scene between the cowboys and a group of railroad men, which I don’t recall from the original film.  Another change revolves around Monte breaking the horse that Shorty (George Eads) tried and failed to do: In this movie, it all happens during the daytime instead of at night.  I still felt real sorry for the shopkeeper who lost most of his inventory when the horse rampaged through his store.  Likewise, the climactic shootout occurs in the daytime and didn’t take nearly as long.  It was less suspenseful, though, because it didn’t last nearly as long but the accompanying music was just as effective. 

However, the biggest change was the ending – the gunfight wasn’t the end!  In this version, there was an epilogue.  I won’t spoil it by revealing what happens but I will say that it left me with quite a different feeling than my final reaction to the original Monte Walsh.

One thing I really liked about this movie was the cinematography: It almost looked like this Monte Walsh was filmed in Technicolor because the color in the outdoor scenes was very vivid and bright.  All in all, this 117 minute long remake is definitely worth seeing.

Original review in The New York Times

Info from IMDb 

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Monte Walsh (Original)

Review in ASJMovieWesterns blog
Monte Walsh is a sad, depressing film interspersed with a few flashes of humor.  It also includes an out-of-place opening theme song sung by Mama Cass and a jarring climax.  With Lee Marvin and Jack Palance starring, the acting is of course great.  Ted Gehring (Seth in Going, Going, Gone and Jorgensen in 10 Days That Shook Kid Curry) has a small comedic role in the first half of this 1970 movie and it is easy to see how he got the role of Seth as a result.  The movie is based on a book by Jack Shaeffer, who also wrote Shane.

The opening scene of two men riding along, whistling, reminded me of the opening of The Bounty Hunter, although in Monte Walsh they were in a forest, not the canyonlands of the Southwest, and are returning to town after spending the winter in a line shack.  Monte and Chet are partners and when they spot a wolf in the distance, they dismount and Monte prepares to take a shot.  But he hesitates and then launches into a monologue about someone he knew – this scene also reminded me somewhat of the beginning of The Fifth Victim and the banter when Heyes and Curry are tracking the mountain lion.

Then they arrive in town (called Harmony, in a stroke of ironic brilliance) and from there, things slowly and inexorably go downhill.  Monte wants to get a drink but the foreman of the ranch they work for wants to talk to them first.  Chet is all ears but Monte wants a drink.  Chet ultimately persuades him to hear the foreman out.  This is just the first of many times when things don’t go Monte’s way.  Turns out the ranch they work for was bought out by a big conglomerate.  The foreman offers them jobs but Monte isn’t sure he wants to work for a faceless company; Chet, however, persuades him it’s a good deal.  In Monte Walsh, Chet is the character who sees clearly that their way of life is ending.

Monte is in denial, though, and the reminder of Monte Walsh places him in situations designed to show how he is a relic who doesn’t fit into the new, more modern world around him.  A younger ranch hand boasts about his prowess at breaking horses – something Monte apparently was known for – and there is an on-going conflict between the two men as a result.  In between, Chet settles down and Monte continues his relationship with a prostitute (played by Jeanne Moreau!). 

But nothing ever turns out well for Monte.  Partway through Monte Walsh, the film takes a very dark turn that sends Monte on a vendetta.  The climax is sad and unexpected, made more so by the great music accompanying it, which is far better and more appropriate for the mood of the movie than the theme song.

Filmed partially at Mescal and Empire Ranch in Arizona, Monte Walsh is an existential 106-minute long movie that makes one wonder if the real cowboys of the 19th century knew they were becoming anachronisms.  I didn’t realize it until the end but the drawings in the opening credits sequence were by Charles M. Russell, adding yet another hint of the vanishing way of life Monte represented.

Original review in The New York Times

Overview summary in The New York Times

Info from IMDb

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Empire Ranch: Action! in Southern Arizona

The Empire Ranch is just the kind of place Heyes and Curry might have worked at when they couldn’t avoid ranch work.  Located in southern Arizona, about 30 miles from the Mexican border, Empire Ranch was founded in the 1860s on 160 acres as a homestead.  It’s pretty much in the middle of nowhere, which would have suited the ex-outlaws fine, although the small town of Sonoita is nearby.  At the present time, it’s still a working cattle ranch but a foundation administers the site, which is situated on Bureau of Land Management land.
View around Empire Ranch; Biscuit Mountain is in the center
On the first weekend on November, the Empire Ranch Foundation holds its annual “Round Up.”  There are talks about Western, Old West and cowboy life, presentations by and about the people who used to live and work at the ranch, demonstrations of horsemanship and shooting, cowboy entertainment and food, kids’ activities and, my favorite, sessions about the Westerns that were filmed on the ranch.
Entertainment area
You see, Empire Ranch was not just a working cattle ranch, it was also a movie set!  Actually, a few TV series also filmed there: Bonanza, Gunsmoke and The Young Riders.  Some of the movies that I’ve reviewed on this blog filmed scenes there, too, such as 3:10 to Yuma (the original), Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, Hombre, The Outlaw Josey Wales, and Winchester ’73, to name just a few.  More on this shortly.

Since this was my first time at Empire Ranch, I wanted to see as much as I could.  And even though I spent about five hours there (and another couple hours driving each way to and from, and passed through through Border Control checkpoints because it was so close to Mexico), I still missed out on a couple things.  I wanted to see the Dutch oven cooking demonstration but by the time I got there, they were packing up to leave.  And I completely forgot to get a cup of Arbuckles coffee inside the main ranch house--dang!
Back entrance to main part of the ranch house
But here’s what I did see and do:

There was a demonstration of roping cattle going on when I arrived.  This was in a small arena and a few men on horseback showed how to do it.

I watched for about 15 minutes and then moved on.  I could see why Heyes and Curry might get tired of looking after cattle for days on end.

I had a very interesting discussion with a rancher about cattle brands.  I learned that rustling is still a problem here!  I also learned that all Arizona-registered brands can be searched on the Arizona Department of Agriculture website and when someone wants to design a new brand, the state has to investigate and make sure it isn’t similar to one already in use.  It costs $75 to register a brand and the process takes a couple months.  And I learned that although fancy brands look nice, simpler ones are better because they are easier to see clearly and to make.  The rancher, Mr. Shock, had a table with various branding tools as well as other tools used for ranching.
Display of ranching tools
Another thing I learned from him is which particular tool ranchers prefer to use when castrating bulls.  But ‘nuff said on that!

Most of my time was spent learning about the movies that were filmed at Empire Ranch.  One talk was by two stuntmen, Rodd Wolff and Bunker De France.  This was fascinating!
Rodd Wolff on left, Bunker De France on right
They told stories about the movies they worked on and the actors and directors they worked with, including John Wayne, Paul Newman, and Jack Elam (Boot Coby in Bad Night in Big Butte).  They also discussed how some stunts were done and the safety measures they took to prevent injury.
Harness used when a stuntman had to fall off a horse
Another talk was by Marty Freese, who is the historian at Old Tucson Studios.  What a great job that must be!  He showed lobby cards of movies filmed at Empire Ranch, starting with the earliest movie, and discussed them in chronological order.  The landscape surrounding the ranch is not the same as Tucson because the elevation is around 5,000 feet; it looks more like high desert or prairie than the Sonoran desert with its cacti.  So movies could film at Old Tucson Studios and then go out to Empire Ranch and it would look very different.  But, just like at Old Tucson, there was a mountain called Biscuit Mountain (see the photograph at the top of this post) by the locals that often featured in the background of movies shot at Empire Ranch.

The third movie-related talk I attended was the one I was most eager to hear.  That’s because it was five men discussing the work they did on Westerns.  Rodd Wolff and Bunker De France participated as did Bob Shelton, along with Marty Freese who moderated.  The other participant was, drum roll please: Don Collier -- Mr. Tompkins in The Young Riders!
Don Collier
He was also in High Chaparral and mentioned that show’s upcoming convention next March in Tucson.  It was really cool to hear him discuss his career, although with four other people on the podium, he didn’t have all that much speaking time in the one hour slotted for this “Cowboy Conversation,” as these talks were called.

Mr. Collier didn’t talk about The Young Riders but afterwards, I went up and told him I was a fan (though I like ASJ more) and asked him about his time on the show.  He said he really enjoyed working with all those young actors, as he put it.  I also asked him what his favorite episode was and...can you guess?  It was the Season 2 episode called Pride and Prejudice; the one when Tompkins’ wife and daughter are “rescued” from the Indians who abducted them years ago.  That was one of my favorite episodes, too!

The last talk I heard was by John Larkin, an expert on the guns of the Old West.  He had a large collection of hand guns, rifles and shotguns and explained the history of many of them.  I saw a Winchester ’73, a Colt Peacemaker, a Schofield (Heyes’ weapon of choice: Wow!) and pistols used by Bill Hickok, though I’m not sure if they were authentic or replicas.
Mr. Larkin and maybe a Winchester '73
One thing Mr. Larkin said stood out for me: Gun belts of the sort that Heyes and Curry wore weren’t used in actual fact because it was awkward and too time-consuming to reach around and pull out a bullet from a belt like that, especially when doing it quickly.  Instead, men just kept their bullets loose in small leather pouches.

Time was running out so I walked quickly through the exhibit in the main house that told the story of Empire Ranch.  I spent a few minutes chatting with several writers who had tables set up inside to promote their books, all of which dealt with the West in one way or another.
Two of the several authors promoting their books about the West
Then I took a quick walk down to the beginning of the Heritage Discovery Trail, a scenic path that goes to, well, I'm not sure because I didn’t follow it.
Gate at start of Heritage Discovery Trail
By then it was getting late and I didn’t want to drive back along isolated roads by myself in the dark.  Like Curry and Heyes, I wanted a warm meal and a nice bed at the end of a long but very enjoyable day!

History of Empire Ranch:

List of movies filmed at Empire Ranch:

General information about Empire Ranch:

Information about the High Chaparral Reunion:


Monday, May 11, 2015

Convict Stage

With such a great title, Convict Stage should be a great movie.  Unfortunately, this 1965 black-and-white film does not live up its name.  It starts off with a stagecoach robbery that turns violent with the murder of the driver, shotgun messenger, and a young, female passenger.  The joking by the robbers, two young brothers named Jeb and Johnny Sims, shows their callousness.

Unfortunately for them, the young woman they gunned down was the sister of Ben Lattimore, a gunfighter married to a woman who doesn’t approve of guns, who is played by Harry Lauter.  Ben is the star of Convict Stage and the rest of the movie follows him as he attempts to exact justice for his sister.  His initial adversary and eventual ally is Marshal Jethro Karnin, played by Donald Barry.  Lattimore wants to just kill the Sims brothers but the marshal has a sworn duty to get them to trial so he is taking them by stage from Apache Wells to Prescott, a 24-hour journey.  One interesting point about Lattimore is his clothes: He wears a suit and regular shoes instead of cowboy duds.

Naturally, there are a few civilian passengers on the stage as well, since the stage company has a business to run.  Just like Stagecoach Seven, there are eight people riding the stage.  But this time, it’s the two women who ride up top—because it’s safer than being inside with the two murderers, even though they are handcuffed.  The man, a drummer, is forced to ride inside instead and he is none too happy about that, the mirror opposite of the TV episode.  Convict Stage introduced all these people rather quickly and it was at first confusing to keep them straight because not enough background information about them was given, but it became clearer as the movie went on.

Naturally, the stage encounters one problem after another.  Unbeknownst to the marshal, one of the women is actually the mother of the Sims brothers.  Played by Hanna Landy, she is the best part of Convict Stage.  Amoral and a crack shot in her own right, she apparently led her sons into a life of crime as the leader of a gang and is now dead set on rescuing them.

Faced with a bridge that was blown up and no way to cross a river, the stage heads instead to Calico, a ghost town they passed earlier, to hole up and prepare for the showdown Lattimore and the marshal know is coming.  The audience sees Ma Sims, who pretends to be a demure little old lady, playing the other people as she, too, prepares for the showdown by the other members of her gang.  She and the other woman, who turns out to be Lattimore’s wife although that isn’t known by the other people, cook a dinner of beans for everyone but before the older woman is allowed to bring the food to the prisoners, the marshal says she has to be searched, which reminded me of the scene in The Day They Hanged Kid Curry, when Penny (Belinda Montgomery) was asked to search the old woman played by Walter Brennan in drag.  As in the TV episode, the young lady in this movie missed the gun hidden in the stocking of the old lady, although unlike ASJ,  here it was an unintentional oversight.

The shootout at the end of Convict Stage was the best part of the movie.  It was well done and had enough uncertainty to keep me watching and wondering what would happen next.  I won’t give any spoilers but I will say I noticed a few similarities to the gunfighting scenes in Stagecoach Seven.

Throughout this movie, I kept thinking of 3:10 to Yuma.  The premise of Convict Stage was the same—get a shackled prisoner from one place to another for trial and face a series of obstacles along the way.  However, each of those versions is a much better film than this 71-minute movie.

One of the bonus features was interesting, though: Besides stills and lobby cards for the movie, and trailers for five other Westerns, there was also a “Pressbook Gallery” feature that contained newspaper articles about the film and the actors in it; the background information was informative.  Convict Stage was filmed entirely on location in Kanab, Utah, and the landscape definitely helped raise the movie up a notch.  As a B-movie, Convict Stage is just about acceptable but it certainly won’t be winning any awards from me.

Overview summary in The New York Times:

From IMDb:

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Mescal on TV

DVD cover
Alias Smith and Jones aired in the early 1970s and the show was filmed at Universal Studios in Los Angeles.  Part of the third season was filmed on location in Moab, Utah, which stood in for Wyoming.  (Which made me really want to visit Wyoming--imagine my surprise when I finally visited the state in 2011 and it turned out to look nothing like the Wyoming in the TV show!)  Fortunately, it is possible to visit both places and I did so in 2008 and 2010.  It was a thrill to see where the episodes were actually filmed and what the Universal sets and Moab really looked like.  Another location I recently had the opportunity to visit was Mescal, near Tucson, Arizona, which is part of Old Tucson Studios.

DVD cover
Beginning in 1974 and for the following nine seasons, Little House on the Prairie was broadcast on NBC.  Starring Michael Landon and Melissa Gilbert, it was based on the books by Laura Ingalls Wilder.  Although I really enjoyed the books, I was never a fan of the TV show.  When I visited Old Tucson Studios in 2010, I was interested to learn that it had been filmed there and I saw some of the sets that were used in the show.
Close-up of LH building
When I visited Mescal a few days ago, I learned that Little House had also filmed at that location.  Mr. Frank Brown, the caretaker who lives on site and gives guided tours of Mescal, pointed out a building that was alternately used as either the school or the town hall in the TV show.
Little House schoolhouse
Completely incongruously, this building is located right
next to the field that was the site of the shootout at the O.K. Corral in the movie Tombstone.  This building is not in the best condition but the sets at Old Tucson Studios have been better maintained. 

The main attraction of Mescal for me, however, was the fact that another TV Western was shot there.  For three years, from 1989 to 1992, Mescal was the main location of filming for The Young Riders. Airing on ABC, this show was a fictionalized account of the adventures
DVD cover
of Pony Express riders and it quickly became one of my favorite shows of that decade.  One of the stars was Anthony Zerbe who played Teaspoon, a former Texas Ranger, and perhaps one reason I liked the show so much was because he and I share the same birthday.  The rest of the main cast included several young actors, a couple of whom have become much more well known: Josh Brolin as James Butler Hickock, aka Wild Bill Hickock, and Stephen Baldwin as William F. Cody, aka Buffalo Bill.

Marshal's office
Set in Sweetwater, Nebraska, the first season cast also included Melissa Leo as Emma and Brett Cullen as Sam Cain, the town marshal.  Quite a few scenes occurred at the marshal’s office.  The building is about halfway down the main street of Mescal on the left, as you enter from the parking area.  A small building
YouTube shot of marshal's office
attached to it has a Post Office sign on it now but I don’t recall it being there in the show.  Other than that, the building hasn't really changed over the years.  Unfortunately, Sam and Emma were written out The Young Riders at the end of the first season.  Mr. Brown said Emma's house was not located right at the Mescal set, so that is why I don't have a photo of it.

Bunkhouse & Rachel's house
Bunkhouse close-up
Teaspoon and the riders lived some ways out of town at a waystation.  In the second season, Rachel took on the motherly role; she was played by Clare Wren.  Her house was in close proximity to the bunkhouse where the Pony Express riders stayed when they were “home.”  It was a thrill to see those buildings up close!  Both are located near the parking area on the left but are set a short distance away
from the main street.   The corral where the riders broke horses is falling apart but still visible behind the bunkhouse.

Rachel's house
Another view of TYR buildings
Back of bunkhouse
Mr. Brown said the first four-sided buildings at Mescal were built for The Young Riders.  Rachel’s house still had yellow paint on it and a faded picket fence around the front.  I was able to peer inside the windows of the house but it was empty.  Inside the bunkhouse, though, I could see a table and what appeared to be a fireplace set into a wall.  The windows were so dirty, however, that my photos did not come out well.  The side walls and especially the back exteriors of these buildings and, in fact, just about all the buildings at Mescal, were in poor condition; the wall boards were buckling and the porches were used for storage.  It's a shame the buildings aren't better maintained.

One place I didn’t have the chance to identify was Tompkins’ General Store.  William Tompkins was played by Don Collier, who was in The High Chaparral, which was also filmed at Old Tucson Studios and whose sets are in the same vicinity as those of Little House on the Prairie.  I definitely want to return to Mescal to find out which building was the mercantile in The Young Riders

Side view of marshal's office
Mescal is actually quite small; there is just one main street lined with buildings, a side street partway down from the main thoroughfare with one building at the end on the right, and then a small street paralleling the main street, where the Little House building can be found at the far end, and then Rachel’s house and the bunkhouse off to one side.

View of Mescal from TYR buildings
The towns depicted in The Young Riders look fairly large in size but that is due to the magic of cinematography and the camera angles used to film the action.  Watching episodes now on YouTube makes me wonder what Mescal looked like when The Young Riders was in production and the buildings were kept in excellent condition.  I had a hard time picturing all the hustle and bustle of Sweetwater—all the extras going about their daily business—when I was there.

Far end of the main street of Mescal
I suppose it is appropriate, though: The heyday of Westerns is long over and those movies have faded into memory, and even though some filming is still done there, Mescal is now more of a ghost town than an active movie set.  But maybe one day Mescal, and Westerns, will ride again.

Little House on the Prairie on IMDb:

The Young Riders on IMDb: