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The Land That Time Forgot (1975)
The Ram that Tom Forgot
The Land that Time Forgot is a likeably goofy and well-directed B movie with a few oddities to keep you watching despite uneven production. I recorded its 92 minutes off the MGM cable channel in 2012, nearly 4 decades after seeing it in the mid-1970s in Piedmont North Carolina at the Graham Theater, which stayed open long after most downtown theaters had fallen to mall-plexes but remained limited to movies of this middling character. I talked some family and friends into going with me. Seeing the title on the way in my little sister announced she thought we had been going to see "The Ram that Tom Forgot."
A different title wouldn't make much difference for this film's reception, but no one gave me a hard time even though I probably liked it more than anyone. Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote excellent action sequences, and the initial capture of the submarine by a rowboat is well-imagined and wellexecuted. As other reviewers point out, the film's direction is fast-paced. The talky parts are helped by a good cast7 or 8 years earlier John McEnery had played an electric Mercutio in Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet; Susan Penhaligon was both babely and convincing as a femme paleontologist; Doug McClure was born for two-fisted roles; and the remaining cast took acting seriously like good Brits do. The submarine scenes were all convincing enough, especially the exterior shots of the sub entering the Land that Time Forgot via an underground river. Every reviewer justifiably gripes about the puppet-dinosaurs and the board-stiff pterodactyls, but the very first dinosaur shown, the water-dwelling diplodocus hashing on aquatic vegetation, is the best special effect of the whole movie, perhaps because water provided cover for the dino-puppet's manipulations.
The science fiction theme, however preposterous, worked for me. Odds are that half the folks reading this note think humans appeared by divine magic in the fairly recent past, but a great gift of being born in the past century or so is that humans can begin to understand evolution, which like God is a mystery to be learned one's whole life through. As I recall, Burroughs's variation on evolution was that, in the Land that Time Forgot, every organism makes a complete evolution from micro-organism to higher mammal, in contrast to normal evolution through a species' genetic variation across generations. When that likable native is captured early in the movie, for instance, he seems to be approximately Cro-Magnon, but by the end of the film he looks and talks (and fights) as homo sapiensa cool counter-factual thought experiment leading us closer to knowing how things really work, enlivened by action sequences and fair-enough acting on the way.
Gunsight Ridge (1957)
Late B&W B Western
Other posters are right to mention this film's formal qualitiesstrong acting, excellent b/w cinematography, and poignant touches like the villain's piano interludes and Carolyn Craig as the farm girlalong with the film's historical status as a late specimen of the B western film when television was chock-a-block with shoot-em-ups.
This transitional historical moment gives Heartbreak Ridge a hybrid quality, as it combines the movie western's intensity and depth of character with the TV western's bare staging. The script itself could hardly offer less to work with, with the back-stories for the hero and villain being provided only by Joel McCrea's Irish affectations and Mark Stevens's 2 or 3 lines about having the talent to play the piano but not the money or leisure. "Gunsight Ridge" is a good title, but if like me you wait in westerns for at least some allusion to explain a title, for this one you have to wait until someone casually mentions a border obstruction that will provide the setting for the final showdown.
The western in any medium is always fairly minimalistthe more I've watched, the more words seem only pauses in action, landscape, and music. Given such plain fare, skill matters more than brilliance: for instance, Joel McCrea could ride a horse, and the cinematographer knew how to capture his skill. Cameo bonus: the groom in the quirky border town marriage is the late Jody McCrea, who would play the comic Bonehead in early 60s surfing-beach movies with Annette and Frankie.
Man with the Gun (1955)
B+ Western begging for an A-
This B+ western deserves a better grade just for exceeding its production values. The town's set is little better than that for TV westerns like Lawman, and the script works mostly by saying as little as possible, forcing the cinematography and direction to show rather than tell. The familiar stock character actors (including some familiar faces like Emile Meyer who rise to their extended screen-time) all support Mitchum, whose pained charisma and cobra-quick violence are essential to the film's success.
Other reviewers are right that the basic plot is formulaic, but a few variations maintained interest. Meyer's daughter's gradual infatuation with Mitchum is never directly acknowledged by either character (only by townspeople), but the audience sees her putting herself in his company or staring after him or him sometimes looking back. The villain's spy who watches Mitchum from the hotel porch is obviously up to something, but the viewer is cleverly sealed off from the scenes that expose his plot.
Two parts of the script instill suspense and dread that are honest to the story's ambiguous outcome. Twice the town doctor warns that a cure like that Mitchum is offering the town may be worse than the town's disease. Mitchum's character warns of no formulaic redemption when he repeatedly asserts that he's nothing but a gunman and only guns can tame a towncontrasting ominously with formula western heroes who proclaim they don't want to fight, that they're really peace-loving men. One other oddity at the end was Mitchum's taking a bullet so the younger man engaged to Meyer's daughter can prove his manhood. Mitchum's wound seems close to the heart; his and the doctor's initial conversation sounds fatal; and Mitchum reclines in profile like a fallen classical hero. Maybe the studio insisted on a proper romantic ending, though, for then Mitchum and his long-lost wife talk as though he'll hang up his guns and they'll start over, climaxing in a kiss at "The End." B movies like this count as precious jewels and fascinating records of mid-20c culture.
The Kansan (1943)
Robust Western with good small production values
Any film with Richard Dix is worth a chance not only because he's a likable and powerful figure but he seemed to bounce around the edges of the studio system so that his films vary standard formulas in unpredictable ways. The Kansan's saloon sets are excellent, for instance, and the crowds well directed--other posts mention the remarkably modern dance number (with perspectival backdrops) and the extended brawl with well-choreographed sequences and character highlights. Outdoor cinematography at the toll-bridge across which several incidents of the plot transpire featured impressive depth and angle.
A big stable of acting talent also raises this film's quality, but I'll let other posters provide those kudos.
My only difference with other posters is their near-blanket condemnation of the Bones character played by the terrific William Best. Certainly most of the film's racial dynamics are regrettably stereotypical, but Dix and Best interact as two smart guys recognizing each other. The film's single best moment for me was when the Jory character enters Best's servant quarters at the Sager Hotel. When Jory walks in, the Bones character is READING, which suggests that not just Willie Best but his character knows that Bones's minstrel persona is an act. Further, when Jory leaves the room, the door swings shut to reveal a portrait of Lincoln.
A Day of Fury (1956)
Tightly-paced, high-pressure, not quite formulaic western
A well-turned screenplay, efficient editing, good small-scale production values, and tense directing make A Day of Fury much better than most Westerns.
Dale Robertson is a better actor than his reputation, but all 3 leads are limited in range. The best role and performance are the Preacher by John Dehner, who helps any film in which he appears. Most Westerns present ministers either as comic-cowardly milquetoasts or as unrealistic studs who give up their guns for the good book. When changes unsettle the town, Day of Fury's Preacher is the first to lose his temper and threaten violence, but then he's embarrassed by his own failing and horrified that his parishioners turn into a lynch mob.
The plot plays an interesting variation on the classic Western formula of the Old Wild West struggling to survive in or against the Cleaned-Up Bourgeois Town. The taciturnity of Robertson's Jigade fairly inverts the man-of-few-words Sheriff typically played by Joel McCrea or Randolph Scott into a Mephistophelean villain who quietly but steadily chips and shatters the thin veneer of civilization until the townsfolk break down into drunken irresponsibility, foolish greed, and vengeful terror. Jagade's opportunistic power compromises the town's Sheriff, played by the physically imposing Jock Mahoney, whose taciturnity can only dwindle to mute puzzlement until the wild card in Jagade's deck--the punk gunman Billy Brant--changes the game and creates a clear path of action for the law.
The sets are few, but the director keeps moving the characters across each other in well-defined space. The film's most impressive quality is to open with an atmosphere of uncertainty that steadily escalates into tension or dread. But its most interesting feature is that the anti-hero Jagade seems to have orchestrated the story as a suicide note.
Bite the Bullet (1975)
Fair-spirited 70s Western a little in over its head
Much to admire in Bite the Bullet, but the plot, setting, and editing are so ungainly as to undermine the overall cinematic experience.
What's right about the film shouldn't be underestimated. Like a lot of 70s films, Bite the Bullet has a conscience. The representations of that conscience may make you wince, but the story treats its characters justly and insightfully. The Hackman character's recurrent decency to animals and humans creates a counter-narrative to all their suffering that bears good fruit as the story develops. The actors are all-star and well-cast--Hackman is in his prime, Coburn is best as a supporting actor, Ian Bannen was among 20c England's most likable talents, Candice Bergen looks like she looks, J-M Vincent shows good movement and range, and Ben Johnson gracefully reprises the old-timer from The Last Picture Show. The dialog and cinematography are often fine enough that individual scenes feel ravishing.
Despite all these good vibes, the scenario's too big even for cinema. So many characters, stunt doubles, changes of landscape, and minutes strain attention. In the final plot-turn the soundtrack painfully echoes comedies like The Great Race while the actors go hammy. Suddenly one sees the undisciplined, indulgent, undiscriminating side of the decade. The finish-line scene appropriately comments on the race's inevitable exhaustion, but I had to fight to keep my finger off the fast-forward. Anyone not so devoted might wonder why they spent quite so much time watching or how a director might expect anyone to care about so many many people for so long.
The Outriders (1950)
Routine-to-Classic Western with great acting, color, texture
The Outriders fulfills its genre with minimal expense but maximal outcome. Only a few brief frames appear spectacular, and many of the pleasures are among the overlooked qualities of the mid-20c Western: laconic dialog, complex plotting, psychological challenges, friendships and honor tested. The budget and production values are always restrained, but the strength of the studio system shows in excellent lighting and color plus a number of realistic outdoor scenes blending finely with studio effects. Other reviewers noted the convincing mattes of Santa Fe, but I felt almost intoxicated by the deep blue sky-backdrop to the camping scene that turns from a comic riot to a dance of love.
The other virtue of the studio system is the stable of professional actors who perform their roles not to steal scenes but in service of the plot. Joel McCrea may excel even Randolph Scott in saying the most with the least words while never ever lying--the Western-hero actors of their generation internalized completely the cowboy as a latter-day knight, and the alchemy of script and star is fascinating. Arlene Dahl may be even more economical with her speech than McCrea. In the central dance scene she speaks not a word until a critical moment, then agrees to dance with McCrea only if he bows to put fresh shoes on her feet. The scene is all about sex, but the actors, the script, the direction, and the genre completely control the sexuality's expression.
In the supporting ranks James Whitmore, not yet 30, is convincing as an old-coot warrior-sidekick with kidney trouble, while Ramon Navarro--a former sex symbol entering his 50s--plays a Mexican padrone who's still got chops. Barry Sullivan and Jeff Corey remain menacing even when they're acting cooperative. Claude Jarman, Jr. is always worth watching but the director or editor seemed to forget he was in the movie.
I couldn't stop watching, but the less-enthusiastic reviewers have a point. The film fulfills its genre so professionally that it never falls below a certain level. But those same qualities make its most beautiful moments somewhat understated, like something even better might once have been imagined but for now they need to finish a movie.
Vengeance Valley (1951)
Well-plotted, well-acted western w/ great scenery
I didn't read many westerns growing up, but more devoted readers of the genre spoke well of writer Luke Short, on whose novel this film is based (screenplay by Irving Ravetch). Another reviewer points out that Short was a city boy who didn't know the west, but the movie is full of cattle ranching and driving lore (more than the otherwise superior Red River).
Above all the story has an impressively complicated plot--lots of moving pieces, with a large cast of characters variously related. A nice surprise was the voice-over narration by a somewhat marginal character who is nonetheless present at many crucial scenes. Add an outstanding cast: Burt's always a convincing action stalwart; Robert Walker plays just the kind of attractive weasel that people fool themselves into believing; John Ireland brings an air of implacable menace to the heavy; Joanne Dru and Sally Forrest make you want them to be on screen more often.
The limits of the film's running time squeeze the women out from fuller development especially at the end, but their issues drive the plot with surprisingly adult themes: Dru's character raises questions about what the Old West did about divorce, and Forrest's character Lily finds a way to raise her illegitimate child even while her no-good brothers make trouble.
The direction of the cattle drives against spectacular outdoor scenery and some good riding scenes are the film's best testimony for director Richard Thorpe. Otherwise the direction seems by-the-book, and the story concludes in a gun showdown that violates what we've learned of the characters involved. Other reviewers are correct that MGM's bland production values prevail. But within those limits, the various parts of the plot worked together well, and the excellent acting added depth and urgency.
War Drums (1957)
minor but good-hearted multicultural western
If you don't expect more than a small-time western from the 1950s can deliver, War Drums proves a pleasant and honest but minor genre and period piece with three strong actors in the leads, some specific historical contexts (though as BKLoganbing notes, inaccurate Apache history), and a reasonably adventurous approach to gender and ethnicity.
The action concerning white encroachment on Apache lands in Nevada territory takes place simultaneously with the start of the Civil War. Cowboy-lead Luke Fargo, played by the ever-likable Ben Johnson, compares American Indian reservations to African American slavery and to the traffic in Mexican women among Indians and Americanos. When Fargo's friend, Apache Chief Mangas (a.k.a. Red Sleeves, played by former Tarzan beefcake Lex Barker), attacks illegal American mining camps in 1861, he shares headlines with the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter. By the end of the movie Fargo is a major in the Grand Army of the Republic.
Most impressive and interesting is Joan Taylor (a regular in 50s-60s westerns and sci-fi) as Riva, whose mixed blood leads to gender innovations. She first appears as a captive servant (and maybe more) of Mexican banditos. When Mangas raids the Mexican camp, Riva impresses him with her fighting spirit, and soon Fargo too falls for the fiery-sweet woman, who is referred to alternately as Mexicano and Americano. (She later reveals her father was Americano and her mother full-blood Comanche.) Mangas violates Apache custom by announcing she will be his wife. Her refusal to fill the Apache woman's role of building and caring for Mangas's wickiup leads to the movie's most intriguing narrative turn. She rides with him as a warrior and huntersuch scenes are minimal, but Taylor rides well. (Brian Camp's review elsewhere on this page offers more appreciative detail.) Also pleasing are the various ways Fargo, Mangas, and Riva arrange showdowns to end in peace or at least truce. Director Reginald Le Borg skillfully uses a limited number of extras to suggest larger populations. The movie has plenty of action, color, and a seriously good heart.
Ring of Fire (1961)
Ring of Fire smolders, then burns
The few times this movie emerges from the tube, the listings rate it with 1 or 2 stars, but when I saw it in 1961 (in NC, aged 9 or 10) I remembered liking the movie and being confused only by not hearing Johnny Cash sing the theme song. David Janssen, the lead, earned his fame as an impressively intense, underspoken, and charismatic TV actor. The overall look of Ring of Fire resembles TV of the time when it filmed outside the studios. Except for the concluding spectacle of the fire, low production values prevail. Yet within said limits the direction is adept, well-paced, building anxiety and suspense while at the same time creating some reasonably complex characterizations and relations. The intimate scale of most of the scenes along with amateur actors and extras plus real outdoor sets and grainy footage combine for a compelling reality effect. Not a great movie, but redeeming evidence that serious professionals can make a rewarding film from unpromising parts.