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Cinema: Handling the Stock

3 minute read

“When in doubt,” Director John Ford (Stagecoach) once dryly counseled an aspiring young moviemaker, “make a western.” Since Hollywood has always been filled with doubt, the screen for half a century has been filled with skies that podnuhs reach fer, dust that another Indian bites, ranches that folks are meanwhile back at, and any number of ’ems that get cut off at the pass. In short, the West has produced almost as many clichés as cattle, and the quality of a western depends largely on how well the director handles the stock.

The Plainsman is a saddle-brained shoot-’em-up that borrows its title and most of its plot from Cecil B. DeMille’s 1936 sagebrush saga that starred Gary Cooper and Jean Arthur. The present version seems innocently certain that trite makes right. The innocence has a certain charm, but the same can hardly be said of the clichés: the noble old Indian chief (“Cheyenne not want war!”), the nasty young brave (“Kill! Kill!”), the snotty regimental C.O. (“I’ll give those filthy Indians a taste of cold steel!”), the cowardly villain (“Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot!”) who cheats at cards and secretly sells repeating rifles to the hostiles.

The limpest clichés, however, are the leading characters. Wild Bill Hickok (Don Murray) is presented as just one more bashful boob who would sooner face hot lead than cool lips. “Hit’s easier to swim up Niagry Falls,” he whines, “than hit is to understand a woman.” Calamity Jane (Abby Dalton) comes off as a stereotype tomboy who looks like Doris Day wearing saddlebags but sounds like Martha Raye without a mute. “Beeeeyullllll,” she squeeee-yulllllls, “yore huh-urrrrrt!”

Matter of fact, there’s just one original touch in the entire picture. Calamity Jane, who died in 1903, appears in what every woman will recognize as a mighty cute Carnaby Street bob.

Texas Across the River, on the contrary, shoots its cliches straight from the hep. The main characters are prairie prototypes, comically mugged. The hero (Dean Martin) is the bunkhouse bum: tall in the saddle, low in the brow, pronounces cow in three syllables, thinks “ideals” is what a man says when he picks up a deck of cards. The heroine (Rosemary Forsyth) is Pioneer Womanhood: wears what looks like gingham by Givenchy, stands behind eyelashes a prairie owl could roost on, pronounces cow in four syllables, passes for a lady in a country where census takers count feet and divide by four.

Director Michael Gordon (Pillow Talk) has even more fun with the studio Indians, who under their Redman-Tan look suspiciously as if they belonged to one of the Lost Tribes of Israel. They’re a sad lot. They handle their fire arrows so clumsily that their own chief goes up in flames. They speak in such grotesquely broken English that on various occasions Director Gordon helpfully supplies subtitles in pictograph:

Sure, Cat Ballon was funnier. But these days, a customer is lucky to find brass in them thar hills.

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