The Westerns of Anthony Quinn
The mighty Quinn
The Mexican-American actor Anthony Quinn was a great, larger-than-life Rabelaisian figure who tended to dominate the screen, even when in smaller parts. For much of his career, he found that he landed ‘ethnic’ character roles more easily than classic Hollywood leads, his dark looks and strong face winning him casting as Arabs, Italians, Greeks, American Indians - even occasionally Mexicans. He also had a tough-guy quality about him that made him attractive to casting directors of Westerns, and in fact one of his very first big-screen outings was in The Plainsman in 1936.
That’s quite an amusing story. Jeffrey Meyers, in his biography of Gary Cooper (Coop led the cast of The Plainsman as Wild Bill Hickok) tells how Quinn, then 20, responded to the casting call for a Cheyenne, claiming that he was of that people and spoke the language. It was nonsense, of course, and in fact in the part he just talks gobbledygook, but it convinced director Cecil B DeMille – eventually, for Cooper had to plead for Quinn during the screen test. During the filming, Quinn rode his luck a bit by pretending that red men and white men made fire in different ways and that the fire made by Hickok couldn’t possibly pass for a Cheyenne one. DeMille, who had an undeserved reputation for authenticity, duly changed the fire.
Quinn got a small part in the Western-ish Under Strange Flags the following year, a Pancho Villa story set in 1914 Mexico, and in fact his father claimed to have ridden with Villa. But the role was only ‘Rebel soldier, uncredited’ and anyway it wasn’t a true Western.
His next ‘proper’ Western was back at Paramount with DeMille, when in Union Pacific he got a nice little part as the evil top-hatted gambler Cordray, a Frenchman, immediately memorable in the tiny role. In 1940 the studio put him in a lower-budget 68-minute second feature black & white Western, Texas Rangers Ride Again, as Indian Joe Yuma.
After that, it was back to war-paint when he became Crazy Horse in Warner’s rollicking Raoul Walsh-directed 7th Cavalry picture They Died With their Boots On, with Errol Flynn as Custer. But he was sixth-billed, fourth after Flynn and De Havilland, so he was going up in the world.
In 1943 he was promoted another place when he was fourth in the cast list of William A Wellman’s dark anti-lynching Western The Ox-Bow Incident. It was a fine movie, with Henry Fonda splendid in the lead and Quinn really powerful as one of the three men to be hanged by the lynch mob (along with Dana Andrews and John Ford’s brother Francis). Unlike The Plainsman, Union Pacific and They Died With their Boots On, The Ox-Bow Incident was a commercial flop – Fox knew it would be and only agreed to make it if Fonda and Wellman would do more commercial vehicles afterwards. Still, it was critical success and Quinn’s star was in the ascendant.
It was back to the war-bonnet though for his next Western, also with Wellman, when he became ‘Chief Yellow Hand’ in Fox’s William Cody biopic (or whitewash) Buffalo Bill (1944), with Joel McCrea in the title role. Quinn’s was a reasonably big part, though, because he was the principal American Indian opponent of the great scout.
He may have been getting a bit tired of such casting but next, in 1947, he was grandee Don Luís Rivera y Hernandez in Paramount’s pot-boiler California, with a rather unconvincing Ray Milland in the lead. It’s a disappointment as a movie and for Quinn fans because he doesn’t appear till 53 minute in and then has a too-small part (he’s good, though).
Finally, however, he landed a really serious role in an excellent picture. In 1952 he was cast as Eufemio Zapata, brother to Emilio (Marlon Brando) in the Elia Kazan-directed Viva Zapata! Third-billed, after Brando and Jean Peters, he was magnificent – in fact he came near to stealing the show. Unlike Brando (who lost out for Best Actor to Gary Cooper for High Noon), Quinn was Oscar-nominated for it, one of four nominations he was to receive, two of which he won. Back in the 40s in New York, Quinn had taken over from Brando as Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire on Broadway (and very well he did it too) and he had come under the sway of Kazan. As Eufemio he is passionate and charismatic. It’s a remarkable and, as so often, memorable performance.
He was back with Cooper the following year in Warners’ Blowing Wild, but it was a semi-Western at best, a South American oil-rig yarn. But he did two ‘more Western’ Westerns in ’53, Seminole, released in March and Ride, Vaquero! in November.
Seminole was a Howard Christie production for Universal directed by Budd Boetticher, though well below the quality standard of the late-50s Boetticher Westerns with Randolph Scott. Quinn was the Seminole chief Osceola, in an unusually accurate and colorful costume. Osceola, Asi-yahola in Creek, his mother’s tongue, 1804 – 1838, was an extremely interesting character. He led a small group of warriors during the Second Seminole War, from 1835, when the United States tried to remove the Seminole from their lands in Florida to Indian Territory west of the Mississippi River. Of course the movie version is pretty well hooey historically but still Quinn does a good job as a noble statesmanlike chief.
Ride, Vaquero! was very different. It was a big Ansocolor MGM picture starring Metro’s big stars Robert Taylor and Ava Gardner. More of a torrid romance than an out-and-out Western, at the centre of it there is a curious love triangle, or even, in some ways, a quadrilateral. Howard Keel loves Ava Gardner. They are rich ranchers in Texas just after the Civil War. Robert Taylor, over-made up and in dudish black costume and gunbelt (Rudolph Valentino meets Tom Mix), arrives on the scene and falls for Ava. But there’s a daring (for the time) hint that Taylor and fourth-billed Mexican bandit Quinn are romantically involved, so jealousy is everywhere. Quinn is Quinnishly flamboyant. There would be more implied homosexual goings-on in 1959. Of course Quinn was one of the least ‘gay’ men you could imagine, but he was a fine actor.
Finally, in 1956, after a very well received Paul Gaugin in Lust for Life, Kirk Douglas’s Van Gogh biopic, Quinn got to lead in a picture of his own, a Western to boot, and with as co-star the superb fellow-Mexican Katy Jurado (also often consigned to ‘ethnic’ parts). It was United Artists’ Man from Del Rio. Though a ‘smaller’ Western, directed by non-stellar Harry Horner, more of a production designer really, it was nevertheless very good indeed, made into something special by Quinn and Jurado. Quinn is scruffy down-on-his-luck gunfighter Robles, and it starts with a cliché: he shoots ‘the fastest gun alive’ in a duel on the saloon steps and no one bats an eyelid, except to congratulate him. But very soon the movie develops into a far more interesting affair with complex characters and themes as he is hired to clean up the town but is then ostracized by the hypocritical townsfolk. Jurado has a great line about using a snake to kill rats but then you are left with a deadly snake. Quinn's Robles is gauche, inexperienced, almost puzzled, yet very powerful and very effective. He thinks that as sheriff, in his new clothes, he will be respected by the townsfolk. He is soon disabused. Frozen out of the community dance, he ends up on the street with the town drunk and then tipsily dancing with himself. It’s a moving moment. The Quinn/Jurado relationship is handled with great skill. They are the only Mexicans in the white town of Mesa (supposed to be a Dodge/Ellsworth kind of cattle town) and the snobbish treatment of Robles has racial undertones too.
The following year he got another Western lead part, in another ‘minor’ but underrated picture, the Robert Aldrich-produced The Ride Back. At first glance just a 79-minute black & white program filler, this movie is actually taut, gripping, and extremely well acted, photographed and directed (by Allen Miner, with some scenes by Aldrich’s friend, second unit director Oscar Rudolph). Co-star William Conrad, not a natural Westerner, is very good as the portly, sweaty deputy, reluctant, apprehensive, then downright afraid but nevertheless determined to arrest Quinn in Mexico and bring him back to the States. It emerges that he considers himself a failure in life; he has achieved nothing and his wife hates him. It makes us understand that courage is not the absence of fear. It is being afraid and doing it anyway. Quinn’s character, on the other hand, is charismatic, roguish, wily, handsome and brave. His hellcat-ish woman (Lita Milan) adores him. He loves children. Conrad envies Quinn, who is everything Conrad is not. Yet slowly a mutual respect builds. Quinn is astonishingly powerful in a part that asked to be hammed up yet which he underplays with control and discipline.
Two big Westerns came up in 1959. In January, Paramount released Last Train from Gun Hill. John Sturges had reassembled much of his crew and some of the cast of his very successful Gunfight at the OK Corral, and shot a tense Western with Kirk Douglas (Doc Holliday before) now as a sheriff determined to bring back for trial a young man who raped and murdered his Indian wife, but the ne’er-do-well concerned happens to be the son of Kirk’s old friend, rancher Quinn, who pretty well owns the town of Gun Hill and the whole valley besides, and he has no intention of letting the boy go. Once again, Quinn’s performance is excellent, and he is a worthy foe for Douglas.
In April Fox released Warlock, a film version of the Oakley Hall novel, starring Henry Fonda (so he and Quinn were reunited after Ox-Bow) as Clay Blaisedell, an Earpish clean-up-the-town marshal and Quinn as his Doc Holliday-ish sidekick. There were faint echoes of Del Rio here. Quinn played the gunman/gambler/saloon owner Tom Morgan with a leg-brace (he is a ‘cripple’) and there is a faint undercurrent of homoeroticism in the story, for it is clear that Morgan and Blaisedell are partners in every sense. Morgan’s fury when Clay dallies with a girl (Dolores Michaels) and announces his engagement to her is clearly inspired by raging jealousy. Very fine acting once again.
Now Quinn was distracted by other-genre performances like his Stavros in The Guns of Navarone, his sheikh in Lawrence of Arabia and of course his Zorba. However, in 1960 did George Cukor's comedy Heller in Pink Tights with Sophia Loren. Perhaps more of a showbiz tale than a Western per se, it was nevertheless a fine film, highly entertaining, and Quinn was marvelous as the acting troupe's boss and lover of Loren. Click the link to read more; we reviewed it the other day.
In a way, though, Quinn ended on a high with Heller. There were a few indifferent Western sorties to come but nothing really good. Guns for San Sebastian (1968), original title La Bataille de San Sebastian, was a French/Mexican picture (released by MGM in the US) set in 1743, too early to be a 'proper' oater. Two years later he was an American Indian again, Flapping Eagle, in a present-day tale of the plight of reservation people in Flap (1970), and he did a late spaghetti with Franco Nero, shot in Spain, Los Amigos, in 1973. It was rather a disappointing tailing-off of a fine Western CV.
Never mind. Anthony Quinn did enough Westerns, and enough very good Westerns, to rank up there with some of the great Western actors. He always filled the screen in the ones he did and your eye was automatically drawn to him, even if the main star was on set too. He was always entertaining in these pictures, and I would put his performances in Viva Zapata!, Warlock, Man from Del Rio and The Ride Back in the very top rank.