The Westerns of Budd Boetticher
Prompted by reader Barry’s comment on The Tall T, I thought it might be time to re-examine that series of seven Westerns that Randolph Scott and Budd Boetticher made between 1956 and 1960 for Warners and Columbia. They were superb, and a credit to the genre.
As an intro to that, though, maybe some musings on Boetticher, then Scott, would be in order. Today, Budd.
Oscar Boetticher Jr (/ˈbɛtɪkə/), known as Budd (1916 – 2001), did not direct great sweeping panoramic Westerns like John Ford or Howard Hawks, and he did not make complex psychological ones like Delmer Daves or Anthony Mann. Nor did he create fastest-gun-in-the-West action pictures like John Sturges or elegiac bloodbaths like Sam Peckinpah. But he made real Westerns nonetheless, and he was one of the greats.
Boetticher was born in Chicago, raised in Indiana and was a star athlete at Ohio State University. After college he traveled to Mexico where he became fascinated with bullfighting, and even tried out as a toreador, apprenticing himself in 1938 to Carlos Arruza, a star of the ring.
During the war he worked on propaganda films, under the name Oscar Boetticher, and afterwards he joined the Marines.
In 1951 he got his first big break when he wrote and directed The Bullfighter and the Lady (originally called Torero). The film won an Oscar nomination for writing. Boetticher told his story to Ray Nazarro when working as an assistant director to Ray at Columbia. Nazarro typed it up and sold the project to Dore Schary at MGM. Boetticher said the film got made because John Wayne liked the story. Duke "and John Ford cut 42 minutes out of" the movie "so that it would be less than 90 minutes, a ‘B’ picture. It took me forty years to get it back the way I wanted it. It was a helluva blow, I tell you."
Actually, it is said that it was Wayne (a drinking buddy apart from anything else) who gave Boetticher the nickname Budd, which stuck. Boetticher and Wayne had a kind of love/hate relationship. In old age Budd said that his later films had “taken Randolph Scott and shoved him up John Wayne’s ass,” not a pretty image, I must say, but we get the point.
Budd first rode the range, though, earlier than that, as assistant director (uncredited), on the set of the 1943 Randolph Scott/Glenn Ford picture The Desperadoes, directed by Charles Vidor for Columbia. How much input Boetticher had is difficult to say, but it’s a fun film. His first Westerns in the director’s chair were two forgettable black & white low-budget movies for Monogram, Black Midnight and The Wolf Hunters, in 1949. One thing, though: Black Midnight was Boetticher’s first use of Lone Pine locations. These were to become central to him.
But then, after Bullfighter, came a ‘proper’ Western, Universal’s Horizons West in 1952, the first of three he did for them that year. This was not a great film, it’s fair to say. It’s a pretty standard oater about three Confederate soldiers returning to Texas after the war, brothers Robert Ryan and Rock Hudson, and ranch foreman James Arness. Hudson and Arness get right back into ranch life but Major Ryan can’t settle down and goes on to build an empire by rustling, corrupting judges and so forth. But it had good actors (especially Ryan) and definitely had its moments.
Later in the year he directed Audie Murphy in The Cimarron Kid, a Bill Doolin story. Yes, it’s a bit on the obvious side; some of these Audie Westerns were. But some excellent character actors were used for the lesser parts: James Best, Noah Beery Jr. and Hugh O’Brian, among others. These were to become regulars. And like all Audie Westerns it’s nicely photographed, by Charles P Boyle this time, who had worked on She Wore a Yellow Ribbon with Winton Hoch, so must have learned a thing or two. These two 1952 Westerns were not great art but they were perfectly satisfactory oaters, and maybe a bit better than that.
The same year Boetticher directed a semi-Western rodeo picture, Universal’s Bronco Buster, in which tyro John Lund is trained up by old hand Chill Wills. It’s essentially the plot of The Lusty Men, directed over at RKO by Nicholas Ray the same year, which is a superior picture - indeed, close to a masterpiece. Boetticher’s suffers by the comparison, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad film.
In ’53 Universal had him direct Rock Hudson again (Hugh O’Brian and James Best were once more in the cast) in the ‘Indian’ film Seminole. It was also Boetticher’s first use of Lee Marvin, as the sergeant. Something similar had been attempted in ’51 with Distant Drums. That picture had Gary Cooper starring and was directed by Raoul Walsh. Wow. Despite that, it wasn’t very good (typical early-50s Warners stodge) and this time Boetticher’s film gained by the comparison. There are weaknesses: Barbara Hale is pretty hopeless as Miss Muldoon, the trader in a low-cut blouse (a rather typical Boetticher female lead, it must be said). She paddles her own canoe across a sound stage interior, and documentary footage of exotic alligators and colorful birds is unconvincingly intercut with these scenes. The mad major (Richard Carlson) leads his men deeper into the swamp, and this part goes on too long: the picture bogs down as much as he does. It’s the 1830s although of course they have 1870s pistols. But still, it’s watchable, certainly no worse than many early-50s Westerns and in some ways better. Rock was pretty good at Westerns, in fact. And it had quite a ‘liberal’ agenda: the Indians are the good guys, mistreated.
Two more oaters followed for Universal and now Boetticher was beginning to get into his stride. The first was the very good The Man from the Alamo, again starring Glenn Ford (with Chill and O’Brian, natch). It was written by DD Beauchamp the Great from a Niven Busch story, so that helped. Victor Jory is the bad guy and that certainly helped. Neville Brand henched. It wasn’t specifically an Alamo story, more the tale of a defender who was sent out of the Alamo to carry word to the defenders’ families but is then branded a coward. I like this movie.
Hard on its hoofprints came Wings of the Hawk, a Mexican revolution picture in 3D (all the rage in ’53) with Van Heflin as the obligatory gringo south of the border. Budd didn’t get to go to his beloved Mexico to shoot it, though. It was done on the Universal backlot and up in the Simi Hills, Cal. I quite like this one too, and it has Noah Beery Jr again, very good as the revolutionary Pascual Orozco (it’s not a Pancho Villa picture for once).
Budd Boetticher was beginning to establish himself as, if not a leading director of Westerns, certainly a more than competent one. It was the end of his Universal contract, though, and Westernwise we’d have to wait for the start of the great cycle for which he is mostly known among us Westernistas, the wonderful Randolph Scott Westerns 1956 – 60.
Parallel to his big-screen Westerns Boetticher also worked on TV shows. Most notably he directed the first three episodes of the great Maverick series, War of the Silver Kings, (based on CB Glasscock's The War of the Copper Kings, which relates the real-life adventures of copper mine speculator F Augustus Heinze), Point Blank, in which a waitress gets Bret out of jail to work as a spotter in a casino, and According to Hoyle, in which a southern belle cleans Bret out at poker. Boetticher mastered the dry humor of the shows with aplomb.
Later, he did five episodes of Zane Grey Theatre, 1960 – 61, directing James Coburn, Lloyd Bridges, Claude Akins, Michael Pate, and Jack Elam, and one episode of the superior show The Rifleman in 1961, Stopover.
Boetticher was very good at the small-screen Western.
Boetticher and Scott
But the late-50s features with Randy were the best thing Boetticher ever did. There were seven directed by Budd: Seven Men from Now (1956) – Boetticher’s own favorite, which French film critic André Bazin said was one of the best films he had ever seen , The Tall T (1957), Decision at Sundown (1957), Buchanan Rides Alone (1958), Westbound (1959), Ride Lonesome (1959), and Comanche Station (1960). They all starred Randolph Scott, and he had never been better either (only in Ride the High Country for Peckinpah would he be as fine).
The very best ones, the core of Boetticher’s work, were those for Columbia that were shot at Lone Pine and brought together the team of Boetticher, Scott, writer Burt Kennedy (about whom we were talking the other day: click the link for that), cinematographer Charles Lawton Jr and producer Harry Joe Brown. They were The Tall T, Ride Lonesome and Comanche Station. These three are, I suppose, ‘B-Westerns’, according to some definitions (I tend to avoid that term), but they are absolutely superb and real landmarks in the history of the genre.
The seven were a coherent body of work. They had the same star (though a different bad guy every time, each one a splendid role), the same director with a deep understanding of the genre, and in the case of the three at the heart of the oeuvre, the same pithy writer with a witty sense of irony, the same magnificent photographer (3:10 to Yuma alone would have marked Lawton out as a master), and, key, the same Lone Pine locations. They had similar plots – hero Randy on a revenge mission, basically – and they even shared certain lines of dialogue. They were all terse, laconic and spare.
They did differ somewhat in tone, though. Seven Men is steely, The Tall T grim, Ride Lonesome perhaps a little more optimistic, Decision at Sundown sour and dark, Buchanan more light-hearted, Westbound (probably the least of them) more conventional, and Comanche exciting.
They are actually models of conciseness. The seven pictures have runtimes of 78, 78, 77, 73, 72 and 73 minutes. Elvis Mitchell in The New York Times wrote that they had “a tidy simplicity and brevity.” He added, “They liked to work fast, and their economy has a ruthless righteousness. And as they prove in Seven Men from Now, conciseness has its value – it’s a thrill to watch a filmmaking team that knew exactly what they wanted.”
Critic Nick Pinkerton has written, “Working sometimes with 13-day shoots, [Boetticher] turned out unhurried films reflecting a serene confidence in what went where and why. His best westerns are films that travel light, conserve their energy and their resources, don’t waste a word or gesture or a set-up. They aren’t great because of evident ambition or mythic dimension, but because of their ability to distill, condense, encapsulate.”
The pinnacle of Boetticher's career
If you are in California it is definitely worth a trip to the Alabama Hills near Lone Pine, just to the east of the Inyo National Forest, about four hours’ drive from LA. The town has, these days, a population of around 2000. It’s no metropolis. But the surrounding area is (and has been since the early silent days) the ideal location for shooting Westerns. So many have been filmed there. There are no roads across; you can only go through on horseback. And Boetticher and his cinematographers, especially Lawton, were in their element there. You could set up a camera, turn it a full 360° and get a different view from each quarter. Rivers, meadows, and above all rocks, rugged enough to match even Randolph Scott’s face, everything you need to set a Western there.
Ride Lonesome and Buchanan Rides Alone are such key titles because cowboys are generally lonesome and Randolph Scott in particular, and because the horse is key to these oaters, as to all Westerns. Boetticher loved horses (an early job had been as wrangler on Of Mice and Men in 1939). Watch the way in Comanche Station that Scott enters on horseback right to left, with Mount Whitney in the background, and at the end of the movie symmetrically rides away in the same setting, left to right. Boetticher at his best. In his essay A Time and a Place: Budd Boetticher and the Western, Mike Dibb makes the point that though the term ‘horse opera’ is often used pejoratively, it is in fact apt, for it puts the horse at the center of the genre and emphasizes the pleasantly familiar stylized forms of action, character, speech, violence and, not least, music, which Westerns share with opera.
The bad guys are superb. Randolph Scott was a supremely generous actor who was ready to stand back and let other players shine. A sort of opposite of Steve McQueen, if you like. No camera-hogging or scene stealing: he let his co-stars have center stage. And the bad guys were written as sort of anti-Scotts, with some of the hero’s qualities – and faults. They are often charming and roguish. Randy always seems to have known the characters from the past. Lee Marvin in Seven Men from Now, Richard Boone (my favorite) in The Tall T, Pernell Roberts in Ride Lonesome, and the others (there’s a trio of badman brothers in Buchanan), they were villains, yes, but with saving graces. Hero Scott’s stony stoicism contrasts wonderfully with the charismatic loquacity of the villains. Excellent casting, direction and acting.
Boetticher had little interest in the true history of the West, nor, really, in Western communities. He wanted lone riders righting wrongs. Everyone is a loner, in fact. Scott’s character is just the loneliest.
Writer on Westerns Jim Kitses, whose own book, Horizons West, is named after a Boetticher Western, says that if this cycle has a message, it’s “Everybody loses.”
Boetticher said, “The characters are more important to me than the ideas, because it's through the mind and the sayings and the actions of the characters that the ideas are born. I'm not concerned with what people stand for, I'm concerned with what they do about it.”
His women were classic 50s stereotypes and usually buxom blondes, with cleavage. That’s the way Boetticher was. Karen Steele was a favorite (some accounts say she was Mrs Boetticher for a time, though the IMDb bio of her says, “In 1973, Steele married Dr. Maurice Boyd Ruland, a psychiatrist at the Mohave Mental Health Clinic. The couple resided in Golden Valley, Arizona. They remained together until her death in 1988.”) Boetticher’s were really very male films. The hero usually gets the gal once the villain has killed off her previous (and dubious) suitor.
It is quite illuminating to consider Budd’s own favorite Westerns, which he gave in a late interview. Top was The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, then came Red River (Burt Kennedy would have agreed with that one), then The Wild Bunch. He put his own Seven Men from Now at No 4, above High Noon, so that showed a bit of chutzpah, then Shane and Rio Bravo. Fascinating, don’t you think?
The end of the affair
Then Boetticher abandoned the oater and turned to his long-time dream, a documentary about Arruza, the matador. Turning down Hollywood offers (which they never forgave), he drove in his Rolls-Royce to Mexico with his glamorous new bride, Debra Paget, to begin shooting. But it was not to be. The project nearly bankrupted him. His marriage collapsed after three weeks. Arruza and several members of the film crew were killed in a car crash. Boetticher suffered a nervous breakdown, was jailed for a week and spent another week in a mental hospital. His Hollywood career collapsed. He entered the wilderness as far as film-making is concerned and never again made anything remotely as good as the seven Randolph Scott pictures.
In 1969 he made a kind-of comeback. He wrote and directed A Time for Dying, notable as Audie Murphy’s last Western (Audie has a cameo as Jesse James, again; of course he was Jesse in his first Western too, in 1950). It’s an unsatisfactory film and not at all a Budd Boetticher Western in the proper sense.
In 1970 he co-wrote with the excellent Albert Maltz of Broken Arrow fame Two Mules for Sister Sara, a Clint Eastwood project directed by Don Siegel. There was talk that Budd might have directed it, but that didn’t happen. Personally, I think it’s one of my least favorite Clint pictures, but there we go. It’s a Mexican revolution tale again, and at least this time it was shot in Mexico, so Budd would have liked that.
A Time for Dying and Two Mules were Boetticher’s last essays in the holy genre of Western. But don’t think of him like that. Nor, really, for his earlier Universal pictures or the TV shows he did. Concentrate on those seven Westerns he did with Randolph Scott, especially the Columbia ones. They are magnificent, and they establish Budd Boetticher as one of the greats of our beloved horse operas.
Boetticher summed up the western formula as: ''A man has a job to do, or a couple of men. They try to do it against tremendous odds. They do it.'' That’s pretty succinct.
Martin Scorsese remarked of Boetticher, ''His style was as simple as his impassive heroes - deceptively simple.''
At age 84, reflecting on a life of making films about tough guys in tough situations, Budd said, ''I hate macho, even though that's what I was all my life.'' He devoted his last years to raising thoroughbred horses. He died in California in November 2001, just a few months after his great friend Burt Kennedy, whom he had visited in Burt’s last days.