The Westerns of Burt Kennedy
“Burt Kennedy writes Broadway in Arizona.” (John Wayne)
Burt Kennedy (1922 - 2001), pictured below, was certainly a major figure in our beloved genre. He was involved in one way or another (writer, director, producer) in 50 Westerns, 28 of them feature films, and the rest TV episodes of different shows or TV movies. Ernest Borgnine said he was “the best damn Western director going”. Kirk Douglas called him “a very talented director”. Jack Elam said, “Burt is Numero Uno.” Harry Morgan: “Burt does what others try to do.” Walter Brennan: “I like working with this kid - he’s sharp!” Plaudits indeed.
Kennedy wrote an entertaining, light-hearted memoir, Hollywood Trail Boss, in 1997 which is largely a sequence of anecdotes but which does give insight into his work and into Hollywood Westerns in general. Jack Elam wrote the foreword.
It’s perhaps rather unkind but I feel that Kennedy might have quoted Sterling Hayden, who said he started at the top and worked his way down. Burt’s Western debut was stunningly good – writing the best of those Budd Boetticher/Randolph Scott oaters in the late 50s. But he came ever so slightly late to the Western, and most of his work was in the 60s and beyond – hardly the apogee of the genre – and then he worked a lot in TV. His first big-screen Western as director was Fox’s The Canadians in 1961, with Robert Ryan, a movie which Kennedy himself described as “a disaster” – and which is the subject of tomorrow’s review.
There followed what we might call a mixed bag, really quite well done oaters like those Clint Walker ones, Fort Dobbs and Yellowstone Kelly, and Westerns as good as The Rounders, yes, but many weak ones too - pictures like The Good Guys and the Bad Guys and Dirty Dingus Magee, which weren’t at all good, I fear (actually, the latter was awful). In the 1970s and 80s it was mostly TV movies, and again pictures like Where the Hell’s That Gold? and Once Upon a Texas Train really weren’t very wonderful. Kid on the stage As a child Burt had been part of his parents’ act The Dancing Kennedys. “I used to sing and tell jokes.” After the war (in which he was a decorated officer in the cavalry, which he said he had joined after seeing They Died With Their Boots On) he spent two years at the Pasadena Playhouse, unsuccessfully. He wrote radio shows to earn a crust, while living at the YMCA. He had been given a ‘lucky’ silver dollar with the same date as his birth, 1922, and had kept it till then but he spent it to see Red River, “one of the best westerns ever made”, and he was finally down to one dime.
He occasionally did some work as a movie extra. He used his cavalry fencing skills to sword-fight in the 1948 version of The Three Musketeers. You gotta eat. A break at last A break finally came when he was hired by Wayne-Fellows to write thirteen screenplays. He started by sitting down and writing Seven Men from Now. Kennedy said John Wayne didn’t even read it, and the script was put in a storage closet in the coffee room. Burt was loaned out to Fox and turned to writing Gun the Man Down, with James Arness, the first picture directed by Andrew McLaglen. It was OK.
Now, when Robert Mitchum’s people showed an interest in Seven Men from Now, still gathering dust at Wayne-Fellows, Duke’s interest was suddenly reawakened. If Bob Mitchum wanted it, he wanted it too. He had a ten-picture deal with Warners and still had two movies to go. Jack Warner loved it, and wanted Wayne to do it, but Duke was busy on The Searchers with John Ford. They offered it to Joel McCrea but he didn’t want to do it, then to Robert Preston, who didn’t even read it, “Then they gave it to Randy Scott.” Wayne, McCrea and Preston probably kicked themselves ever after, because it was absolutely superb.
Budd Boetticher director, Randolph Scott lead, Lee Marvin bad guy, John Wayne producer, Burt Kennedy writer, William Clothier cinematographer – what a team!
Next Burt got Wayne to buy an Elmore Leonard story, The Captives, and turned it into The Tall T (1957) and that was followed by Harry Joe Brown productions Ride Lonesome (1959) and Comanche Station (1960). These late Westerns of Scott were among his very finest work, and Boetticher’s direction, especially his use of the Lone Pine locations, was magnificent. But it was really the scripts that made these movies. They were pared down, gritty, taut and really powerful. Kennedy said of the pictures, “They were made for very little money – I mean really little money – but they were well received, and have a cult following here and in Europe. They’re good pictures. Randy was very good, and Budd did a great job.”
Kennedy was right there. A couple of oaters for Clint (the other Clint) Burt moved to Warners where he wrote Fort Dobbs (1958) and Yellowstone Kelly (1959) for Clint Walker. I actually like these movies and think them rather good Westerns. Gordon Douglas, about whom we were waffling the other day (click the link for that) directed both and while he could do some ho-hum stuff, on a good day (and these were very good days) he could put out a cracking oater.
Burt also wrote The Whip but that has never been produced. Not sure if it was a Western. TV After The Canadians was poorly received (justifiably: it’s a real clunker) Kennedy did some more TV, writing four episodes of what he calls The Lawman (actually Lawman), a superior series with John Russell, and one of The Virginian. Burt’s quite droll about Russell. He says that the actor was so used to not getting parts that he never had more than a couple of nickels to his name, and even when he was being quite well paid for Lawman he would bring his own lunch in a packet, which he would eat on the set. He was like Glenn Ford, Burt says; he would fling his money about like a man with no arms.
Not mentioned Burt is listed as ‘production assistant’ on John Wayne’s The Alamo in 1960 but he was uncredited, and he does not mention it in his memoir. I’m not sure what he would have done as ‘production assistant’.
Nor does he talk about writing Six Black Horses, which was made with Audie Murphy and Dan Duryea in 1962, at Universal. It was to have been another in the Budd Boetticher/Randolph Scott series, but that never happened, and in the end Harry Keller directed it, his last Western. Audie uses the line “There are things a man can’t ride around”, a Kennedy version of ‘a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do’ which he put in Ride Lonesome. The whole picture has a definite Boetticher/Kennedy vibe: few characters, desert terrain, searching for someone, beset by danger, glam blonde.
And he only mentions in passing Mail Order Bride, a comedy Western he wrote and directed at MGM in 1963 (it came out in ’64). It made money.
He does say that in 1964 he wrote A Distant Trumpet, a cavalry Western which was to star Laurence Harvey, Col. Travis in The Alamo, and two other famous Brit actors, Jack Hawkins and Alec Guinness. “There were big plans for it [at Warners]; it was going to be directed by Jack Clayton [a British director famous for The Innocents]. As it turned out, it was made as a very cheap picture. Raoul Walsh directed it, and, to me, it was a big disappointment, because the original book by Paul Horgan was dynamite.” Burt was right: it was a very disappointing picture, Walsh’s last Western and pretty weak. The Rounders Kennedy’s next major achievement was The Rounders, in 1965, which he both wrote and directed at Metro. This is a delightful light Western, a favorite of aficionados, in which Henry Fonda (Howdy) and Glenn Ford (Ben) shine as two down-on-their-luck, none too bright cowboys who always end up working for sharp rancher Chill Wills. Ben says, “It comes to me that we ain’t the smartest cowboys ever lived” and Howdy replies, “You could say that.” It’s amusingly written and directed with a deft touch. “It didn’t make heck of a lot of money but it was a good picture,” says Burt. It was.
Burt wrote the pilot for an ABC TV version of The Rounders, with Pat Wayne as Howdy and Ron Hayes as Ben, and Chill Wills back in his part, but not the subsequent episodes of its only season. Yul’s back After that (I’m leaving out the non-Westerns that he made the mistake of doing) he directed (but did not write) the first sequel of The Magnificent Seven, which he calls The Return of the Seven but was actually titled Return of the Seven, later re-released as Return of the Magnificent Seven, in 1966. Brynner was back as Chris but he was the only one. Robert Fuller took Steve McQueen’s part of Vin and other new mercenaries appeared, such as Claude Akins and Warren Oates.
“It was all right. We didn’t have much of a budget or any big-name actors except Yul Brynner, but it was all right.” He’s correct there: it’s not very good but it is perhaps the best of the sequels (at least until the 2016 one; maybe even then). Kennedy spoke very highly of Elmer Bernstein’s music. “Without that score, we’d have been in trouble.” Quite. Fonda again “I came back [Return was shot in Spain] and did Welcome to Hard Times, from the EL Doctorow book, with Henry Fonda.” Burt calls this picture “a dark, dreary kind of thing” and Bosley Crowther in The New York Times said, “Burt Kennedy, who wrote the screenplay and directed, taxes credulity”. It wasn’t a smash hit. Crowther added, “Hard Times is the name of the hamlet, in case you haven't guessed. It is also the name of what this picture gives the audience.” Ouch. Brian Garfield said, “Marvelous cast is wasted in this boring dud. It’s molasses-slow.” I actually don’t think it’s as bad as all that.
Also released in ’67 was another Return, this time Return of the Gunfighter with Robert Taylor, a fine Western actor, on which Kennedy gets a credit as co-writer, and the following year he was credited as co-writer on the (unfortunate) Elvis comedy Western Stay Away Joe, but once again he doesn’t mention either of these pictures (both at Metro) in his memoir and I don’t know the story here. Box-office hits Successes followed. In 1967 Kennedy directed Universal’s The War Wagon, his first big-budget picture, which paired John Wayne with Kirk Douglas, and was written by Clair Huffaker. For me, it’s mid-60s commercial Batjac picture without a huge amount to recommend it, though not a dud either. The film is really a Western caper movie. There’s a semi-comic saloon fight like one million others. Wayne said it was his 500th. He counted? But the picture does have its moments. It certainly sold well. Burt was wary of Wayne. “I knew better than to argue with Duke.” He added, “Wayne was a stickler at work. He was fine if he realized you knew what you were doing. But if you weren't prepared, or fluffed anything, and fortunately I never did, well, then you could be in trouble. He was tough, but then so am I!” Burt also wrote, “He never got easier to direct. He was always tough. I remember, after The War Wagon, he went to make The Green Berets. People asked me, ‘Are you going to direct The Green Berets?’ And I said, ‘I’d rather join the Green Berets.”
Of Douglas, Burt said, “the people who are good are the ones that can be difficult.”
Support Your Local Sheriff in 1969 was an even bigger success. The casting was brilliant. James Garner had established a character and a style through years of Maverick on TV and he brings the same self-effacing humor and grit to this movie. Harry Morgan was a comic genius. Then the choice of Walter Brennan to reprise and gently mock the ‘Old Man Clanton’ type role he had played so often was inspired. He plays it straight and is hilarious. Great Western badman Bruce Dern is also outstanding as Brennan’s dumb no-good son. Best of all was the talent that Jack Elam discovered for comedy.
The 1971 sequel Support Your Local Gunfighter was also very popular. Comedy Westerns are hard to get right but they work best when they are written by someone who deeply knows and loves the “straight’ Western. Kennedy was such a one. Ho-hum Two Westerns in 1969 that Kennedy did weren’t quite so marvelous, Young Billy Young, with Robert Walker Jr. in the title part and Robert Mitchum as an Earpish lawman, which Burt both directed and wrote, and The Good Guys and the Bad Guys, again with Mitchum, thus time paired with George Kennedy, which Burt directed but did not write. Mitchum was tired of Westerns (these were his seventeenth and eighteenth in twenty-six years), he was aging and not so outrageous or hip any more - the scandalous dope-smoking habits of his past were now commonplace - and on the set of The Good Guys he was complaining. “How in hell did I get into this picture anyway?” Throughout it, he just looks glum. Young Billy Young was the better of the two. It had been destined for Wayne but he let it go to Mitchum. Kennedy wrote in his diary for September 7, 1969, “My agent called to tell me we got a bad review on Young Billy Young. Didn’t surprise me inasmuch as it’s a bad picture.”
Dirty Dingus Magee in 1970, again at Metro, was another comedy Western, a Frank Sinatra vehicle, again with George Kennedy backing up, and Jack Elam as a burlesque John Wesley Hardin. Sinatra said, "Burt has the best sense of humor in Hollywood” but you wouldn’t know it from this one. It was dire (as Sinatra Westerns so often were). Let me quote you Garfield on it: “It’s a lame-brained misfire, a true landmark for chroniclers of horrible movies.” Oh well, they can’t all be great.
“Hannie Caulder is a western I did after [Support Your Local] Gunfighter, which a lot of people hate and a lot of people love. We made it for a million dollars in forty days – and it was pretty good. It comes on television every once in a while.” Hannie Caulder (Paramount, 1971), shot in Spain, has become a kind of cult movie – probably undeservedly in my view. Kennedy directed but didn’t write it. It starred Raquel Welch and Robert Culp, actors perhaps not at the very top of the casting choices when it comes to oaters. Burt wrote, “Along with Ernest Borgnine and Strother Martin, [Jack Elam] played one of a trio of murderous brothers. Together they stole the movie right out from under Raquel Welch and Robert Culp.” It’s a straight revenge Western – we’ve seen that plot a thousand times – but with the added twist that the trainee gunslinger who wants vengeance is female. Ms. Welch does quite a good job, in fact, playing it in a restrained and low-key way which works. Some critics have been unkind about Welch’s thespian talents, and it is true you do get the feeling she is there because of other endowments she possessed – the fact that Burt has her mooch about the rancho in a poncho but nothing else rather suggests that.
Also shot in Spain and released in ’71 was The Deserter, aka The Devil’s Backbone, a Dino De Laurentiis production released in the States by Paramount, on which Kennedy shared directing credit with (then) Yugoslavian Niksa Fulgosi, and which starred fellow Yugoslav Bekim Fehmiu, a sort of Euro-Chuck Norris. In his diary, Burt wrote, “Two actors [he doesn’t name them] had a fight. One went to the hospital. This is the worst crew I’ve ever worked with. The cameraman is trying to win an Academy Award. The picture is rotten so far.” Later, he wrote, “A horse fell off a bridge. He lived – a miracle. The first one on this picture. I think we need another one – when it opens.” He was right. It was pretty bad.
Kennedy said that at this point “the sun began to set on the western, and I turned to television,” although I can’t find a record of any TV show he was involved in between 1971 and 1974. He seems to have worked little. He wrote, “During the early seventies, I had many things which didn’t work out.” He got prostate cancer at this time and spent a lot of time with doctors.
But he’d be back to the Western, and a big-budget, big-screen Western at that, in 1973 when he wrote and directed Wayne again in Warners’ The Train Robbers. Kennedy wrote in his diary, “Directing a John Wayne picture is like riding a runaway horse with one rein. If you pull too hard the horse falls, and if you let go, you fall off.”
It was shot once again in Mexico. It really wasn’t all that good, and in my view it was the least of the longish series of big action Westerns that Wayne made in the early 70s. There was Technicolor Panavision photography by William Clothier and it had a good cast which included Rod Taylor and Ben Johnson, but the end-result was disappointing.
It starts very well: we are in a ratty train halt that looks like a run-down Hadleyville. Once Upon a Time in the West-like, we have no music, only Ben Johnson waitin’ on a train to the accompaniment of squeaks from the wind pump and wind-blown dust. It must be said that while Leone overdid it by miles, this take is pale in comparison. Amusing, however, how Leone quotes old Westerns in his Italian fashion and then Burt Kennedy quotes spaghettis right back at them.
But much of the movie is taken up with the party going from Texas to Mexico and therefore moving from right to left on the screen (all Westerns with cowboys going to Mexico did this: see The Professionals or The Magnificent Seven, as examples). And then in the second half they go back to Texas and so ride from left to right. The action is limited to a gunfight in Mexico and a bit of dynamite throwing, and a rather good blaze at the end. No one actually robs a train (though the gang rides off to do that at the end). There’s a trick ending. A bit of a yawn, really. Then it was TV all through the rest of the 70s and the 80s The following year, 1974, Burt directed but did not write a TV movie, Shootout in a One Dog Town, screened by ABC in January. It starred Richard Crenna as a banker, supported by his wife Stephanie Powers, who guards $200,000 lusted after by Richard Egan and his thugs. Jack Elam is the sheriff and Gene Evans, Michael Anderson Jr. and Dub Taylor also appear. This needs to be released on DVD. NOW, please!
The same year Burt both produced (with James Garner) and directed a TV pilot, Sidekicks, starring pre-Dallas Larry Hagman and Lou Gossett as two con men after the Civil War who cook up a scheme to try to collect the fifteen thousand dollar reward offered for the capture of an outlaw, but the show remained unsold.
There were no more Westerns for Burt until in 1977 he directed three episodes of TV’s How the West Was Won with Jim Arness. He wrote in his diary, “We did it up at Kanab, Utah. It turned out to be very good. As a matter of fact, it probably got one of the highest ratings of any miniseries. … So anyway, that show was very successful, and it kind of put me back in business."
Seven TV movie Westerns followed, in the rest of the 70s and through the 1980s.
In 1978 there was another comedy Western TV movie, Kate Bliss and the Ticker Tape Kid, first screened in May on ABC, about a turn-of-the-century lady investigator (Suzanne Pleshette) who goes to the Wild West to capture a gang of outlaws led by a charming Robin Hood criminal of the plains (Don Meredith), who leads a band of dispossessed ranchers against a stuffy English land baron who has cheated them out of their property.
In 1979 and 1980 Kennedy directed two TV movies, The Wild Wild West Revisited and More Wild Wild West, with Robert Conrad and Ross Martin reprising their roles. He doesn’t talk about them in his book.
In 1986 Burt made Louis L’Amour’s Down the Long Hills, with Bruce Boxleitner (from How the West Was Won). He wrote that he had filmed Robert Ludlum’s The Rhineman Exchange but Ludlum thought it so bad that he left the country for its release. But “I got a break with a script that I did of a Louis L’Amour book: he died before the picture came out.”
In 1987 Kennedy got to do his own Alamo. The Alamo: Thirteen Days to Glory was screened by NBC in January. At 140 minutes it followed the tradition of overlong Alamo pictures. James Arness was Jim Bowie, Brian Keith was Davy Crockett and Alec Baldwin was Col. Travis. Lorne Greene, in his final appearance, was Sam Houston. Most of these actors were long in the tooth to be playing the younger characters, but never mind. The final charge consists mostly of footage from Republic's 1955 The Last Command.
Once Upon a Texas Train and Where the Hell’s That Gold?!!? for CBS in 1988 were TV Western movies led by Willie Nelson. Now while Valhalla certainly reserves a place of honor for Willie as a singer, I honestly don’t think he’ll be warmly welcomed there as the greatest actor that ever lived. Still, his Westerns had a certain je ne sais quoi, even if most people ne savent quoi either.
He was backed by an aging Richard Widmark in the first one and, yes, Jack Elam in the second. Neither movie will ever set the prairie on fire but they are both harmless enough in a moderately amusing way. Two features to finish with All my generation were taken with Big Bad John when Jimmy Dean released it in 1961. We sang it endlessly at school. In 1990 Burt directed a movie which enlarged the song into a full-length movie, and a feature film to boot. A young couple elopes to escape the girl's evil stepfather. Jimmy himself starred in it and, yup, Jack Elam was Jake Calhoun.
And in 2000, now in his late seventies, Burt directed his last Western, Comanche, about the only survivor of Custer’s defeat at Little Big Horn, the horse Comanche. The human cast was headed by that excellent Western actor Wilford Brimley along with Kris Kristofferson. It has been accorded that dread adjective heart-warming, the kiss of death for a movie IMHO. Still, it brought the number of Westerns Burt Kennedy had been involved in, in one capacity or another, to a nice round fifty. No small achievement. He died the year after Comanche was released.
We have to say that Kennedy specialized in the comedy Western, a genre notoriously difficult to get right, and that by and large he did get it right. I think it’s because Westerns which gently mock are acceptable from those who truly love the oater and know it deeply. That was Burt. He was also that rara avis, a genuinely funny man. But he could do ‘proper’ Westerns too. Budd Boetticher called him "the best Western writer ever" and he may not have been wrong.