The Westerns of Burt Lancaster
A real talent for the genre
As well as being a very ‘physical’ actor, and a versatile one who was not afraid to genre-hop, Burt Lancaster was also highly talented dramatically. From Here to Eternity, Elmer Gantry and Atlantic City were indisputable proof of that and especially (for me) his Prince Don Fabrizio Salina in Visconti’s Il Gattopardo. He was four times nominated for Best Actor, one of which got him the Oscar. Maybe at times he hovered on the brink of overacting, or he certainly gave roles his all anyway. Although he could do straight tough-guy very well, he was probably best as the smiling rogue, and these traits were especially in evidence in his Westerns.
His first, after a dozen pictures since 1945 in other genres, was MGM’s filming of an excellent Luke Short tale, Vengeance Valley, in 1951. It was not a huge A-picture but it was very well done and Lancaster excelled as the straight and tough adopted son of the rancher (Ray Collins) who is worthier to inherit than is the wastrel real son (Robert Walker). The Short story was adapted for the screen by Irving Ravetch, later writer of Hud and The Cowboys, and directed by unstellar but competent Richard Thorpe. There is nice Colorado scenery (round Cañon City, where many of the early silent Westerns were filmed) photographed by George J Folsey. Burt carries off the decent, hard but kindly Westerner very well, and stands for no nonsense when one of the bad guys points a gun at him. He says, “You’ve scared me twice tonight. Next time you point a gun at me, shoot.” And you kinda know they won’t - or if they do, they’ll regret it. Vengeance Valley is perhaps a ‘minor’ Western but it was a very good start for Lancaster.
There was no quick Western follow-up but after his enormously successful Freudian romp in the surf with Deborah Kerr in From Here to Eternity (1953) Lancaster returned to the Western with two in 1954, both for Robert Aldrich: Apache, released in June, and Vera Cruz, December. Aldrich is not everyone’s idea of the greatest director of Western movies, and would do, for example, the toe-curlingly awful ‘comedy’ oater The Frisco Kid, one of the worst Westerns I have ever seen, but his best three were all with Lancaster.
In partnership with Harold Hecht, in 1952 Lancaster had, with The Crimson Pirate, started producing, as well as starring, and he was in fact a very good producer, not choosing mere vanity projects by any means; he had a shrewd eye for a script. These two Aldrich Westerns were his next forays as producer, not perhaps the best choices to produce, but a start, and they did well at the box-office.
Apache had unlikely casting, with blue-eyed Burt as Massai, the American Indian hero, in the movie made from the 1936 novel Broncho Apache by Paul Wellman, adapted now for the screen by James Webb. The film is not the best Western ever, far from it, and it was also damaged by an inappropriate tacked-on happy ending, but it was decently pro-Indian, and at least an American Indian character is center-stage. Lancaster was athletic and tough as the hard-done-by but resilient and resourceful Apache. Still, both he and his co-star Jean Peters were clearly over-made-up white actors and neither truly convinced. The New York Times called it “incredibly slow and dull”. A bit harsh, that, for the picture has its moments, and it contrasts admirably the authentic life of the Apache with the corruption of pervasive white ‘civilization’. It got Lancaster plaudits anyway.
Vera Cruz was a much bigger picture, shot down in Mexico in the summer of ’54, and has many admirers, though I am not one, particularly. As producer, Lancaster was everywhere, giving orders right, left and center, revising the script on the go, busying himself with every aspect of the picture, dictating camera angles and generally making life annoying for director Aldrich and even for co-star Gary Cooper, by then the elder statesman of the Western genre, who was wryly amused by Burt explaining to him in detail how to act. The two are American adventurers in Maximilian’s Mexico, Coop miscast as a cynical gun for hire. Lancaster did certainly fall over the edge into overacting in this one, too often leaping about and flashing that toothy grin, like a smug crocodile on its way home from the orthodontist, but he did later have the good grace to admit that Coop’s deadpan style was superior. Burt said that though “he acted his ass off”, he understood that in the finished movie Cooper ended by upstaging him. Bosley Crowther in The New York Times wrote, “The presence of both Gary Cooper and Burt Lancaster is a waste of potential manpower. Nothing that either is called to do in this big, noisy, badly photographed hodgepodge of outdoor melodrama is worthy of their skill.” He added that it was “a pretty atrocious film, loaded with meaningless violence and standard horse opera clichés.” Myself, I find that Vera Cruz is at bottom a rather nasty film. Everyone is evil, everyone is corrupt, no one is decent, and certain scenes, such as the attempted rape of Sara Montiel’s character by that of Charles Bronson, are deeply unpleasant. The whole thing leaves a sour taste in the mouth. But it was successful at the box-office, grossing big amounts (except in Mexico, where it was hated). Budgeted at an estimated one-and-a-quarter million dollars, it grossed nine million, so Lancaster as producer was doubtless pleased, despite the critical reception.
The following year Lancaster wanted to have a crack at directing too, probably having caught the bug on the set of Vera Cruz, and he chose a Western, or a proto-Western anyway, as the vehicle. The Kentuckian, released by United Artists as a big-budget affair in Technicolor and CinemaScope, was not liked by the critics (with some justification) and Lancaster didn’t direct another picture for nearly twenty years (The Midnight Man in 1974). Bosley Crowther in The New York Times wrote, “Obviously the script that A. B. Guthrie Jr. prepared from Felix Holt's adventure novel, ‘The Gabriel Horn’, was sprawling and overwritten, full of robust American backwoods lore and muscular, sentimental romance wrapped around standard characters. But this is no excuse for Mr. Lancaster as the director, rather than as the star, letting the whole thing run wild in mood and tempo, with no sense of dramatic focus or control.” And Crowther wasn’t the only one. But it isn’t too bad, I think: a solid, rather than a fine movie. You could watch it to while away an agreeable hundred minutes (it should probably have been cut by a reel, though). It does have a sort of Little House on the Prairie vibe, not a terribly good thing in my book. It’s a sort of ‘family Western’, I fear. Still, it’s sincere, and it does have some charm. It certainly wasn’t the commercial hit Vera Cruz had been, but I suppose you can’t win them all.
A Westernless two years followed while Burt produced the likes of Trapeze, allowing him to showcase his circus acrobat talents, before John Sturges summoned him to be Wyatt Earp to Kirk Douglas’s Doc Holliday in Paramount’s Hal Wallis production of Gunfight at the OK Corral. This was not only an even bigger hit than Vera Cruz, it became one of the most successful Westerns of all time. It wasn’t the best Western of all time, but it was certainly very good, with Lancaster, Douglas and Sturges at the top of their game. By the late 50s, with Hugh O’Brian enormously popular on TV, establishing the mythic Wyatt Earp in the American (and world) psyche, the Earp of legend had long eclipsed the shady character of fact. Wyatt was now the archetypal clean-up-the-town marshal (though in historical reality he was never marshal of anywhere, certainly not Dodge or Tombstone), the very model of a quick-on-the-draw tough lawman dealing brusquely (but fairly) with ne’er-do-wells. Who better to play him than Burt Lancaster? This time Burt eschewed the flamboyant smiling-rogue approach in favor of the stern, serious and square-jawed gunman grimly determined to bring justice to the frontier. The movie attempted to do a whole biography of Earp and was probably too long as a result (it would have been better just to concentrate on Tombstone) but it’s still a terrific Western, and a lot of the reason for that is down to Kirk and Burt.
There followed, in 1960, what was, to date, Burt Lancaster’s finest Western. The Unforgiven, once again produced by Lancaster and Hecht, directed by the great John Huston and released by United Artists, is a mighty film. Like The Searchers four years before, it was made from an Alan Le May novel. Don Siegel’s Flaming Star, released later the same year, would have a plot in some ways similar to that of The Unforgiven (not of course to be confused with Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven) and they both dealt with an American Indian brought up by whites – in the case of the Siegel picture an excellent Elvis Presley and in Huston’s, Audrey Hepburn. Lancaster, really strong in the part, played the paterfamilias, which at his then age (46) he could now do. Though he is in fact the eldest brother, he is still the father-figure and it is he who guides and directs the family. He dominates the picture through sheer force of acting. However, others in the cast were also superb: Lilian Gish is brilliant as the aging mother who raised the Kiowa foundling, Doug McLure winning as Andy, the often-puzzled youngest son, Charles Bickford fine (as he usually was) as Rawlins, the Indian-hating neighbor, and Joseph Wiseman outstanding as the almost ghostly apparition in shabby Confederate uniform (it’s set in the Texas Panhandle in the late 1860s). I also enjoyed John Saxon (how well he rode) as Johnny Portugal, but the stand-out, for me, even better than Burt, was Audie Murphy as the conflicted brother Cash, torn between his visceral hatred for Indians and his love for his adopted sister. It was the best thing Murphy ever did in the Western domain, and Huston seemed to have the ability to draw out the very best of him. There’s also masterful Panavision photography and a magnificent Dimitri Tiomkin score. Huston wasn’t satisfied with the picture and pooh-poohed it afterwards, and it won no awards, but it is in fact splendid, in no small measure because of Burt Lancaster.
There was a lustrum’s pause then, before in 1965 we got Lancaster’s seventh oater, for me without doubt his very worst. Comedy Westerns can be highly entertaining, like Blazing Saddles (1974). They can even on occasion, such as when Buster Keaton falls in love with a cow in Go West (1925) or Laurel and Hardy dance a soft-shoe shuffle in front of the saloon in Way Out West (1937), touch on the sublime. But they can go badly wrong, and having a famous producer and director and a very big budget just means that they can go disastrously wrong. Such was the case with The Hallelujah Trail, one of the unfunniest ‘comedies’ ever to appear on screen. Though I do accept that humor is a personal thing, and one person’s belly-laugh is another’s snore, it is difficult to see how anyone could have thought Hallelujah good. For Lancaster, to go from The Unforgiven to this bosh, and for John Sturges, to go from OK Corral and The Magnificent Seven to this farcical flop is remarkable. It was slammed by the critics, The New York Times calling it “a slow and tedious passage of stretched-out fooleries and over-labored jokes”, Dennis Schwarz opining that it was “Hung out to dry with nowhere to go but in quicksand” and Brian Garfield calling it “turgid, overblown, overlong, a slapstick dud” (though Variety at least said “Lancaster does a bangup job as the harassed cavalry colonel”). It was beautifully photographed, by Robert Surtees, and the Elmer Bernstein music is almost as good as his score for The Magnificent Seven, but in all other respects this picture was dire. It got nowhere at the box-office, whereas Cat Ballou got to No 7 and grossed $20m +.
Well, no Western star, not even Gary Cooper, Randolph Scott or John Wayne, managed an entire career without a very bad Western, no matter who produced, wrote or directed it. And the following year it was back to a quality oater when Burt was one of the four tough-guy heroes, along with Lee Marvin, Robert Ryan and Woody Strode, in Columbia’s action-packed Western The Professionals, not produced by Lancaster but this time produced, written and directed by Richard Brooks. Burt, who actually topped the billing, though it is Marvin who is the boss of the mercenaries, is the smiling-rogue explosives expert and he did, it must be admitted, hover once again on the edge of hamming it up, but some light relief was needed from the other steely, grim-faced and determined professionals who were on the mission. Brooks was Oscar-nominated for it and while he did not win, and the picture is not one of the great Westerns of all time, it is still a lusty 60s actioner, and Lancaster was memorable in it.
Perhaps Burt thought he might have another go at comedy – if so, a risky strategy after Hallelujah – because in 1968 he starred in and co-produced The Scalphunters, under the dubious direction of Sydney Pollack, who would go on to do Jeremiah Johnson and The Electric Horseman but who did not, in my view, shine in the Western genre. The picture was quite trendy, latching onto the Black Power theme with Ossie Davis (very good) as Joseph Lee, an erudite ex-slave teaming up with earthy, crude and blustering fur trapper Joe Bass (Lancaster). The good news is that Burt kept his histrionics a bit in check and played it pretty straight, but a lot of the humor is forced and, as Garfield said, “the entire picture is on that cornball level of contrivance”, so that although the movie got quite good reviews (maybe because the theme was fashionable) it wasn’t a major success, garnering Lancaster a nomination for a Laurel award for ‘Action Performance’, arriving in fifth place. The great film reviewer Roger Ebert wrote in 1968, “A lot of people expect a masterpiece every time they go to the movies, and the other day someone was complaining that Madigan wasn't a work of art. So what did he expect? It was a very good cop movie, and Widmark and Fonda were fine. How many movies give you that much?” As far as Westerns are concerned, 1968 was not a golden year. Once Upon a Time in the West, Firecreek, Hang ‘em High, Bandolero!, these were hardly notable epics in the genre, and The Scalphunters was as good as many that year and better than some.
In the early 70s Lancaster almost specialized in the Western. There were two in 1971 and one in 1972. Lawman was premièred in London in March ’71, not showing in the US until August, because it was a British film, produced and directed by showbiz gossip columnist and restaurant critic Michael Winner. Unfortunately, neither Winner nor his pet writer Gerald Wilson (the pair would go on to do the even worse Chato’s Land) understood the Western at all, or if they did they cynically exploited it. As a result, Lawman was a nasty little film, gratuitously violent and worth very little, except for the fine cast. Lancaster is a tough lawman in conflict with a ruthless cattle baron (Lee J Cobb) in a Last Train from Gun Hill sort of way. Robert Ryan is superb (far better than the movie deserved) as the broken down bought-and-paid-for local marshal, and there are other good performances from Robert Duvall, Albert Salmi and Richard Jordan, as well as from Lancaster himself. Thank goodness, because without these the picture would have been a total dud.
Valdez is Coming, released in April, was altogether different. In fact it was very good indeed. Though the picture was shot in Spain, and there was the occasional unfortunate serving of spaghetti, director Edwin Sherin and cinematographer Gábor Pogány made it look very like proper Western terrain, and the story was based on the novel of the same title by the excellent Elmore Leonard. Burt Lancaster was superb as the grizzled old Mexican constable Valdez, almost a figure of ridicule now but a man who shows that when the going gets really tough he still has it. Most of the movie is a straightforward pursuit-and-fight tale but it’s very well directed, a taut drama, and, Garfield again, “Lancaster’s towering performance elevates this one-man-army yarn far above most Westerns of the 1970s”. That is absolutely right – such that Valdez ranks as one of Lancaster’s very best Westerns, as different from Lawman as chalk is from cheese.
Another Robert Aldrich Western, Ulzana’s Raid, released in October 1972 and produced once again by Lancaster and Hecht, was Burt’s last as lead. Fortunately, it was superb, easily Aldrich’s best ever foray in the genre and one of Lancaster’s too. Beautifully shot in Arizona and Nevada by the great Joe Biroc (a frequent collaborator of Aldrich), and written by the highly talented Alan Sharp, who also penned The Hired Hand and Billy Two Hats, it was a cavalry-and-Apache tale with Lancaster as a quite Valdez-ish (in some ways) grizzled old army scout, a bit like Al Sieber maybe, or more likely modeled on Sieber’s pal Archie McIntosh – for Lancaster’s character is named McIntosh. The movie is notably violent, even for the time, and is also bleak and hard, but it is supremely well done by all, especially by Lancaster and Bruce Davison as a green young lieutenant from back East, Richard Jaeckel as a hard-bitten sergeant and Jorge Luke as a wily Indian scout. The film was accused of being too arty and too concerned with message (Aldrich-like, in fact) and at the box-office it didn’t come near other Westerns such as Jeremiah Johnson, The Cowboys and Joe Kidd, but myself, I find it top-notch.
The tail-end of Burt Lancaster’s Western career was marked by a small part as Ned Buntline in Robert Altman’s unsatisfactory picture Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson (1976), a third-billing as himself in the odd TV movie Beverly and Friends (1978) and finally a colorful performance as outlaw leader Bill Doolin in Universal’s 1981 Western Cattle Annie and Little Britches, another almost-comedy often played for laughs though occasionally serious too. In the last of these he was already quite ill, and he would never again venture into the saddle, though in fact he did not die until 1994, aged 80.
Burt Lancaster’s Westerns spanned three decades, from the early 50s to the early 80s, and they were not universally brilliant. No Western actor’s were. But real duds were few, and there were enough very good pictures, such as Vengeance Valley, Gunfight at the OK Corral and The Professionals, and outstanding ones, like The Unforgiven, Valdez is Coming and Ulzana’s Raid, to mark Lancaster out as one of the top Western actors of his time – and his time was the high point of the genre. Curiously perhaps, or not, he seemed to get better as he got older, not only in Westerns. He was a very fine actor, way more than a physical action man. Norman Mailer said, “I've never looked in eyes as chilling as Lancaster's” and when Roger Ebert interviewed him in 1986 and suggested that he was now going in new directions (meaning it as a compliment), “his eyes narrowed” and he growled back “I started going in new directions in 1953.” When Burt was first mooted to be the prince in The Leopard, Visconti, who had wanted Olivier, apparently cried, “Oh no, a cowboy!” If so, Luchino was wrong, because as a ‘cowboy’ Burt Lancaster showed talent and range in equal measure, and was one of the great figures of our noble genre.