The Westerns of Delmer Daves
A great Western director
If I described to you a noted film director who was born in the first decade of the twentieth century in California, made his first (pro-Indian) Western in 1950, used James Stewart as his star, made his last Western in 1958 with Gary Cooper in the lead, and in between made some first class pictures, though never Oscared, a director who composed his pictures beautifully and was noted for the cinematography, whose Westerns were uncompromising and tough, well, you’d probably guess I was talking about Anthony Mann.
I’m describing Delmer Daves.
Like Mann, Daves made ten or so Westerns in the 1950s (depending on how you define a Western). They were of more mixed quality than Mann’s (i.e. some weren’t that good) but overall they were top class and some were supreme examples of the genre.
Delmer Daves was born in San Francisco in 1904 (so was probably three years older than Mann) and studied law at Stanford. He became fascinated with motion pictures. He said, “My first career was the law - I did graduate law work at Stanford, had my office picked out and everything. I'd acted in twenty plays and directed some, too. Lloyd Nolan and I were classmates and he dearly loved the theatrical profession. He said, ‘You don't want to be a lawyer, Del, let's go down to the Pasadena Playhouse and do what we really love’. My father let me give up eighteen years of schooling with hardly a murmur.” Aged 19, Delmer worked as a prop boy on The Covered Wagon, so we might (just) consider this his first Western. He sought work in Hollywood.
His first credit was for writing the early talkie comedy So This is College (sounds like an epic) in 1928 but all through the 1930s he made a living writing screenplays and taking bit parts as an actor. In the mid-30s he made a name writing popular Dick Powell musicals and in ’36 wrote the Bette Davis/Humphrey Bogart hit The Petrified Forest. He made his directorial debut in the Cary Grant wartime adventure Destination Tokyo in 1943.
This was all very well but they weren’t Westerns, so what was the point? That was put right in 1950 when he directed Broken Arrow. I’ll be reviewing all Daves Westerns separately but for now I’ll just say a few lines about each here.
Daves’s first Western was one of his best. It was a seminal work in that it made mainstream films pro-Indian. Not that there had never been pro-Indian Westerns: right back in the silent era early works like DW Griffith’s Ramona (1910, then oft remade) and The Vanishing American of 1925 had put the Indian side of the case and described their plight at the hands of white settlers and the Army. But after Broken Arrow Hollywood Westerns usually showed Indians in a much more positive light. Usually, not always: lower-budget Westerns continued shooting down nameless ‘savages’ as if they were tin ducks in a shooting gallery.
In fact Daves’s own second Western, Drum Beat in 1954, was rather a return to the bad old days. It was made by Alan Ladd’s new company Jaguar Productions, set up to cash in on the star’s new-found success as Western star, and released by Warners (many of whose early-50s Westerns were in fact rather old-fashioned and stodgy). Ladd took the lead, and a not-terribly-good Charles Bronson was the Indian chief. It was written by Daves as well as directed by him, so there’s no one else really to blame. It was in fact the least of his Westerns, in my view (he himself thought that The Badlanders - see below - was the worst).
I say Drum Beat was Daves’s second Western. I am discounting Return of the Texan, which he made in 1952. This did have quite Western tinges - Dale Robertson returning to a Texas ranch, Walter Brennan as crusty old grandpa, Richard Boone as the baddy, horses, guns - but it was (a) a modern-day picture (it opens with a jeep bowling along) and (b) is really just a love story, with Joanne Dru. I don’t think we can count it.
Both Broken Arrow and Drum Beat were, though, beautifully photographed and composed, and this was true of all Daves's Westerns, good or less good. He used lovely Arizona locations for both the first ones (slightly odd for the second one as it was about the Modocs in Oregon, but never mind). And he had excellent directors of photography, Ernest Palmer (Belle Starr) for Arrow and J Peverell Marley (The Left-Handed Gun) for Drum Beat.
You could regard White Feather (1955) as Daves’s third Western, and indeed the third volume of a trilogy of ‘Indian’ films. Daves wrote it again, and was scheduled to direct it too but left Fox just at that moment, and less distinguished Western director Robert D Webb took over. It showed, because the film was rather slow-paced and plodding, something Daves’s never were. The good news is that it is back to a solid pro-Indian stance, this time up on the Plains. He moved in his Indian films from the Apache to the Modocs to the Cheyenne. In fact as a young man Daves had spent six months living with the Hopi and Navajo peoples and saw things very much from their standpoint.
Visually, White Feather, filmed with a big budget down in Durango with a very large cast of extras, and shot by the great Lucien Ballard, is very impressive indeed. Once again white actors were used to portray the leading Native American figures but that was the way back on the 50s. Studios were unlikely to cast unknowns and, there being no tradition of Indian acting and plays, there was no line of Indian actors waiting for parts. Debra Paget was in fact the beautiful Indian maid in both Broken Arrow and White Feather (and other non-Daves Westerns later). Jeff Chandler was Cochise, Charles Bronson was Captain Jack and Jeffrey Hunter was Little Dog.
These first three Delmer Daves Westerns, even though they varied in quality and even (in the case of Drum Beat) adopted a different stance on the Indians, were a coherent body of work. They are Daves Westerns. After those, though, the situation altered. True, Indians appeared in The Last Wagon and Cowboy, but only as a shadowy threat to the wagon train or cattle drive. In Jubal, 3:10 to Yuma, The Badlanders and The Hanging Tree there are no Indians at all, and these films dealt with a variety of subjects. Unlike other great Western film directors, there doesn’t seem to be a recognizable Daves look or subject matter and the movies all seem different. Perhaps it was because he was continually experimenting.
Daves’s fourth Western, in 1956, was Jubal, this time for Columbia, based on the first part of the long novel Jubal Troop by Paul Wellman. The book was adapted into a screenplay by Daves himself and Russell S Hughes (who had worked on The Last Frontier for Anthony Mann the year before). It starred a superb Glenn Ford, one of the best Western actors, who in fact was to do three Westerns for Daves (Jubal, 3:10 and Cowboy). Unfortunately it also featured Rod Steiger, who only had two styles of performance, (a) overacting and (b) overacting wildly, and endearing but plodding Ernest Borgnine. Ford, who underacted to an almost Gary Cooperish level, was polite, as ever, but his view was still pretty clear: "Rod...well, in kindness I think I should say he did a great job with his role. However, the 'method' got a little too much for some of us, especially the wranglers … Look, Rod won an Academy Award, didn't he? And so did Ernie, so whatever Rod was doing in his role for Jubal probably worked for him. He was intense, I'll tell you that."
Still, it’s a fine film. It gets quite Freudian, with Oedipus complexes everywhere, and in fact this was a feature of Daves Westerns (as well as being quite 50s-fashionable). The Hanging Tree is probably the most ‘psychological’ of his works but The Last Wagon doesn’t stint either on childhood trauma and behavioral issues rooted in dark events of the past.
Jubal is different, and good, because it keeps women in a central place. It has been described as a sort of Othello of the plains, and certainly Steiger’s character Pinky is rather Iago-like as he poisons Borgnine/Othello’s thoughts with subtle hints of the infidelity of his wife with Ford/Cassio. (Though Mae, the wife, is rather a racier and more wanton Desdemona than the Bard’s). Still, you can’t help feeling sorry for Mae (Valerie French), who is a beautiful woman married to a generally benign but oafish and coarse rancher. She is stuck on thousands of acres of Wyoming miles from civilization. The ‘other woman’ is Naomi (Felicia Farr), daughter of a wagon train leader (Daves liked his wagon trains), and is gentle, sweet and loving, a very different character from the rather brazen but much stronger Mae.
Most of Daves’s Westerns were, it must be said, pretty male affairs. Women tended to be sidelined as appendices of the heroes, creatures to be rescued perhaps. But then there was nothing unusual about that in 50s Hollywood. They were Indian maidens, token white love-interest, impressionable young girls, saloon girls, and so on. Only really in Jubal (Valerie French), The Badlanders (the great Katy Jurado) and The Hanging Tree (Maria Schell) are they strong, independent people, characters in their own right as it were.
Daves was very good at the subtly erotic. Of course subtly erotic was the only kind of erotic you could be in the mainstream Hollywood 1950s but he did it very well. Glenn Ford’s tender scenes with beautiful Felicia Farr in Jubal, Alan Ladd on the river bank with Audrey Dalton in Drum Beat (though he hated love scenes and always looked uncomfortable in them), Ford again as bandit Ben Wade softly wooing Felicia Farr again as the saloon girl in 3:10. These are brilliantly well done scenes.
Daves did have a penchant for the daring double entendre. One thinks of Nancy telling Johnny in Drum Beat how she wants a farm, and saucily adding that she needs a man who can plow and plant seed. Alan Ladd looks shocked and runs a mile. Even more surprisingly Daves managed to get the exchange between Jubal and Reb in Jubal under the Production Code radar: here, he is rolling a cigarette while watching sexy Mae in her lighted bedroom window and there is a conversation about how difficult it is, when rolling cigarettes, to keep one’s finger out.
But, as I say, Daves Westerns are essentially male affairs. The whole genre is, really, when you come to think of it, though modern examples are trying to redress that balance a bit. If anything, there is a strand of (very sublimated) homoeroticism running through Daves’s Westerns. Certainly anyway a lot of male bonding goes on, often between the protagonists, Jeffords/Cochise in Arrow, Johnny/Captain Jack in Drum, Van Heflin/Ford in 3:10, Ford/Lemmon in Cowboy (they even end up bathing together), and most especially the characters of Robert Wagner and Jeffrey Hunter in Feather, which seems almost a male love story. There is even a hint of something corrupt in the relationship between Dr. Frail and his ‘bondservant’, the almost feminine young man Rune, though a man less gay than Gary Cooper would be hard to imagine, so it certainly isn’t more than a hint. Of course it was all understated and probably not even understood by audiences. It probably needs a modern audience with finely-tuned gaydar to spot it.
After Jubal came The Last Wagon, which Daves directed and co-wrote. This too contains many Davesian themes. Given the character of the odious Sheriff Bull Harper (George Matthews) this is probably the place to mention that lawmen rarely appeared in Daves Westerns at all but when they did they were corrupt and brutal. 3:10 to Yuma is essentially a lawman tale, and indeed the hero of the original Elmore Leonard short story it was based on was a deputy sheriff, but in Daves’s telling it’s an account of a brave farmer who acts for justice in the absence of law. In The Last Wagon Harper is a rapist and murderer, and a sadist. Both lawmen are rotten in The Badlanders, in the pockets of the chief town crook. But mostly there are no lawmen at all. They are representative of an oppressive and corrupt white society, and the hero is much better off riding off into the sunset in the last reel, as indeed Richard Widmark does in The Last Wagon, to eschew ‘civilization’ and be at one with the wild frontier.
There is also in Daves’s work a tint of anti-clericalism. In The Last Wagon Comanche Tod (Widmark) tells how he gave up his Christian faith when it could not provide any help to him. In Drum Beat the pacifist clergyman Thomas is shown as a naïve simpleton. As with lawmen, ministers almost never appear (for example, the funeral in 3:10 is done without benefit of clergy) but when they do they are negatively shown. The most loathsome religious figure is the splendidly named George Grubb, in The Hanging Tree, the evil ‘faith healer’, superbly played by George C Scott.
Rivers are the settings for key scenes in almost all Daves Westerns, from Broken Arrow, when Geronimo attacks the stage there and Sonseeahray dies there, to the attack on the stage in Drum Beat, where the very same location was used, and in the same film the climactic hand-to-hand fight between the protagonists is at the river. In The Last Wagon the youngsters go swimming in the river and thus escape their parents’ gory death (and suffer pangs of guilt ever after). In Western after Western the river was the symbol of a crossing-over in life, a traumatic moment of change.
3:10 to Yuma (the original 1957 one of course, not the 50th anniversary remake) is, in my opinion, Delmer Daves’s masterpiece. It is superb and, good as some of his other Westerns were, or even near great in the case of the last one, 3:10 pips them all. I won’t go on at any length about it here because this post is getting a bit long and anyway you can read our recent review to find out why it is so fine. I’ll just say that it is above all the tension and drama, the visual composition and symmetry, and the stunning black & white cinematography that make it. It ought to rank in anyone’s top twenty of best Westerns ever.
The Badlanders in early 1958 really wasn’t very good, partly because it starred Alan Ladd and Ernest Borgnine again. It was a remake in the key of Western of The Asphalt Jungle of eight years before, and I suppose remakes often suffer from lack of originality. It did have its plus points, notably a social justice agenda (here it is the Mexican Americans who are the downtrodden and exploited rather than the Indians) and the wondrous Katy Jurado in a key part. So it wasn’t all bad by any means. But in the last resort it’s a rather conventional heist movie. Daves said he only made it as a favor to Alan Ladd.
The penultimate Western of Delmer Daves was a film version of part of Frank Harris’s unreliable memoirs, Cowboy. It starred the excellent Glenn Ford again and also (very good casting) New Englander Jack Lemmon as Harris. Like The Badlanders, it was a bit on the weak side, mainly because there really wasn’t enough plot for a 92-minute movie. But once again it is visually beautiful (New Mexico locations shot once more by Charles Lawton Jr) and noticeably well ‘composed’ by the director. It’s enjoyable, if not at exactly the pinnacle of the Western as art.
Delmer Daves’s last Western, The Hanging Tree, was, however, a splendid example of the genre, mainly but not only because it starred Gary Cooper. It had a couple of weaknesses, notably the dreadful hamming of Karl Malden, always a lousy Western actor. But it was intense, slightly creepy even, fraught, psychological, interesting, complex, moving, thought-provoking and – need I say? – beautifully shot. Above it all towers Coop, the greatest ever Western actor, absolutely magnificent in every way. The names are great in this movie and Coop is Dr Frail, a man with ‘a past’, as the heroes in Daves’s Westerns often were (but then so they were in many Westerns; it was a pretty standard theme).
A recurring theme of Daves, almost a recurring nightmare, is death by hanging. Pinky’s monstrous end in Jubal (suggested, not shown, but no less awful for that) is a good example, as is the end brave town drunk Alex Potts comes to in 3:10, but in all his Westerns except Badlanders and White Feather actual or near-lynchings take place. In his last movie the eponymous gibbet looms over the town and the story, gruesome and sinister in its import and impact.
Poor Daves didn’t get to finish it. He became seriously ill on the set and Coop’s production company Baroda replaced him for the last part with Malden, who seems to have been able to direct anyway, even if he couldn’t act. Daves did recover enough to direct and write other movies but according to Dave Kehr, on medical advice, he decided to forego Westerns and limit himself to studio-bound productions which were less strenuous. He never did a Western again.
Delmer Daves died in 1977 and was survived by his wife, the author Mary Lou Lawrence, a son and two daughters. Film critic Kim Newman said of Daves and Anthony Mann that they were able to "ring changes" on seemingly familiar Western storylines by "playing up the psychologically acute reflections of their characters" in relation to the landscape as well as to each other. Daves, he says, achieved this particularly in Broken Arrow, The Last Wagon, 3:10 to Yuma and The Hanging Tree.
For what little it’s worth, here is my order of preference:
1. 3:10 to Yuma
2. The Hanging Tree
3. Broken Arrow
5. The Last Wagon
6. White Feather
8. The Badlanders
9. Drum Beat
but I leave you to make up your own mind. In any case it is undeniable that Delmer Daves was in the top rank of Western directors and some of his films are absolutely superb.