The Westerns of Gordon Douglas
A worthy contributor to our genre
Gordon Douglas (left) was one of those directors who made a number of bread-and-butter pictures of no special merit but who sometimes rose above that norm to put out an interesting one. In the world of the Western (the genre that counts) he made a handful which were really good.
He himself said, “I have a large family to feed and it's only occasionally that I find a story that interests me.” And self-deprecatingly, even rather sadly, he commented, “Don't try to watch all the films I've directed; it would turn you off movies forever.” I reckon you could watch all his Westerns, though. He directed 17, two with Randolph Scott, two starring Alan Ladd, three with Clint Walker as lead and one each with a variety of Western actors heading the cast, such as Gregory Peck, Lee Van Cleef, Hugh O’Brian, Rod Taylor, James Garner, Richard Boone and Guy Madison. A few of the pictures were a bit ho-hum, some were very competent and a few were cracking good Westerns. French film boffin Bertrand Tavernier described Douglas as “a part-time auteur”, by which I think he meant that Gordon cheerfully did a lot of the routine stuff the studios handed him, putting up with the one-take trash Sinatra kept churning out, for example, and doing many less-than-epic comedies, but he had a vision and was occasionally able to stamp his personality on some quite interesting films. He was born in New York in 1907. As a teenager he got a job with Hal Roach, working in the office and appearing in bit parts in various Roach movies. He was ‘student drinker, uncredited’ in the WC Fields comedy Western A Fatal Glass of Beer in 1933. Well, we all have to start somewhere. By 1934 he was working as assistant director on a couple of Laurel and Hardy and Our Gang two-reelers. From 1936 he graduated to directing Our Gang shorts himself. One of them even won an Academy Award, for live action short film. When Roach sold the Our Gang franchise to MGM, Douglas moved there but he didn’t like the big-studio ambiance and quit.
In 1942 he went to RKO, concentrating on low-budget comedies including, in 1944, his first picture which could (just possibly) be defined as a Western, the comedy Girl Rush. But it was at Columbia, where he went in 1948, that he first made his mark in the noble genre, by directing first The Doolins of Oklahoma (1949) and then the excellent The Nevadan (1950), both with Randolph Scott. In fact the latter was the first Western to be released that year and thus had the honor of ushering in what was to be the greatest ever decade for the genre. And it was a worthy pathfinder. Hollywood outlaw gangs such as the Doolins are, naturally, misunderstood goodies. Directors and screenplay writers (in this case experienced hand Kenneth Gamet) dipped their very broad brushes in copious quantities of whitewash to paint a picture of Robin Hood-like social bandits driven unwillingly into crime by force of circumstance. So the story was nonsense, really. But the movie is a brisk actioner, with Yak Canutt masterminding the stunts and stuntmeister Jock Mahoney standing in for Randy. The Doolins is a professional, tight Western with much in its favor.
The Nevadan was better still. It’s a very well directed picture which moves along at a cracking pace. Note, for example, how much action takes place under the opening credits, so that by the time the movie starts we are already well down the trail of the plot. It was produced by Scott’s partner Harry Joe Brown and shot in a very nice Cinecolor by the talented Charles Lawton Jr up at Lone Pine (thus anticipating and visually resembling those splendid late-50s Westerns directed by Budd Boetticher, three of which were shot by Lawton).
Now James Cagney was making a (non-Western) picture for Warner Bros with his brother William, and they hired Douglas to direct. Douglas signed long-term deals with Cagney Productions and Warners, and would produce some of his best Westerns there. But first he did a non-exclusive deal with Paramount to make two movies, one of which was the Jesse James Western The Great Missouri Raid (1951) – the other was never made. It was another well-directed picture. It suffered a little from casting Wendell Corey and Macdonald Carey as Frank and Jesse; they weren’t Western specialists and weren’t suited. But the supporting cast was high quality and the Technicolor photography (Ray Rennahan) very good. And once again it rattles along at a good pace.
Later that year, though, Douglas worked with Gregory Peck to make his first Warners Western, Only the Valiant, aka Fort Invincible. This was probably his lowest-key oater yet, a 105-minute black & white cavalry-and-Apaches picture mostly shot on studio sets and going for the noir and ‘psychological Western’ vibe. The screenplay (Charles Marquis Warren among others) is humdrum. Peck said it was his least favorite movie. Certainly it would have been weak without his contribution. The picture is not a dud, but it wasn’t the equal of those zippy on-location Columbia oaters.
1952 was the year of The Iron Mistress, with Alan Ladd miscast as Jim Bowie and Virginia Mayo as the titular dame (the title refers equally to Bowie’s knife and his woman). I don’t know what it was about early-50s Warner Westerns. They tended to be clunky. This one had horse races and New Orleans casinos and Mississippi river boats and duels. In fact, it was almost not a Western at all, more of an early-nineteenth-century costume drama. It was written by James R Webb from a Paul Wellman novel. Webb had specialized in low-budget Westerns like Jesse James at Bay or Bad Man of Deadwood. The script here is of a similar standard. Only the knife fight in the darkened room stands out.
1953’s contribution to the great genre was The Charge at Feather River. After a promising start in Westerns, debuting with his friend Rory Calhoun in Massacre River in 1949, Guy Madison spent most of the 1950s on radio and the smaller screen as Wild Bill in the astonishingly successful series Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok. Feature-film Westerns were relegated to a sideline, though he did the occasional one all through the 50s, and Feather River was one. It was shot in 3D, then all the rage, and in Warnercolor, so was no zero-budget quickie. It also had the studio's snazzy new 4-track stereo, with the ‘WarnerPhonic/RCA Sound System’. It was scheduled for André DeToth but for some reason he didn’t or couldn’t do it (he already helmed three Westerns that year, as well as the hit 3D horror House of Wax) and it went to Douglas. It’s a tried-and-trusted plot (James R Webb again); nothing much original here. A ‘man who knows Indians’ leads an Army patrol to rescue two white women from the Cheyenne. Except maybe in one respect it might be original: I’m not sure when the Dirty Dozen plot was first used. Is this perhaps the first example? A reader might know. You see, Guy recruits his men from a punishment squad, using drunks, deserters, thieves and brawlers. He whips them into shape with a rigorous training regime, then they come good in action, developing an esprit de corps and acting gallantly. Of course we are very used to this story now, not only in war films, but I wonder when it was first done? Though now that I think about it, Douglas’s earlier Only the Valiant did that a bit too.
There was a Western pause for Douglas then. Between June 1953 and February 1957 there were no oaters. Of course he was busy with the likes of Them! (1954). And maybe Warners weren’t that keen on Westerns for a bit. But next for Douglas was another Alan Ladd/Virginia Mayo sagebrush saga, The Big Land. It was a production of Ladd’s company Jaguar. Edmond O’Brien as an alcoholic goody and Anthony Caruso as the chief heavy were both impressive. We are just after the Civil War and, as every Western fan knows, “the East needs beef.” Ex-Reb Chad Morgan (Ladd) drives two thousand head from Texas to the railhead in Missouri. Crooked cattle dealer Brog (Caruso), the only one with access to the railroad, offers an absurdly low price for the beef. Teaming up with Joe Jagger (O’Brien), whom he has saved from lynching, they meet up with some farmers who can’t ship their wheat East either. In his sober past, Joe used to be an architect and they decide to build a town to attract a railroad spur. It was another Frank Gruber effort – we talked about him recently here, so click the link for that. Bosley Crowther in The New York Times wrote, “There is nothing particularly scenic in all of this hackneyed live-beef film.” Brian Garfield, in his Western Films, later called it an “overblown pulp-formula meller”. It got nowhere at the box-office. It isn’t bad, but…
The following year, however, produced two of Gordon’s best Westerns. Fort Dobbs (released in April) and The Fiend Who Walked the West (August) were intensely enjoyable. Dobbs would not be his last Warners Western, he’d be back, but The Fiend was a Fox picture. Fort Dobbs starred Clint Walker, who was doing well on ABC’s Cheyenne, started in 1955, but who had big-screen ambitions. It’s a Hondo-esque plot. Gunman on the lam (or so we think) Clint comes upon a lonely ranch where live a handsome woman (Virginia Mayo again) and her young son (Richard Eyer, soon to be Davy in Stagecoach West). The husband is absent (killed, as we later learn) and Clint becomes the surrogate husband/father. The acting is good. The direction is fast-paced, builds tension and while it may not, these days, have you on the edge of your seat, it probably did then and is still quite exciting today. It was written by Burt Kennedy, so that certainly helped. It was photographed by William H Clothier, no less, in a luminous black & white and the beautiful Moab and Kanab UT locations are very classily shot. So Fort Dobbs is definitely one of Gordon Douglas’s better Westerns.
The title The Fiend Who Walked the West might lead you to think you are in for a low-budget horror flick but actually it’s a Western classic, a must-see for any self-respecting amateur of the genre. It’s a straight crime/thriller, a remake of Fox’s 1949 Henry Hathaway-directed Kiss of Death. Fox gave it budget and did it in CinemaScope. There was quite a trend of redoing noirs as Westerns. One thinks of Raoul Walsh remaking his High Sierra as Colorado Territory in 1949, House of Strangers becoming Broken Lance in 1954, or Delmer Daves transposing John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle to the West in The Badlanders, released the month after Fiend in '58. But this one is brilliantly done. Douglas went for low-key cheap interior sets to enhance the horror vibe. He played it straight – there isn’t a hint of self-parody or send-up. The writers were top hands. Novelist, poet and screenwriter Harry Brown had contributed to Only the Valiant for Douglas. Philip Yordan had worked on Johnny Guitar, Broken Lance and the Man from Laramie. They had Ben Hecht’s screenplay for Kiss of Death as a starting point. Clearly they understood the vibe Douglas was going for and they managed creepy-crime with aplomb. And I’m sure you agree, there’s nothing like the odd spot of aplomb.
That year too he did The Burning Sky, an episode (S1 E22) of Maverick. It starred Gerald Mohr. James Garner as Bret introduces the episode, in which Bart (Jack Kelly) is one of a group of six ambushed stagecoach passengers. While the six strangers are under siege, it becomes clear the ambushers have targeted this specific stagecoach because one of the six passengers must be secretly carrying something valuable—but who, and where could it be hidden? One might have expected Douglas to do a lot of TV Western shows: most other slightly lesser film directors did. But he only did this one – and a later TV movie. But back on the big screen two more Clint Walker Westerns came next, Yellowstone Kelly (1959) and Gold of the Seven Saints (1961). The first was enjoyable, and was again written by Burt Kennedy, using a Heck Allen novel. It is (freely) based on the life of Luther Sage Kelly (1849 – 1928), chief of scouts for General Miles, expedition guide in Alaska, captain of volunteers in the Philippines, trapper, hunter and explorer along the Yellowstone River and general all-round action man. That’s Clint, of course. Curiously, for a Yellowstone film, it was all shot in Arizona and it shows, especially the parts around Sedona. But they are very attractive locations which usually manage to suggest Montana OK. I like this picture (but then I was always a Walker fan), and if you watch it I reckon you’ll find acting, direction, writing and photography well up to scratch.
We reviewed Gold of the Seven Saints just the other day, so click the link to read thiose pearls of wisdom (not). Here, just to say it co-starred Roger Moore, future James Bond, and was a sort of poor man’s Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Brian Garfield rated it “two-karat at best”. But Jeff was a little more generous. Douglas helmed three more feature Westerns in the 1960s, the exciting actioner Rio Conchos (1964), the ho-hum remake of Stagecoach (1966) and the Rod Taylor picture Chuka (1967). I’m a bit of a fan of Rio Conchos. It’s quite ‘modern’ as a Western, i.e. 60s, with a sort of post-spaghetti look, but Richard Boone, the year after Have Gun - Will Travel finished, is excellent, as he almost always was, and the picture races right along. It was football star Jim Brown’s debut, and he walks about shirtlessly and hunkishly. To be brutally frank, he wasn’t much of an actor but if you needed a big man of color in an action film (The Dirty Dozen, say) or indeed any of the many cheap blaxploitation movies of the 70s, Brown was your chap. Edmond O’Brien, enjoying it, I'd say, is back, as the crazed Confederate officer who wants to arm the Apaches with state-of-the-art rifles and crush the bluecoats with them. It all ends with mucho fireworks, Douglas and the cast and crew evidently having fun.
Stagecoach was probably no worse than many other Westerns of the period and better than many but it was really too hard an act to follow. Douglas’s version did have some plus points. Bing Crosby, in his last movie, was entertaining in the Millard Mitchell drunken doctor part. Slim Pickens was at least as good as Andy Devine as stage driver, and Van Heflin was stocky and solid in the George Bancroft marshal-cum-shotgun messenger role. Furthermore, there’s very good William H Clothier photography and it's in color. They have shifted the setting of the story from New Mexico to Wyoming, so they filmed it in Colorado. If you see what I mean. Anyway, there’s nice mountain scenery. But, and it’s a big but, we had Ann-Margret as Dallas and Alex Cord as Ringo. Well, I want to be as polite as I can here but… They both just say their words and there is no magic between them. Mike Connors was also unconvincing as the Southern gambler Hatfield and Red Buttons as the whiskey drummer Peacock was bland. Robert Cummings as Gatewood? Cummings was a wisecracking, amiable TV personality and doesn’t carry off the sly, crooked banker at all. No, I’m afraid the cast just wasn’t up to it. Because it was such a straight remake, even re-using some of the dialogue, you are bound to think of their predecessors when they speak. Still, it was ten times better than the spaghettis going around then, and also a lot better than the later country-singer made-for-TV Stagecoach.
As for Chuka, a Paramount picture, it was so-so. Rod Taylor, an Australian, was quite famous as George in The Time Machine and Mitch Brenner in The Birds, and he was in fact a good actor, as John Ford understood (Taylor was Young Cassidy), and an intelligent and thoughtful person. He didn’t do a lot of big-screen Westerns but his rugged looks suited the roles. He was the best thing about this picture. The rest of the casting is, er, unusual. A very isolated US Army fort lies in the middle of a plain in Spain, besieged by Arapahos, and its commandant is posh Brit Sir John Mills. Italian actress Luciana Paluzzi is a Mexican countess and Ernest Borgnine is a German sergeant. Only James Whitmore as the post scout really convinces. It’s a flashback movie which starts with an officer dictating a letter to his superiors recounting the mystery of the burned, empty and abandoned fort. Then the screen goes all blurry, you know how they do, and we get the events which caused the disaster. All in all, a bit on the iffy side, this one. With the fort and so on it had echoes of Only the Valiant.
Barquero (1970) on the other hand, I think is rather good, despite its definite spaghetti sauce. Barquero is perhaps the most Italian of American Westerns. It has Lee Van Cleef with his curly pipe as cynical tough guy. It has garish color, corpses a-go-go and lots of close-up squints and grimaces. But unlike spaghetti westerns it has good acting, interesting characters, some thoughtful moments, Colorado scenery and tension. It’s actually quite a good Western. The picture had been slated for Robert Sparr but went to Gordon Douglas instead when Sparr was killed in a plane crash scouting Star Trek locations. Say what you like about the spaghettis (and I do), they did inject some new blood (rather a lot of it, in fact) into the mainstream Western and anti-heroes like Lee Van Cleef and Warren Oates replaced the noble Pecks and Fondas and Coopers. Gordon Douglas was nearing the end of the Western trail he had moseyed down for so long. There remained but two more sorties in the genre, Skin Game in 1971, with James Garner, for which Douglas received credit as co-director with Paul Bogart, and in 1975 a TV-movie version of Nevada Smith with Cliff Potts doing the Steve McQueen part and Lorne Greene impersonating Brian Keith. If you go by Brian Garfield (and you will have guessed by now that I often do) you might be encouraged by his opinion that Skin Game “is delightful; minor comedy is much warmer-hearted than most of the farce Westerns of the 1970s. Quite good.” Tony Mastroianni in The Cleveland Press wrote that it was “a winner” - adding “if you are willing to judge strictly on its own merits and not compare it with obviously better pictures.” He thought “The film's particular merit is that it is designed for laughs and in this it succeeds.” Well, that’s not bad press. As for Nevada Smith, Douglas’s penultimate job as director, I know nothing about it, I’m afraid, and don’t know if it’s good, bad or indifferent. Perhaps a reader who has seen it can enlighten us. And that was all she wrote.
After helming in 1977 the doubtlessly epic Viva Knievel!, Gordon Douglas retired, and died of cancer on September 29, 1993 in Los Angeles, at the age of 85. I can’t judge his non-Westerns, not having seen most of them, but I would say that his essays in our noble genre (the one that counts, after all) are not universally excellent but they are generally not at all bad, and occasionally darn good. That’s not a bad epitaph, is it?