Just a Western

“Who can tell me who I am?” – King Lear

I love Westerns. The simple pleasures of seeing the world from the back of a horse, visiting the open sky and plains and possibilities of an adventurous life in a movie is a vicarious joy. Beyond this, some of the best of the genre may alert me to the connections between actions, consequences and our own human limitations.

In the Westerns that Anthony Mann made between 1950-1955 with the squarest of actors, Jimmy Stewart, there’s also an appealing grandeur and all too human unruliness in the movies that appeals to me. Despite a previous acquaintance with the seven other Mann-Stewart collaborations on screen, somehow, I didn’t expect this last film of the duo, The Man From Laramie (1955) to be quite so effective. After all, it’s only a 53 year old cowboy movie.

The Man From Laramie(1955), which will be seen on TCM on Sept. 23rd at 3:30 AM, is probably one of the most intense films of the fifties. Like Mann‘s brilliantly executed B film noirs such as T Men (1947), Railroaded (1947) and Border Incident (1949), the action in his Westerns is central to the story and realistic in the sense that violence, once unleashed, corrodes the perpetrators as much as the victimized, twisting their natures. The Man From Laramie could be a companion piece to other directors’ seminal films of that period, including Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat and Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar. Beginning quietly, with the obligatory ballad of that period sung by an unseen chorus encapsulating the whole movie in a bland way, we meet Will Lockhart (the appropriately named James Stewart character), the boss of a shipping line hauling supplies from Laramie, Wyoming to Coronado, NM. Lockhart tells his companion Wallace Ford to camp in a gully brusquely while he examines the remains of a destroyed dsoldier’s encampment that decays in the dust. It is Stewart‘s intensely blue eyes, filled with inexpressible rage and grief as he tenderly fingers the rim of an officer’s hat that first tells the audience of the compulsion that drives him.

Ford‘s character, who explains that his mother was an Apache, observes the other man’s intensity as Stewart explains that being there reminds him of what he came here to do. While Wally Ford is a kind of canny jester-helpmate, always acknowledging to Stewart that “You’re the boss”, he is not timid about pointing certain truths out to him. Lockhart can articulate his need for revenge to his companion, but it is Ford who warns him that “Hate’s unbecoming in a man like you. On some men it shows.” The hate that

Lockhart feels comes out of the event that cost his lieutenant brother his life when his troop was attacked by Indians with repeating rifles.Delivering his goods to town, he never seems to go about looking in any systematic way for the person who might have sold the Indians those repeaters. When shopkeeper and niece of Alec Waggoner, played by Cathy O’Donnell, the ethereal actress from The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) and They Live By Night (1948) asks if Stewart is from Laramie after he arrives in Coronado, his answer is typical.

“No, ma’am. No, I can’t rightly say anyplace is my home.” In the disordered universe occupied by Lockhart and the other men in this movie, that remains true, even after affairs are messily set to right after 104 minutes of powerful drama.

One of the most memorable aspects of The Man From Laramie is the look of the movie. Filmed largely on location in New Mexico by cinematographer Charles Lang, it is one of the first color Westerns shot in Cinemascope. It must have been overwhelming to see this on a large screen in a theatre. On a dvd, it is breathtaking to see the scope of the Western landscape’s harsh beauty, the intensely blue New Mexico sky, and the way that the people are dwarfed by the enormity of it all. Yet, after watching the film, I realized that the characters seem oblivious to the grandeur of the natural world around them–despite the fact that several of them are engaged in a struggle to own it. They are too caught up in their own chaotic struggles with one another and their own recalcitrant natures.

The tragic ramifications of this and the echoes of King Lear and the Odyssey in a simple Western action drama may be clearest in the character played by 73 year old Donald Crisp. Giving one of his finest performances since How Green Was My Valley in this film, he is a haunting presence as Alec Waggoman, a King Lear-like rancher and cattleman who has carved his empire out of the wilderness at considerable cost He also owns the land on which the Apaches attacked the dead soldiers, killing Stewart‘s brother. He thinks he understands how his world works, and is anxious to see it secured for his loutish natural son, Alex Nicol, who is coddled, despite his apparent sadism. Arthur Kennedy, as Vic Hansbro, the foreman of Waggoman’s ranch, full time babysitter of the loose cannon Waggoman heir, and a man who longs to be a true son to Crisp, may be the second most tragic figure next to Crisp in the movie. The Hansbro character, as played by the quietly brilliant Kennedy, is one more casually deft portrayal in his career playing frustrated men with an uneasy likability, and a near fatal inability to comprehend just how fragile is his place in this chaotic world. Kennedy is one of the more modern, seemingly pragmatic men in this tale, longing, hoping and working to get ahead. His gentle concern for his employer is fused with an unspoken hope for acceptance as an adopted son, a sense of entitlement as an eventual part heir to the ranch, and some security as a future family member, since he plans to become part of the family by marrying Waggoman’s niece (Cathy O’Donnell). Like all the men in this film, whether good or bad–and that status changes for each character with the direction of the wind–Kennedy’s unraveling reveals his desperation and his deep sense of being lost, as each of them hurtle across the magnificent bleakness of his world throughout the film. He’s not alone in his bewilderment. All the men in this film are close to be undone by their impulses and desires, unable to let the past go, and unable to realize any future until they do. And all unable to see the world.

At one point, after Stewart‘s initial brutal encounter with Waggoman’s wayward, sadistic son at some salt flats, the land baron tries to pay him off, dismissing his inquiries about the incident with the Indians and the soldiers. Never looking him or the sympathetic Kennedy in the eye as he speaks to them, Waggoman counts out the payment for the mules and wagons that have been destroyed. Stewart, revealing his essential honesty, cautions the older man to be careful, since he is counting out one hundred dollar bills, not fifties as he intended.

Later, when Crisp is alone with his ambitious hired hand, he asks Kennedy to gaze out one of the windows of his ranch house and asks him what he sees. Without missing a beat, Vic (Kennedy) replies impatiently, “Same old Mountains.” Crisp presses him, asking if he sees any snow on them yet. Puzzled and a bit disturbed, Hansbro asks “What’s going on?” Revealing to him that he is going blind, he implores and goads Hansbro to keep a better watch on his son, his true son, he calls him. Donald Crisp, as he later explains to Stewart in one of the quietest, most powerful scenes in the film, a recurrent dream of a tall man entering his home to kill his beloved only son has plagued him for years. Trying to put into words his nagging fear, Crisp says to Stewart, “I don’t know you, but I knew you were coming.” Now, Alec Waggoman, who married the wrong woman, (Leaving MacMahon at the altar for a soft Eastern woman), fathered a son with a curdled soul and built a ranch out of nothing, is nearing the end of the road–losing his sight physically and emotionally. Interestingly, it is only after Crisp‘s character is totally blinded that he can bring himself to reveal the truth to Stewart, (whom he calls “son”), about recently deceased biological son and his would-be adopted son (Arthur Kennedy). As Stewart rides away from the ranch house to his fate, the blind Crisp calls out to her, “Kate, Kate, where are you Kate?”. Going to his bedside, MacMahon reassures him, as he says, plaintively but honestly, “Don’t go away, Kate. ” Clearly moved, the reconciled jilted bride of long ago, murmurs to him, “I’ve never left you, Alec.” While the filmmakers tried to create a tentative, if forbidden and ambiguous romance between the engaged O’Donnell and Stewart‘s single-minded avenging angel, it is the warmth between Crisp and MacMahon that is the closest to resembling a “normal” relationship.

Grief, greed, revenge, longing, patrimony and death are experiences that have been molded into bedtime stories for mankind since Gilgamesh, The Iliad and the Odyssey, Oedipus, Beowulf, the legends of the Samurai, and the Song of Roland were new. Why should the deceptively simple Western genre overlook all the dramatic juiciness of Oedipus Rex and King Lear, just because they were written centuries before? Some directors juggle these themes more skillfully than others. Since no artist or craftsman is ever completely satisfied with his or her work, some of the best dare to try to the balancing act in a different and more artful arrangement more than once. Anthony Mann, who said that he hoped to blend elements of the Greek tragedies and Lear’s tragic relationship with his daughter into The Furies (1950), was steeped in myth throughout his life thanks in part to an early education at a private school devoted to Theosophy , which, among other things, encourages all members to explore all myths and religions, without prejudice.

Seeing the spiritual twists and turns in his characters, Mann was also helped in his storytelling by his collaboration with Philip Yordan, one of the screenwriters of The Man from Laramie, along with Frank Burt. Yordan, once explained that he shared a similar point of view as the director, saying that “I have…attempted to discover again the purity of the heroes of classical tragedy. I have always wanted to re-create a tragic mythology, give a large role to destiny, solitude, nobility. At the same time I’ve tried to join this type to typically American characters.” While Yordan had a long writing career, (including the scripts for Johnny Guitar and El Cid) and was also a producer, I don’t think that his screenplays were ever better realized than they were when working with Mann. This passion for the mythic, along with the director’s capacity for filming violence as though it hurt–in a shockingly meaningful, realistic manner–as well his modern disenchantment with human nature’s limitations, and his muted insight into a hero’s ability to understand his own darkness are all skeins that had characterized most of Mann‘s Film Noirs and, as some have pointed out, his Westerns are Noirs on horseback.

None of these underlying ideas would have been so well expressed on screen were it not for the gifted cast of this film, who never forget that this is an action drama first and none of the mayhem is allowed to make this still occasionally shockingly violent story repellent. From James Stewart, the masterful Donald Crisp and Kennedy, Aline MacMahon, the under-rated Alex Nicol as the dandified Waggoman wastrel to the always welcome appearance of a foxy Jack Elam, the movie is impeccably cast–though the lynchpin is Stewart. Given the capacity for expressing uncertainty, moral complexity and a man at the end of his tether that Jimmy Stewart had unearthed in himself in his earlier obsessive portraits for the director, he was the ideal choice for this part as well. Whatever alchemy allowed Stewart to show his feelings and thoughts so vividly and clearly on film as his experience grew, by the mid-fifties, he may have been the very best actor in movies, even though Marlon and Jimmy and other hardworking actors got most of the glory then. In the course of the movie, he would not only bare his soul, but be dragged through a campfire while tethered to a hors, shot through the hand, witness the senseless slaughter of his mules at the hands of the borderline psychotic Alex Nicol character, watch his wagons burn, and be framed for murder. Though there were several issues involved in the rift that occurred between the actor and his director after making this movie, it is no wonder Stewart said enough after this film.

_____________________________________________

Sources:
Bundmann, Emil Anton, Anthony Mann, Senses of Cinema, January, 2003
Pickard, Roy, Jimmy Stewart: A Life in Film, St. Martin’s Press, 1993.
Ranciere, Jacques, (translated by Emiliano Battista), Film Fables, Berg Pub., 2006.

24 Responses Just a Western
Posted By RHS : July 23, 2008 10:22 am

Speaking of Philip Yordan, you should check out his Euro-western Captain Apache with Lee Van Cleff, Carroll Baker and Stuart Whitman. It’s a glorious cheesefest and you will never, ever get that theme song (sung by Van Cleef and a chorus) out of your head.

His name is CAP-tain a-PATCH-ee…

Posted By RHS : July 23, 2008 10:22 am

Speaking of Philip Yordan, you should check out his Euro-western Captain Apache with Lee Van Cleff, Carroll Baker and Stuart Whitman. It’s a glorious cheesefest and you will never, ever get that theme song (sung by Van Cleef and a chorus) out of your head.

His name is CAP-tain a-PATCH-ee…

Posted By Patricia : July 23, 2008 12:29 pm

“The Man from Laramie” is a movie that pulls you in and doesn’t let you go. The first time I saw it, it was the shock of the violence perpetrated toward Stewart that was hard to shake. However, that was displaced by the story and back-story played out by MacMahon and Crisp. It’s haunted me more than the most overt Hollywood romance.

Posted By Patricia : July 23, 2008 12:29 pm

“The Man from Laramie” is a movie that pulls you in and doesn’t let you go. The first time I saw it, it was the shock of the violence perpetrated toward Stewart that was hard to shake. However, that was displaced by the story and back-story played out by MacMahon and Crisp. It’s haunted me more than the most overt Hollywood romance.

Posted By JC Loophole : July 23, 2008 4:12 pm

This is a great film- very Shakespearian indeed. What a great article on the film! Thanks!

Posted By JC Loophole : July 23, 2008 4:12 pm

This is a great film- very Shakespearian indeed. What a great article on the film! Thanks!

Posted By 42nd Street Memories : July 24, 2008 10:01 am

Two very special talents, Mr. Mann and Mr. Stewart. No other actor was able to reinvent himself as Stewart did in the 50s as he entered middle age. Arguably his body of work in the 50s,especially his westerns and his Hitchcocks, was the finest decade for any actor on film. His five westerns with Mann are among the finest of the genre. In addition to the five with Stewart, add Mann’s The Furies, The Tin Star and Man of the West and you have an underappreciated litany of “noir in the saddle”

Posted By 42nd Street Memories : July 24, 2008 10:01 am

Two very special talents, Mr. Mann and Mr. Stewart. No other actor was able to reinvent himself as Stewart did in the 50s as he entered middle age. Arguably his body of work in the 50s,especially his westerns and his Hitchcocks, was the finest decade for any actor on film. His five westerns with Mann are among the finest of the genre. In addition to the five with Stewart, add Mann’s The Furies, The Tin Star and Man of the West and you have an underappreciated litany of “noir in the saddle”

Posted By Al Lowe : July 24, 2008 10:29 am

I slowly caught up with all the Stewart-Mann westerns. They’re all good. My favorite is the Naked Spur, with Robert Ryan and Janet Leigh also at their best.
However, I never understood the affection for and the overrating of Man of the West, starring Gary Cooper and directed by Mann. I first saw it when it came out. The trip to the movies to see it was a birthday present. I’ve seen it several times since then and I don’t get it. Any of the Stewart-Mann westerns is better. Its theme is usually praised. It’s about a former bandit who goes straight, meets up with his former colleagues and realizes he is no better than they are. So what? I don’t find this novel and shocking. Or terribly interesting. And, yes, I like Cooper.
Incidentally, what were the issues in the rift between Stewart and Mann?

Posted By Al Lowe : July 24, 2008 10:29 am

I slowly caught up with all the Stewart-Mann westerns. They’re all good. My favorite is the Naked Spur, with Robert Ryan and Janet Leigh also at their best.
However, I never understood the affection for and the overrating of Man of the West, starring Gary Cooper and directed by Mann. I first saw it when it came out. The trip to the movies to see it was a birthday present. I’ve seen it several times since then and I don’t get it. Any of the Stewart-Mann westerns is better. Its theme is usually praised. It’s about a former bandit who goes straight, meets up with his former colleagues and realizes he is no better than they are. So what? I don’t find this novel and shocking. Or terribly interesting. And, yes, I like Cooper.
Incidentally, what were the issues in the rift between Stewart and Mann?

Posted By moirafinnie : July 24, 2008 12:43 pm

Hi RHS,
Thanks for the heads up about Capt. Apache. What an unfortunate trend it was to have a theme song in every commercial movie in the ’50s and ’60s, eh?

Have you seen The Last Frontier (1955) with Victor Mature? It is one of the non-Stewart Westerns made my Mann with Philip Yordan’s script that I enjoy. Mature’s unlikely “man with the bark on”is balanced by a terrific supporting cast led by Robert Preston, James Whitmore and Anne Bancroft.

Hi Patricia,
I agree about the impact of violence in this film. Stewart and particularly Mann never seemed to present violence in a wholly gratuitous fashion, but the actor excelled in portraying the physical and emotional anguish that accompanies real world violence. The Man From Laramie is probably one of the examples of a film that captures the corrosive effect of brutality on human beings.

Hi 42nd St. Memories,
It has always seemed remarkable to me that Stewart, who seemed so callow to me prior to WWII, became such a nuanced, and compelling actor in the post war world. It is almost as though he found a way to become transparent to the viewer.

Incidentally, what were the issues in the rift between Stewart and Mann.~Al Lowe

There is more than one version of what led to their “creative differences”, Al, but the tensions between the two apparently came to a head during pre-production of Night Passage. Stewart was eager to have Mann direct this late ’50s film, but Mann thought the script was inadequate. He believed that Night Passage gave Stewart the kind of things that actor loved to do, (and in the actor’s case this included playing the accordian in the movie, a skill that he had learned as a youngster), but the story never developed enough to make the project appealing to Mann.

Stewart and Mann reportedly became friendly again eventually, but they never teamed again creatively. Of course, during their work together, the two helped to transform the movie industry as they hopscotched from studio to studio and made star profit sharing a new way of adding clout to an actor’s dealmaking. Though I know that most people feel that Stewart’s work with Capra and Hitchcock were his most successful partnerships, I tend to favor the territory that Mann-Stewart explored.

Btw, I agree about The Man of the West.

Thanks to each of you for your comments. They make my day!
Moira

Posted By moirafinnie : July 24, 2008 12:43 pm

Hi RHS,
Thanks for the heads up about Capt. Apache. What an unfortunate trend it was to have a theme song in every commercial movie in the ’50s and ’60s, eh?

Have you seen The Last Frontier (1955) with Victor Mature? It is one of the non-Stewart Westerns made my Mann with Philip Yordan’s script that I enjoy. Mature’s unlikely “man with the bark on”is balanced by a terrific supporting cast led by Robert Preston, James Whitmore and Anne Bancroft.

Hi Patricia,
I agree about the impact of violence in this film. Stewart and particularly Mann never seemed to present violence in a wholly gratuitous fashion, but the actor excelled in portraying the physical and emotional anguish that accompanies real world violence. The Man From Laramie is probably one of the examples of a film that captures the corrosive effect of brutality on human beings.

Hi 42nd St. Memories,
It has always seemed remarkable to me that Stewart, who seemed so callow to me prior to WWII, became such a nuanced, and compelling actor in the post war world. It is almost as though he found a way to become transparent to the viewer.

Incidentally, what were the issues in the rift between Stewart and Mann.~Al Lowe

There is more than one version of what led to their “creative differences”, Al, but the tensions between the two apparently came to a head during pre-production of Night Passage. Stewart was eager to have Mann direct this late ’50s film, but Mann thought the script was inadequate. He believed that Night Passage gave Stewart the kind of things that actor loved to do, (and in the actor’s case this included playing the accordian in the movie, a skill that he had learned as a youngster), but the story never developed enough to make the project appealing to Mann.

Stewart and Mann reportedly became friendly again eventually, but they never teamed again creatively. Of course, during their work together, the two helped to transform the movie industry as they hopscotched from studio to studio and made star profit sharing a new way of adding clout to an actor’s dealmaking. Though I know that most people feel that Stewart’s work with Capra and Hitchcock were his most successful partnerships, I tend to favor the territory that Mann-Stewart explored.

Btw, I agree about The Man of the West.

Thanks to each of you for your comments. They make my day!
Moira

Posted By 42nd Street Memories : July 25, 2008 8:15 am

Night Passage surely lacked the Mann touch and it is a shame that he backed out of the production. The ingredients are all there including a great setting for the shootout finale, Duryea being Duryea and Audie Murphy in a somewhat villainous role as the Utica Kid (sidenote: Murphy, my childhood hero, was excellent in baby face heavy roles such as No Name On The Bullet, The Unforgiven and Night Passage). Director James Neilson was more of a TV talent and this plays like a Movie of the Week. The romantic and accordion interludes are brain numbingly bad. And Stewart looks like the role didn’t challenge him….and it didn’t. Mann was sorely missed in this one.

Posted By 42nd Street Memories : July 25, 2008 8:15 am

Night Passage surely lacked the Mann touch and it is a shame that he backed out of the production. The ingredients are all there including a great setting for the shootout finale, Duryea being Duryea and Audie Murphy in a somewhat villainous role as the Utica Kid (sidenote: Murphy, my childhood hero, was excellent in baby face heavy roles such as No Name On The Bullet, The Unforgiven and Night Passage). Director James Neilson was more of a TV talent and this plays like a Movie of the Week. The romantic and accordion interludes are brain numbingly bad. And Stewart looks like the role didn’t challenge him….and it didn’t. Mann was sorely missed in this one.

Posted By Chris : July 25, 2008 4:41 pm

Moira:

You’ve written a grand article on one of my favorite westerns. What drew me to this one is the intensity. The fights, Stewart’s hand getting shot, the painfully slow growth in the relationships with Crisp, Kennedy and Stewart. All this built around an interesting story. Power and greed usually make pretty good stories.

Posted By Chris : July 25, 2008 4:41 pm

Moira:

You’ve written a grand article on one of my favorite westerns. What drew me to this one is the intensity. The fights, Stewart’s hand getting shot, the painfully slow growth in the relationships with Crisp, Kennedy and Stewart. All this built around an interesting story. Power and greed usually make pretty good stories.

Posted By Suzi Doll : July 28, 2008 1:53 pm

Jimmy Stewart was at his best in the 1950s, and Man from Laramie is a good example. Nice detail about Donald Crisp, an extraordinary actor who needs his own day of films in August on TCM. Loved this post.

Posted By Suzi Doll : July 28, 2008 1:53 pm

Jimmy Stewart was at his best in the 1950s, and Man from Laramie is a good example. Nice detail about Donald Crisp, an extraordinary actor who needs his own day of films in August on TCM. Loved this post.

Posted By ian : September 26, 2008 12:12 pm

I hope that the attention that this post shone on Anthony Mann’s films might lead to more of his fascinating dual-edged movies being broadcast on TCM. I would be particularly interested in seeing the recently restored, critically undervalued version of “El Cid” (1961) broadcast soon. The epic scale of the emotions and the landscape and the complexity of heroism has never been captured more eloquently than in Mann’s work. This was especially true in those Jimmy Stewart Westerns but “El Cid” also deserves more recognition. We rarely see such filmmaking now. This fine piece made me want to see “The Man From Laramie” again.

Posted By ian : September 26, 2008 12:12 pm

I hope that the attention that this post shone on Anthony Mann’s films might lead to more of his fascinating dual-edged movies being broadcast on TCM. I would be particularly interested in seeing the recently restored, critically undervalued version of “El Cid” (1961) broadcast soon. The epic scale of the emotions and the landscape and the complexity of heroism has never been captured more eloquently than in Mann’s work. This was especially true in those Jimmy Stewart Westerns but “El Cid” also deserves more recognition. We rarely see such filmmaking now. This fine piece made me want to see “The Man From Laramie” again.

Posted By BLAKE : September 27, 2008 11:18 am

I’d like to see more attention paid to actors like Donald Crisp, who always made it look easy. I’ve only seen him in a few movies such as “How Green Was My Valley” but this article makes me want to see “The Man From Laramie”. Thanks for writing it.

Posted By BLAKE : September 27, 2008 11:18 am

I’d like to see more attention paid to actors like Donald Crisp, who always made it look easy. I’ve only seen him in a few movies such as “How Green Was My Valley” but this article makes me want to see “The Man From Laramie”. Thanks for writing it.

Posted By TCM’s Classic Movie Blog : May 20, 2009 8:12 pm

[...] was more fully developed in Anthony Mann’s The Man From Laramie (1955), which I wrote about here in an earlier [...]

Posted By TCM’s Classic Movie Blog : May 20, 2009 8:12 pm

[...] was more fully developed in Anthony Mann’s The Man From Laramie (1955), which I wrote about here in an earlier [...]

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