The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Friday, December 18, 2015

The Wonderful Country

Compared to the 1960's, the 1950's just doesn't stand up for me when it comes to the western genre. Movies were too much soap opera, not enough wild west. Sure, there were plenty of good to great to classic entries, but the following decade was a stretch of a genre at its best. Closing out the decade strong though was a 1957 western that's been generally forgotten over the years, The Wonderful Country.

Working for the powerful Castro family in Mexico, gunfighter and hired gun Martin Brady (Robert Mitchum) is crossing the Rio Grande and entering the United States. An incident from his past drastically changed his life, forcing him to retreat into Mexico where he developed a name for himself as quite the dangerous pistolero. Now, he's on a mission from the Castros to pick up an illegal shipment of repeating rifles and ammunition. It isn't soon after crossing the border that his horse throws him, breaking Martin's leg. He can't ride so he's forced to wait and heal in the border town, shipping the guns and ammunition back to Mexico without him. So with nothing to do but wait, Martin sits back and heals but doesn't quite know what awaits him. People from his past, new acquaintances, and those who want to see him dead, they all await in the coming weeks, especially when news reaches town that the gun shipment has been stolen. But by who?

What an interesting, genuinely odd, even offbeat movie. I watched this western from director Robert Parrish years ago and revisited it recently when it popped up on MGM-HD. I liked it a lot then, and a second viewing produced the same result...albeit with the same response. This is an odd movie, no doubt about it. There are touches of an almost art-house film sprinkled throughout. The story is disjointed to say the least, covering months (and maybe more) from beginning to end but with no real sense of the passage of time. But coursing through it all, an odd energy hangs in the air that I found appealing. A bit of a mess but a good mess to watch.

Robert Mitchum was the best. He had no rivals, a rogue in Hollywood before it was cool to be a rogue. He was one of the first anti-heroes too, the tortured hero who transitioned into bigger and better. One of his specialties? As I've mentioned before, Mitchum was drawn to Mexico including this film but also The Wrath of God, Villa Rides, 5 Card Stud, Bandido and probably several more I'm forgetting. Who better then to play an expatriate American who embraced the Mexican lifestyle almost entirely? I can't think of anyone.

Mitchum's Martin Brady is the one constant through all the craziness and winding story. Yeah, his accent is a little rough at times, but when he speaks Spanish, this isn't an actor remembering his lines. He speaks it fluently. But the character as a whole is interesting because it feels so ahead of its time. This is the somber, even doomed gunfighter running from his past but not really knowing what the future holds for him. All he's known is his pistol, but his ability with the gun has him tied down so he can't escape. From the look of the character -- the immense sombrero, the stubble, the vaquero attire -- to the potentially doomed development, it's a more than worthwhile lead performance.

The rest of the cast is more of an ensemble with a few bright spots. Julie London plays Helen Colton, the wife of the local army outpost commander, Major Stark Colton (Gary Merrill), a generally ineffective officer. Helen has a past and is drawn to Mitchum's Brady but she may have other ideas. But then things get weird in almost variety show ensemble territory, including Albert Dekker (a Texas Ranger captain), Jack Oakie (a well-meaning railroad man), scene-stealing Charles McGraw (an amiable doctor), former Negro League/MLB pitcher Satchel Paige (a cavalryman, a Buffalo Soldier), Anthony Caruso (a Mexican farmer), Mike Kellin (a Mexican pistolero), Victor Manuel Mendoza (the army officer) and his brother, the Governor (Pedro Armendariz), John Banner (the German store owner), Jay Novello (a Mexican soldier and Brady's friend) and Max Slaten (his naive visiting nephew). Enough for you? McGraw is especially good, as is Armendariz in a smaller part.

Definitely worth mentioning is the visual appeal of the movie. 'Country' filmed on-location in Mexico, making the movie look almost like a country's tour guide. Some locations are familiar from other like-minded westerns, but for the most part, you're seeing a country as it is, not done up for the sake of a movie. With a Mexican-themed score combined with that beautiful countryside serving as a backdrop, we've got a winner in the technical department. Sure, the story drifts along too much, bouncing from one character and situation to the next almost without warning, but this is a movie that's very enjoyable if you drift along with it. Not a classic, but a pretty darn good western.

The Wonderful Country (1959): ***/****

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