The Sons of Katie Elder

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

Thursday, September 9, 2010

A Robert Stack double feature

As part of their annual Summer Under the Stars festival in August, Turner Classic Movies has again done a great job of going beyond the typically popular stars and devoting a day to them.  Sure, some of the bigger stars get their days, but for the most part lesser stars are getting their shots.  One included TV star Robert Stack who before he became Elliott Ness was in a fair number of movies in the 1950s. But I'm going to pull a bit of a cop-out here.  I taped two westerns Stack starred in, and really, neither was anything special.  So you all know what that means....a two-fer review!

The two westerns, 1956's Great Day in the Morning and 1953's Conquest of Cochise, are pretty typical of most 1950s westerns. They're hamstrung by a smallish budget and a small scale, and are basically filled out with enough good guy vs. bad guy action and romantic triangles to fill 90 minutes and give the audience what they paid for.  'Morning' has some unused potential to be a really good B-western while 'Conquest' is more content to just sit back with some odd casting and let the story do its own work.  Neither are available on DVD, probably for a reason, but I can think of worse westerns, and I've seen some doozies.

With war on the horizon in 1861, Owen Pentecost (Stack) rides west into Colorado.  A Southerner, he's used to putting up with some anti-South sentiments, even more so when he wins a saloon in a poker game from a northern businessman, Jumbo Means (Raymond Burr). With some help with a saloon girl (Ruth Roman), Owen goes about building a business as the Civil War looms and animosity grows between the North and South. A pretty new shopowner (Virginia Mayo) has arrived in town to stir up some more problems, and a rumor that a Southern-owned mine is transporting gold back to the east hovers over the town.

Watching movies, I struggle more and more with main characters who just aren't likable.  I don't need a lovey-dovey sweetheart, but give me some reason to like a character.  Stack's Pentecost (what kind of name is that?) is that condescending a-hole who comes across as too standoffish, and therefore, I don't like him.  Burr is an immense villain -- the guy looks huge -- and Roman delivers a good performance as the saloon girl with a heart of gold...sort of. The story deals with a topic most westerns steer clear of -- pre Civil War in the west -- but it's pretty run of the mill overall.  There was a chance to be something better, but I can't put my finger on exactly what's missing that director Jacques Tourneur didn't accomplish.  Look for Leo Gordon as a heavy with a grudge against Stack.

In 'Conquest,' Stack plays Major Tom Burke, a cavalry officer assigned with four companies to Tucson to help keep the hostile situation in control.  Apache chief Cochise (John Hodiak) could go either way, start a war with the ever-growing number of American settlers settling on Apache land, or arrange a peace treaty so the two sides may live in peace. That's just one problem though as a tribe of Comanches is nearby and threatening to attack everyone in sight, whites, Mexicans and Apaches alike. Major Burke and his cavalry and Cochise and his warriors may be forced to fight alongside each other if they have any chance of surviving the coming war.

What surprised me about this 70-minute western was the almost complete disregard for the cavalry perspective for a change, instead focusing on the Apache's perspective.  Once you get past the ridiculous casting of Hodiak as an Apache chief, it's a good ride.  When he's not talking in stunted, stilted "Indian talk," Hodiak is more than solid at introducing the Apache way of life.  For a B-western average in any other way, it's a refreshing look at the Indians' way of life in the 19th Century.  How authentic? I'm not sure, but effort gets points here.  Stack's portrayal of a woman-chasing cavalry officer is downright dull, and he ends up disappearing for about 20, maybe 25 minutes late in the movie only to reappear at a strategically necessary time.

Not being a huge Robert Stack fan to begin with -- he always come across as bland and wooden to me -- these two movies did nothing to change my mind either way.  The supporting casts were actually better than the star in both cases, and if nothing else the stories tried something new, a little different, where many westerns play it safe.  Average but not bad either.

Great Day in the Morning <---TCM trailer (1956): ** 1/2 /**** 
Conquest of Cochise <--- TCM trailer (1953): **/****

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