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Two Rode Together is a problem western for John Ford. Fairly lively on the character level, it lacks the full spark of the director's talent. Although the subject matter of Will Cook's novel is more adult than ever, the film's dramatic potential is undercut by tiresome slapstick nonsense. Ford doesn't fully engage with either, and instead relies on the can't-fail charm of James Stewart to carry most of this interesting picture.
Screenwriter Frank S. Nugent tackles a near-replay of major themes from John Ford's The Searchers, on a smaller scale. Corrupt Marshal Guthrie McCabe (James Stewart) skims 10% of all business in Tascosa, and spends most of his time drinking beer on the porch of the bar/brothel owned by Belle Aragon (Annelle Hayes). Then he's roped into accompanying Cavalry Lt. Jim Gary (Richard Widmark) to negotiate with the Comanche Chief Quanah Parker (Henry Brandon) for the return of white captives. In hopes of recovering their stolen children, a sizeable group of families has encamped at the fort of Major Frazer (John McIntire). Frazer has unrealistic ideas of the odds of success, and the civilians likewise expect their lost family members to magically return as they once were. To Jim's consternation, Guthrie brings a stock of rifles along, to insure that Quanah Parker will trade. Quanah gives up three captives. "Wakanana" (Regina Carrol) prefers to stay with her Indian husband. McCabe must tie a violent white teenager now known as Running Wolf (David Kent) to his saddle. Guthrie takes him because he's made a lucrative deal with one of the civilians, McCandless (stunt director Cliff Lyons). The man will accept any captive boy to make his heartbroken wife Mary (Jeanette Nolan) happy. The third captive is a Mexican señora, Elena de la Madriaga (Linda Cristal). She's married to Stone Calf (Woody Strode), a warrior who challenges Quanah Parker's leadership. Parker purposely hands Elena over in the hope that the sharpshooting Guthrie will rid him of Stone Calf.
John Ford's impressive pictorial style in The Searchers made the West look pure, as if sanctified by heaven. Although Charles Lawton Jr.'s cinematography is attractive, this may be Ford's first western not to exploit striking exterior landscape compositions. Most of the film's interiors are shot in static wide masters suitable for a silent movie, as if Ford were too lazy or tired to direct for the camera. This works well enough when the actors are lively and the slightly cynical script is in good humor. Yet the camera almost invariably faces one way, with the actors arrayed as if on a stage.
Ford doesn't alter this formula even in the film's most violent moments. In the film's most tense confrontation, a menacing Indian warrior walks almost casually into the frame, and is shot down. A tragic lynching scene uses only three or four angles (plus cutaway close-ups) to show a mob dragging its victim past a wagon on the way to the hanging tree. Everything cuts, but Ford seems to be relying on George Duning's music to generate excitement.
Ford's simplified direction may have been an economic necessity. By the middle 1950s he had fairly used up the possibilities of his beloved Monument Valley, so we don't mind that this show is not yet another epic dominated by that strange landscape. Stewart and Widmark's fees could very well have accounted for the bulk of the film's budget, ruling out distant locations. In interviews about 'Pappy' Ford, James Stewart implied that he was the meek actor in the presence of the master director. But we can see that Stewart is carrying much of the picture. Resting by a creek-side, Stewart and Richard Widmark carry on a loose conversation that goes on for perhaps three full minutes. It stops only when the actors finally run out of lines to improvise. The camera remains stock-still.
On a character level Two Rode Together is frequently very rewarding. Having graduated from his Anthony Mann 'neurotic hero' westerns, Stewart's Marshal is an amusingly thorough opportunist, throwing his weight around Tascosa and making money sitting on a porch chair. Belle Aragon apparently sleeps with him at her pleasure and carries a knife on her thigh to keep him in line. With zero interest in doing anything for free, McCabe takes on the rescue mission only when a civilian promises him a bonus of a thousand dollars. Stewart gets exactly one 'Anthony Mann' moment when he draws his pistol on Richard Widmark. The scene tries to provide some sense of character tension, but it's almost a throwaway.
The Searchers impressed audiences with its acknowledgment of racial prejudice. Two Rode Together makes white bigotry its main concern. The Indians may be rough on their captives but they form relationships equally as solid as those in the white community. The attempts to return the captives result in failure or tragedy. The blonde Kristin refuses to go, and remains in the tribe, as Wakanana. The only thing to do is to lie to her father, the forlorn Ole Knudsen (permanent Ford fixture John Qualen). Running Wolf has dropped any trace of his white identity, and poses an obvious menace to the civilians back in the camp. Audiences in 1961 would have related to the character as an even more dangerous variety of teenage delinquent. Elena Madriaga rather unaccountably accepts the fate of her beloved Comanche husband and voluntarily returns, only to bear the brunt of white prejudice and cruelty back at the fort. Because she has been 'defiled' by a savage, she's no longer socially acceptable on any level. Jim and Guthrie take turns lecturing the bigots and biddies at the fort, but their words have no measurable effect.
Guthrie McCabe is drawn to Elena, while Jim "goes soft" on the young and spirited Mary Purcell (Shirley Jones), who had hoped to be reunited with her long-lost brother. Their courtship is handled in annoying Ford nonsense fashion, with a tough 40+ cavalry officer acting like as shy as a ten-year-old. There's also a clownish fistfight between Jim and the moronic Clegg Brothers Ortho and Greeley (Ford players Harry Carey Jr. & Ken Curtis). They're made to act like broad "Charley McCorry" clowns. 1 We much prefer Stewart's semi-comic relationship with the humorless Belle Aragon, who isn't about to let sentiment enter the picture, not for a moment.
Although Ford frequently expressed sympathy for minorities, his depiction of them never really changed much. As in The Searchers, Anglo actor Henry Brandon once again draws Heap Big Injun Chief duty. But this time he's equally as conniving as his white counterparts. Quanah Parker sneers at Stone Calf for believing that a foolish religious shield ceremony can offer protection from the white man's bullets. Black acting icon Woody Strode takes a demotion from his leading role in Sgt.Rutledge, but we're given to understand that members of Ford's stock company were expected to accept any role he offered them. Strode plays a Native American here, and would later play a Chinese bandit in Seven Women.
Other Ford stock company players are Olive Carey, Harry Carey Jr., Ken Curtis, Anna Lee and O.Z. Whitehead. "Emeritus" Ford actress Mae Marsh appears as a loony old white captive. The star of the original Birth of a Nation makes a strong impression despite being seen in exactly one shot. The husband & wife acting team of John McIntire and Jeanette Nolan have featured roles; Ms. Nolan's frantic Mrs. McCandless is the most sympathetic of the settlers desperate to recover lost children. 2
Recent Oscar winner Shirley Jones receives preferred billing but hasn't a particularly rewarding role. In her one really memorable scene, what sticks with us is not Ms. Jones, but the horrifying meaning of a fancy music box. Leading lady honors go to Argentine beauty Linda Cristal, as the Mexican woman 'of good family' newly returned from the Indian camp. Ford allows Elena some worthy close-up reactions before having her break down emotionally. Elena gravitates toward strong men -- first Stone Calf and now Guthrie McCabe.
The film makes a big point of the fact that the biddies at the fort consider Elena's presence an obscene scandal, when she is obviously a lady of quality. This simplified view doesn't take into account that the fort's mostly Irish American immigrants would most likely discriminate against Elena just for being Mexican. For that matter, higher Mexican society might reject Elena as well, as racial and class discrimination would arguably be even more pronounced South of the border. Ford insists on characterizing Elena as a delicate, sheltered princess, despite having lived for several years as the woman of a Comanche warrior. A more 'evolved' Latina character appeared a decade earlier, in Fred Zinnemann's High Noon. Faced with a hostile Anglo culture, the proud Katy Jurado's defense is to erect a cold wall of disdain. Two Rode Together's character dynamics don't probe very deeply into its main theme.
James Stewart's personality carries both the comic-cynical and sincere-sentimental episodes of the movie, keeping the audience engaged with the picture. The star clearly made the grade with director Ford... their next time together at bat would be in the more memorable John Wayne picture The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.
The Twilight Time Blu-ray of Two Rode Together is a good reminder of how attractive this picture can look in a proper presentation. Cinematographer Charles Lawton Jr.'s taste and discretion makes Ford's simple choice of shots look their best. The movie's many wide master shots did not fare well in old television screenings because the unmasked 1:33 prints marooned the actors as tiny figures, with acres of headroom above and foot room below. Until I saw Two Rode Together on a big screen I thought that Running Wolf had been played by Sal Mineo. The actor's face was always so small in the frame.
Twilight Time's presentation gives us an Isolated Score Track in which Columbia house composer George Duning provides excellent counterpoint to Ford's direction. The original trailer argues that fans that want real western adventure should forget the tiny B&W TV fare and instead take in the big screen impact of the colorful Two Rode Together. Julie Kirgo's thoughtful liner notes provide career context for what became a lesser Ford picture, and sharp insights into the way the film breaks down Ford's tenets of family solidarity.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Two Rode Together Blu-ray rates:
1. In the nighttime fight between Jim and the Cleggs, go into Two Rode Together at 46 minutes and approx. 29 seconds. A blur flashes across the lower part of the image in just one frame. It's clearly John Ford's hand, signaling Andy Devine to make his entrance into the scene. Way to go Mr. Ford! It's been reported that the director was upset when filming his segment of How the West Was Won, because he couldn't take his usual sitting position in front of and below the camera. In Cinerama, all crew people had to stay well behind the camera or they'd be in the shot!
2. Then there's Ted Knight's bit as the rude Lt. Upton. Fans of the '70s The Mary Tyler Moore Show know Knight well. The problem here is that I can't connect the face in this movie with the later 'Ted Baxter' look. Mr. Knight must have gone through a serious image change.
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T'was Ever Thus.