On most days, the most taxing thing that Guthrie McCabe (James Stewart) has to do in his job as Marshall of Tascosa is leaning a foot to the left so a waiter can light his cigar. From a chair on the porch of the saloon owned by his significant other, Belle Aragon (Annelle Hayes) -- from which he collects 10% of the profits -- he can perform all of his other civic duties, like yelling at his brain-dead deputy what to do with the drunks when the city judge is also drunk (answer: give 'em a free drink). McCabe's cushy gig is interrupted when his old friend First Lieutenant Jim Gary (Richard Widmark) rides into town and tells him to accompany him to see his superior officer, with or without handcuffs. McCabe chooses without, but he finds himself tied up anyway, tasked by the Army to help rescue white prisoners from Comanche territory.
The production of Two Rode Together was notoriously troubled -- director John Ford took the gig for the money, and felt the script was still "crap" even after he brought his friend Frank Nugent on to give it a rewrite. When one of Ford's close friends happened to pass away, Ford sank into a depression, and both Stewart and Widmark would go onto tell stories in their respective biographies about how Ford tried to raise tension between the two actors and was often temperamental or obtuse. The strained birthing process shows in the finished product, which is an unusually bitter movie, even aside from its outdated sexism and racism. It's not a film without merit, but it's definitely a footnote in Ford's long and daunting career.
For one thing, there are almost no heroes in this story, least of all McCabe. When presented with the Army's request, despite having to push through a crowd of people practically keeled over at the very sight of him, he's got zero reservations about heading back to Tascosa and forgetting about the whole thing. Only the promise of money sways his decision, and even then, the Army's paltry offer of $80 a month (the same as Gary's actual salary) won't satisfy his demands. He proceeds to bilk the people in the camp -- families desperate to find loved ones lost up to 15 years ago -- for their last nickel and dime. He even accept one man's offer of $1000 just to bring back any old kid so the guy can make good on his promise to his wife to find her missing boy. There are hints of a slight transformation in McCabe's arc, but even as the story draws to a close, it's still up in the air whether he's more interested in money or people.
Gary is moderately more upstanding. Just before he and McCabe set out for Comanche territory, he meets Marty Purcell (Shirley Jones), a young woman who is wracked with guilt over the disappearance of her young brother. She clings to his music box, 9 years after he was taken, and Gary agrees to make sure McCabe has an eye out for him. Still, Gary's not much for fighting, willing to stand his ground over a couple of creeps who keep hitting on Marty, but unwilling to really go after his old friend McCabe over his mercenary attitude toward the mission. During their most heated exchange, McCabe even pulls a gun on him, and Gary just walks away, content that screwing up some of McCabe's business is a better punishment than calling him out. The men are only able to rescue two people from the Comanche camp, one of whom is Elena de la Madriaga (Linda Cristal), a woman who spent years married to the brutal Stone Calf (Woody Strode). She's the closest the movie has to an innocent or kindly character, and she suffers a string of emotional cruelties at the hands of white folk who look on her as more of a curiosity than a human being.
The portrayal of the Comanches as wild savages is suspect, although the film does give some screen time to the idea of assimilation (even if what the captives have been assimilated into amounts to a loss of humanity) and the need to let wounds heal instead of remaining open. It also fully highlights the racism that Elena faces once she is freed from Stone Calf's clutches. Unfortunately, these themes feel distanced from the core story about an unlikable man and his spineless friend agreeing to go along with a poor idea, and their emotional state in the aftermath, even though they are not really the affected parties. Stewart and Widmark both do a great job of this, managing to make both characters compelling in their awfulness, and their on-screen chemistry with one another is undeniable (the sight of McCabe, plastered on whiskey, sarcastically saluting Gary is very funny), but the journey is scattershot and unfocused. Ford would go on to make The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance with Stewart after this, their first collaboration, so film history owes Two Rode Together a debt of gratitude. On the other hand, perhaps the best way to repay that gratitude is to let Two Rode Together disappear among Ford's more impressive pictures.
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