Welcome aboard, Foxy! Hard-core movie lovers know that the studios' M.O.D. (manufactured on demand) services initiated by Warner Bros.' successful Archive Collection have been an absolute boon to those looking for difficult-to-find library and cult titles not considered commercially viable for mass-market disc printing. So along with Warners, Sony's Columbia vaults and M-G-M, Twentieth Century-Fox joins the M.O.D. market with their Cinema Archives line―and a most welcome addition it is. I'll be reviewing several of their introductory titles this week, and first up is Way of a Gaucho, the 1952 Fox "Western" starring Rory Calhoun, Gene Tierney, Richard Boone, Hugh Marlowe, and Everett Sloane. Scripted by prolific Fox producer/writer Philip Dunne and directed by Jacques Tourneur, Way of a Gaucho's solid lead performances and its less-familiar Argentinean setting (featuring beautiful on-location cinematography courtesy of Harry Jackson), help put over this tight Western. No extras for this good-looking transfer.
Argentina in the 1870s. Wealthy landowner Don Miguel Aleondo (Hugh Marlowe) has returned from Buenos Aires to the endless grasslands known as the pampas, to further bring European-influenced/city-styled civilization to his newly unified country. To the gauchos, though, the proud, wild, violent cowboys who live a nomadic existence off the land's free-ranging cattle, this encroaching development will ultimately spell their doom. Fiercely independent gaucho Martin Penalosa (Rory Calhoun), the adopted brother of Don Miguel, has no use for what is happening to the only way of life he knows, but Don Miguel is his patron, and he will follow his orders. Unfortunately, the rift between the brothers' philosophies becomes immediately apparent at Don Miguel's welcome home celebration: Martin kills a gaucho who insults Don Miguel as a weakling given over to "foreign" influences. Unlike their father, who would have thought nothing of Martin's honorable act of vengeance, Don Miguel agrees that Martin should go to jail for his crime, because the age of independent rulers autonomous from a central government, is gone. To avoid a death sentence, Martin is forced into the Army militia, where he meets fellow gaucho and malcontent, Falcon (Everett Sloane), as well as his commanding officer: cold, rigid, disciplined Major Salinas (Richard Boone). Unable to adopt not only the military's discipline but also its philosophy of fighting the native Indian population to further "civilize" the pampas, Martin deserts and almost immediately rescues lovely Teresa Chavez (Gene Tierney) from an Indian raiding party. Soon, Martin learns the penalties of fighting against the inevitable fate of changing times, but also the joys of finding love as free and unfettered as the pampas he roams (hee hee!).
Based on a novel by Herbert Childs (with a story that seems directly lifted from the famous Argentinean poem, Martin Fierro by Jose Hernandez, about a gaucho who is drafted and then deserts to become a rebel leader), Way of a Gaucho wasn't at all familiar to me when it arrived in Fox's sepia-toned disc case (a design feature used for all their Cinema Archives M.O.D.s, apparently). If I saw it as a kid, I don't remember it, and it doesn't seem to be a title I've seen crop up on cable too often over the years (if at all). So I came to Way of a Gaucho completely open...and it worked well enough as an interesting twist on the usual 50s Western genre. Reading that synopsis above, and noting who's starring here, one might have the expectation that Way of a Gaucho would be some unashamed, pulpy, studio fun...if you didn't notice producer/writer Philip Dunne's name attached to the credits. A solid writer of all kinds of middle-brow entertainments, usually at his home studio of 20th Century-Fox (How Green Was My Valley, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, Pinky, David and Bathsheba, The Robe, The Egyptian, The Agony and the Ecstasy), Dunne wasn't about to let a project like Way of a Gaucho descend into lurid melodrama, opting instead for a tone of "respectable" melodrama that is at times, a tad stuffy.
Dunne and director Jacques Tourneur (Cat People, I Walked With a Zombie, Out of the Past, The Fearmakers, War-Gods of the Deep) treat Way of a Gaucho as if its serious drama, giving it an atmosphere of gravity and weightiness that I'm not sure is in the movie's best interest. "Sincerity" is fine for greeting cards and job interviews, but it's tricky business in movies designed strictly as entertainments―particularly when we're talking about a movie dealing with wild, savage gauchos and untamed pampas lovemaking...starring of all people Rory Calhoun and Gene Tierney, for god's sake. Most newer critics―who importantly weren't raised on these older studio titles―lament the "unrealistic" treatments of such entertainments (as if new movies are somehow more "honest")...but who the hell wants realism in a movie called Way of a Gaucho starring Calhoun and Tierney? Of course one can snort and say it's silly to see Rory Calhoun as a untamed gaucho discussing his love of the pampas, but that's an old critical crutch―laughing at Hollywood stars' casting assignments―that, seen in context, is more amusing than the sometimes comical mix of star and role. After all, what could be more typically "Hollywood"―and therefore more typically delightful―than seeing someone like Gene Tierney trying to be a well-bred Argentinean mistress of a bloodthirsty gaucho? That's one of the enduring magical byproducts of the long-gone Hollywood studio system, and I wouldn't have it any other way (anyone looking for "realism" in these kinds of movies is of course looking the wrong way at the wrong things).
No, if anything, Way of a Gaucho needed more silliness and less respectability. Occasionally you'll get a glimpse of what Way of a Gaucho could have been ("Even the strongest bulls have sickly calves," is how law-abiding wuss Hugh Marlowe is fruitily described) before Dunne's good taste reins it back in. Boone and Calhoun are supposed to be deadly enemies, but they treat each other with such careful, measured respect one has to wonder if they're cruel soldier and ferocious gaucho battling to the death...or rivals for the mid-Western Kansas Rotary chairmanship. When Calhoun rescues proper Argentinean lady Tierney and begins an epic journey back across the pampas, Tourneur shoots an amazing shot of Tierney seething with lust as she looks at silhouetted Calhoun, who's looking right back at her. But do we get a clinch? Or even a half-hearted mauling and/or petting? Nope. Calhoun magically disappears and the scene is over. So much for pampas passion (Calhoun and Tierney occupy two entirely different gestalts of star attraction; it would have been fascinating to see the ethereal-yet-carnally-sublimated Tierney abused by rough trade Rory...but no dice, kids).
Still...one probably shouldn't review Way of a Gaucho for what it isn't instead of what it is, and as such...it's a pretty solid Western, with the same obsession so many 50s American Westerns had: the fantasy of the violent, proud male who fights the civilizing forces of modern times...only to nobly "lose" at the end (SPOILER WARNING! of course Way of a Gaucho wants you to all be good little citizens, implying Calhoun "wins" by getting Tierney and submitting himself to the inevitabilities of "the law" and "civilized society," but we all know deep down he's been completely emasculated). It's also interesting to see Calhoun's character in a novel mix of traditional Western loner/malcontent/anti-authoritarian figure, morphed into a freedom fighter leading a band of rebels (almost occupying the traditional "Indian" role against the status quo cavalry). Dunne and Tourneur don't really comment on this switcheroo, but it does add a subtle semiological twist to the traditional Western codes fans of the genre expect. If the action isn't as heavy as one might like, there are still a few good set pieces that work, including Calhoun's torture at the hands of Boone (staked out in the sun for the tarantulas to get at) and the finale's cattle stampede (SPOILER WARNING! although Marlowe's death is unfortunately marred by primitive traveling matte work that's made worse by the degradation of this Technicolor® print, which makes Marlowe's horse look weirdly whitish green).
The unfamiliar Argentinean settings (shot on location) automatically raise Way of a Gaucho's stock just because it's not shot in the U.S. or Mexico like 99% of most 50s American Westerns. And the leads fit in nicely with the movie's requirements. Calhoun, a real-life hardass who served years in the joint, is fine as the proud, tough gaucho who would just as soon kill you as look at you (one always got the feeling Calhoun was the same way off-camera, too...), while heart-breakingly beautiful Tierney, completely wasted in a nothing part (this kind of second-billed role―to Rory Calhoun, no less―clearly spelled out that her career at Fox had already peaked), at least gets A-plus treatment in her close-ups, looking incomparably beautiful from any angle (Tourneur gets a shot of Tierney sprawled out in front of a lake that's as sexy and erotic as anything I've ever seen of the star). And while Boone isn't called on to do too much, either, he's well cast in the kind of role he'd play quite a few more times in his long career. Disappointing "respectability" aside, Way of a Gaucho at the very least gives you the appropriate movie star/genre pleasures.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.