God Goes West

One of our watch party gang requested westerns, and another didn’t like westerns, so I tried to find two westerns that weren’t.

Jacques Tourneur’s STARS IN MY CROWN is set in a small western town but doesn’t really have any of the expected action and Joel McCrea plays a parson. It’s wonderful, though.

WINCHESTER ’73 is pretty much a pure western but it’s wall-to-wall film noir people. Anthony Mann, Shelley Winters, Dan Duryea. Seeing it on my little b&&w portable as a youngster was a decisive cinephile moment, I don’t know why. But I was immediately taken with Duryea.

I guess you could say these films offer contrasting visions of America. STARS is pretty timely, actually: McCrea considers his work so important he continues going door to door after his young ward comes down with typhus, and there’s reason to suspect he could be a super-spreader. McCrea comes to see this as a mistake — the film eventually lets him off the hook, rather, but it’s an interesting point.

Little Dean Stockwell complains of the quarantine lockdown — “It’s like we’re all in jail only we ain’t done nuthin’.”

Then there are these guys. I wish they didn’t seem equally timely.

I remembered McCrea’s great scene facing down the Klan armed only with a couple sheets of paper, to save Juano Hernandez from the noose. I’d forgotten it was the climax, but of course, how could they top it?

STARS gives the lie to the idea that a western can tell any kind of story. I don’t think it can tell a pacifist one. McCrea’s preacher has been a soldier, but he isn’t about to strap on his guns again, and so it never feels like SHANE or something, where the moment may be deferred, but is inevitably coming. So we have a film with all the accoutrements of a western, the period and the Americana, but we just can’t call it one.

WINCHESTER ’73, as the title implies, is one of the most gun-obsessed westerns ever made. Not the rootin’-tootin’est, but possibly the shootin’est. But at least it has an interesting female character. Mann’s westerns usually did. Unlike Ford he didn’t primarily regard women as homemakers…

It turns out to be an almost biblical tale of blood vengeance, and I realise now that not only is Duryea scary and crazy, but very hep and modern. And he can wheedle arrogantly, which is some trick. When he’s identified as the fastest gun in Texas, he wheedles, “Texas? Baby, why limit me?” Also, he’s the only person in the film who seems to be having a good time.

STARS IN MY CROWN stars John L. Sullivan; Sofia de Peralta-Reavis ‘The Baroness’; Doctor Wellington Yueh; Little John; Nayland Smith; Duke Harris; Miss Robin Crusoe; Lucas Beauchamp; Homer Higgins; Juror 10; Butch Cassidy; ‘Dum-Dum’ Clarke; Col. Edward Carruthers; ‘The Thing’; and Pee Wee.

WINCHESTER ’73 stars John ‘Scottie’ Ferguson; Charlotte Haze; Duke Pastrami; Sheriff Al Chambers; Senate Minority Leader; Marvin Unger; Jordan ‘Bick’ Benedict Jr.; ‘Teddy Roosevelt’ Brewster; Chota; and Sidney Falco.

9 Responses to “God Goes West”

  1. David Ehrenstein Says:

    “Stars in My Crown” is one of the best films about white rcism ever made in this country (second only to Mankiewicz’s “No Way Out”) It’s notable for any number of things, the most interesting IMO is that is hero is a preacher yet the film is free of religious cant. Tourneur so wanted to make it that he took a pay cut to do so. This doomed him to “B” movies for the rest of his life. Thus “Stars in My Crown” is an act of pfofessional heroism on Tourneur’s part.

  2. It’s striking that MGM made this and Intruder in the Dust, both with Juano Hernandez, both passion projects from directors not otherwise noted for social conscience type films. I guess both produce romantic “solutions” to the problems, but intelligent audiences can see through to the reality.

  3. Tony Williams Says:

    I’ve heard so much about STARS in the past that I had to acquire it and was not disappointed for reasons you both mention. WINCHESTER 73 was once known in an early Bright Lights article as “The House of Atreus Goes West.” How I miss those days of better enrollments when I could run a Mann class regularly.

  4. I think I’ll be watching more Tourneur as Halloween approaches…

  5. Sudarshan Ramani Says:

    Stars in my Crown is certainly among the earliest “public health” movies dealing with a disease outbreak. “Driftwood” by Dwan is another. Then you have Kazan’s “Panic in the Streets”. Obviously COVID is gonna reshape the canon of cinema and the curriculum for the next few years. That might get Stars in my Crown more attention.

    And it’s certainly one of the very few genuine anti-racist films of that time. And yeah NO WAY OUT is also in that list. My view, it’s Joseph Mankiewicz’s best film.

  6. I think Wilhelm Reich, before he went full nuts, postulated that fascist followers were essentially asleep, and needed to be awoken. What McCrea does in this film is awaken the individual human beings asleep under their hoods. It wouldn’t work out that way in real life, but I love the principle of it.

  7. David Ehrenstein Says:

    “No Way Out”wasmade the same year Mankiewicz turned out an obscure potboiler you may have heard of entitled “All About Eve”

  8. Sudarshan Ramani Says:

    All About Eve is great too. I guess it’s a bit like Leo McCarey getting the Oscar for The Awful Truth the same year he made Make Way for Tomorrow, and saying that the Academy gave him the award for the wrong movie he made that year.

  9. Stars in My Crown is *so* underrated and underseen! Such a moving film, nice to see it get some attention here.

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