PRINT May 1969


Two Rode Together

Two Rode Together, a 1961 cavalry film that has been holed up this winter at a campsite in the Museum of Modern Art, has the discombobulated effect of a Western that was dreamt by a kid snoozing in an Esso station in Linden, New Jersey. Two wrangling friends, a money-grubbing marshall (Jimmy Stewart) and a cavalry captain (Richard Widmark, who has the look of a ham that has been smoked, cured, and then coated with honey-colored shellac), seek out a Comanche named Parker and trade him a stunningly new arsenal of guns and knives for a screaming little Bowery Boy with braids who’s only bearable in the last shot when the camera just shows his legs hanging limply from a lynching tree.

The movie’s mentally-retarded quality comes from the discordancy and quality of the parts: it’s not only that they don’t go together, they’re crazy to start with. Each woman and Indian is from a different age in operetta and a different part of the globe. The Indians include an overdeveloped weight lifter, a sad Pagliacci trying hard not to let his flabby stomach show, plus the above Leo Gorcey tough with his histrionic impression of a monkey on hot coals. The movie wobbles most with Widmark, embarrassed but strangely submitting to courting scenes with Shirley Jones that are filled with temerity and wide-eyed hopefulness. His tomboy sweetheart, a fräulein out of the Student Prince with two thick long yellow braids and enough makeup to equal Widmark’s, has a fixation on a music box and runs to it at every chance.

The movie is a curious blend of modern blat and a senile impression of frontier culture that derives from the cheapest and oldest movies about pre-railroad days in Indian territory. There is a wild non sequitur quality about the courtship, frontier dialogue, and spitting, thin-skinned, stupidly stubborn Indians taking place in a free-for-all atmosphere in which not one detail or scene goes with another. In general, it is Widmark and Stewart, like two Pinter characters, separated out from a stiff (despite the yelling and flouncing), corny, TV-styled production going on behind them. Throughout, these actors barely listen to each other, and, affecting a curious, dragged out, folksy dialect, they take up great amounts of space with words that are from Dimwit’s Land. “No! She didn’t kill herself, ladies and gentlemen. Not because she was a coward, but because her religion forbade her. Sometimes, it takes more courage to live than to die.” Facetiously delivering this speech, Stewart is operating here in a feeble, tensionless mock-up of an officers’ cotillion at the local fort. (I kept wondering: why are they, dragging in a dance? Could it be to squeeze that white hypocrisy speech into the remains of a script previously taken up with removing the normal skin tone, stealth, dignity, and clothes sense from Indians?)

It is filled with cliché conceptions: of an Indian camp, a Texas Guinan seenioreeta who owns the saloon and the town, slow-witted people, an innocent tomboy heroine throwing a barrel of flour over the two Cleggs who come courting her, country bumpkins having a fight in the woods. These one-dimensional impressions could embarrass any actor but what is staggeringly insensitive about the treatment is the way an actor is made so ridiculous by the camera treatment, either being locked, sliced in two, or frittered away in golden shoe polish by pictorial setups. A dependable TV actress, Jeanette Nolan, is murdered, long before the Me Comanchah kid gets her, by compositions which turn her into an unpleasant portrait of pleading, cropping her at the hips and hardening her flat, angular face and loud voice. Mae Marsh, formidable in silents and early talkies for her gentle, underscored beauty, is waylaid, not so much by her corny “I had a white husband once” dialogue and a makeup job midway between a clown face and Molly Drunk All Night, but by a wigwam composition in which, bent over, she seems to cringe out of a sea of blue ink.

The fascination of the director with lines of action in deep space adds ten lethal minutes here and there of illogicality, to a script that is already overloaded with fat items: capitalist law enforcers, matricide, overbearing mothers. For instance, the Widmark-Stewart team leads a wagon train into the wilderness through bogs of bumpkin comedy and tinsel wooing. Later, after a brief moment at a campsite, all these people are mysteriously back in the fort as though they’d never left it.

It’s incredible, the amount of leeway that is allowed. If a prop man locates a bench from an antique store next to a tree in a just-set-up campsite, the scene stays in though the film for the preceding five minutes has been insisting on formidable wilderness. This is studio movie-making at its slackest.

All these gauche, careless skills—the uglification of actors (padding a buxom barmaid, Annelle Hayes, so that her bust line starts angling out from the collarbone and doesn’t turn in till it reaches her waist), the jerky progress from melodrama to bathos to camp, the TV Western feeling of no flow, outdoors, or sense of period (Stewart is wearing a jacket from Abercrombie, all Indians and their tents are from a psychotics’ Halloween Ball)—are the responsibility of John Ford, a director generally noted for making movies with a poetic and limitless knowledge of Indians, ranging farthest across the landscape of the American past, and being the moviemaker’s Mr. Movie.

Manny Farber