Nobody refers to 1951 as an annus mirabilis for Hollywood film, world cinema, or anything else for that matter. Which isn't to say that the year didn't see the release of some noteworthy, groundbreaking, or even classic films: '51 was the year of An American In Paris, A Place In The Sun, Strangers On A Train, and A Streetcar Named Desire, to name but a few American movies. (Quo Vadis was the year's box-office champ.) Our friends overseas gave us the likes of Tales of Hoffman and Rashomon.
And none of those pictures are even mentioned in Manny Farber's article " 'Best Films' of 1951," published in the January 5, 1952 number of The Nation. "Let Stevens and Kazan win their Oscars," Farber announces right off the bat; "The Nation's Emanuel—a life-size drip celluloid statue of Kirk Douglas, ranting and disintegrating in the vengeful throes of death—goes to the man or men responsible for each of the following unheralded productions of 1951." After this tongue-in-cheek (or was it? so hard to tell nowadays...) intro, Farber more-or-less soberly extols the virtues of a very interesting crop of genre pieces.
In celebration of Farber, and of the recent Library of America publication of Farber on Film, in which the above-cited piece is reprinted, I figured it would be fun, and perhaps even illuminating, to have a look at the pictures Farber praises therein. One a week, in order of citation, until we get to the end. And so we start with the Robert-Lippert-produced B Western Little Big Horn.
Here's Farber's mini-assessment: "This tough-minded, unconventional, persuasive look-in on a Seventh Cavalry patrol riding inexorably through hostile territory to ward Custer about the trap Sitting Bull had set for him, was almost as good in its unpolished handling of the regular army soldier as James Jones' big novel. For once, the men appear as individuals, rather than types—grousing, ornery, uprooted, complicated individuals, riding off to glory against their will and better judgment; working together as a team (for all their individualism) in a genuinely loose, efficient, unfriendly American style. The only naturalistic photography of the year; perhaps the best acting of the year in [John] Ireland's graceful, somber portrait of a warm-hearted but completely disillusioned lieutenant, who may or may not have philandered with his captain's wife."
I do love that tossed-off "unfriendly," don't you?
The captain mentioned is played by Lloyd Bridges, in a stolid, stiff by-the-book fashion that at the time probably recalled Fort Apache's martinet Colonel Thursday but will likely remind contemporary viewers of Bridges' self-spoofing in the Airplane! pictures and such. No matter. The wife is played by Marie Windsor, always a pleasure to see, but the love triangle here is really a red herring of sorts.
"Only naturalistic photography of the year:" I can't judge that statement entire, obviously. There are a few shots—the magnificent silhouette of the patrol lined up against the sunrise—that appear to be spliced in from other films, but otherwise, Warren's shot selection and cinematographer Ernest Miller's views are naturalistic indeed, and effectively so. They capture, almost to a fault, the tedium of riding/leading horses through rough terrain and trying not to advertise your presence to hostile forces. "Generations have trod, have trod, have trod," I thought at one point. I also recalled the concentrated shots of horses' hooves and knights' boots in Bresson's Lancelot du Lac. But this is a B Western after all, and Marquis is savvy and economical enough to know when and how to break up the simultaneous monotony/tension with an action jolt. I like how he stages a bit of hand-to-hand combat between Indian and army man near an open fire, for instance, for an extra frisson of sadistic potential.
What's unconventional about the picture is directly tied in to what Farber finds admirable about its depiction of army regulars. There are really only two through-lines in the film's story (the screenplay is also by Marquis, from a story by Harold Shumate): the resolution of the conflict between Bridges' and Irelands' characters, and the story of one of the regulars who's looking forward to meeting a mail-order bride, of sorts. The rest of the film has a more overtly modular feel than most, in that it contains what could be taken as discrete mini-narratives, each focusing on one aspect of the patrol and then another. There's a story of two-would be deserters and their fate; a story of how a deck of cards determines the choice of a "point rider" —or does it?; a story of a soldier who doesn't trust his Indian guide, and then has his life saved by him. All these present individual portraits of interesting characters, sharply drawn. While at the same time building up a feeling of dread for the fate this patrol has in store.
The tortured, half-crucified soldier propped up there like a scarecrow later asks his buddy, "Please shoot me," making me wonder if this film provided at least a soupçon of inspiration for a similar scene in Alien.
The way Marquis tips his narrative hand sometimes is kind of charming. This is a picture with practically no closeups; so, when this shot of King Donovan's Private Corbo occurs, you know something really bad has gone down.
And so it has. If you've been paying attention, you know exactly what. Still, the shot startles.
The signal virtues of this small picture are still almost entirely intact, and the picture is one of two on a DVD called "Western Film Noir" from VCI/Kit Parker Double Features. (The other film is Rimfire.) Well worth seeing, and the print/transfer isn't bad. Tell 'em Manny sent you.