With an opportunity presenting itself to select a Joseph Cotten movie thanks to Maddy’s Classic Film site and Crystal of In The Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood playing host to a celebration of the leading man from Petersburg, Virginia, I settled on this Robert Wise western. The main reason is it not only starred Cotton, but it also cast Linda Darnell, Jeff Chandler and Cornel Wilde in the leading roles. There’s a quartet of stars that’s awfully hard to resist.
It’s a black and white affair under the 20th Century Fox banner from producer Casey Robinson. The opening of this Civil War military tale gave me immediate pause. From the outset the story set up is that southern prisoners of war will be offered an amnesty should they agree to don the blue uniform of the north and head west to fight a war against marauding Indians. Also to be taking orders from their new commander and looking for advice from the man they’ve been loyally following during the long war between the Blue and the Grey.
If you just thought of Sam Peckinpah’s Major Dundee then you and I are cut from the same cloth.
Joseph Cotten stars as the honorable commander of the south. Among his loyal troop are Noah Beery Jr. Arthur Hunnicutt and Dale Robertson. It’s Cornel Wilde who will give them the opportunity to join his own brigade on behalf of the Union Army. Wilde is much like Cotton, a man of honor and nobility. And so the men sign up after much wavering and the march begins west to Fort Thorn.
Cotten’s reasoning is to save his men from death behind bars and the shear will to live. His crew follows his lead but their faith in Wilde’s promises are severely put to the test when they meet the commander of Fort Thorn, Jeff Chandler. Chandler has plenty of demons in his past. He’s been sent west to fight Indians as opposed to the battlefields where he once commanded. He’s lost both a leg and a brother to the Johnny Rebs and he holds a distain for Cotten’s commander. He believes Cotten a traitor to his uniform for not attempting to escape and let’s him know it at a dinner table for officers and the widow of his late brother, Linda Darnell.
Darnell is the woman coming out of mourning a year after her husband’s death at a battle that saw Cotten lead the charge for the enemy. She doesn’t hold that against the gentleman of the south but Chandler does. We’ve all seen movies featuring a romantic triangle. Well the producer, Robinson, also served as the scriptwriter and he’s given us a romantic square. Young Cornel is head over heels in love with Linda and has been since the first day he saw her getting married to his late friend. Cotton is less so but we can all see a romance brewing and then there’s Chandler who in his desire to protect his sister in law is really in love with her and she knows it. He’d like nothing better than to take the place of his brother in the marriage.
I suppose if all the character actors involved could, they too would want to join in on the romantic fun because once again Miss Darnell is stunning on camera and her beauty demands a color production as opposed to the black and white we see her in here. Speaking of character actors, we also have Jay C. Flippen as the old sergeant working alongside Chandler. That’s always one positive thing about the genre in general. It gave so many wonderful character actors we all know and love a place to flourish and in most cases make the movie that much better.
There are a few plot twists in store as Cotton and his men face the wrath of Chandler who has no respect for the southerners and fully expects them to desert. Cornel begins to see his commander for the villain he is. Chandler is also a racist when it comes to the Indians leading to a startling scene that in the end will come back to haunt him. Truthfully I like Chandler on screen but his character here has little about him to like and the sacrifice he makes in the end doesn’t make up for it but I’m sure as an actor he felt he needed a scene like the one he plays at the film’s finale.
I suppose Robert Wise’s name brings instant credibility to this western but at the time of it’s production, he wasn’t quite yet the director we know him to be years later. Sure he had already helmed The Body Snatcher and The Set Up among others but it’s time that has aged those titles like fine wine. It wouldn’t be until 1958’s I Want to Live! that he’d score an Oscar nomination for directing. He’d eventually claim two statuettes. One for West Side Story and the other for The Sound of Music.
Joseph Cotten received top billing among the four leads and once again proved his versatility as an actor. I don’t think of him when launching into a discussion on great stars of the past and that’s not fair to the actor. Perhaps it’s because he was versatile that I think of him less often. He wasn’t associated with one genre as often as a Bogie, Karloff or McCrea. He’d play in Hitchcock thrillers, big scale westerns and even spaghetti ones, his association with Welles, romantic leads and even slip into some 1970’s horror flicks like Baron Blood. Cotten would remain busy in the late 70’s right up to his final film, The Survivor in 1981. He’d eventually pass away in 1994 leaving a large body of work including some must see classics.
On that note I pulled this quote from Mr. Cotten listed on the IMDB. “Orson Welles lists Citizen Kane (1941) as his best film, Alfred Hitchcock opts for Shadow of a Doubt (1943) and Sir Carol Reed chose The Third Man (1949) – and I’m in all of them.”
Pretty impressive. For more on Cotten and his films, be sure to now head over to Maddy and Crystal’s to give all the other writers and websites a look and learn more about this fine actor. Maybe add some new titles to your list of movies you need to see.