April 2, 2013
When director George Sherman passed away at the age of 82 in 1991, he was noted only for the quantity of his output. The obituaries in both the Los Angeles and New York Times pointed out the “175″ credits he had accrued as a director for screens both large and small (IMDb lists 126), although nothing as to their quality aside from their “low-budget” origins. I recently enjoyed some of Sherman’s Three Mesquiteers Westerns that he made for Republic (which I wrote about here), but a recent column by Dave Kehr has made me ravenous for more. Reviewing Dawn at Soccoro (1954, released as part of a TCM Vault Collection), Kehr describes him as “experimental”, and the film as, “a western that might have been imagined by Kafka.” Fortuitously, more of Sherman’s work has been reaching home video. Last month Universal released a budget-priced“Classic Westerns” set of 10 films that include two Shermans: Comanche Territory (1950) and Tomahawk (1951), while Olive Films finished off their stash of John Wayne Mesquiteers films with Wyoming Outlaw(1939).
The Three Mesquiteers B-Western series ran from 1936 – 1943 at Republic, and necessarily followed stock scenarios of the three ranch hands thwarting the plans of evil homesteaders and other n’er do wells. Sherman managed to helm the outliers in the series, including the zoo animal burlesque Three Texas Steers and revolutionary fantasy The Night Riders. Wyoming Outlaw is the most downbeat entry of the bunch though, a despairing portrait of institutional corruption feeding poverty and violence. The Mesquiteers, including John Wayne as Stony Brooke, are shockingly passive onlookers, unable to stop the degradation of the Parker family. Because they refuse to pay a tribute to local boss Balsinger (LeRoy Mason), the patriarch Luke Parker loses his job, and his son Will is reduced to stealing and slaughtering cattle for food. Despite their efforts to help, including muscling in on Balsinger’s thugs, the Mesquiteers stand helplessly by while Will turns outlaw and falls in a hail of bullets. For a series built on action and resolution, this is a curiously static and morally ambiguous film, more interested in Will’s forced descent into murderousness than the Mesquiteers knockabout good guy routine.
Governments hadn’t been cleaned up in Sherman films a decade later, when he was at Universal International for the Technicolor spectacles Comanche Territory (’50) and Tomahawk (’51). Both feature attempts to swindle Native Americans out of their land, stoking a free-floating paranoia that merits Kehr’s comparison to Kafka. Sherman also imbues their background characters, like Will in Wyoming Outlaw, with an unusual level of sympathy. Comanche Territory has Macdonald Carey play Jim Bowie, who is delivering a treaty to the Comanche to allow the U.S. to mine for silver on their land. He is waylaid en route, the treaty stolen by local townspeople eager to drive the Comanche out so they can stake their own claims. Katie Howard (Maureen O’Hara) is involved in the scheme, a prickly entrepreneur who is introduced by galloping a horse down the main drag while not spilling a drop of the beer she is holding. O’Hara’s performance is made up of a flurry of quick-twitch movements of a woman whose mind is never at rest. She dominates every frame she is in, while Carey, embodying a Western icon, recedes into the background. Katie, introduced as a rapacious capitalist and land grabber, becomes the fulcrum of the film, hoping for a pragmatic peace with the Comanche, and thus splitting off from her brother’s gang. The climactic shootout depicts the Comanche and Bowie gunning down the gang, a rare triumphalist moment for Native Americans in Hollywood film.
The opening voice-over in Tomahawk (1951) presents the clearest example of Sherman’s instinct to investigate the motivations of his heroes and villains and everyone in between. He has internalized Renoir’s line in The Rules of the Game, “everyone has their reasons”. The camera tracks down two diagonal lines. The first is of the U.S. cavalry, over which the sonorous voice-over describes the lives they have lost for what they consider to be “freedom”. The second diagonal is of a line of Sioux, who because of the White man “suffer starvation and sickness where once there was plenty.” In between them is Jim Bridger (Van Heflin) a long-time scout who was once married to a Sioux woman, before she was slaughtered by a Colorado vigilante group led by a preacher. He is on hand to help negotiate an agreement for the Army to build a fort on Sioux land. The talks break down over the government’s bad faith, but the fort gets built anyway, and Bridger stays on as a scout. But when a Sioux boy gets shot in the back by a racist Lieutenant, there is nothing he can do to stop the slaughter to come.
Sherman sets the horizon line low throughout, filling the frame with sky in his frequent long shots of Rapid City, South Dakota. The figures are specks against the immensity of the blue, already lost to history before they lose their bodies. The Sioux line up on this horizon line near the end, unaware that advancements in repeating rifle technology will turn their battle plan into an abattoir. The final shootout is more like a Holocaust, Van Heflin’s severe face colored with nausea.
In these Westerns Sherman cannot film a victor without depicting the resultant loss. There are no heroes or villains, just flawed people with ingrained, unshakeable beliefs and perspectives that set them into conflict. That some pass on and others survive seems incidental to these works, which simply aim to see what makes people tick, and then stop. George Sherman couldn’t stop making films, but he was not only a prolific artist, but a profound one.