Billed as “the west’s most violent story and valiant hour”, director John Ford once referred to Two Rode Together (1961) as “the worst piece of crap I’ve done in twenty years!” Hardly. What Ford considered excrement, the rest of us have come to treasure in the many years since its release. Two Rode Together is a far more engaging movie than most critics of their day gave it credit; also fairly revealing of Ford’s new and profoundly bittersweet trajectory in his mythologizing of the American west. He’s come a long way from the picturesque mesas and towering buttresses of Monument and Death Valley, endlessly and lovingly eulogized in movies like Fort Apache (1947), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) and My Darling Clementine (1946). Gone is the magisterial quality of these better known and more beloved masterworks; replaced herein by a brittle angst and more probing cruelty to deny us the legends and folklore Ford almost single-handedly was responsible for instilling as substitutions for the real American western experience. Ford’s curmudgeonly reflections in Two Rode Together may have inevitably worsened with the passage of time, also amplified by the loss of character actor, Ward Bond, one of the beloved alumni in Ford’s stock company – appearing in virtually every western the director made.
The similarities between Two Rode Together and Ford’s opus magnum, The Searchers (1956) are irrefutable and bear mentioning. Here is a tale told by an artist unafraid to carry over the ugliness of bigotry and racism almost exclusively ascribed to his anti-hero, Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) in the former endeavor, but now more broadly attributed to virtually all of the settler class and military personnel who inhabit this stark and uncompromising landscape they have neither become accustom to nor, arguably, have even the right to call their home. It’s a brave creative type who can stand such time-honored precepts he helped to create on their end, unapologetically rewriting history (or rather, fiction) yet again, in order to bring the more unflattering realities of history itself to light. And Ford offers us little to no reprieve from the inherent unattractiveness of his story. Even the comedic elements in Frank S. Nugent’s screenplay are tinged in spite.
Although Two Rode Together is often misjudged as inferior to Ford’s own The Searchers, it is a nevertheless powerful indictment of lost hope and a thoroughly fascinating deconstruction of Ford’s own disillusionment with both his personal life and professional career. By 1960, the director who had once commanded respect from studio execs was being judged as more a liability than an asset. Ford, who could be known to be his own worst enemy in wanting his way in all things, particularly when things weren’t going his way at all, was not entirely to blame for the shift – or rather, loss of his authority. Hollywood had changed; the system faltering under governmental pressures and television’s insidious erosion of bankable butts in the seats at the local Bijoux or elegant mid-town movie palace. It wasn’t a modicum of fear lurking around the corners any more, but a genuine and frosty sense that the old ways in Hollywood had suddenly, and inexplicably, come to a definite end. The smashing of Hollywood’s autonomy as the sole purveyors of star-studded popcorn entertainments was, by extension, a devastating blow to Ford’s ego; hindering his ability to assemble the cast and crew he preferred at a moment’s notice.
Nevertheless, Two Rode Together is blessed with familiar faces working both in front of and behind the camera; screenwriter, Frank S. Nugent (who also wrote The Searchers) cribbing from Will Cook’s blistering 1960 novel, Comanche Captives; Ford’s favorite comic relief, Andy Devine as the befuddled Sgt. Darius P. Posey; John McIntire as stoic, Maj. Frazer; Anna Lee (busybody, Mrs. Malaprop); Jeanette Nolan (Mrs. Mary McCandless, half mad with grief over the loss of her only son), Henry Brandon (reincarnated from The Searchers in similar garb and feathers as Chief Quanah Parker), John Qualen (doing a variation on his stock lovable Swed’ as Ole Knudsen) and Harry Carey Jr. as Ortho Clegg – one of a pair of halfwits reared without the ‘feminine influence’. To this mix, Ford brought the prolific and remarkably versatile composer, George Duning to write the sobering underscore; a world-weary ode to this gallant, if fading memoire of western frontier mythologies.
The stars of Two Rode Together are new to Ford’s pantheon; Richard Widmark as First Lt. Jim Gary, long since broken loose from his wild-eyed Tommy Udo/Jefty screen persona and undeniably the nobler of our two anti-heroic misanthropes on this vision quest with no proverbial happy ending in sight. The other half belongs to James Stewart; his own career in transition away from everyone’s loveable everyman. Stewart had come close several times to working with Ford. In Two Rode Together he is wholly unscrupulous as the graft-driven Marshal Guthrie McCabe who gets ‘ten percent of everything’ – including the bordello – in this tiny hamlet of Tascosa. McCabe couldn’t care less about reuniting a small sect of grief-stricken families with their offspring, wives and lovers kidnapped by the Comanche some five years ago – unless, that is, the army can make it worth his while. Eighty dollars a month doesn’t really cut it, so McCabe elects to charge by the head for his services, though he bitterly doubts there will be anyone left to return to these misguided hopefuls.
Indeed, there is an uncharacteristic darkness and often grotesque cynicism permeating virtually every frame of Two Rode Together; Ford relentlessly stripping away any residual illusions the audience might have about the gallantry and/or nobility of the ‘old west.’ The Indians are, of course, still the enemies of this piece; cut from that relatively familiar swath as steely-eyed savages. But within the Comanche communal structure, Ford manages to implant seeds of further dissention, to vary and defy our time-honored western misnomer of one race/one mindset; establishing an inner conflict between enterprising half-caste, Chief Quanah – who values nothing except the point of a gun, and the traditionalist pure blood – and blood-thirsty – Mohawk warrior, Stone Calf (played with considerable aplomb by the towering and impossibly muscled Woody Strode).
By contrast, it’s the settler class who seems incredibly singular in their convictions; wounded, lost and desolate souls united only by their grieving and pursuit to learn what became of their loved ones already lost to them for all time. Even feisty Marty Purcell (Shirley Jones) – vicariously living half her life for a kidnapped brother by dressing in frontier man’s attire and eschewing virtually any and all feminine and/or romantic advances, is something of a lost cause; albeit one salvaged at the last possible moment by Gary’s feeble proposal of marriage and Marty’s very awkward acceptance.
Two Rode Together is unapologetically bleak. Arguably, it plays far better today, removed from the cowboys and Indians milieu once dominating popular entertainment with cardboard misinterpretations of life on the ponderosa. We begin in Tascosa, an isolated and very dusty outpost overseen by laconic Marshal Guthrie McCabe (James Stewart); a man so unprincipled that even the mention of his name is enough to frighten off a pair of duded up gamblers (William Henry and Boyd ‘Red’ Morgan) initially intent on scaring up some rough trade business at the local saloon/whorehouse, run by very icy madam, Belle Aragon (Annelle Hayes). Belle can’t stand the sight of any man before noon – except, perhaps McCabe, whom she tolerates in increments, affords ten percent off the top, and, plies with free beer served to him on her veranda.
Enter Lieutenant Jim Gary (Richard Widmark) with his military patrol and Sgt. Darius P. Posey (Andy Devine) in tow. McCabe respects Gary. He has little use for Posey. The feeling, alas, is mutual. Gary is on a mission, assigned by Army Major Fraser (John McIntire) to recover survivors of a Comanche ambush five years removed from the present day. It’s a fool’s errand and McCabe knows it. The Comanche have mated, killed or sold their captives to other tribes in the interim. And McCabe, despite his tin star, isn’t particularly interested in upholding the law; at least, not without a sincere profit to be made as a direct result. Fraser offers McCabe eighty dollars a month. But McCabe is callous and more interested in what he can squeeze out of the settlers, desperate to be reunited with their kin.
And so the bartering for human lives begins. At least at some level, McCabe seems – if not empathetic – then, at least, intent in sobering up the relatives. He’s harsh and unflinching in his crude assessment of the situation; also, regrettably, closer to the truth than anyone else would care to admit. Some, like Ole Knudsen – anxious for news of his kidnapped daughter, Freda (Teri York) or Mary McCandless – having lost touch with reality and ready to see the face of her son, Tommy in any male child McCabe might bring back – will never surrender the fantasy their loved ones are still alive and struggling to return home to them. At some level, Gary recognizes the futility, though he is far more optimistic about becoming a potential love interest for Marty Purcell. But Gary will do as his regimental command dictates.
Hence, both men set off in search of victims; McCabe negotiating a truce – the exchanged of firearms and knives with Chief Quanah Parker – for the return of two hostages; Running Wolf (David Kent), later revealed as Marty’s long lost brother, and, Elena de la Madriaga (Linda Cristal); Stone Calf’s squaw. McCabe and Gary also briefly come in contact with Freda – driven insane in her captive state – and Mrs. Hannah Clegg (Mae Marsh) who emphatically pleads to keep her survival a secret from her husband, Rev. Henry (Ford Rainey) and their two – now adult – sons; Greeley (Ken Curtis) and Ortho. Departing the Comanche camp with the very defiant Running Wolf bound to one steed and Elena reluctantly following of her own free will on another, McCabe and Gary reach a parting of the ways over their conflicted decisions about what to tell the families back home.
McCabe threatens Gary at the point of his gun; the latter electing to go on ahead with Running Wolf while McCabe stays behind to make camp for the night with Elena. Around the campfire, Elena tells McCabe about the soldier she once loved and was engaged to marry. She also confesses her apprehensions about returning to ‘civilized society’ where she knows she will be harshly judged. McCabe endeavors to quell Elena’s fears; alas, soon to be well-founded. But an ambush by Stone Calf resurrects Elena’s horror; McCabe making short shrift of his attacker with a single bullet.
Back at base camp, Gary attempts to return Running Wolf to his rightful family. However, no one will claim this savage who makes every attempt to escape his captors. Mrs. McCandless pleads with her husband, William (Cliff Lyons) to recognize the boy as their own. And although Will knows damn well Running Wolf is not his son, he placates his grief-stricken wife with the satisfaction of assuming the role as the boy’s father; alas, with very tragic results. For given the first opportunity to flee and return to the Comanche, Running Wolf stabs Mary McCandless in the heart with a knife; her murder leading to Running Wolf recapture and lynching by the angry mob moments before Marty realizes the wild-eyed defiant is actually her long lost brother; Running Wolf’s memory stirred by the music box in her possession.
McCabe returns to base camp with Elena, lying to Ole about Freda while attempting to make a lady of Elena with the help of Mrs. Abby Frazer (Olive Carey); the empathetic Major’s wife. However, introducing Elena at the military dance, McCabe quickly discovers both he and his date are persona non grata; the womenfolk impudent in their nosy inquiries about Elena’s sexual history, the men priggish as they casually spurn even the prospect of sharing a spin around the dance floor. Gary proposes to Marty in the shadows. Having miraculously recovered from her own personal grief, Marty is now ready to embrace her future as the wife of this dyed in the wool military man. At the same time, McCabe has had quite enough of this uppity class’s slum prudery and elects to take Elena home with him to Tascosa. However, upon his return, McCabe quickly realizes Belle has replaced him in her boudoir with Deputy Ward Corby (Chet Douglas); a simpleton and McCabe’s former underling, who now commands the authority as Tascosa’s new marshal.
Belle is brazen in her admonishment of Elena, calling her out as a half-caste who will never truly be a lady. Darting for the stagecoach, tear-stained and shell-shocked, Elena is pursued by McCabe. He has finally decided to make her his wife. Asked by Belle to explain McCabe’s sudden change of heart – or rather, his uncanny acquisition of this unlikely appendage, where before only a void seemed to exist, Gary glibly replies, “I guess he finally found something he wanted more than ten percent of!”
In this penultimate reconciliation, John Ford is at least attempting to lighten the general tenor of Two Rode Together; a groundswell of George Duning’s thematic score filling the ear as a cloud of dust trails behind the departing stage for California with Elena and McCabe on board. In fact, this is a fitting conclusion; one aspiring to illustrate goodness in every man, even one as morally bankrupt as Guthrie McCabe. To some extent, James Stewart’s cache as Hollywood’s ‘every man’ helps to convince us that the life Elena and McCabe are bound for, presumably to share in together, will be both meaningful and tinged with tenderness. Yet, there is very little in McCabe’s makeup to suggest as much.
In one of only a handful of performances given by Stewart throughout his illustrious tenure, he manages to convey a fascinating emotional complexity, utterly at odds with our public perception of his more straight forward and beloved public persona; his eyes beady and constantly shifting, his voice low and threatening as he stares down Richard Widmark at the point of a gun; the familiar quaver in his voice now ironically imbued with strains of uncharacteristic bitterness and contempt as he explains to McCabe’s contemporaries – if only to satisfy their insidious curiosity – why Elena chose to survive her ordeal rather than kill herself; because her Catholic beliefs regard suicide as a sin.
Two Rode Together is deceptively flamboyant, even as it remains one of John Ford’s more low key endeavors. The buddy/buddy relationship between McCabe and Gary is the stuff of cinema dreams. This isn’t a friendship, per say, and yet there is a far deeper appreciation shared by these men of action than perhaps either is even initially aware exists. At one point, John Ford and his cinematographer, Charles Lawton Jr. hold steady on a two shot of James Stewart and Richard Widmark; Ford utterly confident in the ability of his performers to sustain the drama exclusively with their exchange of dialogue: eight and a half minutes of expository human bing-bang without a single cut, not even to favor either actor with a close-up. Two Rode Together is an exquisite work of genius, considered as ‘minor’ only because John Ford gave himself a very tough act to follow; an impressive and unparalleled canon of movie magic.
Twilight Time’s Blu-ray, via a sparkling new 1080p transfer from Sony Home Entertainment, is a most gratifying affair, alas, at the mercy of Eastman/Pathe’s notorious film stock that, on occasion renders the image slightly soft and with a very murky palette. Mercifully, the image is mostly razor-sharp and filled with excellent detail, eye-popping hues and a modicum of film grain accurately reproduced. Thank Grover Crisp and Sony’s technological wizards for working miracles on inferior and improperly stored elements; willing most of the vibrancy of Two Rode Together’s opening night splendor back from the brink for this home video presentation.
Things definitely snap together, the image remarkably free of age-related debris and artifacts. When the vintage elements align with Crisp’s meticulous restoration/preservation efforts, we are treated to a very fine overriding arc of quality; the ‘wow’ factor revealed in gorgeous hi-def background detail in foliage, dust, wood grain, etc. Alas, the Eastman/Pathe process intermittently betrays these efforts, even from shot to shot; color and detail occasionally faltering (mostly in long shot); looking slightly out of focus. There’s also a queer moiré pattern happening in the reverse shot near the end of the film, when Elena (already aboard the stagecoach) catches the welcomed reflection of McCabe in her jewelry box mirror. All of these aforementioned shortcomings are quite minor and indigenous to the source material – not the fault of this hi-def mastering. So kudos is, decidedly, in order and well deserved.
The 1.0 DTS is exceptionally nuanced for a mono track, with clearly delineated dialogue and effects. Modestly disappointing is TT’s lack of extras on this disc. We do get their usual commitment to an isolated score showcasing George Duning’s marvelous efforts, and a theatrical trailer. But that’s it. Popular opinion still regards Two Rode Together as an inconsequential among John Ford’s many great works of art. But I prefer it as an ‘as yet’ undiscovered tour de force by a master craftsman, the likes of which – sadly – we’ll probably never know again. Highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)