Saturday, July 19, 2014

TWO FLAGS WEST: Blu-ray (2oth Century-Fox 1950) Koch Media

The eclecticism of director, Robert Wise never fails to impress. Nor does it seem to know any boundaries. Lest we forget, Wise comes from a rarified ilk of Hollywood artisans – supreme craftsman in more than one field of hands-on study; also from a gentlemanly ‘old school’ philosophy where movies are meant to entertain - first and foremost. In the years that followed his accomplishments, Wise’s critics were often too quick – and frankly, much too unkind – to point to his workaday ethic as kowtowing to external forces – namely, the edicts imposed upon him by the studio system and the old-time mogul. They might have first reconsidered the obvious: that during Hollywood’s golden era, directors – like all other creative personnel – were subservient to the system; mere fodder for the gristmill of churning out 52 pictures a year.
And yet Wise, despite this system of rules and regulations, seemingly conspiring to rob him of his own creative initiatives, managed a telescopic concentration and meticulous attention to every last detail; also, to effortlessly migrate from one genre to the next within a pantheon of huge financial hits. Conversely and in retrospect, these movies became lasting works of cinema art. It is nevertheless true Robert Wise is not a director whose personal imprint is immediately identifiable on the movie screen. There is pliability to his style. But it is still his style!  
Wise worked his way up from the lowly ranks as a film editor at RKO, cutting together Orson Welles’ masterpiece, Citizen Kane (1941) – an effort earning him an Academy Award nomination. Some have criticized that he also helped to bastardize what ought to have been Welles’ other plat du jour; The Magnificent Ambersons (1942); Wise, called upon not only to edit, but also reshoot some scenes and shoot other new ones long after Welles had been unceremoniously deposed by the powers that be. Ironically, it was this effort that directly led to the beginning of Wise’s directorial career, although he would remain indentured at RKO, pulling double duty as both a fledgling director and film editor.
A quick tour of Wise’s back catalog reveals his-mindboggling diversity; in complete command of the visual arts in everything from the darkly psychological child’s fantasy, The Curse of The Cat People (1944) to the unrelentingly gritty boxing noir, The Set-Up (1949); also adept making intriguing murder/mysteries like The House on Telegraph Hill (1951). His more introspective masterworks came later; The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951), West Side Story (1961) and The Sand Pebbles (1966) – each exploring a facet of the depth of humanity’s capacity for suffrage and forgiveness. For most, it is unlikely Wise’s legacy will go beyond being known primarily for The Sound of Music (1965); undeniably still (as 2oth Century-Fox’s publicity astutely promoted it back then) ‘the happiest sound in all the world’. It was also the movie that rescued Fox from its fiscal black hole created by their disastrous blind faith in Cleopatra (1963). 
There are too many truly outstanding films in Wise’s repertoire to effectively appreciate at a glance. So perhaps it isn’t surprising Two Flags West (1950) – a superior western drama – should get misplaced among this lot. Initially, screenwriter, Frank S. Nugent had conceived of the story of ‘galvanized Yankees’ – Confederate soldiers given the option to serve in Lincoln’s Union army rather than go to jail for treason during the Civil War. It was an idea Nugent toiled on while writing John Ford’s She Wore A Yellow Ribbon (1948). The concept had merit, though Nugent could find no takers – not even a proponent in Ford himself. So, the idea languished at MGM before finally finding a home at 2oth Century-Fox, put into development by Darryl F. Zanuck under the working title, Trumpet to the Morn.
Originally, Zanuck had hoped to cast in-house talents, Victor Mature or Richard Basehart as Confederate Colonel Clay Tucker; a stoic southern gentleman who is bound by personal honor and duty to see his mission through – even in the face of spiteful resentment from his commanding officer,  Maj. Henry Kenniston (Jeff Chandler) - an impenetrable martinet. Fortunately, the part went to Joseph Cotten instead; ironically, an alumni of Orson Welles’ Mercury Players, whose familiar face and formidable charm had graced many a memorable and star-studded vehicle throughout the 1940s; culminating in his superb performance in Carol Reed’s exemplary post-war thriller, The Third Man (1949).
And yet, Cotten’s reputation in Hollywood would remain that of a competent second-string player rather than an A-list leading man. Such was the system back then with far too much stellar talent to pick and choose from, cultivating plug n’ play ‘types’ for virtually any role a screenwriter  might endeavor to create. The lanky Virginian who segued from modeling to acting, Joseph Cotten is, in fact, the lone voice of integrity in Two Flags West; gallant and gentile – the embodiment of the noble Southerner who can tolerate, though never accept, he is on the losing side of the Civil War. In Cotten we are blessed by an inner luminosity of character-driven spirit and strength.
The other ‘stars’ that surround him are all competently delineated in their motivations. The aforementioned, Jeff Chandler (who I’ve never been able to take seriously as the typecast he-man, ever since reading Esther Williams’ biography, and her recollections about his prediction for wearing women’s underwear) appears in Two Flags West as the overtly butch, but severely conflicted military man who would seemingly sacrifice his fort and the lives of its inhabitants (but later martyrs himself to save the rest from complete annihilation) merely to illustrate a point of honor. Zanuck ask cast popular leading man, Cornel Wilde – doing a variation on the flashy lady’s man that was, in fact, his only real m├ętier, herein, as Capt. Mark Bradford.  Linda Darnell, a Fox favorite, run through many a disposable melodrama and romantic comedy – occasionally rising to prominence in movies like the sadly underrated, Forever Amber (1947) and Oscar-winning, A Letter To Three Wives (1949), is Elena – the widowed mate of Kenniston’s brother.  Two Flags West is also notable for character actors, Jay C. Flippen as soft-spoken, Sgt. Terrance Duffy and Arthur Hunnicutt, the embodiment of the defeatist Confederate rebel, Sgt. Pickens.
At some point, Frank Nugent’s story was appropriated by screenwriter, Casey Robinson, who also produced Two Flags West. Robinson’s shooting script is formidably accomplished; his adherence to history commendable, while using his artistic license wisely to concoct a melodramatic backstory with underpinnings of a romantic love triangle. This unexpectedly blossoms between Darnell’s weary widow – initially mistaken as the Major’s wife by Tucker; Kenniston – who makes every attempt to hold Elena against her will under the guise he is protecting her from a perilous journey across Indian country, but actually desires to take his brother’s place in both Elena’s heart and her bed, and finally, Mark Bradford - who knew Elena a long time ago and would prefer to know her much better now that her husband is out of the picture. Of these three, Elena prefers Mark –undoubtedly screenwriter, Robinson playing to Cornel Wilde’s status as the beefcake. Indeed, after only a few scenes, Robinson elects to have Wilde’s hunky captain cast off his eye patch, revealing no discernable damage, save a marginal scar across his cheek, applied with great care by the makeup department to add more ‘character’ than ugliness to his chiseled visage.  
Two Flags West is grounded in a reality quite uncharacteristic for a western of its time – its milieu usually given over to grand narratives and mythologized figureheads. Refreshingly, we get no such embellishments in Two Flags West; the historic Fort Thorn accurately depicted as the last bastion for personal safety from the marauding Indians and becoming the central focus of the film’s last act; director Wise staging an energetic, harrowing and fairly gruesome assault, seemingly hopeless until Maj. Kenniston’s noble self-sacrifice stems the tide of imminent death. The real Fort Thorn has a fairly interesting history; built in 1854 near the Rio Grande and becoming the eastern terminus of a well-traveled path to Arizona’s Fort Yuma. Closed as a permanent garrison, it was later reestablished as a forward outpost, exchanging occupancies between the warring Union and Confederate armies throughout the American Civil War.
Two Flags West picks up the fort’s history after history itself had ostensibly finished with it: the defeat of Capt. Robert Morris in 1860, effectively ending its importance as a military outpost.  In theory, at least, the 3rd Cavalry continued to occupy Fort Thorn. But it is questionable whether or not the so called ‘galvanized Yankees’ were a part of its operations. Nevertheless, here too Casey Robinson’s screenplay chooses history over fiction as his backdrop; the 5th Georgia Cavalry under Col. Clay Tucker’s command - as depicted in the movie - actually actively serving on the western front. With President Lincoln’s special proclamation on Dec. 8th, 1863, these confederate forces joined the union army on the western front.
Our story begins in autumn, 1864 with remnants of the Confederate 5th Georgia Cavalry, guided by Col. Clay Tucker, forced to wait out the war or go stir crazy inside the Union prison camp at Rock Island, Illinois. Rock Island is a hell hole, the men corralled in cramped, crude barracks, sleeping on dirt floors and dying of their combat-inflicted wounds or dysentery. Enter Union Capt. Mark Bradford – sporting a patch across his eye and offering these prisoners of war a chance to be ‘useful’ once more; only this time in service to the winning side; assigned to guard the western gate at Fort Thorn, since grossly undermanned from the exodus of soldiers recalled by President Lincoln.
Bradford makes the men a singular promise; they will not be compelled in their new duties to stand against their own. Nevertheless, many of the Georgians resist at first. Consulted by his men, Col. Tucker suggests there are worse ways to wait out the war than by being of use as proud military men on the western front; his own sense of duty coming to bear as the deciding vote. On route to their new home, Sgt. Pickens inquiries if the men, who have all been provided new Union uniforms and mounts to ride, might sing to pass the time. Bradford, who is a most benevolent sort, willingly agrees, to which Pickens leads the cavalry in a rousing rendition of ‘Dixie’ much to both Tucker and Bradford’s amusement.
Arriving at Fort Thorn, Tucker, whose rank has been reduced to lieutenant, is introduced to his new commanding officer, Maj. Henry Kenniston; a Southerner-hating, stern disciplinarian whose low opinion of Tucker and his men has already anticipated their desertion. Kenniston’s brittle sentiments have been clouded by his own battle-scars; a visible limp; also, his hidden anxieties, still lamenting the loss of his younger brother. On their first night at the Fort, Tucker is invited to dine at Kenniston’s table, along with Bradford and a select group of the fort’s gentry. This includes Kenniston’s widowed sister-in-law, Elena, whom Tucker mistakenly assumes is Henry’s wife. She cordially avails Tucker of his misperception. The mood turns rancid after Kenniston discovers Tucker led the cavalry charge that killed his brother. And yet, even discovering this, Elena is not bitter toward Tucker. But Kenniston turns sullen and vicious as he makes patronizing comments about the South. Proud, but contrite, Tucker removes himself from this loaded situation to retire to his barracks, rather than confronting Kenniston at his own table.
On the moonlit veranda, Elena is reunited with Bradford. He discovers she has been stranded at the fort for months and begins to suspect Kenniston has ulterior motives for this delay; to become his late brother's surrogate. It doesn’t take very long for tensions to mount between the Northern and Southern soldiers; Tucker ordering his men in pursuit of a band of Apache; but recalled at the last possible moment by Kenniston, who admonishes them for their Yankee pride, explaining how the Apache were leading them into an ambush. As a way to demoralize and put Tucker and his men in their place, Kenniston orders them to execute a pair of civilians suspected as Confederate gunrunners. Reminding Kenniston of the pact under which they agreed to serve – never having to turn against their own kind – Kenniston unrepentantly prompts Tucker he is in his army now. The orders are to be carried out without fail or questioning, and, they are.
Tucker considers this a breach of their contract and stands behind his men who have already begun plotting their desertion, unaware, perhaps, that Kenniston has deviously orchestrated the entire affair, merely to prove his own point about Southerners.  Rationalizing that he does not want enemies in his ranks, Kenniston assigns Tucker’s troops the perilous task of escorting a wagon train across hostile Indian Territory. He knows Tucker will see the caravan through, but then will likely never return to the Fort.  As Elena happily prepares to leave, she discovers her release has been personally rescinded by Kenniston. Bitterly, she explains to the Major she will never be his wife. He is humiliated by the transparency of his own motives, but remains steadfast in denying Elena her leave. In reply, she bribes the Reverend Simpkins (Everett Glass) and his wife (Marjorie Bennett) to sneak aboard their covered wagon for the trip.
As the caravan prepares to pull out, Bradford discovers Elena hidden in the back of the Simpkins’ covered wagon. Nevertheless, he allows her to pass. Unaware Elena has taken such steps to escape him, Kenniston orders the wagon train from Fort Thorn, convinced he has rid his own shoe of a very cumbersome pebble. On their journey Tucker befriends one of the civilians, Ephraim Strong (Harry Von Zell), who confides he is a Confederate agent and enlists Tucker in a plan to link California with the South. Strong convinces Tucker to return to Fort Thorn with Elena. It will gain Kenniston’s confidence - if not his respect. Tucker, who has begun to forge a cordial relationship with Elena is disinclined to take her back to Kenniston, but does so at the expense of their friendship.
Back at the Fort, Bradford is disgusted to learn Kenniston has already begun drafting letters regarding Tucker’s presumed desertion. But Kenniston is in for a shock and a surprise when Sgt. Duffy informs him of Tucker and his men’s return, along with Elena, who remains bitterly resolved to avoid Kenniston’s advances. In their absence, a Kiowa warrior, actually the son of Chief Satank has been captured by Kenniston’s men. Satank’s tribe arrives at Fort Thorn and Satank – with the aid of an interpreter – orders Kenniston to release his prisoner or face dire repercussions. In reply, Kenniston retreats to the Fort, ordering the immediate execution of Satank’s son on the grounds he is a rebel and a traitor. He then sends the boy’s lifeless body out on horseback. 
The fort endures a brutal siege, Satank’s men decimating Kenniston’s forces and slaughtering many innocent men and women. Elena tends to the wounded, spared an arrow by Bradford, who is mortally shot in her stead. As night falls, Satank’s men retreat. But no one, least of all Kenniston is fooled by this brief calm. Satank will return at dawn to finish them off. Recognizing only he can save them from the inevitable, Kenniston disarms himself, placing Tucker in command before marching beyond the fort’s protective gates; obscured by a dense veil of smoldering ruins. His shrill outcry a moment later alerts everyone to his massacre. The next morning, Tucker and his men recover Kenniston’s stripped body lying in the dust with multiple arrows protruding. His sacrifice – nee suicide – has spared them from a renewed assault.
But now a dispatch rider arrives with ominous news: General Sherman has completed his forced march to the sea, marking an end to the Confederacy. As the Union soldiers break into a patriot refrain of The Battle Hymn of the Republic the Confederates belt out a reprise of Dixie: old wounds, very reluctant – and arguably, never to heal. Elena attempts to comfort Tucker, promising things will seem better tomorrow. It is the lone note of womanly optimism all but obscured by this otherwise male-dominated cynicism.
Two Flags West is sadly underrated; a western melodrama on par with the legacies of John Ford and Howard Hawks. Interestingly, Robert Wise only directed one other western afterward, 1956’s Tribute to a Bad Man. Two Flags West was also preceded by the only other western in Wise’s cannon, 1948’s Blood on the Moon. While both of the aforementioned movies had big stars at their helm (James Cagney in ‘Bad Man’ and Robert Mitchum in ‘Blood’) neither is particularly memorable. Two Flags West is; the milieu enriched by its ensemble casting; also, by Wise’s ability to balance history with fiction.  
Wise would later recollect that his alliance with Darryl Zanuck was one of the most creative and mutually beneficial. “When we ran Two Flag West for Zanuck, I expected him to start making comments right away,” Wise mused in an interview, “But no – nothing…not even a sound....I was so impressed. He really observed the film, thought about it and then came up with his suggestions - after five minutes of puffing on a cigar.” This mutual admiration society apparently extended from friendships already forged on the set. Two Flags West was actually photographed almost in its entirety at Pueblo of San Ildefonso; a community of Tewa Indians near Santa Fe, New Mexico. Wise took great pains to respect that community’s privacy, avoiding any location shooting around their native burial grounds.
Jeff Chandler was reportedly so much in awe of Joseph Cotten he chose to remain on set even on days when he was not working, simply to drink in and absorb what he could from Cotten’s performance. The two men would became good friends, occasionally chumming around with Cornel Wilde and Linda Darnell, who had worked together previously on various Fox films and were already very well acquainted.  For all its chaotic narrative machinations, the production of Two Flags West was fairly smooth for Robert Wise, who garnered the trust and respect of his artists and thereafter found everything about the project to his liking – except for the heat. At an average of 102 degrees daily, Pueblo presented its own challenges for cast and crew; heavyset cameraman, Leon Shamroy daily complaining to Wise about the stifling heat, while wiping the sweat chronically cascading off his brow with a handkerchief soaked in ice water.
In retrospect, it’s rather interesting Joseph Cotten’s Clay Tucker is the only male star in the cast to survive the film’s narrative deluge; like the character so often played by John Wayne in a John Ford western, Cotten’s Clay Tucker destined to roam the earth as ‘God’s lonely man’ – a survivor of fate, but without a life or home to call his own. Joseph Cotten’s own reputation amongst those who knew him best, almost mirrors his characterization in Two Flags West. Indeed, when Cotten suffered a debilitating heart attack and stroke in the early 1980s, it was his old friend, Orson Welles who remained steadfast at his side throughout his lengthy recovery. “He was strong and supportive,” Cotten would write of Welles; Welles’ own opinions of Cotten as laudatory. When Welles informed his friend, Roger Hill Cotten had written a book, asked by Hill to quantify its flow and content, Welles simply replied, “Gentle, witty, and self-effacing…just like Jo.”
Also in retrospect, Two Flags West seems to be the singular highlight of Jeff Chandler’s mid to later movie career. Like a lot of actors of his build and youth, Hollywood attempted to fabricate an earthy ‘hunk’ persona. This eventually impacted and typecast Chandler as the buff and brooding romantic lead in such forgettable tripe as Female on the Beach (1955) and The Lady Takes a Flyer (1958); men of brawn but very little brain. It was an oversight, perhaps. For there is something rather unsettling and fierce about Chandler’s Major Kenniston in Two Flags West; a taut bundle of nerves ready to explode, and, an emotionally scarred little boy – perhaps even tinged with sexual frustration – the limp, code for a deeper emasculation at work – all of it rolled into one multi-layered portrait. Alas, the actor had only eleven more years to live after this movie; his spine injured during a routine baseball game and leading to emergency surgery, badly bungled and causing Chandler to hemorrhage to death nearly a month after entering the hospital.
Two Flags West gets a limited European release via Koch Media. The disc is mislabeled as being Region B locked when, in fact, it is Region Free. The B&W elements are in remarkably solid shape. As far as I can gather, this isn’t a release sanctioned by 2oth Century-Fox, the studio logo appearing nowhere on the outer packaging. I can only speculate, since Koch is not a bootleg operation, they have licensed this print from Fox Home Video in much the same way Criterion and Twilight Time have with other Fox titles in the past.
Image quality herein is first rate. The B&W full frame transfer captures all the subtleties in Leon Shamroy’s gorgeous cinematography. Occasionally, we do detect just a hint of digitized pixelization. Nothing dramatic or distracting, and again, most of the image is free of it entirely. Also absent – for the most part – are age-related artifacts. The image is smooth and satisfying, with good solid contrast and a modicum of film grain accurately reproduced.  Minted for the non-English speaking European market, all of the packaging and disc menus are in German. This disc also defaults to German audio. Not to worry: simply change the setting to English to enjoy the film in its native glory. Bonus materials are limited to a German theatrical trailer and a ‘gallery’: actually a montage of German and English poster art and a few stills set to Hugo Friedhofer’s score.
I have to say the cover art, which is culled from the original poster campaign, is somewhat misleading, showing Joseph Cotten kissing Linda Darnell and a rather resolute Cornel Wilde and utterly exuberant Jeff Chandler. I think someone at Fox’s publicity department confused each character’s personality, as well as the plot points when designing this PR campaign. Bottom line: highly recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


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