Friday, May 26, 2017

FAVORITE DIRECTOR BLOGATHON: William Wyler - Hell's Heroes (1929) and The Big Country (1958)


William Wyler
(1902 - 1981)


Phyllis Loves Classic Movies and The Midnite Drive-In are hosting The Favorite Director Blogathon running from May 26th to 29th. Click here or here for contributions.


For me, William Wyler is a director who rarely puts a foot wrong. His dramas from These Three to Dead End, The Letter to The Best Years of Our Lives, from Carrie to The Collector entertain and move the spirit. Born in Alsace and emigrating to America in his late teens, Wyler was able to obtain work at Universal Studios due to his mother being a cousin of the Laemmle family. That foot in the door allowed Wyler's talent to blossom.

Westerns were a popular commodity in the silent era. Abundant use of available outdoor locations made them an "easy" shoot and the stories had a built-in audience. Cutting his teeth on these action pictures allowed Wyler to experiment and discover his own artistic voice. As his career progressed, he would work for other studios and producers, collaborate with the best of cinematographers, Gregg Toland, and create masterworks. Among those masterworks would be westerns and I would like to highlight two of them from very different eras and stages of William Wyler's legendary career. 





Peter B. Kyne's The Three Godfathers published in 1913 quickly became a favourite with filmmakers. The story of three desperate outlaws who become custodians of an orphaned baby in the stark wilderness of the desert touches people deeply. The first of many movies from the tale was made in 1916 and the property seemed a sure bet for Universal's first talkie in 1929. The reins of this "Carl Laemmle Special" were given to 27-year-old William Wyler. Young Wyler was more than up to the task.

By virtue of the age of the film and its location shooting in the Mojave Desert, Hell's Heroes has a touch of authenticity that transports the audience to another time and place. A former mining town called Bodie stands in for story's New Jerusalem. As we watch the movie we can feel the dust and the isolation, the huddling together of townsfolk for comfort.

Our three heroes are played by Charles Bickford (The Farmer's Daughter), Raymond Hatton (The Three Mesquiteers) and Fred Kohler (Underworld). Four outlaws rob the bank of New Jerusalem and kill the cashier. One of their number, Jose, is killed by the town preacher as they make their getaway. All the good and ill that will befall the three remaining men is due to a dust storm. The storm covers their tracks from the posse and the storm scatters their horses. 

The outlaws must make their way through the desert on foot. The first waterhole they reach is poisoned. The next is dry as well and it is there they find a solitary woman, stranded and about to give birth. The young mother gives her child into the care of the three men before passing into the next world. The solemnity of their involvement with this sudden life and death, along with the knowledge that the cashier they killed was the child's father causes great changes in two of the men.

"Barbwire", the oldest of the crew played by Hatton, is wounded and knows he has not long to live. He determines they must take the baby back to New Jerusalem. Wild Bill, the youngest outlaw played by Kohler, has delivered the child into this world and vows to see him delivered back to the town. Bob Sangster, the meanest of the bad men played by Bickford, thinks they should look out for themselves. However, he goes along for his partner's sake or perhaps for reasons he cannot yet define.

The grueling location shoot in the desert works to the advantage of the picture as the actors bear the marks of hardship and privation. Wyler gives us stark reminders of the travails of our characters filmed against the prickly plants and the endless sky. The expanse of the inhospitable land that stretches impossible miles before one, lone remaining determined man reaches civilization with his precious charge is quite moving. William Wyler proved his mettle, his creativity and his worth to films in the new era of sound, with Hell's Heroes.




William Wyler, his producer brother Robert Wyler, and star Gregory Peck co-produced this popular Oscar winning 1958 western. Donald Hamilton's novel The Big Country is the source of James Webb's screenplay, which has some similarities to his earlier screenplay for Raton Pass.

We follow the story of James McKay played by Gregory Peck who leaves his sea-faring background to marry a rancher's daughter in an unnamed, but very big, southwestern state. Pat, McKay's intended played by Carroll Baker, had met the handsome and wealthy ship owner/captain on a trip to the east. She was out of her element and met a man comfortable in his place. McKay looses some of his glamour at the ranch, and Pat's impetuous ways are no longer as attractive to Jim. Ranch foreman Leech played by Charlton Heston is jealous and distrustful of the stranger from the east.

The people of this place and their long simmering feuds are strange to McKay who lives by his own private code. Major Terrill, Pat's father played by Charles Bickford, is at constant odds with the Hannassey crew, led by Rufus played by Burl Ives. Rufus' brutish son Buck played by Chuck Connors is one to stir the pot if there is any hope of trouble.

The Major rules by right of might. Land poor Hannassey is a thorn in his side in the claiming of water rights. These water rights are owned by the granddaughter of one of the area's original ranchers, Julie played by Jean Simmons. Julie has determined that her continued ownership of the river is only thing keeping the country from exploding. The battle for supremacy in the country is about to reach the tipping point.

The Big Country is a long and thoroughly satisfying western film. Like the earlier Hell's Heroes, The Big Country took advantage of extensive location shooting in California and Arizona. The rolling cattle land, the awe inspiring Blanco Canyon and the pockets of humanity in the midst of it all takes the audience to a place outside most of our experience. The overwrought emotions of the characters are both dwarfed and magnified by their surroundings.

More than 35 years into his directing career, Wyler was acclaimed at his craft with an impressive list of films to his name. His ability and knowledge could not be questioned. His career attainment, however, could not lessen the tension on the set with some members of the cast and crew. Taskmaster William Wyler found himself once again at odds with the cantankerous Charles Bickford, as they had been almost 30 years earlier on Hell's Heroes. Co-producers Wyler and Peck argued about budget and shooting which caused a year-long rift in their friendship.  Burl Ives, however, who won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for the role of Rufus, always expressed gratitude to Wyler for his direction.

William Wyler directed 31 actors to Oscar nominations and 13 of those actors went home with the trophy on Oscar night. Jerome Moross' magnificent score for The Big Country was nominated for an Oscar. William Wyler was nominated for the Directors Guild of America award.

William Wyler received 12 Oscar nominations, winning Best Director for The Best Years of Our Lives and Ben-Hur. Although the majority of Wyler's westerns were filmed in the beginning of his career, there is much to explore in his later genre films including The Westerner and Friendly Persuasion.












18 comments:

  1. I was unaware that "The Three Godfathers" had been done before the Wayne version. Good choices, as I like westerns. Thanks for joining the blogathon.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. My pleasure.

      Fond as I am of the Ford's take on the story, I like the 1936 version even more. Of course, it is hard to wrong with such a solid story.

      Delete
  2. Hi Caftan Woman -- I too love William Wyler's films, and these are both wonderful films that reveal his versatility. My personal favorite items are his "woman's pictures" such as The Heiress, but these westerns also show how wonderful Wyler was with his actors, bringing out the very best in their performances.
    Beautifully done!
    - Chris

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks.

      I've been able to use Wyler as a classic movie draw for my daughter. I started her with Dead End, and all I've had to do since was mention his name.

      Delete
  3. Nicely done, Caftan Woman! I enjoy Wyler's work immensely, and The Big Country is a favorite of mine. What a great cast! Thanks for this excellent post on a very talented director!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you.

      When The Big Country comes on television I tell the family I'm just going to listen to the theme, but they all know I'm in for the long haul.

      Delete
  4. Two very different films which illustrate William Wyler's versatility. Two of my Wyler favorites are DETECTIVE STORY (featuring one of Kirk Douglas's best performances) and THE CHILDREN'S HOUR.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Detective Story is a favourite with me as well. I find it endlessly engrossing. A good story in Wyler's hands becomes an even better story.

      Delete
  5. I really liked "Hell's Heroes" although it was much more risque then I would have believed possible for a 1930 movie. Wyler seems to gained the respect of many actors. Heston is positively worshipful in his Diary about him, while Dana Andrews calls him Mr. Wyler in his oral history.
    I think all his movies were well directed, although I'm not a big fan of "Funny Girl" or "Dead End".

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I can almost see Heston bowing his head when he writes about Mr. Wyler.

      I'm a Dead End fan, but just can't find any love for Funny Girl. There are always spots in any director's filmography, but Wyler's name guarantees quality in my mind.

      Delete
  6. I had no idea Three Godfathers was a remake! I watched The Big Country recently for Jean Simmons. It was a little long for me and the fiancé was annoying but overall it was an excellent film. I really like how you looked at an early film and a later film. I also enjoyed Friendly Persuasion. My favorite Wyler film is of course Roman Holiday.

    Thanks so much for participating in the Blogathon! I can always count on you contributing a great post and telling me something I didn't know :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Roman Holiday? I never would have guessed.

      I'm mad for The Big Country. When it is on TV I tell the family I'm just going to tune in for the theme, but they know I'm gone.

      Thank you for the charming compliment. You are the hostess with the mostest.

      Delete
  7. I'm another one who didn't realize The Three Godfathers was a remake. Hell's Heroes sounds like a terrific film – thanks for the tip!

    As for The Big Country, I admire everything about that film. One of the great aspects about Wyler, in my mind, is he never draws attention to himself. He makes the story the real Star of the film.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Oh, yes. That is Wyler's greatest strength. He seemed to have an innate instinct for making the story he was telling reach its maximum impact.

      Delete
  8. Wyler is a fantastic director - and a very versatile one! The Big Country is a very enjoyable film - I didn't see the time pass as I was watching it. I haven't seen Hell's Heroes, only the 1948 version 3 Godfathers. Amazing post, as always.
    Thanks for the kind comment!
    Kisses!
    Le

    ReplyDelete
  9. Dead End was the first Wyler picture I showed my daughter and since then I just have to mention his name to get her interested in a movie.

    Here's news, the IMDb lists two titles for The Three Godfathers as "in production". There's a story that is never going away!

    ReplyDelete
  10. What an excellent director to discuss! I love Wyler, although I always seem to forget how great he is until I'm reminded by watching one of his films. Have you seen the Netflix series Five Came Back? Lots of interesting, sometimes stunning, information. It really increased my appreciation for Mr. Wyler, among others.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I haven't watched Five Came Back, but have read the book. What a time it was, and what people gave.

      Wyler does tend to sneak up on you. As someone else said, he's not showy, but let's the story do the telling. It's his support of that that makes his films classic.

      Delete

THE DUO DOUBLE FEATURE BLOGATHON: Susan Hayward and Tyrone Power in Rawhide (1951) and Untamed (1955)

The Flapper Dame and Phyllis Loves Classic Movies have come up with a fabulous idea. It is The Duo Double Feature Blogathon , and it ...