Two Rode Together: John Ford attempted a small-scale, satirical reworking of ‘The Searchers’ starring James Stewart and Richard Widmark

Two Rode Together (1961), directed by John Ford and starring James Stewart and Richard Widmark in lead role, finds the great American director attempting a satirical, quasi-sequel to his classic Western, “The Searchers (1956).”

The 1956 film, “The Searchers,” is perhaps the greatest Western ever made, and certainly one of the greatest American films ever made. The film featured the great American movie star\icon, John Wayne, in his greatest screen performance and the film also had John Ford, America’s preeminent filmmaker, working at the height of his powers. The film had the kind of intensity, seriousness, gravitas and artistry that was never before (or never again) seen in a John Ford film- which is quite an achievement, because Ford is one of the pioneers of American cinema who has crafted several seminal movie masterpieces; and his contribution to the Western genre is immeasurable. In “The Searchers,” John Wayne played a racist, ex-Confederate soldier who was on a dogged search for his niece after she’d been captured by the Comanche; he spends almost ten years tracking them down, only to find out that his niece has totally changed in the interim and has become a full-blown Comanche woman- he brings her home anyway, and the all-important question: whether she will be able to re-assimilate into the white society, is left unanswered. Perhaps to address the answers to this question in more detail, five years after “The Searchers,” Ford made “Two Rode Together,” which tackled most of themes he had already tackled in “The Searchers,” but giving more importance to the themes of reintegration of ‘white folks rescued from Comanche captivity’ back into the white society. And, instead of a serious and gritty treatment of the subject matter, Ford has gone in for a very ironic and satirical take on the material that’s perhaps the most revisionist Ford has ever been in demythologizing the old-west legends. Ever since “The Searchers,” Ford, the great Western traditionalist, was on a revisionist path and his subsequent films like “The Man who Shot Liberty Valance” and “Cheyenne Autumn” will take the Western into deep revisionist territory. But it’s in “Two Rode Together” that one senses Ford’s rejection of not just the old West myths but also the several iconic Western genre tropes\mages that he himself had created. Though all of Ford’s films have a comedy track that runs parallel to the more serious and dramatic main story, here, the humor is so highlighted that the film plays out more like a full-blown comedy or a Western farce; and most of the time the film does play like a ‘buddy comedy,’ with two mismatch characters, who are absolutely awful, at the center of the narrative.

The two lead characters – one a hard-bitten, cynical, lazy, greedy Marshal, Guthrie McCabe (James Stewart), and the other a spineless but honorable army Lt. Jim Gary (Richard Widmark) – are a far cry from the usual Western heroes. These two heroes are tasked by the army to go to Comanche territory and bring back a few whites that had been abducted years ago- their families are desperate to see them again and they have ‘laid siege’ to Fort Grant to pressurize the army top brass into complying with their demand . McCabe is reluctant to accept but allows himself to be persuaded by a combination of Army pressure, the offer of a salary, the promise of a fee for each captive returned, and the opportunity to take a vacation from Belle Aragon, a saloon owner who has marriage on her mind. In exchange for two rifles, McCabe and Gary obtain the release of Running Wolf, a white boy raised as an Indian, and Elena (a young Mexican woman who has been forced to become the squaw of Comanche warrior Stone Calf) from the Comanche chief, Quanah Parker (Harry Brandon). As the little group leaves the Indian camp, Stone Calf (Woody Strode) tries to reclaim his woman, and McCabe kills him. Back at the fort, none of the families who anxiously awaited the return of their relatives recognize Running Wolf, and he is claimed only by the mentally deranged Mrs. McCandless, who insists the wild boy is her son. However, as she frees him of his bonds, he murders her. The inflamed settlers capture and lynch the youth, but before he dies it is discovered that he is actually the brother of Marty Purcell (Shirley Jones), a young settler with whom Gary has fallen in love. Meanwhile, Elena has been shunned by the narrow-minded officers’ wives. McCabe leaves the fort to resume his marshal’s job and discovers that he has been replaced by his inept deputy in the interim. Disenchanted, he rides off with Elena in search of a better life.

John Ford called “Two Rode Together” as the worst crap he made in twenty years; and he made it only for the money. After watching the film, I would say that there is some merit in his statement, but it’s not entirely true. But first, the underwhelming aspects of the film: this is the most visually banal and dull film Ford has ever made. Ford’s films are always visual treats and his talent for frame compositions is extraordinary, while his ability to capture natural Western landscapes are on par with Frederic Remington. But here, having exchanged his favorite red deserts of Monument valley for the green plains, Ford cannot strike up one memorable frame. This despite the fact that the film is photographed by Charles Lawton Jr. who cranked the camera for many classic Bud Boetticher ‘Lone Pine’ Westerns, like “Ride Lonesome” and “Comanche Station.” The outdoor locations Ford picked for the film are claustrophobic and unremarkable; and he is content to stage much of the film indoors, or in darkness, and in long master shots; it’s one of the rare John Ford films, especially a Western, that has a heavy stagey feel to it. It appears that Ford was too lazy and uninvolved to do anything visually interesting with the film, though it must be said that his laziness produces one memorable moment: the scene that has come to be know as the ‘riverbank’ scene has Stewart and Widmark resting on the banks of a river and discussing all things concerning Comanche, women and marriage. This unbroken scene, which was mostly improvised by the two actors, goes on for about five minutes with the camera rock solidly focused on the two. Ford’s disillusionment with his own classic Western icons can be felt from the two scenes that bookend the film- the scenes where we have a town Marshall lazily reclining on a chair is an obvious parody on the iconic scene from “My Darling Clementine,” where we find Henry Fonda’s Marshal Wyatt Earp doing a bit of ‘choreographed dance’ with his feet while sitting on the porch of the town saloon. But, while Fonda’s Earp is pure, romantic and heroic, Stewart’s McCabe is corrupt, greedy and lazy. McCabe gets ten percent of every business in the town of Tascosa, Texas and he is half asleep on the porch of his business and personal\sexual partner, the attractive saloon owner Belle Aragon. McCabe wakes up only when his dumb deputy comes to serve him beer; and his idea of law enforcement in town is to get everybody drunk. The reason why McCabe decides to join Gary’s mission is because he wants to get away from Belle, who has been pressurizing him to get married. Unlike Ethan Edwards of “The Searchers,” McCabe is driven only by profit in rescuing white folks from Comanche. The final scene, where McCabe returns to Tascosa with Elena after the mission to Fort Grant is completed, is almost a parody of a parody: we get a scene that’s exactly like the opening scenes, except here, the Marshal sleeping on Belle’s porch and who is awakened by a glass of beer is McCabe’s dumb deputy; after McCabe had left for Fort Grant, Belle had taken the young deputy as her lover and had him elected as the town Marshal- this shows how replaceable\expendable the Western heroes have become. And contrary to the classic Western image of the lone cowboy leaving his woman behind and riding away from a civilized society which he had helped create, this film ends with McCabe leaving a corrupt society, of which he was part of, behind and joining his girl in riding away to another ‘promised land’.

Ford’s depiction of both the white society and the Native American society is also unsparing in its cynicism. While the whites are depicted as naïve: they think that their lost children will be restored to them the way they were when they were taken, and bigoted: once the white captives are returned to them, they are loathe to accept them back into the society and chose to shame and torment them. The Natives are also equally naïve: the militant Comanche chief, Stone Calf, believes that conducting a ‘shield ritual’ will protect them from white man’s bullets; and they are also ruthlessly manipulative: Quanah parker insists on returning Stone Calf’s ‘white squaw’ Elena to McCabe because he knows that Stone Calf will follow them and McCabe, with his superior shooting skills, will get rid of his militant rival. Both societies are portrayed as equally savage: the white settlers lynch ‘Running Wolf’ after he murders the traumatized white woman who adopts him; Marty, who realizes that Running Wolf is her brother, does not try to stop them; Elena finds herself ostracized by white society, deemed a woman who degraded herself by submitting to a savage rather than killing herself. All these are very interesting themes and ideas, but they are let down by a weak screenplay that simply meanders from one plot point to the next. The film has all the regular Fordian themes: male camaraderie, conflict between the whites and the Natives in the latter part of 19th century, establishment of civilization in the Western wilderness, and the balancing of broad humor with serious themes and high dramatic tension. Somehow, Ford’s favorite writer Frank Nugent, who was called in to rewrite the script, just couldn’t arrange the themes\events into a coherent, convincing narrative. And Ford’s half-hearted direction doesn’t help as well. For a Western, the film is completely devoid of action scenes\gunfights; the only gunfight in the film is rather unintentionally funny: it’s the one between McCabe and Stone Calf, where the former dispatches the latter with one shot as the latter appears out of the smoke and darkness like a ghost with just a knife in his hand- I wonder whether this was the scene that served as an inspiration for a similar shooting scene in Spielberg’s “Raiders of the lost Ark,” where Harrison Ford dispatches a sword wielding Saracen with one shot. Also, there are no scenes of long rides through the wild countryside: Stewart and Widmark just bumps into the Comanche the moment they are out of Fort Grant; and the return to Fort Grant is also without any tension or peril, except for the fact that McCabe intentionally stalls the journey to confront Stone Calf. Ultimately, the film is more of a character study, and it relies heavily on its actors to make the film work; that they do to an extend. Only, the performances of the actors mirrors the wildly oscillating tone of the film.

James Stewart is in his trademark, subtle sardonic mode most of the time, other times he is wildly over the top, and in a scene where he threatens Widmark with a gun, he seems to be parodying his neurotic characters from his Anthony Mann Westerns. But his performance works for most of the time, except for the cynical aspect of the character, which he has some trouble selling; the uneven writing also doesn’t help- it’s hard to believe that the person who was literally extorting money from the white settlers for finding their missing children is also the same person who calls out the soldiers and their wives for their ill treatment of Elena through a very passionate speech. Richard Widmark is also saddled with a poorly defined character; his rather subdued turn in a passive role may not be his finest hour as an actor, but he shares a terrific chemistry with James Stewart and their scenes together are very lively and interesting. The female characters in the film are a mixed bag: Annelle Hayes’ feisty frontier businesswoman, Belle Aragon, is a woman with agency and power (she is also more racist and bigoted than the rest), while Shirley Jones‘ Marty Purcell and Linda Cristal‘s Elena are the typical marginalized Western heroines. The most bizarre casting choice is that of Woody Strode as Stone Calf- maybe the African-American actor has some native blood in him, but his appearance here generate chuckles rather than tension. Strode had risen to leading man status with Ford’s “Sergeant Rutledge,” but here he has very little to say or do. Andy Devine plays the ‘Victor McLaglen’ role of the buffoonish army sergeant that was a staple of Ford’s Cavalry pictures. Henry Brandon, who played the menacing ‘Scar’ in “The Searchers,” plays the real-life Comanche, Chief Quanah Parker here. The film is also filled with other Ford stock company actors (many of them were in “The Searchers” as well) like Harry Carey Jr., Ken Curtis and John Qualen. They all engage in broad slapstick comedy routines and wild brawls that are part of every Ford film. Suffice it to say that this film too had all the ingredients for becoming another John Ford masterpiece. As Howard Hawks proved with “Rio Bravo” and “El Dorado”, putting a funny\satirical spin on one of your classic Westerns can be very rewarding. One only wish Ford had realized this and thrown himself into making this film with all his enthusiasm and artistry. Then we would have had that masterpiece. Anyway, Ford would revitalize himself with his next Western outing, the classic “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” where he teamed up Stewart with his favorite star, John Wayne.


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