Film Review:Two Rode Together,
John Ford, 1961
" On Two Rode Together he (John Ford) told me to watch out for Dick Widmark because he was a good actor and that he would start stealing if I didn't watch him. Later, I learned he'd told Dick the same thing about me. He liked things to be tense." James Stewart in Andrew Sinclair, John Ford,
"The worst piece of crap I've done in twenty years", John Ford (McBride, 618)
"I didn't enjoy it. I just tried to make Stewart's character as humorous as possible." John Ford (Kitses, 112)
"There is no reasoning with hotheads like Stonecalf, his death is most timely"
Film Review:Two Rode Together,
John Ford, 1961
Two Rode Together was filmed at Brackettville, Texas at the set John Wayne had built near the Mexican border to reenact his version of what happened at The Alamo. Guthrie McCabe (James Stewart) is a corrupt town Marshall who is hired by a Cavalry lieutenant (Richard Widmark) to help rescue captives held by the Comanche in 1880s Texas. Like The Searchers (1956) the film deals with the interracial issue, although it is muddied a bit by the 'fact' that the leading woman Elena's (Linda Cristal) role is that of a Mexican woman rather than white. Back at the fort the officer's wives shun her because she was Stone Calf's (Woody Strode) woman. The disreputable McCabe redeems himself by standing up for Elena by delivering a rather sanctimonious and far from subtle speech on her behalf which lambasts the hypocrisy of the fort 'society'. As two misfits they team up as a couple and ride off (into the sunset) for California together.
James Stewart attributed one of the film's most impressive shots to the awkwardness of Ford in wanting to force his crew to wade waist-deep into the icy river and stay there until the shot was completed. Stewart and Widmark swapped banter on a river bank about money, women, and Comanches, a comedic interlude which is as cringingly out of place as the Dodge City interlude in Cheyenne Autumn. Giving the two actors the opportunity to swap badinage locates the film firmly in the 1950s rather than in the 1880s it was supposed to convey, not quite as bad as some of the anachronisms in the 1940s 'B' Westerns perhaps, but still getting in the way of the suspension of disbelief.
This is a strange film combining rather flippant and trite male dialogue with a serious statement about interaction between native Americans and the new Americans. There is also a contrast between the stylised and stereotypical presentation of the Comanche with what seems to be a genuine attempt to present their culture, however superficial that may turn out. At once, therefore, the film is considered and meaningful yet vacuous and slight. Perhaps this reflects a paradox in the objectives of the film. The twinning of Stewart and Widmark and having them interplay 'like lads do' suggests a push for a box office success for Columbia Pictures. The levity was helped by the excellent character actor who provides humour through the incongruity of his size and squeaky voice.
The serious side of the film is its central theme: the carrying off of young children to increase their numbers (or rather to restore them from the decimation by disease). This is soundly based in history, and is a topic which Ford had explored five years earlier in his finest film, The Searchers, a far more subtle and weighty film. This is partly because of the laddish dialogue and partly because its message is more oblique and left to individual interpretation. Like his later Cheyenne Autumn (1964) Two Rode Together is much more 'up front' with its message, and, however laudable that is, to have Elena make a speech outlining the 'moral of the story' is as crass as its content is moving. Elena, played beautifully by the film's star, Linda Cristal, helps the audience to accept the implausible plot by being a Mexican maiden who has been the wife of the stereotypical 'bad guy' Stone Calf. Elena is rescued by McCabe who then falls in love with her. This is seemingly made more acceptable by her statement, pointedly repeated later, that she did not have children by Stone Calf, thereby implying that congress had not occurred. The depiction of Stone Calf in the Comanche village in a different manner to the other Comanche - with a Mohican haircut - is partially explained by him being a member of a 'warrior society' although in the film the membership seems to be limited to one. When Stone Calf first thrusts his demonic figure on screen out of nowhere, he is backed by a number of headdressed warriors in a scene which must have been inspired by Edward Curtis's staged photograph of the Sioux Warparty. The mismash is further compounded by McCabe referring to a Sun Dance which was not part of Comanche culture. It is easy to forget that the representation of native Americans is merely an artistic construct. Richard Maltby reminds us that they are merely performing a function: when Stone Calf appears from nowhere at the edge of the clearing in which the fleeing McCabe and Elena are camped, he is violating the White man's space and is summarily despatched by McCabe's prompt gunplay "the threat vanishes as soon as it becomes visible" (Maltby, 34) - most reassuring for the WASP audience.
Interestingly, although Quanah (Henry Brandon, the Indian chief specialist), whose name meant fragrance, is a charismatic figure, and he is referred to as Quanah Parker, his background is not discussed, Perhaps it was in a piece of celluloid that ended up on the cutting room floor, Ford and especially Frank Nugent, who scripted the story, must have known that he was the son of a Nokoni Comanche chief and Cynthia Parker who was taken during a famous raid on a Texas ranch in 1836. In Two Rode Together a woman of advanced age manages to converse surreptitiously with Stewart and Widmark in the Comanche village, whereas when she was eventually 'rescued' in 1860 Cynthia Parker could not speak English at all, Like Cynthia the woman in the film does not want to be rescued - ostensibly because she would not fit in with white society - although in Cynthia's case this was because as a free choice she wished to return to the life to which she had become assimilated. Tragically, when kept incarcerated against her will by a society which could not accept its women being 'defiled'by savages, when her daughter died of disease Cynthia starved herself to death.
Such issues are to some degree in the film albeit from a rather romanticised and sanitised perspective. The film's heart is in the right place. Given the timing of its production- at the end of the decades of the Anti American Activities Commission - it is a brave attempt to make the underlying themes of the Searchers more overt. That Ford saw this as necessary would suggest that the message of the earlier film was less conciliatory, something which ultimately makes the original attempt more timeless if no more or less realistic. There might be a debate about whether or not this was "The worst piece of crap I've done in twenty years", (John Ford), largely because there were other films of his which one could offer in its place. Nevertheless, the film is watchable but has very little to commend it except for its apparently good intentions.
While Two Rode Together might have its heart in the right place the problem is that it has not got much heart. Gone are the optimism and belief in the community and its traditional values which underpinned Ford's earlier Westerns. Stewart is a cynical Sheriff exploiting his position rather than being a pillar of the community. "There are few iconic signs, no horizon shots, no exuberant chases or heroic stands. Gone too are life affirming rituals - meals, sermons, celebrations; only the disastrous army dance remains"( Jim Kitses, 118) His earlier work eulogised the cavalry, but they are now dismissed as "self serving and irrelevant" (Kitses 114) Despite this change of emphasis, the familiar themes are still there, although the script is unsubtle in representing conflicts in the persons of the main protagonists: duty is set against self interest, idealism is set against personal gain. However, I am at odds to understand Kitses rather contradictory remarks that he finds McCabe's cynicism "refreshing". (Kitses, 113) Certainly it anticipates the anti hero of the Spaghetti Westerns, but personally I prefer the nostalgic romantic and optimistic Ford, and I think he himself did too. Pessimism is the road to bitterness and leads this film to lack the heart of his earlier work.
While Kim Newman dismisses the film: "Two Rode Together was a cynical retread of the Searchers", (Newman, 66) typically J.A. Place is far more positive in her condemnation:
"It might seem, then that Two Rode Together is a lesser The Searchers, with counterfeit heroes that cannot give the depth and breadth present in the earlier film........Lieutenant Gary is the army man who will follow his duty even if it should cause him death and dishonour........McCabe, on the other hand, has no allegiance to anything except himself...............(his) cynicism mirrors Ford's own loss of both innocence and the ability to have faith". (Place, 202-203)
I give the last word on this second rate Ford film to his biographer, Joseph McBride:
"With its slapdash and blatantly ugly visual style, frequently cartoon style acting, crude caricaturing of the Indians and flippant treatment of serious themes Two Rode Together represents one of the lowest points of Ford's career." (McBride, 619)
Edward Buscombe, 100 Westerns,2006
Jim Kitses, Horizons West, 2004
Richard Maltby, A Better Sense of History: John Ford and the Indians, in The Book of Westerns, Cameron and Pye, 1996
Kim Newman, Wild West Movies, 1990
Joseph McBride, Searching for John Ford, 2001
J A Place, The Western Films of John Ford, 1974
Andrew Sinclair, John Ford,1979
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© Chris Smallbone February 2009