Two Rode Together (Blu-ray Review)26 May, 2014 By: Mike Clark
Available via ScreenArchives.com
Stars James Stewart, Richard Widmark, Shirley Jones, Linda Cristal.
It’s unlikely that even the most ardent John Ford enthusiasts, and I am one, have ever filled their hope chests with fantasies about the director combining sometimes tragic relentlessness of The Searchers with, say, the burlesque of Donovan’s Reef — two movies, to be sure, so close to my heart that I can feel the pressure against my valves. Ford didn’t exactly do that here, but 1961’s Two Rode Together’s clash of deadly serious material with yahoo comedy relief comes close enough for the result to be discomforting: genuine human despair combined with Andy Devine fat jokes. And yeah, I know The Searchers has broad comedy as well, but in that case, it syncs with the fact that so many characters in it are crazy or at least off-the-charts eccentric in one way or another.
Scripted by Searchers screenwriter Frank Nugent and dealing again with the abduction of whites by Comanches, the parallels to the earlier masterpiece are obvious right down to some of the same supporting casting: Henry Brandon, John Qualen, Ken Curtis, Olive Carey to name four just off the top of my head. Photographically, there’s a problem right off the bat. The Searchers was shot in Vistavision and Technicolor, from which anything else would be a comedown. Together is in Eastman Color by Pathe, which is about as bad as it got, even though Columbia Pictures used it a lot in the early ’60s. Twilight Time has done a nice job with what they were given here, and some of the red register potently in the interior scenes. Perhaps this is because red always seemed to be seemed to be the process’ natural fate after prints had sat in a vault for a few years.
One of the most interesting things about the picture is Stewart’s character, a town marshal who takes 10% of everything around, including a saloon/brothel of which the proprietor is his lady friend (Annelle Hayes in a sassy performance that shows us what “Gunsmoke’s” Miss Kitty was probably really up to). As heartless mercenaries go, he certainly has to rank with the screen’s biggest, though Stewart’s charm obscures a lot of this before his character undergoes an honest transformation into a more solid citizen. Beckoned by the army to embark on a trek to bring back settlers’ kin who were long ago abducted by the Indians, he won’t do it until his palms are greased, though as it turns out, he ends up making a bad deal.
Stewart’s Cavalry point person is a first lieutenant and borderline friend played by Richard Widmark, and one of the movie’s standout pleasures is seeing the two veterans go at it in what (for Ford) often looks like improvisational fashion — including an extended down-by-the-riverside two-shot exchange that’s such a delight to watch that Peter Bogdanovich included it in his Directed by John Ford documentary. It’s kind of a Stewart-Widmark rap session if your mind can even perceive of such a thing.
The Widmark love interest is Shirley Jones as the most comely babe on the wagon train, the movie’s equivalent of The Searchers’ Vera Miles sending us to blue jeans heaven, though the character isn’t as prickly (or prickly at all). There are, in fact, one or two scenes where Jones almost looks as if she’s been given a song cue to moon over Gordon MacRae, though its fun to see her back in this more prototypical Jones role just three or four months after she took a supporting Oscar for playing a prostitute in 1960’s Elmer Gantry. As the abductee Stewart ends up befriending and then defending when Cavalry-wife biddies give her the racist treatment over having lived with Comanches, Linda Cristal gives a stronger performance than I’d remembered on the bad end of some really shabby treatment. Just before this, the actress had had the prominent female role in John Wayne’s The Alamo (not that the movie needed one), which would have been her enough to get her into the Ford stock company “club,” even if it were only for one picture.
There are Ford-ian echoes throughout here, starting with the My Darling Clementine manner Marshal Stewart sits on a porch with his feet up on a rail, which is almost the opening shot here. As a result, this is likely a must for Ford fans but probably a much tougher sell for anyone else, though one of my gripes about current movies is that not until the last six weeks of the movie year do we even get movies from filmmakers with a substantial enough body of work to echo. That is another way of saying that I would rather see Stewart and Widmark down by the river than anything in Oscar winners The King’s Speech or Slumdog Millionaire or Crash — yet that doesn’t obscure that fact that Together doesn’t splice together too well and is something of a mess. It is, though, a mess that matters, so I jumped at this release and its Auteur Antics.