This is an ongoing, slowly expanding post concerning my admiration for the director Robert N. Bradbury, who is not a major artist, and perhaps not even a minor one. I’ll add some more thoughts on the man and his work, as I continue, and I wish to continue.
Wild horses wouldn’t be enough to pull the name of Robert N. Bradbury out of near-total obscurity and into anyone’s idea of a director’s pantheon. Career-wise, his moment of glory begins and ends with the 13 westerns he made with then-rising-star John Wayne, between 1933 and 1935. When you watch one of these films – when you watch the first minute or two of any of them – you are seized by the almost total deficiency of resources. Like most western directors on poverty row, Bradbury shot outside when he could, and didn’t make a big fuss over interior decoration when he went inside. (Across three or four pictures, you will notice that they keep using the same big tree.) These are movies that people slept through. In the B-movie class, they don’t get much B-er.
Having cleared all that up, I have now watched six of the 13, and I will stake that Bradbury was skilled at what he did, with what he had. All six thus far have been enjoyable in almost exactly the same way, with few distinctions. One of the ones from 1934, ill-named The Star Packer, begins with many evocative grace notes, culminating in a “secret knock” and “man in the shadows beyond the wall” sequence that’s straight out of Fritz Lang; there’s also a shoot-out by night that’s creepy at first but ends comically. Always nice to see a smart girl handling a gun.
At this point in my (more or less accidental) journey through the Bradbury/Wayne 13, I watched The Lawless Frontier (1934), and I couldn’t recall if I’d seen it already. The first 10 minutes set me at ease. This one uses the plot of the powerful Mexican bandit, roaming and stealing and killing with impunity, which was time-honored by 1934 and would endure through Peckinpah and The Rifleman. (In a 1958 episode of the latter, the great character actor Akim Tamiroff, born in Georgia – the USSR republic, not the US state – played just such a kingpin.) Somehow the obligations of the plot’s early disclosures (Wayne’s parents are killed in the opening, an indeterminate amount of time passes, we meet the bandits, we meet their next quarry, etc) stunts the pace of The Lawless Frontier‘s momentum. At moments it acquires the stark qualities of an Andre de Toth western. Wayne’s character, immediately beset by tragedy, is denied a life in town and even a sidekick. In short, the film’s front half feels heavy but harsh and dry.
This is a screen capture taken near the end of The Lawless Frontier. I found the shot oddly moving, and it reminded me of the opening line of Stephen King’s The Gunslinger: “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.”
The Lawless Frontier – it’s worth noting, and should come as no surprise even if your only exposure to these movies is through the words I’m putting down here, that these titles are often totally unrelated to a given film’s plot or theme (or, alternatively, each title is vague enough that it could apply to any other film without a serious challenge) – is a little more diffuse than the other Bradbury westerns I’ve seen. It comes to pass that the malevolent bandit villain is only one of two antagonists, as the Wayne character comes to be falsely accused of murdering his friend, and must escape and… well you can probably paint the rest of the picture on your own.
I watch or (more commonly) sample many B-pictures – there are countless titles available online, chiefly on Amazon Prime and Youtube. (Netflix doesn’t really give a shit about movies made before their incorporation, and Hulu mainly serves the next-day TV crowd. FilmStruck is the Criterion surrogate, with some added dressing.) Any cinephile afflicted with the “if I start the movie, I must finish it” discipline will find B-movie spelunking arduous – and just as likely, impossible. If you have a 61-minute western or whodunnit from 1942 or 1932, you can wager with confidence that the quality on display during the first three or four minutes after the opening titles will accurately predict the quality of the rest of the movie. I turned 40 earlier this year. I think often of death. I have no compunction quitting on a movie that isn’t giving me the goods.
In fairness, I will often power through a bad B-movie if the spirit moves me. Which is why, when these movies are good, or aren’t precisely good but are shot and edited with a modicum of urgency and contain unexpected moments of beauty or strangeness, I take notice. Within me there’s a tripwire that lets me distinguish when I’m having a good time watching a film, and when I’m not. The Bradbury westerns trip the wire frequently.
The Trail Beyond – again with the titles, there’s no reliable meaning behind them – has an extraordinary first act that I think of often.
It begins with non-incident, as Wayne’s character rides up to his friend’s ranch, and his friend says something along the lines of “I want you to find my estranged niece who’s somewhere up in Canada” and you just know she’s the one Wayne’s going to marry at the end.
Following that, we see Wayne relaxing in a train compartment, dressed not in dude clothes but in city finery. A younger friend of Wayne’s happens by, they exchange kind words, and the friend is next seen trying his luck at a rigged poker game a few drawing room compartments down the way. One of the sharps is killed, it looks bad for the friend, but Wayne intervenes.
By jumping from the train.
Into the river.
So far, nothing to write home about. The action is enjoyably brisk: the friend adjourning to the card game, the card game going south, the cheat getting a bullet in his belly, his two accomplices holding the kid, Wayne busting in and taking out the two sharps, the escape. I timed it – I’m not fooling, from the kid sitting down to play poker to the river jump, 60 seconds flat.
But forget that. A jump in the river, no big deal. What amazed me was that, hardly two minutes later, the following sequence plays out:
- After catching their breath on the riverbank, the two walk to the nearest town;
- They rent a pair of horses;
- The sheriff of the town where they rent the horses gets a telegram describing the previous scene – the murder and all;
- Putting two and two together, the sheriff rounds up his posse and they give chase;
- Knowing they’re once again being pursued, Wayne and his friend ride into the woods;
- They come to a river. The posse is fast on their heels. They’re boxed in. There’s only one way out. You guessed it:
That’s about three and a half minutes for opening business, and another four minutes to justify and depict two death-defying leaps into the river. I cannot conceive of a mind unwilling or unable to enjoy such lunacy.