Friday, 15 July 2016

William A. Wellman

One of the highlights of American cinema is William A. Wellman's close-ups of tired and unshaved men under stress.

Henry Fonda and Henry Morgan in The Ox-Bow Incident (1943).

When me and my brother were growing up there were two films our dad often mentioned, The Ox-Bow Incident and The Men Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). They must have made a big impression on him, but although he did not explain why, they are both rather similar. Black and white, tragic and claustrophobic, about the dirty politics of the taming of the West. Wellman made the first and John Ford the other, and they are among each filmmaker's best. But they also show the difference between them, and Ford is by far the greater artist. Just consider a traditional song, used by both, The Red River Valley. It appears in the beginning and end of The Ox-Bow Incident but with no connection to anything, it is not grounded, it might have been added as an after-thought. It is not like that when Ford uses it, as he frequently does. The song is an organic part of the world of the individual film while it at the same time also links a given Ford film with the others in which the song also appears. The song is part of both the characters' world and Ford's whole cinematic universe.

But there are other things that links Wellman's films with each other, such as those men. The workers, flyers and soldiers; dirty, smelly and thirsty, often desperate and frequently dying. I have written before about another of those films, The Story of G.I. Joe (1945), here is the link. But there are not only men, he made several films about women too, such as Ladies of the Mob (1928), Night Nurse (1931), Lady of Burlesque (1943) and Westward the Women (1951). They too had to be tough and resourceful since life is no picnic. Remember what Kitty got for breakfast in Public Enemy (1931).

Anne Baxter in Yellow Sky (1948).

Wellman had been a pilot in World War 1 and he made several films about flyers, in the air force or civilian. I am particularly fond of Island in the Sky (1953) about a DC-3 that crashes in the Canadian wilderness, and while the crew slowly freeze to death a slow-moving rescue operation is trying to find them. The film is pretty harsh, and a feeling that they might all be dead before they are found just grows stronger. But he made all kinds of films, even if they were always sympathetic to those who had very little or were facing unbearable odds, whether they were Beggars of Life (1928) or Wild Boys of the Road (1933), and the cruelty and violence is often quite shocking. He also made a few comedies, and one, Nothing Sacred (1937) is an absolute must. Fredric March and Carole Lombard are having a field day with Ben Hecht's cynical script, and any film in which a small child bites Fredric March in the leg is fine by me.

Eccentric staging in Nothing Sacred.

Wellman made close to 80 films and many might have been uninspired, and if a message is to be put across it is done so in much too explicit language, but there is a legacy there, and many fine films where a particular way of looking at the world and a particular way of filming it; those weary men and women captured in a slightly off-beat and stylised way, including the hallucinatory Track of the Cat (1954). I will end with a fine, and typical, scene from Battleground (1949):


There is a religious dimension to Wellman's films, but that will be an investigation for a later day.

1 comment:

  1. I haven't seen that many Wellman films, but NIGHT NURSE is brilliant. It's funny how a film made in the 1930s could depict female experience so well and so matter-of-factly, but an all-female GHOSTBUSTERS in 2016 creates a massive backlash and hate mail to its cast.