Two Flags West

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TWO FLAGS WEST deserves to have its banners unfurled as a class-A western; well written, acted and directed, with exciting and spectacular action. Oddly, the big-scale 1950 film apparently didn’t do well (lagging at spot #110 with a gross of $2,400,000), maybe because the genre was jam-packed with superior entrants that year, and curiously it gets little mention from reviewers, despite having a name director, lavish production values and a solid cast. Let’s fix that.

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While the Civil War rages back East, the frontier West is depleted of garrisons to protect settlers and keep links open to California. Pardoned Confederate prisoners put on blue uniforms to serve with their Yankee enemies against the tribes. Rot in prison or die with boots on? *

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Rebel officer Joseph Cotten bonds with Union captor Cornel Wilde and their blended commands are sent to New Mexico to join superior officer Jeff Chandler and his fort.  Linda Darnell is wooed by the new arrivals. Chandler seethes with resentment. ‘Satank’ and his Kiowas arrive and one hell of a battle ensues.

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Casey Robinson’s script deftly mixes in historical tidbits with the fictional folk and the conflicted relationships and conversations are thoughtfully conveyed.  The actors are all fine, with Chandler a standout, fairly boiling with intensity as the bitter commander.  It was the rugged and offbeat 32-year-olds breakout year, with five pictures, including his Oscar-nominated ‘Cochise’ in Broken Arrow.  A low-key and likable Wilde is much better than usual, Darnell and Cotten quietly effective. Swell support comes from newcomer Dale Robertson and dependables Jay C. Flippen, Noah Beery Jr., Harry von Zell and Arthur Hunnicutt.

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Robert Wise directs ably, and cameraman Leon Shamroy’s sharp b&w lensing shows up the expansive New Mexico locations at San Ildefonso Pueblo and Black Mesa while putting noirish shadow on the interior scenes.  Hugo Friedhofer provides a dramatic music score, openly symphonic in the style of Copland.  Sound effects, costumes and sets are excellent.  The showstopper conclusion is a huge and furious siege battle, quite violent for the day, expertly choreographed and edited: it’s a startling jaw-dropper, ranking in the top tier of its brethren in a decade chocked with big action finishes.  A solid product from Fox pros, this smart and handsome, rousing and unheralded matinee is a must for western lovers.  92 minutes.

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*Major historical events leave ripple effects long after the earth ceases shaking or the guns stop smoking.  If you grant that Freedom and Prosperity remain America’s lure, they inescapably share the stage with War in shaping the national identity (or warp). The 1776 Revolutionary War cobbled together the fractious patchwork of dissimilar states that held until 1861 and The Civil War.  Regional resentments and prejudices (and unresolved racial divide) were anvil’d back into something like cohesion for the do-or-die crucible of WW2.  Movies, as the chief national art form, and Westerns as the oldest, purely American film genre, reflect social zeitgeist.  So it’s no wonder the proud Victory backslapping after kicking Hitler & Tojo’s teeth in soon saw the screen showing boys from North and South represented in teamwork— united against a traditional fallback enemy: the original inhabitants of the country.  The glove fit as screenwriters discovered President Lincoln’s Dec. 8, 1863 proclamation, which gave Confederate prisoners their freedom in return for service on the undermanned frontier, then witnessing a resurgence in Indian uprisings (with a major slaughter in Minnesota) while the white men were mowing each other down in Virginia and Tennessee.  6,000 stockade-sickened Rebs took the amnesty.

8 The “galvanized Yankee’s” featured in Rocky Mountain (also 1950), The Last Outpost, Escape From Fort Bravo, Revolt At Fort Laramie and most memorably in Sam Peckinpah’s 1965 epic Major Dundee.  For the Native American “traditional enemy”, the postwar period saw an attitudinal change, and sympathetic portrayals finally began to replace offensive stereotypes.  In this tale, it’s the behavior of Chandler’s jerk, much like Henry Fonda’s ‘Col.Thursday’ in Fort Apache, that sets the Kiowas on the warpath.  Along with Chandler’s warm Cochise in Broken Arrow, western-rich 1950 likewise saw Robert Taylor as a prejudice-wronged Shoshone in the overlooked Devils Doorway.  World War Two’s emergency role-displacement also reinvigorated the Civil Rights Movement and Hollywood began to reflect that suppressed piece of the national puzzle—but that’s for other asterisks on other films.  As for War (“USA!USA!” chanting evidently more patriotic than signing up, losing 85 pounds and getting shot at) and our manifestering destiny, if the Revolutionary War, Civil War and WW2 are Acts I,II and III—have we now, after a generation of Terror War, with more (and much bigger) on the horizon arrived at… Epilogue?   Food for thought while sitting down with popcorn and beverage to push away existential gloom and enjoy Two Flags West…….

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