Monday, January 10, 2011

Trooper Hook - 1957

We’re going to spend this week talking about two films that both mythologize and yet seem to deconstruct how classic film depicted the American West. This was accomplished, however, by way of telling a more intimate story about men and women.

The two movies show a world that is certainly rugged, but is supremely romantic in a way we don’t usually see the Old West. These two movies feature relationships between men and women that are introspective beyond stereotype, and brave in attempting understanding beyond the usual bravery needed to face the bad guy.

Today’s film, “Trooper Hook” (1957) was based on a short story, and Thursday’s film, “Shane” (1953) was based on a novella. Both were written by the same man, Jack Schaefer, who was among the first writers to create Western literature above the usual pulp novel standards. He claimed at the time of his enormous success with “Shane” to never have read those pulp Westerns, and approached his story like a literary novel, feeling that the American West was a topic worthy of great themes and not such shoot-em-up action stories.

At the time he wrote “Shane” he had never even visited the West. It was a world both of his research and his imagination. By the time his story “Sergeant Houck” had been made into the film “Trooper Hook”, he had moved to Arizona, settling in the great West he admired. His books, though touching on the familiar themes of cattlemen versus homesteader, the gunfighter, the vanishing American Indian culture, he did not eulogize the West, nor did he intend to mythologize it. It was simply his canvas to write about men and women.

In the case of both of these two movies, “Trooper Hook” and “Shane”, it is the story of one woman and two men in a painful, and poetic, romantic triangle.

Interestingly, and perhaps the most glaring departure from lusty romance and bold adventure in a savage land, these romances are depicted without the usual trusty script convention (and real life reaction) of healthy lust or demonstrative desire. The Production Code may have required discretion back in the day, but there was still plenty of room for suggesting lust. The romance here, however, is envisioned more through tenderness and respect, as a union of soulmates.

“Trooper Hook” takes place in the Southwest, where Apache warriors, under their chief, Nanches, execute a group of cavalry soldiers on a cliff. They are subdued by another troop of soldiers, lead by Joel McCrea. The soldiers burn the Apaches’ village in revenge, and send them to a reservation. We see the cruelty of both adversaries.

Among the Apaches, the soldiers discover a white woman, played by Barbara Stanwyck, who was captured from a wagon train some years before. She has a small son by Nanches. Joel McCrea takes her back to the fort, with her son, to be hopefully be reunited with her white husband.

We start off with what will be a litany of bigotry, racial and sexist, against Barbara Stanwyck for having borne a child by the Apache chief. Though we understand from the beginning that she was taken against her will and she had no romantic feelings for Nanches; we are made to understand she was raped; nevertheless she is treated by the white community as one who should have committed suicide before she allowed herself to submit to an Apache, or at least had the decency to kill herself after she discovered she was pregnant.

“You mean you let yourself whelp that buck’s kid? You ain’t no white woman, no more you ain’t,” one of McCrea’s soldiers says to her. With terms like “whelp”, “mongrel” and “Indian leavings” to refer to the child, we see that Stanwyck’s humiliation as a captive is going to only continue even though she is now free.

It’s a powerful way to examine a slice of America’s history of prejudice. Had there been a romance between Stanwyck and the Apache chief, the writers might be inclined to show him as noble and heroic, and make him, rather than her, the greater victim of prejudice in a star-crossed romantic tale of intolerance between races.

But, making Stanwyck the abused possession of a man who was cruel and dangerous, and having the settlers’ and soldiers’ bigotry directed at her for being victimized, we see prejudice that is salacious as it is mean, as commonly and cheaply sexist as it is intolerance twisted beyond the logic of normally decent people.

A few will show her kindness. The first and foremost of these is Joel McCrea, as the stoic career soldier who is assigned to escort and her child back to her husband. Quito, her poker-faced little boy, is played by Terry Lawrence. Rodolfo Acosta, who moved from Mexican cinema to American movie and TV westerns, is Nanches. He breaks free from his shackles, and wants his son back.

Every once in a while Tex Ritter sings another verse of the ballad that reminds us what’s going on, a-la’ “High Noon.” It’s just not a Western without Tex Ritter, nor without dependable Royal Dano as the stagecoach driver. With his goatee, mustache, and flowing gray hair, he looks like Colonel Sanders without the bucket of chicken.

The West as a place of redemption is also hinted at in this movie, not just redemption for Miss Stanwyck or Mr. McCrea, who bears a past humiliation of his own, but of the nation. We see McCrea’s blue (yes, it’s a black and white movie) soldier’s kepi, but Royal Dano, who is the other man to treat Miss Stanwyck with open-minded gallantry, wears a gray kepi. Union and Confederate team up to get this lady and her boy home.

Barbara Stanwyck is withdrawn, emotionless, having learned from her years as a captive to repress her feelings in order to survive. The first words we hear from her are threats when she attacks a bully with a shovel for harassing her son. It draws admiration from Joel McCrea, who is her protector from one threat after another for the remainder of the story.

We get hints of his own past, and we are led to believe that he has a family somewhere, but we see another kind of family coming together in the long, arduous stagecoach ride across the open desert. Time and space is telescoped in the narrow, jostling confines of the stagecoach. Another passenger joins them, a nosy salesman who, among other things, notes that Stanwyck’s hair is “cut a might short to me.”

Later on McCrea will comfort her that it will grow out as she self-consciously brushes her hand through her fetching bob (which looks like she had a perm somewhere along the trail), and perhaps we are meant to infer that her hair was shorn to subjugate and humiliate her in the custom of degrading female prisoners and social outcasts for centuries. She spits the venomous explanation, “Lice!” at the rude man.

She also gives him a look that seems to say, “Yeah, and my hair’s gray, too. You want to make something of it?”

The hairdo was more likely an affectation of 1950s feminine coiffure, and we could also comment on Jean Arthur’s similar short hairstyle in “Shane”. In her case, her hair might have still been growing out from her successful Broadway gig as “Peter Pan” months before “Shane” began shooting (see our reference on that here in our discussion of her co-star, Boris Karloff, also here); her character in the novel is described as having her hair piled on her head.

Short hair for married women in the 19th century was not unheard of, but most certainly was not common. I think we’re looking at the 1950s taking the forefront over history here. It’s interesting that a producer and director will take such pains to make a film historically authentic but leave a glaring anachronism, either for modern women moviegoers to identify with the heroine, or to accommodate the comfort of the actress.

McCrea soon banishes the talkative salesman to the driver’s box, because really, can you imagine traveling through the hot desert in a bone-shaking conveyance with a guy who just won’t shut up?

When they make their first stop, the half-Apache child and his practically-a-prostitute mother are not allowed in the hotel dining room, so Joel McCrea takes them on a picnic, where Stanwyck and her boy bathe in a lake. She becomes more confidential with McCrea, having observed his unexpected traditionally feminine ability to nurture as well as his traditionally masculine trait to protect, and she tries to explain her captivity in terms of her strong desire to just live through it. Bearing humiliation was a tool to do this.

He understands. In a scene moving for its frank honesty as well as its simplicity, McCrea recalls his experience as a young soldier during the Civil War, when he was imprisoned at Andersonville. For those unfamiliar, this Confederate prison had the infamous reputation of being one of the worse hell-holes imaginable, where overcrowding led to men lying on the ground out in the open in the mud and their own filth, being barely kept alive on small rations of putrid food.

A fellow prisoner, sick out of his mind with fever, hallucinates about having a dog with him. Joel explains, “He had a love of dogs, and I found if I barked once or twice, he’d give me some of his rations.”

He got down on his hands and knees, pretending to be this feverish man’s submissive, loyal pet, letting the man feed him. “For a whole month I was a dog.”

Then his master died of the fever.

McCrea goes beyond sympathizing with her humiliation by sharing his own, and the practical lengths he had gone to survive.

The stagecoach trip resumes and the new passenger is a young Earl Holliman, a hung over but still pretty happy-go-lucky cowboy with nothing but his saddle to his name. They ride through the night, and we are given a sublime picture that seems to sum up the movie in a cozy image. Holliman hunkers on his bench in the stagecoach, with McCrea’s outstretched leg extending across and bolstering up the sleeping Holliman with his boot to keep him falling.

McCrea and Stanwyck are on the other seat, with the sleeping boy sprawled across both their laps. Stanwyck is asleep, slumped against McCrea’s chest, and Joel McCrea is the only one awake, with his two arms outstretched to grasp either side of the stagecoach, the linchpin that keeps everyone from rocking too much, from having their sleep disturbed. He is keeping watch, and also, we may imagine, savoring the sensation of warm bodies who need him. He is heroic in his simple thoughtfulness. He is the picture of the family man we thought he probably was, but there is something different about him now, something more wistful than stoic. Perhaps he has lost his family and is remembering times past. Perhaps he never had one.

Nanches is free and stalks the stagecoach.

New passengers include an aristocratic Spanish matron played by Celia Lovsky, and her convent-schooled granddaughter, played by Susan Kohner, who is on her way to an arranged marriage. Holliman falls in love and we have the makings of a subplot. Also along for the ride is a big blow-hard rancher who brags about risking everything in a poker game to attain his immense wealth. When trouble comes, we see he has lost his bravado for risk, but doesn’t mind risking the lives of others.

Tex Ritter sings another verse.

Nanches and his warriors catch up with the stagecoach, and there is a standoff, temporarily won by Mr. McCrea when he plays a curious and fairly sickening game of “chicken” with Nanches by having Holliman hold a gun to the boy’s head.

It buys them time, and they arrive in the settlement where Miss Stanwyck’s husband awaits. He has been notified of her arrival, but not told about the boy. He is horrified.

“What about other people? What do I tell them? How do I even face them?” He tells Stanwyck she should have left Quito with “his own kind”.

Sergeant McCrea stays for supper. One could make a comparison with the scene in “Shane” where Shane is the stranger for supper at the homesteader’s cabin of Van Heflin and Jean Arthur, with their boy. But McCrea and Alan Ladd as guests with a lonely and troubled past is the only similarity. Heflin’s and Arthur’s relationship is close, and their boy is openhearted and happy.

Actually, there is another similarity and that is the niggling romantic triangle that grows so quietly that we may not notice it among greater passions until there is nothing left to do but have a showdown.

McCrea, now that his duty is done, tries to be on his way, but first has a man-to-man talk with the angry husband. “The boy gave her a reason to live, and she’s lived through an awful lot.”

But her husband, played by John Dehner, is adamant that she will stay with him and the boy will be sent back with McCrea.

“I was ready to forgive you about the Indian,” he says.

“Forgive me?!” Stanwyck finally opens her eyes, and gives free rein to her anger.

“What kind of man do you think I am?” he fires back.

Yes, we were wondering that ourselves, for in both these films we cover this week there is a subtitle, something along the lines of “A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.”

McCrea, no marriage counselor, decides mother and child are unsafe here, and helps them to escape. Dehner follows with his gun, but then, right about this time Nanches shows up. One angry man wants the woman, but not the boy. The other angry man wants the boy but could care less about the woman. Both have guns, so there’s little room for compromise and the result is a too-convenient ending.

Still, there is time for one more confession, and one more act of love. As McCrea and Stanwyck, and Quito, ride off into the sunset on a buckboard, McCrea remarks, “I’m 47. Nearly 30 of that in the Army makes a man rough. Got four months ‘til the end of my last hitch.”

It is a marriage proposal, in case you missed it, and she questions about the family she thought he already had. He confesses he was never married and only lets people think that.

“I think I always knew,” she says, smiling, and all through this shy exchange neither has shared even a look, let alone a kiss. Yet we don’t doubt the outcome because somewhere down the dusty trail they have already become a family.

Come back Thursday for another Western romance with what has been called one of the best Westerns ever made: “Shane”.

(Sorry the screen captures are so poor. I was working off a VHS tape that had seen better days.)


John Hayes said...

There's a treasure trove of cultural mythos in those westerns--some of it quite dark, as you observe here. I'm always impressed by your ability to draw that out of films, even lesser known & perhaps less crafted ones. I'll look forward to your write-up on "Shane!"

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thanks, John. I appreciate that. I haven't yet read Schaefer's short story on which this film was based, but I did read "Shane", and thought it beautiful. I don't think it could be published today. But then, I don't suppose "Oh, Pioneers!" (does the prairie count as Western genre?) would be published today, either.

There is a gentleness that does not seem to attract appropriate attention.

Caftan Woman said...

Thank you for turning the spotlight on this movie. I look forward to "Shane" as it is the movie that made me love movies.

"Trooper Hook" was the last of many screen outings for Stanwyck and McCrea. The scene were Hook talks about his time in Andersonville was so unexpected the first time I saw this picture, and so shockingly moving that it has never left me.

PS: That's "John" Dehner as "Fred".

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Caftan Woman, thank you so much for letting me know my mistake about Dehner's first name. I got him confused with his character.

Your comment that "Shane" made you love movies intrigues me. I'd love to hear more.

I'm also pleased that we share the same impression on the "Andersonville" discussion in "Trooper Hook". It really is a moving scene, so simply done. No shadows, no omnious chords of music, just wonderful Joel McCrea speaking truth with a humility that is inspiring.

happythoughtsdarling said...

Joel McCrea had such an honest, decent way about him in so many of his roles -- reflective of the man he was in real life too, apparently. He sounds wonderful in "Trooper Hook".

I'm not a big Western watcher, normally, but I'm eager to see this one now, after reading your lovely review. It's definitely going on the to-watch list. If only it were on DVD!


Jacqueline T Lynch said...

MC, that's a great description of Joel McCrea's on-screen manner. I hope you do get to see the movie soon. I don't know its status, but I would think this one deserves a DVD release.

Classic Film and TV Cafe said...

Very interesting post on a movie I haven't seen (and am now pondering how I missed it). I love the "adult Westerns" of the 1950s, especially those made by Delmer Daves (THE HANGING TREE), Anthony Mann-James Stewart, and Budd Boetticher-Randolph Scott. These films take strong subjects (road to retributon, value of community, bigotry, etc.) and place them in the confines of conventional Westerns. TROOPER HOOK, based on your in-depth review, seems to fall in line with those fine films. You certainly make me want to check it out!

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

I agree the "adult Westerns" of the 1950s are very compelling. I hope you get a chance to see the film sometime. Since the previous comment about it not being on DVD, I've been trying to remember where I've seen it run, at least a couple times, in the past year, and I'm thinking it might have been that Encore Westerns channel. I also like the classic TV westerns they show.

Rich said...

Hi, just wanna say I like your blog. This sounds like a really good movie, and I've always loved Barbara Stanwyck. You said you watched an old VHS copy. Is this movie available on DVD?

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thank you, Rich. I don't know if it's out on DVD, but according to a previous commenter, I guess not.

Moira Finnie said...

You've written about this film with your customary eloquence, humor and attention to detail, Jacqueline. It was a pleasure to read this and I look forward to your next post.

I thought that this was one of Joel McCrea's most effectively muted performances with his posture, small, expressive smiles, and sense of justice making up enormously for the sometimes threadbare character as written in the script. I liked the spin that he gave his best lines of dialogue, which, apart from his cryptic, controlled, yet emotionally charged exchanges with Stanwyck's character, were found in his discussion of Andersonville and his life as a dog, (you have to see the movie to understand this and I don't want to spoil the scene for anyone). I wondered if that speech alone might have made McCrea interested in the movie at a time when he was winding down his career?

Barbara Stanwyck, who is normally out of place for me in Westerns,(don't kill me, Western fans, but she always brings alot of Brooklyn to her Western roles for me), but she did a fine job of portraying a woman coming back to life after shutting down. Her tentative fingering of the white woman's clothes that she had been given to wear, her reaction to her small, fierce son's admonition, and her opening up to McCrea were beautifully crafted moments. My favorite parts of her performance were the gentle, startled little wave she returned to the man waving so long at the fort and her one word reply to Stanley Adams, playing Heathcliff, the garrulous windmill salesman, when he asked her why her hair was so unfashionably short. Nothing like spitting out the truth, eh? I am afraid that the ludicrousness of the non-period hair of Stanwyck's ultimately undercut the depth of her performance for me. I thought that the "lice" remark and the look of the recent perm only made me wonder why the script couldn't have said she had recently recovered from typhoid or malaria--both were common enough diseases among Native Americans, unfortunately, and they can cause victims to lose their hair.

As a love story, it falls into my favorite sort--the ones without overt hearts and flowers or mushy stuff on-screen, such as The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, Pygmalion, All This and Heaven Too, Desk Set, and His Girl Friday, though Trooper Hook finds a cactus rose or two to observe in the bleak, arid universe it exists in, thanks to a lack of writing flourishes and the desert setting of this low budget movie.

In response to the person wondering if Trooper Hook is available on DVD, if you enter "Trooper Hook DVD" in Google, several sources do pop up, though I don't believe that this has had a commercial release.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Moira, all that my essay was lacking, you have provided. Thank you. I love the moments you've conjured here, particularly the wave. Though I love Stanwyck, I also have to smile at the Brooklyn that escapes from her, even in the wild, wild west.

Anne said...

Thank you for writing about this little gem

One can see this film on the encore west channel now and then and it's astonishingly good.

With a budget not enough for a modern office pastry cart, it shows what can be done with excellent writing and acting....and directing.

I love how we see the tiny stage from afar, then we see it though Nanches legs, we are right behind him, and we now know he's on their makes him almost a gonzilla of a threat

Children: let Mr. McCrea and Ms Stanwyck show you how it's done.

They are hotter across a dusty feed store than many buck necked couples in love scenes today.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Welcome, Anne, and so well put. I love your observations.

Anne said...

Thank you. I somehow stumbled onto this blog and I'm sure glad I did. Your writing is wonderful.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

You're very kind, thank you.

Vienna said...

Wonderful review ! I haven't seen TROOPER HOOK for a long time but hope it becomes available on DVD.
You describe Joel and Barbara's characters so well.
An unusual role for Barbara. I guess she chose to do it for that reason.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thank you, Vienna. It's a really fine movie.

Terry Lawrence said...

Glad you liked the movie. I am Terry Lawrence that little Indian boy. It was fun making that movie. Those actors and actresses in those days were so nice. I still see that movie once in a while and feel like I'm living that part of my life at 6 years old, all over again. I was also in the last episode of the Lone Ranger that same year as Chip, the son of settlers on a covered wagon. Check it out on Youtube under Terry Lawrence. The Lone Ranger. The episode is called Miss Aggie and the Law. I also sang wirh the Lennon Sisters that year on the Lawrence Welk Show. And did a Cracker Jack Commerical with Johnny Crawford and Jat North 3 or 4 years later. Great times. Check out my Bio on Facebook and I'm also a singer/musician recording artist on Reverbnation. Even getting air play in my retired years doing what I like most!


Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thank you for stopping by, Mr. Lawrence. I really appreciate you sharing your other work with us. It must have been really interesting to be part of the movie and TV world in that period for a child.

Music lover said...

Does anyone know the name of the song Jeff is whistling and talking to Consuela about in the movie trooper hook. Thank you

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

It's a haunting and lovely tune, but the scene is brief. I don't know the name of the song, or if perhaps the music director composed the snippet. I hope somebody else knows.

Related Products