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The Searchers Light
on April 1, 2010
"Two Rode Together" is the 133rd film directed by John Ford, including his silent films (61). It was near the end of his career, and he only made 7 films after this, most of which are forgettable (e.g., "Seven Women", "Young Cassidy", "Donovan's Reef"). Over a 54 year career he won 4 Oscars ("The Quiet Man", "How Green was My Valley", "The Grapes of Wrath", "The Informer") and was nominated for "Stagecoach" (he lost to Victor Fleming for "GWTW"). He had 3 DGA nominations and 1 win ("The Quiet Man") and 4 wins by the New York Film Critics.
Interestingly enough he never won a major award for a western, even though he once described himself simply as "I make westerns".
By the time "Two" came along, Ford had made his major contributions to the western genre. Most people agree his major works were "Stagecoach" (1939), the cavalry trilogy ("Fort Apache" in 1948, "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon" in 1949, and "Rio Grande" in 1950), and (my personal favorite) "The Searchers" (1956). He did several less distinguished westerns including "My Darling Clementine" (1946), "Wagon Master" (1950), "The Horse Soldiers" (1959), and "Sergeant Rutledge" (1960).
"Two" can be distinguished by several factors. First, it doesn't have John Wayne. It's also Ford's first film with James Stewart as well as with Richard Widmark (he'd make more films with both of them in the future). Moreover, it was shot in Bracketville Texas, while many Ford westerns were shot in Utah's Monument Valley ("Stagecoach", "Fort Apache", "The Searchers" and 6 more).
Ford did without "the Duke", but he did have a few of his stock company regulars, like Ken Curtis (played Charley McCorry in "The Searchers"), Harry Carey Jr. who had been with him forever, Olive Carry (Harry's mom, who played Mrs. Jorgensen in "The Searchers"), John Qualen (played Lars Jorgensen in "The Searchers"), Willis Bouchey (the newspaper man in "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance"), Andy Devine (driver in "Stagecoach" and frightened marshall in "Liberty Valance") and Woody Strode ("Sergeant Rutledge" in 1960). But he was missing Ben Johnson, Hank Worden (played ol' Mose in "The Searchers"), Ward Bond (he died in 1960), and Victor McLaglen (he died in 1959).
Frank Nugent did the screenplay based on a novel by Will Cook called "Comanche Captives". Nugent worked with Ford on several films, and together they won the Oscar for "The Quiet Man" (1952). Nugent won the WGA award as well, and also won it for "Mister Roberts" (1955), and was nominated 2 other times for Ford films ("She Wore a Yellow Ribbon" and "Fort Apache"). But Nugent simply takes some Ford staples and rehashes them here. If you like Ford films you've seen almost every scene before. The opening scene with Stewart on the porch is right from Henry Fonda in ""Clementine". The rivalry between Ken Curtis and Harry Carry Jr. is taken right from "The Searchers" between Ken Curtis and Jeffrey Hunter, the theme of two men looking for Indian hostages is also from "The Searchers" as is the performance from Shirley Jones who is channeling Vera Miles. What is most annoying, if that's the appropriate word, is that Ford re-uses Henry Brandon who did such a great job as Scar in "The Searchers" to perform the watered down version in "Two Rode Together."
There are some fundamental flaws which make "Two Rode Together" a relatively poor film. In most Ford films, the family (and by extension the community) form the core of the protagonist's strength and often the focus of the film. Think - "How Green Was My Valley", "The Grapes of Wrath", "The Searchers", "The Quiet Man", "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon". In this film the family is dysfunctional. Among the cavalry there is dissent, shown in the confrontations between John McIntire and Richard Widmark, but even more so in the dance scene when Widmark attacks his fellow officers. In the homesteaders we have liars (Willis Bouchey), crazy people (Anna Lee), fools (Ken Curtis and Harry Carry Jr.), and a lynch mob (Ford Rainey). Back in Stewart's home town he has a deputy and a girl friend who betray him and a town that votes him out of office. From a family/community POV, this is Ford's most distressing film.
Another element that is missing is the dynamic rivalry between the male leads. Think John Wayne and Jeffrey Hunter in "The Searchers", John Wayne and William Holden in "The Horse Soldiers", John Wayne and Henry Fonda in "Fort Apache", John Wayne and Victor McLaglen in "The Quiet Man", etc. James Stewart and Richard Widmark are more like buddies: the tension is minimal.
Also missing is the redemptive actions of the hero. John Wayne in "The Searchers" gives up his quest to kill Natalie Wood and returns her to her family; James Stewart confesses to the newspapermen that he isn't the man who shot Liberty Valance. In "Two", Jimmy Stewart merely reacts to the decisions of other people - Mr. Wringle cancels the deal for the boy and the town votes him out as sheriff. There is no affirming action on the part of the hero, and his decision to get on the stagecoach is hardly heroic.
Also missing is the comedic relief. Andy Devine was perfectly capable of producing this, but his part is so poorly written that even his great comedic skills can't save it. In past films, Ford often used comedy to great effect - think Victor McLaglen in "Yellow Ribbon", Hank Worden as ol' Mose in "The Searchers", Barry Fitzgerald in "The Quiet Man", etc. Ford learned this from the success of the comic sidekicks like Smiley Burnette (Gene Autry), Gabby Hayes (Roy Rogers), and Andy Devine's long playing role as "Jingles" in the Guy Madison "Wild Bill Hickock" series.
Ford fans will want to see this film for its historic value, and also to see an example of a relatively poor western made by Ford. Most other fans will probably want to give it a miss. Fans of James Stewart as a cowboy should see "Liberty Valance" (1962) or "Shenandoah (1965). Richard Widmark put in some good performances in westerns like "The Alamo" (1960), "Death of a Gunfighter (1969), and "The Last Wagon" (1952).
Ford called the film "crap" and claimed he did it for the money ($225,000 + 25% of the net). Take his word for it.