It's odd that John Ford, that celebrated cinematic taleteller of the American West, should dimiss his 1961 Western Two Rode Together as "the worst piece of crap I've done in twenty years," though, admittedly, Ford's output set the bar high. The picture may be imperfect, even compromised, but it certainly deserves a more charitable appraisal than its own director afforded it: aside from its rushed romance and a smattering of good humor, Two Rode Together offers a mostly ruthless, primarily pitch dark vision of humanity that amounts to a challenging revisionist Western.
Ford elicits two fine performances—in a modern acting vein—from leading men James Stewart and Richard Widmark (narrow-mindedly derided by The New York Times as "miscast"). In a thrillingly acerbic turn, Stewart plays Guthrie McCabe, marshal of the tiny town of Tascosa, Texas. First seen in a langorous pose echoing that struck by Henry Fonda in Ford's My Darling Clementine, McCabe wakes—in a teetering porch chair—to a morning ritual comprising a little hair of the dog and a cigar. From this louche headquarters a few feet from the front door of a saloon/brothel, McCabe takes on all comers, laying down his capitalist law that just about anything goes as long as he gets his ten percent cut. McCabe's comfortable routine gets disrupted on two fronts: by the brothel's madam (Annelle Hayes), who has begun to make noise about marriage, and by cavalryman Lt. Jim Gary (Richard Widmark), who brings news that McCabe is being pressed into service by one Maj. Frazer (John McIntire), who commands the fort forty miles out. The mission handed to McCabe and Gary? Recover white captives taken nine years earlier by the Comanches.
Naturally, that's much easier said than done. For starters, the mercenary McCabe has absolutely zero interest in taking on the fool's errand, unless and until big money's on the table:
Maj. Frazer: Just how much do you think human lives are worth, McCabe?
McCabe: Whatever the market will bear! No more, no less.
To Gary's great chagrin, McCabe sets up shop to solicit bounties from long-grieving family members. McCabe isn't shy about citing the long odds of anyone's return, telling Marty Purcell (Shirley Jones, on the heels of her Supporting Actress win) that her blond, curly-haired, eight-year-old little brother is surely sporting braids down past his shoulders, a Comanche tongue that's crowded out his memory of English, and a savage penchant for rape and murder. But two ride together, and Gary resolves to be McCabe's conscience—or, failing that, at least a buffer of sorts to protect the fragile emotions of the folks around the fort. One of these, in particular, proves nearly off her rocker with unflagging pain and desperate hope: Mrs. Mary McCandless (Jeanette Nolan).
When McCabe and Gary reach the Comanches, they find a simmering conflict between half-breed Chief Quanah Parker (Henry Brandon)—a politic, shrewd businessman already primed to meet McCabe where he lives—and hair-trigger strongman Stone Calf (Woody Strode), but precious little to bargain for. Intriguingly, Two Rode Together dispatches with this business long before its climax, leaving plenty of time to deal with the fallout of the technically successful but highly disappointing mission. The third act turns the film into part-tragedy, part-morality play as the fort's xenophobia leads to attacks not only on the white folks' "natural" enemy, the Comanche, but also the Mexican captive McCabe brought back with him: Stone Calf's erstwhile squaw Elena de la Madriaga (Linda Cristal).
The third act also barrels through some not-terribly-convincing romance that sets up a false happy ending, but not before screenwriter Frank Nugent (working from Will Cook's 1960 novel) puts a nail in the coffin of any hope regarding the central storyline. Two Rode Together is nearly as cynical as the McCabe we meet at the film's outset, but there are pleasures to be had in the slyly sophisticated humor of Stewart and Widmark's modern buddy-movie banter (overlapping dialogue and all) and the bursts of low humor courtesy of Andy Devine (as bumptious buffoon Sgt. Darius P. Posey). Plenty of members of Ford's stock company fill out the cast (and Nugent scripted the similarly themed The Searchers for Ford), and cinematographer Charles Lawton Jr. makes lemonade from a lemony budget.
Positioned as it is between two towering Ford classics—1956's The Searchers and 1962's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Two Rode Together pales in comparison, but taken on its own merits, it's an admirably rough-edged venture. Ford may have made it for a quick buck—or perhaps as a favor to Columbia chief Harry Cohn—but the impact of the resulting film is far more that of a provocative drama than a tossed-off oater.
California-based Twilight Time makes available classic films in editions strictly limited to 3,000 units (distributed exclusively by Screen Archives Entertainment). Overseen in large part by star archivists Nick Redman and Mike Matessino, these releases all feature fresh hi-def treatment that includes isolated score tracks and six-page color booklets with original publicity shots, poster art, and excellent liner notes by film historian Julie Kirgo. Twilight Time selects neglected titles and makes the studio's home entertainment divisions offers they can't refuse: let Twilight Time handle the releases and cater to an audience of devoted film collectors. So far the strategy seems to be working out nicely: as the titles move toward selling out, they become hotter and hotter collectibles.
Columbia and Sony have taken mighty good care of their films; perhaps because of Sony's initial investment in Blu-ray, their HD transfers, even of catalog titles, are invariably impressive. So it comes as no surprise that Two Rode Together looks terrific in its exclusive release through Twilight Time: naturally filmic, beautifully detailed, and perfectly stable in all areas. The original Eastman Color looks it best and never wavers, contrast and black level are spot-on, and film grain is neither intrusive nor digitally scrubbed away. Audio comes in a perfectly functional DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 track that maximizes the original source material with a convincing fullness of music and clarity of dialogue, sans any audible distractions (like static, crackles, or pops).
Bonus features include George Duning's music in an Isolated Score Track and the original "Theatrical Trailer" (3:08, HD).
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