Director: John Ford
Screenplay: Frank Nugent
Based on the novel by: Will Cook
Producer: Stan Shpetner
Starring: James Stewart, Richard Widmark, Shirley Jones, Linda Cristal
BBFC Certification: PG
Duration: 109 minutes
You should always judge a film on what it is rather than what you expect it to be. When I sat down to watch John Ford’s western Two Rode Together, I was hoping for an action-packed adventure with big rolling plains and Technicolor blue skies. Certainly the kinetic cover art of Eureka’s new dual-format release seemed to suggest that is what I’d get but, as a fan of Ford’s work, I should have known better than to expect too formulaic an experience. Sure, Ford can deliver on all of the above but, while he is often characterised as chiefly a director of westerns, this is to do a disservice to both his excellent work within other genres and also the wide range of different types of western that make it such a rich and rewarding genre. Two Rode Together draws on elements of several different westerns to create an ambitious, enjoyable, if not entirely satisfying, drama that is more concerned with the psychology of identity that it is with cowboys and indians heroics.
By the time the 60s rolled around, the western was starting to go out of fashion and Ford was becoming cantankerously dismissive of most of his own work. He reserved special contempt for Two Rode Together which he called “the worst piece of crap I’ve done in twenty years” and which he reputedly only made for the money and as a favour to late Columbia Pictures head Harry Cohn. Part of Ford’s distaste for the film stemmed from his belief that its exploration of reclaiming white captives from the Comanche was an inferior retread of themes he’d already covered in one of his most celebrated works, The Searchers. The muted critical reception often afforded Two Rode Together also seems strongly influenced by the looming shadow of this more famous and evermore heralded classic of the genre. But superficial similarities do not mean that the latter film in a thematically-linked pair is necessarily worthless and just as Ford’s contemporary Howard Hawks was able to get more mileage out of the concept of Rio Bravo with the subsequent El Dorado, so Ford mines new and interesting material from a similar starting point as The Searchers.
Perhaps the crucial factor in differentiating The Searchers and Two Rode Together is a blackly comic streak in the latter which, though it diminishes as the story darkens, helps add to the enormous amount of ingredients that sometimes give the film a confusing flavour but keep it fascinating enough that we continue to partake. The casting of James Stewart in the central role of Guthrie McCabe is a masterstroke, although it apparently only came about because of regular Ford collaborator John Wayne’s lack of availability and the breakdown of Ford’s relationship with another former regular, Henry Fonda. Although the role of an amoral opportunist may not immediately seem tailor-made for Stewart, his performance continues to show the range that so often gets forgotten as people remember him chiefly for his “aw shucks” small town hero roles. Stewart had already displayed his subtly chameleonic skills in a series of westerns he made with Anthony Mann, in which he played a series of neurotic, obsessive cowboys who bore little resemblance to George Bailey or Jefferson Smith. As McCabe, Stewart trades anguish for casual opportunism, although he wears the same hat he always wore in Mann’s films (Ford, having reluctantly relented to this request, punished Stewart in their next film together, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, by not allowing him to wear a hat at all!).
The plot of Two Rode Together finds Stewart’s McCabe enlisted by old friend and army lieutenant Jim Gary (Richard Widmark) to assist in the trading of guns in exchange for hostages being held by the Comanche. The mission is in response to growing pressure from relatives of the captives, many of whom haven’t seen their hijacked loved ones in over a decade. But while the trade off doesn’t pose too many problems, the reintegration of those who have only ever known the Comanche way of life proves more difficult. Also complicating matters are Gary’s budding romance with Marty (Shirley Jones), the sister of one of the captives who blames herself for his plight, the devious Harry Wringle (Willis Bouchey), with whom McCabe makes a monstrous deal to deceive his wife, and the growing insanity of a woman obsessed with the safe return of her son.
As Two Rode Together began, I felt like I was about to get exactly the sort of easy-going, adventurous western I was in the mood for that particular morning. The early scenes of McCabe sat with his feet up (a la Henry Ford’s Wyatt Earp in John Ford’s earlier My Darling Clementine), drinking beer, smoking a cigar and trading wisecracks with Gary are handled with a lightness of touch which suggests we’re about to see a comedy. As the action moves into the saloon, the light-heartedness continues and the viewer is also hit by the full force of the Technicolor cinematography I was also yearning for. The red curtains that hang in the background are particularly striking but herein lies the clue to where the film’s predominant visual style is headed. Dangling in an archway, the curtains make the background look like a proscenium and as the action moves from the town to the army camp, this visual metaphor becomes appropriate. The sets look sometimes distractingly phoney and this is only occasionally offset by the use of locations as the characters ride between encampments. On these occasions, the clouds hang heavy in the sky, signifying the film’s shift in tone from light jocularity to hefty meditations on identity and racism. It is an appropriate and deftly handled change in style and yet in some scenes, like the jumbled fight between Gary and two townspeople, the direction seems half-hearted or fumbled. This scene attempts to combine moments of high drama, action and goofy comedy and its failure to do so effectively is mirrored in the patchily shadowed image which obscures details of the action.
Two Rode Together’s occasional inability to comfortably blend its tones is exacerbated by characters whose emotional journeys sometimes seem inexplicable. Sadly, it is Stewart’s McCabe who is the worst offender here, as his initially compelling mixture of bigotry, greed, selfishness and charm give way to an unearned third act shift towards more conventional heroism. When he lectures a room filled with people because they won’t accept Linda Cristal’s former hostage Elena into their society, it’s as if he’s been a lifelong advocate of liberalism rather than the man who earlier told a young woman that her brother, having lived with the Comanche for so long, would probably try to rape her. There is also a strange narrative imbalance in the extremes of the relatively receptive Elena and the hostile and dangerous Running Wolf, whose reintegration goes less than smoothly and ends on a tragic note that the narrative then seems to just brush aside in favour of an awkward return to the light tone of the opening scenes. They may act as neat bookends if you don’t give it much thought but take a closer look and the books between are a cock-eyed, dog-eared jumble.
All of this is not to say I didn’t enjoy Two Rode Together. It is a lesser work of one of the great American directors and his mastery cannot help but shine through at regular intervals. Most notable is an early scene in which McCabe and Gary stop to water their horses and pause for a conversation about money, women, marriage and the Comanche problem. This one scene feels more natural than the rest of the film, encapsulating its tone and charms in five short minutes captured in a simple but effective wide-screen two shot. This was the one moment in Two Rode Together where I really felt immersed in the story and while subsequent developments gave me much to think about, I was more aware of the mantelpiece in front of me, the rain on the windows and the sound of the post arriving than I would otherwise have been in this captivatingly immersive sequence.
Ultimately, while it is admirable in its themes and ambition, Two Rode Together bites off more than it can chew and even Ford’s most trusted screenwriter Frank Nugent cannot quite put its pieces together convincingly. Still, I was never less than engaged by the story and Stewart’s performance, though not among his greatest, allows him to show his skill for investing even seemingly lowdown characters with a convincing humanism. The film is also notable for being the first collaboration between Ford and Stewart, a short and, by all accounts, uneasy partnership which nevertheless resulted in one of the greatest westerns ever made with their next pairing, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.
Two Rode Together is released by Eureka! Entertainment on dual-format DVD and Blu-ray on 13 March 2017. Special features are as follows:
– High-Definition presentation
– Uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray
– Isolated music and effects track
– Rebirth – a new and exclusive video essay on the film by Ford expert Tag Gallagher. This twelve minute feature offers some fascinating insight into the film in relation to Ford’s other works and helps to bring out some of the themes that viewers may have missed while trying to navigate the film’s often jumbled presentation of its ideas
– A booklet featuring a new essay from critic and author Richard Combs