Sunday, April 10, 2011



Back when I was in school, the history of the assassination of Lincoln had been so simplified (or dumbed down) that we were never told that there was a conspiracy – I thought that John Wilkes Booth was a lone lunatic. This movie should be seen by many, but I especially hope it’s a homework assignment for America’s school-kids, because it gets the history right, and is always compelling.

I am told that the current generation of moviegoers thinks of Clint Eastwood as a director rather than an actor, and I wonder if it’s true of Robert Redford as well. Simply put, Redford has become one of our finest directors. He’s long wanted to do a story centering on the Lincoln assassination, and at one point optioned MANHUNT, the excellent book by James L. Swanson detailing the twelve-day hunt for the president’s killers. Frankly, I wish he’d filmed that one instead – it was full of action and fascinating detail.

But THE CONSPIRATOR is very good, and before it becomes a courtroom drama, there is considerable action, from a glimpse of a Civil War battle, to the conspirators’ attempts to bring down the government by simultaneously killing Lincoln, Vice President Andrew Johnson, and Secretary of State William Seward – and they came damned close to succeeding.

James McAvoy, who made a splash as Mr. Tumnus in the first NARNIA movie, and who was excellent as Idi Amin’s personal physician in THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND plays Frederick Aiken, the War Hero-lawyer assigned to defend Mary Surratt, accused den-mother of the conspirators. Robin Wright, de-glamorized, plays the soft-spoken, infinitely sad Surratt, and McAvoy, assuming her to be guilty, only takes on her case with the greatest reluctance. But his belief in her innocence grows, along with his outrage that she is being tried by a military court, that his witnesses are being tampered with, and his belief that she is being railroaded to the gallows because the government can’t get their hands on her elusive son, who is undoubtedly guilty.

Though one knows inevitably how the tale must end (and if you don’t know, I shan’t spoil it for you), the suspense within the backroom legal maneuverings, and the courtroom scenes, are masterfully handled. Aiken’s summation to the trial board is taken word-for-word from the trial transcripts, and that sort of accuracy and authenticity is engrained in the legal scenes. The location-work, photography by Newton Thomas Sigel, production design by Kalina Ivanov and art direction by Mark Garner, creating Civil War Washington D.C. in Savannah, Georgia is wonderfully moody, atmospheric and evocative. In addition to McAvoy and Wright, there are several other strong performances. Tom Wilkerson is excellent as Senator Reverdy Johnson, who by turns bullies and cajoles Aiken into defending Surratt – as a Southerner himself, he knows he could do her no good before a hostile Union military court. Kevin Kline as Secretary of War Edwin Stanton – nearly unrecognizable in his make-up – is chillingly direct in his wish to see Mary Surratt hanged, working with Danny Huston, excellent as Prosecutor Joseph Holt. In fact, it is these three, all of whom you are expected to dislike to varying degrees, who give the most dynamic performances.

Sadly, some of the others are disappointing, not primarily a fault of acting but of writing – one senses that writers James D. Solomon and Gregory Bernstein threw their hearts and souls into the trial, and let the more personal stories go with a first draft. Justin Long, of JEEPERS CREEPERS and LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD fame, plays a fellow war-hero lawyer. Alexis Bledel of GILMORE GIRLS plays Aiken’s love interest, and she has an ethereal quality that makes her look perfect in period pictures. But while we see them throughout the movie, their roles never vary. At the beginning, they tell Aiken he’s crazy to take on Mary Surratt, and they repeat this at measured intervals until the end. In fact, despite a lot of huffing and puffing and threats, the only actual change to Aiken’s situation is that his membership at a club is terminated. Except for Aiken, no one in this movie ever changes their mind about anything, which makes for considerable monotony.

Evan Rachel Wood plays daughter to Mary Surratt, sister to John, and the writing of her speeches rarely rises above the obvious and insipid. John Wilkes Booth, a devilishly handsome matinee idol of his day, who used his attractiveness and celebrity to seduce women and draw men to his conspiracy, is played by Toby Kebbell. While his brief performance is fine, and he has usually looked handsome in other films, as he looks here, he’d have trouble getting laid in a whorehouse. It’s an error that surprises me from Redford, who certainly knows how important looks can be to a character. The casting of the conspirators, who included a 6’6” giant with movie-star looks, and another with almost no chin, are generic and disappointing

Even for someone who’s pretty well-read on the assassination, there are a number of surprises in the race to the finish, which I have been assured are historically accurate. And the implication of the Catholic Church’s involvement is fascinating. (Not even mentioned in the film is the fact that John Surratt was hiding out in Rome, at the Vatican, as a guard for Pope Pius IX!) Historians to this day are split on the question of Mary Surratt’s guilt or innocence. At one point early on, Aiken mentions the conspiracy, and Mary Surratt reveals to him that the original plan of the conspirators was not an assassination, but a kidnapping of the president, which is in fact correct. While I think we were to take this moment as a sign that Mary Surratt is opening up to Aiken, to me it meant something quite different. To me it meant that she was aware of the conspiracy early on, and did nothing to prevent its work. To me, that made her part of the conspiracy. Rope, please?

Incidentally, President Lincoln would probably be astonished to know that two films about him were made one after the other, with Southern capitals standing in for the District of Columbia. This film was shot in Savannah, Georgia. Currently shooting in New Orleans, Louisiana, is ABRAHAM LINCOLN – VAMPIRE HUNTER, produced by Tim Burton, and featuring a friend of the Round-up, Eric Spudic. I’m not sure how tight the history’s going to be on this one.

(Photos, top to bottom: CONSPIRATOR poster; Mary Surratt; John Surratt, in his Zouave uniform, as a guard for the Pope; conspirator Lewis Payne; Mary Surratt's boarding house today, now a Chinese restaurant; KILL THEM ALL AND COME BACK ALONE poster; RAMONA Pageant poster; large open area where Ramona is performed, hacienda on the right; poster from RAMONA film; John Wayne's eye-patch; John Wayne's hat; collection of John Wayne's scripts;Debbie Reynolds in HOW THE WEST WAS WON; GWTW, featuring Scarlet in the curtain-dress; LONELY ARE THE BRAVE title card; Noon Day - Chippeway Chief; Red Bird - Chippeway Chief)


In one of those remarkable coincidences, I have just learned from the Tom Betts' Westerns...All'Italiana! site that today, April 10th, would have been Chuck Connor's 90th birthday! What an ideal time to review one of his movies. To those of us who grew up watching TV in the late 50s and early 60s, the images of Chuck Connors and Lucas McCain, his character in THE RIFLEMAN, are inseparable. Created by Sam Peckinpah, as the widower raising a son in an unforgiving world, he tried hard not to be grim and stern, but it was often unavoidable. He was a good guy, though surely not a goodie-two-shoes, and that basic seriousness followed him in his subsequent series, western or not: BRANDED, COWBOY IN AFRICA and ARREST AND TRIAL.

That’s why it’s such a delight to watch Chuck playing a cheerfully wicked rogue in his only Spaghetti Western, KILL THEM ALL AND COME BACK ALONE (1969), from Wild East Productions.

If you’re not hooked by this film in the first seven minutes, check your pulse. The coordinated actions of a group of seemingly unconnected men slipping into town drew me in like a magnet. This Civil War-era Dirty Half-Dozen is helmed by the marvelous action director Enzo G. Castellari, whose other Spaghetti westerns include the excellent ANY GUN CAN PLAY (1967) and the legendary KEOMA (1976). His action is always flawless, and the camerawork – especially the camera placement – is always creative, always giving you a little more than just the action, without drawing attention to itself.

Connors plays Clyde MacKay, a mercenary hired by the Confederacy to assemble a team to rob gold from a Union fortress, and in this case, the bosses are as dirty as the bandits. Their orders to Connors on paying off his accomplices once the job is done? “Kill them all, and come back alone.” Also notable in the cast are Frank Wolff as the Confederate Captain who doesn’t trust Connors, Hercules Cortes as the strong-man of the outfit, and Ken Wood as Blade, the stone-face half Indian, half Mexican knife-wielder.

This video also contains special features, one of which is easily worth the price of the disc: an interview with actor/stuntman Ken Wood, whose real name is Gianfranco Cianfriglia. Rather than a sound-bite, this is a forty-five minute monologue, and yes, he speaks Italian throughout, but the translation on the side of the screen is easy to read, and fascinating. Cinafriglia started out as a stunt double for the great Hercules of the movies, Steve Reeves, then went on to stunt for others, as well as to act. He has much to say about the filmmaking process, stunt horses, and directors like Castellari and Sergio Corbucci. He discusses Spanish Westerns versus Italian Westerns – I had thought there was no difference! His opinions of the stars he’s worked with vary widely, among them Burt Reynolds, Franco Nero, Yul Brynner, Lee Van Cleef, Ty Hardin, Guy Madison and Tomas Milian. It’s a look at the Spaghetti Western – as well as the zombie movie and spy thriller – from point of view rarely heard from.

If you, like me, have bought public domain or bootleg copies of Spaghetti Westerns, you know how poor the quality can be. The picture, color and sound quality of KILL THEM ALL, and of all the Spaghetti Westerns I have thus far seen from Wild East, is stunning, and in the original widescreen format. I recommend it highly. It’s Volume #23 of their Spaghetti Western Collection, and you can learn more HERE.


I don’t know if most states have an ‘Official Outdoor Play,’ but California does, and it is RAMONA. Based on the tremendous best-seller of 1884 by Helen Hunt Jackson, the story of a half Scottish, half Mexican girl, her marriage to an Indian shepherd, and their cruel treatment at the hands of Americans and their own people, captured the American imagination just as railroad travel was expanding across California, flooding the area with fans who wanted to visit the story’s actual locations. There is much argument about the history, but none about the entertainment-value of the story.

A pageant based on Ramona has been performed in Hemet every year since 1923. This year it will be presented on April 16th, 17th and 30th, and May 1st and 7th. For tickets or more information, call 800-645-4465, or go HERE.

To see a trailer for the event, CLICK HERE.

Incidentally, Ramona has been filmed several times. D.W. Griffith directed the first version in 1910, starring Mary Pickford and Henry B. Walthall, shortening the tale to 17 minutes – TCM shows it from time to time, and it’s excellent. After two more silent versions, in 1936 Henry King directed it in glorious Technicolor, starring Loretta Young and Don Ameche – also excellent. There was a remake done in Mexico in 1946, and in 2000 it was done on Mexican television as a telenovela.


The family of John Wayne has decided to put up for auction more than 400 personal items, from scripts to props to costumes. Proceeds will go to John Wayne Enterprises, which funds the John Wayne Cancer Foundation. Ethan Wayne, son of the actor and president of John Wayne Enterprises explains: “My father’s fans were very important to him. He was open and accessible to them, and making these items accessible to the public is something that feels right. Museums have large collections of my father’s personal property, and our family has had a chance to select and keep items sentimental to us. There is no need to keep all this memorabilia locked away when it can be enjoyed by his fans.”

Among the items to be put up for bid are his eye-patch and Golden Globe from TRUE GRIT(1969), his hat from ROOSTER COGBURN (1975), costumes from SANDS OF IWO JIMA (1949), and more than 50 annotated scripts, including the movie that made him a star, STAGECOACH (1939), plus THE SONS OF KATIE ELDER (1965) and RIO LOBO (1970). The auction will be conducted by Heritage Auctions, at the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza in Los Angeles, October 3rd through the 6th. Prior to the auction, the collection will be exhibited in Dallas, Texas September 16th-18th and New York City September 23rd through 25th. To learn more, Heritage Auctions HERE.

Coincidentally, on June 18th, at the Paley Center for Media in Beverly Hills, Debbie Reynolds, singer, dancer, actress, and owner of the largest private collection of movie costumes and props in the world, will be putting 700 items up for auction. Although it’s known whether any items from her own Westerns, HOW THE WEST WAS WON (1962) and THE UNSINKABLE MOLLY BROWN (1964), will be included, she does own the brass bed from the latter, and will be selling the green velvet dress made from curtains for Scarlet O’Hara in GONE WITH THE WIND (1939). To learn more, visit Profiles in History HERE.


At the Saturday, April 9th screening of a beautiful 35 mm print of THE MAGNIFICENT 7, the once-a-month screenings for the rest of the year were announced. Jeffrey Richardson, who curates the series, and is Associate Curator of Western History and Popular Culture at the Autry, announced the following:
Saturday, May 14th – LONELY ARE THE BRAVE (1962)
Saturday, June 11th - SHANE (1953)
Saturday, July 9th – ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST (1968)
Saturday, August 13th – To be announced
Saturday, September 17th – TOMBSTONE (1993)
Saturday, October 22nd – WINCHESTER ’73 (1950)
Saturday, November 12 – UNFORGIVEN (1992)

After his informative talk about MAGNIFICENT 7 (I thought I knew a ton about the making of the film, but I learned plenty!), Mr. Richardson explained the reason for the August gap in the schedule for the series, which is done in cooperation with UCLA. They had planned to show THE OX-BOW INCIDENT (1943), but have been unable to locate a 35mm print – and they are determined to show only 35mm prints in this series. They’re currently putting their 2012 schedule together, so if you have suggestions – and know where 35mm prints can be had – let ‘em know!


Turner Classics will screen 34 movies on Mondays and Wednesdays during April to mark the Anniversary of the War Between The States. Monday, April 11th will showcase five Civil War silents, the 13th will feature comedies and musicals, and the 18th and 20th will both feature westerns. On the 25th there will be battlefield stories, and on the 27th the topic will be Reconstruction.


Built by cowboy actor, singer, baseball and TV entrepeneur Gene Autry, and designed by the Disney Imagineering team, the Autry is a world-class museum housing a fascinating collection of items related to the fact, fiction, film, history and art of the American West. In addition to their permenant galleries (to which new items are frequently added), they have temporary shows. The Autry has many special programs every week -- sometimes several in a day. To check their daily calendar, CLICK HERE. And they always have gold panning for kids every weekend. For directions, hours, admission prices, and all other information, CLICK HERE.


Across the street from the Hollywood Bowl, this building, once the headquarters of Lasky-Famous Players (later Paramount Pictures) was the original DeMille Barn, where Cecil B. DeMille made the first Hollywood western, The Squaw Man. They have a permanent display of movie props, documents and other items related to early, especially silent, film production. They also have occasional special programs. 2100 Highland Ave., L.A. CA 323-874-2276. Thursday – Sunday 12 p.m. to 4 p.m. $5 for adults, $3 for senior, $1 for children.


This small but entertaining museum gives a detailed history of Wells Fargo when the name suggested stage-coaches rather than ATMS. There’s a historically accurate reproduction of an agent’s office, an original Concord Coach, and other historical displays. Open Monday through Friday, from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 a.m. Admission is free. 213-253-7166. 333 S. Grand Street, L.A. CA.


A staggering number of western TV episodes and movies are available, entirely free, for viewing on your computer at HULU. You do have to sit through the commercials, but that seems like a small price to pay. The series available -- often several entire seasons to choose from -- include THE RIFLEMAN, THE CISCO KID, THE LONE RANGER, BAT MASTERSON, THE BIG VALLEY, ALIAS SMITH AND JONES, and one I missed from 2003 called PEACEMAKERS starring Tom Berenger. Because they are linked up with the TV LAND website, you can also see BONANZA and GUNSMOKE episodes, but only the ones that are running on the network that week.

The features include a dozen Zane Grey adaptations, and many or most of the others are public domain features. To visit HULU on their western page, CLICK HERE.


Every weekday, TV LAND airs a three-hour block of BONANZA episodes from 11:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. They run a GUNSMOKE Monday through Thursday at 10:00 a.m., and on Friday they show two, from 6:00 to 8:00 a.m.. They're not currently running either series on weekends, but that could change at any time.


Check out your cable system for WHT, which stands for World Harvest Television. It's a religious network that runs a lot of good western programming. Your times may vary, depending on where you live, but weekdays in Los Angeles they run DANIEL BOONE at 1:00 p.m., and two episodes of THE RIFLEMAN from 2:00 to 3:00 p.m.. On Saturdays at 2:00 p.m. it's THE RIFLEMAN again, followed at 2:30 by BAT MASTERSON. And unlike many stations in the re-run business, they run the shows in the original airing order. There's an afternoon movie on weekdays at noon, often a western, and they show western films on the weekend, but the schedule is sporadic.


I swear I'm gonna have the Spaghetti Western Festival piece next week, as well as a review of MEEK'S CUTOFF.



All Contents Copyright April 2011 by Henry C. Parke - All Rights Reserved


  1. Hi Henry, looking forward to seeing "The Conspirator", even more after your review. I made up my mind about Mary a long time ago, still he should not have been hanged.

  2. I hope you enjoy it. I guess the execution was more about catharsis than justice. But I can't get over the fact that her son didn't swing.

  3. The History Channel had a program on Mary Surratt on Tuesday evening and they showed scenes from the Redford film. If you can't see the film this is a good alternative. Yes her son was typical of the men Booth assembled all seemed to be lacking in intellect or courage.

  4. Sorry I missed it! There are just too many channels - and too little on - to keep track of!