Thursday, May 14, 2020

"Gunfight in Abilene" (1967)

Happy birthday, Bobby Darin!  You would have been 84 today ❤

To celebrate properly today, I am going to review my absolute favorite Bobby Darin movie.  You've seen this movie crop up on many lists on my blog over the years.  My ten favorite western films?  Check.  My favorite Bobby Darin movies?  Check.  My favorite western film couples?  Check.  And it's the only movie I've ever written fanfiction for.  So you get the idea.  But I've never truly reviewed it here, so today, I'm going to.  Finally.


I actually watched this movie the first time BEFORE I was a Bobby Darin fan.  My dad picked it up on VHS out of a bargain bin at K-Mart one day in the mid-'90s.  You could buy a lot of B-movies for $5 on video back then, like you can DVDs today, and if it was a western, my dad would pick it up even if he'd never seen it.

I don't remember the first time we watched it, except that I thought it was okay and didn't have much desire to watch it again.


But a couple of years later, when I fell off a cliff into Bobby Darin fandom, I watched it again.  And loved it.


Kind of obvious that I would, to be honest.  My favorite singer?  In a western?  It would have to be a genuinely terrible movie to make me not at least enjoy it.


And happily, it's NOT a terrible movie!  It's actually a solid one.  It's not a big-budget, splashy movie, but it doesn't need to be.  It has a good story to tell, all about relatable and interesting characters, and it works very well at that.


The whole thing begins during the last few months of the Civil War.  Using movie footage from the film Shenandoah (1965) for the bigger battle scenes, interspersed with soundstage scenes shot expressly for this movie.

Not gonna lie:  this movie is a HUGE reason why I became fascinated with the effect of the Civil War on the men who headed west after it.  My Once Upon a Western series of fairy tales retold in the Old West has a lot of Civil War veterans in it, most notably Jedediah Jones in Dancing and Doughnuts.  This movie influenced that book profoundly.


Anyway, back to this movie.  Cal Wayne (Bobby Darin) and the Confederate patrol he was leading got themselves pinned down by the Yankees.  Most of his men dead or dying, Wayne decides to send his last few men out alone, hoping they can make it to safety.  He remains behind as long as he can, covering their retreat.


He sneaks off himself at last, and skulks along in the dark underbrush.  But he hears a noise.  He thinks it's one of those Yankee patrols that's been hounding them.  He wheels and fires.


But it's not a Yankee at all.  It's his best friend, Dave Evers (Charles Briles).


Cal is stricken when he realizes what he's done.


He tries to get his friend's body back to his own lines, but the Yankees find and capture him.


Cut to a riverside military prison.  Big news!  The war is over!  Everyone gets to go home!


Cal is not thrilled with that prospect.


Cut to Kansas.  Which, if you look closely, looks an awful lot like California.  So it's best not to look closely.  Here we have a fresh-faced Yankee soldier, Cord Decker (Michael Sarrazin), riding idly along.  Idly, that is, until he hears a ruckus.


The ruckus is caused by a farmer refusing to let some cowboys ride their herd through his land.  This does not go well for the farmer.  Cord arrives in time to help him up out of the tangle of barbed wire the cowboys left him in, but the herd has trampled and ruined his crops.  Cord rides on, heading for Abilene.


Cord camps out the night, and his campfire attracts another returning soldier.  Don't ask me how Cal Wayne managed to keep his beautiful officer's uniform so spiffy all through the time he was in prison, but my goodness, doesn't he look delicious in it?


Cord is very surprised to see Cal because everyone in Abilene was told Cal was dead!  They got word that he and his friend Dave were both killed at the same time, more than a year ago.  People sure are going to be surprised when he shows up alive.  Cord says he hopes that since Cal wasn't dead after all, maybe the report of Dave's death was an error too.  Cal looks away and insists it's all too true.

One thing I really like about this movie is that it tells us straight out at the beginning that Cal killed Dave, and how it happened.  Some movies might make us try to guess at what is eating Cal and wait to divulge it, try to build up suspense with the secret, but I think it's way more effective this way.  We can understand the guilt that's eating away at Cal, and we know how much it hurts him when people talk about Dave.


Now, don't get to thinking this is a Dark and Serious movie, though.  It's got plenty of light moments.  Like the next day, when Cal surprises his old friends in Abilene by showing up very much alive.


He gets a big kick out of their reactions.


Not everyone rejoices over his return.  Sheriff Slade (Donnelly Rhodes) finds Cal's return concerning.  You see, Cal was sheriff of Abilene before the war, as Deputy Ward Kent (Don Galloway) reminds Slade.


Dave Evers had an older brother, Grant Evers (Leslie Nielsen).  While Dave and Cal were off fighting the war, Grant stayed in Abilene and built quite the little cattle empire.


Grant wasn't in the war because, well, you can see why in this picture.  He has a prosthetic hand, carved from wood.  Back when they were kids, Cal was somehow responsible for an accident that cost Grant his right hand.  Grant doesn't know it, but now Cal is responsible for the accidental killing of his brother Dave, whom Grant calls his "right hand man."


Meanwhile, out in the street, Cord Decker has run into trouble.  A bunch of cowhands, led by the rowdy Loop (Johnny Seven) insist they don't need any more Yankee sodbusters here.  I guess all farmers are Yankees and all ranchers are Confederates, according to these cowhands.


Sheriff Slade makes no move to stop the trouble.  Ward Kent looks askance at his boss, but says nothing.


Of course, Cal wades right into this fight and puts an end to it.


He exchanges words with Sheriff Slade, who backs down from a fight.  Reportedly, Cal Wayne is exceedingly fast with a gun, and even though Cal's not wearing a gun right now, Slade doesn't want to test this.


Grant congratulations Cal on stopping the fight, and quickly tells him that he wants Cal to know something.  Cal had been sweet on Amy Martin (Emily Banks) before the war.  After the news came that Cal was dead, Amy and Grant became attached to each other, and they're now engaged to be married.


Amy arrives just then to welcome Cal home.  (If she looks familiar to you, it's because she played Yoeman Barrows in the classic Star Trek episode "Shore Leave.")


Cal is very happy to see Amy, but then he gets embarrassed, and he congratulates her and Grant on their engagement and walks away.  Both Grant and Amy are confused because they did NOT expect Cal to react that way at all.


On his way out of town, someone else welcomes Cal home in a much more demonstrative way.  This is Leann (Barbara Warle), who works as a waitress at the hotel dining room.  We never really find out if they had a relationship prior to the war, or if she's just had her eye on Cal for years and figures now that Amy is marrying Grant, she's got a chance with Cal.  Which is how I read it.


Anyway, there's trouble brewing in Abilene.  Why?  It seems the farmer and the cowman just can't get it into their heads that they should be friends.


Cal comes out ahead in another encounter with Slade, making everyone in the saloon laugh at a joke he makes at Slade's expense. He's definitely not out to make friends with Slade.


Back in his hotel room, he opens a drawer and reveals that he does have a gun, even if he's not wearing it.


Now, this drawer appears to have several very nice shirts in it, on the left there.  We never see Cal wear any of them.  He almost always is wearing the brown corduroy ones, except in one scene coming up.  WHY?  I hate corduroy.  Sigh.


Anyway.  So.  Leann shows up at Cal's room.  She says she's waited a long time for him, and she's not too proud to go after what she wants.  Cal does not play hard to get.


Next morning, Cal's toilette is interrupted by a ruckus.  People sure do like to raise a ruckus or two around Abilene.  He comes out to see what's going on (and by the way, there is no sign of Leann in his room, so whatever may have transpired the night before, she didn't spend the night with him, at least).


Well, it seems there's a whole lot of armed farmers looking for Grant Evers.

Cord Decker is in town too, carrying his little son that he's finally gotten to meet, because his son was born after he went to war.  Cal talks to the angry farmers and calms them down some.


Grant comes out and reassures them that if they've had trouble with some of his cowhands, he'll see to it they get paid for whatever damage has been done to their property.


Cord Decker hollers out that Cal ought to take his old job back and be sheriff again.  You can guess how joyfully Sheriff Slade reacts to that idea.


Slade might not be joyful, but Grant thinks it's a good plan.  He invites Cal out to his very fine home to offer him the job.


Cal says he doesn't want it.  He refuses it.


But then Grant mentions Dave, and Cal gets all guilty-feeling.  He takes the job after all.


On his way back to town from Grant's place, Cal rides past the Martin farmstead.


This picture is only here because pictures of Bobby Darin riding a horse aren't lying around a dime a dozen.  The internet needs more pictures of him riding a horse, and I am here to fill that void.


This is Amy's dad Ned (Frank McGrath).  He drinks away his days and lets his farm suffer.  Something about grief over his wife dying, I think.


Anyway, Amy comes out in her nightdress and robe because she figured that was Cal riding by.


They go over by the well to have a chat because why not?  This picture is only here so we can admire Cal's talent for leaning.


Cal tells Amy that he's taking his old job back as sheriff.  She's confused.  She thought Cal always wanted to be a farmer, not a lawman.


Yes, well, things are complicated, Cal can't turn down Grant's requests, life is hard, etc.


Slade is not happy about having to step down as sheriff.  By the way, if Donnelly Rhodes looks familiar, it's because he has 162 credits to his name and was in everything from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) to Battlestar Galactica (2004-2009), and oodles of things in between.


Anyway, Slade gives Grant his badge.  And takes back his old job as Grant's foreman.


After Slade leaves, Grant goes down into his cellar.  Which is quite the cellar, if you ask me!  I mean, it has a curving stone staircase that looks like something out of a Robin Hood movie.  Wow.  Anyway, we learn that Grant may say he can't use a gun because his right hand is literally made of wood, but he's lying.  He can use a gun with his left hand just fine.


Someone else is pondering giving up their star.


Ward Kent thinks he should maybe turn in his badge now that there's a new sheriff in town.  To contemplate this, he sprawls across the sheriffs desk because, why not?


Cal says he'll be perfectly happy to keep Ward on as his deputy because he doesn't think Ward is a spy left there by Slade.  Probably he's noticed how askance Ward has been looking at Slade whenever Slade does something nefarious.


Ward wants to know how come Cal has insisted he put up posters all over town that say no one is allowed to wear guns in Abilene.  Cal doesn't tell him the real reason, of course.  


Instead, Cal invites Ward to come along on his first tour of the town with that shiny badge pinned on his shirt.  Everyone in town comes out to see what happens.  There's going to be Trouble, and they all know it.


Slade and Grant keep an eye on the show too.


Amy and her dad arrive just in time to watch as well.


Cal refuses to strap on a gun, and asks Ward to just make sure no one shoots him in the back.


A bunch of Grant's cowhands pour out of the saloon to meet the new sheriff.  But not because they want to be his friends.


Remember Loop?  He yanks one of those signs off the wall and announces he's going to make Cal eat it.


Ward offers Cal a gun.


Cal hesitates.


Ward shoves the gun in his hand, and for a moment, Cal holds it up like he's going to point it at somebody.


Nope.


Not gonna do it.


He just walks straight up to Loop, unarmed, and asks him to turn in his sidearm.


And then they have a jolly fistfight and Cal uses his smaller size and faster reflexes to totally whup Loop.  In front of everyone.  After which, every one dutifully hands in their guns like they're supposed to.


Grant hosts a big party at his house, which Cal is NOT invited to.  When the guests leave, Grant thanks Amy for turning his house into a home.


He pays her lots of compliments, and then, when she's all smiling and happy with him, he drops a bomb.


Why wait to get married the way we'd planned?  Let's have the wedding this week!  Um, yeah, Amy looks thrilled, doesn't she?


Meanwhile, back in town, at the jail, Cal is having nightmares.  Such loud nightmares, they wake up his deputy.


As soon as Cal wakes up, screaming Dave's name, Ward pretends to be asleep again.


But he's not.


Amy comes to town the next day and tells Cal she's going to marry Grant much sooner than expected.  She tells him she knows he's taken up with Leann.  She asks why he's given her up without a fight.


Cal does not confide in her.  But he does look quite delectable in his black hat and black gloves.  OH my.


Meanwhile, out on the range, oh goody.  It's Loop and Slade, our two (un)favorite troublemakers.


They happen on Cord Decker.  He'd found one of Grant Evers's calves on his farm land and was bringing it back to the herd.  But that means he's trespassing.


Slade has had it in for Cord ever since Cord told Cal in front of the whole town that he should be sheriff instead of Slade.  And now, Cord is trespassing.  Slade has him right where he wants him at last.


This does not go well for poor Cord.


At all.


Not even a little bit.


They tie Cord's unconscious body to his horse and set him loose.


Happily, Ward and Cal just happen to be out riding around the lovely California Kansas countryside.


They stop Cord's runaway horse and rescue him, but he's barely alive.


Cord Decker had a lot of friends.  They say if he dies, they're going to go find Slade and lynch him.  And Grant Evers too, while they're at it.  Cal tries to convince him that the law can handle this, but they are barely appeased.


Cal decides to head out to Grant's place to warn him that the townsfolk may be coming for him.  But this shot is mostly here because I love how sweet and kind and worried Ward looks.  I love that he turns out to be a truly good guy.  It would be so easy to set up a Plot Twist with him being a spy for Slade after all, but that's not the route they go, and I'm glad of it.  Because the friendly banter between Ward and Cal are some of my favorite moments in this whole movie.


Cal finds Amy at Grant's place, waiting for Grant to come home.  She's going to break off their engagement.  Cal agrees to wait for Grant with her.


But here is a Shocking Revelation!  Grant is there, hiding in the bushes, and he sees them go in together!  Oh, you know this bodes No Good At All.


Inside Grant's house, Amy starts asking Cal some hard questions.  Like how come he gave her up without a fight.  She says it's like Cal is the same person who left, but someone else too now.  Like he's being ripped in half.


If only she knew the truth, maybe she would understand.  Or would she hate Cal the way he hates himself?  That's what he's really afraid of, I think.  He's afraid to find out he deserves all that self-loathing he's got going on.


Grant bursts in on them.  Yes!  Why did Cal give Amy up without a murmur?  Why did he take the job as sheriff when he wanted no part of it?  And why won't he wear a gun?


All his fear and worry and doubt and guilt can be contained no longer.


Cal tells them the truth.  He relives it, that awful night when he shot Dave by mistake.  That's why he can't use a gun.  All he ever sees is Dave, dying by his hand.


Grant gets very angry and pulls a gun himself.  He and Cal have a brief fight, and Cal gets the gun away from him.  Grant tells them both to leave, and they do.


Ward meets up with them at Amy's farm to announce that Cord Decker has died and all the farmers are in a lynching frenzy.  Cal tells Amy to ride into town and stay there until it's all over.  Not being a stupid or headstrong girl prone to doing stupid or headstrong things, she does exactly that.

Amy, by the way, is awesome.  She doesn't hold grudges, she doesn't hold people's past secrets against them, and she doesn't fly into hysterics when there's trouble.


Slade learns that Cord Decker died and the farmers are after him and Grant.  And he does something kind of nice -- he rides out to Grant's place to warn him, rather than just heading for the hills.  Of course, he wants a little something in return.


Grant gives him some money.  Slade doesn't think it's enough.  He reminds Grant that the only reason Grant has this big house and all this land and power is that Slade has been doing his dirty work for years, killing for him, protecting him.


Quietly, he threatens Grant.


Grant, however, is half-drunk.  He started drinking when Cal and Amy left, and he is... unsteady and not thinking clearly.  He pulls a gun on Slade.


This shot is only here because a certain friend of mine thinks that Slade is awfully handsome.  And he does wear that hat well.  If only he weren't such a skunk!


As we can all expect, Grant is no match for Slade.


Slade makes very, very sure that Grant won't make trouble for him anymore.  Then he steals Grant's keys and heads for town and Grant's cash reserves.


Cal and Ward arrive too late.  They know who did this.


Cal takes Grant's gun and stares at it.  Ward says, "Don't worry, you'll be able to use it."


When Cal looks at him in consternation, Ward just says, "You talk in your sleep."


Ready or not, Cal knows he's going to have to use it.  He buckles on Grant's gun.


And then, as he leaves, gun on his hip, he does something very small and very subtle.  He takes off his gloves.  All through this movie, ever since he arrived in Abilene, he's been putting on those black gloves.  Scene after scene, we see him tugging them on whenever he's going to go somewhere.  He is always wearing them, except when he's asleep.  But now, he takes them off.  He's done hiding the hands that killed Dave.  Done hiding from what he's done, who he is, what he's capable of.  It's so tiny, I missed it many, many times of watching this.  But I love this little detail.

Literally, the gloves have come off, and he's willing to do whatever it takes to restore order.


Back in town, it's either night or early morning, kind of hard to tell when they're using day-for-night shooting.  Either way, the whole place is deserted.


Slade lets himself into Grant's offices.  I really love this shot.


Cal arrives, and we get visually reminded that yes, he is definitely still carrying that gun.


Slade peeks out and sees him.


For absolutely no reason at all, Amy looks out her hotel window and calls to Cal.  I think maybe she meant to let him know she was there safely?  Or tell him to watch out because Slade's in town?  I don't know.  It's nonsensical, to be honest.


And it distracts Cal enough that Slade shoots him.  In the shoulder, though.  It's just a flesh wound.


Slade keeps shooting at him, but misses a lot.


Cal makes it to the safety of the hotel doors, where Amy meets him.  She begs him to leave with her, ride away and make a new life somewhere.


But Cal knows if he tries that, he'll have defeated himself.  He'll never be able to look her in the eye again, knowing he ran away from his sworn duty as a sheriff.

You know what I love about this bit?  It's reminiscent of High Noon (1952), with the love interest begging the sheriff to save himself by leaving town.  BUT.  When Cal says he won't go, Amy accepts it.  She doesn't threaten to leave him, or actually leave without him.  She supports his decision.  I love that.


Cal and Slade face each other in classic western-movie style.


For no reason I can ever figure out, the camera then tilts.


It tilts one way for Cal, one for Slade.


Back and forth.


Forth and back.


I could get a little seasick from this.


Back and forth we go.


The only thing I can think of as to why they would do this is that, at the big showdown of A Fistful of Dollars (1964), they did a lot of sideways shots like this, and maybe these filmmakers are trying to emulate that?  I don't know.


Tilty tilty tilty.


Well, of course this ends with Cal as victor.


Even though Slade's pistol cleared leather before Cal's, he's no match for Cal Wayne.


Amy runs to Cal. Instead of kissing him, or throwing her arms around him, or getting all gooshy, she just does this sweet little gesture of putting her head on his shoulder for a moment.


She's proud of him, and he knows it.


And off they walk, as the town begins to wake up around them, arm and arm the way they were meant to be.


The end!  I love it!  It's just the exactly perfect ending for them!  Sigh.  Awwwwwww.

So, yes, there.  I have finally screencapped this movie to within an inch of its life, basically giving you a flip book of the entire thing.  Although it was very hard to find for many years, as it was only issued to VHS once, this movie is now available on DVD thanks to the Universal Vault Series.  Huzzah!

Is this movie family friendly?  Basically, yes, but it's not squeaky clean.  There is one cuss word at the beginning.  And when Slade and Loop get their hands on Cord Decker, they goad him into making the first move by slandering his wife and saying that his son is Slade's.  That whole scene is probably too much for kids under ten or so -- they whip Cord, and it's pretty awful.  Still, the slander of his wife is oblique, not explicit. Other than that, Cal and Leann do kiss a couple of times, though the nature of their relationship is never explored beyond that.  So it's probably good for kids 10+, depending on the kid.

6 comments:

  1. wow what a great review. I love it!

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  2. I know that I've seen that movie -- but the only thing I remember is Leslie Nielson with a wooden hand.
    Kudos on the Star Trek connection Emily Banks/Yeoman Barrows catch.

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    1. Stanley, yeah, the wooden hand is pretty memorable!

      "Shore Leave" is one of my fave Trek episodes :-)

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  3. LOL Back and forth. Forth and Back.
    That was funny. I loved this review! Wasn't Don Galloway in The Rare Breed? I recognized him a little, but he looks a lot more, um, scruffy, in this.

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    1. Anna & Irene, glad you enjoyed it! YESSSSS!!!! Don Galloway is in The Rare Breed as Jamie, and I LOVE him in that! I've loved that movie for so long, and he's just wonderful in it. He's definitely scruffier here, but still so sweet. I'm so excited to find someone else who has seen Rare Breed too!

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