powered by AFI
John Ford, the master mythmaker of the American movie West, and James Stewart, who had redefined the genre and his career in a string of westerns with director Anthony Mann in the 1950s, finally worked together in Two Rode Together (1961), a far cry from the director's typical glorification of the West and the pioneer spirit. Two Rode Together was conceived as a misanthropic and almost farcical story with Stewart as a corrupt sheriff who ends up with an outcast woman primarily because the degradation and disappointment of their lives makes them ideally suited for each other. Stewart is a disreputable lawman hired by a Cavalry lieutenant (Richard Widmark) to help rescue dozens of captives held by the Comanches in 1880s Texas. Among them is a Mexican woman (Linda Cristal) who is shunned by white society because she was the forced squaw of a warrior. In the end, their rescue mission proves to be futile, even disastrous. Cristal is unable to fit in anywhere, and Stewart has lost his job and his share of the profits in the local brothel. With nothing to keep them in Texas, the couple ride off for California together.
Although this first pairing of James Stewart and director John Ford may have been cause for cinematic celebration, it wasn't a happy shoot. This was not a personal project for Ford but something he did only for the money ($225,000 plus 25 percent net profits) and as a favor to Columbia Pictures head Harry Cohn, a man Ford said he admired like "a large, brilliant serpent." The director hated the material, believing he had done a far better treatment of the theme in The Searchers (1956). Even after he brought in his most trusted screenwriter, Frank Nugent - the man responsible for The Searchers and nine other Ford classics - to fix the script, the director said it was "still crap." Nevertheless, he took the project on and proceeded to take his frustrations about it out on his cast and crew. Not that this was uncharacteristic. Stewart had been warned about the director's behavior by such longtime Ford stalwarts as John Wayne and Henry Fonda (who Ford once socked in the jaw during the filming of Mister Roberts, 1955). Stewart came to learn Ford liked to keep his actors in the dark about the direction of the picture and suspicious of each other. In Andrew Sinclair's biography, John Ford, Stewart revealed that Ford's "direction took the form of asides. Sometimes he'd put his hand across his mouth so that others couldn't hear what he was saying to you. On Two Rode Together he told me to watch out for Dick Widmark because he was a good actor and that he would start stealing if I didn't watch him. Later, I learned he'd told Dick the same thing about me. He liked things to be tense."
One of the film's most renowned and impressive shots has been credited solely to Ford's mean streak. In the famous five-minute two-shot of Stewart and Widmark bantering on a river bank about money, women, and the Comanche problem, the film's downbeat comedy, misogyny, and careless attitude toward human life are summed up perfectly. Ford justified the take as a simple preference for a wide-screen two-shot over cross-cutting between close-ups of "pock-marked faces." But Stewart and others insisted Ford was so cantankerous during production he forced his crew to wade waist-deep into the icy river and stay there all day until the shot was completed.
Whether the product of a bad attitude or a shift in artistic vision, Two Rode Together is Ford's most irredeemably cynical movie and ends in complete disillusionment. In many of his classics, such as My Darling Clementine (1946), the town, while representative of the encroachment of civilization on the rugged individualism of the West, is nevertheless seen as a place of family, law, and community. In this picture, the town is all about corruption without any of the mythologized virtues Ford brought to his earlier works. In contrast to Henry Fonda's self-sacrificing Wyatt Earp, Stewart's McCabe is little more than a mercenary, up to his ears in graft. Even the director's characteristic town dance sequence is used to different effect. In My Darling Clementine it celebrates the civilizing qualities of community. In Two Rode Together it is used to highlight and attack the townspeople's intolerance and hypocrisy, as Stewart rails against them for treating the Linda Cristal character even worse than her former captors.
Although the movie was not a commercial success and Stewart and Ford did not make the best collaborative team, there must have been something in this bleaker revisionist view of the West that appealed to both men. Stewart would work for the director three more times, two of those in films that took a radically different and even darker view of the western myth - The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) and Cheyenne Autumn (1964). They might not have been the best of friends on-and-off the set but they had a grudging respect for each other and the closest Ford ever came to praising Stewart was when he said, "He did a whale of a job manufacturing a character the public went for. He studied acting."
Producer: John Ford, Stanley Shpetner
Director: John Ford
Screenplay: Frank Nugent, from the novel Comanche Captives by Will Cook
Cinematography: Charles Lawton Jr.
Editing: Jack Murray
Art Direction: Robert Peterson
Original Music: George Duning
Cast: James Stewart (Marshall Guthrie McCabe), Richard Widmark (Lt. Jim Gary), Shirley Jones (Marty Purcell), Linda Cristal (Elena de la Madriaga), Andy Devine (Sgt. Darius Posey), John McIntire (Major Frazer), Paul Birch (Judge Edward Purcell), Henry Brandon (Chief Quanah Parker), Harry Carey, Jr. (Ortho Clegg), Ken Curtis (Greeley Clegg), Jeanette Nolan (Mrs. Mary McCandless), Woody Strode (Stone Calf).
by Rob Nixon