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Burt Lancaster - Star of the Month
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Ten Tall Men

Ten Tall Men (1951), a tongue-in-cheek Foreign Legion spoof, began as a western story by James Warner Bellah and Willis Goldbeck -- a cavalry vs. Apaches tale to be produced by Norma Productions for release by Columbia Pictures. Norma was the name of the production company run by Harold Hecht and Burt Lancaster, who was attached to star. But Hecht and Lancaster decided to hire writer A.I. Bezzerides to reimagine the story with a Foreign Legion setting, and then hired writers Roland Kibbee and Frank Davis to make it more comedic. Kibbee was actually the main force behind the comedy, having written the Marx Brothers' A Night in Casablanca (1946).

Lancaster plays a cocky, womanizing Foreign Legion sergeant who learns of an impending Riff invasion while in jail, and buoyantly teams up with nine fellow prisoners to delay them until reinforcements can arrive. Along the way, a sheik's daughter (Jody Lawrance) gets involved.

Shot near Palm Springs and on soundstages at Columbia Pictures, the film was quite a bit behind schedule by midpoint in production. Additionally, Lancaster and Hecht were not satisfied with the tone that director (and co-writer) Willis Goldbeck had been achieving for the film. So Goldbeck was fired and replaced with Robert Parrish, a top editor who had been clamoring for a chance to direct. Parrish was happy for the opportunity but worried he'd be fired, too, if he slipped up. As it turned out, he brought the picture in on time and quickly went on to direct his first two official features, the superb film noirs Cry Danger (1951) and The Mob (1951). Goldbeck, however, received sole directing credit on Ten Tall Men.

The movie performed solidly at the box office and got fair reviews, with Variety describing it as "a virtual tour de force for Lancaster. He bares his hairy chest, wrestles adversaries, and pitches woo in the best tradition of such roles." The New York Times' Bosley Crowther wasn't crazy about the satirical approach, but wrote: "If your humor is in a tolerant state...you will find it a bushel of fun.... You will relish the way the fellows call Mr. Lancaster 'Sarge' or a sudden sandstorm sweeps the desert, permitting our hard-pressed heroes to escape. And you will cherish the international flavor of the Legion, imparted by such Orpheum-time vaudevillians as Nick Dennis, Mike Mazurki and George Tobias. Indeed, if you're utterly careless, you might even eat your popcorn bag in the midst of the excitement and amusement."

It was on this film that Burt Lancaster and Robert Aldrich first worked together (and possibly first met). Aldrich, credited as "assistant to the producer," was assigned to oversee the production by Columbia. He had already worked as an assistant director or second-unit director on many films, however, and would soon become a director in his own right -- one of the best, in fact. He'd direct Lancaster in four pictures, including Vera Cruz (1954) and Ulzana's Raid (1972).

Ten Tall Men followed Lancaster's previous film, Jim Thorpe -- All American (1951), in theaters by just one month. Biographer Kate Buford has written that this demonstrates "the style split of Lancaster's early 1950s career: serious effort followed by zany parody, each persona played off against the other with a circus performer's instinct for the next, quick surprise."

By Jeremy Arnold

Sources:

Kate Buford, Burt Lancaster: An American Life

Gary Fishgall, Against Type: The Biography of Burt Lancaster

David Fury, The Cinema History of Burt Lancaster VIEW TCMDb ENTRY

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