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Richard Widmark: A Princeton legend

Westerns — A legend in the making

Published: Friday, March 14, 2014 12:37 p.m. CDT • Updated: Friday, March 14, 2014 12:39 p.m. CDT

Richard Widmark made his fifth western in 1956, the year he made “Backlash” for John Sturges. The movie was “The Last Wagon” for Director Delmer Daves. Daves made “Broken Arrow” (1950), “3:10 to Yuma” (1957), “Cowboy” (1957), and “The Hanging Tree” (1959); all great straightforward westerns starring some the biggest names in western film history. 

“The Last Wagon” has a simple plot but a lot of different layers to the movie. Widmark’s physically lean and tanned look are even more apparent in this movie.

He had made “Run for the Sun” in between “Backlash” and the “Last Wagon.” “Run for the Sun” was an updated version of the classic “The Most Dangerous Game” (1932).

Widmark is a man on the run in “Run for the Sun,” and it is easy to see why he was cast as the buckskin clad survivor, Comanche Todd, in “The Last Wagon.” The beginning of the movie is nothing less than spectacular. The setting is 1873 Arizona, and the landscape dotted with canyons and buttes is a layer of the movie to be enjoyed on its own. The overhead shots in the widescreen let you watch the action take place against the landscape. You watch Widmark kill two of the men who are tracking him. and in close-ups you know they are not nice guys, even though it is the sheriff and two deputies. You don’t have to be a watcher of movies from this era to know these actors only play skunks.

All during this beginning of the movie you get to watch Widmark in moccasins move across the landscape like a sure-footed lean creature at home in his environment. He really carries off his role. You believe he was a white child raised by the Comanche. You believe he is this Comanche Todd who will do what he has to do to survive, even kill men with ease. 

Nothing could be further from reality with Richard Widmark. 

He had this to say 20 years later. “I know I’ve made kind of a half-assed career out of violence, but I abhor violence. I am an ardent supporter of gun control. It seems incredible to me that we are the only civilized nation that does not put some effective control on guns.” 

Watching Richard Widmark on screen in the various roles he played, many of them as killers and men of violence, and knowing the real person, you would have to say he was a darn good actor. He could carry a film, and you could believe he was a man of the West.

“The Last Wagon” is a simple story of a hardened man saving a wagon of women in the wild frontier, but it also has these intertwined layers of prejudice, race, revenge and redemption that are brought out during the interaction of the characters. The thing that is most obvious, though, is that you don’t see the Richard Widmark known for his use of facial expression or laugh, but rather a person whose physical nature and confidence define his character. You’re watching an actor broaden his range. His athletic history and outdoor lifestyle enriched this type of character he could now play with real authenticity. 

In high school he played varsity end on the football team in his senior year. The former owner of the Apollo Theater, Sam Traynor, had this to say, in the Bureau County Republican, after watching Widmark play football: “He was a skinny kid with a lot of ferocity.”

Richard Widmark as Comanche Todd had that ferocity. You could believe his performance when fighting Indians with knives or saving the women and young men in the movie. The dialogue in the movie is great stuff ... “That wasn’t Apaches; it was our own gun. We’ve got six bullets, and that idiot uses up three on a stinking rattler you could kill with a stick.” It’s why I love westerns.  

I think I remember seeing Richard Widmark for the first time in “The Law and Jake Wade” (1958) when I was 11 at the Gran Theater in Granville, where I lived and grew up. Widmark as outlaw Clint Hollister was superb. He could play a guy you both liked and hated. I always looked for movies of his after that. You could go to the Gran, bring your own brown grocery bag of popcorn, and sit through every showing of the movie. If it was a real good one I could do two and a half. I’m pretty sure “The Law and Jake Wade” was a two. This was Widmark’s second movie for Director John Sturges, where he co-stars with Robert Taylor, a screen legend from a prior generation. Taylor was starring in movies that probably played at the Apollo Theater when Widmark was a doorman there. Only in his wildest dreams could he have even thought that he would one day be sharing the marquee with Taylor.

Widmark’s Clint Hollister possesses just a shade of his crazed Tommy Udo character from “Kiss of Death” (1947), but now he is all business and reasonable on the surface.  He is having fun with you, the audience, and nails his character with sarcastic lines that make it impossible not to watch him on the screen. This was part of the success he had as an actor, audience penetration or giving the audience a reason to watch him, whether sympathy or hatred.

The Lake Forest College newspaper said of his performance in “Skidding,” the final play of his junior year, “Widmark stole the sympathy of the audience from the minute he walked on the stage until he left in the third act amid a burst of applause ...” 

Journalist Hedda Hopper said of his acting, “It was a combination of competence and audience penetration which turned the trick for Widmark.”

Richard Widmark could turn heads. He could have that effect even when he was in high school. A few years after his movie debut in “Kiss of Death,” an article in the Kewanee Star Courier stated, in high school “... he won the distinction twice, of being the class sheik” (a man held to be masterful and irresistibly charming to women), a Rudolph Valentino.

In the movie, Robert Taylor is Jake Wade who once rode with Hollister as partners in crime but is now a lawman. He parted company with Widmark’s character who believes that Taylor betrayed him over stolen loot that Wade took and ran out. Wade only wanted out of the outlaw life because of a tragic event, so he buried the money in a ghost town and started a new life. Hollister abducts Wade and his fiancée (Patricia Owens) and forces them to take him and his gang to the ghost town. This leads to a final showdown in the ghost town with the classic gun fight. Sturges delivers a well-paced movie and in it, Widmark might have his back to the sun or not — check it out. 

Next: Richard Widmark, John Wayne, Director John Ford and the fascinating movie “Warlock (1959).”

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