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Richard Widmark: A Princeton legend

Published: Friday, May 2, 2014 4:26 p.m. CST • Updated: Friday, May 2, 2014 4:33 p.m. CST

Editor’s note: This is the second installment in a two-part column on John Ford and the Caseys.

“Two Rode Together” (1961) was filmed in Brackettville, Texas, and Richard Widmark had been there the year before making “The Alamo” (1960) with John Wayne. John Ford had been on the set at numerous times like some mother hen watching Wayne make the movie. He met Widmark, was impressed with his work, and told him he wanted to direct him in a picture. They made two. 

This is one of those overlapping layers I wrote about earlier — how actors, available roles and directors get together. Widmark was comfortable with the area and the director. There is another type of obvious overlapping in this film and that is kind of a John Ford trademark. “When Ford falls in love with an image he never lets go. He always repeated things from previous movies in every picture he made, all the way back to the silent days”, said Harry Carey Jr. in his book, “Company of Heroes.”

The opening scene of the movie has James Stewart stretched out in a chair on the porch of a saloon ala Henry Fonda as Wyatt Earp in an earlier Ford film, “My Darling Clementine” (1946). Astute Ford fans will also note the many regular stock players in this movie. My favorite casting is that of the actor Henry Brandon, (a German-American born in Berlin) as Chief Quanah Parker. In Ford’s “The Searchers” (1956), he is also a Comanche Chief, (Cicatriz) Scar, the main villain in the movie, and too has to be dealt with for the release of a captive white girl.  

“Two Rode Together,” similarly, could easily be seen as a reworking of “The Searchers” but with some of the issues of the earlier film now resolved, even violently, as in the image of a body hanging from a tree. When Widmark and Stewart return to Fort Grant and the waiting white families, they have just two of the kidnapped.

One is now a young Comanche brave, Running Wolf (David Kent), who is so far gone Indian, that trying to escape, he kills the woman who thought him her son. A mob mentality takes over, and led by the Cleggs, the once white child is hung as a savage Comanche killer. The Clegg brothers are no longer the humorous yokels. The other returned captive is Elena de la Madriaga, (Linda Cristal, who appeared with Widmark in “The Alamo”) who has for five years been the woman of the leader of the Comanche Buffalo Shields, Stone Calf (Woody Strode). The Buffalo Shields are a more militant faction of the Quanah Parker Comanche tribe. Strode was a premier athlete with a physical presence that could rightly intimidate anyone with just a look. He made four movies for Ford, and they were good friends. Just to look at him on the screen is pure pleasure, no dialogue needed. Stewart has to deal with Stone Calf, when making an escape with Elena, and the only believable way was to shoot him dead at point blank. You just wouldn’t buy into a hand to hand victory by Stewart over Strode. Strode and Widmark made “A Gathering of Old Men” in 1987.

Elena, scorned by the white community for being a Comanche squaw, is the redemption for Stewart’s character in the movie. The female lead in the movie is Shirley Jones as Marty Purcell, who with her father is trying to find her brother who was taken by the Comanche. She blames herself because she ran and hid when the Indians took him.  She still holds onto a music box that her lost brother loved as a child, and it figures, as one would guess, into the story. It is kind of fun to watch Widmark romance her in the movie, and their scenes are full of that wonderful dialogue.

Widmark was a private man who preferred staying home with his wife and daughter as opposed to attending parties and award shows. He was the rare actor who could say he was a loving and faithful husband. He was married to playwright Jean Hazelwood for 55 years until her death in 1997. He said he didn’t flirt with other women because “I happen to like my wife a lot.” He loved milk, ice cream sodas, candy and animals. His wife had a hard time getting him to have even a social drink when they did go out or entertain at home. He did know how to let loose, though, if even on a rare occasion. 

When he made “The Alamo” with John Wayne, he picked up the lay of the land in the Bracketville area and south of the border into Mexico. Widmark and Ford were getting along marvelously making “Two Rode Together,” and Widmark was amazed at Ford’s genius at simplifying a lot of drama with a minimum of camera moves. He was tough on directors but saw Ford as one who knew how to do it right.  

One weekend Widmark decided he’d like to blow off a little steam. He went to Ford and told him this. Ford said, “Sure. Why not? Have good time.” Ford was usually tough on anyone who did not toe the line when they made a movie with him. Harry Carey Jr. tells it this way.

Dick came over to my room and said, “I fixed it up with the Old Man. We’ve got Saturday night all to ourselves and can go across the border into Mexico. We’ll take Shirley (Jones) and Annelle (Hayes).” Annelle played the madam of the place where Stewart’s character was a fixture, and in real life was married to Mark Stevens who starred in “The Street With No Name” (1948) with Widmark.

Carey tells he knew Widmark did not drink much, so he figured there wouldn’t be much booze consumption. Carey liked his drink, so he had a few belts before they left. They headed for Pedras Negras, Mexico, across the border from Eagle Pass, Texas.  Widmark had been there many times before while filming “The Alamo,” and got the red carpet treatment from the maitre d’ at the Casablanca restaurant. They had a big table right by the dance floor. The waiter came to take their drink order and before anyone could speak, Widmark ordered, “Four double-Margaritas all the way around!”

“Doubles?” Carey says he nearly fainted. Ten minutes later Widmark was at it again. “Waiter! Por favor - four Margaritas!” Then the orchestra started playing, all four danced and more drinks kept coming. Carey says, “Dick never showed any effects from the drinks and acted just like he did when they arrived.” 

Soon Widmark was setting in with the orchestra, playing the drums. He was an expert drummer, playing the drums since high school with classmates in their band, the Rhythm Kings. They had wine and dinner, and soon Widmark yelled, “Let’s go! I know another great joint!” They hit that spot, partied and listened to great mariachi music. It seemed like Widmark knew everybody in the place. They made it back pretty close to dawn. 

Carey asked Widmark how he felt. “I feel great. But listen, don’t tell Jean about this.”

Carey says, “You mean because we took Annelle and Shirley?” 

“Hell no! Not that! Don’t mention to Jean that I drank ... She’s always after me to have a drink when we have a party.”  Widmark was worried about hurting his wife’s feelings.    

There were no conventional dramatic gunfights in “Two Rode Together.”  Ford, instead, let the excitement spring from the self-righteous cruelty and greed of the different characters toward each other. Widmark would make one more movie for Ford, “Cheyenne Autumn” (1964), and it would be Ford’s last western.

That’ll be the next trail we go down. “It’s heartless and cold — In the dust of the prairie — And a man can’t grow old — Where there’s women and gold” (“A Man Can’t Grow Old,” Leigh Harline/Mort Greene, 1948).

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