Two Rode Together
The celebrated director John Ford once said of his overlooked 1961 film, Two Rode Together as “the worst piece of crap I’ve made in twenty years”. It’s understandable why he would say something like this as production for Two Rode Together was far from an easy one. Ford made the film as a promise to the head of Columbia Pictures, Harry Cohn who had died three years before the film’s release, so this was clearly not a personal project for the director.
Ford had strong doubts over the material, but he still pressed on with it and took out his frustrations out on the cast and crew during production. This was not unusual behaviour for Ford, as he was often a particularly demanding director. Even with James Stewart, the star of the film, Ford’s long-time collaborators, John Wayne and Henry Fonda had warned him that Ford was a hardened veteran of the Hollywood film industry, making him difficult to work with. So Two Rode Together hasn’t been held in a particularly high regard among critics, leaving it a commercial and critical flop back then. But to call it the “worst film” he had ever made at that point is really saying something considering Ford made almost 150 films. Two Rode Together has a couple good scenes, some decent acting from Stewart and co-star Richard Widmark and it is a technically beautiful and colourful film, but a few problem riddle the film.
Guthrie McCabe (Stewart) is a cynical and corrupt U.S. Marshal operating in the Wild West. One day, an old friend and army Lieutenant, Jim Gary (Widmark) visits McCabe with news of a mission to make negotiations with the formidable Comanche in exchange for rescuing a group of white settlers who the Comanche have taken hostage. McCabe is reluctant at first but the army major promises a large reward if they can manage to bring back the settlers in one piece. However, the deal goes south with tragic consequences for all involved.
If the plot to Two Rode Together rings a bell, it’s probably because Ford did see it as a rehash of Ford’s classic John Wayne western, The Searchers. The main difference between the two is that The Searchers still offers a sign of hope at the end of the tunnel, no matter how many times Ethan Edwards calls a dunce “blanket-head” or the stakes of finding his niece Debbie alive grow narrower and narrower, Ethan still plows on, knowing that she is out in the wild, somewhere. Two Rode Together on the hand takes a darker and insidious turn within the narrative. McCabe is the greatest pessimist. He must paint the worst possible picture to the relatives of the hostages, this is especially the case when many of the Comanche abduct them at such a young age. For example, Marty Purcell (Shirley Jones) a young woman who lives in the settler encampment keeps a music box that reminds her of her younger brother, Steve, who the Comanche abducted when he was a child. McCabe warns her that if Steve were to return, he would have no recollection of his sister and would rape her at any given chance and then trade her in for a rifle.
So yes, McCabe is a complete cynic. But it is commendable that Ford and his regular screenwriting collaborator, Frank Nugent would write such a half-hearted anti-hero as the lead, to differentiate it from every other John Ford, good-willed protagonist. James Stewart is very entertaining, offering a sly sense of humour throughout. However, the comic relief that the film provides jars much with the film’s darker elements and sometimes this happens immediately after some grim revelation. One moment, McCabe is providing the worst possible outcome to the relatives if a hostage were to return, and in the next moment, Sergeant Darius P. Posey (Adam Devine), part of Gary’s regiment, is knocking two fools into a river with his round, plump belly ending with McCabe laughing like a jackass. And this isn’t done in bad taste, but it creates an inconsistent tone and haphazard structure that robs the film of any real power.
Stewart’s and Widmark’s chemistry is very good, even though Nugent intended their characters to a lot younger, which would explain McCabe’s cynicism as a lack of frontier experience. It is odd to see them act along Linda Cristal and Shirley Jones who were basically a quarter of their age and play their love interests. Despite this and Widmark’s role being surprisingly underwritten, he is basically the typical moral officer who will come crashing down on corruption, they both play their parts well. Especially one scene which sums up their friendship entirely. Early on, when McCabe and Gary are making their trek to the settlement, they stop by a river bank, and in a single unbroken take, the two men have a cigar and talk about women, money and the Comanche in an uncaring attitude that the take sums up very nicely as Two Rode Together’s main themes. Ford’s next film, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance which also starred James Stewart as the lead, is a better film. Two Rode Together is a must for Ford fans, but it pretty much falls in the middle of the road.