' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: The Wonderful Country (1959)

Friday, January 26, 2018

Friday's Old Fashioned: The Wonderful Country (1959)

If Robert Mitchum’s Mexican-American accent in “The Wonderful Country” (1959) comes and goes, well, that’s less any kind of flaw than emblematically appropriate considering his character, gunslinger Martin Brady, was born in America and then fled to Mexico when he was but 14 after avenging his father’s killer. That left him stranded south of the border, re-christened as Martín Bredi, a man with two identities and none it all, left to hire himself out as a pistolero to the dastardly Castro Brothers. And though ensuing events find his identity at stake, Brady is content going with the flow, allowing the situation to dictate his movements, which might be a weird quality in a main character though a nonetheless perfect one for Robert Mitchum, where the actor’s peerless ability to make passiveness so charismatic is on full display. When his character is finally made to take a stand it is not about some grand overarching statement in the name or this or that as a gunslinger wearied out with having to always be so quick on the draw. The idea that one man can make a difference isn’t explicitly laughed at, but you suspect that Brady would roll his eyes at it over a cold one.

No, while the ever-incendiary border politics dot “The Wonderful Country” throughout, Brady’s journey is far less political than personal, beginning when he crosses the Rio Grande to run some guns and finds himself hung up in the little border town of Puerto with a broken leg. If most people with his past might be in a hurry to get out, Brady plays it pretty cool, magnified, of course, by Mitchum himself, who makes being propped up with a giant cast look like a card player kicking his feet up at the poker table. And the movie allows Brady to revel in the people around him, like Dr. Stovall, a scene-stealing turn from Charles McGraw who plays the part, his character stealing glugs of whiskey intended for his patient, like the doctor in “Hot Shots!” who issues himself 15cc of morphine, as well as youthful Ludwig (Max Slaten), a German immigrant and nephew of the gun runner, Sterner (John Banner), with whom Brady is dealing. Sterner warns Ludwig away from Brady, a warning he does not always heed, and Ludwig’s chance at a new life in America both mirrors and becomes tied up in Brady’s same attempts.

Eventually Brady gets a shave and a new suit, looking like a new man, and is presented dueling opportunities to truly become a new man, first by the US Army and then by the Texas Rangers. Army Major Colton (Gary Merrill) seeks Brady’s services as something of a spy to report on the movements of the Castro Brothers to help the US government eradicate the threat of violent Apaches preventing their expansion of a railroad. If American/Mexican political relations are presented as murkily true to life, the Indians are, expectedly, simple savages, glimpsed for only one action sequence in which they play the archetypal Indians of Cowboys vs. Indians. Still, that Brady does not simply give them up points not necessarily to some strict personal code but an understanding that things are not so simple.

This gray area is exemplified in Captain Rucker (Albert Dekker) who knows Brady’s past and promises him the U.S. will turn a blind eye if he’s willing to help his native country, which Dekker alternately plays for forgiving kindness and harsh leverage, never quite letting Brady know what he really thinks, maybe because he thinks both things at once. Mitchum was always such a great actor when his characters were backed into a corner, and so Brady’s relationship with Rucker, where he is left more or less at the Captain’s mercy, is the best one in the movie even if the movie seeks to render Colton’s wife Ellen (Julie London) his primary partner.

That her marriage is loveless is believably sketched in the way Colton asks her to dance – “it’s the first dance, Ellen,” he says with the air of a tired man reporting for guard duty – but the screenplay, for all its indulgence, seems to be missing a connecting scene between Brady and Ellen as antagonists and Brady and Ellen as burgeoning romantic partners. It just never comes all the way together and essentially undermines what might have been a superb ending, one that comes around after Brady has been forced back into Mexico and made to cut his nefarious ties before crossing the Rio Grande once again, under a billowy sky, to re-unite with Ellen, movingly obfuscating the difference between expat and immigrant.

1 comment:

mercatiwriter@aol.com said...

Robert Mitchum was the coolest.