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1961’s Two Rode Together, the first collaboration between James Stewart and director John Ford, has been restored as part of Eureka’s The Masters of Cinema series. Good intentions and fine performances aside, it’s a Western that has not stood the test of time.
Marshall Guthrie McCabe (Stewart) is recruited by the Army to negotiate with Comanche Indians on behalf of white settlers whose children were kidnapped years ago. He is joined by his friend, Army Lieutenant Jim Gray (Richard Widmark) and only agrees to take the job in return for a sizable cash reward.
McCabe makes for a deeply unpleasant protagonist. He’s thoroughly unsympathetic to the plight of the settlers desperate to be reunited with their loved ones, taking every opportunity to let them know that their children are either dead or too far gone to even be recognized, yet he’s more than happy to take as much money off of them as he can. His friendship with Gray makes no sense, as there’s very little camaraderie between the two. They spend more time arguing and even threatening each other than anything else.
Perhaps in 1961, having such an unlikable protagonist was meant to be indicative of the harsh realities of the frontier, playing against the romanticized Western traditions. Unfortunately, now it just comes across as unnecessarily crass and mean-spirited. McCabe undergoes some change throughout the film, but it’s all very sudden and jarring – after spending most of the movie being heartless and unpleasant, he’s suddenly imparting moral lessons about prejudice.
This is supposedly brought on by his relationship with Elena (Linda Cristal), a young woman of Mexican descent who had been living with the Comanches for years and was among those McCabe and gray brought back. The white settlers are rude and treat her with suspicion and animosity – an interesting idea to explore, but like McCabe’s newfound sense of decency, it’s shoehorned in towards the end of the movie. It’s all very on the nose, making the good intentions of the message come across as stilted. Two Rode Together’s portrayal of the Native Americans straddles the line between respectful and stereotypical, and not nearly enough time is devoted to them for that tension to be reconciled.
While some of the minor supporting actors don’t seem to feel very comfortable with their lines, most of the performances are pretty good – it’s just that the characters aren’t particularly interesting or noteworthy. Sometimes the movie gets an intentional laugh on how crass McCabe is, but apart from that, there’s very little worth caring about when it comes to these people or their story.
What might have been considered a darker and more morally ambiguous take on the Western genre more than fifty years ago doesn’t really have the same impact today. The economical way in which Ford directs it also robs Two Rode Together of any real sense of excitement or forward momentum. It just trudges along at a steady pace and when it’s all said and done, doesn’t leave much of an impression.
Eureka’s restoration of Two Rode Together is available in special Dual Format edition from 13 March 2017.
· Rebirth – A New and exclusive video essay on the film by Ford expert and scholar Tag Gallagher
· A booklet featuring a new essay from critic and author Richard Combs.