Robert Mitchum on screen epitomizes ultimate cool… always has, always will.
I have a short list of favorite Mitchum pictures…doesn’t everyone?
Out of the Past– the quintessence of the noir stained private eye; Night of the Hunter and Cape Fear playing two of the most wonderfully despicable blackguards in movie history; Blood on the Moon, The Sundowners, The Story of G.I. Joe… and now there is a new addition to the list.
I had originally watched The Wonderful Country (1959) via an old VHS broadcast tape nearly five years ago. Savoring it last week in HD on a big Plasma screen, courtesy of the Western Channel, was a revelation.
As Martin Brady, Mitchum is a rawhide-tough pistolero who has grown weary of dangerous subservience. Surviving in the El Paso border country while on the run for avenging his father’s post Civil War murder, he discovers that riding point for a corrupt Mexican potentate (Pedro Armendariz) has more drawbacks than attributes.
After shepherding a wagon of rifles across the border, Brady’s horse gets spooked by a tumbleweed and leaves him writhing on a dirty street with a broken leg. Worse yet, the wagonload belonging to his employer promptly disappears. The gunman quickly realizes that he is an expendable asset.
The Chihuahua warlord and his treacherous brother might employ Brady, but they detest him… and any other American that deigns to intrude in their domain.
Brady resignedly explains the facts of border life to an Army Captain pumping him for information about eliciting cross border assistance from the Mexican authorities to hunt down marauding Apaches:
“Don’t you know what gringo really means”?
A local sawbones (Charles McGraw) comes through with a bottle of redeye and a pair of 4×2’s to set Brady’s broken leg. During a lengthy recovery, Brady contemplates his bleak future until he falls like a ton of bricks for the gorgeous wife (Julie London) of the local Army Captain (Gary Merrill) whose lack of marital intimacy is sized up in about three frames of film. London’s Mrs. Colton is similar to her turn in Man of the West, but this time out, she is more properly resigned to a dutiful marriage and the cool side of the pillow.
The romantic sparks between Brady and Mrs. Colton eventually catch fire south of the border. It turns out to be a superheated one night stand as destiny beckons. Mitchum, wearing the dirtiest sombrero of all time, has to kill a man and then confront his employers on their own turf.The pistolero discovers while he might be a man without a country, he is not without honor.
Robert Mitchum was the executive producer of The Wonderful Country and, as much as it was possible for an actor who invented the term”laid-back”, he took his duties seriously.
The picture is highlighted by a beautiful script adapted from Tom Lea’s novel of the same title that is refreshingly absent of the typical oater clichés.
There is stunningly lush location photography by the great Floyd Crosby who would lense Roger Corman’s gaudiest Poe epics, fluid direction by Robert Parrish and a superb cast of experienced Hollywood vets: London, Merrill, McGraw, Tony Caruso, Jack Oakie, Albert Dekker, Jay Novello, “Bad” Chuck Roberson, et al.
A different wrinkle was added by legendary baseball pitcher Leroy “Satchel” Paige who portrayed a cavalry sergeant.Mitchum, whose taste for the eclectic never slackened, thought Paige an inspired casting choice as did nearly everyone else. As Robert Parrish’s wife related to Mitchum biographer, Lee Server; “… Paige was cooler than Mitchum.”
What I really enjoyed about The Wonderful Country was Mitchum becoming one with the character of Brady instead of playing… Robert Mitchum; an occupational hazard that became more pronounced in his later career.He deployed an authentic Texican accent, was realistically filthy for most of the picture while conveying a visceral sense of betrayed weariness that was simply captivating.Mitchum’s best acting was always about underplaying. He really makes you believe in Martin Brady.
There is a riotous back story about the location filming of The Wonderful Country that I will resist the urge to regurgitate here. The saga is well detailed in Lee Server’s seminal bio of Robert Mitchum, Baby, I Don’t Care and is touched on in my book about Charles McGraw. Suffice to say, that no one went thirsty during the production of this film.
For my dough, the romance between Mitchum and Julie London – how did she marry Jack Webb, for God’s sakes – was authentically poignant with Julie summing up at the end:
“What a pity then, that life is what we do, and not just what we feel.”
Truer words were never spoken about life, love and a terrific Robert Mitchum movie that deserves to be more widely recognized as one of his best outings.