As with so much of John Ford’s late-career output, Two Rode Together makes a strong case that the filmmaker, whose Stagecoach birthed the modern western, was also the genre’s first and perhaps greatest revisionist. The film opens with Guthrie McCabe (James Stewart) lethargically leaning back on a porch in a parody of a similar gesture by Henry Fonda’s Wyatt Earp in My Darling Clementine. Where Fonda’s marshal teetered symbolically between the unknown frontier and the secure but limiting and corruptible retreat of civilization, Stewart’s own lawman simply kicks back like a lizard basking on a hot stone. Guthrie’s Mexican valet does the gazing out into the distance, while the marshal himself doesn’t seem to look at anything.
Called to an army outpost by his friend Lt. Jim Gary (Richard Widmark), Guthrie doesn’t discover until he travels the 40 miles to get there that the military wants him to help ransom a number of white captives from a Comanche tribe. Furious to have been brought out there for this reason, Guthrie decides to ransom the hostages’ families first, eliciting an exorbitant sum for anyone he brings back alive. And even as he bilks these grieving, desperate people, he castigates them for their hope, reminding them that anyone who survived abduction is now more Comanche than white.
Guthrie’s callousness is breathtaking but, when he returns from negotiations with the only two hostages willing to accompany him back, justified. The civilians treat Guthrie’s initial arrival in camp with ecstasy, certain that he will finally return their relatives home, though they fall silent when he comes back from the Comanche camp and they see a young man and woman in tribal garb. Deep focus in Ford’s movies typically highlights the connection between the characters and their environment, whether in iconic, Frederic Remington-inspired vistas or intimate domestic and communal portraits. But shots of Running Wolf (David Kent) and Elena (Linda Cristal) place hordes of onlookers in the background in slightly shallow focus, retaining their definition, but blurring them just enough to make one leering mass of sideways-glancing eyes. Elena must endure the salacious imaginations of the women who gasp at the idea of relations with the Comanche, though she nonetheless ask for details about it, while Running Wolf soon gets lynched by a furious mob, who ignore the one moment that he remembers his old self to murder the Native American he’s become.
Two Rode Together thus plays like a variation of The Searchers that divides Ethan’s singular hatred among an entire civilization. What this change loses in focused passion it gains in broader social observation; it’s easy to get lost in Ethan’s headspace at first, but this film makes its characters’ moral failings and hypocrisies apparent from the start. Its cynicism is rampant, and equal opportunity: The Comanche chief (Henry Brandon, also from The Searchers) who barters with Guthrie allows Elena to be released in order to drive her husband and his rival (Woody Strode) to attack Guthrie and be killed. Even the Fordian staple of the Mosaic hero never entering the civilization he helps secure gets perverted, as Guthrie and Elena both head out at the end explicitly to get away from the judgmental sanctimony of a rotten community.
When it comes to video, the good people at Twilight Time work with what they’re given, so you never know what to expect from one of their releases. Happily, Two Rode Together boasts one of their best transfers to date, with a healthy level of film grain and terrific. Official blues and Comanche reds vividly burn, while the earthy browns of dimmer scenes, shot as if on lenses dipped in the tincture used to color white actors native, breathe naturally for all their laborious studio setup. The lossless mono track is also robust, especially for a dialogue-driven film. Everything is clear and balanced, with no audible errors or artifacts.
The disc comes with an isolated score track and a theatrical trailer, and an accompanying booklet contains a brief essay by Julie Kirgo.
John Ford’s bitter revisionist western is a must-see for fans of the director, as well as those who mistake him for a soft sentimentalist.