Understanding Screenwriting #90: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Contraband, & More

The idea of a film about an unwed mother first came to Preston Sturges in 1937.

Tinker Tailor Solider Spy
Photo: Focus Features

Coming Up in This Column: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Adventures of Tintin, Contraband, Frederica Sagor Mass: An Appreciation, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, Rio Grande, but first…

Fan Mail: “outsidedog” wonders, quite legitimately, why I am wasting my time with the Downey/Richtie Sherlock Holmes movies, since I did not like the most recent one. The reason I went to see it was that I had seen the first one of the new bunch and liked it. I thought it was an interesting take on the idea of Holmes. As I said in the column, the new one gets very sloppy. Sometimes there are movies you see because you think they might have something and when they don’t, you give the sequels a miss. I had a hard time staying awake during The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) and knew I would never last through the rest of them. I caught the first Matrix film (1999) and it just seemed silly to me, so I passed on the others. As I said, the reason I went to the new Holmes is that the first one had shown me enough to be interested in the second. I doubt if I will see a third one, if there is a third one.

I haven’t been following the new Sherlock Holmes television series, since I am not a fan of conventional mysteries. They seem awfully slow and talky. My wife is a big fan of mysteries, both novels and television shows, but we have never got into the new one. I am glad outsidedog is paying attention to the writing and I will take his word on its quality.

David Ehrenstein raised the question of how much director Frank Tashlin may have contributed to the script of Susan Slept Here (1954). Given how bland and dull the script is, and how very much a filmed play it is, I doubt if Tashlin did any rewriting. There is nothing in the script that one could call a Tashlin touch. If he did some work on the script, he did not help it at all. But then I guess he would not have been allowed to bring Jerry Lewis and Jayne Mansfield into the film. Although they couldn’t have made it any worse and might have helped.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011. Screenplay by Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughn, based on the novel by John le Carré. 127 minutes.)

If you have to tell this story in 127 minutes, this is the way to do it: The novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is the first major le Carré book I read, and it remains one of my favorites. The reason I read the novel in the first place was that I had seen the 1979 television miniseries adapted from it by Arthur Hopcraft. I still consider that one of the two or three best miniseries. Ever. So you can imagine that I approached this new film with some trepidation, even after the good reviews and recommendations from friends. I have one friend who’s already seen it three times, but that’s because she’s got the hots for Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays Peter Guillam. I generally hate remakes of very good films; I believe it was Pauline Kael who made the great suggestion that they should instead remake the flops and get them right.

While the new version is not going to make me forget or love the miniseries any less, it’s a very good movie. Straughn, you may remember, was one of the writers on The Debt (2010; see US#80) and knows his way around this kind of material. O’Connor was his wife and occasional co-writer; she died after the script was completed and the film is dedicated to her. The Straughns have done a great job of condensing le Carré’s massive, complex novel into the running time of a normal film. It moves quickly, but doesn’t feel rushed, not the easiest of screenwriting tasks. The pace seemed slow in the opening minutes and I was afraid they were not going to bring it off, but they did. I was a bit amazed at how much they were able to eliminate in comparison to the miniseries and still have it make sense.

There are of course problems in telling the story at this length. One of the joys of the miniseries was the time Hopcraft spent on the interrogation scenes, especially the first one with Ricki Tarr. In the miniseries you get the weight of the time and effort involved in a great interrogation. A similar situation happens with Smiley’s talking to Connie Sachs, the fired librarian of the Circus. In the miniseries you get a sense that Smiley is spending a long, boozy afternoon with Connie as he picks her brain. In the film Smiley and Connie get to the heart of the matter quickly. The length of the film also means we do not even get to meet Smiley’s adulterous wife Ann, beautifully played in the miniseries by the great Siân Phillips. We also do not get to meet Karla, the top Russian spymaster, played in the miniseries by the equally great Patrick Stewart. But I do love the Straughns’ solution to dealing with Karla. What they give us is a great monologue by Smiley, probably the most he talks in the entire film, in which he describes the meeting with Karla. As a scene it is a nice counterpoint to all the scenes in the film where we do see people meeting.

We also do not get to know the five people in the Circus that Smiley and the late Control suspect of being the mole as well as we do in the miniseries, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. The basic story of Tinker Tailor was inspired by the “Cambridge Five,” as their Russian spymasters called them. They had positions of varying degrees of power in various branches of British intelligence from the late ‘30s on, and the Brits only began to suspect something was up in the late ‘40s. Three of the Five defected to Moscow, two in the early ‘50s, one in the early ‘60s. At least one source on the Internet suggests that one of the Five had revealed to Moscow that David Cornwell was working for British intelligence. Cornwell left the intelligence service, took a pen name and began writing espionage novels as John le Carré. In the novel and miniseries of Tinker Tailer we get a lot of detail about the five suspects, and more discussion of why the traitor among them was seduced by Communism in the ‘30s. There is almost nothing of that in the film, and I suspect that is because at this late date the idea that smart men would have believed in Communism may not work for contemporary audiences.

There is another way the basic material has dated. Karla is considered a genius spymaster, smarter than anybody else in the business. Again, according to one Internet source (yes, I am getting into the epistemology of the Internet, but when better to do it than with the really epistemological world of intelligence gathering?), Karla was based on a specific Russian spymaster. Maybe so, but in the novel, miniseries, and film he is a superspy and infallible. The novel was written in the early ‘70s in the middle of the Cold War. The western spy services assumed the Soviet spy services were better than ours. We now know they weren’t. After the collapse of the Soviet regime, much, how shall we say, information in the KGB files found its way to the West, and boy, while we thought MI6 and the C.I.A. were a bunch of cock-ups, the Soviets had them all beat. For example, for two years in World War II, the KGB was convinced that the Cambridge Five had to be British plants because the information they were getting was too good. So now we find it a bit hard to believe that “Karla” was all that great at his job. (A lot of information about this comes from a fascinating book I recently finished wading through called Defend the Realm: An Authorized History of MI5 by Christopher Andrews, the leading British historian of intelligence. A warning to you: it’s 850 pages and it is not a quick read.)

The Straughns have made a couple of amusing changes from the book and the miniseries. Smiley’s young assistant, Peter Guillam, is now gay, of which there was no evidence before, and Bill Haydon, one of the five suspects, appears to be bi-sexual. Since betrayals of every kind are part of the story, including sexual ones (Haydon had an affair with Ann), the differing sexual orientations add a nice texture to the film.

The film does have a wonderful ‘70s visual feel to it. I especially liked the technology the Circus people use. I half expected Harry Caul to come in and ask for his equipment back.

The Adventures of Tintin (2011. Screenplay by Steven Moffat and Edgar Wright & Joe Cornish, based on the comic book series The Adventures of Tintin by Hergé. 107 minutes.)

The Adventures of Tintin

Who is this guy?: My son-in-law, who grew up in Europe and elsewhere, loved the Tintin books when he was young, and he liked this movie. He read the books to my granddaughter when she was younger, and she liked the movie. He read them to my grandson, although not as often as to my granddaughter, and he sort-of liked the movie as an action movie. My daughter did not grow up on the Tintin books, although she may have picked up information about Tintin from her husband reading to the kids, and she was lukewarm about the movie. I was only vaguely aware of Tintin before it was announced that Peter Jackson was going to produce and Steven Spielberg was going to direct this movie. I did not like the movie at all. Through the second week in February the film brought in only $76 million in the United States, while it brought in $270 million overseas.

Are we beginning to see a pattern here? No, it’s not that Americans are cultural heathens. It is that this film works best for audiences who already know and love Tintin. The filmmakers assume that the audiences will recognize Tintin as an old friend. In the opening scene we see a sidewalk artist doing a sketch of a person whose face we do not see. When the sketch is done, the artist turns it to us and to the person. The sketch is the way Tintin looked in the original comic books. I can imagine audiences made up of Tintin lovers would let out the same kind of whoop that audiences for The Empire Strikes Back (1980) made when Luke, Han and the fuzzies showed up for the first time. The opening here works beautifully for Tintin fans and does not work at all for non-fans. One of the truisms of screenwriting is that the first ten minutes of your film are absolutely crucial in setting up the world of the film. In one sense, the opening ten minutes of this film does that: we are going to see a motion capture/part-animated film in which the camera can go anywhere and will. And the plot gets into gear almost immediately: Tintin buys a model ship that suddenly people are chasing him all over town for it. Plunging into action is nearly always a good way to start. See the opening of Star Wars (1977) or any James Bond film. But for me and the rest of the American audience, we are not as caught up in the action because we do not know who Tintin is. As the film rushes around the world, we feel left out. Yes, I know that I say a lot that it is better for the film to be ahead of the audience than the audience ahead of it, but I mean that in the sense of the story, not necessarily of the characters. In The Adventures of Tintin we more or less keep up with the story, but without involvement in the characters, which lessens our emotional involvement.

I know that much is being claimed these days for motion-capture technology, but I think it hurts this film. As good as Jamie Bell as Tintin and Andy Serkis as Captain Haddock may have been performing in front of a green screen, what we get in the film is a slightly-off duplicate of their performances, rather then the real thing. Yes, the techies have put some light reflections in the characters’ eyes, but they still seem dead. Or in Haddock’s case, drunk. I suppose it is part of the original material, but wanting us to find Haddock’s alcoholism funny is the most dated element of the film. I cringed at every burp.

In writing about last year’s Rango (see US#72) I said that co-writer and director Gore Verbinski “uses animation to do gags, get angles and camera movements he could not do with all the live action talent on the Pirates movies.” The script for The Adventures of Tintin allows Spielberg to go wild in a similar way. A chase by some of the baddies of Tintin on a motorcycle is reminiscent of any number of chase scenes in the Indiana Jones movies, except the camera moves in ways it cannot possibly do in real life. The same thing in a battle between two pirate ships attached at the masts…say, didn’t we see this already in Verbinski’s 2007 Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End? We did, and even though Spielberg can push his camera through small spaces that Verbinski could not, that does not make the scene better. In Rango and the Pirates movies (OK, not the fourth one) we had characters involved that the filmmakers had taken the time to make us care about.

Contraband (2012. Screenplay by Aaron Guzikowski, based on the screenplay for the film Reykjavik-Rotterdam by Arnaldur Indriðason and Óskar Jónasson. 110 minutes.)


A real January movie: January used to be a dumping ground for potential award-bait movies that the studios realized did not have the stuff to compete. That has changed over the last few years, at least partly in reaction to the box office pull of Taken (2008) in January 2009. The studios may have figured out that the audiences desperately wanted some relief from all the big, pretentious, end-of-the-year films. A steady diet of prestige pictures will make you puke. So while one is catching up on all those (I have a few more to get to), a nice, fast, action-packed unpretentious film like this one is a joy. (As opposed to The Devil Inside, which opened a week before this one, and made a much bigger splash at the box office opening weekend, even though audiences gave it a Cinemascore rating of F.)

The setup is pure B picture. Chris, a retired smuggler, has a brother-in-law, Andy, who was trying to smuggle some drugs into his homeport of New Orleans, but had to drop it over the side when Customs intercepted his ship. Now the drug dealer Andy was working for wants his money back. At the begging of his wife, Chris agrees to help by getting back into the smuggling business for One Big Score. Now in a classic B picture, Chris would go to a Big Boss, who would have a deal all lined up for him. Here’s where this script is smarter than your average B picture. Chris is out of the game, but he still knows people. So he sets up his own job. His acquaintance in Panama prints counterfeit money and Chris agrees to get it into this country. And Chris knows ships and the shipping business, so he gets himself and his handpicked team on board as part of the ship’s crew. Great, except the Captain knows Chris, doesn’t trust him, and gives him a job shampooing carpets. Did I tell you Chris was smart? Keep an eye on the shampoo machine. One of the delights of the film is we keep finding out that Chris not only knows how to do this, but how to do that as well. And that, and that, and that.

In Panama, Chris goes to his contact, but can tell immediately the bills are not perfect. The contact says that Gonzalo, an ex-hood, is now the boss and won’t let him have the good stuff. Chris knows Gonzalo and goes to see him. Gonzalo will give the good bills for free if Chris and his boys will help them with a heist. But, but, Chris only has a small window of time to get back. He’ll just give Gonzalo the money he brought…which Andy has walked off with to buy some more drugs. So Chris has to help with the heist, which does not go well. Chris manages to get away with the counterfeit bills, in a van with a paint-splattered canvas in the back. Chris gets the van into a cargo container on the ship just in time. So we now have the counterfeit money, the drugs Andy bought, and a van with a paint-splattered canvas all in play. The writers, as smart as Chris, use all of them effectively to get to a very satisfying conclusion.

You know one of my mantras is that if you write good parts, you get good actors. That’s as true for a B picture like this as for any other. Chris is played by Mark Wahlberg, who co-produced, and it is the perfect part for him. Both Wahlberg and Chris are working-class smart and tough. Chris’s friend Sebastian is played by Ben Foster, taking a nice break from some of the bad guys he plays. Tim Briggs, the drug dealer, is played by Giovanni Ribisi in a dark change from his usual comedy roles. And Mexican heartthrob Diego Luna has a good time as the sleazy, wacko Gonzalo. The one bit of casting that’s a bit iffy is Kate Beckinsale as Chris’s wife. We can see why she wanted to do it, since it is different from her vampire warrior in the Underworld franchise. The newest of those was in theaters when this movie was released, so even if we have not seen it, we have seen the trailers of Beckinsale in her spandex beating the crap out of people. So her playing a damsel in distress here is maybe not so convincing through no fault of Beckinsale. And her character does something very smart: when one of the baddies invades her house she heads straight for the kitchen. Why? Because that’s where the knives are, silly.

There are also several nice twists, including a couple with the characters, and the other…well, if you blinked during the heist, you might not have realized that the paint-splattered canvas was torn out of a shipping frame in the middle of the heist. Or did I distract you by telling you to keep an eye on the carpet shampoo machine?

Fredrica Sagor Mass

Fredrica Sagor Mass: An Appreciation: Frederica Sagor Maas died on January 5th of this year. She was 111. Yes, that’s right. Which means she was old enough to have been a screenwriter in silent movies, which she was.

I first learned about Freddie, as she was generally called, in the late ‘90s. Kevin Brownlow, the great historian of silent film, passed on to me that he had come across her while researching Universal studios in the silent era. (Kevin is the only person I know who would visit the Grand Canyon and find not only the first film ever made there, but the guy who made it.) Kevin learned that Freddie was writing her memoirs, which I helped her get published. The book is called The Shocking Miss Pilgrim: A Writer in Early Hollywood, and it was published in 1999 by the University Press of Kentucky. It is just as sassy as Freddy was in person. Well, at the age of 99, you can write anything you want about the people you have dealt with. I and many writers who worked for Darryl F. Zanuck at 20th Century-Fox admired Zanuck, but Freddie did not. In the ‘40s, she wrote a script she called Miss Pilgrim’s Progress. It was about the development of the typewriter in the late 19th-century, and how it provided job opportunities for young women they had not had before. It was serious, but with a light touch. By the time Zanuck finished with it, it was the 1947 Betty Grable musical The Shocking Miss Pilgrim. Needless to say, that was not Freddie’s first choice for a title for her memoirs, but university press salespeople are exactly like Hollywood marketing people: the first thing they want to do is change the title.

Freddie wrote the 1925 hit The Plastic Age, which helped make Clara Bow a star, and then went under contract at MGM, where she hung around with Joan Crawford and Norma Shearer. At least until she suggested to Shearer that maybe marrying the boss, Irving Thalberg, was not a good idea, since she was a nice Protestant girl and he was a mama’s boy with an Orthodox Jewish mother and a neurotic sister. Well, that was Freddie, telling it like it is.

The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944. Written by Preston Sturges. 98 minutes.)

The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek

The Sturges Project, Take Seven: The great film critic James Agee wrote of this film “the wildly factitious story makes comic virtues of every censor-dodging necessity. Thanks to those devices the Hays office has been either hypnotized into a liberality for which it should be thanked or has been raped in its sleep.” The phrase about rape, which we now find completely tasteless, is the most quoted one. It is also inaccurate, as is the idea the Breen Office (the newer name at the time for the Hays Office) was hypnotized. In fact, Joseph Breen, as James Curtis reports in his Sturges biography, liked the script and supported Sturges.

The idea of a film about an unwed mother first came to Sturges in 1937, when he saw it as a serious drama, a modern Nativity story in which the pregnant woman is saved by a hermit. Sturges did not spend much time on it then and began to focus more on comedy screenplays. After the problems with The Great Moment (1944), Sturges may have decided to play it safe with an ordinary comedy, but there was nothing ordinary about Miracle. Betty Hutton was a young star on the lot whom Buddy De Sylva had brought to Hollywood after she was in one of his Broadway shows, Panama Hattie. She was an immediate success in musicals, since her raucous approach fit the mood of the early war years. She appointed herself as a groupie to Sturges and begged him to write a script for her. So Sturges began to develop a story about a high-spirited girl who gets drunk at a party with some soldiers and winds up pregnant. He wrote the first 116 pages of the screenplay and sent that off to Breen, indicating Sturges knew he was skating on thin ice and would have to work within the constraints of the industry censorship of the time. Usually the Breen office replied with a one to two page letter. The one to Paramount and Sturges was seven pages, and arrived at Paramount on October 21, 1942…the first day of shooting. So Sturges, who still did not have a complete script, was shooting during the day and rewriting at night. Breen said the pregnancy could be dealt with (especially since by mid-1942, there were an increasing number of girls getting knocked up by soldiers), but very cautiously. Sturges agreed that Trudy Kockenlocker would get married first, but he sets it up so that she has no idea who she married. In spite of the fact we now think the movie is about her pregnancy, most of the plotting deals with trying to figure out how to either locate the potential father, whose name she cannot remember, or how to get out of the marriage without him. Breen was also insistent that she not get pregnant while drunk, so Sturges has her conked on the head while she is dancing with a soldier. Breen also rightly foresaw that there might be more problems with the military than with his office, which later proved to be true.

Sturges has not only writing for Hutton, but for William Demarest as her father Officer Kockenlocker. If Hutton was explosive, Demarest was volcanic. For Norval, the boy who has longed loved Trudy, Sturges originally wanted…wait for it…Andy Devine. Well, you can imagine that voice in the part, and Devine was not yet as large around the middle as he became later. But De Sylva, thinking like a studio head, wanted Sturges to use Eddie Bracken. Sturges liked Bracken, but he learned that Bracken was upset with his co-starring roles in previous pictures with Hutton (De Sylva was putting together a couple with a track record). Bracken had thought that his was the starring role in those until he saw the film and discovered that several Betty Hutton musical numbers were thrown in. So Bracken was determined to upstage Hutton, not because he did not like her, but because he wanted to impress Paramount. OK, so now Sturges has the incendiary Hutton, the combustible Demarest (who clearly recognized this was the best part he had ever had), and the intentionally flammable Bracken. In his previous pictures Sturges had the wild character actors of his stock company (most of whom are back in this one) but there was usually one quieter actor to balance them, such as Fonda in Eve or McCrea in Travels or Palm Beach Story. Here he realized he had no one like that. Instead of writing in such a character, Struges went whole hog with the kind of energy his three stars would bring. There are fewer quieter moments in The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek than in any other Sturges film, although Hutton does nice work in the few slower scenes Sturges gives her.

Joseph Breen was not only worried about the sexual issues as an industry censor, but he also recognized the potential “political censorship.” Because the war was on, theatrical films had to be cleared by the Office of War Information. The OWI did not read the script, but saw the completed cut of the film and had several objections. Which meant rewrites and reshoots. For example, in an early scene Officer Kockenlocker is directing traffic and in the first version the soldiers in jeeps were loud and obstreperous, causing Kockenlocker to lose his temper. In the reshoot, the soldiers were polite, especially the Military Policeman, but Kockenlocker is just as loud. This actually works better to establish his character. The OWI Pictorial Board (the entire board saw the film and had what one Paramount executive called a “vigorous discussion and argument”) insisted that shots of the soldiers drinking and getting drunk be cut. (Henderson in his Four More Screenplays has a nice section on Sturges and Paramount dealing with the OWI.) The OWI did not want any indication the soldiers had been drinking, so Sturges added a scene the morning after the parties of soldiers getting ready to leave. None of them are hung over, all of them are very cheerful, as the Sergeant (our old friend, former boxer Frank Moran) jokes about the lemonade they drank. That satisfied the OWI, but think about it for a minute; if they are not hung over and are happy, why are they happy? What happened to them last night? Well, there were all those girls…

The screenplay, or at least the version of it Henderson has in Four More Screenplays, has more material in it that was cut from the film than any of the other Sturges scripts Henderson has. I suspect that Sturges knew he was going to be constantly changing material for both censorship and artistic reasons. Curtis quotes Sturges as saying around this time, “If anyone should know how a scene should be played, it is the fellow who wrote it in the first place. Or so I once thought. I agreed with very few directors when I was merely writing. They argued tremendously, and sometimes they lost out. I look on them now as brave fellows who went down with their colors flying. I don’t, as a director, film a scene exactly as the writer—who was myself—wrote it.” We have seen that happen in previous Sturges films, and it is true here. Sturges’s widow, Sandy, who was not married to him at the time he made this film, says in one of the featurettes on the Miracle DVD that Sturges insisted the actors say the lines exactly as he wrote them. Get a copy of one of Henderson’s collection and follow along with the script and you will see how untrue that is.

There is another difference in the Miracle screenplay from the previous ones. The formatting is condensed. This is what led me to suspect that that it might not be a production script. But then Hail the Conquering Hero (1944) is the same. Instead of the dialogue being done in the traditional way:

If you don’t mind my mentioning it, Father, I think you have a mind like a swamp.

Sturges does it this way:

EMMY: If you don’t mind my mentioning it, Father, I think you have mind, etc.

Henderson does not discuss the change, but it may have been merely a wartime attempt at saving paper.

Since the Breen office was concerned about sex, and the War Department concerned about the behavior of soldiers, Sturges had some leeway in other areas. The lawyer Trudy and Norval consult is Mr. Johnson, the best part our old friend Al Bridge has had since his jewelry salesman Mr. Hillbeiner in Christmas in July (1940). Here is Johnson on marriage:

The responsibility of recording a marriage has always been up to the woman; if it weren’t for them marriage would have disappeared long since. No man is going to jeopardize his present or poison his future with a lot of little brats hollering around the house unless he is forced to. It is up to the woman to knock him down and hog-tie him and drag him in front of two witnesses immediately if not sooner. Any time after that is too late.

That would be enough for most writers, but Sturges follows it up with Johnson saying:

Look: I practice the law. I am not only willing but anxious to sue anybody for anything any time, but they’ve got to be real people…with names and corpuses and meat on their bones…I can’t work with spooks. Your friend doesn’t need a lawyer, she needs a medium.

Reading the screenplay, it seems rather long and slow. It was long, but it was condensed, either in the writing or more likely in the editing. After Trudy and Norval go to the Justice of the Peace to have a fake marriage performed, there is a nearly six-page scene cut completely in which assorted cops and others arrest Norval. Sturges cuts from the JP to Norval and Trudy being brought to the Kockenlockers. Between the cutting and the energy that Hutton, Demarest, Bracken and the rest of Sturges’s stock company bring to the material, it plays like a house afire.

The release of Miracle was held up for all of 1943 with all the negotiations with the Breen Office and the War Department. It was finally released in January 1944, after Sturges had left Paramount as a result of disputes with De Sylva, who liked Miracle a lot less than Breen did. The picture became Sturges’s biggest financial success, and was the highest grossing film of 1944. The Great Moment was released in September 1944, and Hail the Conquering Hero, the last of his Paramount films, was released a month before. Sturges’s Golden Age was coming to a close.

Rio Grande (1950. Screenplay by James Kevin McGuinness, based on a Saturday Evening Post story “Mission with No Record” by James Warner Bellah. 105 minutes.)

Rio Grande

Movies get made for all kinds of reasons: In US#15, I gave you a quick look at my takes on the first two of the famous John Ford Cavalry trilogy, Fort Apache (1948) and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949). The scripts on both are sloppy. One of my birthday elves gave me DVDs of all three of the films (you cannot get them as a boxed set, since this one was released by Republic, and the other two by RKO), and I watched them all. I would not change any of my comments on the first two, although both are gorgeous to look at, and moving as well, given the limitations of the scripts.

John Ford did not set out to make a trilogy. After he completed the first two, he wanted to make The Quiet Man (1952), but none of the major studios would give him the money. He finally approached Herbert J. Yates, the head of Republic Pictures. Ford had the script by Frank Nugent, who had done the first two Cavalry films, and John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara committed to star. Yates was not stupid. He told Ford he would finance The Quiet Man if Ford would first do a western with those two stars. Ford agreed.

The first two films were both from short stories by James Warner Bellah, so they found another story by Bellah. Bellah’s story was about Colonel Massarne, whose son flunks out of West Point and shows up as an enlisted man in Massarne’s regiment. Massarne does not want to be accused of favoritism, so he ignores Jeff, who proves himself a hero. Bellah had served in both the first and second World Wars, and he had a great love of the military tradition of duty, honor, and country. He also had a love of the Old West. And he was a racist about Indians. In the first two Cavalry films, Frank Nugent, a former New York Times film critic, humanized the Indians. In Fort Apache, the Indians only kill Colonel Thursday and his troop, at least partly because Thursday had disrespected their chief. In Yellow Ribbon Nathan Brittles gets a nice scene in which the old Chief suggests he and Brittles are too old for war and should go off and chase buffalo. There is no such humanizing in Rio Grande.

The screenwriter of Rio Grande, James Kevin McGuinness, was a friend of Ford’s for years. He wrote on the scripts of four Ford films in the late ‘20s, and then went on to become a writer/producer at MGM. He was one of the promoters of the Screen Playwrights, a right wing answer to the Screen Writers Guild, and he was very active in the anti-Communist witch hunts of the late ‘40s. He was let out of his MGM contract in the late ‘40s, and the conservatives always thought he was the victim of a “liberal blacklist,” but he was in truth let go from MGM when they eliminated the old producer unit system. Ford gave him the Rio Grande job, and given his politics, you can understand why there are no humane Indians in the film. On the other hand, go back up above and look at the outline of Bellah’s story. See any part for Maureen O’Hara in it? Nope, so McGuinness created the relationship between Lt. Colonel Kirby Yorke (as Colonel Massarne is renamed) and his ex-wife Kathleen. McGuinness’s script has less of the glorification of the military than in the earlier two films, but a more nuanced view of romance. His script set up Ford, Wayne, and O’Hara beautifully for The Quiet Man. McGuinness died less than month after the release of Rio Grande, some say from a broken heart over being turned out from MGM.

(The details in this item are from Dan Ford’s Pappy: The Life of John Ford, Tag Gallagher’s John Ford: The Man and his Films, Randy Roberts and James S. Olson’s John Wayne: American, and Nancy Lynn Schwartz’s The Hollywood Writers’ Wars.)

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

Tom Stempel

Tom Stempel is an American film scholar and critic. He is a professor emeritus in film at Los Angeles City College, where he taught from 1971 to 2011.

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