Cowboys and Kings

Posted by Mike Finnegan on Jan 11th 2019

On today’s birthday of San Francisco native Delmer Daves (1904-1977), we celebrate two Twilight Time Daves-directed entries from 60 years ago, both startlingly adult and somewhat undervalued in the filmmaker’s canon, that explore the charged dynamics of a mentor and a tenderfoot in charged historical settings – a treacherous 19th-century Midwestern cattle drive from Mexico to Chicago through hostile and inhospitable frontier territory for one, the alternately idyllic and battle-scarred, conflict-shadowed French Riviera in the latter days of World War II. To be sure, the Technicolor Cowboy (1958) and the black-and-white Kings Go Forth (1958) offer familiar tropes and romantic interludes of their respective Western and war chronicle genres. It’s just that with Daves at the helm – plus sharp writing talent like an uncredited Dalton Trumbo/credited Edmund H. North on the first and Merle Miller on the second, all adapting vividly evocative source books – the two films take on deeper, more humanistic concerns to powerful, revisionist effect. 

Starring Glenn Ford as the seasoned, hardened trail boss and Jack Lemmon as the stars-in-his-eyes greenhorn reluctantly taken onto the job, “Cowboy repeatedly invokes conventional Western scenarios only to subvert them. Throughout, Daves’ treatment of the cattle drive critically examines romantic notions of manhood, male friendship, masculinity and honor that have come to be associated with the classical Western,” historian Sue Matheson wrote in her perceptive essay Delmer Daves, Authenticity, and Auteur Elements: Celebrating the Ordinary in Cowboy. Pointing out the self-serving and fractious natures of the cattlemen crew, Matheson underscores Daves’ commitment to truthful storytelling. “As Bertrand Tavernier has noted, in Daves’ Westerns ‘the City and Civilization are not systematically depicted as noxious, corrupting entities as in, say, Capra.’ Daves’ concern for historical realism over spiritual mysticism results in an implicit critique of the Western.” At year’s end, Daves was a Directors Guild Award nominee (the only time in his storied career) for his work on Cowboy. 

On his next project Kings Go Forth, the roles of two soldiers billeted in the south of France batting cleanup against the retreating but still defiant straggling German invaders go to a pair of two equally potent actors, Frank Sinatra as the world-weary 1st Lt. Sam Loggins and Tony Curtis as ladies man Cpl. Britt Harris; their wary relationship of slowly grudging regard is wrenched by their mutual attraction to beautiful American expatriate Monique – of mixed black/white parentage – portrayed by beautiful Natalie Wood. As The Retro Set reviewer Nathaniel Hood wrote in 2016: “The most admirable part of Kings Go Forth isn’t that it was a romantic melodrama that spoke out against racism and miscegenation; it was that it had the courage to have a protagonist who seriously struggled with these prejudices. When Monique reveals her mixed heritage to Loggins, his reaction is one of horror and confusion. Heartbroken, she spits, ‘I guess ‘nigger’ is one of the first words you learn in America, isn’t it?’ Cut to Loggins sitting in a captured Nazi bunker. He thinks to himself: ‘Monique was wrong. [Nigger is] not the first one you learn, and some kids never learn it at all…I learned it early and used it often. It showed just how tough I was…Why? I don’t know why, except a lot of people need somebody to look down on. Or they think they do.’ In our current political climate of hashtags and social media updates beginning with “I’m not racist, but…” this brazen admission seems shocking. We’re used to protagonists in modern media who react immediately and decisively against racism and all its mutations. But Loggins isn’t so sure. It is something he must work through and struggle with.This struggling is what makes Kings Go Forth so inherently Davesian. Like his contemporaries Anthony Mann and Nicholas Ray, Daves used the trappings of genre films like Westerns, war flicks and noir to explore psychological interiors. So Kings Go Forth juxtaposes scenes of intense combat and suspense with high melodrama and emotion, treating both with equal respect and attention.” The trappings – and the underlying commitment to reality – are what make these two movies from today’s birthday honoree still impactful today on TT hi-def Blu-ray.