Friday, 13 June 2014

George Sherman

In an earlier post about racism in American cinema I mentioned the director George Sherman a few times. As he is somebody most would be unfamiliar with I thought I should write something about him. A year ago I did not know anything about him but when I came across his name I got curious and watched a number of his films, about 20, and as they are very good the quality of his films is not the reason why he is unknown. He has just fallen through the cracks, and finding information about him is very difficult. Even images suitable to illustrate this post were sparse. But he deserves to become known and retrospectives are warranted.

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It is fair to say that George Sherman, after an inauspicious beginning in the 1930s, should be regarded as one of the best directors in the post-war period, especially in the 1950s, even though he is completely unknown. The films are politically interesting, but it is the visuals (and sometimes the audials) that make them so exceptional. Some of them have images and scenes as good as those from any other filmmaker, whether it is a night raid at a British camp, to the sound of Christmas carols, in Sword in the Desert (1948) or epic battle formations in the end of Comanche (1956) that can be compared to Kurosawa's Ran (1985), or a crowded street suddenly emptied in a second, leaving only a man left behind who was about to be lynched by a mob, in Reprisal! (1955). Sherman had an eye for dramatic and dynamic compositions second to none, and he knew how to use sound, silences and music to remarkable effect, and such scenes can be found in almost all of the films I have seen, at least from the 1940s and onwards. In Comanche there is a scene when two scouts come across a slaughtered cavalry regiment, lying in the grass, barely visible. The two men walk among the dead, with the only sound heard that of the wind blowing across the grass, in a sequence that can only be described as haunting.

The sky often has a prominent place in Sherman's films, scenes often begin with a shot of it and then a pan down towards the ground and often shots of the sky serve as transitions between sequences. Sometimes it takes on thematic meanings as well, with characters seeing visions in the sky. And there are always shots from a very low camera angle, looking upwards, so that the humans almost become invisible under an impossibly large sky and in an endless landscape. It is typical of Sherman that in War Arrow (1953) there is a fort that has no walls, he is a filmmaker who portrays space as infinite (and as such is the opposite of Henry Hathaway, who likes restrictions and frames).

Sherman began making western series in the 1930s, the equivalent of making lowbrow TV-series today. In particular he made 20 instalments (from 1937 to 1940) of the The Three Mesquiteers-series, several of them starring John Wayne. They are not that bad, some are quite interesting and sometimes entertaining. He also did a number of films with "the singing cowboy" Gene Autry. (Series such as these are almost always left out when the history of American cinema is told which is a shame because they problematise and undermine a lot of common assumptions about films, TV, Hollywood and genre. A potential topic for a later post.)


In the 1940s Sherman moved on to hour-long B-movies, in the original meaning of the term. In 1942 he made X Marks the Spot, which is a quite good urban thriller and a change of setting from the earlier (sort of) westerns. He worked mainly for the studio Republic in the 1940s and in 1945 he made his first conventional full-length feature, The Lady and the Monster, aka The Lady and the Doctor, with Erich von Stroheim in the lead. They worked again in Storm Over Lisbon (1944). Now Sherman got better, and got bigger budgets. In 1946 he got a contract with Columbia Pictures and stayed there for two years until he moved to Universal. There he was until 1955, after which he moved around between studios, more of a freelance director, and in the 1960s he made several films in Europe. Sherman's last film was Big Jake (1971), although he later directed a few episodes for a couple of TV-series. He died in 1991.

Maureen O'Hara in Big Jake.

It is difficult to know exactly how much input Sherman gave and how much control he had, the only thing to go on are the films. But since they all share so many things yet have different producers, writers and cinematographers it is reasonable to assume that he had both visual and thematic ideas that he often managed to get across.

A number of the westerns especially work as a whole, like a chain, with scenes sometimes repeated, characters reappearing, even the landscape is the same, and they should be watched together. For example, the last shot of Tomahawk (1951) is repeated in the beginning of a film made the following year, The Battle at Apache Pass (1952). It is of a burning fort, but with the difference that the first time it is burned by the Sioux, the second time by the departing soldiers (going off to fight another war, against other whites.)

Sherman's films are usually hard-edged, sometimes surprisingly bleak and bitter. In Sword in the Desert the embittered captain (played by Dana Andrews), who has transported Jewish Holocaust survivors to what is to become Israel, is asked "You don't have much faith in mankind, do you?" He answers "Why should I, what has it ever done for me? Or them?" as he points to some of the survivors. That is a line that could be spoken in a number of Sherman's films, and often with American Indians in the place of Jewish refugees. There is a startling awareness of the suffering the Indians have had to endure, and how it was the white man who started everything. In the beginning of Chief Crazy Horse (aka Valley of Fury 1955) there is a shot of a settler's house, and the voiceover says. “You can’t tell anymore but this used to be the Lakota Sioux country” and then a dissolve changes the image from that of the homestead to that of an Indian village with tipis. It is a great visual symbol of how they were wiped out and what came instead. In Comanche there is a scene where the background story of terrible massacres committed by the Spanish against the Comanche is told, and the chief of the Comanche points out that “White man sent the first soldier, we the second.”  In The Battle of Apache Pass, the chief Cochise points out that the fight against his people began with the Conquistadors. In Tomahawk the white people's consistent betrayal of the Sioux is repeated throughout. But another message in the films is that a reason why the Indians were defeated was that they did not act together, but were split up, often fighting each other. There is also mentioning of how the diseases of the white people kill the Indians. A different take is in Reprisal!, which is about a man who is half white, half Indian, and although he wants to blend in among whites he is not welcome there. The one thing that mars these films' progressiveness is that the Indian characters are often, but not always, played by non-Indian actors, as was the norm in those days. But the films are on the side of the Indians, and some of them are told exclusively from their point of view. There is a rebelliousness to be found in the films too. Comanche Territory (1950) ends with a white woman (played by Maureen O'Hara) stealing guns and giving them to the Comanches so that they can defend themselves against the white conquerors.

Maureen O'Hara appears in several of Sherman's films and usually as a powerful woman, an entrepreneur who takes orders from no man, and even a pirate in Against All Flags (1952). In Sherman's last film, Big Jake, she and John Wayne returns to play the leads, as a married couple, and it is a rather moving testament to the career of all three of them.


But all of Sherman's films are not bleak, he did for example make two musical comedies with Donald O'Connor in the late 1940s, and they too are good. The first is a very delightful western spoof called Feudin’, Fussin’ and A-Fightin’ (1948) and the other is about a young couple struggling with their 10 months old child. Both husband and wife are at college, he recently back from the war and taking advantage of the G.I. Bill. He also wants to play football, and she wants to take evening classes, but the only way it will be possible is if the man help out as much in the home as the woman. And that he does, and he is fully capable too. So again there is a progressive message here, in showing that a man is just as capable of taking care of a baby and a home as a woman, and that he should do so. It would probably be considered ahead of its time even if it had been made today.

Perhaps Sherman's best films are The Last of the Fast Guns (1958), an existential drama in which a man dressed in black travels to Mexico to look for a man who disappeared many years before, and in the end finds redemption in the mountains, and Tomahawk, about a white man seeking revenge on the renegade soldiers who killed his Sioux wife. But they will be discussed at length in later posts. There is every reason to come back to Sherman.

Last of the Fast Guns

9 comments:

  1. Sherman sounds interesting. Where have you been able to see 20 of his films? A festival/cinematheque retrospective? The Swedish equivalent of Turner Classic Movies in the States?

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    1. To see Sherman on a big screen would be a dream, but alas no. I've seen some on reasonably acceptable version on youtube, some are available on DVD in different European countries, and some I've managed to see on late night TV.

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  2. Fredrik,
    Agreed, Sherman is vastly under rated.
    You should track down "The Sleeping City", one of Sherman's best non-Westerns. Film noir at its bleakest.
    (Luckily I saw in on the big screen.)

    Foster Grimm

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    1. The problem is not so much that he is underrated as that he is unrated, i.e. never mentioned at all because hardly anybody has seen the films or given any thoughts to Sherman.

      As it happens The Sleeping City is the film I'm most eager to see! I'm always on the lookout or it.

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  3. Hi, Fredrik - I really enjoyed reading this. I look in here from time to time partly because I knew you had become interested in Sherman in discussions we had at late, lamented davekehr.com

    Gregg Rickman called this to my attention and I'll keep tabs while waiting for the followups, knowing that I'll enjoy many other subjects you write on too, as I have before..

    You estimate that he is "unrated" remains true, but as you know he does have champions out here, including me. I'm glad to say, as you know, that Dave Kehr is another.

    I can say happily and gratefully that I am old enough to have seen a fair number of the 50s ones on first release on the big screen. Given his visual sense and command of expansiveness on location this may have helped me to respond well to him. His mastery of the dramatic aspects was always evident too. Of course, any good film is ideally seen as its director expected it to be seen when the film was made.

    I did see REPRISAL! in a retrospective of Columbia Westerns about ten years ago--beautiful new print. I was really glad they chose that one. I get back to his movies all the time--saw DAWN AT SOCORRO again just a few weeks ago, and if you haven't seen this yet, I'd encourage you to put it on your list as it is a beautiful and brilliant movie and one of his best. Mostly, we will see his films on TV and DVD and they do remain satisfying seen that way.

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    1. Hello Blake! Thanks for the comment! I haven't seen Dawn at Socorro, but it's on my wish-list.

      I'm going to do a post after the summer break with links to writings about Sherman. I know articles by Dave and R. Emmett Sweeney, and I think Jaime Christley has written about him too. There might be more out there, we'll see what I can find!

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  4. Fredrik, I'd like to share my contribution on Underrated Westerns at Rupert Pupkin Speaks, as I was able to write briefly on THE LAST OF THE FAST GUNS there.

    http://rupertpupkinspeaks.blogspot.com/2014/04/underrated-westerns-blake-lucas.html

    This called for pretty brief thoughts on the movies and I intend to write a substantial piece about FAST GUNS down the line--wish I could offer that now. What I've written about Sherman so far has mostly been in film discussions like those at Dave's blog, which was a good place to bring him some attention.

    At some point while gathering links, write me at blakelucas12@gmail.com (my email) and I can get you on to some things, specific writings on some of Sherman's films by writers with their own sites who do appreciate him and generally have time for this kind of director.

    Would like to hear from you in any event, so please take me up on this when you have a chance.

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  5. George Sherman, or "Pappy" as he was known to us, was my step dad. He was a very kind and smart little man. He thoroughly enjoyed and was proud of his career but he didn't care at all about notoriety. Even when he passed away, he didn't want a funeral or even to notify the studios. I wish they knew of his passing because maybe then they would have aired his movies once again and more people would come to know how exceptional he was. Thank you Fredrik, for your kind words and tribute.

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    1. Thank you for that message Michelle, it made me very happy.

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