John Ford’s Two Rode Together is not a good film. It’s slow and meandering; its politics muddled and confused. It plays like a poor stepchild to his better films. There are tips of the hat to My Darling Clementine, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and Fort Apache, and the story is a retread of arguably his greatest Western: The Searchers. But for serious Ford fans, to miss Two Rode Together is to miss the director at his most raw and vulnerable.
By 1961, Ford was considered outplayed. The director, who had been making films since the silent days, had won (a still unequaled) four Best Director Oscars, created and re-created the western, and delivered personal passion plays about Ireland, his homeland like none other, was now hurting for money and willing to make whatever came his way. He could still get work making Westerns, and so he made Two Rode Together as a favor to recently deceased Harry Cohn, the dictatorial President of Columbia. (Only Ford could count someone as villainous as Cohn a friend.) Jimmy Stewart, the star of the film, had been warned by John Wayne to be careful around the ornery, difficult Ford. And coming off a bout of severe depression, mourning the death of his lifelong friend and stock player Ward Bond, Ford was at his meanest.
Ford knew that the source material, Comanche Captives, a second-rate novel by Will Cook was weak. He demanded and brought in writer Frank Nugent, who had penned 10 of Ford’s best films, to write and re-write the script, yet he felt it was “still crap.” But he moved forward.
The story takes place in the 1880s when Marshall Guthrie McCabe (Stewart), a cynical and corrupt lawman (he takes 10% of every business his town makes, including the whorehouse) is manipulated into helping the cavalry ransom kidnapped relatives of a group of settlers from the Comanches. At first McCabe resists the humanitarian expedition, but he bargains his price, including a personal reward from several family members who are willing to pay a higher price for the return of their specific loved one. His “alter ego” is the conscientious and kindhearted cavalry officer, Lt. Jim Gary (Richard Widmark), an old friend, who is sent to convince McCabe to take the job, and for good measure, “impressed” by his superior to oversee that McCabe gets the job done.
When McCabe and Gary meet up with the settlers, Gary is immediately taken with Marty Purcell (Shirley Jones), a young tomboy who keeps the memory of her kidnapped brother deep in her heart. When a drunken McCabe explains to Marty that her brother, only five years old at the time, now would be 18, and would not only never remember her, but would be a savage Indian who would gladly “rape her,” his cynicism is too much for even Gary. The two men are now at desperate odds.
Once McCabe and Gary meet with the Comanche Chief (Henry Brandon, who also played “Scar” in The Searchers), they trade weapons for the white captives. Only four have survived, two old women who have made their lives and borne children for the Comanche, a young boy who no longer speaks English and does not want to go, and a young (and beautiful) Mexican woman named Elena. The chief forces the young boy to go, and Elena wants to go, but it so happens that she is the wife of Stone Calf (Woody Strode) a militant warrior.
The four leave to return to the settlement, but McCabe draws a gun on Gary, insisting he take the boy and go on ahead. McCabe plans on waiting for Stone Calf, who will surely come for his woman, and face off with him there. The outcome is exactly as McCabe had predicted. He shoots Stone Calf and rejoins Gary at the settlement with Elena, who has now fallen in love with him.
The settlers however, are not as welcoming to the two returned captives. The wild boy is just “too wild” for them. So much so that they lynch the boy. Their bigotry is so relentless that Elena wishes to be returned to her tribe. But a newly inspired McCabe will not let her go, and instead, chastises the settlers for their racism.
The part of McCabe is easily the darkest role Stewart ever took. He had already begun playing ambiguous, somewhat unscrupulous characters for almost ten years under the direction of Anthony Mann, but McCabe is just no damn good. While McCabe’s counterpart, Ethan Edwards from The Searchers, was a “flawed” man, his pursuit of his kidnapped niece is not about money, but about rescue and redemption. McCabe is just a mercenary, plain and simple.
Widmark does an admirable job as the conscience of the story, but he just doesn’t have the movie star quality that Stewart virtually drips with. Several of the usual Ford stock players do their reliable good work, including John Qualen (again playing a “Swede”) Andy Devine, Harry Carey Jr., Ken Curtis, Jeannette Nolan and Woody Strode. (Strode, half African-American and half Native American, had just played the lead in Ford’s superior Sergeant Rutledge the year before).
Along with the story taking much of its themes from The Searchers, there are several elements at play from previous Ford films, not the least of which is the introductory scene of Stewart, who is on the porch, kicked back in his chair, feet on the railing just as his best friend Henry Fonda had done in My Darling Clementine. There’s also the corny humor and extended brawling scenes that had become a staple of Ford’s, generally in his John Wayne films.
Some good did come from Two Rode Together: it inspired Ford to dig deep into a story he had been toying with for some time, and after working with Stewart, knew he was the right man for the part of Rance Stoddard, who was The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. It was made a year later, and is one of Ford’s greatest Westerns.
Twilight Time’s Blu-Ray is still a joy to behold, the transfer is pristine, and the audio is crisp and clear. In the end, Two Rode Together is light on action, but heavy on the Ford ambiguity. Sometimes when a great director has a misstep, those examples can be more profound, exposing the artifice in a way that serious students of the director can take much away from. And even on the worst day, you’re still watching a John Ford film, which is saying a lot.