War and horses can be hell.
I'm a big fan of what I've heard described (possibly by Quentin Tarantino?) as the "gear shift" movie -- that is, a movie that begins as one thing and then at some point completely changes into something else. It's more than just a plot twist or a reveal; the movie will usually change genres once, sometimes more. It's the best way to describe a film like, say, Something Wild or Tarantino's own From Dusk Till Dawn, a movie that goes out of its way to abruptly change genres with pretty obvious demarcations between them. Watching William Witney's 1956 western Stranger at My Door, I realize that gear shift movies have been around a long, long time.
At least the shifts in Stranger at My Door seem to happen organically. After an impressively staged opening robbery sequence (in which balls of fire literally roll through a town), the film focuses in on Clay Anderson (Skip Homeier), one of the robbers who has separated from his gang with the intent of meeting up with them later to split the money. Unable to get very far on his injured horse, Clay hides out at the home of preacher Hollis Jarret (Macdonald Carey), his hot young wife (Patricia Medina) and young son from a first marriage. What began as a movie about criminals on the lam becomes what we assume will be The Desperate Hours or, as Clay's eyes for the preacher's wife grow bigger, a forbidden romance between the good girl and the bad boy (ugh). Stranger at My Door has shades of both but never really becomes either. Instead, the film becomes a battle between Clay and Hollis for Clay's soul...until the third act when it becomes something different altogether.
The rest of the film is a mix of really heavy handed messaging about religion and redemption and some very nice, rather subtle stuff about finding a place to belong despite one's past. Patricia Medina (of both Orson Welles' Confidential Report/Mr. Arkadin and Frances the Talking Mule) is crazy pretty and has some of the most interesting character details in the film despite having what is essentially a thankless role. I like that despite some of the flashier action beats and heavy handed religious imagery, Stranger at My Door is basically a character study about a guy on the path to either Hell or redemption and all of the forces pulling him each way.
The 1959 war film Pork Chop Hill has just as much moral ambiguity (and, to be fair, "ambiguous" isn't really the proper way to describe Stranger at My Door; it's a movie with clear answers but a protagonist who isn't able to see them right away). It's not as though such a thing was unheard of when it was released, as Stanley Kubrick had made the great Paths of Glory two years prior. While Pork Chop Hill isn't interested in being exactly that kind of war movie, it's a lot more challenging and conflicted than I ever could have guessed.
Pork Chop Hill is not the movie I thought it was going to be. What would seem on its face to be a straightforward exercise in jingoism is both brutal and bleak about the nature of war, pitting a band of soldiers in an unwinnable conflict, the outcome of which doesn't even totally matter as the war is all but over. They're left to hang in the wind as bureaucrats and higher-ups carry out their own "peace talks" with little sense of urgency, and it's rare to see a war film of this period that's supportive of the men on the ground while being critical of those calling the shots. Such a thing was de rigueur by the time movies started being made about the Vietnam war, but for 1959 Pork Chop Hill feels ahead of its time.
Pork Chop Hill is the final war film of director Lewis Milestone, who won two Best Director Oscars and was nominated for two more (for both Of Mice and Men and The Front Page). It has an insanely good bench of character actors who would go on to have long and colorful careers: Rip Torn, George Peppard, Martin Landau (in his first film), Norman Fell, Robert Blake, Woody Strode, Harry Dean Stanton...the list goes on. Gregory Peck is incapable of commanding anything less than our total respect, and not just because he's Atticus Finch. His casting in Pork Chop Hill is particularly clever; not only does he inspire our unending admiration and loyalty by virtue of the fact that he's Gregory Peck, but to see him rattled and growing disillusioned raises the stakes that no extra battle scene could. If Gregory Peck's faith can be shaken, what hope is there for the rest of us?
Stranger at My Door release date: March 31, 2015
DTS HD 2.0 Master Audio (English)
Pork Chop Hill release date: January 27, 2015
DTS HD 2.0 Master Audio (English)
Buy Stranger at My Door from Olive Films here
Buy Pork Chop Hill from Olive Films here