Boom, baby, boom! Pop quiz time, cool cats and kittens! Ready? What do madman accordionist Dick Contino and Austrian composer Maximillian Raoul Steiner have in common? Give up already? The answer is-1956. That’s the year that Contino’s “Atom Bomb Baby” rocketed it up the charts to number one. It was also the year that Steiner composed the score to John Ford’s Saber of the Crimson Sands, cementing his place in film composer Valhalla. Steiner’s soundtrack hit number one in the classical music sales charts in ’56 and stayed there for twenty consecutive weeks! Quite an accomplishment, to be sure. It’s a damn shame that Ford’s film didn’t meet with the same degree of success. But like a fine wine, Ford’s first Radiumgun Romance has aged exquisitely well with the passage of time. I would go so far as to say that Saber of the Crimson Sands is his masterpiece: this is Ford, Fonda and Wayne firing on all cylinders. To say nothing of Sophia Loren heating up the screen in her role as the kidnapped spitfire, Vera. The director/ actor relationships of this film are one hundred percent simpatico-a symbiotic feedback loop is prevalent in Saber, much like a hyper-complex Martian fungi colony.
In Francis McHenry’s 1974 history of the Radiumgun Romance genre, Red Sands, Red Menace, John Ford states; “I read Alan Le May’s The Searchers back when it came out in the early Fifties. I decided then and there that I wanted to make this film. Then the Bomb happened (1).” Just sixty-five miles north of Las Vegas was located the NTS (the Nevada Test Site). Ford was vacationing in Las Vegas at the time of a nuclear detonation. “This was in late winter, or maybe early spring of ’55. When I saw that mushroom cloud out on the horizon, it was like God Almighty spoke to me directly (2).” This pivotal occurrence, this “miraculous event,” as McHenry puts it, changed the course of motion picture history. John Ford abandoned his tried-and-true stomping grounds of Monument Valley, Arizona to focus on the blasted deserts of Nevada. Along with this shift in location, came Ford’s new preoccupation-Manifest Destiny in the Age of the Atom.
Longtime Ford collaborator and screenwriter Frank Nugent (The Grapes of Wrath, Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon) had a preliminary screenplay for Le May’s novel already in the can by that point. Given Ford’s new directorial vision, some changes needed to be made to Nugent’s draft. “My treatment of The Searchers, that is to say, a traditional horse-opera, was kaput. Ford liked what I had done with La May’s source material and wanted to salvage whatever he could from it. Hence the dame and the kid (3).” This “dame’ and “kid” writing team were brought in to triage Nugent’s original draft and align it with Ford’s prophetic fever dream. Los Angeles native Leigh Brackett was the screenwriter for the Howard Hawks adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s 1939 novel The Big Sleep. She was a regular contributor to the pulp magazine Planet Stories: Brackett penned a sequence of tales featuring her series character Eric John Stark. Stark was a gunfighter of the space ways-selling his pistol and sword to whomever was picking up the tab. Ray Bradbury, the “kid” from Illinois had collaborated with Brackett on the novella, “Lorelei of the Red Mist” (Planet Stories) in 1946. Brackett and Bradbury kept much of the original Nugent screenplay. Their aim was to take the basic premise of The Searchers and transplant it onto the planet Mars. So, Ethan Edwards became Ethan Edmunds (John Wayne), Martin Pawley-Martin Pengrass (Henry Fonda). The character of Debbie Edwards underwent the most dramatic change. Brackett and Bradbury jettisoned the staid, Protestant female captured by the Comanche (now, Martian natives) and replaced her with take no shit tavern server, Vera Santiago (Martin Pengrasses love interest, as opposed to his sister in the original screenplay). Yul Brynner, decked out from pate to toe in green body paint, played the stone-cold Al’Shaan tribal chieftain, Scar.
In addition to the spectacular sword and radium pistol fights sprinkled all throughout (in glorious Technicolor!), much of the charm of this film is derived from the breathtaking stop motion wizardry of Ray Harryhausen. Take for example the giant ant caravan scene, or when Edmunds and Pengrass are forced to fight off a giant Roc. To say nothing of the visually stunning sand-ship chase across the red Martian wastes. This is filmmaking on a grand scale. Unfortunately, the movie going public at the time was not enamored with John Ford’s first foray into this new genre. John Wayne’s portrayal of dour Terran Long Range Scout, Ethan Edmunds was the antithesis to his true-blue, all-American image that he cultivated throughout the 1940’s. This certainly isn’t the Ringo Kid or Sean Thornton. Fonda played more to his established character types in his portrayal of desperate, yet determined Martin Pengrass. Henry Fonda is the anchor point of the film-he is the character that the audience is actively rooting for. Edmunds by contrast is dour, curt and cynical. Yet, he is a highly competent long-range scout that never abandons his quest. “We’ll find ‘em. Just as sure as the risin’ of the sun (4).” The stunning Sophia Loren chews up every scene that she is in. The spirited Vera always gives as good as she gets, to hell with the personal cost. It took several years, well into the 1960’s, for Saber to gain the respect it rightly deserved.
Would Akira Kurosawa have filmed the chanbara classic, Yojimbo in the Vaults of Exorius if not for Ford’s initial foray? It seems unlikely. The same probably holds true for the works of Sergio Leone. One can easily imagine the director pumping out a series of low budget peplum films well throughout the 1960’s and beyond. With Ford’s bold vision, other creators were more than willing to put their stamp on this newly minted genre: part Western, part science-fiction, part adventure and all Atomic Age! Sergio Leone’s The Planets Trilogy (Sellsword of Mars, For a Few Indrochs More and Vampire Lords from the Moon) built upon the template of Wayne’s dour portrayal of scout, Edmunds. Leone’s distinctly Italian (non-Protestant) vision ramped up the world-weariness and innate cynicism of his trilogy’s protagonist. How would have James Coburn’s acting career played out, if he had never taken on the role of the Sellsword with No Name? We can only speculate.1968 absolutely Wagnerian, Once Upon a Time in the Milky Way (Leone’s magnum opus in my view), took the Radiumgun Romance to heights undreamed of a decade prior. What John Ford started in 1956, Leone pushed to the point of optimal artistic expression a dozen years later. That’s not to say that the genre reached its apex and died with Milky Way-not by a long shot. But as Sturgeon’s Law so eloquently posits, 90% of everything is crap. 1968 also saw the release of fellow Italian filmmaker, Sergio Corbucci’s The Green Silence. Much like Leone’s Milky Way, The Green Silence takes the Radiumgun genre and transfigures it in novel and interesting ways. Set on a verdant Venus, the Terro-Venusian trans-planetary mining corporation brooks absolutely no dissent from its (serf-like) miners. When a mysterious stranger (Jean-Louis Trintignant) enters the company town of Loveless and proceeds to shake up the status quo, repercussions abound from the planet’s corporate masters (incarnate in the character of Tigrero/ Loco, masterfully played by Klaus Kinski). This film in essence, was Corbucci’s thinly veiled critique of Laissez-faire capitalism. Sergio Corbucci states; “I would shout at Klaus (Kinski): “No! No! You represent the company’s interests! You are the hero of the film! You’re John Wayne in Saber of the Crimson Sands! Trintignant is the villain (5)!”
John Ford’s dream of Manifest Destiny on the red planet died in September of 1989. First contact with the fungal superstructure beneath the surface of Mars relegated Ford’s romantic notion to the dustbin of history. We are the poorer for it. There is no doubt that contact with the alien superstructure has been a boon to humanity. The biomedical breakthroughs alone have had a Promethean effect on our species. And yet, for all the advancements that have been made these last seventeen years, a small part of me wishes that our Mars was the Mars of Saber of the Crimson Sands. A place where American adventurers could test their mettle with sword and blaster in hand, against seemingly unconquerable odds. A place where a person could carve their own path on a hostile world teeming with dangerous flora and fauna. This was the inherent magic of John Ford’s singular vision.
- Red Sands, Red Menace. Francis McHenry. University of Chicago Press. 1974.
- Red Sands, Red Menace. Francis McHenry. University of Chicago Press. 1974.
- That’s Entertainment: 20 Famous Screenwriters Tell All! No Business Like Showbusiness Press. 1980.
- Saber of the Crimson Sands. Warner Bros. 1956.
- Once Upon a Time in Italian Space: The Filmgoers Guide to Spaghetti Radiumgun Romances. Howard Hughes. I.B. Tauris. 2006.
— Anthony Perconti lives and works in the hinterlands of New Jersey with his wife and kids. He enjoys well-crafted and engaging stories from across a variety of genres and mediums. He can be found on Twitter (at least for the time being) @AnthonyPerconti.