Saturday 4 July 2009

The Baron of Arizona (1950)

Director: Samuel Fuller
Star: Vincent Price

To imagine Vincent Price playing a Baron really doesn't stretch our imagination too far, but this is a very different sort of Baron from the horror roles we're used to him. However this is a perfect character for him to play, a ruthless swindler who puts on airs of grandeur and hatches a decades long plan to take ownership of a huge swathe of land in the territory of Arizona. It's also a perfect film for Samuel Fuller, who wrote and directed, because he was a newspaperman at heart and this true story is a scandal from the headlines.

Price plays James Addison Reavis, a unique figure in Arizona history, who is toasted as the film begins. It's Valentine's Day 1912 and President Taft has signed the proclamation to turn the territory of Arizona into the 48th state of the USA. The toast is made by a writer called John Griff, who works for the US Department of the Interior. In his official capacity he tussled with Reavis for a long while and proved to be his eventual downfall. The pair are charismatic opponents, as we discover during the bulk of the film, sharing much more than just a common taste in Havana cigars.

In fact it was one of Griff's books, Historical Handwriting and Crime of Forgery, that inspired him his grand scheme. It was his Bible. At this point Reavis is a clerk for the land office in Santa Fe where he learns all about the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the Mexican-American war in 1848. Through this treaty, Mexico ceded to the United States most of what was then northern Mexico and what is now all or part of six southwestern American states. In turn the US government guaranteed to honour any land grants previously made by Mexico or by Spain.

And Reavis builds a claim, a serious claim that the Government have to seriously investigate before handing over to him and his wife most of the territory of Arizona and parts of the territory of New Mexico, including what is now the city of Phoenix along with all mining rights, railroad rights, who knows what other rights. The numbers involved here are huge. At one point Reavis, now James de Peralta-Reavis, refuses an offer from the Secretary of the Interior for $25m in exchange for his territory. Perhaps for him it wasn't the kill but the thrill of the chase.

His claim is nearly flawless and is based on his wife, the Baroness Sofia de Peralta-Reavis. It includes a 1748 land grant from King Ferdinand VI to her ancestor, Miguel de Peralta, Baron of Arizona. There's a stone in the desert that Peralta carved in 1750 to mark his claim. Sofia's parents are buried in the Guadalajara cemetery. The records office in Chihuahua include the family history. Even the original Spanish land grants, hosted in the Biblioteca al Quantra in a Spanish monastery, back up the claim.

Of course, all this is fake. We watch Reavis build it up from moment one: carving the stone, breaking into the Chihuahua archives, finding a young orphan girl to turn into the Baroness. The sheer tenacity of the man is amazing to watch because of the lengths he took to set his plan in motion. He spends over three years as a Spanish monk called Brother Anthony, just so that he can get into their library to rewrite the original 1748 book of land grants, with ink he makes himself from their 500 year old formula. Then he takes up with gypsies to be able to get at the second copy, secreted in the castle of the Marquis de Santella in Madrid, the secretary to the King. It's an awesome story to watch unfold.

Now how much of this is true or not is beside the point. Reavis was real and his plot was real. The fact that he found a young lady to marry to further his claim is real. The amount of land he claimed is real. Certainly many other parts of the story aren't, but as a newspaperman, Fuller understood what we were taught at the end of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: that when confronted with a choice between the fact and the legend, he'll print the legend. This story is very much a take on a real one, a fiction based on fact, an inspiration rather than a reality, but there's so much that is true that it probably ends up more accurate than a lot of Hollywood biopics that, unlike this film, claimed to be true stories.

This film goes way back to the beginning of Sam Fuller's career. It's his second film, made after 1949's I Shot Jesse James, and like that film, made for poverty row producer Robert Lippert. Lippert gave Fuller the opportunity to break into direction, producing his first three films as a director. In return Fuller directed for free, technically being paid only for writing them. The three were I Shot Jesse James, The Baron of Arizona and The Steel Helmet. From what I'm reading they provided a solid start to Fuller's career. I Shot Jesse James told its story from a different angle to the norm and The Steel Helmet is a low budget war film with a high reputation. This film certainly belies its origins and outdoes much of its big budget competition.

There are few reasons for this. Fuller was an amazing director who is fast becoming one of my personal favourites. He was an independent soul when there generally weren't such things and he made precisely what he wanted to. He was also a great writer, able to spin his stories the way Hollywood really should have done and often didn't. They pull us into the screen, making us want to be part of the story and when they're over to read up on the stories afterwards. There are a couple of books about James Addison Reavis, who had his claims been recognised, would have owned the land I'm currently living in, and while Fuller didn't tell his true story, I want to go out right now and find those books so that I can see how close he got and what the real details were.

Fuller also got lucky to get two very fortunate colleagues on this film. One is the star, Vincent Price, who carries the film magnificently. He was an established name in 1950 with 25 films behind him, films that include Laura and The Song of Bernadette, but it would be three further years before he'd really begin his legend with House of Wax. The other is the cinematographer, no less a name than James Wong Howe, who won two Oscars for his work and probably should have won a few more. His first wouldn't come for another six years, but he'd been shooting films since 1923 and had worked in the industry longer than that. This film's budget was less than his usual salary on its own but he was apparently friends with Fuller and was interested in the project.

As a result, this film looks very good indeed, for something shot in fifteen days on Ray Corrigan's ranch, and Fuller wrings solid performances from his cast. It certainly isn't perfect, falling prey to many of the curses that plague low budget cinema. The cast do what they can with their roles, but sometimes they just shouldn't be in them. Karen Kester looks the part as the young Sofia, but Ellen Drew obviously has no Spanish blood in her, which is hardly her fault but doesn't bode well given that she's playing a character whose very point is that she is the last of the Peralta line that dates back to Spain itself. Gene Roth is notably American as an otherwise fine Father Guardian of a Spanish monastery. Vladimir Sokoloff is about as Mexican as his name but is surprisingly one of the more effective ethnic characters here. But it isn't who they are, it's what Sam Fuller does with them, and it's obvious here that he knew how it all worked even by his second film.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I JUST SAW THIS MOVIE THIS MORNING... I had never heard of it, and just stumbled across it just as it was starting. THIS WAS A VERY GOOD MOVIE, and it prompted me to look into the true story behind it. THE WIKIPEDIA ENTRY ON THE ACTUAL TRUE STORY IS VERY WELL DONE... but the Wikipedia entry on the movie is a total hack job... some half stoned teen ager could have done a better job!!! YOUR VERSION ABOVE IS FAR FAR FAR BETTER THAN WHAT WIKIPEDIA HAS TO OFFER... AND I STRONGLY RECOMEND THAT YOU OFFER YOUR VERSION TO WIKIPEDIA, SO THEY CAN REPLACE THE CURRENT VERSION WITH YOUR VERSION... it is MUCH better... AND THIS MOVIE DESERVES A GOOD DESCRIPTION ON THE WIKIPEDIA SITE... which is generally a very good place to find detailed or at least good entry level information!!!