Ben Johnson isn't exactly what one would call a movie icon; Johnson isn't even a Western icon, despite his presence in numerous Old (and not-so-Old) West movies during his 50+-year career. Johnson's semi-obscurity today is a great reason to celebrate Turner Classic Movies' devoting one whole day to him as part of its “Summer Under the Stars” film series. (See TCM's Ben Johnson Movie Schedule further below.)
TCM will be presenting 12 Ben Johnson movies, including one premiere, the 1957 Western War Drums, directed by Viennese filmmaker Reginald Le Borg (Voodoo Island, Sins of Jezebel), and starring former Tarzan Lex Barker. The movie sounds like a hoot: Mexican gal Riva (Joan Taylor, actually from Geneva, Illinois) is wanted and desired by both a white trader (Johnson) and an Apache chief named Mangas Coloradas (Barker). Barker playing an Apache should be, ahem, interesting enough, but one named Mangas Coloradas? Here's wondering if that translates as “Colored Mangoes.” Anyhow, War Drums sounds like a must-see. And make sure to keep an eye out for future Best Actor Oscar nominee Stuart Whitman in a bit part as a certain Johnny Smith. [Update: I was totally off the mark. The name Mangas Coloradas apparently means “Red Sleeves”; also, he was a historical Apache war leader, not some Hollywood studio creation.]
Western and baby fans may enjoy John Ford's good-looking 3 Godfathers (1948), a highly sentimental tale about three outlaws (John Wayne, Pedro Armendáriz, Harry Carey Jr) who, upon becoming aware of their fatherly instincts, risk life, liberty, and the pursuit of worldly pleasures so as to return a newborn to civilization. Inspired by the fable of the Three Magi, 3 Godfathers is a remake of Richard Boleslawski's 1936 movie starring Chester Morris. Ford's conventional Western She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) is even better looking than 3 Godfathers – and it's better remembered as well. Wayne stars along with Joanne Dru and John Agar.
The year after She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Ford gave Johnson a lead role in another Western, Wagon Master (1950). I've never watched it, but it's not one of the director's most revered efforts. However great-looking and despite its mostly solid cast, neither is Cheyenne Autumn (1964), a rare Ford Western in which Native Americans are portrayed as actual human beings. Richard Widmark and the excellent Carroll Baker star.
Ford was instrumental in getting Johnson to accept a supporting role in The Last Picture Show (1971), Peter Bogdanovich's beautifully shot (Robert Surtees) early '50s-set drama about drab lives in a small Texas town where the last movie house is about to be shut down – after a screening of Howard Hawks' Red River (1948), in which Johnson performed stunt work. Johnson was initially reluctant to act in a movie that featured cursing; he was recompensed for temporarily setting his scruples aside when the Academy handed him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar.
Ben Johnson Day also includes three Sam Peckinpah efforts: Major Dundee (1965), starring Charlton Heston; the modern-day Western Junior Bonner (1972), starring Steve McQueen, Robert Preston, and Ida Lupino; and the controversial classic The Wild Bunch (1969), starring William Holden, Robert Ryan, and Ernest Borgnine.
Schedule (ET) and synopses from the TCM website:
6:00 AM 3 GODFATHERS (1948) Three outlaws on the run risk their freedom and their lives to return a newborn to civilization. Dir.: John Ford. Cast: John Wayne, Pedro Armendáriz, Harry Carey Jr. Color. 106 min.
11:00 AM WAR DRUMS (1957) A white trader and an Apache chief fall for the same woman. Dir.: Reginald LeBorg. Cast: Lex Barker, Joan Taylor, Ben Johnson. Color. 75 min.
12:30 PM CHEYENNE AUTUMN (1964) A reluctant calvary Captain must track a defiant tribe of migrating Cheyennes. Dir.: John Ford. Cast: Richard Widmark, Carroll Baker, Karl Malden. Color. 156 min. Letterbox Format.
3:30 PM MAJOR DUNDEE (1965) Cavalry misfits cross the Mexican border to destroy an Indian outpost. Dir.: Sam Peckinpah. Cast: Charlton Heston, Richard Harris, Jim Hutton. Color. 136 min. Letterbox Format.
6:00 PM JUNIOR BONNER (1972) An aging rodeo rider tries to deal with his dysfunctional family. Dir.: Sam Peckinpah. Cast: Steve McQueen, Robert Preston, Ida Lupino. Color. 100 min. Letterbox Format.
9:45 PM WAGON MASTER (1950) Two wandering cowhands sign on to help a wagon train headed for Utah. Dir.: John Ford. Cast: Ben Johnson, Joanne Dru, Harry Carey Jr.. Black and white. 86 min.
11:15 PM SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON (1949) An aging Cavalry officer tries to prevent an Indian war in the last days before his retirement. Dir.: John Ford. Cast: John Wayne, Joanne Dru, John Agar. Color. 104 min.
1:15 AM THE LAST PICTURE SHOW (1971) Changing times take their toll on high schoolers growing up in a small Western town. Dir.: Peter Bogdanovich. Cast: Timothy Bottoms, Jeff Bridges, Cybill Shepherd. Black and white. 126 min. Letterbox Format.
3:30 AM THE WILD BUNCH (1969) A group of aging cowboys look for one last score in a corrupt border town. Dir.: Sam Peckinpah. Cast: William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Robert Ryan. Color. 144 min. Letterbox Format.