Friday, January 2, 2009

Review – Clash of the Wolves

January 2, 2009

Clash of the Wolves – U.S., 1925

Like all great heroes in westerns, Lobo is a contradiction. On the one hand, he possesses “savage strength” and adheres to a code that most would find rather cruel. On the other hand, he is intelligent and immensely courageous, qualities that are evident at the start of the film. As a massive forest fire rages around him, he is able to carry his children to safety. Later with his gang facing starvation, he scans the desert for the slightest hint of food. Finding it, he summons his posse together and leads them on a daring and extremely dangerous raid. However, at another point in the film, the impulse for revenge completely overwhelms him, and he forgets that the life of his dear friend depends on Lobo getting him much needed help.

Surrounding Lobo are rather routine characters. There’s Dave Weston (Charles Farrell), a young prospector mining for borax. His love interest is May Barstowe (June Marlow), the daughter of a wealthy ranch owner named Sam (William Walling) who doesn’t share his daughter’s affection for Dave. There’s also Sam’s employee, Alkali Bill (Heinle Conklin), whose role in the film seems to be to play the fool and provide the audience with moments of levity. As the film begins, Alkali is driving May to see Dave. Beside her is a cake. We know the cake’s for Dave because the word Dave has been written on top of it. When they arrive, Dave excitedly shows her his discovery, a rock that he suspects is made of borax. Unknown to them, they are being watched, for high on a hill, Lobo has spotted what he hopes will be a source of food. Quickly, he and his posse descend the hill at great speed and attempt to surround and kill their prey. Dave, May, and Alkali barely escape with their lives, but one of Lobo’s gang is not so lucky. Shot and wounded, the rest of the outlaws set upon him and put him out of his misery, for in this gang being injured is a death sentence. Soon Sam is offering $100 to whomever brings Lobo in dead.

Yet Lobo is not the antagonist in Clash of the Wolves. That role is occupied by W.M. Horton (Pat Hartigan), a claim jumper masquerading as a chemist. When Dave attempts to verify that the rock he found is indeed borax, it is Horton whom he goes to for confirmation. We see Horton’s eyes bulge in surprise and amazement as he scans Dave’s finding. Clearly Dave has unearthed something valuable, and Horton knows it. However, Horton tells him that he cannot verify Dave’s assertion at the moment, for he’s out of the liquid necessary to conduct for the test with. Horton tells Dave to wait a week, which is just enough time for Horton and his associates to come up with a way to steal the land on which Dave made his discovery. In the week that follows, Lobo is injured, and it is Dave who comes to his rescue. Predictably, the two of them become good friends.

Clash of the Wolves has a standard story for a western. Two people are in love, but their love is discouraged. There’s a character with an inner conflict, and a ruthless villain out for money. It is not a big leap to say that Lobo will ultimately face Horton head on. What makes Clash of the Wolves worth watching is Lobo, a half-breed wolf dog played by the legendary Rin-Tin-Tin. As Lobo, Rin-Tin-Tin is simply astonishing. The role calls for him to maneuver his way through fire, outrun horses and cattle, evade pursuers on horseback, and act wounded. He also has to appear angry and affectionate in the film. I have no idea how the film’s director, Noel Mason Smith, got Rin-Tin-Tin to do these things, but he did, and the result is fascinating. It is Rin-Tin-Tin that is responsible for creating much of the intensity of the second half of the film. Credit should also be given to Pat Hartigan, who plays Horton with a perfect combination of sneakiness and aggression.

All in all, Clash of the Wolves is predicable, but highly entertaining. I could have done without many of Alkali’s jokes, for many of them simply no longer work. In one scene, he tries to get Dave’s attention by shooting his gun in the air. His aim is off, and he shoots one of the rocks that Dave has in front of him. Cute, but not laugh-out-loud funny. In another scene, he agrees not to tell Sam that Dave was “making love” with May, a phrase that carries a very different meaning today. However, to keep his mouth shut, he wants May to kiss him the way she kisses Dave. The film presents this request as acceptable and sweetly pathetic. Nowadays such a request could be seen as sexual harassment or a form of blackmail. However, the film’s other performances, in particular that of Rin-Tin-Tin, more than make up for some of the film’s dated humor. I found myself very excited while I was watching Clash of the Wolves. Sure I knew how it would all end, but that didn’t make the lead-up any less enjoyable to watch. (on the second disc of Image-Entertainment’s More Treasures from the American Film Archives)

3 stars

*Rin-Tin-Tin made twenty-nine films, only three of which are available on DVD. Other than Clash of the Wolves, only The Lightening Warrior and The Lone Defender, two serials made towards the end of Rin-Tin-Tin’s career, are currently available. I suspect that there are two reasons for the absence of his other films. The first is that some of the films may be lost, as only 20% of silent films exist today. The second is that film studios may not feel that there is much of an audience for these films today, as it is almost impossible to get young children to watch a silent film. Furthermore, by the time people are old enough to appreciate them, studio executives may feel that people would view a film such as Clash of the Wolves as simply a children’s movie and be disinclined to give them a chance. Whatever the reason, it is my hope that eventually more of Rin-Tin-Tin’s films will be released on DVD or Blu-Ray. They deserve the chance to be discovered by new generations of filmgoers.

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