Marshal Guthrie McCabe, played by a languid, 53-year-old James Stewart, is introduced with his feet up, rocking back in a chair outside a saloon. It’s an image and posture that harks back to Henry Fonda’s laid-back Wyatt Earp from John Ford’s 1946 film, My Darling Clementine. But McCabe, unlike Earp, is not watching the streets as he casually reclines. He is dozing, eventually woken with a beer to compliment his cigar. Barely roused when a rowdy band of newcomers arrive in town, he is a different sort of lawman, even if his name does carry with it a certain reputation. Greeting his friend and impending partner Lieutenant Jim Gary (Richard Widmark), he balks at the officer’s dusty gloves—he’s not shaking that hand—and later admits to happily taking a cut from the town’s economic transactions (even those concerning dubious female clientele). With a prevailing “What’s in it for me?” mentality, Guthrie McCabe is not a typical Western hero, which is just as well, because Ford’s phenomenal 1961 feature, Two Rode Together, despite its comprehensive register of traditional credentials, is not a typical Western.
Enlisted to help negotiate for the release of several white citizens kidnapped and God-knows-what-else by the Comanches, McCabe teams with Gary to track down the tribe, secure the captive Caucasians, and return them safely to awaiting friends and family. It’s a simple enough premise (Ford himself thought it a bit too similar to his 1956 masterpiece, The Searchers), but for most of its duration, Two Rode Together is scarcely dependent on plot. The picture is a character study first and foremost.
Based on his past experience (and a treaty that forbids Army forces from trespassing on the Native land), McCabe is justifiably considered for the task, but his involvement is a double-edge sword. Undeniably knowledgeable—cynically so—he is also brutally honest and utterly unscrupulous. Reluctantly, however, and perhaps not consciously, he finds a moral center when he is taken aback by like-minded characters who seek to manipulate and exploit the ongoing tension. The state of the seizure is a desperate situation affecting mothers, fathers, sisters, and brothers. It brings out the best and worst in people; it brings out both in McCabe.
Channeling the sort of ethical ambiguity that defined his radical Western work with Anthony Mann, Stewart’s undignified mercenary crudity is offset by Widmark’s ingratiating tenderness, particularly with Shirley Jones, who plays a young woman wracked with guilt over the abduction of her younger brother. Basically assigned as his chaperone, Gary’s overriding decency is nevertheless eclipsed by his compatriot’s complexity, and by that same token, Stewart’s performance is patently more profuse than Widmark’s.
Together, though, McCabe and Gary are a perfectly unsuited pair (one wonders how and why they were ever friends), and their attuned incompatibility is given prominent attention by screenwriter Frank S. Nugent. Adapting the 1960 novel Comanche Captives, by Will Cook, Nugent peppers Two Rode Together with instantly distinguished wordplay, inordinately witty, overlapping dialogue, and some surprising suggestiveness: “You can have anything you want out on the veranda,” says shady lady saloon owner Belle Aragon (Annelle Hayes). “Well, that’s a pretty broad statement,” counters McCabe.
Nugent penned many of Ford’s most popular films, including She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), The Quiet Man (1952), and The Searchers, but his colloquial banter was never this lively, stylized, and spontaneous. Stewart and Widmark appear to especially appreciate the lines of essentially innocuous discussion, most famously in a riverbank exchange—a four-minute unbroken two-shot—where their back-and-forth verbal bout is enacted with tremendous ease and a notable realism. (It was largely improvised). Jokes on set involved their mutual hair and hearing loss, but what seasoned pros Widmark and Stewart communicate here is some of the lightest, best acting in any John Ford film.
If the callous characterizations, unethical behavior, and the rich repartee diverge from customary John Ford Western fare, there is enough about Two Rode Together to securely align it with his prior output. Fixtures include familiar faces (Woody Strode as the vicious Stone Calf, Harey Carey, Jr, and Ken Curtis as two doofus brothers, and the genial Andy Devine as a “hippopotamus of a sergeant”) and classic Fordian touches like a square dance amidst the misery. The scenic backdrop isn’t the overwhelming picturesque placement of Monument Valley (Two Rode Together was mostly filmed in Brackettville, Texas, on the set of John Wayne’s 1960 production of The Alamo), and there is an often overcast, autumnal chill in the subdued photography, but veteran cinematographer Charles Lawton Jr., who had done some of his best work in the Western genre (see Budd Boetticher’s The Tall T  and Ride Lonesome ), heightens a generally insipid environment with nighttime torchlight and elemental strokes like fog settling in over the camp.
The stereotypical Native American savagery is still at times painted with a broad brush, but if he isn’t directly sympathetic toward the Comanche, Ford does at least portray the white populace with ample hypocrisy and bigotry. A few of the captives actually prefer to stay with the Indians, while others like young Running Wolf (David Kent) are put on obscene display and pawned off to strangers, or, like Elena de la Madriaga (Linda Cristal), they are ostracized by the snobbish townsfolk; (in her case, it sometimes takes an outcast to love an outcast, and the burgeoning relationship between she and McCabe is one of the film’s finer, concluding highlights).
Two Rode Together was an unhappy production for John Ford. He cared little to make the picture, doing it primarily for the money and taking out his frustrations on the crew (that four-minute take by the river was supposedly prompted by Ford’s vindictiveness, his wanting to keep the crew wading and waiting in the chilly water). And he cared even less for the end result, calling it the “worst piece of crap I’ve made in twenty years.” That’s an unfathomable assessment. Two Rode Together did not do well with critics or at the box office, and it does admittedly have an inconsistently pliable tone, shifting mid-scene and co-mingling moments of absolute malice with goofy roughhousing, but that coalescing of hybrid characteristics is ultimately what advances this excellent, tragically under-appreciated John Ford film.