Dennis Weaver and Ida Lupino Refused to Phone It in During Female Artillery

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Dennis Weaver and Ida Lupino Refused to Phone It in During Female Artillery

From 1969 to 1975, ABC put out weekly films. They functioned as TV pilots, testing grounds for up-and-coming filmmakers, and places for new and old stars to shine. Every month, Chloe Walker revisits one of these movies. This is Movie of the Week (of the Month).

The ABC Movie of the Week favored thriller and horror movies, but the next most populous genre was the Western. Budgetary concerns were undoubtedly a factor (a few horses, a patch of desert—you’re good to go!), and yet considering how much it usually had its finger on the cultural pulse, this was somewhat out of character for the series; theatrically, the golden age of the Western was more than a decade in the rearview mirror, and even the Spaghetti being served up by Clint and Sergio was starting to taste a little stale. Nevertheless, there remained a small but steady stream of classics—McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Two Mules For Sister Sara, Jeremiah Johnson, Buck and the Preacherhitting the big screens; revisionism and classicism colliding and creating films both traditional and unusual. 

That pattern was replicated in the ABC MOTWs. The Silent Gun combined the slot’s love of Lloyd Bridges and its love of message movies into a potent plea for gun control. Alias Smith and Jones and Kung Fu sparked much-loved series. Clint Walker and his almost-comically square jaw made a play for John Wayne’s soon-to-be vacated seat as the macho king of the west in Yuma and The Bounty Man.

On the whole, however, these telefilms were more concerned with women on the range. Mrs. Sundance was a low-key piece imagining Elizabeth Montgomery as the widow of the Sundance Kid. The Devil and Miss Sarah, starring Janice Rule, was a spooky story about possible Satanic possession on the range. Wild Women, Pioneer Woman, The Daughters of Joshua Cabe…although many of the resultant films were still riven with sexism, there appeared a concerted effort to engage the large female viewership with one of the most traditionally male genres.

1973’s Female Artillery—a real contender for the worst-named of all 254 ABC MOTWs—sees rascal with a heart of gold Deke Chambers (Dennis Weaver) join up with a group of widows, led by Martha Lindstrom (Ida Lupino), crossing the plains. Martha knows Deke is hiding something, but she senses a goodness in him and allows him to stay with her group as she works out what his real deal is; subsequently, two of the other women fall in love with him. Meanwhile, a nefarious posse is in hot pursuit of Deke, who has something of theirs that they would very much like back.

Dennis Weaver had been around for 20 years before Female Artillery, starting off as a supporting actor in ‘50s B movies (most notably, Touch of Evil), before a long-running role in seminal western show Gunsmoke confined him largely to the smaller screen. These days, he is probably best known as the weaselly lead of the most famous of all the ABC MOTWs, Steven Spielberg’s feature debut, Duel. 

Though Female Artillery’s Deke Chambers is morally gray, unlike Weaver’s hero in Duel, he’s also warm and roguishly charming. It helps that, with his excellent mustache, from some angles he’s the spitting image of Burt Reynolds. Still, ever more approachable than the uber-stars like Reynolds or Clint Eastwood, Weaver spends a lot of the film seeming goofy, as in the long early sequence where he spins a wild tale about why the bad guys are after him that casts himself in a farcically golden light. All the women (along with one of their 11-year-old children!) know he’s spewing nonsense, but they’re happy to humor him, and the puncturing of his attempted machismo becomes an enjoyable running theme. 

Ida Lupino had hit higher heights than Weaver in her career, both as a top-tier movie star during the ‘40s and the early ‘50s, and as one of Hollywood’s first female directors. By 1973 however, Lupino’s acting career peak was long behind her—she had starred in no movies at all, theatrical or televisual, between 1956 and 1972. In Female Artillery she exudes an energy both exuberant and merrily commanding, leading the other women and Weaver with a firm hand and a wry smile. While it would be a stretch to call Female Artillery feminist, the way Lupino’s matriarch effortlessly and joyfully wields her authority, and how the other women and Weaver respect her without question, is heartening to see from a genre not known for its kindness towards female characters.

Although the narrative is more concerned with the gang pursuing Weaver, and the love triangle between him, Sally Ann Howes and Linda Evans, Female Artillery works best when it’s focused on the alliance between Weaver’s Deke and Lupino’s Martha. 

Both characters have been around a bit (while we get more of his backstory than hers, Lupino gives an innate gravitas that suggests a life fully lived), and been marked by all they’ve seen. Both have learned to think on their feet, and how to be swift judges of character. They recognize one another as kindred spirits, and the esteem in which they hold each other—their warm platonic chemistry—is lovely to watch. Considering just how many of the ABC MOTWs led to a series, it seems a particular shame we never got a Weaver/Lupino buddy comedy show!

Female Artillery is not a top tier ABC MOTW. None of the attempts to build tension work; despite their being far outnumbered by the bad guys, the movie’s leisurely pace and goofy tone means it never feels like our crew is in any real jeopardy. If there was ever any splendor in the western landscapes, the poor quality of the only extant copy has erased it. Unlike some of the other editions, it’s not a film that tries to do anything different with the Western genre, and ultimately, it isn’t one that would have still been lingering in the heads of many by the time the next week’s movie aired.

Yet despite its limitations, the modest film proves a great example of perhaps the single most important factor that still makes the ABC MOTWs so appealing half a century later. Acting is all too often a deified profession, with actors too glamorous and distant to appear even the same species as the humble viewer. Female Artillery and its ilk allow us to see acting as a job, and actors as people who—like us—need a paycheck. While that may sound depressing on the face of it, actors on the level of Lupino and Weaver make it anything but. Despite how low in the prestige ranks of their filmographies a horribly-titled Western MOTW would fall, both invest their performances with ebullience and charm. Perhaps it’s just a sign of their acting talent, but they genuinely seem to be having fun, as if “phoning it in” is a foreign concept to them. 

However unspecial the movies themselves could be, there’s something surprisingly special about watching skilled craftspeople caring enough about their craft to bring their A-game to flimsy material. For those who love watching actors do the thing they do best under any circumstances, the ABC MOTWs like Female Artillery were, and remain, an invaluable resource.

Chloe Walker is a writer based in the UK. You can read her work at Culturefly, the BFI, Podcast Review, and Paste.

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