Unsung Auteurs: Tom Gries

October 13, 2022
FilmInk salutes the work of directors who have never truly received the credit that they deserve. In this installment: “journeyman” Tom Gries, who directed the poetic western Will Penny.

The late Tom Gries is one of many directors plastered with the vaguely pejorative term of “journeyman”, denoting a filmmaker who moves shiftlessly from genre to genre, and from the big screen to the small screen, building up a body of work not distinguished by a definable authorial voice. Like most journeymen, however, Tom Gries was not just a rock-solid craftsman, but also a director drawn to material that allowed him to explore themes obviously important to him. A fine purveyor of the western and the telemovie, Tom Gries was also a frequent collaborator of 1970s superstars Charlton Heston and Charles Bronson, directing some of the their more interesting efforts.

Thomas Stephen Gries was born in 1922 in Chicago, Illinois, to Ruth Marie Gluck, an advertising copywriter and actress, and Joseph Charles Gries. Gries served with the US Marines in WW2, and then graduated from Georgetown University, eventually working as a reporter for a Chicago newspaper. Gries upped stakes for Hollywood in 1947, and took his first industry job as a talent agent. His next gig was working as a publicist and story aide for film producer/director Stanley Kramer (The Defiant Ones, Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner). After writing and producing a collection of documentaries, Gries moved to television, where he found great success directing instalments of live television and continuing series. Throughout the 1950s, Gries also helmed a fistful of now forgotten B-grade programmers in Serpent Island (1954), Hell’s Horizon (1955), Girl In The Woods (1958), and Mustang! (1959).

Tom Gries

The 1960s were a particularly fruitful period for Gries, with the director behind the camera for the decade’s biggest TV hits in Route 66, Combat!, The Man From UNCLE, Batman, Mission: Impossible, I Spy and many more. Gries also created the wonderfully entertaining WW2 Boy’s Own Adventure-style action series The Rat Patrol, which followed the activities of the jeep-driving Long Range Desert Squad. Though now largely forgotten, this was a favourite of action-starved kids who discovered the show in re-runs during the 1970s. Gries’ TV work gave him a fine grounding, and he established himself as a director who could work fast and reliably.

In the late 1960s, Gries worked with more concentration in the cinema. In 1967, he directed what arguably still stands as his best film with Will Penny, which was based on an episode of the TV series The Westerner that Gries wrote and directed in 1960. Elegiac and poetic, this grand western stars a superb Charlton Heston as the eponymous ageing cowboy, who develops a curious, awkward and ultimately life-changing relationship with a mother (Joan Hackett) and son (Gries’ own son Jon Gries, who would later go on to play, wait for it, Uncle Rico in Napoleon Dynamite, amongst other character roles) he finds squatting in his cabin. Though there is violence and gunplay, and bad guys in the form of the villainous Quint family, Will Penny is essentially a quiet western character piece that forefronts its characters. It’s a career high point for both Gries and his leading man. “Will Penny is far and away the best thing he’s ever done,” actor Bruce Dern has said of his co-star Heston’s work in the film.

Charlton Heston in Will Penny.

Heston and Gries would form a strong creative relationship, reuniting first on the compelling 1969 drama Number One, in which the actor excels in a difficult role as an ageing NFL quarterback who hits the skids after a knee injury, and then gets caught in a downward spiral of booze, sex and self-loathing. Even Heston’s many towering heroes were imbued with flaws and complexity, but the actor really gets to kick loose in this strong drama. The pair worked together again on 1966’s The Hawaiians, a bloated period epic bigger in scope but decidedly inferior to their far more interesting previous works.

Gries also directed a strong western in 1969’s 100 Rifles, which was most famous for its interracial on-screen romance between superstars Raquel Welch and Jim Brown, and the various off-screen altercations between its cast, which also included Burt Reynolds. The film’s Mexican Revolution setting is well utilised, it moves at a romping pace, and Gries makes the most of his charisma-rich cast.

A vintage lobby card for Journey Through Rosebud.

The 1970s saw Gries deliver two fascinating and now forgotten films wholly redolent of the era. 1970’s Fools sees Jason Robards play an ageing actor who romances the considerably younger Katherine Ross. Not wholly successful, the film is jammed with socially driven dialogue and bubbles with the ferment of the period. 1972’s Journey Through Rosebud deals with the oppression of Native Americans through the eyes of a young draft dodger (Kristoffer Tabori, son of actress Viveca Lindfors and director Don Siegel) and a Native American Vietnam vet (non-Native American actor Robert Forster). Though problematic today, Journey Through Rosebud nevertheless put the plight of Native Americans front and centre and treated it with sensitivity and genuine interest, unlike most American films.

As well as the also forgotten slick 1973 thriller Lady Ice (with Donald Sutherland and Jennifer O’Neill), Gries made two 1975 actioners with Charles Bronson. Breakout is a cracking prison escape flick, with Bronson at his stony best as a bush pilot charged with busting an innocent man out of a Mexican gaol. It’s a rollicking belter of a show, but Gries actually bettered it for Bronson with Breakheart Pass, a jolting, high octane train-set western penned by adventure specialist Alistair Maclean. Breakout and Breakheart Pass are certainly not as well-known as some of Bronson’s other films, but they stand as impressive entries on both his and Gries’ resumes.

Charles Bronson in Breakheart Pass.

After two very strong TV mini-series in 1974’s QB VII and 1976’s Helter Skelter (with Steve Railsback unforgettable as Charles Manson), Gries was drafted to direct 1977’s The Greatest, an ambitious biopic in which boxing legend Muhammad Ali starred as himself. The film is a true curio, and is undeniably entertaining if slightly routine. Gries sadly passed away during post-production on The Greatest (he died of a heart attack while playing tennis, and Monte Hellman was brought in to complete the picture), which was to be his final credit.

A hard-working director of much top-tier television, Tom Gries also put a polished spin on his big screen efforts, often taking on big, complex issues in the process. A fine hand with actors, and a lot more than just a reliable craftsman, Tom Gries directed (amongst others) one of the great westerns of the 1960s with Will Penny, and for that alone, he deserves eternal praise and recognition.

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