I am pleased to announce that Dancing in the West (2013) is being shown tonight at Folkestone Quarterhouse presented by Voodoo Hopscotch in Mill Bay, Folkstone, as part of House of Voodoo. If you’re in the area check it out.
A few years ago I reviewed Bad Day at Black Rock (1955) not really understanding what was really going on in this early neo-western. With my ever-growing knowledge of the genre I was hungry to re-watch this short but ever so sweet and tense western that gets to the point and scratches it like a rash until it bleeds allowing the truth to come out of the town that John J Macreedy (Spencer Tracy), the first stranger to step off a train into this tumble weed of a town that has stood still.
From the first moment that Macreedy steps off the train he is met with cold opposition from nearly everyone he meets. All he wants to do is find a Japanese man named Komoko. Is he investigating him for a crime, the strangers purpose is not fully explained until the last act, We and the town are left guess who this guy is, what does he want? We are all on tenterhooks as to what is going on.
A town led by Rene Smith (Robert Ryan) who is hot on the tail of a man who won’t b budged in his search for a man we soon learnt no longer lives out on adobe flats. Smith is a cold calculated man who has everyone under his thumb, able to incite fear in them, reminding them of four years ago, the last time that they saw Komoko who we are told was taken to a relocation centre in the aftermath of Pearl Harbour. 4 years on there is still a strong hatred for the enemy who they have been fighting for four years. Mostly in the form of Smith’s resentment for not being accepted into the forces. Feeding out into the town taking the form of fear that pits the strong against the weak.
The weak don’t stay down for long, with the local doctor Velie (Walter Brennan) who has had enough of the strangle hold on this old western town that has been lost to the ravages of time. Kept alive by a few, some of the old ways never die. It seems that the silent and weak won’t take anymore. Glad to see someone shake things up for them and boy does Tracy shake things up, even a veteran with only one arm can still stand his ground in this masculine world that seems to be lost in the wake of the recent horrors abroad.
We have all the regulars of the west transported to not so distant period in modern history, with as shirt, jeans and that classic hat we are back in the west, out in the middle of nowhere, a perfect place for the truth to be hidden. Made at a time when the fear of communism was at a high, livelihoods in Hollywood on the line in the “witch hunt”. The atmosphere of fear to speak up or stay quiet was at its height. Changing the themes to fears of Japanese Americans, fearing they were once the country’s enemy.
You can feel the tension in the classic western, with tight acting from all of the cast, a broad spectrum of character to represent the nation in a state of fear, The truth is a powerful weapon in the hands of both the weak and strong. Its how we handle it is what matters, making for a film that is on fire as we wait to see who will crack under the pressure of a stranger just wanting to do the right thing.
I remember very little of my first encounter with Dances with Wolves (1990) whilst in my last year at art school, catching it. It played out very differently in my head, still that’s what memory can do to you when you cram in full of films, all those images, quotes and music running through you’re mind. It was time for a rematch, one that reminded me of what I have long missed. After watching Little Big Man (1970) this falls well into place in the genre. The main theme of a white man living with a Native American tribe, for Jack Crabbe (Dustin Hoffman) it was the synonymously violent Comanches, for Lt John Dunbar/Dances with Wolves (Kevin Costner) with the Sioux who are the very opposite until pushed to go to war with the Pawnee the exotic violent tribe of the film. Wolves goes into far more detail in terms of time that a white man spends being absorbed into the culture of the usual western other. The other which is seen as a savage obstacle to be overcome in the myth of conquest. We usually spend little time with Natives, earlier films such as Broken Arrow (1950) which moved back and forth between whites and the other (Apaches).
Wolves really delves into an overlooked part in it’s countries history, guided in front and behind the camera by Costner with sensitivity and grace. On screen it’s in the form of Lt John Dunbar a possible coward during the civil war, who becomes a war hero who falls for the life of the sioux on the open plains of the untouched frontier. Theres already a sense of loss in the air, the inevitable in coming, the Sioux and other nations submitting to life on reservations. If not wiped/rubbed out in the years before. Our lead character is more open than any other in the history of the west, it’s not just a sympathy for his misunderstood neighbour, it’s a real understanding that takes the first half of the film to allow him to leave his own culture and past to start a fresh life. As if he has met someone, married and moved in, cutting off his family in the process.
The idea that the Sioux are a dangerous nation is soon brushed aside with the Pawnee who are the classic enemy of the film, killing in the opening act, suggesting that they will be back for more. Their depiction is far from reality, probably a studio compromise to still have an Indian enemy only to the Sioux however. We never truly leave the stereotype, instead just touch on it when needed for conflict.
The journey is long, long enough to be swept away into a world and culture that is usually overlooked in film (as I’ve already mentioned) allowing us to make up for all of that. Costner’s Dunbar is our gateway into that culture, an open minded figure, disillusioned by his past life in the uniform of a solider who started the film on an operating table, where he could have easily have died. Comes alive on the fort where he has been posted, empty of other soldiers he keeps account of his time in a journal that acts as narration for the audience to understand his state of mind as he leaves one life in favour of another. Theres no question of becoming a “Human Being” as in Little Big Man he simply is accepted as a Sioux after a period of acceptance, breaking down the barrier of language and culture to discover understanding, something that is usually seen as another bunch of savages who won’t conform to the western way of life that is spreading across the land.
The landscape is another character in this revisionist western that looks at the open prairie as land that has all but been claimed for the white man. The buffalo we can see are slowly being wiped out, you don’t need to see a buffalo hunter riding off, the aftermath of the skinned beasts is enough to get you. Everything about this film is to make you understand their plight, not just of the Sioux but every other nation that has surrendered to white Americans who tamed the country.
There is indeed a flip side to all the great images of gunfighters, gold rushes, cattle drives and the rail-road, there had to be a price for all that. Not just on their side, we see what would have happened to Debbie Edwards (Natalie Wood) of The Searchers (1956) if she remained with her captors, not a fate worse than death, as we discover for Stands with a Fist (Mary McDonnell) a victim of a Pawnee raid that was found by the Sioux, and raised as their own. Very much the same as Jack Crabbe who too came to not just sympathise but stand with his natural enemy as one the other who he was taught to hate and kill on sight. All that fades away when you look beyond the myths and stories that are constructed to create fear in a culture on and off film that has become part of the fabric.
Dances with Wolves stands alone able to not just entertain but make us think about our pasts, not just America but other nations who have altered the future of other nations, who as primitive as they may seem were moved without consent. I know thats a generalising of far more complex issues of history. Wolves is an attempt to re-write the myth of conquest to say this too might have happened, even a white solider may have left his own culture to join another nation that lived there hundreds of years before the 1600’s. We know what will happen, its inevitable as I have said numerous times, history tells us that. If only for a few hours we see into a now lost world brought to life with respect, grace and heart for all who want peace.
So I can bring twins beds together, that’s only looking at one bed in view, using what visual information is there and a bit of software magic. I need to push further really to see if this really does work. Before I can get to grips with two beds I thought I’d carry on with the remaining screen-grabs to see how I can improve my technique, which has developed, no longer am I just copying and stretching elements, I am using them to make a bridge of sorts to create a bigger different image (bed-wise) that shows there is more in the frame.
I am eager to work with new images, which means getting hold of more footage. Until then I know I have come along in what I can do. I know I will have to literally bring the beds closer sooner or later to create a doubled bed.
I’ve been eager to start this work for a while now. I’m starting with the basic image that I want to adjust to bring together the beds. It’s all about using what information is there, and stretching to make a new image in its place. Beginning with the video clip from Mrs Miniver (1942) I shared the other week, which has been screen-grabbed to work with screen shots of the bed. I have done 7 tests, some more successful than others, which can obviously seen below. I’m pleased that things are working. When I get hold of more footage I’ll expand the tests to broader images. I would like to think I can super-impose the new images into clips of film. It’s early days yet so one step at a time.
I can however say that for now in image form that the Miniver’s have a double bed.
I already knew that Shane (1953) was a great and classic, but had forgotten why really, a reminder was needed to stir up the emotions and memories that are captured in this gunfighter film. From the beginning we see a lone rider Shane (Alan Ladd) make his way through the field of bushes, in no rush to get anywhere, he’s very much his own man, independent of the laws of the land. Reach the homesteading Starrett family who we soon learn are under threat from Ryker (Emile Meyer) and his men who want to run off this and other homesteaders. All innocent people wanting to make their mark on the country. A real conflict of interests is at the heart of this feud. One group wanting to push out another. It’s a tried and tested formula as we see the stronger force try to drive out the weaker.
Much like in The Westerner (1940), but not hiding behind a supposed law created by Judge Roy Bean. Here it’s about the strength of the man to stand up to another. However strong they feel they are still cowards in the face of Ryker and his men who don’t even draw their guns. Theres a strong code between both sides that is tangible, violence without pulling the trigger, relying more on the inner strength of the man to stand up. Something that we know, just looking at Shane even as he sits on the sidelines will have to step in and save the day. The small (annoying) boy Joey (Brandon De Wilde) who is in awe of the stranger who has become his role model, knows there is something inside him that is waiting to come out.
As much as Shane wants to change his ways, taking on a job with the Starrett’s is not enough to change his very nature. Finally giving in to teach Joey how to handle a gun, in such away that he may one day use it as a tool not a weapon. Shane very much is standing in the shadows of these homesteaders, all decent hardworking men who want to stand up and be respected, not walked all over. Personified by Joe Starrett (Van Heflin) who is the strongest of the group and the weakest, all talk and very little walk, hampered by his wife Marian (Jean Arthur) who wants him to stay safe, not going out to potentially lose his life. She is the very reason he has to; to be seen as a man in front of her and his son whose eyes are open in unto the world around him.
Enter the hired gunfighter Jack Wilson (Jack Palance) who in his few scenes he has steals them all, the “low down Yankee liar” is all bad, the personification of a gunfighter who takes pleasure in pulling the gun from its holster to take another life, to prove his is stronger, better and will live to see another day. That’s until he enters this small Alabama town that could easily be anywhere in America personifying the West for a generation, the open country, the American dream that is still being fought over. A moment in history that could have been repeated anywhere in the United States, a fable you could say of good overcoming evil.
Shane is a classic in every sense of the word, the hero, the villain, the lush green landscape with all its rich dirt and mountains that surround these people in the middle of nowhere. Two of the leads are take from very different genres, Alan Ladd a regular of film noir, and Jean Arthur whose career was all but over, most remembered for her Capra films, both could easily have been out of their depth, which works in their favour, the energy of the modern dark streets and an innocence and need to feel safe in the world.
At the core of this is a need to remain true to yourself, the gunfighter with all their on-screen glory can never settle down with the homesteaders, as strong as that need maybe, it’s a dangerous life to live as we find out for two of them. This is a prime example of the classic western, stranger enters, shakes things up and leaves alone again, never to return leaving the town for the better or worse. Leaving the audience in awe of the dangerous spectacles we have seen in the film. It’s over in a flash, just what we have been waiting for all along satisfying not just the audience by Joey who has been waiting longer than anyone to see his newest role-model come to life after building him up in his mind.
This has been on my radar for a year or so now, never really knowing much about the Hud (1963) beyond the poster, which is very little. I remember around the time of release there was a glut of neo-western’s that were released, such as The Misfits (1963) and Lonely are the Brave (1961) which explore the old west through a fresh pair of eyes, It’s always tired, worn down and fenced off. Focusing on a single man Hud Bannon (Paul Newman), long out of his time, leaving a path of unrest behind him. The black sheep of the family who roams around town causing trouble on a nightly basis, unable to grow-up and consider the consequences of his actions.
Part of a ranching family who are entering the worst period of their history when a horse is found with possible foot and mouth, a killer for most farmers even today. I remember the horrific scenes on the News of piles of carcases being burned, creating giant clouds of smoke, the smell of lost livelihoods in the air. A stench that issmelt in the early 1960’s. An issue that is never dealt with in the classic west, only the movement and sale of cattle, the struggle for land between rival land owners who fight for wars if they have to have the upper hand.
With the law very much in place that’s all gone, the science is very much a hard fact of modern agriculture, abiding by those laws, Something that Hud would happily disregard, with no real conscience, enjoy the pleasure of alcohol and women, both which come easy to him. His father Homer Bannon (Melvyn Douglas) has all but disowned his son that is the polar opposite of his dead son who is mentioned through, the gold standard that Hud can never reach and really doesn’t care. Living also with Homer is his grandson Louie Bannon (Brandon De Wilde) at an impressionable age, caught in between his grandfather and uncle who he both looks up to. Whilst house-keeper Alma Brown (Patricia Neal) is the only female influence in the Bannon house. A maternal influence for Louie and someone for Homer to rely on. Having her share of men in her past, she just carries on, doing her best to survive.
We see the Bannon family in their final hours as foot and mouth lingers in the air, waiting for the results to be confirmed adding to the tension already in the house. As Hud continues to go out every night, not caring if he leads Louie astray, whilst Homer looks on with worry at his family and livelihood.
It’s a raw family drama with Newman once more at his best delivering his lines at break-neck speed, he’s on it. Whilst more seasoned actor Douglas reminds me of Richard Farnsworth, with more fire in his belly, a man who has seen his share of fights, unsure of what the future might bring. We have an acting masterclass here along with Patricia Neal who trudges on with grace and determination in a man’s world that she thought she was cut out for.
I’m surprised that Hud isn’t held in higher regard with The Misfits that marks the end of the west, the west here as grown up not completely died, the reality of the myth has washed away to reveal the hardships of the cattle business. That the gunfighter has no place in society today, left to wandering around causing trouble for their family and friends. Things have to change.
A few months ago I watched Mrs Miniver (1942) which had a number of scenes on the bedroom between Mr and Mrs. Miniver (Walter Pidgeon and Greer Garson). Being married and talking in separate beds today and probably then just looks ludicrous really. It was only on-screen that such an arrangement was found. And enforced by the BBFC (British Board of Film Classification) which in it’s grounds for films to be cut before allowed for general release. This clears up the myth that the Hays code that caused married couples to appear in twin bed (27 inches apart). For my next work I would like to at least try and correct this wrong in film. I know its part of the fabric of classic film now, but a part of me still wants to push these beds together somehow. Even going through the list and correcting a few more of the stranger items. I’m at the early stages of this, having done a little research already this could go beyond a simple correction (when I find the best method). I can’t wait to get started now.
After months of development, beginning with a short interview with Anthony Mann, a translation of Pericles, Prince of The I have finally drawn this work to a close. I’ll take away a lot more than I have done here, realising that my models don’t need to sit outside to complete them, that was a selfish desire that ruins the work. An Unfinished Western (2014) is a result of that personal journey, releasing that I don’t need backgrounds or back-drops to complete the work, even with the aid of green-screen technology that would allow a background superimposed, destroying what makes my work come to life.
A few years ago I found Open Range (2003) whilst I was just discovering the western genre, my final year at art-school, I was eager to explore beyond the classic genre, knowing that it starred both Robert Duvall and Kevin Costner both synonymous with the genre. My first reaction to my first viewing of this film was more negative than positive, the pastoral image of the open country that greets us at the start of the film is soon lost to an adult western. And that’s thinking that Stagecoach (1939) was adult, that’s considering it was released over 60 years earlier, the genre has grown up for its time, now here’s another take on a tried and tested plot that allows for more adult cowboys to stand up and be heard. No longer is this a young man’s game.
I think also having watching a few more westerns in between, being able to return to films I first sniffed at has helped a growing maturity that has allowed me to go back to a film that I was considering selling my copy on eBay (glad I didn’t by the way). Also reading more about the genre has opened my mind to what it’s all about, the myth of conquest originally, the birth of a new nation filled with hopes, dreams and all the danger that came with it.
Returning to the pastoral location of the west we find four men, two running the cattle outfit and two hired hands, grazing their cattle on land that is the property of cattle baron Denton Baxter (Michael Gambon) who practically owns the law and the town, trying to run these men off his land. So far it’s nothing new really, yet its the older men pushing each other around, each set in their ways, It’s only when the hired hands Mose and Button (Abraham Benrubi are caught in the middle, making the quarrel personal, its time to sort things out once and for all.
The remaining men ride back into town, stopping at the doctor’s house, home also to Sue Barlow (Annette Bening) who nurses the young Button. Leaving the two men to in town, revenge and justice is now on their minds. We have to wait the rest of the film for the final showdown which is indeed worth the wait, filled with personal exploration of both Boss Spearman (Duvall) and Charley Waite (Costner) more-so Waite a former civil war solider suffering from Post traumatic stress disorder, a condition that was not to be first diagnosed until well into the next century, dealt in 1800’s America with understanding from a gravelly older partner, something that would more likely have been met with bottling up your emotions and carrying on. Becoming more dangerous with a few guns strapped to his belt.
Its Spearman and Sue’s combined input that allows Charley to start to put to rest his demons before entering into a showdown I’ve not seen the likes of since Pale Rider (1985) and Tombstone (1993) within a more accurate frontier town that sees the townspeople rise up and support the classic stranger see that all men are treated with respect. A long yet not drawn out gun battle, feeling the right length for an all out gunfight. A classic delivery that last far longer than your average 5 minutes before gaining the towns respect.
Open Range is far more than I thought it was, a slow western that is too complex, when it needs to be complex to support a maturer cast who we can see need more than a love interest and wrong doing to see this film through. There is a love of the genre that is woven into the film, from the design of the town, to the cinematography of the landscape. Lead actors who have grown up in the genre, Duvall having been part of the dying classic to its present form. Whilst Costner has breathed new life and energy into a genre that has been tired at time.