Last year I wrote an unused Film Talk which I would like to share with you. A more in-depth look at a comic book hero – that draws closely to the Western genre. It’s a continuation of my exploration of the genre that my practice explores. Logan (2017) is one if the rare comic book films that I’ll actually sit down at watch. Partly because I grew up watching the TV show as a child. Also the film, much like Deadpool (2016 & 18) is far darker than the lighter MCU that has become so popular over the last decade. It’s easy to draw comparisons between the two genres, they touch at many points, Logan or Wolverine is a character that requires further examination.
Tonight I’d like to explore and share a passion of mine, the Western. Logan (2017), which can be read as a Western. Taking my original review of the film as a starting point I have explored and expanded by research to find richer connections to the film. I’ll be focusing on one aspect of the genre – the gunfighter. Looking a few key films – The Gunfighter (1950), Shane (1953) and Unforgiven (1992). Showing clips together with comparisons to Logan.
Historically gunfighter’s such as Billy the Kid, Jesse James and Younger gang, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’s Wild Bunch first reach notoriety due to the cheaply and mass-produced dime novel that first created the characters and situations that produced the folk-law, which Hollywood has used as source material since the birth of film.
The Gunfighter is in fact a 20th century creation post WWII taking two forms. “…in which professionalism in the arts of violence is the hero’s defining characteristic. These new takes on the Western were shaped by the internal logic of genre development, which fostered a certain kind of stylization of the Western and its hero and by the pressures and anxieties of the post-war/Cold War transition…The consonance between the formal character of the gunfighter Western and its ideological content is a genuinely poetic achievement. It gave the gunfighter films ideological and cinematic resonance and made heroic style of the gunfighter an important symbol of right and heroic actions for filmmakers, the public, and the nation’s political leadership.”
Gunfighter Nation – Richard Slotkin, Pg. 379-80
Using this thinking it’s easy to translate the loner gunfighter figure to the comic book universe – Wolverine or Logan who we’ve seen cinematically struggle with his position and circumstances as a mutant in the X-Men universe. Born in the 19th with his natural mutations – claws and healing are transformed in the 20th century by a Dr. Rice. His bony claws becomes Adamantinium a fictional metal that in turn creates the killing machine who has already learned to block out his violent past, the 20th century has transformed into a living Winchester rifle or Colt gun.
The film depiction of Wolverine has been seen on-screen and portrayed by Hugh Jackman since X-Men (2000) a character that has become a favourite among fans, relatable in terms of him being an outsider, unable to fit in with society or even those who he lives with – the X-Men. So almost 20 years later his story has now come full circle and has come to it’s natural end for both actor and character in Logan.
Set in the year 2029, we have avoided the apocalyptic future as depicted in Days of Futures Past (2014) where we last saw Logan. We find Logan is driving a limo under his birth name of James Howlett, he’s living and nursing his old mentor Charles Xavier who has a dementia which is only amplified with his mutant abilities; making an episode of confusion more devastating thanks to his telepathic and telekinetic abilities, which we see twice in the film. They are living over the border in Mexico, a common location in the Western for outlaws and gunfighter’s to hide out and escape the law. They are living with an albino – Caliban (Stephen Merchant) who we learn is a human sat-nav. Logan is in rough shape, he struggles to keep up with every passing battle, be it with humans or mutants. His time is slowly up, the ability to heal is starting to fail him.
Turning to the history of the gunfighter in the genre, we first see one depicted in
The Gunfighter. Played by Gregory Peck, Johnny Ringo is an obscure gunfighter found by the films writer Andre DeToth, who found him in Eugene Cunningham’s Triggernometry; A Gallery of Gunfighters (1934). There is little known about this outlaw apart from
“… a few vicious murders, a reputation for heavy drinking, and a couple of intriguing mysteries. He was said to have had a cultured manner (evidenced by an ability to quote Shakespeare) and to have been the scion of an aristocratic southern family ruined in the Civil War. He also died mysteriously, murdered, murdered by someone who gave him no chance to draw, and his draw, and his reputation was such that chief suspect bragged that he has done it.”
Gunfighter Nation – Richard Slotkin, – Pg. 383
This first set of clip’s comes from the beginning of The Gunfighter, Ringo’s played by arrives in a town saloon where he wants to find an old lover and mother to his son. He’s instantly recognised and comes with a built-in unwanted celebrity status. He just wants to keep a low profile, meet his kid and start his life over. And then we see Logan has stopped to buy some medication for Xavier, before meeting Pierce
We can see that Logan is still plagued by a fading celebrity status and hero-worship; Pierce another mutant with a robotic arm has done his research on him and is in awe of him.
The film is set in a future where it’s thought that no more Mutants have been born, so the genes are dying out, they are a dying race. Much like the gunfighter’s who are either being killed off or have been caught by the law that has been spreading West through the country. The gunfighter has been outmoded.
“The gunfighter enters the narrative already knowing that the Wild West’s promise of fame and power (or of redemption) is an illusion; that the vision of the Frontier as limitless in its possibilities for the personal and social perfection is a mirage; and that he himself has been rendered isolated and vulnerable by the very things that have made him victorious in the past”
Gunfighter Nation – Richard Slotkin, Pg. 390
We can see that Logan is very much like Ringo, there’s a short scene where he’s cleaning pus from off his claw, they aren’t functioning as well as they used to.
I mentioned earlier the film is set in a time of no new mutants, this is before the introduction of Laura, a genetically engineered child, born in the lab – by Transigen – a pharmaceutical company who have raised Laura and others for the purposes of developing and passing on the mutant genes to the wider population. She acts as a baton passing in the universe to carry on the Wolverine role. Logan has a hard time accepting their relationship. Laura being younger is naturally far stronger, agile and full of rage like her father has.
She brings her a number of X-Men comics, a self referential tool that connect us to the roots of the wider marvel universe and the creation of Western legend. The superhero equivalent of the dime novel, which I’ll touch on later.
About half way through the film Logan, Laura and Xavier are on the run from Transigen. They are in a hotel room, a classic passing place in the Western. Where by chance (or directors choice) to find Shane is on TV. It’s commented on a few times during those short scenes, given emphasis and lines even raised at the end of the film.
To see how Shane operates in Logan we need to discuss the code that a gunfighter and by extension Logan has tried to live by. For Shane (Alan Ladd) he has chosen to live by this code and so has his counterpart Wilson (Jack Palance) at the final showdown
“The exchange between Shane and Wilson is formal and stylized, and both men appear conscious that they are going through a familiar, predictable, even trite, but nonetheless essential, ritual.”
Gunfighter Nation – Richard Slotkin, Pg. 399
Firstly they both respect each other as gunfighter’s, giving each other proper chance, not much time but the chance to draw their guns before attempting to kill each other. The would only do so facing each other. As Westerns have taught us, it’s frowned upon to shoot in the back, or whilst the others unarmed. Lastly they only fight with just cause, Shane has no personal debt to take up Wilson, it take an insult to finally goad him into action. Then Shane can kill him, freeing the homesteaders and farmers to live in peace and not fear Ryker (Emile Meyer) and his men. Logan has attempted to live by a code, one instilled by his mentor Xavier who wanted to fight when only necessary and to pick your fights wisely.
Returning to the X-Men comics, which are the universes dime novels. Superheroes are living in the same era as the publication, much like Buffalo Bill, although he worked with the writers to build and establish his own legend that formed the myth of the West.
“…in a Ned Buntline dime novel published in 1869 and stage melodrama that premiered in 1871. [William] Cody has already acquired a word of mouth reputation as an excellent scout and hunting guiding, but after 1869 his newly acquired dime-novel celebrity made his name familiar to a national audience while linking it with spectacular and utterly fictitious adventures”
Gunfighter Nation – Richard Slotkin Pg. 69
The X-Men comics contain a myth that Laura buys into, believing that the coordinates in one of the issues are real for a place called Eden in North Dakota. Borrowing directly from that universe to inform the film. Logan tries to explain to the young girl out the truth behind these comics.
The dime novel writer does play a minor role in the screen Western, usually sitting on the side-lines of the films events. Talking to the gunfighter and others in between the shoot-outs. Usually a small guy with glasses and would never carries a gun, his weapon of choice is his pen, and the words he writes. A strong example of writer can be found in Unforgiven, is W.W. Beauchamp played by Saul Rubinek. We see him taking notes from Little Bill Daggett – Gene Hackman of how fact and fiction of an event differ. He has to wait for the troubled gunfighter William Munny – Clint Eastwood the personification of the genre.
These next clips see Beauchamp learning the truth about English Bob (Richard Harris) whose in jail after refusing to handover his guns. Whilst in Logan, the reality of the comic books being demystified to Laura
Munny is much like Logan in that they have tried to give up that part of their life to function as a family man. Logan is still plagued by the effect of the violence he has inflicted on others. Munny can’t really remember as he was usually drunk at the time of his killings. Whilst Logan tries to repress those memories and the emotions connected to them. Here he is confronted with a blurred mythologised version of his own life story. When Munny is faced with his first killing in years he is very rusty and not engaged in the act of killing from the outset.
“A shot of Munny with the barrel in the foreground and foreshadows his eventual decision to take decisive and deadly action…Ned pleads that he cannot shoot the prone boy and Munny stretches towards the front of the frame and grabs the gun…he has crossed the line into the world of violence.”
Film as Genre – John Sanders – Pg. 64
The tired gunfighter is mirrored in the two fights between Logan and 23 – the genetically engineered mutant – based on Logan’s DNA, a far superior, younger, stronger version of the aging Logan who we see struggling to keep up, regenerate and fight. Lets see both fights in these clips.
The classic Western went out of it’s way to mythologise the West, it’s history and sell it to the audience. The modern Revisionist Westerns such as Unforgiven and Logan wanted to demystify that myth, however by the close of Logan it deviates from the to reinforces it’s own myth. The comic books are based more on reality than Logan gives them credit. The printed legend has become fact.
Lastly I’d like to take a look at the bloody fight between Logan and 23 on the North Dakota and Canadian border. Logan has taken a full dose of a drug that increases his performance, he’s pumped up with man-made adrenaline. It works to a point, his own fragility soon returns, nature has won out ultimately. Again looking at Unforgiven, Munny switches from old family man to bloody thirsty killer.
“He’s back in the mode of mayhem. And he doesn’t care. He’s his old self again, at least for the moment. He doesn’t miss a beat while he loads his rifle and talks to the journalist. Before, he’s been very rusty, having trouble getting on his horse, he wasn’t shooting very well. He wasn’t nailing people with the first shot. Now, when he goes on this suicidal mission, he’s all machine. He not only coldly murders Daggett at point-blank range but he shoots some bystanders with no more compunction than someone swatting a fly.”
Eastwood – Interview
Ride, Boldly Ride – Mary Lea Bandy & Kevin Stoehr – Pg 264
It takes a killing of his friend to cross that line into his violent past. For Logan it’s the survival of a younger generation and a paternal instinct towards Laura. Both men are driven by primal and personal urges.
With every gunfight there are deaths, but rarely the hero, Logan is buried and read over by Laura, reciting a Shane’s goodbye speech to Joey. It’s a little broken but the message remains in tact; that leading a violent life can only lead to a lonely life, one away from society and those you love.
Logan heavily relies on rich lineage of cinematic and printed history to say goodbye to one of the most iconic Marvel characters – Wolverine. Through the films and comic books we have seen a tortured man, who has generated an aura of celebrity status in some circles. Much like the Wild West gunfighter whose skill with a gun raises him to a position of awe and wonderment – a celebrity which comes at a great cost
“The existence of his profession is in itself an implicitly hard-boiled commentary on the nature of American society; and the psychic isolation his profession begets gives the gunfighter the alienated perspective he needs to articulate such a critique: What sort of society is it in which those who have money can hire a killer? And what kind of people are we, that our strong men find such work to their liking? But more important than his critical function is the gunfighters embodiment of the central paradox of America’s self image in an era of Cold War “subversion,” and the thermonuclear balance of terror; our sense of being at once supremely powerful and utterly vulnerable, politically dominant and yet helpless to shape the course of critical events.”
Gunfighter Nation – Richard Slotkin – Pg 383
I was hoping for a full weekend in the studio after what feels like I’m spending less and less time of late. I think my wish to do 2 days might not happen, due to my needing to take a mental break from things, taking it easier for a time. I’ll see how I feel tomorrow and go from there.
On a better note I’ve finally upgraded the saloon. I find that the buildings with balcony’s are always the most complicated to make. Usually at a larger scale taking a few days to complete. I knew that this upgrade would face some of the same challenges, the only difference being the scale. Once I had the dimensions – here the front is slightly shorter in length, this was compensated by the 3 sided walk-way.
I made the mistake of adding the balcony before the classic saloon doors were added, meaning I struggled to get it complete for a time. My access to the bottom half was restricted, meaning I had to draw some of the measurements from guess work or carefully aligning rulers to get the dimensions before cutting. I added a false entrance so that a figure can be placed inside.
Once the door was finally under way I returned to the balcony and the external stairway at the rear. I decided not to detail the stairs so I have a smooth incline not the steps that usually are one of the hardest pieces to achieve, even harder at this scale. Maybe a future model miniature at this scale might get more attention in terms of that level of detail, for now I want to keep the gestures lose.
Looking back on this model I’m glad I focused on it for the whole day, it really needed that time. I want to get back in the studio, ultimately it’s down to how I feel tomorrow.
Admittedly a day later than planned, I’ve found the time to share yesterdays events in the studio. The aim of the day was to make 2-3 pieces, I made 2, which I’m happy with considering the work that has gone into them. The first being the bank, which I wanted to redesign as I didn’t want the old design with a stone design. After a bit of research I decided upon a wood front with staggered sides. It was a real change for me, having to consider each side more as it came together. Finished it off with a classic detail at the top.
The next I found that my making had taken another step forward, a new blacksmith, moving away from the similar designs that the old series had. Some research later I came up with a piece that required a canopy section on the side, with walls attached, I needed a floor that connected into the main building. This required some false walls so everything connected up. The walls only run up so high as they act as an illusion too. Working from another piece as a template I reduced the roof slightly so that it has a more unique design, I don’t the pieces to look too similar now they are being upgraded.
Lastly, or should I say firstly, not long after getting into the studio I added the last rail to the ramp I’ve been working on. Hopefully this piece will now be complete, I’m think of next making a water tower, which will be an interesting process as it will be a combination of balsa for the tower at a reduced height with all the structural support, alongside the water tank itself. Again this will be a slow process when working purely with balsa wood.
I’ve now got 5 more pieces to make for the town, during which time I’ll also be adding extra detail that started yesterday, I wasn’t happy with the front for the barbers so I fixed a piece on top, and reattached the cylinders on the sides so they appear to be suspended above again. A clock-face was also added to the church, I don’t want these pieces to look to flat a basic, even though they have been fleshed out now.
As I make my way onto the final 5, I wonder where my making skills will develop further, always an achievement no matter how big or small.
The aim of the weekend was to make between 4 to 6 pieces. I’ve made 5, so I’m pretty pleased to have done so many. Each piece comes with it’s own challenges. The first of the day was pretty straight forward in that I had to decide on a flat or raised roof before getting stuck in. The main challenge of the day was the church which was originally just a very flat piece from a VHS box. I had to build it in 3 sections, the main building, the tower and the steeple. As I was working with different angles and butting I had to go slower and constantly look to see how it was going. The height was reduced before the roof was fitted. The tower has a false entrance below so figures could stand and interact with it. Also it’s a nice feature which I’ve been missing from the others recently, pace has been the main objective, I’ll add details later on.
With this two pieces completed I took a sneaky look to learn I have 7 more to go, that at least 3 visits to the studio to get them done. In between all of that I’m still looking at the cardboard train-set, with the ramp getting slowly completed, one side of posts are fixed so I’ve been adding the rail to that side. The other side was disappointing, as all the of the posts had to be re-fixed, hopefully they’ll have fixed in place this time.
Once the town has been upgraded I’ll decide to either turn to the army fort or to another version of the town in ruins, or even something else, lets see where I go next.
Today I set out to make a start on possibly 4-6 model miniatures this weekend in the studio. So far I’ve made a good start; 3 out of 6 isn’t too bad. I’m now in full swing of upgrading the original VHS box based pieces to something far more substantial. I’m not even being picky as to which one I pick to work on next, simply taking the next one I can get my hands on from the box they’re stored in. It’s a good process so I don’t know what I’m getting to work on next. Each one has it’s challenges as I consider how to take this 2 dimensional objects and flesh them out.
Today I upgraded the hardware store, clothing store and barber shop. I want to focus mainly on the barbers as I focused more on this piece. The other two were pretty straight forward once I knew what was needed. I was unsure of how to work with the red and which striped cylinders – a classic feature of any barbers. The originals were suspended over the sides of the sign above. How could I achieve that this time. At this stage I’m not getting the balsa wood out for these pieces. Wanting to stay cardboard based I decided a low-relief response was best. Taking a short length of cardboard tube, sliced down the middle and pulled back enough for a strip of cardboard to join, filling in the gap. I then carefully tore away at another piece of card to wrap around each piece before fixing in place. At the moment I’m OK with how it looks, however I might change so again it’s suspended at the sides, but low-relief still.
Looking at today’s 3 new additions I need to add a little more detail as I have with the stores, so far they are just boxed in objects, they need to be brought to life more and to the same standard.
I then moved on and back to the train set, the ramp that I started last time was now able to have the rails added. So far the posts for the rails have been added, hopefully I can make it safer next time. Working purely with balsa is never a predictable task as you have to be sure that everything is fixed, in place and ready to take on more.
Another day, another Western, I’ve not written so much in a week in a long time. My third Western in a row, something must be going on for me to write such volume in over a year. If I’m honest I’ve been avoiding Rango (2011) for years, thinking that the combination of Johnny Depp and Westerns was going to be a bad idea. That was after the awful The Lone Ranger (2013) that saw him turn the iconic character of Tonto into nothing more than a bloated stereotype, showing that he had no or little respect for a nation that he claims to have family heritage. Both directed by Gore Verbinski But before catching him in a far more interesting multi-layered quirky Dead Man (1995) which breathed some new life into the genre thanks to Jim Jarmusch a director that I’m beginning to warm to. So you have a director to thank, oh and a very brief trailer for this film that made me think, maybe, just maybe I should give this film a chance.
For a kids film it’s a pretty good introduction to a genre that is generally watched by an older generation that grew up with it during the classical period of the genre. Something I am still very jealous about. I do however had good access to some of the best films that the genre produced and the opportunity to read into and beyond the images that captivated a whole generation and a country that holds as part of their culture. So what does Rango do that captivated me so much tonight. Beginning in a contained space I was reminded of a very early Pixar short, a snowman trying to get to the attention of a girl sunbathing in another snow-globe across the shelf. Rango is very reverential of both animation and film as a whole. It’s a spoof with real heart.
The titular Chameleon is essentially a dreamer who has everything he believes he needs in life, escape to his own fantasy world. That’s until his glass world’s smashed, his whole world is literally brought crashing down into the middle of an Arizona/Utah highway where he meets what looks like an Amardillo on its last legs, complete with trye tread running through its body. Advising him to cross to the other side of the road to find water. For some reason – common sense he doesn’t, after seeing what happened to the soon to be dead animal. Early on you can see that the quality of animation is incredible, not knowing at this point that more animals are going to be find in the Wild West town of Dirt, remember this is a kids film.
The town of Dirt works on two levels, one set in the desert with little to no water left to keep the assorted animals that would populate the desert come to inhabit this town that mixes classic 19th century with contemporary features. It’s all done with love and a heap of fun so adults and kids can really enjoy this old Western town. We’re told that we’re witnessing the final days of the dreamer Chameleon who somehow lands on his feet. A stranger who walks into town, soon becoming the sheriff – following a long line of failed men who have died in quick succession trying to keep this dying town alive.
A clever reflection of both the present and past, the lack of money’s mirrored in the drought that has become the sole currency that these animals know and need in order to survive and live. Controlled by the puppet master mayor Ned Beatty – a voice I shall never forgive for being Lotso the Bear in Toy Story 3 (2010), a perfect bit of casting for the turtle that has Dirt in the palm of his hands. Rango has used his gift of performing to his advantage, talking his way into a new life that could very easily come undone in the wrong situation. Depp here is perfect in the role, you could say it’s another version of his bumbling Captain Jack Sparrow who finds his way in and out situations based purely on luck really.
In the West you need a little more than luck, you need a mirage that takes produces a charming tribute to Clint Eastwood when his likeness is found not far from a golf buggy. Known as the The Spirit of the West (Timothy Olyphant) our not so heroic Chameleon has to save the day. It would be a bit much to ask a young audience to buy a mirage of The Duke sadly. The world that Rango’s inhabiting continues to delve into nostalgia of the genre, set around Monument Valley where the animals adventure to find the water that we learn has been stolen, a fun alternative to the classic gold that has been, if you’ll pardon the pun “mined to death” in the genre. It becomes more accessible to kids who may no little or nothing about the West beyond cowboys and Indians that have come to be the defining image of the genre.
Overall Rango is really good fun, which you want for a kids film, with beautifully detailed scenery, the modelling of the characters is equally strong. They are each unique and come with their own backstory, I can remember a chicken dressed as a veteran confederate soldier with an arrow going through one eye and come out around the back of his head. The very logic of his being is even mentioned, these are just citizens to be seen in the background they are integral parts of the town of Dirt. I come away from the film thinking, why did I wait so long for what is a loving animated romp that works for both adults and kids. Sure it’s not a classic, all I know is, I wont be avoiding it in future, instead looking forward to catching it.
It’s always refreshing to see a different side of the Western, a genre dominated by the male, who according to cinema tamed the West for civilisation to out and make it home for everyone back east. However that’s not really how it went. Of course there are plenty of notable male figures who went out there and mapped out the uncharted landscape that was once home to Native American tribes that were more than just an obstacle to overcome (not as the genre would have you believe). Women were part of the families, the farmers, the homesteaders that came out West and made it their own along with the men. Westward the Women (1951) may take certain creative licence in the making of the film. However they too are an essential part of the American story that needs to be addressed and celebrated. Sadly not as much as we would hope. Seen as the figures that stay at home, the dancers or prostitutes that need to be saved, or stay out of sight until they need to save our hero from himself. They have been able to tame their men, not so much the landscape that they would’ve had to travel in the process. These women are the un-celebrated pioneers that made it possible to pit down roots out West and unite the States. Westward the Women goes someway to redressing the balance of their depiction on screen, even within the confines of the early 1950’s I can see some boundaries being crossed.
A land populated with just men was obviously not going to work for long, 4 years was long enough for those in California around 1851 – set exactly a century ago, we see an America that has just started to really be discovered, the fur trade had come to an end, the Cattle trails were about to take off, we had left the gold rush behind. Waiting for the civil war to break out a decade later. There’s a group of men who have been working for Roy E. Whitman (John McIntire) who has been able to make a success of the valley he has cultivated and worked for years. His men need what they have been lacking for quite sometime – sex. There’s no amount of drinking, gambling or fighting can substitute the loving of a good woman. Reinforcing the union of marriage on-screen, we see Whitman recruit the only man who could possibly bring a wagon train of women from back East to marry 100 sex-starved men. Turning to Buck Wyatt (Robert Taylor) who wants nothing to do with women, the prospect of bring back a large number alone is not something he would freely sign up for. We all know he doesn’t need much convincing when a large fee is waved in front of him.
Next thing we know we are in a hall in Chicago, recruiting 150 single women, prepared to travel across dangerous open country to marry men they have never met. Warned of the dangers, we see that not even half of them are prepared for what is ahead of them. The civilised life is all they know, wanting to shake it all loose for something new and unexplored. There not all your typical American’s we have a more international cast, reflecting the different nationalities that made the West their home. I was wondering how the process of recruiting would be carried out, freely signing up and warned of the dangers is what should be expected, not one woman balks at the prospect. Showing that these women at least are willing to meet the men on a level playing field. Before we leave to make the long journey men are recruited separately by Wyatt with one rule – stay away from the women, which makes perfect sense. As little interaction between the guides and passengers would stop any trouble breaking out. Touching on the potential drama that could arise.
Wagon’s begin to roll, there’s a sense of purpose and drive in the women, about to set off for a new life. The easy part is now over. After a few days in wagon train boot camp they set off. It’s a rather muted affair, there’s not soundtrack that lifts the mood, in-fact we have none throughout, a brave choice that allows the women to own the film and the journey. It’s a journey that could easily have taken the route of Red River‘s (1948) long and torturous cattle drive. Seeing Wyatt begin to take on the hardened leader that won’t see his rules broken. Ultimately he’s left with a few men to see them through. Along the way we see the women encounter multiple obstacles that are each given decent time to unfold. That includes the obligatory romance for Wyatt and one of the women – French woman Fifi Danon (Denise Darcel) which feels unnecessary at times. We even have moments where the film could easily pass the Bechdel test, with men restricted they’re forced to talk about the trail and all the trials that come with it.
There’s another journey that Wyatt goes on, that of a growing respect for the women he’s been leading. It’s not easy to learn either, as they take on more and more of the work, to the point that they have to support a wagon that looses a wheel on an alkaline desert, whilst a woman’s in labour (yes we see a pregnant woman on-screen – she wears a larger shirt). They all know what needs to be done and just do it. Shocking the two remaining men in the party. Depicted on-screen as equal if not better than the men at times, having had to prove themselves in the male gaze.
Meeks Cuttoff (2010) is one of the few films that depicts strong women having to make the perilous journey West. Far bleaker than this earlier film that does it’s best to show the women to not be weak, feeble creatures who can’t compete with the men. Kelly Reichardt‘s later film depict women who are more than capable of working alongside the men and even surpassing them. William A. Wellman‘s film is far broader in approach, there’s little time for character studies of all the women in the wagon train. We do however see that they can pull their weight, they are no longer supporting players in the plot or the film as a whole. Ultimately they only relinquish their gender roles for a few months before entering a life of domesticity. Even when they choose the partner from just a photo, they’ll have little control once they settle down into married life.
With over 50 years between both films we have seen as massive change in the depiction of women in the Western. They are no longer just the stay at home wives, they are part of the fabric and history, able to stand up and be as good as the men, sometimes better. Sadly the quality of the films today is still patchy – Jane Got a Gun (2015) with all it’s good intentions is a mess of a film, wanting to give the woman more agency and lot of baggy, fragmented backstory. Unlike the more refined focused Brimstone (2016) that allows a mute woman Liz (Dakota Fanning ) who see defending herself and her family to a satisfying conclusion, her back story is broken up into a more cohesive form with religious overtones that makes sense as the film progresses. Westward the Women is at the beginning of a small strand of the genre that focuses on women that has been lagging behind for far too long. It’s a shame it’s taken so long.
Another really productive day in the studio, I’m really getting stuck into the making process. I began the day producing 3 more lengths of straight train track before making a start on a curved piece. Using my method or carefully drawing out the piece on a sheet of cardboard I have been able to keep the distance between the rails the same. You can really tell the difference in size when they are cut out. I added the sleepers from pre-cut balsa wood. I had to try out how they worked with a train carriage, with the addition of the bogies. Which more or less work, however I feel that the curve is too tight and needs to be loosened up. For a first attempt at this method it’s not bad at all. I can still use a section for straight track.
I then moved on and away from my now much expanded cardboard train-set to return to the pieces I made for the frontier town for Playing with Plastic which are now just in storage. I’m being brutal with them now as I begin to remake them with more substantial cardboard and fleshing them out to be more 3 dimensional than just improvised on VHS boxes. I made a good start today with two pieces, one a stores (which I think is for my Army fort, and a stagecoach depot, using a toy stagecoach for reference. I’ve kept the scale the same, trying to stay true original design of these pieces. I want to keep things as easy as possible so I can move at a good pace as there is a lot to do. I’ll add more detail later on once I have them all. I do however need to make copies of them as burnt out shells, which I’ll use less substantial cardboard for.
I’ve got a long way to go, it will take a few months to produce just one version of them, another will be probably just as long too. In between all of that I’ll be adding a few curved pieces of track to break things up a bit.
A few weeks ago I reached another milestone with my making skills with the ability to make the model miniatures move. Today I have reached another one, I can now construct complex rooftops. Previously I have found this part of any piece I’ve made difficult to get over, going through lots of cardboard before I able to achieve to cover the roof (making it water tight). Today after going through a few ideas for a train station I decided to again as I expanded my cardboard train-set. I found it easier working on a smaller scale, less cardboard was wasted so I wasn’t so worried about things in that respect. I was able to measure out the dimensions and chip away where necessary on each piece of cardboard before fixing in place. I also made sure that they were fixed to a structure that was more secure. I had boxed out the main piece and added triangles for the pieces to fix onto. The side sections were held back until I made a start on the rear as they all interact. I learned that all the pieces affect one another, so equally important. I’m really pleased with it. I could have reduced the height in places but for now and this piece it really works, I may extended outwards at a 180 degrees angle, I’m not sure yet.
I then moved on briefly to look at adding a ramp to the open wagon for goods/horses etc to be un/loaded from it. At the moment I’ve been working with the balsa wood to raise it into position. Next time I’ll start to add a rail on either side.
I them moved onto make a start at adding more track, which is in desperate need now that the set has more than doubled in the last month at the studio. So far I’ve made 3 pieces, 1 very small, I’ll be making 3 more straight pieces before I attempt a few curved pieces, which again are harder to achieve. I do I have a plan which I’ll be putting into action though.
As I look at the train set I can see that I have a long way to go still. I’m really enjoying the making process. I’ve returned to balsa, the perfect companion to cardboard. Once the additional pieces have been made I may make a start on the town or take a break and look at the Army fort, which I want to be more substantial and possibly smaller, something I need to take a look at further.
I’ve recently started to re-watch the Richard Slotkin lectures on the Western genre, he goes into great detail about how the genre was reborn in 1939. From spending the majority of the 1930’s in the obscurity of the B-movie, it was regenerated as part of re-engerising the country during the great depression, encouraging the public to look back and celebrate their recent history. In the past I’ve looked at both Stagecoach and Dodge City, even Union Pacific that were all released during that prolific year in Hollywood history. Another lesser known piece is The Oklahoma Kid (1939) that was part of Warner Brothers attempt to breathe new life into the Western. Slotkin didn’t really have many kind words for the film, putting it down to mis-casting of both James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart who were known more for their gangster roles during the decade. Criminals fighting back against an unfair system. The genre itself was a reformed Western in a different guise, brought up-to-date with tommy guns and speakeasy’s in place of Winchesters and saloons.
I had to see for myself just what The Oklahoma Kid was all about, seeing a younger Cagey and Bogart who are clearly out of their comfort zones. Having previously seen Bogart paired opposite Errol Flynn (who suited the genre) in Virginia City (1940) an unspoken sequel to Dodge City released the previous year. Set up as another chance to see the dashing Aussie in the West, with only a few lines of dialogue to explain his accent, allowing the audience to easily accept him in the Wild West as we wait for him to ride in and save the day. He’s nowhere to be found in The Oklahoma Kid, the other Warners production of 1939. A smaller production that had spent more money on having two big actors share the screen.
It didn’t take long for me to see that Cagney was not really playing the cowboy, he was still the gangster out for himself. We first meet him as he robs sacks of gold meant for the Cherokee nation who had just been forced off thier land in what was fast becoming Oklahoma state. The Kid (Cagney) is seen lurking in the rocks, waiting to make his move on men lead by Whip McCord (Bogart) who have just left a stagecoach. One bad-guy steals from another, there’s no sense of respect for each of them. You admire the Kid’s ingenuity but left wondering whose side is this guy on. He steals money from thieves, why didn’t he join the other men? Does he only work alone like Ringo the Kid (John Wayne) who we know would never commit such a crime. Oklahoma seems to lack any sense if morality. We have yet to learn what McCord is all about, beyond the fact he wants to steal money meant for the poor.
The film is again set-up as a historical Western, much like Dodge City and Union Pacific, allowing us to believe that these events could have happened, we are transported to the era when America was progress, long before the Great Depression. We are nearing the close of the frontier now, set in the mid 1890’s, where not so many future Westerns are set unless it serves a different purpose thematically to the film. We are present at the birth of a new State, settlers have gathered for a land-rush that grounds the film in some sense of history, real or fictional, it sets the scene for progress and the film to unfold. A lot of work goes into the storytelling of both Dodge and Kid the backdrop is seen to be very important.
In most films of the Golden age there is usually a clearly defined hero, however in both Dodge and Kid the heroes are reluctant, more so The Kid as he wants to only help when it serves his own purpose. Leaving our screens to focus on corruption to set into the young town of Tulsa after McCord blackmail’s town founder and future mayor Ned Kincaid (Harvey Stephens) allowing for vices to co-exist with virtue, becoming just another Wild West town full of gambling, alcohol and sex, with the church pushed to the back. Progress is still a long way off for this young town. Bogart’s gang have laid the foundations to own the town of Tulsa, even explaining as much before the land rush is even over. Bending the rules for his own ends.
We meet The Kid again living in a hut, there’s a baby crying, we are led to believe that this could be his baby, who we learn is Mexican as he sing to them in Spanish. Before learning that this is just a hideout, as there’s a $500 reward for him, not that bothers him. Riding into Tulsa to find his father’s Ned Kincaid has been framed for murder, under the penalty of hanging, the traditional punishment in the West. How can this upstanding citizen who ran for mayor be capable of committing such a crime. The Kid or as we learn is the son of Kincaid, the bad son who was left to lead a life of crime. The Kid puts family above all other priorities, as we see his drive to clear his father’s name sees him push for his own form of justice. However his guns only get him so far, when the advice of Jane Hardwick (Rosemary Lane) tells him that he needs the law on his side to do things the right way.
What follows is a showdown that stretches the length of the West as McCord’s men are tracked down and killed. Just like a gangster driving around led by rumours as he tracks down those who have wronged him. The Kid has only his horse and tracks to follow and that’s enough to see him leave only McCord for the final showdown. Staged just like a gangster film we know we aren’t far from the urban streets of the Chicago or New York when it comes to these two leads. Both actors are very much out of their comfort zone here resorting to fisticuffs until one is shot. We never really left the 1930’s, not with Cagney and Bogie together. Run for Cover (1955) sees a far more at ease actor in the genre, having broken free from the tropes and language of a genre that define and typecast him for a decade. Whilst Bogart came into his own during the 1940’s as Film noir and darker roles beckoned for him.
I can see that the money was spent on Dodge City, with the large set pieces and far expanded cast. The Oklahoma Kid still clings to the language of B-Westerns, the sped up horse chase across the open country, the costumes and characters that are mostly 2 dimensional, the running time doesn’t really allow much to happen when we cross so much time during this film. Now I’ve seen practically all the major Westerns of 1939 I can see that some are still trying to make the leap to the big budgets and concepts that allowed it last for over 30 years.