My first encounter with this film was on my birthday during the install of my degree show. I was recommended to watch it by a friend who knew I would like it. That’s an understatement, I loved it. My memory of High Plains Drifter (1973) has long since faded, all I could remember was the ghoulish red town and the whipping flash-backs which stay with you long after the credits have rolled. In terms of the western genre this has more in common with its Italian cousin, the spaghetti western which strictly speaking are not westerns, they have the form of the genre but don’t really have the language of the American full-breed which if I’m honest are less violent during their greatest period. The violence was exploited and amplified. Once you get over the dubbing of all but the American star of the film (Lee Van Cleef, Clint Eastwood et al.) you have this pumped up action film with more sex and violence than you’d have found to that point in the home of the genre. They didn’t carry the legendary status in the characters as subtly as Shane (1953), having built them up in the opening titles as these already fastest guns in the west-types such as Django (1966) where we are treated to another installment. Back home they’re stirred into action, not wanting to fight and draw their guns so easily, having more progression in the gunfighters.
Looking at Clint Eastwood’s influences his time with Sergio Leone strongly influenced him, the violence the stranger with no name, the anti-hero who you end up routing for comes out on top. His first western behind the camera he is still find his own unique voice, one he is adopting from the persona of the man with no name. The tone of Drifter is very European, its hard to sum up in a few sentences, the town looks freshly built, making it more become a backdrop that standout, it’s a newish town that is trying to sustain itself. Laying it’s foundations next to a lake that seems too close for comfort, suggesting it could all be washed away in stormy night. It all becomes very fragile. The town of Lago is actually another character that’s abused in the film (more about abuse later) which we see is transformed, blown up and eventually burnt down. Its part on the film is on some levels more important than the people who inhabit it.
Turning to the townspeople I’m reminded of Bad Day at Black Rock (1955) a town with a dark secret that is bubbling on the surface ready to spill over. Except we don’t have a strong replacement for the mean Robert Ryan who did actually scare the life out of Spencer Tracy (during filming) who was the outsider looking for the truth. The secrets a lot looser here as the film takes on more of a horror tone, Clint’s not giving us a straight Western, it’s a Western-Horror complete with flashbacks which you don’t really see in genre, that plague your mind. A sequence which is played out at least twice but feels a lot more in the mind. It’s the conscience of the town put on the screen.
There is also a strong influence of The Magnificent Seven (1960) or should I say more precisely The Seven Samurai (1954) a cowardly town turn here to one outsider (not seven) that is more dangerous than the men they have been home to for at least a year that have played host to that have just been killed. Except these are all Mexicans who are fighting off bandito’s, they are American citizens who should by rights be able to pick up a gun and fight without fear. They seen off the Mexicans and almost solved the “Indian problem“, why are they so afraid? They need Clint’s stranger who doesn’t really care for them at all. Which leads me back to the flashbacks which are very important in our understanding of who he is, or in fact was. He is not so much flesh and blood as he has ghostly presence, he knows more about the town than he lets on. I believe he is ghost of the whipped town Marshall Jim Duncan (Buddy Van Horn) who we see in versions of the same scene that we’re reminded off. It’s the reason that The Stranger is here, the reason the town’s scared of the men who will be riding back for revenge after a year in prison. We follow these men back, they are ruthless in their journey, killing for horses, clothes and fun, these are dangerous men for sure.
The Stranger’s presence in Lago shakes everything up, from his first hours he has raped a woman Sarah Belding (Verna Bloom) which is brutal to watch, yet filmed from the woman’s perspective a glimmer of what is to come from Unforgiven (1992) nearly 20 years later. As much as Eastwood is a feminist he wants to come across as the revengeful type who will take what he wants. Maybe this was Duncan’s lover, we just don’t know. We do know that she vocal in her experience to the law who simply want to pacify her modern views that wont be accepted until the next century. We don’t linger as much on the rape as we do in Eastwood’s later film which hinges on request of the prostitute who places a bounty on the man who disfigured her. From a lower position in society they are exerting more power than the men who want to keep both cases quiet. Ironically their next encounter is much more consensual after working his charm and danger, as if he has broken a horse in, now he simply has to ride it when he wants (yes I know it’s a poor analogy but suits the film).
Here in Lago having The Stranger in town is very much to their advantage who abuses that power. From the beginning he turns things on there head. With a free card to do as he please, have what he wants he makes the much small person Mordecai (Billy Curtis) the sheriff and mayor of the town, the butt of the jokes, is placed in the strongest position behind the stranger. He’s not there for comedy with Clint who wants to play with these people who are fighting themselves more than they had before. It’s chaos in Lago. In-fact Mordecai’s built up, from being this typically comedic role to one of great importance, he uses his position to abuse those who have given him s*** for years, now it’s his turn. He is also another way into the past of the town, he too has a connection to the late Marshall, which may lead to his role in the film being so prominent.
I could go on forever about this film there is a lot going on so I’m going to turn instead to the ending which once again got me thinking of another piece I could make in the future, as the town is literally painted red, bringing new meaning to the phrase, which ironically has roots in my home county of Leicestershire in the town of Melton Mowbray when the Marquis ran riot causing mayhem and literally painting the town red in places. This is too strong to be coincidence, turning the idea on its head so the townspeople are causing the mayhem, they are preparing themselves, practically inviting the trouble. Renaming the town Hell, which has move to the surface of the Earth. The town can be seen far quiet a distance now, in one uniform colour of bright fake-blood.
All brought about by Eastwood’s ghost which is more than just showing up the town. He is getting revenge on them all, luring them into a false sense of security before deaths unleashed upon them. The role of the gunfighter’s turned on its head, no longer is he the gun for hire or protector of the people he is using his position to induce fear and draw it from his own past. Could he be the devil as the film draws to a close, he rode literally out of nothing and back into nothing, as if the ghost can now rest peacefully knowing that he has settled his unfinished business. Eastwood early on is showing that the standard western has to change, with his Italian influences and the changing language of cinema. You could say this is more fun than the formulaic Western but that would be ignoring the level of violence and rape that goes on. He is definitely pushing the boundaries of what you can do with the genre which he is reshaping in his image.
- High Plains Drifter (1973) (westernsontheblog.blogspot.co.uk)
- High Plains Drifter as Social Commentary (thewesternwordslinger.blogspot.co.uk)
- High Plains Drifter (1973) (buddiesinthesaddle.blogspot.co.uk)
- Clint Eastwood’s film High Plains Drifter (1973) (tim-shey.blogspot.co.uk)
- High Plains Drifter (1973) (sonofcelluloid.blogspot.co.uk)
- High Plains Drifter (nothingiswrittenfilm.blogspot.co.uk)
- High Plains Drifter (1973) (commonsensemoviereviews.blogspot.co.uk)
- HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER (1973) (cinefilestv.blogspot.co.uk)
- High Plains Drifter (Universal, 1973) (jeffarnoldblog.blogspot.co.uk)
- High Plains Drifter (1973) (voyagesextraordinaires.blogspot.co.uk)
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.
- GSK Faces a Bad Day at Black Rock (tfoxlaw.wordpress.com)
- Bad Day at Black Rock (1955) John Sturges (twentyfourframes.wordpress.com)
- Two screen-specific scenes from Bad Day at Black Rock (filmschoolthrucommentaries.wordpress.com)
- Bad Day at Black Rock (1001films.wordpress.com)
To mark just over a year ago since my chat/discussion/conversation with professor Neil Campbell of American Studies at Derby University, I feel I should share that conversation, to allow you all to understand more where I am coming from, my position on the Western, from my degree show piece and my fascination with the Western genre. I will link the conversation back to my writing on some of the films that we discussed
Q. Why did the Western genre lose popularity in the late 60’s?
A. The impact of television was clearly apart of that. The Television programs in that genre, was saturating the market. The genre was more accessible to viewers, here and in the U.S. Hollywood had to look to other styles or forms to gain their audiences. There was also the political climate, that of the civil rights movement that had reached a high, with riots and the death of Martin Luther King. Jr. Also the American people were beginning to question the conflict in Vietnam. This also questioned American values. In-turn the style of the Westerns didn’t tap into that at all. Being covered by the likes of John Wayne and John Ford, who were going into decline themselves. The Western doesn’t die it simply takes different forms. The classic formula was that a problem needs to be solved, the people can’t solve it, so a hero arrives. The film becomes action packed, solving the problem with violence. The classic John Ford’s fit the age anymore, being based on mythologies. Younger people are looking for something else. New directors like Sam Peckinpah, and Robert Altman who directed McCabe and Mrs Miller (1971) and Arthur Pen who directed both Left Handed Gun (1958) and Little Big Man (1970). The genre is seen now as Post Western, films about the West in the 20th and 21st century, such as No Country for Old Men (2007), that alters and plays around with the genre. The idea of the hero is now too simplistic. People don’t want to question the myth, as it sacrilegious to do so; it’s the national narrative, best seen in the Western. Today people are more cynical and sophisticated. Open Range (2003) is a classic western but also modern, so it’s like a Ford, but the Ford Western can no longer be sustained. It survives in a new form, the Contemporary America, using Western elements. So the Western has to adapt to the times to survive. The classic Western genre will always have a place, as apart of the culture, but also seen as a product of it times that tried to adapt, but was lost in the idea of the hero. Too simplistic to really survive when political tensions increased around the world and at home concerning America. The WWII required escapism, to have heroic figures saving the day, and seeing America as a place for possibilities and progress, the American dream.
Q. How has the depiction of the Native Americans effected their identity, their political position and racially?
A. In the classic western the Native Americans were seen as inferior, they had secondary importance. This produced a stereotype. They were seen amongst other obstacles to be overcome in order to progress. They were treated as just material. There was slow recognition to see them as human, not wanted to be seen on the same level as white people. Their importance really increased around the time of the civil rights movements. Hollywood had to acknowledge this. At the time of films such as Gone with the Wind (1939) they didn’t have the vote. John Ford tried to explore this through his films Cheyenne Autumn (1964) and Sergeant Rutledge (1960) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). The minorities gradually become more human and less stereotyped. However things don’t really change until the Native Americans start to make their own films, in Post Westerns, but not in the Western style, such as Smoke Signals (1998) by director Chris Eyre, being set in a contemporary reservation. The film acknowledges the stereotypes are now apart of their identity, but seen critically and ironically, drawing stupidity out, they can laugh at it. Films such as Little Big Man (1970) is a civil rights film about the Native Americans, with lines such as “Sometimes it’s a good day to die”. Dances with Wolves (1990) however Campbell sees it as actually quite limited . Sadly there are not many Native American films being made, as they can’t get access to funding.
Q. How has the depiction of Early America been distorted by film?
A. It’s all about the myth; the first movies that were made during the silent era were about the West. At that time, the frontier was still out there. The Indian wars were still going on. There was a gap between the frontier and the Western expansion; these two grew up together. They had a ready-made landscape which could be mythicized. Dime novels that were being published created heroes out of gunfighter’s, for instance Jesse James who has recently been portrayed by Brad Pitt (in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007). Beachamp follows up the idea of the Duke of Death in Unforgiven (1992). The dime novels mythicized the West. This was symbiotic in radio and film and the myth takes over. People don’t care for the real West, they are more persuaded by the myth where the hero walks away and we forget the violence. The real record of the West is by the photographers such as Muybridge in landscapes that he took, the photographs are slightly more honest, but get sucked away. Ansell Adams photographs are more empty, there is no community, how America was. Films such as Heavens Gate (1980) and The Deer Hunter (1978) by director Michael Cimino depict the West more honestly regarding immigration, when people just arrived off the boats. John Ford being an Irishman, depicted immigrants but using broken English, at a time in reality when there were all sorts of languages in the country. This is explored more in Deleuze’s Cinema 1 & 2. By 1945, things changed dramatically when WWII ended. The Neo-Western was coming into being. Ford represented the old style of Western. Directors such as Altman and Peckinpah were directors of the changing genre. The genre had to find a new form; life was no longer simple. They can’t go back to the American dream, or maybe not so, with films such as No Country for Old Men (2007). Also films such as Bad Day at Black Rock (1954) by John Sturges, which was so different with slow ponderings, looking at the internal space and the landscape, looking at war and racism. The Misfits (1961) set in the Nevada open desert starring Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable. The film was based on a book by Arthur Miller directed by John Huston. The film Lone Star (1996) starring Kris Kristofferson set in the modern West, with classic elements but certainly looks at new ideas.
Q. Do you believe the majority of our knowledge of the West now comes from films?
A. In short, yes in Europe and America, only through the images, T.V. adverts and art etc, which take aspects of the mythologies. There are lots of examples of distortion, which come from 19th century American Art. I’m recommended to look at West is America, an art collection that was held in the 1990’s. The paintings are mythical, by the likes of Russel, Remington and Beerstat, from which the film-makers borrow from their art. Where as the work of Adams is not original, borrowings from paintings, and film borrows from photographs.
Q. Do you think that the Native Americans have fair representation in film and politically?
A. Yes, generally, but it depends on the voices being heard, more so now through the news, painting and films. However there are problems that still exist, people’s perceptions are broadly better and fairer, but still thought to always have feathers. There’s a film called The Exiles (1961) about a group of Native Americans who move to Los Angeles from a reservation, after being encouraged by the government. They found difficulties with alcohol, poverty and employment. However they are not shown as victims. The Urban world is so different from where they came from. Lastly the films of Sergio Leone lean towards the New Western genre.