If it wasn’t for John Wayne having a scheduling conflict we may not have had the Ranown cycle. He was supposed to be playing the lead in the latest Budd Boetticher film that his company was producing. However he was about to start on The Searchers (1956) instead of leaving his director and film without a lead he recommended a good friend of his – Randolph Scott the role. It was the start 7 film partnership that would form the Ranown cycle created by the actor and director. Making their own Monument Valley out of Lone Pine, another iconic and ready-made stage for the myth of the West to be played out in.
It’s been just under a year since I reviewed made my last entry regarding this series of films, as I remember some films were stronger than others, now I have come full circle and back to the beginning with Seven Men from Now (1956) which really set-up the formula which was reworked in the majority of the seven films. We begin with a stormy night, getting the drama going straight away, a tall and water-soaked figure walks away from the camera to the rocks in search of shelter. It’s the ever reliable and stoic Scott playing Ben Stride who finds a campfire, keeping two men warm. It’s all cosy now, asking for a cup of coffee, when we learn he has lost his horse sometime ago in a gunfight, he’s been walking all day, tired and wet from a very long day. The two men grow suspicious when they discover he was a sheriff, reaching for their guns, the camera cuts away amidst gunshots, before we see Scott riding away with two horses, him on the back of one. The only survivor, but was it out of murder or survival. I carry this dark thought with me for a few minutes, questioning his motives, is he the man I know on the screen or someone whose out of a ride for revenge.
As always he rides alone and prefers it, enjoying the company of no one unless he really has to, which comes in the form of the Greer’s a couple traveling to California. Annie (Gail Russell) and John (Walter Reed) a poor excuse for a man who is struggling to get his wagon out of a muddy patch of ground. How has he gotten this far without being killed by gunfighter’s, cowboys or even worse Chiricahua’s who are on the loose. Surrounded by danger from the unseen and his own lack of manhood. Yet Annie has stayed with him, there must be more to him than meets the eye. Stride the gentlemen he is begins to ride with them, out of duty for the couple who have somehow survived this far into the West.
So as much as he wants to be alone with his tortured thoughts as he acts as guide and security for the traveller’s. We learn later on more of his past when they stop at a way station and the arrival of Bill Masters (Lee Marvin) and Clint (John Beradino) join him, they know more than the Greer’s who are just happy to be resting. We learn that the sheriffs wife was killed during a Wells Fargo robbery, a crime that Stride couldn’t stop, loosing his position in town soon after. He’s not only lost his wife but his position in society. He’s only a man with a debt to settle with the men who killed his wife.
There are similar back-stories throughout the Ranown cycle that have created these complicated characters for Scott to play, this is just the first of them, he’s digging deep into the psychology of the men he plays. Before we learn more we see who Masters is when they face a raiding party of Chiricahua’s who up until now have been spoken about. They are soon taken care of revealing his true colours, shooting a captive man in the back. Was he one of the seven shot down leaving six for Stride to take aim at, or was he being protected, funny how he was shot in the back though.
This is one of Marvin’s larger supporting roles before rising up to top billing. We can see how this clearly more physical actor can psychologically get under the skin of our hero. Sharing the Greer’s wagon shares a story, comparing one woman to Annie, who naturally pales in comparison, taking aim at both husband John and Stride who he was aiming at more. He doesn’t need a bullet to get under his skin, whilst John’s too cowardly to defend his wives honor. This Western is not just one of action and guns, its one of the mind, making it stand out from the standard B western.
Technically we can see that the look of the films in the series is being established, the imagery of Lone Pine. Visually it’s a bit hit and miss, editing is not as slick as it can be. The cinematography is starting to show signs of something greater, however the focusing can be distracting when we cut to a new scene. That’s not to take away from what is otherwise on-screen and in the script.
I’d forgotten how short and sweet these films really are, it’s a lean film coming in at under 80 minutes. We are soon back in civilisation where more characters are met, led by Payte Bodeen (John Larch) who is possibly the leader of these men. We also learn where the money is that has been with the Greer’s the whole time. The guilt of Strides past has never really left him, taking the money into his own care, taking responsibility, ultimately taking action for the loss of his wife and position. It’s a twist I forgot was even in the film, showing that it’s been a long time since my last viewing and just how well the film works as it moves to the finale as we see the characters all being revealed for who they are, they’ve all been hiding something from us and ultimately themselves. I’ll leave you with a clip from Blazing Saddles (1974) which just shows how much I have missed Randolph Scott on my screen and the imprint he has made on the genre.
Nearly 4 years ago I revisited Blazing Saddles (1974) that was before I really understood it beyond the surface level reading of the film which is perfectly valid. However the more I have read about the Western genre, the more I can understand this comedy Western, which I’m sure is still the most profitable of the genre, reaching beyond the male dominated audience to reach one far broader who would never usually seek out a Cowboy film.
So lets remember what I discovered originally (briefly) before moving on to a darker and in-depth
- The fart joke – “Of course Saddles was the first film to feature a fart joke, which again i found hilarious, yet for different reasons, as many films depicted cowboys camping, sitting around a fire eating beans, which must if you think about it create a lot of wind if that is all you eat for a while. Acting as not just a joke but a great comment on the genre, something that you wouldn’t first think about.”
- Black Sheriff – “The major flipping of convention is the casting of an African American in the lead role and as the sheriff (Cleavon Little) placing him in a world that is still coming to terms the emancipation of slaves, especially in the South, which as we see took it hard, not with a second agenda that is never revealed to the people of Rock Ridge when Bart is made sheriff by rail-road baron Hedley Lamarr (Harvey Korman) (not to be confused with Hedy Lamarr) makes him sheriff of a town ear-marked for demolition by the workers for the laying of more track. A clever way’s needed to scare of the people, without buying the land which would be a long drawn out process.”
- Flat-pack town – “Everything about the genre is more rigorously challenging the conventions of the genre more than the earlier Cat Ballou (1965) which was more introvert in it’s exploration. A very big gag that’s played out to fool the enemy before they finally enter the town is to build a replica of fronts to recreate the town, down to the smallest detail. The very aesthetic of the genre’s mocked. The fourth walls broken many times, something that very few films do, and something Brooks has done time again to great success.”
Now moving to a more political angle of the film which Westerns have been used time and again to reflect the thinking of modern American politics both at home and abroad. The Vietnam War may have been over for a few years and troops now home, however the nation was still reeling from the images and the trauma that’s brought home with the veterans of what was a national shame. So take the politics of the war and spread it across the Wild West.
The war on Communism becomes the spreading the railway from East to West, the latest stretch reaching just outside Rock Ridge a small town in the way of progress, or the progress in the form that modern America wants. That’s not before we meet our soon to be Sheriff Bart (Cleavon Little) who along with other railroad workers do not play-up to the stereotypes that the genre and cinema have reinforced, singing a modern American standard, in the face of an ol’ time tune by the white Americans who are the idiots. The perception of the others underestimated, much like the 5 stages communist occupation, that the Eisenhower administration started out with being used by the North Vietnamese were using, taking China’s lead, instead of considering that is could be adapted for their own culture.
Moving forward past the N***** jokes which still hit, playing up the ignorance of the white town, afraid of the until then (1874) freed slaves. There is a town meeting, the second that they have in the film. Where the leaders of the town stand there is a board, all Johnson’s, with different initials, it’s the same regime under a different member of the family that has gone unquestioned for seemingly decades or centuries, this is the norm of the town, a black Sheriff, a foreigner coming into, supposed to infiltrate in the guise of law enforcement from the enemy soon becomes an ally. It’s like the soldiers over in Vietnam who saw the madness joined in with the natives and fought back. It’s treason but acceptable in the Wild West where.
Bart and Jim (The Waco Kid) (Gene Wilder) see past the sides they are supposed to be upon, defined by politics, genre and history to take on the corrupt establishment. This time the power-mad Headly Lemar (Harvey Korman) and the puppet Governor William J. Lepetomane (Mel Brooks) who dreams of the higher office. It’s all about strategy, using power to overcome the other. The new sheriff and old gunslinger whose cleaned up his act come together and work on a plan that will fool the railroad men along with the hired guns that are sent into do the job they don’t want to do themselves. They can’t buy the land, it must be taken with force, reflecting the government not being able to talk or sway the Vietnamese of the South from not adopting communism.
So the plan, build a duplicate of the town of Rock Ridge that will fool the incoming army (a band of misfits, criminals, Nazi’s, bandito’s, rapists, all the scum of the earth coming together and do what the railroad won’t to, kill. The replica takes the language of the classic Hollywood back-lot literally, building town fronts (in one night) with the help of defective railroad workers – African-Americans and Chinese who put their differences aside for this act. The replica they build along with wooden people are accepted, fooling the mercenaries. This is the jungle the natural habitat of the Vietcong who know and understand their environment better than any foreign soldier who enters. They can fool them, allowing a few to die, the native has the upper hand throughout. It’s a genius piece of writing and satire, combining the genre that tears up and puts back together the country in a different with the conventions of warfare in the jungle.
- Moving onto my last point of this film, I find the ending in a new light, I previously found the breaking of the fourth wall to be too much “I did and still don’t like the ending that sees the cast of the film breaking away from their world of the west into that of the black-lot’s which then makes you aware that you are watching actors playing roles. Is this about how the fights in the films never got so out of hand they spilled over into other productions. The line between the reality of the film and our reality is never healed, the damage is done so why bother or try to return to what was. Something that still bothers me, becoming a comment on the reality of films that I have never liked, even in the Looney Tunes cartoons that had self-aware characters who spoke to the audience, yet that was far more apart of their appeal, to engage and entertain the audience by talking directly with them. I find that still disconcerting.”
Now I see it in a different light, as the world of the screen breaks into the real world, or that of the fabricated real world which we have been digesting for the course of the film. This could be taken further to the images of the then War in Vietnam which had been recently brought home. This is a film that wants to show up the illusions, reveal the truth of the mayhem of it all, that you can’t get away from what you have watched. Those who create the images have no idea what is really going on, as much as they stick to the plot it now unfolds closer to home, the fourth wall is not just broken its smashed into tiny pieces.
Looking back at this film for now the third time I finally get what this film is all about, on one level it’s all American, all about celebrating a genre which has shown overtime how flexible and durable it in when it comes to mocking it. It’s also one of the smartest films you can watch, if you get passed the gags which you could be found on the floor at times.
I have not laughed so much during a film in a longtime, the only films that come close are The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) and Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues (2013) both of which had me in stitches throughout. Two very different comedies, one pitching a little higher, the other a little lower Swiss Army Man (2016) hits somewhere in between, that can’t be a bad thing can it? With the bonus of Paul Dano who is always in roles that are never mainstream, going for the more interesting roles that keep him fresh and for the audience more excited about what he’s going to do next. He has definitely found a niche in the vulnerable man thought which never gets old or tired. I wasn’t so excited about Daniel Radcliffe who I’ve never really been a fan off, in terms of acting, so this may sound harsh but he was perfect for role of the corpse. Of course he share his character with a puppet double, ensuring all the new-found abilities don’t harm him.
Swiss Army Man is one of those films that rarely comes along, in a world where we have franchises, reboots and sequels this is a much-needed breath of fresh air, an indie film that has set the screen and really has rounded off a good weekend. The concept of a film, a man lost on a desert island who finds a corpse who slowly comes back to life with the added bonus of coming with special abilities such as enough gas to act as a speed boat, to a throat that doubles as a projectile when the bodies straightened.
Of course this film is much more than flatulence jokes and erections, which actually don’t get tiresome, all delivered with great and natural timing that make this all the more fun. What makes it better is that a corpse is responsible for half the jokes. We have a film that begins at the lowest point for Hank (Paul Dano) whose about to commit suicide, all ready to kick the box from under him when he spots Manny (Daniel Radcliffe) who washes up on the shore of the desert island where the film begins. The lowest point of the film is literally the very beginning as life is about to end for one when it has already happened for another, how can the film really move on. And so begin the fart jokes. We have come along way from the farts of Blazing Saddles (1974) when the first sounds were uttered around the campfire. Of course that’s just one element in a film that has so much more to offer.
With a corpse whose slowly waking up learning from Hank about life and what it’s all about. It’s a two-way relationship as Manny is reawakening what it is to be alive in Hank who had all but given up on living. It could be really depressing really but it’s anything but, its uplifting as they both are rediscovering what it is to be alive. You don’t even know as the audience that you’re being told to appreciate being alive.
Filmed entirely on location that’s littered with everything imaginable, these two guys are living off man’s trash. This is Cast Away (2000) in the woods, but Wilson has become a corpse that is able to hold a verbal conversation unlike that of Chuck Noland (Tom Hanks) who befriends this basketball, externalising the best his can with an object that only stares back him for the better part of the film. A two-way conversation allows for comedy, personal growth in both Manny and Hank who are equally flawed, feeling unable to function in the world.
We see flashes of Hank before he found himself in the middle of nowhere (in the islands of the Pacific Ocean) teaching Manny to function again. Passing on his own flawed human ideas to a corpse that is at first a child who grows up innocent of the human condition, is ready to take on the challenge that is life. Whilst Hank is always holding back, we can tell from his phone he has a girlfriend back home, yet he really know very little about women or sex, yet Manny soon picks it up.
I was inspired for a time to make a piece of work based on the film as they two men travel through the island building structures that act not only as shelter but as tools of learning about modern life from the bus, to a cinema, you could easily map out and build this pieces in miniature. Might just do that one day. Yet the twist of an ending leaves me not as I had with Life of Pi (2012) when the film could be seen as fact, a preferred version of events. I am left instead confused by what has actually happened. Paired with a raw and original capella soundtrack that relies mostly on the two leads from anything that gets stuck in their head to theme tunes to films they grew up with.
I know that a beautiful relationship has taken place, however the premise is pulled from under us. Hank is finally revealed, first to Manny in his first about the girl on his phone, being human is being honest with yourself and those you love, reality is something we just have to deal with. I won’t spoil as my head is still processing what actually happened, yet I don’t feel cheated, it adds another layer to everything. Film is an itself an illusion and I have well and truly fallen under its spell here, left feeling exhausted with laughter, overjoyed too by the positive yet confusing and emotional ending that tells you to go out there, grab life and make the most of it.
I must say I wouldn’t have watched this film if it wasn’t for my manager at work who recommended I watch City Slickers (1991). And he’s someone who’s hard to impress when it comes to films. And luckily I had the chance to catch the film for myself, to see what all the fuss was about. I knew it was a comedy as soon as Billy Crystal was mentioned, I wasn’t put off by that, usually seeing comedy and westerns as very hit and miss. My mind is slowly changing when it comes to these two genres coming together. Even after seeing Blazing Saddles (1974) agin which made me re-think my position on the sub-genre.
At the time of City Slickers release there was a number of westerns around from Dances with Wolves (1990), Unforgiven (1992) before summing up with Tombstone (1993). There just the ones of the top of my head. There was a rebirth of sorts which I was too young to really enjoy, there is a slowly building wave now lead by Quentin Tarantino‘s Django Unchained (2012) who is already working on his take of Magnificent Seven (1960) with The Hateful Eight (2015 at the moment) going into production at the end of the year. Of course back in the day when all I was bothered about more child related things comedies came out in response to this new wave of westerns such as City Slickers which took three men of the city and placed them on a working ranch. Each with their own problems, as they hit middle age. Mitch Robbins (Billy Crystal) who feels lost in life, unhappy in his job, needing to be reminded what is important in his life. Whilst his two friends are hitting different dilemma’s in their life. For Phil Berquist (Daniel Stern) he is stuck in a loveless marriage to a woman who undermines him, yet is trapped by her and his father in law in a job that keeps them going. Ending up committing adultery with a checkout girl. And Ed Furillo (Bruno Kirby) who has just married a 20-year-old model doesn’t want to ruin what he has with children, wanting the couples life for as long as he can handle it.
What they need is to escape their everyday lives (conveniently arranged by Phil) to join a cattle drive from New Mexico to Colorado. Not any old holiday, having to learn the ropes (no pun intended) before starting on the drive. The film is very aware of what it is, both a homage and a modern take on one of the oldest American genre’s. Setting up three men who are lost in life, having to come leave there lives to find themselves. Moving the action to a contemporary setting, the cowboy way of life lasted in reality for around 20 years, starting after the civil war before the rail road was completed and fences went up everywhere. The land was their full of the dangers open landscape, having to live by their wits alone. This drive is no different, except with a whole history that explores the myth that they helped to create.
Joined on the drive by a father and son dentists, two brothers who make ice-cream and a lone woman, all strangers to the outdoors they are put through their paces, having to adapt quickly to the cowboy life, from riding a horse to lassooing stray cattle. It’s all there. Before they begin the drive there is a reminder of the start of the drive in Red River (1948) its both fun and loving how they all howl, hee-haw before setting off that what they saw in the movies they are finally engaging with themselves, John Wayne and Montgomery Clift aren’t there to assist them, they are instead there in spirit to spur them on.
Leading the drive is an ageing cowboy Curly (Jack Palance) one of the remaining actors from the golden era of the genre, as both a nod to that era and a link to a way of life that is dying if we let it just pass us by. A tough character who is old and set in his way. You could say he’s a stereotype of the cowboy, or a link to a bygone era both on and off-screen. Passing on his knowledge to Mitch who after starting out on the wrong path they soon reach and understanding before his extended cameo comes to an end.
The streetwise cowboys are soon thrown in at the deep end, discovering what it’s like to live on a drive, not startling the cattle, the drunkenness at night (and day). It’s not what they expected. Causing them to take a hold of the drive and see it through, along with getting a new perspective on their lives. Some are stronger than others as we find out, leaving those behind to see the drive through, a real test of what it is to be a cowboy and ultimately a man when things get tough in the modern-day. Reality is what makes this film work, with a self-awareness of a genre, which is again seen in the guise of a film that pays homage to. Set against a landscape that I’ve seen countless times before filled with men on horseback. Going back again to retrace those footsteps once more. There is something magical about that which would be more so if I was there on a drive. The comedy is quick and still fresh today, we still have the same problems in our own lives, made more so by the reality of the cowboy who knew what happens to the cattle at the end of the journey. We are never far away from reality, kept back only by nostalgia.
I have avoided this film for sometimes, putting my nose up at the very idea of a western spoof, making fun out of the genre, mocking. It was another biting the bullet time when I decided to watch Cat Ballou (1965) which is so rich in not just the level of humour but the subtext of the plot.
A rare film that places a woman in the lead role, for a western being a male dominated genre that is a great leap, only a few that I can think of have been made with an actress in mind. Such as Rancho Notorious (1952) for Marlene Dietrich. With a member of the Fonda family in the lead, she cannot be easily sidelined, when it comes to Jane Fonda as Cat Ballou a newly qualified school teacher who comes home to her father, in hope of finding a job. Before she can even reach her home she is thrown into the company uncle and nephew team Clay and Jed Boone (Michael Callan and Dwayne Hickman) a duo of rustlers who lead Catastray.
Once she is back with her father, an elderly rancher Frankie Ballou (John Marley) who fears that his land and life are under threat from a slaughter-house that is being proposed. We see a black figure of a villain lurking in the shadows, a clear cliché of the western villain which had recently been personified by Lee Marvin who indeed plays the role of the man with a silver nose and brother of Kid Shelleen.
Many of the hallmarks/conventions of a western of commented on in some form. From the mob that is made up and chases the train robbers is sped up to mock the genre, which first did this back in the 1930s to speed up the action.
It took me a while to get used to the two singers who kept the pace with The Ballad of Cat Ballou by Nat King Cole and Stubby Kaye which at first was full on more contemporary eyes. When at the time of release the genre was growing tired. Taking it back to its roots, and increasing the colour and design of the film we have a heightened experience of the wild west.
I would probably need more time and several re-watches to fully understand what the film is saying about the genre. From the drunken gunfighter, a dying breed of man, with the introduction of the law there is no place to celebrate the gunfighter’s. All the old towns that were a home to them are gone or going quickly, people no longer care for them as skilled men, men to be feared and respected. What is to be feared now is the train which has been rolling across America for around 50 years, allowing people to be connected in ways never seen or experience before.
Of course away from all the intellectuallising of the film which I really want to do, it’s a fun film, a break away from what a western can be, when they are at their best. I am now ready to take on another spoof – Blazing Saddles (1974) which really questioned the genre as it was facing a cruel death in the wake of Watergate and Vietnam.