Probably the only comedy western which like many others first think of is Blazing Saddles (1974) which still holds up today – mostly. I decided to take the plunge into the sub-genre with another Burt Lancaster led film The Hallelujah Trail (1965) which I was for years avoided, comedy and Western can be really silly, becoming boring. Admittedly I laughed a few times here and there, but not enough to say this is a comedy that I’ll be returning to in a rush. I did however see it through and considered some of the themes that it raised, even comedy’s of varying quality can raise some issues to discuss.
The Trail is one of the few films to actually give decent screen time to the Temperance Movement – the Feminists of the 19th century, with a focus both moral decency and more rights for women. They have always received a raw deal in a male dominated genre. Maybe it’s in light of the #MeToo movement that I’m able to this coming through more. Previously the genre has seen them as basically party-poopers who want to stop the men having any fun. Twice in 1939 we see them trying to change their society in their small way. Trying to lecture Joe Clemens (Frank McHugh) in Dodge City, luring him away both alcohol and violence. Partly helping him stay out of trouble in Errol Flynn‘s absence. The intervention doesn’t hold for long, the lure of the violence next door becomes too much to handle. Also seen as a comment of gender, if a man can’t take part in a fight and hold his liquor, is he really a man. Whilst over in Stagecoach a prostitute Dallas (Claire Trevor) is driven out of town by the Law and Order League, which could be argued to be a good thing. A town with no prostitution is always better, however that label has only been inferred in various readings of the film. Once The Ringo Kid (John Wayne) enters, his advances to Dallas are first ignored, she knows she’s no good, tainted even, we never know the real reason, it’s all inferred by the audience who decide her past from the clever dialogue and acting. Whilst Sam Peckinpah uses the South Texas Temperance Union in The Wild Buch (1969) as merely something to be shot at. He hates them enough to see them killed in the street indiscriminately by Pike Bishop (William Holden) and his men. They are lost to the crowd that are caught up in the crossfire of the bank robbery that goes wrong.
So somewhere in the middle we have the young attractive women in Hallelujah Trail led by Cora Templeton Massingale (Lee Remick) who uses their sexual power to overcome the soldiers at the for they are staying at. A political rally that encourages the band to play along and even cannons to be fired. Enough to alarm Col. Thaddeus Gearhart (Burt Lancaster) returning from a mission, is alerted to the noises back at the fort, mistaking them for an Indian invasion. The film sets out to place the army – in turn the men on the back foot, they cannot have full control of the events in this film.
Here gender roles are flipped if only for comic effect in the year of 1867 when apparently the Indian wars are over, the Plains Indian’s have all be penned off to reservations, the problem has been solved in a mere two years since the end of the Civil War, a little too simplistic and incredible inaccurate. If anything the wars continued well into the 1870’s before the “Indian Problem” was finally and dramatically resolved at Wounded Knee in 1890 with a few arguments over treaties around that same period. The film wants to quickly brush the “Indian problem” under the carpet to allow the Sioux to break out in search of whiskey that’s been promised to the town of Denver.
At the centre of the film is a fight over who gets their hands on the said whiskey. The Temperance league wants all 20 wagons worth to be poured into the river. Whilst the men wanting it, just want to safely arrive to avoid the oncoming drought that’s heading their way. Whilst the U.S. Army just wants to ensure it’s safe passage, whilst also trying to keep the peace between these two sides. That’s before the added element of the Sioux wanted the gifts they’ve been promised on a yearly basis being delivered. A standard part of the original agreements, tonnes of money, food and gifts to pacify them in turn hoping to encourage them all to adopt a life of farming. In short a lot of people want that booze. Lastly we have the Irish who are transporting 10 of the wagons, who have labor grievances that they want to take up with the trail leader Frank Wallingham (Brian Keith) an upstanding tax paying citizen and Republican.
Everyone but the army are out for manipulating the situations to suit their own goals. Understandably water in the area is scarce and not always as clean to drink as alcohol. Whilst the women who have both their looks, age and gender on their side to try to manipulate the situation in an attempt to instill abstinence in the men across the country. Of course in a comedy that doesn’t always go according to plan. Massingale is not as clean and sober as she wants to appear to be. Whilst the Sioux are rightly out for what they’ve been promised. Sadly their on-screen depiction is far worse than usual. Not only are white actors playing the chiefs, whenever they speak the narrator translates over them, even any sign language is mocked by the narrator. They are again seen as 2 dimensional people. Their goal maybe more appreciated by the audience whilst still reducing them to children in the process. Following the smell of booze that for future generations can ruin a life on the reservation.
There are moments such as the gunfight in the sandstorm which after a few minutes becomes tiresome. Well staged and meaningful in wanting to get the laughs. We get that the confusion from sides stops anyone dying because they have no clear view of the perceived enemy. It pretty much sums up the film, no one wanted to really be there making it. Lancaster was contractually obliged to take part at a reduced salary, not getting on with Remick, the jokes rarely hit the marks. If anything it’s just become very dated to watch. There are moments that stand out but very few. It’s raised slightly by some of the cinematography that achieved some daring pans above the action as it passed under the camera. However it’s essentially a comedy dud. With sole exception to the Temperance movement that’s blurred with feminism if only briefly and back-tracked on at the close of the film. There’s a lot going on in a here and it’s far too long to really call a comedy. The main problem is that it needed another script draft before reaching the screen, leading it to be an overly ambitious film that could have been so much better.
I’ve just checked my original review for Field of Dreams (1989) it was nearly 4 years ago, a film that even then struck a chord but not in terms of my written expression for it. As time has passed my critical thinking (and maturity) have allowed me to come back to this film and at times be really moved by it. I think also life experience allows you to view the things you have differently. That and an increasing love for Burt Lancaster which I’ve mentioned a few reviews back. Now I can go into more detail with a film that maybe a little heavy on the schmaltz which can be a hallmark of either a really cheesey or a filmmaker that really knows his craft.
Now I’m not the most religious person, the notion of there being a heaven is mostly a comfort for those I have lost and said goodbye to. A coping mechanism, however that may turn out for me I’ll have to wait until I kick the bucket myself. I’ll let you know if I can, just watch for the sign, I’ll let you know nearer the time. Now imagine a possible gateway to heaven, a heaven for long dead baseball players to return to this world. Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner) has come across one of these gateways, completely by accident. A man whose own relationship with the game is fraught with personal regret. Hearing voices is only the beginning of Rays journey of discovery.
There’s something rather quaint about the film, nearly 30 years old, like myself next year, it has aged gracefully, as have I. It has an innocence of a simpler for a whisper from the heavens of a baseball player to grab Ray’s attention and set him on a course that changes his and his families lives forever. A modern miracle for our times is being written, ok that maybe going a bit far, but he has received a message from a higher power, one that can enter and leave our existence at will. He’s soon compelled to build a baseball pitch on the edge of his corn field, putting his families future at risk over an impulse that he can’t shake. If sport or baseball were a religion, which to huge portion of America, Baseball is a big part of so many lives, then Ray is building a church, if at first for no reason other than the whisper of “If you build it, he will come.” A line that could be used as an excuse to build almost anything you can think of. But we know it’s a baseball pitch from the prologue that sets up Ray’s backstory. A collection of archive footage and doctored photographs that place both Ray’s younger self with his father. I can see the actors who play the baseball players are also added subtly for added realism, they are part of the fabric of the films history, not just getting actors who look like these old time heroes.
With the pitch built it’s waiting time, after so the families life-savings are exhausted, what was it all for? A chance to play catch with his young daughter or to wait for that “he to come”. We don’t have to wait long for Shoeless Joe Jackson (Ray Liotta) to turn up lout of nowhere. Amazingly it was the daughter to first witness this miracle, not Ray. The innocence of a child, still open the possibilities of life and the wonders that are out there to be discovered. Ray soon follows to see who this guy, who could have just driven up to check out the pitch, really is. There’s already a sense of wonder, something special emphasised by the soundtrack, the heavenly tones of the church out in the corn fields of Iowa where life just passes by. The next night more players are on the pitch – the Chicago White Sox A team are out there now, all the old faces of an era that has begun to fade into the memory of an older generation.
It really is seeing is believing in this film, you have to see the miracle to believe, something that Ray’s brother in-law Mark (Timothy Busfield) is not prepared to do. Seeing only what is in front of him without that added belief that allows faith to take hold in a person. Instead only interested in the realities of life, his sister’s families impending financial ruin. wanting to buy them out before the bank pulls the farm from under them. Just as things become more real, they become more interesting for the audience. A heated debate on a Terrance Mann book compels Ray to go out of his way to track him down and bring him back home to see a game. A weird thing to do, an author who has now shunned the limelight of celebrity, working on computer programs for kids, the recluse is hard to win around.
Mann played by James Earl Jones brings real experience to the film, not just his place in film history as Darth Vader but sense of having lived a life full of change of upheaval, wanting to do what was right during at the time. When Ray meets the reclusive writer it’s a war of words and a shared experience that allow this pilgrimage to continue. It’s not very often you can use religious words in a review that actually translate so well. Moving on from Boston to find Archibald ‘Moonlight’ Graham (Burt Lancaster) who they learn has already passed on. Again I had forgotten that he has died before we have even seen him on-screen. Built up already in previous scene, a collection of bar stool interviews that paint a full and sad picture of Lancaster’s last theatrical film role. When we meet him, we have travel back in time, a cheeky reference to the era’s films before we meet an elderly doctor walking alone, with a hint of Irish in his accent we have Lancaster and we are under his spell once more.
Trying to persuade a ghost to join him and Terrance for a match is a lot harder than we think, instead we have to wait a little longer for another miracle. As we reach the close of the film the schmaltz is poured on a lot thicker to make the non-believers in the film realise what has been going on all along. It’s a film that relies on the faith to work, to really suspend your disbelief and just wonder what if. Well you don’t really have to go far, just go to a small independent cinema when they are playing a release or a classic film for a season they are curating. They have the power to bring back to life, if only for the duration of the film these stars of the screen who have long since died. Trapped forever in celluloid that has the effect of giving them immortality. The screen is a gateway for them to return, just as the players use the corn to remain hidden and rest before coming out to pitch a few more rounds or whatever the terms are. When Terrance is invited to join them, is he being taken to meet his maker or is he just old enough to understand whats going on. Does he have enough life experience to understand the meaning life of life of what is in store for us. We will never know. Field of Dreams maybe laughable for some, for me I was sold by the miracle that happens before for Ray, his family and Terrance who all are willing to believe. It speaks to a part of me that hopes there’s something in the next life, if there is one.
For a while now I have been seeing Burt Lancaster as an actor whose more than just an actor. Every film he’s appeared in he bring an aura of majesty and mystery. As if he’s a legendary figure from the heavens who has graced us with his presence. He was born to be a leading man you could say. Even from his early films he had the ability to leave his mark on the screen, even when he wasn’t present. I’m not so much drawn to his physical presence, more the aura that he creates. His performances were always compelling, even when the script was poor, tearing out its pages and delivering a something far better. Drawing the audience under his spell. Looking over his credits I can see that once he began to really mature as an actor he rarely put a foot wrong. Being it as Wyatt Earp in The Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957) to his mesmerizing Oscar-winning performance in Elmer Gantry (1960). He wasn’t afraid to take on challenging material with directors such as John Frankenheimer one of Hollywoods more liberal thinkers. Before forming an interesting working relationship with Luchino Visconti which I really want to see more of. So why all this praise of Lancaster you may ask? I find that as he got older, he too like his work matured to the point that even when he’s on screen for a few minutes in Local Hero (1983) he brings with his something intangible by just being to the screen.
I want to focus my attention to the cult film, The Swimmer (1968) from his back catalogue. On the surface it looks very much like a product of its time. It’s not your standard piece of Hollywood film of the time. With the new wave just getting underway, this could be seen as a conservative attempt to reach a new audience with a familiar face. Lancaster who had been on the screen for just over 20 years had not really shown much sign of aging. When it comes to The Swimmer who can see he’s starting to get a middle-spread, not that it stops him from making s film where his only costume is a pair of trunks. Gone also is the trademark hair, it’s all down and floppy. He’s more concerned with character than his own image, his consideration for his craft has deepened. He’s not acting with his heart on his sleeve, these are the sleeves of the character he’s inhabiting.
The plot is pretty simple really, Ned Merrill (Lancaster) decides to swim his way back home, plotting a loose course across the Connecticut countryside stopping to swim through his neighbors pools. That wouldn’t be most people’s first choice of travel. It does suggest he’s a free-thinker, ready to try something new. Allowing us to make our way through the film, meeting all walks of life on the way. It also better reflects the culture of the time, the free thinkers, opening your mind to new experiences. This is as free as the affluent are going to get, traveling the back way home and having a cheeky splash in a few pools along the way, sounds like fun.
Ned’s idea’s met with bemusement and excitement as he announces his plan, it doesn’t take long for the sun to go behind the clouds. Filled with enthusiasm he begins to the trail, named after his wife, Lucinda who he mentions all the time, as he makes his way back home to her and his daughters playing tennis. He paints a wonderful image of the perfect family life, one that he sells to everyone he meets along the way. First encountering Julie Hooper (Janet Landgard) who he invites to follow him. We learn that she once baby sat his daughters years ago. They have a long association that he hopes he can deepen. Today these scenes play very differently, he’s not just another older guy going for the young innocent girl. In the light of the Weinstein is scandal, the scenes take on a more sinister tone. Thankfully Julie is able to save her self from a fate that too many have fallen for. The classic screen convention of older man and young woman/girl is not allowed to develop, there’s a break to reality, fear enters her mind and the audience allow her to run away.
Already we are seeing a man whose begin to come undone, he can’t control himself. For her she sees a man she once had a crush, now older and full of ideas that don’t make sense to her modern and maturing way of thinking. Ned moves on through garden after garden some visits are longer than others, where we learn more about him, none of it leaves us assured of his past or future. When he comes to an empty pool he can’t just skip it and move on he has to imagine it, everything has to as if he were really swimming. It’s a disturbing scene, joined by Howie Hunsacker (Bill Fiore) who can’t swim is lead with him, taking on a paternal role to the boy, allowing us to see another side to him.
Visually the film is very soft, the vaseline is smudged over the lens at times to create a dreamlike quality to the film, a dream that Ned is creating of the perfect life of the suburban man who we believe has it all, a beautiful wife and children whom he loves dearly. A job in the city and money, everything the middle-class aspire to achieve in life. We have to listen carefully for the cracks to begin to show. The swimmer begins to limp from pool to pool with a memory that fails him, whats happening to the man, has he lost his mind? Every scene after the first stop is constructed to slowly chip away at him mentally and physically to reveal a broken middle-aged man who as we learn by the end of the film hasn’t got it all. In fact his own may not even be his, his wife and children are now just a memory to him, a projection to his friends and neighbors who paint a more realistic image of the modern family, one that could be broken and dysfunctional.
I didn’t know what to expect from The Swimmer, I knew there would be pools, a few parties, but not the revelations along the way. The undoing of the man we thought we knew at the beginning of the film. Where did he come from, we’ll never know for sure. Clearly a vehicle for Lancaster who as much as he is on display doesn’t indulge in that fact. It could easily be re-written as a one-man play that delves into the mind of the modern man who constructs the ideal image he wishes to project, yet it’s those around him who chip away at him to reveal a broken man who crashes back down to reality. I said earlier that this was a product of it’s time, which in part it is, visually. Conceptually it is more relevant now, as we each construct images on social media of ourselves for the world to see. Hoping our audience will buy into the images and lifestyle we are projecting. The challenge that Ned sets himself opens him up to his eventual undoing, behind the profile is a life as anyone else’s.
A little over a week ago I caught The File on Thelma Jordan (1950), Barbara Stanwyck playing the standard femme fatale role, which wasn’t nearly as effective as Double Indemnity (1944). I was a little disappointed, having her play opposite Wendell Corey who is not a natural lead actor. Leaving her to go into overdrive to make this slow burner of a film noir even begin to simmer. It never really comes to the boil. Tonight’s film however was a very different story, a massive improvement on the leading man with Burt Lancaster and a complete role reversal for Stanwyck in Sorry, Wrong Number (1948), leaving me glued to the screen.
It’s great to see a screen veteran in Stanwyck able to play the damsel in distress still, even after 20 years on the screen, opposite up and coming Lancaster who is full of confidence clearly enjoying the chance to play opposite her. Even though characters are restricted by phone conversations and flashbacks that construct the film. Beginning with a stray connection, allowing bed-ridden socialite Leona Stevenson (Stanwyck) who only wants to talk to her husband who left the office hours ago. We have little idea how strong a role the telephone will play in Sorry, Wrong Number. A mumbled conversation about a murder plot is over heard on a cross-wire – this isn’t even a shared line like the one found in Pillow Talk (1959), there’s no time for innuendo here. Wanting to do the right thing she’s back onto the operator to try and track down what is essentially an accidental connection.
She wants to reports the crime to the police, but has very little to go on, the time of a train, a New York street, not enough even for a detective to come out to her. Instead the station that took the call is more preoccupied with a baby. Law enforcement has been domesticated whilst shes crippled by an as yet unrevealed condition. We are left wondering how is she going solve this potential crime herself. It’s not like she’s living in a time when murders can be precisely predicted and prevented as in Minority Report (2002). Her only weapon is her phone. Watching this in a time where phones are now so much more than the basic communication device that connects one voice to another anywhere in the country, or even a distant part of the world. She has to rely on notes, memory and the accounts of those she calls. Building up a picture of what has happened, hopefully leading to a happy conclusion. Now we can use social media to broaden our reach, an audience less personal but able to make a bigger impact, then the killer might be stopped before times up.
I wanted to see both Lancaster and Stanwyck on-screen together, we only see this in flashback, understanding how they met and married. Using her position and money to attract Henry J. Stevenson (Lancaster) to marry her. Stanwyck plays a different of Femme fatale, not relying so much on her body and sex appeal, the lure of dangerous encounters. Her position and status are all that small town boy Henry needs, and someone being ignored to ensure they marry. A daddy’s girl who gets what she wants through her condition. A weak heart that could flare up at any minute to control the one she loves. We’ve moved away from simple marital manipulation to calm a situation down like Beulah Bondi in Vivacious Lady (1938) using an “a weak heart” for a simpler life. The wife in both situations is in control, stopping the husband in his tracks.
The flashbacks are the main way of building up the plot. We need to understand the garbled conversation. Who could be behind it. It takes an amateur bed-ridden detective with a phone racking up a massive phone bill to get to the bottom of this crime. One phone call her husbands secretary leads her in the direction of an old love rival Sally Ann Hunt (Ann Richards) who as we see plays detective, spying on her own husband, no-one can be trusted in this film. Wives can’t trust husband who don’t tell the truth or hold things back. It takes another conversation with her doctor Dr Phillip Alexander (Corey) who reveals her condition to be purely psychological, given the film a Freudian overtone, the mother from beyond the grave having a hold over her son-in-law.
All the conversations start to come together as we meet one of her fathers employees Waldo Evans (Harold Vermilyea) who adds the final piece of the puzzle that we have been trying to solve. It becomes even more complicated as a man trapped by marriage, wealth and all the trappings of his position, using them to plan his escape, calculated and cold until cracks begin to show. Leaving his wife alone in there home where she slowly looses her mind over the course of the film. A woman who once had all the control has lost everything, her independence, the care of the nurses, her husband and ultimately her life. A climax that leaves you wondering if she will be saved at the last minute, after all those calls, building up a case of confessions and evidence. If only she took the time to write it all down, its all if-only’s now. Left one one hell of a cliff-hanger.
Sorry, Wrong Number has been a film worth waiting for, the structure allows a plot to be told via technology rather than traveling around, the lead character visiting everyone as they carryout a physical investigation. Based instead entirely on her emotions, feelings running wild as she holds a phone receiver to her face. Ultimately it’s Stanwyck owns the film, bringing it into melodrama at times without loosing the darkness of the plot, a murder will be committed somewhere tonight, the only question is – whose the victim? She asks all these questions from the confines of her bedroom, slowly going mad with the help of some interesting crane and mirror shots, we really don’t know if she’s coming or going, it’s a real roller-coaster ride from start to finish.
This week has not been good to me in terms of the films I’ve been watching. Sometimes I go through days or nights where I start a film to discover its not worth watching. I know, I know I should give it time and see it through, possibly talk about it on here, but I can’t find myself wasting my time on a poor film when I could be watching a half-decent one. I won’t mention those that I have turned off less than 30 mins (60 mins and I have to watch, having committed so much time) in and it off and gone, time to see what else there’s to offer. My last full film was the disappointing Birdman of Alcatraz (1962) another John Frankenheimer/Burt Lancaster collaboration.
However I can’t even compare that to the film I found myself glue to tonight. I’ve watched a good few foreign films this past month, mostly German and a few more ready to go. I generally find them more engaging than some of the English language fare of late, I guess it’s because they are more willing to take risks with the plots, characters and visually too. There are just stronger and once you’re in your compelled to watch and read the subtitles, without them you’d be literally lost to what can be a powerful story. Like Two Days, One Night/Deux jours, une nuit (2014) which I was hoping would be half decent compared to those I had abandoned already, I wasn’t prepared to do that again. At first I thought this was a liberally film about unions, discussion of a ballot at work going on, whilst Sandra (Marion Cotillard) is taking her next antidepressant for the day. It was not until I realised this ballot was integral to her families future that I was drawn into this emotionally taught film.
I wouldn’t be the first to draw comparisons between Two Days, One Night and it’s grandfather Bicycle Thieves/Ladri di biciclette (1948) which follows a father (Lamberto Maggiorani) and son (Enzo Staiola) in search of a stolen bicycle that means the difference between an income or life on the bread line. Surrounded by bikes and the temptation, he follows lead after lead, whilst trying to set an example to his son, to do the right thing when life gets tough. The son can not truly comprehend what could possible lay ahead for him, whilst his father’s filled with dread fear and guilt in a country struggling to get back on its feet once more.
We have move along way forward since war-torn Italy, it’s now contemporary France and a small solar panel manufacturer has made a decision to lay off Sandra who was off sick with depression. She’s ready to make her return when the threat of her job is very much on the line. A ballot has been taken by her colleagues who have agreed to take a €1,000 bonus over her return to work. It seems unfair that they would do this to her, however they each have their reasons for doing so. At this stage we have only met herself, her husband Manu (Fabrizio Rongione) and her next closest ally Julliette (Catherine Salée). We have yet to hit the roads and begin the film and all the emotion that comes with it.
Here we don’t have the father son relationship throughout the film, instead its the husband and wife. It’s a more conscious decision on his part to support her, usually it would be the other way around, the woman supporting the main male bread-winner. This is thankfully the 21st century where either or both partners can support the family with the added depth of mental illness and the global recession still having a knock-on effect on the economy.
If you take the film on its script, there is a lot of repetition going on, Sandra basically having the same conversation, change the names around, the simplicity of the repetition allows us to see that her job over the weekend after the first and before the second ballot lays ahead. Taking her fight to her colleagues, hoping to win their vote before they cast it. Listening to all those who will listen, some more sympathetic, a bonus or position is lost. Each of them have their own unique situations, low-income, supporting a family, a new house, paying a years worth of bills, all legitimate reasons to vote no. Whilst others who she meets are willing to give up a potential bonus, an act of kindness and sacrifice. The conversations bring out the honesty in people, we see them outside the safety of the work-place they are different people in a domestic context.
Sandra is constantly in a vulnerable state throughout, relying on her antidepressants more than she wants to admit. Is she really able to return to work, she has the fight to do so. Never giving up like the father in Bicycle Thieves shows that however the human spirit is, someone will be there for you. The despair that both characters go through is very human and relatable, away from the glamour of the Hollywood dream that would see them return to work with ease. The ending here reminds how tough the modern workplace is, even with a greater understanding of mental illness there’s always barriers placed before us.
Continuing my exploration of the influence of The Searchers (1956) on films, here the Western, I’m stopping in with The Unforgiven (1960) which shares and elaborates on some on the themes and even down to the imagery that’s heightened here. Also spurred on after reading a review last month of the film over at Bored and Dangerous who I in turn recommended Cheyenne Autumn (1964) to looking at the depiction of the Native Americans, which again I will touch upon.
Now I first caught this film about 5 years ago, I focused more on the mis-casting of Audrey Hepburn, now I’m not so concerned about that. I’ve also seen more films by both lead actors and the director John Huston who dabbled in practically every genre that Hollywood works it. Instead I felt from the very beginning of the film I was taken aback by the dark and mysterious soundtrack took me into a world where nothing is certain, the truth is hidden, even out in a landscape where being honest is the only way to survive and do business. It’s the arrival of a rider Johnny Portugal (John Saxon) with a saber, much like the beginning of a Shakespeare play predicting what will happen, spouting a very harsh truth that’s still cryptic enough that it lingers in the audiences mind throughout. He’s hiding in the bushes on his horse, ready to scare the life out of Rachel Zachary (Hepburn) still innocent to the world around her, the next few days are going to be quite revealing for her.
So how does this compare with The Searchers then? Well from the start, if Rachel is to be Kiowa as we are lead to believe she is the Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter) or Debbie (Natalie Wood) has long been accepted into the Zachary family, with a white mother Mattilda (Lillian Gish) and three brothers who have taken in and raised this child, now a young woman as their own. Known as an abandoned child has been long been assimilated into White civilisation. So any revelation shouldn’t cause that much harm, can it? In the home of the Edwards in the John Ford original, Martin Pawley is seem as an Edwards, there’s no question of his place in the home or in the film, accepted. Debbie has been written off as a squaw, better off dead, there’s no place for her, that’s until Ethan finally on rescuing her, decides not to kill her, instead returning her to the home of the Jorgensens, in a memorable sequence that brings the film to a close. Of course that wouldn’t make much for a film in The Unforgiven, Rachel’s identity is kept secret until much later on.
This is a time which could have seen the Jorgensens move away and settle in a different town, a town that is not aware of Debbie’s past that saw her brought up and married to Comanche chief Scar (Henry Brandon), she is far from pure in the eyes of a Wild West society, she’s tainted. So what about Rachel, at the moment she’s open to the possibility but gives it little thought when her mother brushes it aside.
I’ve not even turned to the Zachary brothers lead by Ben (Burt Lancaster) who I naturally thought would be the Ethan (John Wayne) of the film. Starting out hating her, wanting to search and hoping to kill his niece for the dirty blood that runs through her veins. Instead he’s a doting son and wrangler who has returned with a big dealing in the air with another local family. You can see his love for his mother when he literally lifts a piano on his back from a cart for her. He’s a mother boy, and father of the family. Could this be the Edwards has they survive the massacre and fought off the Comanches? The Zachary’s are a happy cohesive family on the surface, they have built a home out in the frontier, even if cows like to graze on the roof.
Everything starts to go wrong when Charlie Rawlins (Albert Salmi) who had just started courting Rachel is killed by a Kiowa. This is after we have already met them at the Zachary’s homestead, wanting to trade horses for Rachel. An offer refused which backfires. The offers refused but the question of her identity now wont go away, is she a Kiowa or not, the presence of the Native Americans suggest they mean business. A posse’s formed and they go in search of who we think are the Kiowas, it’s methodical, long and good length montage that finally leads them to Johnny Portugal the blast from the past, whose placed on trial, at the wrong end of noose. The truths revealed, with no room for the Zachary’s to wriggle out of. The tone of the film now changes, the family are seen as outcast unless they release Rachel to the Kiowa’s. To the point they want to humiliate her by stripping her down to reveal the truth, making them worse than the Kiowas are perceived to be. The Whites are just as bad if not worse.
Now onto the scenes that I hazily remember, the gunfight in the homestead, the Zacharys surrounded, minus one disgusted brother (Cash – Audie Murphy) so its 4 against an army of Kiowa’s. This is like the massacre in The Searchers as we only saw before when the secure the ranch pre-attack. Just as we saw in The Stalking Moon (1968) when its was 3 against 1. Here its more dramatic, Huston doesn’t leave anything out, every character has a dramatic moment, it’s literally jam-packed for at least 10 minutes, wanting to make every second count whilst they’re cooped up in the house. Lancaster is stronger than Ethan, able to accept Rachel for who she is and even kill her own kind, where as the Indian hater would kill them indiscriminately.
Finally I must turn to the casting of Hepburn who I originally thought was mis-cast, yet it’s her innocence that makes her perfect for the role. Not aware of who she truly is, her heritage, never questioning it. Thinking for a time she can marry her oldest brother, she has no understanding of family relationship beyond the power of love. When Charlie requests to start courting with her, she jumps at the chance, maybe to make Ben jealous, not that he would be. When she sees her Kiowa brother though, the man who killed her potential husband it brings out her natural self that she has been resisting. Resulting in an unsatisfying conclusion for me. Much like friend over at Bored and Dangerous – the happy ending, her family accept her, but does the wider society that left them all to be killed. Is family love all she needs when she knows deep down what she now wants – to be with the Kiowa. Who again are treated as one dimensional – which I’m not really surprised at, they are however allowed if however briefly to enter the white mans world to claim what is rightly theirs – Rachel.
All I really remembered from The Hour of the Gun (1967) is mainly the blue skies and the train scenes which inspired a platform shelter I made a few years ago in the studio. After revisiting The Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957) I knew I would ultimately be taking a look at the later take on the Wyatt Earp biopic’s that was also directed by John Sturges which I’ve never known why. John Ford never thought to return to the town of Tombstone after My Darling Clementine (1946). Maybe it was a chance for Sturges to rewrite what he made a decade earlier. Feeling he could have served the legend more respectfully. I suppose he could have also wanted to carry on the legend beyond the gunfight at the infamous corral where the Clanton/Earp war came to a head.
I wonder what these two films would be like if played back to back? As one finishes at the gunfight, the later begins just before, no bravado, just silent build up, no dialogue, a few meetings of the eyes as both sides meet. Already the second half is more mature, we lose the big screen personalities of Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas for actors who can really be lost in the roles. James Garner (Earp) and Jason Robards (Doc Holiday) who are more suited, it’s not about the image of the actor, more about the legend which is being retold and extended. Going into more detail to the events after the gunfight that up to that point had been forgotten. That’s one thing film can do, draw on forgotten parts, all with a touch of Hollywood magic of course.
The first real attempt at full of realism of the events in both films comes in Tombstone (1993) and Wyatt Earp (1994) I still can’t decided which is the better film. Back to John Sturges gunfight we are now looking at the consequences of what was ultimately a questionable act by lawmen, who killed the Clanton’s with such force, the gunfight is over before you even realise it’s begun. We do still have Ike Clanton (Robert Ryan) who is out for revenge and power throughout the film. Even thought Ryan comes from the golden age of film, due to his age he’s better suited to the, never quite making it to the star status of his contemporaries but could easily act the socks off of them.
Looking at this as part of two the Wyatt Earp legend the characters are paired down to just a few brothers. We loose Holiday’s mistress friend Laura Denbow (Rhonda Fleming), written out completely, not even being mentioned. Its all about that important relationship and seeking revenge for the deaths and attacks on his family. Using the framework of the law to get revenge, loosely called justice, or his version of justice. Holiday becomes Earp’s conscience as Earp is more ready to release the lead from his six-shooter. And you can’t blame him. The law and order he has built up is being under-mind. His family at the receiving end of violence. What started out as a cattle war becomes a family war, there’s more at stake, more drama when blood is involved, both sides have been hurt here.
If I’m honest, this is not my favourite incarnation of the legend, however it does start to really explore what these two iconic men of the Wild West. They are not just cooped up in the towns the helped bring law and order to, We explore their lives beyond, as they travel the Arizona territory, trying to stay alive and settle the wrongs that have been made. The Hour of the Gun (1967) is a maturer take on a historical figure that he had not yet received. There are not great big set-pieces in this film that focuses more on character and fact which works in it’s favor. Maybe Sturges has matured also as a director, wanting to bring more truth the legend that has become that facts that everyone takes for granted.
I’ve been looking out for Ulzana’s Raid (1972) ever since I read about it a years ago, discussed in relation to Native American’s once again. Focusing this time on an army company of men in search of a band of Apache who had left the reservation at the beginning of the film. Something which I can relate to in my current work. Naturally the army’s notified of Ulzana (Joaquín Martínez) and his braves who have left over night. Today you would rightly be behind the Apache’s to make a break for freedom. I noticed as the film progress as much as it has dated it has a new relevance in the age of ISIS and Islamaphobia which has gripped parts of the world. I’ll explain my observation as I carry on. My initial reading (literally) was a comparison with McIntosh (Burt Lancaster) and Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) yes there’s more discussion about The Searchers (1956) this time focusing on how the white man functions with his knowledge of the other.
Much like my review of The Stalking Moon (1968) we have an army scout with knowledge of “Indians” for Edwards the knowledge comes from an undisclosed place in a back story that fuels his hate, scaring those around him to the point of alienation leaving him with his unwanted mixed race Cherokee Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter) who stick with him throughout, thick and thin. We can only presume his knowledge comes after leaving the Confederate Army, being absent from the surrender he follows a different path from everyone else who has seemingly adjusted to post civil war life.
With Edwards out of the army, I turn to those still in the army, Varner’s (Gregory Peck) seen as a knowledge, the army want him to stay, they feel safer with him and his partner riding with them. I can’t really imagine Peck ever being as dangerous as Wayne could ever portray. Even the white woman Sarah (Eva Marie Saint) feels safe in his company as her escorts her home. Turning to Mcintosh he is as worldly-wise as they others, you can see it on his face, he has seen a lot, done a lot and even married a Native woman for his wife. Something that Edwards would never contemplate, his racism wouldn’t allow it. He is more willing to share his knowledge as advise not to scare the cavalry men he is riding with. He wants to educate not fear them, he doesn’t need to do that as the trail of blood-shed speaks for itself. He instead explains what they do and why.
If anything the explanation for all the atrocities is better explained by the sole Apache Ke-Ni-Tay (Jorge Luke) whose allowed to have a good portion of the script. He’s better able to answer all the questions that the men have. Especially for wet behind the ears Lt. Garnett DeBuin (Bruce Davison) who sees all this death as meaningless, he wants to act without fully understanding his enemy. He’s Lt. Col. Owen Thursday (Henry Fonda) before the racism has set in, wanting to make a career and a name for himself in the army. Here’s the chance to learn and change his perspective and direction in life. With the motives for the Apache’s explained by Ke-Ni-Tay, acting as the others representative. Today he could represent the hunted ISIS (and rightly so to) he becomes the misunderstood Muslim who has done nothing wrong, whose labelled the potential terrorist in their absence. Racism without cause, fear is wrong directed to Muslims when 99% of them are as decent as everyone else we meet on the street. It’s the 1% who are disillusioned, radicalized and want to inflict harm on the rest of the world. Back in the Western of the 1970’s the Native Americans act as the Vietnamese who have been wrongly killed because of the fear of communism (I know there’s more to it than that).
I want to look at some lines from the film, something I do rarely, a few stood out for me that I have to interrogate.
Do you hate Apaches, Mr. McIntosh? – Lt. Harry Garnett DeBuin
No. – McIntosh
Well, I do. – Lt. Harry Garnett DeBuin
Well, it might not make you happy, Lieutenant, but it sure won’t make you lonesome. Most white folks hereabout feel the same way you do. – McIntosh
Why don’t you feel that way? – Lt. Harry Garnett DeBuin
It would be like hating the desert because there ain’t no water in it. For now, I can get by being plenty scared of ’em. – McIntosh:
It feels like a conversation that could have taken place in Fort Apache if rank wasn’t a problem between Thursday and Capt. Kirby York (Wayne). Instead with have the advantage of age over experience. The time to consider whether there is enough time in life to devote so much to hating a race of people. McIntosh understand his commanding officers position but has given up on the emotion as it only gets in the way of living and functioning as a human being out in the frontier.
Turning now to the violence of the film, this isn’t one that young kids could watch and get a sense of fun, the cowboy and Indian dynamic of the past is not present in this film. The violence is more brutal. Animal rights groups would today have ensure animals were treated better. There’s nothing to suggest that any animals were harmed or not. This is a few years before Heaven’s Gate (1980) and exploding horses in the name of art. As much as the violence is tame in some respects, when you see a horses neck being cut you think twice about putting a young child in front of the screen. We are meant to see these violent acts, suggesting that the Apache are not civilised, they are capable of terrible acts, making the cavalry’s presence all the more relevant. The savages have to be tamed if possible at all costs. Although history would argue they only ever acted in self defense at the threat of losing their way of life. Once again I am mixing fact with fiction and in film that doesn’t always work.
The depiction of the Native American’s doesn’t really fare that much better than the animals, They are treated once again as savages with skills of the wilderness. They become more desperate over the course of the film, as if they are broken down. They way they treat their horses/ponies is not really as animals to respect but more as tools that can be disposed of. Practically seen as people you wouldn’t want to have dinner with. They are however seen as a people who can work together with only gestures, almost as if Ulzana is orchestrating his men from a distance which I can’t help but admire.
So to sum up as I explore The Searchers through other films I am building up a bigger picture of how it has influenced others films and the western genre. It’s clear that Edwards is a powerful and very human character that interests us even to this day. The role of the outsider and racist will always be a dangerous one. Lancaster doesn’t play that role, take cues from Peck, two trackers who are able to function, to take a step back from the other. Instead its given to the younger man Lt. Harry Garnett DeBuin who as much as he is eager to learn, he is being shaped in front of our eyes. This mission wont easily leave him, just as the 1956 classic will never leave me.
It’s been a few years since I caught Nevada Smith (1966), then a few months ago we it was on as background, I had completely forgotten what the Western was actually about. Meaning it was time for a revisit. I’m doing quite a few in recent months, parts because I want to understand the films more, and there’s little to watch, this was a little of both really. I originally found the film to be about a mixed race half white/Kia whose out for revenge for the death of his parents at the hands of gold thieves meeting people along the way as he tracks down the three men responsible for the deaths. Which essentially the film is.
What else is this take on the other in the Wild West? Again the other’s played by a popular White actor Steve McQueen who is able to play the naive young man (white, Kiowa or mixed race) and draw in the audience which it clearly does. However as time has proven the draw if money takes away a decent representation of the Native American on film. Usually employing them in films more as extra’s, if on-screen they are not their for more than a few seconds, or pushed to the background to allowing the box-office draws or foreign English speaking actors caked in make-up to the fore. Its not practiced today in Hollywood (one lesson they have learned from except for Johnny Depp).
Nevada Smith begins being reminiscent of The Searchers (1956) (yes I know I keep returning to that film) but only briefly, where I wonder about the direction of the rest of the film. Instead of the white man being attacked the mixed race are attacked, leaving the often forgotten Native to fend for himself. Here we follow him after returning to the family home, complete with inset shot of the massacre in low light. Where we were once kept away believing the image would be too much for the audience to take in. We are still not given much information, even ten years later. We we are given a bleak description of how his parents were killed later on. Ford doesn’t like to linger with the images, the horrors of the Comanche are too much to accept. When it’s a white man inflicting the violence we can take more.
Moving away from that striking connection to the older film which it doesn’t try to replicate, instead it moves on making its own narrative. Instead of burying himself in hate for the killers of his family. Can this illiterate young man who can’t eve defend himself be a match for this killers who have not just skill but the edge of life experience on their side, whilst Smith has to learn all of this from scratch or die in the process.
In that process he is ready and pretty much willing to ignore his mixed heritage, adopting or assuming the ways of the White gunslinger. The preferred image of the Western. I don’t thin it would be the same film if he went around the film wearing his Native dress, the film would not have the same appeal, and would probably not one McQueen’s better films. It would lean more towards Burt Lancaster‘s role in Apache (1954) which is laughable (as straight as he may play the part) today.
Smith learns to draw and fire a gun, does his mixed heritage work to his advantage. However he also has to learn to read in order to pass himself as a white man, live in a white mans world that demands to be civilised not living as a savage Indian that may not understand, held back by these differences. If Smith accepted his Kiowa this would be a very different film, becoming in the eyes of a white audience a savage, played by a white man, he could be a more dangerous man to watch and fear also.
Moving away from the Native American themes (that dominate my own thinking at the moment) I can see a decent revenge film with the added texture. Looking at it today, it’s innocent but that doesn’t take away from the journey that Smith goes on to track his families killers, one by one he finds them and kills them as justice allows him. The deaths slowly reach Tom Fitch (Karl Malden) who begins to fear him. It takes the rest of the film for us to catch up with him, building him up to a dangerous man. Along the way Smith allows himself to be humiliated by others if it allows him to get to the next man. He does however use his skills and Kiowa knowledge to stay ahead of everyone (most of the time), right up to the end. helped with the christian intervention of Father Zaccardi (Raf Vallone) who introduces him to the bible. Allowing him to leave his Kiowa heritage for the white christian that was apparently waiting to come out. Or is it a combination of the two spiritual sides coming out and together, giving him a perspective on life that leads to the final showdown where violence is no substitute for forgiveness.
My thinking on the film has greatly improved or even deepened you might say, not the strongest of films exploring the Native American. The standard white cast and lead who we are supposed to accept as the other (without as much make as Lancaster). It was Hollywood of its day so what are we to know. We do have a decent revenge film which is entertaining which what you want at the end of the day, which I had the first time round, now its a richer experience.
I’ve said it before when I saw The Train (1964) after seeing The Monuments Men (2014), the same applies to Local Hero (1983) after seeing Promised Land (2012). Each pairing of films sharing the same basic themes. It just so happens that Burt Lancaster is in the better and Matt Damon is in the not so-good films. Just an observation as both are capable actors. I think it comes down to the writing on both scores. So with observations out of the way, why was the superior earlier film of Local Hero far better than Promised Land?
Both have an environmental message to get across, one oil, the other gas through fracking. Big corporations send out men to hopefully negotiate the sale of all the necessary land to make the plans come to fruition. Local Hero is far softer on the message front when Mac (Peter Riegert) is sent to a Scottish coastal town to buy up town and surrounding land. Whilst in Promised Land it’s Steve Butler (Matt Damon) who has to persuade a more savvy farming town to sell up and move on. You have to also consider that there is very little mention of environmental issues in the earlier film. There is discussion of how the land could potentially be used, to research marine life with Marina (Jenny Seagrove) who also acts as an intelligent love interest for Mac’s colleague love-struck Oldsen (Peter Capaldi). It’s not really shared with the small fishing village who think their ship has finally come in. Made during the time of another recession, the smell of money is not something to be sniffed at.
If anything Local Hero is played more for laughs and gentle ones at that, it’s a small community who are practically cut-off from the world. Whilst in farming America there is a far stronger tone of environmentalism going on. Families have previously been affected by Fracking so will take a harder stance against an outsider coming in and wanting to buy up the land and possible pollute it, killing livestock. Fracking is still a very young technique which doesn’t have the security of Oil drilling pumped on or off-shore, its assumed to be safe (for the most part). Also looking at the two strangers who enter into their respective towns. One comes to want to stay, even with all the negotiating that goes on with Urquhart (Denis Lawson) who wants the money, knowing what it means for everyone. Unlike Butler who puts on a front, wanting to get in and out as quick as possible. He does develop and conscience unlike his colleague (Frances McDormand) who see this as just another job doing what she believes to be done in order to secure the land. A harder person unlike Butler.
It’s a harder sell overall for the community and for the audience, I came away not really caring for anyone. Whereas in Local Hero you get to know the people who populate this town, it’s very provincial, an old world community which we have less and less off. You want to spend more time with these characters. Even when we meet the stumbling block at the end, the beach which is owned by Ben (Fulton Mackay) who holds the message, he doesn’t preach, open to discussion, his age makes it harder to negotiate with. He even offers to take a pound for every grain of sand in his hand. He’s not bothered by the money, he know the land in away that the others don’t care about, they’re blinded by money. Not they that they’re blinded by Felix Happer’s (Burt Lancaster) money, they aren’t even made out to be the bad guys, wanting a better life for themselves. Moving back to retired teacher Frank Yates (Hal Holbrook) who uses his knowledge as a weapon against Butler and the town gets behind Frank.
We have progressed since the early 80’s in terms of how we discuss environmental issues, we have become more sophisticated as an audience. Our knowledge of the subject has increased, of course there will always be the odd horror story which we do have to accept. But at the heart of these two films you must have heart to engage with the audience, something we have, even at the top of Local Hero in Lancaster who by the stage in his career is in a minimal role really. However his enigmatic presence is felt throughout the film. He’s a man who has his faults, his interest in the stars, in short he’s human. Whilst in Promised Land it’s just about getting the job done or get fired. There’s no room for any manuever there, it’s so corporate that we are left cold. The oil man in Lancaster talks very little about his business, even willing to get his hands dirty. However its all down to Mac who as much as he wants to do his job, he’s won over from the big city for the country life that he had seen as so alien, he’s awoken to know what he wants in life, has he reached the same point as his boss, without the freedom to go out and grab it just yet, trapped by his job and obligations. It’s a film of understanding one another, to be open to change in your life, even when it may come in the form of a corporation.