Another Western that I’ve been looking out for over the years, with the wait now finally over I have mixed feelings of deflation. Comedian Rich Hall began his BBC4 documentary on the film depiction on Native Americans by starting with the assassination of Osama Bin-Laden -, soldiers uttering the word Geronimo. A word that was originally linked to the name of the Apache warrior who held out and fought until he’s forced to surrender to the U.S. army. How many other names have been so misappropriated? A name of a countries former enemy has become a term of celebration and liberation. None have the same sound to them as Geronimo as it rolls off the tongue out of all the prominent Native American figures. It’s a practice that I try to avoid, aiming to keep his name in historical context, not to use in celebration.
The 1993 film Geronimo (1993) was one of two released that year about the Apache warrior, one made a Native American produced TV movie, very different in tone, celebrating the life and times of the figure, one that I feel I should watch again to compare. And the Hollywood Western that bills the lead actor, fourth on the list below Gene Hackman and Robert Duvall. A symptom of how Hollywood make and market their films. Placing the more prominent names above others who have a larger part in the film. Also indicating the position of Native American actors in the film industry, at the bottom. The only positive you can take away from this billing is that the role went to Wes Studi, a Native American (Cherokee) and not someone in brown face, that’s some progress.
Made during the early 1990’s when there was a boom in the genre, released in between Dances With Wolves (1990), Unforgiven (1992) and Wyatt Earp (1994), the same year as the larger than life, sweeping epic – Tombstone (1993). Easily categorized as a revisionist Western, attempting to rewrite the genres pasts wrongs to tell a more honest account of history. So how did they get on? I’m reminded of Broken Arrow (1950) when James Stewart narrated Tom Jefford’s experience with the Apache, we even met Geronimo in one scene when all the tribes of the nation met for a council meeting, his own histories picked up in a Chuck Connors film – Geronimo (1962) which I might check out of curiosity. This 1990’s take on the warriors narrated by baby-faced Matt Damon as a fresh out of West point officer Lt. Britton Davis, leaving me thinking how much of Lt Dunbar has influenced him, his moments of reflection and modern thinking on a 19th century issue that’s now become part of America’s history and less talked about politics. Britton us bright-eyed and bushy-tailed as he waits to meet with his commanding officer Lt. Charles Gatewood (Jason Patric) heading off to join the stately and much admired Brigadier General George Crook (Gene Hackman) who was given the task of rounding up the Apache and sticking them on the reservation.
Now with all Native American revisionism its going to be more graphic – think Little Big Man and Soldier Blue (both 1970) et al, it’s brutal and attempting to take their side for again. Yet it still comes from the perspective of a white soldier – Davis who is reflecting over this period in history. There is however more screen time given to Wes Studi and rightly so really allowing us the best Hollywood can do depict the final days of freedom for the Apache. As revisionist the film tries to be, it takes a massive cue from John Ford, depicting the film entirely in Monument Valley, trying to be both a Cavalry film and Cheyenne Autumn (1964) which moved around the Navajo country, having now taken on this mythic form and space which allows filmmakers to tell the story of the West in this landscape almost exclusively at times. I found this distracting at times, thinking about Fort Apache or She Wore a Yellow Ribbon at times, not seeing for it wants to be.
With more screen-time given to Studi we’re allowed to understand his point of view, he’s not just a pain in the backside for the Army and the White House, He’s has a credible point of view. First meeting him at his initial surrender, brought the charge of the two Lieutenant’s who see this as a big moment in both their careers and history. For Geronimo it’s the end of his peoples way of life and loss of freedom, he’s not taken this decision lightly. It’s a film that wants to be taken seriously, giving time to both fact and action during the films run. Time for the peace talks that see the Apache accepting they’ve been worn down and needing to talk. Before things get messy after an Apache’s killed for a ghost dance (disturbing the peace) which triggers another war between them and the white eyes.
The action scenes are rather mixed, bloody at times, filled with dust which makes it hard at times to see what’s going on. OK we’re in the desert but its supposed to be discernible to the viewer. Suggesting that it was a bloody time for both sides, more so the Natives who are fighting for respect and honor at this pivotal time.
Turning to look at the other characters times taken to develop the two lieutenant’s and even the aging scout Al Sieber (Duvall) who has suffered 17 arrows and gunshots and still standing, he’s learned to respect his enemy whilst growing tired in his role. A nice character for Duvall to play, having been a presence in the genre ever since he got “shot to pieces” by the Duke in True Grit (1969) he gives the film extra strength by him just being there. I felt as much as those in uniform were given more time to grow, we got less time with Chato (Steve Reevis) a once feared warrior, now a loyal scout to the cavalry, outside of his obvious skill and knowledge he is only seen as a traitor to his people. At least he’s not being played by Charles Bronson in Chato’s Land (1972).
Summing up this film it’s an attempt to tell two sides to the same events, whilst naturally being slightly more biased to the Army, made by White men, it’s only able to go so far. We do have a more fleshed out depiction of the Apache which i can’t complain about and with subtitles which gives allows more depth, only speaking English when faced with White Eyes. I noticed also a bit of slopping editing, splicing in an elder to Crooks final treaty talk, it looked really out of place, shoe-horned in there. I can’t complain too much, its an early 90’s Western that attempts to rewrite events, yet still holding back in places.
A classic western I have been meaning to see for quite sometime, part of Richard Slotkin’s lecture series on the genre which I first picked up during the last few months at art-school. It really started to broaden my mind as to what the genre was about, the history and starting to pull apart the myth. I’ve just about seen all the films on the list and this was one of the last ones still up there I couldn’t listen until I caught The Ox-Bow Incident (1943). You could say this was well overdue essential viewing for me.
Running at just over 70 minutes you can’t expect too much from the film. There’s not a lot of action on the screen. Beginning with a drunken Gil Carter (Henry Fonda) drowning his sorrows, all he has hoped for is gone, a drifter venting at the wrong time when there is more important things at hand. We see a town consumed by the news of a rancher who apparently has been killed by rustlers. Its angers the men of the ghost town that becomes more populated as the news spreads and a posse forms. All against the wishes of the oldest member of the town Arthur Davis (Harry Davenport) who is fighting a losing battle against the young men who after this emotive news allows the anger they feel grows. It has to be legal, to find the men who have left.
There’s an internal fight to do things right from the start, I couldn’t help but think ahead to 12 Angry Men (1957) as one man tries to convince the majority to change their minds. Reasonable doubts is something that doesn’t really exist in the west, or this film, its all black and white. Literally as it is here allowing you to hopefully see the greys in between what we see. The audience is left shouting at the screen as the men and single woman Jenny Grier (Jane Darwell) who is more man than woman, a mean match to any of the men who she rides with. Making Darwells part all the more engaging, more used to seeing a softer woman on-screen, the mother figure. All that is lost here as she is more masculine than some of the men.
Figures such as the Major Tetley (Frank Conroy) is a throwback to the confederacy, a man of principle and ashamed of his son, a coward unlike himself. Living on past glories to sustain himself. Influencing Jack Palance‘s Captain Quincey Whitmore in Chato’s Land (1972) wearing his uniform once more with pride as he hunts for the infamous Chato (Charles Bronson). It’s all about having one more chance at glory, to have a victory after the surrender. Also we have the preacher portrayed as an old and feeble, a judge fat and loud who gives into the demands of the posse who will leave at any time.
Once they leave the town, around 30 riders leave the back-lot for the sound-stage where the real drama and suspicion unfolds as the close in on the men they believe to have killed the much-loved rancher. A group of three men led by Donald Martin (Dana Andrews) who wants only to support his family. Is that not honorable enough? They are back into a corner as nooses are already being tied, horses positioned under a hanging tree. With little chance of interrogating they are fighting a losing battle reason against assumption.
The people’s trial before lynching takes place in the comfort of the sound studio which maybe a budgetary constraint with such a big cast, that makes the scenes all the more claustrophobic as these three men innocent or not are. I do have my doubts about Juan Martínez (Anthony Quinn) a Mexican with a colourful past. Our own prejudices are tested on-screen, is one of the group guilty and are they covering for one another. How can they with the sincerity of Martin who pleads to for reason, a fair trial, all the things they aren’t getting out there around their camp for their last night of life.
It’s a western of words and few actions which speak louder than any firing of a gun. Loud ones confused and angry deafening out those of quiet reason. You want to shout at the screen along with Fonda one of the few to stand up and speak his own mind as the night goes on. Teaching us not to be led by our assumptions and to not forget the systems in place by society to ensure we are all treated fairly. It could easily be applied to a racial killing today, as people easily turn against innocent muslims when act of terrorism’s committed. It’s easy to do when you’re blinded by anger and hate which can consume you, leaving you later on with guilt and remorse as the consequences of that night dawn upon them. The act of lynching is seen from below, probably a mechanism to get around censorship at the time, working better for dramatic purposes we know they are up there, would seeing them make it any better for us, even a boot off the top of the screen? The lack of bodies allows the audiences imagination to run wild, what have this posse done, how could they let it happen so fast. We all know why it did.
- Walter von Tilburg Clark’s Ox-Bow Incident & William Wellman’s film adaptation (ellenandjim.wordpress.com)
- The Ox-Bow Incident (1943) – Directed by William Wellman (filmsworthwatching.blogspot.co.uk)
- Reeling Backward: “The Ox-Bow Incident” (1943) (captaincritic.blogspot.co.uk)
- The Ox-Bow Incident (1943) (filmnomenon2.blogspot.co.uk)
- The Ox-Bow Incident (Fox, 1943) (jeffarnoldblog.blogspot.co.uk)
- The Ox-Bow Incident (1943) (catchingtheclassics.blogspot.co.uk)
- 100 Days, 100 Movies: The Ox-Bow Incident (1943) (flickchickcanada.blogspot.co.uk)
I’m not usually one for a comedy-western, feeling that they lack what I find in a straight western. However that was before I read up about this clever little film that comments on the genre, which needs to take the form of a comedy to be effective. From Noon till Three (1976) takes on the origins of the genre, which has been formed on the creation of a legend, or the tale of events, when Graham Dorsey (Charles Bronson) arrives at a widow’s house along with his gang of bank robbers before another job.
Taking the opportunity to escape from his fate as a dead man he makes advances on the lone woman Amanda (Jill Ireland) who has been living in a museum for her late husband, restricting her behavior. Laying on the charm, they fall madly in love whilst the robbery takes place, forcing them to make the best of their time together.
With word of a hanging of his friends back in the town Amanda wants him to be the gallant man who ride off and save the day. And so begins the romantic legend that she cashes in on, wanting to remember her lover, who caused her to awaken from her mourning. Graham’s supposed death raises him to the level of romantic hero, with a few narrative touches that make him more adored by the loving audiences who take the tale of his passions. This mirrors how the history of Frontier America has been blurred by the fictions of pulp books and tall tales based on the events of the day. Audiences feeding on these sensationalized stories, that has been translated to the following century when cinema ate up these tales for the big screen and even bigger audiences.
The film also sees how this profiteering and selling of his life can destroy him, unable to tell the truth as it has been blurred for profit. I’m reminded of the stage play that toured america that depicted in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) that saw Robert Ford along with his brother play-out the closing moments of the gunfighter’s life. Which in-turn had an effect on his life, and eventual demise. When the truth is blurred we lose sight of what is fact and fiction, the fiction by the strength of its popularity becomes fact. Again seen in the earlier The Man who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) that preferred the legend of one mans fall to how it really happened, taking the glory from a better man. Yet allowed Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) to be elected to public office, a man who is believed to have stood up to the bad guys, a people’s hero. So in some cases may it be better than the truth to be hidden if it allows something good to come out of it? Or does hiding the truth hurt someone, I guess it depends on the situation, no set rule can used to decide what is right.
In the case of film and fiction, the most entertaining version sometimes becomes the truth as it’s easier to swallow and believe. How much can we swallow before we want to know what really happened. Which is a current issue that is surrounding a number of Oscar contenders, such as Argo (2012) and Zero Dark Thirty (2012) which blur the truth for purposes of entertainment. If we want the truth, are we to seek it out our selves, or do we accept a filmmakers interpreation and vision, and understand its a loose version of the events. Films at the end of the day are forms of entertainment, they are not meant to be informing us, that’s not their intention, unless they choose to be, which is the choice of the director. Using real-life events as a backdrop to tell a story, and a story is all we want sometimes.
- From Noon Till Three (1976) (every70smovie.blogspot.co.uk)
A short piece I made in the 2nd year of my degree. It explores the claustrophobia in The Great Escape (1963) character Danny (Charles Bronson). Using stills from a model I made of the successful tunnel (Harry) in the film.
Below are some photographs of the tunnel that was used for the filming.