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 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.