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.
For some reason I don’t really like watching or seeking out comedy westerns, the blend of two completely different genres, one action-packed full of grand characters who throw their weight about the other based on the build-up to line that encourages laughter. Or maybe there is so much difference, the both rely on the audience to trust them on taking them on a journey to enquire and explore a subject to discover more. When you bring the two together I feel its poking fun at a genre I love. I’m only starting to accept that the fact comedy is celebrating the genre. Especially in a time when Three Amigo’s (1986) was released there weren’t many westerns in production, the output in that decade was not between 10-15 a year, compared to the hey-day of the 1950-60s. With less than 10 from the U.S that year, not even a Clint Eastwood who was still directing classics in the guise of the man with no name. The Three Amigo’s goes back to just after the birth of cinema, when westerns and other films were being produced and released on almost weekly basis. A prolific time in film when the medium was still being refined, genres such as the western were still in their infancy, no time to really develop characters, there was still time to create the image of the West that had just been tamed. Just south of the border a revolution was underway in Mexico which didn’t stop them discovering the heroes of the silent screen.
In the case of Carmen (Patrice Martinez) comes across a Three Amigo’s film, mistaking it for a real-life document of life, a trio of gunmen who fight the bad guys where they stand. The appearance of bravery, good over evil occurs before her eyes. Something we have all fallen for, taking the constructed as reality at one time or another. For me I remember vaguely seeing Charles Laughton as Henry VIII as a child, believing him to be the real monarch. It’s not until that facade, the construction is broken do we understand what is going on, before we eventually fall under its spell, even with the prior knowledge that allows us to determine what is reality. The desperate Carmen telegraphs the three actors fresh on the streets after demanding more money for their next film. Could this be their next big thing, take their on-screen persona on the road, perform life before an audience?
That’s not what she has in mind for Lucky Day (Steve Martin), Dusty Bottoms (Chevy Chase) and Ned Nederlander (Martin Short) who now homeless, jobless and penniless, the first of many whose careers are made or broken by movie moguls of the era. After breaking into the studio they make off with their costumes to South of the Border where their future lies. It all sounds quite promising for both sides, as the parody of The Magnificent Seven (1960) begins to play out. Unwittingly hiring actors as gun-men not performers to defend a town against bandits lead by El Guapo (Alfonso Arau) who is the archetype baddie. So far it’s a pretty standard western stuff coming our way. Spending most our time at the local saloon where we meet a few German’s who at this time are the enemy over in Europe. Here in South America its quite the opposite, seen more as villainous friend and little else, adding more dimension, its not your standard western anymore.
All this is setting up the scene for the trio to arrive they are still very much in the dark, acting very much the consummate performer, unaware of the danger that awaits them out in Carmen’s village. It’s all about cliches of the actors, being confident in the role they have been playing for so long. They have had great success so are blind to real danger until it bites them…like a bullet to the arm. Even when the first time they meet El Guapo’s gang they are unaware of the danger, playing the part, as if they are among other performers, why would they think otherwise, the telegram was abridged before they even received it. Its great fun to watch, having the prior information is a great build-up to the danger and the reveal, that is reality.
When reality does bite as much as they now have to make the leap from performer to gunfighter, from mouse to man in the space of this short film. Its all done with real fun, as the cowboy has to pick up his gun and shoot for real. A point that is never really raised, After shooting all those blanks to real rounds there is no understanding that they are now killing other men, instead if relying on trick photography to make it a reality. That would probably be the only major flaw of the film. So caught up in the gags which all work for me, It’s not all laugh out loud but theres enough to keep me going. Probably because I only know of Martin, I’ve heard of Chevy Chase, maybe my lack of familiarity with the other comedians distanced me from the comedy.
The musical number summed up for me the love for the genre, a heavy on the landscape, the sunset and cacti which surrounded the campfire scene, the night before the set-off for the hideout. Its incredibly fake but I don’t care one bit, I’m too caught up in the moment that is so rich with love and warmth, not just the fire but the musical number itself.
Summing up this fun western spoof that sees actors assume their roles in reality is something you rarely see. Western actors cannot seem to shake loose the characters they portray, assuming that persona outside of the film set. Here it takes on another dimension, imagine The Duke firing away against bandits, it would be an awesome sight to see. Also the usually two-dimensional Mexicans are played with more intelligence, they aren’t just firing guns in the air and saying “gringo” etc, they are treated with more respect in a comedic setting. The film is however let down the period in time, the silent era, only die-hard fans of film would know of any trio being spoofed. I can only think of Harry Carey from that period, no trios. The audience can’t relate as easily to this era which does let it down. The routines they perform do produce some good moment which go someway to the audience engaging more.
- !Three Amigo’s! (1986) (oneperfectshot.wordpress.com)
- Steve Martin Month: The Three Amigos 1986 10 out of 10 (bradgeekness.blogspot.co.uk)
- Burl reviews ¡Three Amigos! (1986) (hiitsburl.blogspot.co.uk)
- The Three Amigos (1986) (classicfilmforfamilies.blogspot.co.uk)
- Saturday Movie – Three Amigos (1986) (undead-earth.com/wordpress)
- ¡Three Amigos! (1986) (moviesstarting.blogspot.co.uk)
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.
A little film that lightens up the screen as Ryan O’Neal and Tatum O’Neal star in the light comedy classic Paper Moon (1973) in what has become the old black and white aesthetic which is rich with nostalgia, allowing you to focus on this almost forced relationship between father and daughter, even if they both don’t accept it. Both bound together in a world of conning the vulnerable in a scam so fiendish and clever in its cunning. You just enjoy the reactions at how easily they both make money.
It helps matters when the just bereaved Addie Loggins (Tatum O’Neal) is driven to get her hands on the $200 that she knows she is rightly owed by the man who has the same chin as her refuses to give.
And so begins an unorthodox scamming relationship, playing on the recently bereaved selling bibles, whilst tricking shop keepers into giving them money.
With the introduction of a woman into the situation things take a turn for the worse as Trixie Delight (Madeline Kahn) threatens to spend all the “hard-earned” money on her and no one else. Already buying a new car, constantly going to the bathroom.
Paper Moon paints a lighter picture of the south during the depression era, as two con-artist make a life for themselves. Whilst coming closer together in a way they never thought possible. It’s easy to see the on-screen chemistry between father and daughter work so well. The south still has hints of inbreeding and underhanded methods that are mocked or looked down upon. Its dealt with a comic wit that it’s just apart of this struggling world that makes a much sense as the depression.
- Paper Moon (Bogdanovich, 1973) and Silver Linings Playbook (Russell, 2012) (dcpfilm.wordpress.com)