A film I watched purely on recommendation, not really a fan of Tom Cruise, however when it mentioned the U.S. civil war I decided to take a closer look at The Last Samurai (2003) to see what was really going on. And I wasn’t let down, even though it’s not technically a western it does have all the clever hallmarks of being a revisionist Western, cleverly reworked to look at the decline and fall of the Samurai warrior. A reflection of the Native American across the Pacific, complete with out all knowing white other Captain Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise) a troubled man of the army who cannot reconcile his part in the forced relocation and massacre of the Native American people. Which we see in the form of ever more graphic flash-backs which could relate to any massacre before 1876 when we find him now a drunk helping to sell the Winchester rifle. He’s not happy in his work, used as a heroic figure who used a rifle in the Civil War.
He’s offered the chance of a better life back in the uniform in a training role in Japan. By this time relations with the once isolationist country have warmed up. The country has become westernised, adopting the fashions, technology and even weapons. We have come a long way since the time of The Barbarian and the Geisha (1958) when relations are just being started between the two very different countries. One rooted in tradition and the past and another in asserting their dominance in the world (nothings changed there then). Now in the late 1800’s we are more in line with Unforgiven/Yurusarezaru mono (2013) when the Samurai is a seen as a dying breed, a reflection of the American gunfighter. The Last Samurai raises their status to another race that has become a relic, deeply rooted in the past, yet also very much part of the countries heritage. Once noble men at the disposal of the Emperor, who now wants them tamed if not eradicated. All part of the westernisation of the country.
Algren’s position is one of modern cinema with a conscience, looking back over the historical depiction of his own country reflected in another. He will train the Japanese army to fight the Samurai but not willingly, more out of a sense of duty and the money’s pretty good too. You’d think that guns would be a far better match for the sword wielding samurai who we meet in a gruesome batter that alters the course of the film dramatically. After killing of a fair few men Algren is taken back to the samurai village out of respect for his ability in battle. You can see some similarities between him and Lieutenant Dunbar (Kevin Costner) who is adopted/assimilated into the culture. The journey is not straight forward, it’s not a case of understanding just the culture, its a whole different mind-set. He can fight, he has the potential to be great, held back by his mind-set, not able to focus his thoughts. Whereas Dunbar is more open to what is around him, not coming with the “I’m living with savages” mindset which takes a while to wear off.
The Samurai are not depicted as savages, cinema has been more kind and even respectful to them. We hold them in awe of their skill, part of the countries culture and heritage. The genre is has strong links with the western, both drawing on each other before the release of this film. This is not Dances with Wolves (1990) in Japan, there is a sweeping feel to the movie, we are seeing the end of an era in a country through the eyes of an American which is standard for Hollywood. Which allows the audience to connect with another culture, which this time was more open to the white-man’s presence, the other was becoming a double-other (film theory talk) in order to work together. Both Algren and Dunbar are/were soldiers of the U.S. army who have come to dislike its recent campaign history. One wanting to see the West before it’s tamed and another horrified by that process. Openly criticising General Custer and his last campaign, saying he was living up to his legend. It’s as if the past has grown a deeper conscience through the guise of Japanese culture, however historically correct is another matter.
With the warrior transformation underway we see him assimilate into their culture, learning the language. Algren never gives up, determined to prove himself to these people who are almost like gods, giving their skill, honour and duty to the emperor who has turned his back on them. They are now fighting for survival, something which Algren feels the Native Americans had but were greatly outnumbered and outgunned. The same is happening here, but not without a fight all provided courtesy of cinema. And boy do we get a glorious battle even though it may never have really happened it’s all part of Hollywood and the genres attempt to rewrite history. It allows Cruise to act more than just rely on his stunts which he insists on doing. There is also little time for romance which would be very out-of place in this film. It’s thankfully held back to move the film forward. We also have Ken Watanabe as Katsumoto the leader of the Samurai and advisor to the Emperor. Watanabe has become the go-to Japanese guy for these heavier roles, bringing with him a more honest portrayal, not just someone in make-up or slightly Japanese. It’s a solid block-buster that if you go deep enough find more than just a historical action film, you get a western, always an extra treat for me.
- Review: Films Set In Japan – ‘The Last Samurai’ (2003) (tokyofox.wordpress.com)
A few months ago I was reading a book at work about the depiction of Native Americans in the western genre. There was a chapter that discussed a revisionist western where an Englishman’s captured and assimilated into their culture over the course of the film. Observing how this was dealt with in comparison to others in the past which were treated more as rescue stories, returning the captured white man back to civilised society. Whilst also considering the damage that their time with a native tribe will do to the individual, will they be scarred and damaged as we found this horrifying in The Searchers (1956), or should they be abandoned or shot in Two Rode Together (1961), these are just two examples of a discussion that was going on in the 19th century. The effect of one primitive culture on a more advanced one (as we are lead to believe). Anyway back to this chapter in Invisible Natives which discussed how a native tribe had a more positive effect on John Morgan (Richard Harris) in A Man Called Horse (1970) whose hunting teams ambushed at the beginning, hes dragged away like an animal to the camp.
Our perception of a Native is first reinforced by the classic genre which is already being twisted around. This is not a satire like Little Big Man (1970) when Jack Crabb (Dustin Hoffman) who is captured and adopted as one of their own, able to come back and forth. This is more about changing our view of a section of people from the inside out, not mocking the other, the white American. Or in this case the white Englishman who travelled the America to hunt new game. With no intention of being captured, living amongst the Sioux nation for at least a year, during a time when the westward expansion was not as big a threat as it would be by the end of the century when they were fighting for the freedom before being penned into a reservation far from their own lands. A Man Called Horse explores the possibility of that what if a white man was to enter into this world, away from his aristocratic trapping to live amongst “savages” to learn how to survive before a possible escape.
Much like Man in the Wilderness (1971) there is very little dialogue, well dialogue we can understand when we are with the Sioux which is pretty much all the time. The difference with Wilderness and Horse is we have a larger white cast in the more audience friendly Wilderness film which was set even earlier in time. There is more of an offbeat tone, as it sees a man left behind (once again Harris) who is left to die, learning to survive much like the Natives he lives in fear of for a time, learning to respect them by the films end. Coming back to Horse there is more of an open view to the other that takes in one of our own who becomes an other over the course of the film.
It’s a slow transformation that begins as an embarrassment, fighting the enemy to escape, giving into survive, to understand to make plans. That’s before life happens for Morgan who meets another captive Batise (Jean Gascon), a Frenchman who has been among them for 5 years. For Morgan he now has two enemies, one national rivalry back home, who he can talk to, the only one who understands him at first. They form an uneasy relationship, facing as allies and form of communication. They both want to leave but when and how, they have a plan which is later scuppered by unfolding events.
The depiction of the Sioux is more impartial, more honest, we get all the feather head-dresses but only when necessary, part of their visual language which the audience understands. It’s so much more through a number of montages and not having the broken English we get in most westerns. Even Dame Judith Anderson doesn’t utter a word of English, having taken the time to learn her lines in the native language. There is a levee lot respect to the culture you rarely get today. You could say that this was Dances with Wolves (1990) which has its problems with the depiction of the enemy to appear more menacing for effect.
We only see two other white men, who are both killed in the ambush, the only enemy are warring tribes, the impending danger of the white man is far away for now. This allows us to focus on the Sioux and nothing else, their culture, we have to really focus to understand what is going on and to be fair that’s not hard as they have the same problems as the civilised society. The threat of danger, respecting the dead, the pecking order of the men and love which comes out of nowhere for Morgan who was planning to get out. Allowing himself to be subjected to the Vow, which is one of the most playful things I have seen on film for an audience to stomach in main-stream film. Even in the seventies, I was struggling to figure out how this painful feat was re-enacted. A ritual that the film even states was outlawed in the 1880’s, brought back to life for this film.
I am left wanting more now, knowing there was a sequel The Return of a Man Called Horse (1976), the fact that Morgan wanted to leave now becomes an important member of their society, leads them to safer ground. We are left guessing as to where he went, did he stay with them, or does he leave. Well I know where he begins in the sequel which doesn’t help, aghhhh I just want to find out how his journey ends, how he’s been changed by his experiences, away from civilised society. Even Morgan agrees men all want the same, can’t get better than that for a message from a film that focuses on the natural enemy of the westerner.
- A Man Called Horse, Elliot Silverstein, 1970 (www.nativeamerican.co.uk)
- A Man Called Horse (1970) & The Return of a Man Called Horse (1976) (every70smovie.blogspot.co.uk)
- A Man Called Horse (eriklerouge.blogspot.co.uk)
- A Man Called Horse (jeffarnoldblog.blogspot.co.uk)
I remember very little of my first encounter with Dances with Wolves (1990) whilst in my last year at art school, catching it. It played out very differently in my head, still that’s what memory can do to you when you cram in full of films, all those images, quotes and music running through you’re mind. It was time for a rematch, one that reminded me of what I have long missed. After watching Little Big Man (1970) this falls well into place in the genre. The main theme of a white man living with a Native American tribe, for Jack Crabbe (Dustin Hoffman) it was the synonymously violent Comanches, for Lt John Dunbar/Dances with Wolves (Kevin Costner) with the Sioux who are the very opposite until pushed to go to war with the Pawnee the exotic violent tribe of the film. Wolves goes into far more detail in terms of time that a white man spends being absorbed into the culture of the usual western other. The other which is seen as a savage obstacle to be overcome in the myth of conquest. We usually spend little time with Natives, earlier films such as Broken Arrow (1950) which moved back and forth between whites and the other (Apaches).
Wolves really delves into an overlooked part in it’s countries history, guided in front and behind the camera by Costner with sensitivity and grace. On screen it’s in the form of Lt John Dunbar a possible coward during the civil war, who becomes a war hero who falls for the life of the sioux on the open plains of the untouched frontier. Theres already a sense of loss in the air, the inevitable in coming, the Sioux and other nations submitting to life on reservations. If not wiped/rubbed out in the years before. Our lead character is more open than any other in the history of the west, it’s not just a sympathy for his misunderstood neighbour, it’s a real understanding that takes the first half of the film to allow him to leave his own culture and past to start a fresh life. As if he has met someone, married and moved in, cutting off his family in the process.
The idea that the Sioux are a dangerous nation is soon brushed aside with the Pawnee who are the classic enemy of the film, killing in the opening act, suggesting that they will be back for more. Their depiction is far from reality, probably a studio compromise to still have an Indian enemy only to the Sioux however. We never truly leave the stereotype, instead just touch on it when needed for conflict.
The journey is long, long enough to be swept away into a world and culture that is usually overlooked in film (as I’ve already mentioned) allowing us to make up for all of that. Costner’s Dunbar is our gateway into that culture, an open minded figure, disillusioned by his past life in the uniform of a solider who started the film on an operating table, where he could have easily have died. Comes alive on the fort where he has been posted, empty of other soldiers he keeps account of his time in a journal that acts as narration for the audience to understand his state of mind as he leaves one life in favour of another. Theres no question of becoming a “Human Being” as in Little Big Man he simply is accepted as a Sioux after a period of acceptance, breaking down the barrier of language and culture to discover understanding, something that is usually seen as another bunch of savages who won’t conform to the western way of life that is spreading across the land.
The landscape is another character in this revisionist western that looks at the open prairie as land that has all but been claimed for the white man. The buffalo we can see are slowly being wiped out, you don’t need to see a buffalo hunter riding off, the aftermath of the skinned beasts is enough to get you. Everything about this film is to make you understand their plight, not just of the Sioux but every other nation that has surrendered to white Americans who tamed the country.
There is indeed a flip side to all the great images of gunfighters, gold rushes, cattle drives and the rail-road, there had to be a price for all that. Not just on their side, we see what would have happened to Debbie Edwards (Natalie Wood) of The Searchers (1956) if she remained with her captors, not a fate worse than death, as we discover for Stands with a Fist (Mary McDonnell) a victim of a Pawnee raid that was found by the Sioux, and raised as their own. Very much the same as Jack Crabbe who too came to not just sympathise but stand with his natural enemy as one the other who he was taught to hate and kill on sight. All that fades away when you look beyond the myths and stories that are constructed to create fear in a culture on and off film that has become part of the fabric.
Dances with Wolves stands alone able to not just entertain but make us think about our pasts, not just America but other nations who have altered the future of other nations, who as primitive as they may seem were moved without consent. I know thats a generalising of far more complex issues of history. Wolves is an attempt to re-write the myth of conquest to say this too might have happened, even a white solider may have left his own culture to join another nation that lived there hundreds of years before the 1600’s. We know what will happen, its inevitable as I have said numerous times, history tells us that. If only for a few hours we see into a now lost world brought to life with respect, grace and heart for all who want peace.
- DANCES WITH WOLVES: Film Review (www.nativeamerican.co.uk)
- Best Picture Profile: Dances With Wolves (mylastoscar.wordpress.com)
- I’M AN INDIAN TOO (A SIOUX): “DANCES WITH WOLVES” (1990) (scottross79.wordpress.com)
- Dances with Wolves (1990) (theacademywaswrong.blogspot.co.uk)
- The Best Picture Countdown #63: Dances with Wolves (1990) (flickchickcanada.blogspot.co.uk)
- The Oscar Project #63: Dances with Wolves (1990) (hashtagworld.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.
To mark just over a year ago since my chat/discussion/conversation with professor Neil Campbell of American Studies at Derby University, I feel I should share that conversation, to allow you all to understand more where I am coming from, my position on the Western, from my degree show piece and my fascination with the Western genre. I will link the conversation back to my writing on some of the films that we discussed
Q. Why did the Western genre lose popularity in the late 60’s?
A. The impact of television was clearly apart of that. The Television programs in that genre, was saturating the market. The genre was more accessible to viewers, here and in the U.S. Hollywood had to look to other styles or forms to gain their audiences. There was also the political climate, that of the civil rights movement that had reached a high, with riots and the death of Martin Luther King. Jr. Also the American people were beginning to question the conflict in Vietnam. This also questioned American values. In-turn the style of the Westerns didn’t tap into that at all. Being covered by the likes of John Wayne and John Ford, who were going into decline themselves. The Western doesn’t die it simply takes different forms. The classic formula was that a problem needs to be solved, the people can’t solve it, so a hero arrives. The film becomes action packed, solving the problem with violence. The classic John Ford’s fit the age anymore, being based on mythologies. Younger people are looking for something else. New directors like Sam Peckinpah, and Robert Altman who directed McCabe and Mrs Miller (1971) and Arthur Pen who directed both Left Handed Gun (1958) and Little Big Man (1970). The genre is seen now as Post Western, films about the West in the 20th and 21st century, such as No Country for Old Men (2007), that alters and plays around with the genre. The idea of the hero is now too simplistic. People don’t want to question the myth, as it sacrilegious to do so; it’s the national narrative, best seen in the Western. Today people are more cynical and sophisticated. Open Range (2003) is a classic western but also modern, so it’s like a Ford, but the Ford Western can no longer be sustained. It survives in a new form, the Contemporary America, using Western elements. So the Western has to adapt to the times to survive. The classic Western genre will always have a place, as apart of the culture, but also seen as a product of it times that tried to adapt, but was lost in the idea of the hero. Too simplistic to really survive when political tensions increased around the world and at home concerning America. The WWII required escapism, to have heroic figures saving the day, and seeing America as a place for possibilities and progress, the American dream.
Q. How has the depiction of the Native Americans effected their identity, their political position and racially?
A. In the classic western the Native Americans were seen as inferior, they had secondary importance. This produced a stereotype. They were seen amongst other obstacles to be overcome in order to progress. They were treated as just material. There was slow recognition to see them as human, not wanted to be seen on the same level as white people. Their importance really increased around the time of the civil rights movements. Hollywood had to acknowledge this. At the time of films such as Gone with the Wind (1939) they didn’t have the vote. John Ford tried to explore this through his films Cheyenne Autumn (1964) and Sergeant Rutledge (1960) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). The minorities gradually become more human and less stereotyped. However things don’t really change until the Native Americans start to make their own films, in Post Westerns, but not in the Western style, such as Smoke Signals (1998) by director Chris Eyre, being set in a contemporary reservation. The film acknowledges the stereotypes are now apart of their identity, but seen critically and ironically, drawing stupidity out, they can laugh at it. Films such as Little Big Man (1970) is a civil rights film about the Native Americans, with lines such as “Sometimes it’s a good day to die”. Dances with Wolves (1990) however Campbell sees it as actually quite limited . Sadly there are not many Native American films being made, as they can’t get access to funding.
Q. How has the depiction of Early America been distorted by film?
A. It’s all about the myth; the first movies that were made during the silent era were about the West. At that time, the frontier was still out there. The Indian wars were still going on. There was a gap between the frontier and the Western expansion; these two grew up together. They had a ready-made landscape which could be mythicized. Dime novels that were being published created heroes out of gunfighter’s, for instance Jesse James who has recently been portrayed by Brad Pitt (in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007). Beachamp follows up the idea of the Duke of Death in Unforgiven (1992). The dime novels mythicized the West. This was symbiotic in radio and film and the myth takes over. People don’t care for the real West, they are more persuaded by the myth where the hero walks away and we forget the violence. The real record of the West is by the photographers such as Muybridge in landscapes that he took, the photographs are slightly more honest, but get sucked away. Ansell Adams photographs are more empty, there is no community, how America was. Films such as Heavens Gate (1980) and The Deer Hunter (1978) by director Michael Cimino depict the West more honestly regarding immigration, when people just arrived off the boats. John Ford being an Irishman, depicted immigrants but using broken English, at a time in reality when there were all sorts of languages in the country. This is explored more in Deleuze’s Cinema 1 & 2. By 1945, things changed dramatically when WWII ended. The Neo-Western was coming into being. Ford represented the old style of Western. Directors such as Altman and Peckinpah were directors of the changing genre. The genre had to find a new form; life was no longer simple. They can’t go back to the American dream, or maybe not so, with films such as No Country for Old Men (2007). Also films such as Bad Day at Black Rock (1954) by John Sturges, which was so different with slow ponderings, looking at the internal space and the landscape, looking at war and racism. The Misfits (1961) set in the Nevada open desert starring Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable. The film was based on a book by Arthur Miller directed by John Huston. The film Lone Star (1996) starring Kris Kristofferson set in the modern West, with classic elements but certainly looks at new ideas.
Q. Do you believe the majority of our knowledge of the West now comes from films?
A. In short, yes in Europe and America, only through the images, T.V. adverts and art etc, which take aspects of the mythologies. There are lots of examples of distortion, which come from 19th century American Art. I’m recommended to look at West is America, an art collection that was held in the 1990’s. The paintings are mythical, by the likes of Russel, Remington and Beerstat, from which the film-makers borrow from their art. Where as the work of Adams is not original, borrowings from paintings, and film borrows from photographs.
Q. Do you think that the Native Americans have fair representation in film and politically?
A. Yes, generally, but it depends on the voices being heard, more so now through the news, painting and films. However there are problems that still exist, people’s perceptions are broadly better and fairer, but still thought to always have feathers. There’s a film called The Exiles (1961) about a group of Native Americans who move to Los Angeles from a reservation, after being encouraged by the government. They found difficulties with alcohol, poverty and employment. However they are not shown as victims. The Urban world is so different from where they came from. Lastly the films of Sergio Leone lean towards the New Western genre.