I’ve been meaning to watch Soldier Blue (1970) for sometime, know it came out the same year and shared some themes with Little Big Man which took more of the satirical angle of the genre and the politics of the day. I come away glad to have seen the film at least, I was considering a double film review to see how they both work together, but in reality they don’t unless you take both the massacres that are depicted; working as analogies for the Vietnam War which I’ve been learning about thanks to the BBC4 documentary series, which could be summed up easily in a few sentences when you look back at the conflict that really shouldn’t have taken place. Becoming an embarrassment both at home and internationally.
The function of the Western is to make sense and explore America’s consciousness, by looking back at its past to understand the present, how far they have come and also to celebrate, which at times can be problematic as we move further forward from the original events. Our view of history changes as we develop and change out thinking, new evidence comes to light, public opinion changes too. Blue made at a time when the American public wanted a complete withdrawal, the 1968 Nixon promised just that during his election campaign, which he eventually delivered on. The Western here is functioning on less than subtle level here, and at times very literal too, which is never a good thing for any creative endeavour. I could see the politics dripping off its liberal sleeve.
Beginning as a routine delivery of gold with a small troop of cavalry soldiers, with the addition of newly freed Cheyenne captive, Kathy Maribel ‘Cresta’ Lee (Candice Bergen) dressed in white women’s clothes ready to rejoin civilization. Sitting there in silence whilst the men are ogling her, hoping to make a successful advance, not the best way to return to white society. It’s not long before they’re ambushed by the Cheyenne who massacre them. We are seeing the power of the enemy first, before the U.S army has a chance to flex its might muscles at the finale. Leaving only two survivors, Cresta and Pvt. Honus Gent (Peter Strauss), both running from the action below. We learn how very different these two people are, the approach they take to the aftermath and their eventual leaving of the site. The ex-captive has no real concern to raid the dead soldiers in order to survive, taking all the water she can get…nothing really wrong there. Whereas Gent sees the act as desecrating a war site and the dead, placing his values above survival whilst still being respectful. Both want to survive but have very different perspectives.
Gender roles here are reversed here, usually the male is foul-mouthed – which is partly why the film has an 18 rating in the UK (although that could be reduced to a 15). The more Christian soldier’s shocked at the language that she comes out with. It’s refreshing that an actress is given such colourful lines, leaving Gent in the female role, even though his uniform suggests in the male role of protector, a soldiers trained to kill and serve his country but is giving way to a woman who understand the landscape and culture they are traveling through. Cresta is able to navigate her without relying on a river that would leave them vulnerable, discern which nations they interact with, she’s the scout who takes command.
Later on we encounter a goods wagon owned by Isaac Q. Cumber (Donald Pleasence) who we learn is really an arms trader using his wagon to conceal his real purpose in the West, to make a fast buck out of the conflict that is waiting us at the end of the film. However I notice a massive plot hole here which I will turn to later. Cresta is more aware of what is going on and ultimately sides with her Cheyenne family who have not harmed her physically, psychologically we can see where her loyalties lie – with the native, or the savage in the eyes of white civilization. I found Pleasence’s more enjoyable compared to Will Penny (1968), he’s not playing the mad preacher, more the capitalist out to make money from whoever he can find. I just wish we saw more of him, saying that his character did serve a good purpose in showing up the political divide between the Gent and Cresta.
The relationship that develops between the two I feel was a little manufactured to please the studio who made the film. However it allows a conversion to take place within him showed how far Gent travels emotionally and politically at the films close. You could say Cresta made a conscientious objector out of him, protesting about the conflict he’s supposed to be favour of by the colour of his uniform. The relationship may not be all that redundant after all.
Now for the plot hole which are a few, the years supposed to be 1864, during which time most if not all Indian wars were paused to focus on the Civil War between the North and the Southern states. However Gent mentions that he lost his father the previous year at Little Big Horn to the Sioux – which was in 1876, during the height of the Indian wars. Whilst the Washita Massacre took place in 1868, 3 years after the close of the Civil war. Another plot hole revolving around the gold that was stolen with the suggestion that it would be used to buy rifles, which itself make sense however when we meet Cheyenne chief Spotted Wolf (Jorge Rivero) of the he does not want to go to war. They do have rifles, but no mention of a recent purchase. All we learn is that the Cheyenne like all nations have an understanding of trade and how to operate within the White man economy whilst still being mostly free of the capitalist world itself.
The massacre itself is a thinly (emphasis in thinly) veiled metaphor for Vietnam, I’m sitting there thinking, yeah I get it. It doesn’t have the subtlety of Little Big Man of the same event that was more desensitised and was actually led by Custer who led both campaigns. The special effects here are poor, with dummy heads clearly being used and left in shot, it’s all for shock value which becomes more entertaining when that’s nor the point and lets down the film when we know it’s all leading upto this one-sided battle. Even if the cavalry rode over the U.S. flag before killing every man woman and child their weapons could reach, the fact that the Cheyenne didn’t want to fight, it’s all pretty much lost in the mess. It wasn’t really enough to laugh as I was just disappointed really let down after all this build up, the journey Cresta and Gent have been on, wondering if they would make it back to civilisation at all, not how I want to feel about a Western.
When it comes to Charlton Heston in Westerns it’s a mixed bag for me, having a few classics to his name. Known more for his Biblical work which suits him more, or his more just readily associated with them, either way I’m really got in the saddle with Will Penny (1968). Initially thinking it was going to be like Monte Walsh (1970) which again looked at aging cowboys who were coming to the end of the lives in the saddle, or so we thought. I was quite taken with the film, taking two of the genres bigger supporting actors are given this quiet film to relax and get comfortable.
Looking at Will Penny you can see it’s definitely a precursor to Walsh who follows on from the earlier. Focusing on Heston’s film for now I want to look at how he has made this cosy domestic Western. For a cowboy we see very little of the rugged open country that we associate with the genre. At the opening of the film we see cows being driven to a station, rounded up ready to go off to slaughter. We only hear of the promise of the train, which we wait for, whilst wages are paid out to the men. It’s virtually unseen to have the bureaucracy of the cattle drive on display. It’s generally get the cows the market, blow off some steam and see how much money’s left over before you join up on another drive.
It’s the next job which we focus on, where the men are heading off to. Two men Blue and Dutchy (Lee Majors and Anthony Zerbe) are making plans to find another drive before winter sets in, another cowboy is wanting to get the train to see his father one last time. There’s no place for having a good time here, it’s about keeping the money coming in, not spending it as fast as you can. The realities of Frontier life without any of the Hollywood trappings. Penny (Heston) is one of the more experienced men on the drive, who can’t easily being driven to violence before losing his job, he just wants to survive and do his job. Now Penny’s supposed to be playing older than he is, in his mid 40’s he still looks too young, relying on grey hair dye and the elements to age him up. It’s true life expectancy wasn’t that good in the frontier, however Hollywood is pushing it slightly.
He eventually rides off with Blue and Dutchy who we next see camping when an Elk’s spotted in the distance, fresh meat for the taking that leads only to trouble. The three men fight over it when an unscrupulous Preacher Quint (Donald Pleasence) and his boys who claim the game for themselves. One played by Bruce Dern in an early screen appearance setting the tone for his career. The gang lead by the fathers twisted interpretation of the good book taking the eye for an eye passage too literally. The death of his son he wants to avenge along with his sons who wont give up their quest for “justice”
Being a rare domestic Western there was more time given to Dutchy’s self inflicted gunshot wound. He’s not left for dead – for long anyway. Taking him to a small farm where the Penny and Blue want to get him to a doctor. Advised by the farmer best to let him die, come and have a drink instead. There’s little drama in these scenes, its pure conversation. Dutchy romanticses his accident to passing mother Catherine Allen (Joan Hackett) and son whose shocked at the story, taking his boasts at face value, painting Penny in a poor light. All moving at a steady pace, with no sense of urgency before they reach the town of Alfred where he does finally get care, where we leave him and Blue for a long time.
The focus now on Penny who finds himself a job, after bringing back the dead predecessor, again no drama, only that implied by the dialogue. Employed by Alex played by Ben Johnson whose settling into the older roles comfortably. We think that Penny can rest easy now for the winter just around the corner, his troubles are just about to begin. With the appearance of Mother and son once more in his own cabin, he wants to go easy and fair on them before his return. Even after she held him at gun point. Reflecting how hard it must have been for traveling families to defend themselves out on the frontier. Meeting himself with a bloody encounter with Quint and his boys. The group aren’t the hardest of men I’ve seen in the genre, acting like Native Americans would have been depicted, jumping around, throwing Penny around. Pleasance is strangely suited to the role known for the playing the bad guy this looks like fun for him. They leave Penny for dead in the now snowy Rocky’s, its survival time for him.
Arriving back and taken into his cabin, nursed back to health, we discover a more vulnerable side to Penny and the predictable build up of a romance between him and Catherine. It’s these scenes in and around the cabin that make it takes us into the home and the family dynamic like never before. Of course there have been many families, either warring against one another or all grown up, dysfunctional and feuding. Here these a sense of new love and discovery, without even knowing it. Brought to an abrupt end by the arrival of Quint and his boys, disrupting the dynamic, Penny now a prisoner, Catherine a sexual object to be played with. I’m reminded of the forced dance scene in Day of the Outlaw (1959) when the passing renegade soldiers lead by Burl Ives men who are finally allowed to let off steam, treat the most desirable woman Helen Crane (Tina Louise) as little more than a rag doll, showing no respect for her. The scene is drawn directly from. It’s just as painful to watch as the woman can do little or nothing about it. Made worse by a woman who came with the men who does nothing to stop it.
Falling back into the rules of the genre the hero has to save the day, if only to save his dignity and self-respect, with the help of Blue and Dutchy who appear out of nowhere its time to get the guns out and finally sort the Quint family out. Allowing domesticity and reality to set back in, Alex and his men ride into view and the mother and son have to face reality, not just of where they live, but with who. Penny is reluctant to settle down, feeling his life has not allowed him earlier to do so has left him emotionally at a disadvantage. Unsure if his own skills could support a family, knocking his confidence greatly, he has to carry on alone, riding off into the wilderness, this time out of choice, he had the option to make a family, a life on a farm. His own inadequacies, perceived or real hold him back. A more honest ending, for the film and the man who would have rode away with her, decides not to. A mature and hard decision to make narratively and emotionally for the audience. With reluctance I accepted his decision, nothing in his life has prepared him for a family, running away scared, better off he may think, still he leaves a potential family and lover to survive alone.