My earliest memory of American History X (1998) was when I was very young, a black and white film that was anything but pleasant on the eye or the ear. I think I was about ten at the time, I really can’t remember. What I do remember was the strong Nazi themes, the skin heads and the strong language and the level of violence which to be honest scared me. I was young at the time. Now is a very different story, I understand that the film is about Neo-Nazism in an American town, focusing on one family which has seen two members radicalized by a manipulative figure. On the language front the amount of effing and blinding I became more numb to, something which has only happened before with any of Martin Scorsese‘s film’s, especially The Wolf of Wall Street (2013). My understand now is only just the beginning of a very thought-provoking film that tries to understand the then state of America’s immigration problem. A film that has taken on even greater meaning in the U.K. as the immigration borders have been busted wide open, with more member states joining the E.U. it seems our own small borders are fit to burst. The country cannot cope with the demand, the public wants change and the political elite are playing on these emotion as we build up to this years general election.
Going back to late nineties America we find a black and white world, at first gland all is calm looking out at the sea before we cut to a suburban America, two African American’s have pulled up to steal Derek Vinyard’s (Edward Norton) car, we don’t know why, apart from the Nazi paraphernalia that adorns the inside of his bedroom. They don’t stand a chance, even with armed against the angry Derek who shoots them down with cold accuracy. The height of his power and drive fuelled by an ignorance for the immigrant population that live in the community.
Jump forward three years after that night we find the younger brother Danny (Edward Furlong), now also a skin-head, indoctrinated by the same hatred that lead astray from any rational thinking about society. Handing in homework that no other student would ever dare try, based on Hitler’s Mien Kampf, concerning Dr. Bob Sweeney (Avery Brooks) who decides to not throw away and forget about this possible lost cause, taking Danny under his wing. Giving him and the audience a way into this horrible and controversial world of Neo-Nazism that within three years has grown in strength, becoming and organised group that are ready and more hungry to take on anyone who isn’t white.
It’s disturbing to hear these conversations going on that could easily fall into being out-right offensive at times, handled with intelligence we get a balanced debate, with an emphasis on being able to think for yourself, not being lead to believe a particular belief systems without the ability to question and test its ideals and principles, essentially to think independently. We see a number of figures from difference of the ons-screen debate, the family caught in the middle, the victims of the racism and the followers who have been brainwashed effectively, or dare I say radicalised. Something we see more so in the Middle East today, even as close as Paris today.
Photographed in both black and white and colour, I only remember the black and white sequences, before turning off after the shop-raid, the images then were too powerful for the unaware mind. They still are quite strong, having no colour in the image we only see the act, the pain that is inflicted, stripped back and raw. Where there is brutal acts they are beautifully captured, to blur them would loose the rawness of the moment. A choice that breaks up the past and the present in even balance we eventually need the colour to seen the final blow delivered, bringing us out of the past into the present day.
Our society is not as picturesque as we like to image, after we leave the safety of our own street we become more aware of others who live among us. My home town and city has changed over the last few years, more multicultural than before, all for the better we are told. Jobs and services are fought over, crime effects others. It’s too easy to simply brush one ethnic group with the same brush, without understand their circumstances. Something that radicalised people forget, thinking only of how their lives can be made better, by scaring and inflicting pain and suffering on others. American History X aims to confront the our perceptions of society to look at the marginalised in a different light, not just as mindless thugs who attack those who are different. To try and show them up, to question their thinking and the effect they have. They are still immigration problems in America as Mexicans still try to cross the border illegally, in hopes of finding their own American dream. The same is happening at French ports as immigrate try to jump into lorries and cars before they leave for the U.K. The film is almost 20 years old and still has great effect and relevance today, it’s a scary thought really.
Due to the sheer length of Hevean’s Gate (1980) I have decided to watch it in two parts, just over the hour mark tonight (8/11/14) and I feel that I should hold back until I have seen beyond the Johnson County War horses ride off into town. My initial thoughts are that Michael Cimino for all he is now known for, almost bankrupting a studio by blowing his budget, his film truncated for theatrical release he has produced (only looking at the first half of the directors cut) a masterpiece that is the scale of a David Lean, cover vast stretches of even just one state, the emotional depth of a George Stevens and the romanticism of Robert Altman‘s McCabe and Mrs Miller (1971). If that is even possible for a man who only a few years before caused uproar with The Deer Hunter (1978) has taken on a dark page in his countries own past, as it turned on the immigrants who tried to make a life for themselves, as the Americans years before once did. I can’t wait to see how the town react to the state and even country whose middle class army turn on the people who make the country so rich.
I could only wait a single night to complete this epic of a film, putting the label to shame when applied to The Big Country (1958) somewhat. I could see the length issue, needing to bring it in to theatrical release friendly length, which would only hinder the film. Noticing scenes which could be cut back, none entirely removed. Everything is in there for a purpose, prolonged to enjoy the spectacle of their integration with American’s who here are living alongside one another in peace. An issue that has become a hot topic in the UK with the borders within the EU for free movement the influx of people from all over Europe, which is having an effect on the fabric of the nation, its politics and infrastructure. I’m just glad we have moved on even from the 1950’s and the comments of Enoch Powell wanting to pay each immigrant to leave. That’s was progress when compared to the extremes which the US government went to in Johnson County, Wyoming in 1890 with immigrant causing “near anarchy”. This conflict between the towns people enabled by the President versus the immigrants is the backdrop for this dusty dramatic epic.
Beginning in 1870 when two friends are graduating from university it seems that the possibilities are endless for James Averill (Kris Kristofferson) and Englishman Billy Irvine (John Hurt) in a sequence that is full of great promise for all the young men and the adoring women who join them in dance and celebration. We can see the beginning of something special for James and Ella Watson (Isabelle Huppert) which’s brought to an abrupt close with cut to twenty years later and the shooting of an immigrant from a shadowy figure from behind a sheet, the figure – Nathan D. Champion (Christopher Walken), of authority is looming in, wanting to control if not quell the bubbling situation of fear that is brewing out in Johnson County 1890.
We can see the speed of development in the country, as we cut to not a boom town, but a booming metropolis of a busy main street, horses pulling trailers, men in shops kitting themselves out in the latest suits and guns. It’s still very much a mans world. It doesn’t quite fit for James/Jim who quickly leaves for his homestead where we find Ella waiting for him. He has all he needs, a sheriffs job and a woman who makes him happy, what more does he want. The fear of a list of 125 names made up by cattle men who fear the influx of new Europeans. His friend Billy‘s revealed to be a weak man of only clever words and ideals that get him nowhere in the West kept alive only by his class that.
Before the conflict begins we’re treated to over an hour getting to know the people of the county that have shaped it, reminding us of the fabric the growing country then and now. Something that is the foundation of most countries that is sometimes forgotten. It’s a rich tapestry of scenes that are woven together to give us an image of a cohesive community that ultimately stand-up and fight the cattle men. Ignoring the law that was behind this influx of men is long coasts riding over the countryside with guns in hand, ready to deliver justice.
With all the grand imagery that is the overwhelming factor that makes this film so enjoyable and rewarding. We see a lot of dust in the air, brought up by the wheels on the ground, the sub seeping through the windows. Visually its splendid to watch, taking us to a dirty rough and ready. It falls down on the characterisation, the old friends only have a few scenes together. Cimino is doing what I do when documenting my work, he “milks it” squeezing everything out of his scenes, allowing them to play out. A lot is going on, it’s hard to see where any cuts were made for this final directors cut. We could easily have a documentary cut of the film seeing a historical account of the conflict rather than that characters. The only characters that are really focused is within the love triangle which’s tolerated and not tested. Jeff Bridges is given a few scenes as John L. Bridges who protects Ella more than anything. The ending is probably my only major fault that never really says anything, asking more questions, whose the girl who sits before a very much hurt James who cannot seem to move on. Maybe this ambiguity that has allowed such respect to build up around this film that is unique from any other in the Western genre.
If we take only one thing away from this controversial landmark film it is the visual detail, the love devotion that goes into every scene, every frame even. We should forget about the controversy behind the film, the massive budget, the incredible number of takes. However it does mark the end of an era in Hollywood film-making, the loss of directorial control, the creative reins have been now pulled in considerably. We still get the rare film that from Terrence Mallick and Scorsese which has their stamp all over it. Now we have films that are generated out of successful franchises, reboots and superhero universes that are proven to make a massive box-office return. The studio has won out, thank god for the indie film.