Another Western that I’ve been looking out for over the years, with the wait now finally over I have mixed feelings of deflation. Comedian Rich Hall began his BBC4 documentary on the film depiction on Native Americans by starting with the assassination of Osama Bin-Laden -, soldiers uttering the word Geronimo. A word that was originally linked to the name of the Apache warrior who held out and fought until he’s forced to surrender to the U.S. army. How many other names have been so misappropriated? A name of a countries former enemy has become a term of celebration and liberation. None have the same sound to them as Geronimo as it rolls off the tongue out of all the prominent Native American figures. It’s a practice that I try to avoid, aiming to keep his name in historical context, not to use in celebration.
The 1993 film Geronimo (1993) was one of two released that year about the Apache warrior, one made a Native American produced TV movie, very different in tone, celebrating the life and times of the figure, one that I feel I should watch again to compare. And the Hollywood Western that bills the lead actor, fourth on the list below Gene Hackman and Robert Duvall. A symptom of how Hollywood make and market their films. Placing the more prominent names above others who have a larger part in the film. Also indicating the position of Native American actors in the film industry, at the bottom. The only positive you can take away from this billing is that the role went to Wes Studi, a Native American (Cherokee) and not someone in brown face, that’s some progress.
Made during the early 1990’s when there was a boom in the genre, released in between Dances With Wolves (1990), Unforgiven (1992) and Wyatt Earp (1994), the same year as the larger than life, sweeping epic – Tombstone (1993). Easily categorized as a revisionist Western, attempting to rewrite the genres pasts wrongs to tell a more honest account of history. So how did they get on? I’m reminded of Broken Arrow (1950) when James Stewart narrated Tom Jefford’s experience with the Apache, we even met Geronimo in one scene when all the tribes of the nation met for a council meeting, his own histories picked up in a Chuck Connors film – Geronimo (1962) which I might check out of curiosity. This 1990’s take on the warriors narrated by baby-faced Matt Damon as a fresh out of West point officer Lt. Britton Davis, leaving me thinking how much of Lt Dunbar has influenced him, his moments of reflection and modern thinking on a 19th century issue that’s now become part of America’s history and less talked about politics. Britton us bright-eyed and bushy-tailed as he waits to meet with his commanding officer Lt. Charles Gatewood (Jason Patric) heading off to join the stately and much admired Brigadier General George Crook (Gene Hackman) who was given the task of rounding up the Apache and sticking them on the reservation.
Now with all Native American revisionism its going to be more graphic – think Little Big Man and Soldier Blue (both 1970) et al, it’s brutal and attempting to take their side for again. Yet it still comes from the perspective of a white soldier – Davis who is reflecting over this period in history. There is however more screen time given to Wes Studi and rightly so really allowing us the best Hollywood can do depict the final days of freedom for the Apache. As revisionist the film tries to be, it takes a massive cue from John Ford, depicting the film entirely in Monument Valley, trying to be both a Cavalry film and Cheyenne Autumn (1964) which moved around the Navajo country, having now taken on this mythic form and space which allows filmmakers to tell the story of the West in this landscape almost exclusively at times. I found this distracting at times, thinking about Fort Apache or She Wore a Yellow Ribbon at times, not seeing for it wants to be.
With more screen-time given to Studi we’re allowed to understand his point of view, he’s not just a pain in the backside for the Army and the White House, He’s has a credible point of view. First meeting him at his initial surrender, brought the charge of the two Lieutenant’s who see this as a big moment in both their careers and history. For Geronimo it’s the end of his peoples way of life and loss of freedom, he’s not taken this decision lightly. It’s a film that wants to be taken seriously, giving time to both fact and action during the films run. Time for the peace talks that see the Apache accepting they’ve been worn down and needing to talk. Before things get messy after an Apache’s killed for a ghost dance (disturbing the peace) which triggers another war between them and the white eyes.
The action scenes are rather mixed, bloody at times, filled with dust which makes it hard at times to see what’s going on. OK we’re in the desert but its supposed to be discernible to the viewer. Suggesting that it was a bloody time for both sides, more so the Natives who are fighting for respect and honor at this pivotal time.
Turning to look at the other characters times taken to develop the two lieutenant’s and even the aging scout Al Sieber (Duvall) who has suffered 17 arrows and gunshots and still standing, he’s learned to respect his enemy whilst growing tired in his role. A nice character for Duvall to play, having been a presence in the genre ever since he got “shot to pieces” by the Duke in True Grit (1969) he gives the film extra strength by him just being there. I felt as much as those in uniform were given more time to grow, we got less time with Chato (Steve Reevis) a once feared warrior, now a loyal scout to the cavalry, outside of his obvious skill and knowledge he is only seen as a traitor to his people. At least he’s not being played by Charles Bronson in Chato’s Land (1972).
Summing up this film it’s an attempt to tell two sides to the same events, whilst naturally being slightly more biased to the Army, made by White men, it’s only able to go so far. We do have a more fleshed out depiction of the Apache which i can’t complain about and with subtitles which gives allows more depth, only speaking English when faced with White Eyes. I noticed also a bit of slopping editing, splicing in an elder to Crooks final treaty talk, it looked really out of place, shoe-horned in there. I can’t complain too much, its an early 90’s Western that attempts to rewrite events, yet still holding back in places.
Another Western that I thought I would never see, so when it came up in the listings I grabbed the opportunity. A few weeks later I’ve finally caught this late period Western with an older Kirk Douglas. It first came to my attention when I found the trailer when I was working on Dancing in the West (2013), I eventually dropped the trailer from the final cut. The images of the trailer didn’t leave me, wanting to seek out the film which not so sought after in the genre. For me it was to see an older Douglas when his profile was not as strong as his son Michael. There’s enough room for two on the big screen – just.
Posse (1975) is not the longest of film by any stretch of the imagination, its straight into the action and it doesn’t really slow down, with a political edge that grabbed by attention. Texas State Marshall Howard Nightingale (Douglas) is leading a posse, we only know they are law by the badges they wear. Their actions are questionable, a nighttime raid on Jack Strawhorn’s (Bruce Dern) gang, having seen a great number of Westerns, there’s no honor in this raid, the men are caught off guard, with no chance to defend themselves. Even killed when they are clearly unarmed, which goes against the unspoken code which the audience has been educated in. All of Strawhorn’s men are killed within a few minutes, its systematic and cold, leaving the leader of the gang to ride off to fight another day.
The same systematic attacks carried out in daylight when the posse catch up with Strawhorn’s new less experience incompetent gang who are surrounded and killed one by one without really getting close. Strawhorn had briefed these men to shoot when they reach a certain point, no sooner. This doesn’t really sink in for them, firing when fired at, natural instincts come through, which the silent posse use to their advantage. Again these men are taken out one by one, some unarmed whilst others really don’t help themselves by getting in the line of fire. These are two sides where the leaders don’t directly get involved until the very end – could this be a proxy war in the West? Both men do deliver orders but don’t directly get involved until they are forced to. Nightingale finally arrests his man, bringing him one step closer to the office of Senator.
I’m reminded of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) which saw Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) who legend has it killed the outlaw Valance. This act raises his profile and helps him eventually reach the office of Senator. Except he knows he wasn’t the killer. His whole rise to power is based on a myth which he doesn’t argue with until the end of the film. Nightingale is purposefully building his own legend on the outlaws that he brings in or has killed. He is aware of his reputation and the power that it has to further his career.
We see that Nightingale has power or money at least, his own personal train that allows him to travel before breaking away with the horses that go with them. Pulling into Tesoto, a Texan town is later used for a political rally. A town where Strawhorn had previously shot a sheriff, leaving the town vulnerable to further attack, the arrival of Nightingale can only be a good thing. Bringing with him the man they wanted, Nightingale celebrated by most, but not all, the most influential man – the press – Harold Hellman (James Stacy) who won’t print favorable reports on the would be Senator.
With Strawthorn in jail, it’s time to ride the glory of the arrest, Nightingale holds an outdoor rally, which works pretty well for him, if only they went to the polls the next morning. Everything starts to go downhill from here on in. The train ride to the gallows comes to an abrupt end not too far out of town. Turning the tables on Nightingale who becomes powerless to do anything, his men are trailing behind unable to help. This is something I’ve never really seen, the hero so helpless to do anything up to the close of the film. Then again this is Douglas who has played some ambiguous conflicted men who we are somehow drawn to, neither good nor bad, this one is leaning towards the bad, riding on his political and legal powers to hopefully win the day.
None of that goes to plan, now a hostage, his men are forced to find the money to set him free, it’s the last job they’ll do for him before they cross over to other side and ride off Strawthorn. This is after they hear of their possible futures, less than desirable they hoped for. Less money for all, and for one less status, with that threat ahead they have to fight for themselves, and who can really blame them, with the opportunity they grab it with both hands. Leaving us with a very unusual ending in film, the hero is left alone, thwarted by the bad guy who rides off into the sunset. Yet our hero doesn’t really have the classic traits, sure he caught the bad guy, but he rode off with the men who first caught him. It shows the ambiguity of real life, also that politicians will always be politicians, using their position for their own gain.
Posse is a rarity for sure that uses the genre to look at politicians in more detail in the Western guise, the image of the squeaky clean politician who fights for his people is blown clear away. One of the more overt political Westerns, a politician displaying his power which ultimtely fails in public view. The image of Stoddard cannot exist here, he like the others is corrupt, using power to fight wars and gains that they can only do with position. Lastly the casting of Dern opposite Douglas is very clever, Dern plays a darker Douglas, going that step further from questionable to being the all out bad guy or “son of a b****” that made him go for the bleaker roles in the 1970’s.
A film originally recommended to me during my last year at art-school. I caught Lone Star (1996) a few years ago and found it to be a richly rewarding film with a lot of depth. I thought this time around I could really do the film some justice after a few more years exploration of the Western. Released during the mid 1990’s when the genre had seen something of a resurgence, beginning with Pale Rider (1985) going through to, well Lone Star and Buffalo Soldiers (1997) it would not pick up much traction until a few years ago with True Grit (2010) and Django Unchained (2012) that began to rework and understand the genre for a new audience in a time of uncertainty and political tensions. Also just in time for me to catch a few at the cinema too.
So what makes Lone Star stand the test of time to some of the more forgotten films that played fast and loose with the tropes and language of the genre, they maybe fun and action packed. It also stands alone from the pack, at a time when the life in the genre had run out of steam once more it takes the history of the genre and the state of Texas becoming more introspective. You could say it’s another modern version of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) – more on that later. Beginning with the discovery of a pair of off-duty army officers who discover a skeleton, only a few meter’s away there’s a sheriff’s badge to go with it. Could this be relic from the old West now celebrate on film, or is the body of a more recent officer of the law?
We then travel back in time to the 1960’s finding it’s like the good old days with a crooked sheriff Charlie Wade (Kris Kristofferson) who holds the Rio county in his pocket. He’s foul-mouthed, racist and greedy, he knows the power that his position gives him and abuses it to his own advantage. The other officers just let him do get away with almost anything. Except Buddy Deeds (Matthew McConaughey) who has a conscience that doesn’t agree with the status quo. Sounds familiar when you look back at the genres golden age, a crooked sheriff and a straight-laced deputy, if only they could stand up to the corruption.
Except this doesn’t feel like the old West, its more like the new West that rose from the ashes of the civil war, corruption, the cattle boom and the demise of slavery. We have a more serious Western, or you could say straight drama that’s set in the same location as the Alamo. With a mystery at the centre of the film being led by Buddy Deed’s son Charlie (Chris Cooper) who wants to prove his suspicions right and put this case to bed before politics takes over for the upcoming election for Sheriff.
Whilst the case is going on, we take a closer look at the town of Rio County, the people who inhabit it. From the school that sees the parents fighting the teachers to educate their own ideas of the country’s history. The old saying that histories written by the winners really does shine through in these scenes. Mexican parents want a more honest account of the events leading up to the Alamo and beyond before they lost land to Texas. Whilst American’s want to hold onto the myth, a fabric and important part of their own past, informed by celebration, dime novels and of course the films that blurred that history into something far bigger and yet more vague in the process.
We focus on one of those teachers, Pilar (Elizabeth Peña) who previously had a relationship with Charlie. It’s like he returned from her past to haunt her now when she picks up her son who had been arrested. We also see tensions between her and her mother Mercedes Cruz (Miriam Colon) who has her own fight with her staff who are not helping the immigrant crisis. She identifies herself as a Mexican American, wanting to speak English North of the border, trying to assert that in others is a fight. You can already see it’s not just a murder mystery, we have the border problem – which has still not gone away. The discussion around what kids should be taught in schools, the identity of the county and the State of Texas.
The local Army base is also depicted, and it’s not just about following orders and the chain of command. We have a Black Colonel Del (Joe Morton) whose latest posting has brought him back home to his estranged father – Otis (Ron Canada) whose part of the counties history and as we see the demise of Charlie Wade. The father son-relationship has it’s moments that are about to repeat themselves in Don’s own son who aspires to go to join the army. Whilst a current soldier who sees the army as a form of security in a society that wont accept the colour of her skin.
You can see a lot is going on in this film, longer than the average Western, it gives time to develop all these facets of a town that is in a state of constant change. Attempting to grapple where they all are. For Charlie it’s too things, the truth behind the death of his predecessor that has taken on mythic stature, which ultimately he won’t try and break, the truth for him and to shut the case is enough. There’s little he can really do once the truth is out. Like that finally revealed by Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, as much as he tries to set the record straight he can’t fight the myth, defeated by a journalist who refuses to publish it, knowing the power of the truth in the face of myth. Charlie understands that power far more than the old Senator who attends his old friends funeral. It’s bigger than him or anyone can really imagine.
With so much going on and little action it’s an incredible change in tone, placing this Western in the Revisionist category, one that maintains the language but has moved on in time. You can no longer settle your disagreements like men with guns outside, times have indeed changed. It’s a film that takes it’s time to spend time with characters and really get into the meat of what’s going on in that part of the world. It’s a nice change too to see where the genre has come from the rebirth in the mid-eighties that celebrated the genre to a film that really interrogates it and ask, where has it all gone.
On 16th January I presented my first film talk, the first in a series of community based talks about film, looking into films in more detail than before. The first was looking at It’s a Wonderful Life (1947) sharing my insights of the film with the general public. Below you can read the notes from the night.
Tonight I’d like to explore the darker side of It’s a Wonderful Life, (1946), Frank Capra’s Christmas classic that at the time of release got a mixed to luke-warm response from both critics and general public. His first film post WWII, it was also the flagship film for his new production company, Liberty films which he formed with fellow directors and comrades during the war George Stevens, and William Wyler. Both very different directors; Stevens known for his comedies, especially for the Tracy and Hepburn film; Woman of the Year (1942); where the famous affair began. Whereas Wyler had been making a range of films, a few with Bette Davis who he had affairs with. It wasn’t until he released Mrs Miniver (1942) about a middle class British family coping with war on the home front did his career begin to change for the better.
Turning back to Capra, he was a Sicilian immigrant who came to America in 1903 aged six with his family. He would later to move to Hollywood where he would direct a string of very successful comedies during the depression. Moving forward to just before It’s a Wonderful life was released in late 1946, he has spent the last the duration of the World War two, posted in Washington, holding the rank of Major, in command of the U.S. Film core, coordinating projects at home and out on the front line. Most notable colleagues under his command included John Ford, John Huston, William Wyler, who made propaganda films for both public and military consumption.
With exception to John Ford, he was the most successful of the fellow directors, having directed a number of successful comedies, earning himself 3 Best Director Oscars during the 1930’s alone. The films speak for themselves
It Happened One Night (1934) was the first film and comedy to winning the “Big 5” Best Actor, Actress, Writing, Director and Film. The film follows a journalist who will stop at nothing to get an exclusive story of a runaway socialite before her big wedding.
Mr Deeds Goes to Town (1936) won best director, second in a row, and his third nomination. A musician inherits a vast fortune, spending the rest of the film fighting off city slickers who will do anything for it.
You Can’t Take it With You (1938) won Best director and film for his studio Columbia. A rich Families son falls for a daughter from an eccentric family, who in turn lay in the way of the family business’s plans.
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) most notable for the 12-minute filibuster by James Stewart picked up Best Original Screenplay. A naïve boy ranger’s leader is made governor of his state, when in Washington he finds corruption, not the high ideals who believes in.
All of these films came before Pearl Harbor in December 1942 when he would finish his on-going projects before enlisting. On returning to civilian life, his industry had changed beyond recognition, as much as they wanted him. He wrote in the New York Times about
‘Breaking Hollywood’s “Pattern of Sameness”…This war he wrote had caused American filmmakers to see movies that studios had been turning out “through their eyes” and to recoil from the “machine-like treatment” that, he contended, made most pictures look and sound the same. “Many of the men… producers, directors, scriptwriters returned from service with a firm resolve to remedy this,” he said; the production companies there were now forming would give each of them “freedom and liberty” to pursue “his own individual ideas on subject matter and material”
Five Came Back – Mark Harris – Pg. 419-20
What is this “Pattern of Sameness” that he was reacting to in his article? The article was setting out his opening of an independent studio – Liberty Studios that would produce films unhindered by the moguls. Something that more and more directors were beginning to do. Maybe this “Sameness” was a type of film he was not used to, or produced a negative response in him. Were these the films his contemporaries and even partners in his new venture were all making?
“…his fellow filmmakers, including his two new partners, were becoming more outspoken advocates for increased candour and frankness in Hollywood movies and a more adult approach to storytelling, he flinched at anything that smacked of controversy. Over the past several years he had become so enthralled by the use of film as propaganda that in peacetime he was finding it hard to think of movies in any other way. “ There are just two things that are important,” he told the Los Angeles Times in March. “One is to strengthen the individuals belief in himself, and the other, even more important right now, is to combat a modern trend towards atheism.”
Five Came Back – Mark Harris – Pg. 419-20
His fellow filmmakers were striving for more realism in their work, one response for wanting realism, a stylized realism is Film noir.
“The term “film noir” itself was coined by the French, always astute critics and avid fans of American culture from Alexis de Tocqueville through Charles Baudelaire to the young turks at Cahiers du cinema. It began to appear in French film criticism almost immediately after the conclusion of World War Two. Under Nazi Occupation the French had been deprived of American movies for almost five years; and when they finally began to watch them in late 1945, they noticed a darkening not only of mood but of the subject matter.”
Film Noir – Alain Silver & James Ursini – Pg 10
A new kind of American cinema was flooding into French cinemas.
I’d like to show the nightmare, or alternate reality sequence from the film now. However before I do, I’d like to share what I found in the sequence that fits into what makes a film noir a film noir. There a few themes and visual cues that can be attributed to the genre, each applied to different varieties within the genre, showing how flexible it is.
The Haunted Past –
“Noir protagonists are seldom creatures of the light. They are often escaping some past burdens, sometimes a traumatic incident from their past (as in Detour or Touch of Evil) o sometimes a crime committed out of passion (as in Out of the Past, Criss Cross and Double Indemnity). Occasionally they are simply fleeing their own demons created by ambiguous events buried in their past, as in In a Lonely Place.”
Film Noir – Alain Silver & James Ursini – Pg 15
For George he tries for the majority if the film to escape his hometown – Bedford Falls, which has always pulled him back at the last-minute. His father’s death, marriage to Mary, the Depression, His hearing that stopped him fighting during World War II, until finally he might be leaving to serve a jail sentence for bankruptcy.
The Fatalistic Nightmare – “The noir world revolves around causality. Events are linked like an unbreakable chain and lead inevitably to a heavily foreshadowed conclusion. It is a deterministic universe in which psychology…chance…and even structures of society…can ultimately override whatever good intentions and high hopes the main characters have.”
Film Noir – Alain Silver & James Ursini – Pg 15
You could say that George has been living a nightmare, until he enters into a world created by his desire to not exist.
These are only types of Noir narrative that apply to the film. The look of Noir has been applied to the alternate reality where George enters his Noir Nightmare, the look of the town, now named Pottersville, where we find all the business in town have sold out, part of Potters empire, populated with bars and clubs, another town to drown your sorrows, forget who you are and where you have come from, until reality will ultimately come for payment.
The lighting – Chiaroscuro Lighting. Low-key lighting, in the style of Rembrandt or Caravaggio, marks most noirs of the classic period. Shade and light play against each other not only in night exteriors but also in dimmed interiors shielded from daylight by curtains or Venetian blinds. Hard, unfiltered side light and rim outline and reveal only a portion of the face to create a dramatic tension all its own. Cinematographers such as, John F Seitz and John Alton took his style to the highest level in films like Out of the Past, Double Indemnity and T-Men. Their black and white photography with its high contrasts, stark day exteriors and realistic night work became the standard of the noir style.
Film Noir – Alain Silver & James Ursini – Pg 16
If we look at Out of the Past (1947) which follows a private investigator (Robert Mitchum) who has tried to escape his life, living in a small town as a mechanic, before his old life catches up with him in the form of Kirk Douglas. Here you can see the deep shadow that leaves the characters in almost darkness at times.
Whilst in Double Indemnity (1944) another prime example of the genre we can see how the lights are directed against the blinds, which act more like bars of a jail cell rather than an indicator of the time of day, Light and shadow are used to take us into a dark underworld that is lurking around the corner ready to consume you.
I’m going to play the nightmare sequence now (stills below), afterwards I’ll share some of my observations.
Capra essentially redressed and relight of Bedford Falls? I feel that Capra was reluctant to really delve into the genre he was resisting. He does however replicate the lighting, which is heavily stylised through the exterior scenes and those in the old Granville house, where he had previously (in his living life) threw stones at with Mary. However here it seems more stones have been thrown here, as it’s beyond a ghost house.
I also noticed that it’s the third time that he has jumped/fallen into the water, the first being to save his younger brother Harry’s life, the second as he literally and emotionally falls for Mary, his wife to be.
I’ve been waiting to re-watch John Ford‘s apology for the/his depiction of Native Americans on-screen. Taking the events of the Trail of Tears (1878) that saw the Southern Cheyenne exit their reservation at Fort Robinson after having lived there for a year, waiting for more food and supplies to arrival after a group of Senators who were to see the condition of the reservation, barren, lifeless, unable to really support live. We’re told that originally over a thousand arrived, now just over 200 have survived that first year. This is the premise of the film, the rest is history. Ford took on the massive task of depicting this event in the genre that usually sees the Native American, either Apache, Cheyenne or Comanche, nations who stood up for themselves in the sight of the spreading settlers over the course of the 19th century. We know that one by one the nations tired, weak and hungry gave in and moved onto reservations after a series of unique events that would becoming the next chapter in their history.
Having read Dee Brown’s take on the event in Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee, which I surprisingly have recently read is accepted by Native Americans, all but the fact it didn’t say they survived to tell the tale to future generations. Which gives my exploration of their history something concrete to build upon. I can see my readings and then reflect them into the film adaptations. I’m taking in Cheyenne Autumn as my next film in that journey.
A few weeks ago I caught Sergeant Rutledge (1960) which was the first apologetic film that Ford made, placing the African-American soldier at the centre of the film, in a court room setting, not the strongest of films, not helped by its setting. Also feeling awkward being told in flashback which is more unusual still for him. Then followed the much heavier Two Rode Together (1961) which is lost to the conversations and the ideas it deals with. Coming to Cheyenne Autumn we have an epic on our hands, which is fair when you look at the subject matter that’s being dealt with. I have to admit it is deeply flawed in many ways which I want explore in my revisited review of his third and final apology that attempts to depict the events in a more favorable light. If another director were to take the material it would than likely be abandoned or even completely rewritten to show the Cheyenne as the antagonist not the protagonist, or even the obstacle.
So where do I begin, well the biggest and most obvious flaw is the waste of 30 minutes spent in Dodge City, where we have some comedy courtesy of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holiday (James Stewart and Arthur Kennedy) who act as the comic relief, intended to take the edge off the heavy material at the centre of the film. A mass migration of people across open country to their homeland, I can see where Ford is coming from, the audience wouldn’t be used to seeing such content, even more so in Super Panavision 70mm which leaving the audience with nowhere to be distracted, the images plastered from the top to the bottom of the screen. The comedy is an unnerving, unnecessary and ultimately distracting really. You have real human drama playing out in Ford’s mythic West – Monument Valley lines of cavalry and Cheyenne moving across it, retelling this event from history. 50 years since release the comedy has lost its impact, if there was any to be had, it’s all played up clichés which Ford is honestly better than. It shows he was unsure about the content standing on its own, drawing in an audience for a different kind of Western. With big names such as Stewart is a sure sign you’ll get some through the doors. Here he’s just having a good time,you could say, just picking up a cheque and going on after a few days on set. I know that’s not what I want to type and you don’t want to read. Ford is or has lost his touch here which can be seen elsewhere.
The basic structure of the events are correct, a year on the reservation before packing up and wanting to live with the Northern Cheyenne who were living with the Sioux under Red Cloud at Pine Ridge reservation, with a few events in between that are more or less correct, others mixed around for drama, whilst others are added for pure effect. For once the nation leaders Little Wolf and Dull Knife are based on the actual Cheyenne that lead the exodus North. Played here by Ricardo Montalban and Gilbert Roland both originally from Mexican, where the film starts to fall down. The main parts are played by non-natives playing native roles in a pro-native film. Also we have the lazily named Spanish Woman (Dolores del Rio) who really should have had more care given in developing her character. Was she a Mexican captive, or did she marry in of her own choice. Instead we here her called upon by Deborah White (Carroll Baker) the Quaker sympathiser who travels with them.
Baker’s role is allowing the audience into this group who are traveling across the open country (or going around in circles of Monument Valley (which isn’t too bad)), the audience’s supposed to understand the Cheyenne plight through the white voice who has supported them on the reservation and now acting as nurse to one of the young injured travellers. Her name is reminiscent of the female captive Debbie (Natalie Wood) in The Searchers (1956) we are getting an internal understanding of how the other is thinking. Ford not matter how much he is loosing his touch is still putting small links to his rich filmography.
Away from the trail we have the U.S cavalry who are all other place in terms of the side they take. We mainly follow Captain Archer (Richard Widmark) who is taking on the 20th century thinker or Captain Kirby (John Wayne) from Fort Apache and Rio Grande (1948 and 1950) who wanted to talk to the other instead of going in bugles blazing. Interestingly John Wayne’s son Patrick Wayne plays the Colonel Thursday role – 2nd Lt. Scott, or could he be an extension of Ethan Edwards in another life, his son wanting to avenge his father. There are other links to the Cavalry trilogy that carry on throughout the film, even further back to Stagecoach (1939). We have a director using all his familiar characters in this very unusual Western from a man who is trying his best to make the subject matter relatable to an audience who are by now used to something far more cerebral than this far darker subject.
My first experience with this film came at the comedy break, my interest was pricked up. The second time around I saw the film more for what it is, a very different kind of Western, Ford having a conscience for a body of work that has depicted a nation in a poor light. Even if he employed them in several of his films. Now I see a flawed yet rich film of a director who is no longer in his prime, his last great film – The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) was not yet celebrated as it is today. He’s putting his all into what could be a last ditch effort at greatness which could have been if only he was more sure of his instincts. He’s not so much hitting racism head on, more trying to say whilst we were making this great country, another was being lost. He half achieves that goal. If I could re-cut and recast the film in places maybe we would have another masterpiece on our hands.
I didn’t think I’d even be watching White Feather (1955) thinking it would be a piece of fluff. I was partially right but what had me sitting up right with interest was the prologue, much the same as we find in Broken Arrow (1950) which stated that this stories based on fact, the only difference being that the “Indians” speak in English so we can understand. I could go over old ground and explain that this was to make the film easier for the majority White audience to understand. However it seems that this is not just a line used to make it easier but also allows the film to be white-washed. Sorry for being so negative, the more I read about the Indian Wars the more cynical I become. I recently had a conversation in the studio about a written language for a Native American nation, which is nonsense as it would not have ever been written down. Like the stories of that and other nations it would’ve been passed down verbally. I surmised that the language would have been recorded by a White man in order to better understand them, in hopes of eventually forcing them to relocate. My view has really changed over the past year or so.
Moving on from my cynical introduction I move into the film itself, is indeed loosely based on fact. As talks were going on with Crow and Arapaho who as we see over the course of the Western have agreed to leave the plains in order for gold to be dug for and eventually developed by settlers. Sounds pretty standard on the face of it, there is a historical context to place a white Indian sympathiser within. In 1950 we have Tom Jeffords (James Stewart) now we have Josh Tanner (Robert Wagner) who I am trying to place historically with the actual events. He could just be a culmination of people at the time or a vehicle for these events to be told. This is a character that owes a lot to its predecessor, if anything this rare film wouldn’t have been made without Delmer Daves who directed the previous film, now writing for this one which shows more depth.
A little bit of research later show the event of the relocation took place is the only truth of the entire film. That has left a bitter taste in my mouth, maybe I was taken in by the characters who appear to dramatise a history that never took place beyond the prologue. It is a chance to see Native American’s even with broken English. We see relationships between father and children, and white and Cheyenne, more importantly on the whole these are positive relationships in a time of great upheaval and change for a those nations. They aren’t simply savages who kill and scalp, which if anything both sides took part in the brutal act. Some Nations even frowned upon scalping, so much for the myth of conquest when you read the facts behind the pulp that blurs it.
I can even start to forgive that the two braves Little Dog and American Horse (Jeffrey Hunter and Hugh O’Brian) are creations of Daves who was plucking from history and writing his own page of the myth for the silver screen. White Feather is if anything more sympathetic (for the 1950’s) than Broken Arrow which had a white man leading the eventual surrender of the Apache’s. In both films the Apache and Cheyenne make the ultimate decision that sees them relocate. There is however more power to the later film as we see whole nations moving on horseback and buckboard. It precedes the later Cheyenne Autumn (1964) that catches up with them on the reservation. The treaty signed by Broken-Hand (Eduard Franz) is broken on a barren land that forces them to return to their home – Monument Valley in John Ford‘s West. But that’s a different part of their history.
As much as there is a sense of respect for the Cheyenne you can see where compromises have been made. The love interests in Appearing Day (Debra Paget) who is actually willing to relinquish her culture to live with white Americans. Placing love above her heritage, her culture can easily be swapped which is scary, but reflects the desires of the government for the Native American to be assimilated into the growing white majority. Lastly there is a respectful attempt at a battle between the U.S. Army and the Cheyenne, the treaty has just been signed the ink is barely even dry when Little Dog and American Horse invite the army to fight them both. A bald move indeed.
The last ten minutes of this skewed history and beautifully filmed are really something, it’s not all guns blazing, there’s a mass gathering of two sides, each now having put those difference aside. Its quite cinematic to see so much choreography for mid-budget Western to pull off such a feat with respect for the other. Only a few shots are in-fact fired, as if this is cautiousness as if they are trying their best to ensure peace. Reflecting an earlier cold war state of not being the first to fire the first shot, it all has to be legal even in the era of the Indian wars when in reality it’s mostly kill on sight.
These Westerns are really re-shaping my opinion of American history, Westerns are helping me to explore that more so, they work hand in hand as I unpick the myth and it’s power. Part of my wider practice, these films are just watched for the thrill, they are an education making them a richer experience.
I think this was one of my first James Stewart Westerns as I began to explore the genre, part of me thought it was another collaboration with Anthony Mann when in fact it was Delmer Daves who directed this rare pro-Native American film – Broken Arrow (1950). Of course this is all told from the perspective of the little known Apache sympathiser Tom Jeffords (Stewart) who I remember reading about in connection to Cochise. A prospector turned Indian Scout for the army, he was became a close friend of the Apache chief who became the reservation agent at his own request.
Of course you don’t get any of that in the 1950s it is too messy and complicated, a watered down version of the truth is more acceptable for and audience who in the same year’s being treated to some stimulating films, the audience is maturing but not enough to her the whole truth. It’s another page in the myth-making of the Wild West that’s tamed. Placing Stewart in the lead role was a clever move, one of a few actors who could be a mediator between the “savage” Apache who I have learned were more violent historically, so sadly receiving of their blurred on-screen personae. Here we don’t see Cochise and his nation picking up arms all the time. There are given screen-time and not in broken English. As Jeffords tells us –
“This is the story of a land, of the people who lived on it in the year 1870, and of a man whose name was Cochise. He was an Indian – leader of the Chiricahua Apache tribe. I was involved in the story and what I have to tell happened exactly as you’ll see it – the only change will be that when the Apaches speak, they will speak in our language. What took place is part of the history of Arizona and it began for me here where you see me riding.”
He’s presenting the story of the eventual downfall for a white audience in a white language, English so we can understand what is going on. We haven’t reached the sophistication of Dunbar (Kevin Costner). Of course for audiences attention the foreign language is eventually lost to allow us to fully engage with the characters, breaking down the language barrier. We also have another white actor playing a Native American, whose covered in make-up. Another selling point for the film having Jeff Chandler in the role, a familiar face. I could go into the racial depiction of the native American, but I’ve done that before, part of the fabric of the genre at the time to have non-natives playing leading roles. Is this however a question more of box-office more than anything else. Of course today this would never happen (unless your Johnny Depp) as this would cause offense.
Moving on from the casting of Cochise we see a condensed version of events that would ultimately lead to the land the Apache live on Chiricahua Mountains as their reservation. There is not actually any mention of that, but you can feel it in the background, another film dealing with the “Indian problem”. Jefford’s allows us to understand this watered down version as he wins the trust of Cochise and hopefully other Apache Nations who’re touched upon. Building up the presence of Geronimo who played a major role in the Apache wars. Depicted as defecting from the peaceful ways that Cochise is promoting, breaking away to fight the white man until his ultimate surrender.
Jeffords time with the Apache’s takes up most of the film, allowing us more of an insight into the “Others” culture that is typically war-paint, dances and bad medicine etc, all the cliché’s really. He’s not on his army mission, instead he is passing through their territory when he comes across a young man trying to survive on his own, a right of passage he must completed to become a man. He’s badly injured so receives medical treatment, the first gesture of goodwill from Jeffords. The white-washing begins here. Yet there is a need in him to learn about the culture, from an Apache who has lived among the civilised white men. His wanting to learn shows his wanting for peace, even if it earns him the name of “Indian Lover” back home.
My second viewing builds on a tame Western that is brought alive with Jame Stewart, our way into this foreign world of the other who usually treated as the other. Never again will they be treated so respectfully. You can see they want peace even in this still simplified world, we can see a culture that is clearly different but ultimately wanting peace. Otherwise we see the Nation as a dangerous savage in the background, who only engages to attack and kill before retreating or being killed. I found the relationship between Jeffords and Sonseeahray (Debra Paget) as just flimsy, however I admit she’s a reason for him to stay and make the peace work for her and himself who in the film wants to live as one of them. In reality he stays very much white and sympathetic to the Apache plights which mirrors so many others during that period of history. The relationship also acts as a draw of the female audience into this very loose and educational biopic.
I’ve watch three James Stewart films in the last week, culminating in Winchester ’73 (1950) which is probably the more iconic of them. Beginning with The Spirit of St Louis (1957) which I watched more out of curiosity than anything, a biography written and directed by Billy Wilder . It was an interesting effort, the only time that Wilder dabbled with factual events, there were hints of his wit, however watered down by history. If it wasn’t for Stewart at the helm, combined with his past war record in the U.S. Airforce. Hearing some of the sharper lines delivered from Stewart didn’t really have the desired effect. With fiction Wilder is able to have a lot more fun with the characters, only able to do so here through flashbacks that did more for padding the film out as Lindberg made his ground-breaking transatlantic flight. Maybe in the hands of another director more used to biopic’s this could have been something special.
Turning then to The Naked Spur (1953), the third collaboration for Anthony Mann and James Stewart they hit a slight snag with this lower budget affair. A smaller cast of characters, there’s potential for more tension and drama than there is on-screen. It just doesn’t spark your attention. If we turn back to their first film together Winchester ’73 (1950), Stewart’s first straight Western, needing to find a new direction in his career in a post-war world. He has seen the darker side of life whilst at war, which comes through into his performance that show more to the master of the every man. Before he was a bumbling and love-able man who got himself in all kinds of situations. It was It’s a Wonderful Life (1947) changed that for him, a man with good intentions, dreams whose brought to the brink, nearly ending his own life. Never had we seen that side of him. Anthony Mann developed that side of him out in the West where as could “play out all kinds of cide” in the American landscape.
So why watch these two films in reverse order? sheer luck of how the cards were dealt at the time. I needed to remind myself of this classic western which I watched at least 4 years ago. Following not the journey of just men, but that of a gun, a powerful emblem in the West. Part of the constitution to bear arms, it helped the country win the West. Yet today there is a fight for gun-control, there’s not a month that goes by in the States a mass-shooting takes places. There’s a warm place in the hearts of the American public, a protector for the weak, a sign of strength, and danger to the powerless. Going back to the film was a chance to rediscover how rich this film really is. Not just starting a long relationship between actor/director but changing the course of Stewart’s career to be part of the American mythology that is the Western.
I should really start now, set in an dream-like version of the West a shooting contest in Dodge City home of the infamous Wyatt Earp (Will Geer) who doesn’t really add much to the on-screen mythology of the historical figure. He definitely runs the town, ironically with an iron fist in regards to gun-control, his office is full of gun-belts. He is also considerate of the tone of the town, sending barroom singer Lola Manners (Shelley Winters) on her way for the contest, not wanting to lower the tone. Much to the surprise of Lin McAdam (Stewart) and High Spade (Millard Mitchell) who are in town for McAdam to track down fast-gun Dutch Henry Brown (Stephen McNally). On first meeting they naturally go for their guns, met by a feeling of nakedness that men in the West rarely have. Stripped partially of their masculinity and a right to defend it. You can feel something palpable in the room, they share a history that I barely remembered from the first viewing, not wanting to shout it out before the reveal at the end.
This could be the start of a standard Western, a silent stand-off before a show of masculinity in the streets. Naturally Stewart wins the much prized repeating rifle a Winchester 73, a weapon that is even admired by the young boys, part of the image of being a man. The history of the gun in the West is further explored in other films but not the aspect of the objects journey through a film, as it passes from owner to owner. Usually taking on a fictional version of facts of entertainment value. Here we have pure story and journey as it leaves after a fight in town with Brown to then be lost in a game of cards with Joe Lamont (John McIntire) an Indian trader who gambles his life when he tries to hide his find from Young Bull (Rock Hudson) who dies with it in battle. It brushes by Mcadams leaving it for Waco Johnny Dean (Dan Duryea) to take it into a gunfight where it in turn looses it.
The journey goes on until the rifle is reunited with Mcadams in a gunfight to end all gunfights between himself and Brown. The big reveal of their past is laid bear in a few scenes and a gunfight that relies more on knowledge that the accuracy of the gun itself. The skill of the man using the weapon truly make it what it is. A tool, is only as good as the man/woman who uses it, if you don’t use it the right way, not just as it was designed, you never unleash its potential or understand it. So why did McAdams want to win the gun? Was it to prove a point to Brown or to himself that he hadn’t lost his edge, the skills he was taught by his father. The journey that happens with the gun proves that it’s just a gun, that what happens to the user was going to happen anyway, it can bring out the best and the worst in us. It’s a tool that can make or break a man in the West.
I had forgotten how action-packed this film is, it has everything you want in a western as we ride on through, never looking back. Bringing together a cast that would work again with Mann and Stewart. A stock company that could even rival John Ford‘s. Even the main female is anything but set-dressing, she has teeth and not afraid to show them. Of course playing the voice of reason in the film, she can stand-up for herself, no one is left on the sidelines which makes this an important Western in the cannon of the classic genre.
- “He said if a man had one friend, he was rich…I’m rich…” (eddieonfilm.blogspot.co.uk)
- Winchester ’73  – Profound and Influential Western Movie (movieretrospect.blogspot.co.uk)
- Winchester ‘73 (1950) ** (1001moviesblog.blogspot.co.uk)
- Winchester ’73 (Universal, 1950) (jeffarnoldblog.blogspot.co.uk)
- WINCHESTER ’73 (Universal, 1950) (westofriver.blogspot.co.uk)
The Naked Spur (1953) has been at the top of my watch list for a longtime, the wait is finally over, the remaining Anthony Mann/James Stewart western I hadn’t seen. So was it worth the wait? I’d say so, not really knowing what to expect I found a troubled bounty hunter Howard Kemp is hot on the trail of Ben Vandergroat (Robert Ryan) who we learn has shot a Marshal back in Abilene, we don’t know why and it doesn’t really matter, Kemp’s possessed in his pursuit of this wanted man. Becoming suspicious with gold digger Jesse Tate (Millard Mitchell) who becomes embroiled in this hunt for the as yet unseen Vandergroat. Our first encounter’s restrained by view and the avalanche of rocks that prevent us getting further. We are up in the mountains once more, where man hide and danger can surround you. It’s only when the two men meet dishonorably discharged soldier Roy Anderson (Ralph Meeker) who is the first to begin to reveal the cracks in Kemp’s goals.
It really has been a while since I’ve seen an Anthony Mann western which drown themselves in the darkness of humanity, the drives that make is who we are. Using Stewart as his every-man is perfect casting if I’ve not said so before, ranging from the soft family man to a unsocaiable loner who wants to be left alone with his dark past, unable to spend time with civilised people of the young country below. Sounds like a lot of westerns from that decade that made a real shift in the genre to become more adult.
When we finally meet Vandergroat (Robert Ryan) Kemp has met his match, he even has the girl Lina Patch (Janet Leigh) in tow (or has he really) who is open to both sides as they are brought on a long and protracted journey through open country in the hope taking the reward money that they now all know is at stake. Vandergroat begins are series of acts that are supposed to slow down the men and goad Kemp who wants the money more than he wants to be with the men who only divide his odds not improve upon them.
Besides Stewart the standout performance clearly comes from Ryan who is used to playing the darker roles, really enjoying himself in the open country. Taking every opportunity to push Kemp to the limits, in the hope of escaping or being set free. We are surrounded by actors who are seen more in urban film-noir type roles, they are simply transported to the West, at the mercy of Stewart and Ryan’s game of push and pull.
Coming from my pro-Native American position there is one scene that does stand out in the film and change the tables in Vandergraots favor, a gunfight with a local nation that are all but gunned down, injuring Kemp to the point he should no longer lead, in fact should be left behind. He literally hobbles on to hold power over the other men, even swaying Lina to my surprise, coming out of nowhere.
Its a pretty standard Western when all said and done, with the dark edges brought about by the performances by a cast that is trapped almost within the confines of a B-movie. It looks like one in terms of screen ratio and cinematography that dirties the landscape that should be shimmering. Maybe that’s the effect of time on the film or it was not made with real care. Placing it with the rest of the Mann/Stewart films I would place it at the bottom with Thunder Bay (1953) which doesn’t really deliver. Maybe that’s expectation though when we look at the other films in comparison. Although I have found that in the Ranown cycle of films, there is always a few weak ones in any actor/director collaboration. Sadly for this actor and director they both happened in 1953. There is a darkness to the film that comes all from Stewart who delivers the goods every time, and that’s why he’s so celebrated today.
- The Naked Spur (1953) Anthony Mann (twentyfourframes.wordpress.com)
- The Naked Spur (1953) (buddiesinthesaddle.blogspot.co.uk)
- The Naked Spur (1953) ** (1001moviesblog.blogspot.co.uk)
- The Naked Spur (1953) – Anthony Mann (wyatts-classics.blogspot.co.uk)
- The Naked Spur, dir. Anthony Mann (1953) (herecomesthedumptruck.blogspot.co.uk)
- THE NAKED SPUR (1953, Anthony Mann) (larma7-filmsandstuff.blogspot.co.uk)
Legend has it, The Shootist (1976) wasn’t supposed to be John Wayne‘s last film. Hmmmm could have fooled me, with all the trouble to build up his latest character J.B. Books who is given a myth that’s built up of old film clips from Wayne’s back catalogue of we see another fictional version of him, another gunfighter whose been depicted in many guises, merging as one, Books who has had a long and eventful life. I also noticed that the sequence was all in black and white, even converting colour film to create this new character that has this back-story,as if we have been building up to this gunfighter over the course of his career. He’s already being built up as these mystical figure of the West. Not that he really needs that, his position in the genre was assured during the 1940’s as the strong, silent and powerful figure who always spoke his mind and took little s*** from others. The ideal man in many eyes, the personification of America to the world. So to say his wasn’t going to be his last film is not something I can accept. Maybe its the fact that he was ill during filming (not with cancer) that got audiences thinking after that he would never be on-screen again.
Dying three years later drawing the end of an era of the genre and cinema. In part leading to my title for my degree show piece Did the Duke take the Myth to the Grave? (2012) The genre by the time of his death had long since entered a period of decline that would take years to really come back out of in any healthy shape that we could again be excited by. His last appearance at the 1978 he was by then a shadow of his former self before Hollywood. It was only a few months later that he died, leaving behind a long career, a legacy and a lasting image of the cowboy. The genre was very much left in his image. Something that would later affect me like many others.
Ok so all the emotional context out of the way and down to the business of the film itself, which was released alongside The Missouri Breaks and The Outlaw Josey Wales (both 1976), only one of them has really raised in stature. Damp squibs at the time of release, the genre was tired out and had become a tumble weed itself. You could say that The Shootist was a too late for genre. However it fits well into the arc of Wayne’s career, this larger than life figure become a dying man who rides into a town, in a time where he has become displaced. The roads are being paved, the town is more substantial. Civilization has reach the West, its been won and now its being enjoyed by society who have begun enjoy a modern way of life. The first automobiles are seen on the roads. There’s little place for the cowboy or the gunfighter who have been left out in the cold to die. J.B.Books is very much a dying breed and he knows it as he gets a second opinion from Dr. Hostetler (James Stewart) who confirms his first diagnosis of cancer. Instead of going out into the woods to die like a dog, Books has come into the warmth of civilization to end his life in quiet.
Taking up residence at a guest house run by Bond Rogers (Lauren Bacall) who is weary of his presence, especially when his alias of long-dead Wild Bill Hickock is blown by her son Gillom Rogers (Ron Howard) whose in awe of this larger than life figure who is a shadow of his former self. An idol of a gunfighter who over his lifetime has killed 30 men is his home, a fact he wants to boast about. Before learning of his intentions of a quiet few days seeing out his life. The peace is soon broken when the local paper wants to print his life story, making money out of the man. Whilst the local Marshall Thibido (Harry Morgan) wants him to get out, know his place is not with society who has since moved on, accepted the law and progressed. Books is learning that is position has changed, no longer one of fear but one of living legend of the past, a walking dinosaur and feels it too as his symptoms worsen.
Wayne surrounded himself with old friends on-screen, that we have seen work with him in various films throughout his career, all apparently working for less than their standard fee. Maybe they all knew something that he didn’t at the time. It’s strangely timely that actors from his past, friends surround him in a film that sees him die on-screen. Something I have only seen a few times on-screen, part of an image he has help create, one that never dies, doing all the killing, delivering justice in the film, putting right the wrongs. Here however the his character is going to die the death of an old man, not one at the hand of the gun, one he has become accustomed to. With his presence known in the town, there are men who want to try their luck at taking down the legendary Books, the one who has killed so many.
With Sweeney (Richard Boone), Pulford (Hugh O’Brian) and Cobb (Bill McKinney) after him, he decides to go out the way he wants to be remembered. In a blaze of blood and gunfire of a saloon where so many gunfight’s have gone down before. It’s a calculated battle that takes only a few minutes to be over, A bunch of old men with guns, scores to settle and glory to be had. The West is not quite dead yet. All ending in a twist that I forgot even happened, the barman returning with a shot-gun that deals the final blows. Before Gillom has to kill him, an act he knows he will never again commit. The days of gun-fighting are over in one battle, not the most bloody of battles, it’s an end of era really, with little hope for the future really. Not in the same tone of a Peckinpah Western who laments that passing, all the great figures are gone as we wander into the modern age. Here its one last moment drowned in the inevitability of death.
If it was intended to be Wayne’s last film could be argued about forever, biographies state that it wasn’t, however with all the evidence on-screen and reading into the film there must be some unconcious intention on the part of The Duke to make this his last film. Surrounded by so many friends, he wanted to be comfortable. Still making way for new talent in the form of Ron Howard who go onto bigger and better things. It’s a swan-song really, not one of his biggest films like those featured in the prologue, this is a much smaller affair sees him bid farewell to the big-screen. It looks as tired as the majority of the actors, not in terms of performance however which are solid, Wayne still stands out in his last starring role before bowing out. Leaving the Western very much in the state that it was in the mid 1970’s tired and worn out, needing to rest those boots to be reinvented for a new generation.