Continuing my exploration of the influence of The Searchers (1956) on films, here the Western, I’m stopping in with The Unforgiven (1960) which shares and elaborates on some on the themes and even down to the imagery that’s heightened here. Also spurred on after reading a review last month of the film over at Bored and Dangerous who I in turn recommended Cheyenne Autumn (1964) to looking at the depiction of the Native Americans, which again I will touch upon.
Now I first caught this film about 5 years ago, I focused more on the mis-casting of Audrey Hepburn, now I’m not so concerned about that. I’ve also seen more films by both lead actors and the director John Huston who dabbled in practically every genre that Hollywood works it. Instead I felt from the very beginning of the film I was taken aback by the dark and mysterious soundtrack took me into a world where nothing is certain, the truth is hidden, even out in a landscape where being honest is the only way to survive and do business. It’s the arrival of a rider Johnny Portugal (John Saxon) with a saber, much like the beginning of a Shakespeare play predicting what will happen, spouting a very harsh truth that’s still cryptic enough that it lingers in the audiences mind throughout. He’s hiding in the bushes on his horse, ready to scare the life out of Rachel Zachary (Hepburn) still innocent to the world around her, the next few days are going to be quite revealing for her.
So how does this compare with The Searchers then? Well from the start, if Rachel is to be Kiowa as we are lead to believe she is the Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter) or Debbie (Natalie Wood) has long been accepted into the Zachary family, with a white mother Mattilda (Lillian Gish) and three brothers who have taken in and raised this child, now a young woman as their own. Known as an abandoned child has been long been assimilated into White civilisation. So any revelation shouldn’t cause that much harm, can it? In the home of the Edwards in the John Ford original, Martin Pawley is seem as an Edwards, there’s no question of his place in the home or in the film, accepted. Debbie has been written off as a squaw, better off dead, there’s no place for her, that’s until Ethan finally on rescuing her, decides not to kill her, instead returning her to the home of the Jorgensens, in a memorable sequence that brings the film to a close. Of course that wouldn’t make much for a film in The Unforgiven, Rachel’s identity is kept secret until much later on.
This is a time which could have seen the Jorgensens move away and settle in a different town, a town that is not aware of Debbie’s past that saw her brought up and married to Comanche chief Scar (Henry Brandon), she is far from pure in the eyes of a Wild West society, she’s tainted. So what about Rachel, at the moment she’s open to the possibility but gives it little thought when her mother brushes it aside.
I’ve not even turned to the Zachary brothers lead by Ben (Burt Lancaster) who I naturally thought would be the Ethan (John Wayne) of the film. Starting out hating her, wanting to search and hoping to kill his niece for the dirty blood that runs through her veins. Instead he’s a doting son and wrangler who has returned with a big dealing in the air with another local family. You can see his love for his mother when he literally lifts a piano on his back from a cart for her. He’s a mother boy, and father of the family. Could this be the Edwards has they survive the massacre and fought off the Comanches? The Zachary’s are a happy cohesive family on the surface, they have built a home out in the frontier, even if cows like to graze on the roof.
Everything starts to go wrong when Charlie Rawlins (Albert Salmi) who had just started courting Rachel is killed by a Kiowa. This is after we have already met them at the Zachary’s homestead, wanting to trade horses for Rachel. An offer refused which backfires. The offers refused but the question of her identity now wont go away, is she a Kiowa or not, the presence of the Native Americans suggest they mean business. A posse’s formed and they go in search of who we think are the Kiowas, it’s methodical, long and good length montage that finally leads them to Johnny Portugal the blast from the past, whose placed on trial, at the wrong end of noose. The truths revealed, with no room for the Zachary’s to wriggle out of. The tone of the film now changes, the family are seen as outcast unless they release Rachel to the Kiowa’s. To the point they want to humiliate her by stripping her down to reveal the truth, making them worse than the Kiowas are perceived to be. The Whites are just as bad if not worse.
Now onto the scenes that I hazily remember, the gunfight in the homestead, the Zacharys surrounded, minus one disgusted brother (Cash – Audie Murphy) so its 4 against an army of Kiowa’s. This is like the massacre in The Searchers as we only saw before when the secure the ranch pre-attack. Just as we saw in The Stalking Moon (1968) when its was 3 against 1. Here its more dramatic, Huston doesn’t leave anything out, every character has a dramatic moment, it’s literally jam-packed for at least 10 minutes, wanting to make every second count whilst they’re cooped up in the house. Lancaster is stronger than Ethan, able to accept Rachel for who she is and even kill her own kind, where as the Indian hater would kill them indiscriminately.
Finally I must turn to the casting of Hepburn who I originally thought was mis-cast, yet it’s her innocence that makes her perfect for the role. Not aware of who she truly is, her heritage, never questioning it. Thinking for a time she can marry her oldest brother, she has no understanding of family relationship beyond the power of love. When Charlie requests to start courting with her, she jumps at the chance, maybe to make Ben jealous, not that he would be. When she sees her Kiowa brother though, the man who killed her potential husband it brings out her natural self that she has been resisting. Resulting in an unsatisfying conclusion for me. Much like friend over at Bored and Dangerous – the happy ending, her family accept her, but does the wider society that left them all to be killed. Is family love all she needs when she knows deep down what she now wants – to be with the Kiowa. Who again are treated as one dimensional – which I’m not really surprised at, they are however allowed if however briefly to enter the white mans world to claim what is rightly theirs – Rachel.
I’ve been waiting for Sergeant Rutledge (1960) for a few years now, one of John Ford’s apologetic films for past on-screen depictions, this time focusing on African-Americans who when on-screen had previously been given the role of the idiot, the butler, the naive slave, anything but up-standing citizen who can contribute to society. Ultimately the fall guy and the butt of the jokes. It wasn’t really until Sidney Poitier came along, did the depiction of Black characters start to change, or just those he depicted, given his pride and strength in each role during the 1950’s – 60’s. Sadly even here in Sergeant Rutledge their depiction isn’t that much better really. Even from Ford who was trying to right his own wrongs which go back as far as playing a member of the KKK in Birth of a Nation (1915). Guilt he was hoping to rid himself of, I can’t really see many Black characters in his past film, a white world as depicted in Ford’s West. Of course he’s not alone in his contribution to the genre.
However is showing that he’s willing to pay his dues, taking on a court-martial of a black Sergeant whose accused of rape and double murder. There is even some historical fact in there, a segregated troop of Black soldiers, however their depiction still has hints of stereotype slip through. That’s not to take away from otherwise seen as upstanding soldiers who follow the chain of command, it’s an admirable attempt for its time. Not surprisingly the main character – Rutledge (Woody Strode) is relegated to a supporting role credit, when the whole film revolves around his actions. I remember being similarly annoyed by his credit ranking in The Professionals (1966), another symptom of racism in Hollywood. It’s alright to have them on-screen but give them too much credit that would lead beyond tokenism towards fully rounded roles that rely on stronger parts, Strode’s in this film is far stronger, maybe his strongest role of his career.
Being one of Ford’s apologies, 4 if you count The Searchers (1956) which confronts the racism that can consume a man, the depiction of the other is still classical. Jumping to Two Rode Together (1961) which picks up where The Searchers left things, answering the hard questions of what happens to the returned captive, tainted by the others blood, time among them, how society reacts to the captive, do they react as the Jorgensen’s did, an open embrace, or do they fear them, reject them and leave them to return to the safety of the other. It’s a talkie heavy film that debates all these questions, whilst Ford’s last effort is a grander affair – Cheyenne Autumn (1964) which depicts the Trail of Tears, it’s a brave film from a man who defines the genre, who has seen the shape it has taken, overlooking the past, hoping to add his last page of revisionism. Only really let down by the comedy that is weirdly inserted, thought to be necessary to break up the darker themes,
Turning then to his second apology in more detail we have another talking heavy, a courtroom western, which have never been the strongest in the genre, mulling over the facts of the case before judgements delivered. Thankfully it’s broken up by the use of flashbacks, to build up not just the generals picture of what happened, but for the audience to see what Black officers are capable of. Ford’s also quite at home, returning again to Monument Valley, which validates this as part of the myth, his myth of the West, Black Westerns are rare, such as Buck and the Preacher (1972) which is more revisionist in tone yet more of a blaxploitation than a true Western.
The trial begins without even seeing Rutledge who is only spoken about, his guilt is almost a certainty in the eyes of one Captain Shattuck (Carleton Young) who sees more the colour of his skin and the negative connotations that go with it. Whereas Lt. Tom Cantrell (Jeffrey Hunter) believes far different, you could say he has a personal interest in being the defence for the accused. The first evidence is given by a semi Ford regular Constance Towers as Mary Beecher whose painted as a victim at the hands of Rutledge, the lights are lowered to focus on her testimony which is soon revealed to be more enlightening when she’s allowed to continue, we see a soldier who comes to her rescue from a common enemy – the Apache who have killed already. Rutledge‘s wounded by a gunshot, needing to rest, but still carries out his duty to the civilian. Would a murderer and rapist be capable of doing that?
The evidence stacks up allowing you to builds up and picture, even doubt starts to creep in, did he really commit rape and murder, the audiences tested, more so the original intended audience of the early sixties who was very much divided, just as the civil rights movement was starting up. This film is a precursor to the thinking that a man shouldn’t be judged on the colour of his skin, the connotations that are sadly still very much alive in the States.
Ford does his best to bring this very confined Western alive. The courtroom is predominantly white, who’ve been predisposed to judge Rutledge as guilty. Whilst those in the Black troop look up to the first Sergent, the top man, top dog, he’s almost raised to a legendary status for his actions on and off the screen, respected for his ideals which comes in the form of a song that we get at the beginning and end of the film. He’s part of filmic cavalry history, this is how Ford wants to frame Rutledge and the others as heroes up their with the likes of Kirby and Yorke (John Wayne). However it’s a hard fight due to the material which does drag which is due to the restraints of legal dialogue which you have to pay attention to. Characters are strength which doesn’t fail Ford who are still rounded with their foibles, most notable between Col. Otis Fosgate (Willis Bouchey) and his wife Mrs. Cordelia Fosgate (Billie Burke), the old married couple constrained by rank, position and racial assumptions.
Ultimately it’s a much forgotten film due to the rarity of the Black troop, there have been others since celebrating the forgotten, part of Ford’s admiration for American servicemen. In-terms of apologies, its heavy handed at times, a different take on the ideas might have been more successful. Its a product of it’s time and he was fighting under those politics. I’m glad I’ve finally seen the film, building up a bigger picture of a director I admire, in terms of his myth it adds another page which is usually turned too fast to see his stronger work.
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’ve been looking out for Ulzana’s Raid (1972) ever since I read about it a years ago, discussed in relation to Native American’s once again. Focusing this time on an army company of men in search of a band of Apache who had left the reservation at the beginning of the film. Something which I can relate to in my current work. Naturally the army’s notified of Ulzana (Joaquín Martínez) and his braves who have left over night. Today you would rightly be behind the Apache’s to make a break for freedom. I noticed as the film progress as much as it has dated it has a new relevance in the age of ISIS and Islamaphobia which has gripped parts of the world. I’ll explain my observation as I carry on. My initial reading (literally) was a comparison with McIntosh (Burt Lancaster) and Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) yes there’s more discussion about The Searchers (1956) this time focusing on how the white man functions with his knowledge of the other.
Much like my review of The Stalking Moon (1968) we have an army scout with knowledge of “Indians” for Edwards the knowledge comes from an undisclosed place in a back story that fuels his hate, scaring those around him to the point of alienation leaving him with his unwanted mixed race Cherokee Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter) who stick with him throughout, thick and thin. We can only presume his knowledge comes after leaving the Confederate Army, being absent from the surrender he follows a different path from everyone else who has seemingly adjusted to post civil war life.
With Edwards out of the army, I turn to those still in the army, Varner’s (Gregory Peck) seen as a knowledge, the army want him to stay, they feel safer with him and his partner riding with them. I can’t really imagine Peck ever being as dangerous as Wayne could ever portray. Even the white woman Sarah (Eva Marie Saint) feels safe in his company as her escorts her home. Turning to Mcintosh he is as worldly-wise as they others, you can see it on his face, he has seen a lot, done a lot and even married a Native woman for his wife. Something that Edwards would never contemplate, his racism wouldn’t allow it. He is more willing to share his knowledge as advise not to scare the cavalry men he is riding with. He wants to educate not fear them, he doesn’t need to do that as the trail of blood-shed speaks for itself. He instead explains what they do and why.
If anything the explanation for all the atrocities is better explained by the sole Apache Ke-Ni-Tay (Jorge Luke) whose allowed to have a good portion of the script. He’s better able to answer all the questions that the men have. Especially for wet behind the ears Lt. Garnett DeBuin (Bruce Davison) who sees all this death as meaningless, he wants to act without fully understanding his enemy. He’s Lt. Col. Owen Thursday (Henry Fonda) before the racism has set in, wanting to make a career and a name for himself in the army. Here’s the chance to learn and change his perspective and direction in life. With the motives for the Apache’s explained by Ke-Ni-Tay, acting as the others representative. Today he could represent the hunted ISIS (and rightly so to) he becomes the misunderstood Muslim who has done nothing wrong, whose labelled the potential terrorist in their absence. Racism without cause, fear is wrong directed to Muslims when 99% of them are as decent as everyone else we meet on the street. It’s the 1% who are disillusioned, radicalized and want to inflict harm on the rest of the world. Back in the Western of the 1970’s the Native Americans act as the Vietnamese who have been wrongly killed because of the fear of communism (I know there’s more to it than that).
I want to look at some lines from the film, something I do rarely, a few stood out for me that I have to interrogate.
Do you hate Apaches, Mr. McIntosh? – Lt. Harry Garnett DeBuin
No. – McIntosh
Well, I do. – Lt. Harry Garnett DeBuin
Well, it might not make you happy, Lieutenant, but it sure won’t make you lonesome. Most white folks hereabout feel the same way you do. – McIntosh
Why don’t you feel that way? – Lt. Harry Garnett DeBuin
It would be like hating the desert because there ain’t no water in it. For now, I can get by being plenty scared of ’em. – McIntosh:
It feels like a conversation that could have taken place in Fort Apache if rank wasn’t a problem between Thursday and Capt. Kirby York (Wayne). Instead with have the advantage of age over experience. The time to consider whether there is enough time in life to devote so much to hating a race of people. McIntosh understand his commanding officers position but has given up on the emotion as it only gets in the way of living and functioning as a human being out in the frontier.
Turning now to the violence of the film, this isn’t one that young kids could watch and get a sense of fun, the cowboy and Indian dynamic of the past is not present in this film. The violence is more brutal. Animal rights groups would today have ensure animals were treated better. There’s nothing to suggest that any animals were harmed or not. This is a few years before Heaven’s Gate (1980) and exploding horses in the name of art. As much as the violence is tame in some respects, when you see a horses neck being cut you think twice about putting a young child in front of the screen. We are meant to see these violent acts, suggesting that the Apache are not civilised, they are capable of terrible acts, making the cavalry’s presence all the more relevant. The savages have to be tamed if possible at all costs. Although history would argue they only ever acted in self defense at the threat of losing their way of life. Once again I am mixing fact with fiction and in film that doesn’t always work.
The depiction of the Native American’s doesn’t really fare that much better than the animals, They are treated once again as savages with skills of the wilderness. They become more desperate over the course of the film, as if they are broken down. They way they treat their horses/ponies is not really as animals to respect but more as tools that can be disposed of. Practically seen as people you wouldn’t want to have dinner with. They are however seen as a people who can work together with only gestures, almost as if Ulzana is orchestrating his men from a distance which I can’t help but admire.
So to sum up as I explore The Searchers through other films I am building up a bigger picture of how it has influenced others films and the western genre. It’s clear that Edwards is a powerful and very human character that interests us even to this day. The role of the outsider and racist will always be a dangerous one. Lancaster doesn’t play that role, take cues from Peck, two trackers who are able to function, to take a step back from the other. Instead its given to the younger man Lt. Harry Garnett DeBuin who as much as he is eager to learn, he is being shaped in front of our eyes. This mission wont easily leave him, just as the 1956 classic will never leave me.
It’s hard to un-see what I saw last night, Bone Tomahawk (2015) much like Under the Skin (2013) is one of those films with imagery so striking that a nights sleep just can’t shake off to be just another memory of a film. Where Under the Skin was pure sci-fi, this, Bone Tomahawk is a blending of horror and the Western, something that is rarely done. We’ve had the Gothic before in The Beguiled (1971) which had an effect on me, but not as strong as this more recent encounter.
I’ve tended to avoid genre mixes when it comes to the Western, such as Cowboys and Aliens (2011) feelings it wasn’t true to the genre and just plain silly. Still it’s only film and just having fun, a format where anything can potentially happen. So what made me change my mind when it came to Tomahawk? I guess its the combination of Kurt Russell and the idea that the fictional race of Troglodytes that we fear throughout the film. Having the same if not worse label applied to Native Americans which are now living among the town of Bright hope with. These are treated much the same as the classical Native Americans were treated, spoken of but rarely seen and from a distance when they are. Minimal broken dialogue when they have that luxury. Here the Native American’s treated as almost equal, seen as the professor (Zahn McClarnon) who still receives his share of racism.
There are of course comparisons to The Searchers (1956) which I have also been made, which I was looking out for. Where the original had two riders John Wayne and Jeffrey Hunter there was an equal balance of racism against forward modern thinking. Ethan Edwards (Wayne) driven by racism that makes him either want to rescue or kill his niece (Natalie Wood) who has by the end is by the end if the film part of Scar’s Comanche tribe. In Edwards eyes she is no longer white, a squaw by no choice of her own is better off dead than alive. What makes him change his mind has long been questioned. Does love for her overwhelm him, has his 1/4 Comanche nephew influenced him, or has he grown tired of all the hate that is inside of him? I’m not going to answer that, I’ll leave that to you.
In the more recent film there are four riders, not the classic two who go in search of the doctors nurse Samantha (Lili Simmons) along with the deputy sheriff. The first thought is “Indians” who have captured them, until its proved wrong by the only Native American, whose knowledge puts the white people to shame, even though he dresses as a white man he still very much of his own race. They respect his knowledge, except for the only polarizing character Brooder (Matthew Fox) who is not ashamed to speak his racist mind. Much like that Republican candidate at the moment. Yet there is more anger to his tone as we learn more, he too has killed his fair share of Native Americans, as we learn with good reason. He fears he hasn’t killed enough too which is worrying the other men who have come to accept (more or less) the Natives as neighbours.A lot of water has gone under the bridge in this end of the century Western that is more concerned with doing the right thing that shooting aimlessly. The racism is about the racism in the genre and dealing with it in the genre that its contained within. Before we have to be confront with the genres biggest fears.
The racism’s counteracted by the others, mainly the older back-up deputy Chicory (Richard Jenkins) the Walter Brennan of the film, his life experience gives him the licence to questions Brooders thinking that alienates him from the other three. Lead by Sheriff Hunt (Kurt Russell) who is ready for action but knows that the law is bigger than him. Very much a mature role for Russell who tends shoot first and think second. Here in his second Western role in as many films is a man if the world that’s prepared for action but know he has to follow it to enforce it. He may have the lead role but he doesn’t steal it from the other actors, he’s a team player which makes for a more balanced film. The Sheriff leads but doesn’t dictate to the others.
We first encounter the Troglodytes at the beginning of the film, it’s a black figure that delivers unspeakable gore (in a Western) we are left with a blurred image of what we believe we have just seen. Was it an “Indian” in disgiuse or caught at an obscure angle or for a few seconds not allowing us time to work out what the hell just happened. We don’t see these sub-human creatures until much later. However their presence is felt through out the film, we are teased all the time by their suggested presence. You can’t rest easy until Chicory cracks a line or rebukes Brooders.
There’s the added tension of Arthur (Patrick Wilson) whose wife has been kidnapped, comes with an injured man, limping around to the point that he might not make it. Also coming with a grudge towards Brooder who was once his love rival, he resents Brooders presence, who is there out of duty of care and feeling responsible. A gentlemen to a fault that becomes his downfall. No one is safe in this film, you can’t tell who is next for being killed off. It’s very open and unpredictable which makes it so engaging. The gore which I usually don’t go for, and isn’t find in the genre, usually the cruelty is off-screen or only mentioned by others. To see it happening, we are confronted by it and nowhere to hide.
It’s something I just can’t shake right now and maybe that’s the point which will probably stay with me for a long time to come. Maybe this is the film that will be see me more Westerns crossed with other genres, not to take it too seriously, to celebrate it and critique it. I’ve already accepted comdies so why not sci-fi, along with horror as I did last night.
I’ve been quietly looking out for Death Wish (1974) for sometime, wondering what it was about. Then reading a brief description it became clear that this was Michael Winner‘s version of The Searchers (1956). Two years before Martin Scorsese‘s own take on the film – Taxi Driver (1976) However architect Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) is not an outsider of society. In fact he lives a middle class lifestyle. Even making his mark on his country by helping design the future for an undeveloped section of Tuscon, Arizona. Unlike Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) who drives the streets of New York at night, unable to have a normal relationship with a woman. We have moved on from John Ford‘s original wandering Confederate Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) who will never have a place in civilised society. He does have more in common with Bickle though, we all know or have seen someone who doesn’t quite fit in, standing out and whom we fear for some reason.
So how else is this quietly violent film like The Searchers and other Westerns, we must first look at the women that are/were in Kersey’s at the beginning of the film. He loves his wife Joanna (Hope Lange) who he has just returned from a holiday with. They are enjoying their freedom from their now grown up daughter, a second flourish of love, it’s a rosy picture. All this is soon lost after not even a word has barely been uttered by anyone. Normality in their lives restored, mother and daughter Carol Toby (Kathleen Tolan) have been out together. Where we meet three men, criminals out for their next easy victims who have plenty of cash to steal from. These thugs/criminals take the place of Native Americans on the street, the wild and uncontrollable, the lost and disillusioned youth of the streets with no-where to turning on the successful and affluent who have the image of an easy life. These three men track down and follow the mother and daughter home, the defenseless women are soon in the arms of the gang who leave the women ravaged, not quite raped but beaten within an inch of their life.
Nearly on a par with the ultra-violence of A Clockwork Orange (1971) but still with some way to go. The effect of the violent is soon felt when the absent men in their lives are at the hospital, who are left to accept the consequences of the crime. Joanna soon dies (not from her external injuries at least) and Carol traumatized to the point she’s moved into a psychiatric hospital. Reminding me of the powerful scene in The Searchers when Ethan and Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter) come across two women who are little more than scare children after their time with the savage natives. Time as a squaw is an experience that’s compared to a fate worse than death in the classic genre.
The women in Death Wish are silently labelled “Comanch” they are victims of street crime. For the men they both deal with their loss’ in different ways. Jack Toby (Steven Keats) Kersey’s son-in-law accepts his wives condition and does what he feels medicine and society can do for her. Whilst the elder who has lost his wife doesn’t take that option, justice has failed for him. Needing to find another way to grieve and right the many wrongs which is beginning to see on the streets of New York City. It takes him a business trip to Tuscon, working on designs for new homes on yet untouched land. He has left the East to go to the old West where. He is helping to define the future for more settlers who want to move West, except there journey is a lot safer.
It takes a trip to a Wild West film set which I recognised from a few films, where Kersey along with his colleague Sam (William Redfield) a member of a gun club awakens the gunfighter and eventual vigilante in the conscientious objector of the Korean War. A man who for years had not picked up a gun and for good reasons too. his principals are thrown to the wind on his return, his first act of self-defense becomes a chance to clean up the streets. Taking law into his own hands, a reversion to an outmoded gunfighter, long after law and order has been instated in the country. Here comes a gunfighter who wants to kill for good. Having the to break the law, to kill in order to make the streets safer.
Soon getting the attention of the police, lead by investigating officer Frank Ocha (Vincent Gardenia) who wants to restore civilised law and order. Or to put him back on-top, allowing the police to do their job. Not exactly the kind of guy you would expect, full of a cold, but wants to see this vigilante who he begins to understand, methodically getting to Kersey who is attracting attention and wannabe vigilantes, not to the same level. He’s enjoying the attention from behind the comfort of his apartment. Collecting newspapers that mention his acts/work. This the gunfighter basking in the glory of his good deeds, writing his own history, without the media even knowing him.
Instead of bringing Kersey to justice he is eventually persuaded to leave, helping to create a modern legend. To be a legendary gunfighter today you have to be a vigilante, it still happens even forty years later as have-ago-hero’s, citizens arrests. The violence in the film is far less in your face, it’s a collection of moments of tension that are built up. We first meet the criminal in the urban setting before Kersey the possible victim turns around and kills them, easing the tension. More death, but less crime as a result, does that make the act of violence right? From a man who abhorred violence soon comes to get a thrill out of it, yet feels like a hero, killing only for good. The first in a string of sequels (which I am toying with watching) he has yet to avenge his wife and daughter.
The Native Americans of the urban streets are not seen again, complete with spray paint and few words. Is he looking out for them or others like them on what has become life’s work. A frightening prospect when you think about it, an architect who allows for progression forward, yet reverts to an outmoded way of life. Much like Ethan Edwards who spent 7 years of his life filled with racial hatred looking for Comanches to kill, whilst searching for his family, was he out for his family or for blood, that’s one of the bug questions you come away with. He’s already an outsider, a Confederate who has not accepted surrender so cannot progress with the forward thinking country. Kersey is a 20th century take on that, before the more iconic and dangerous Bickle, not as prolific in his violence he is not one to get close to, there is more humanity in Bronson’s take on the outsider, a man whose known for his violent roles shows a sensitive side before he becomes the iconic role for a generation.
I’ll leave you with a quote from the original and let you decide how far we have come.
“It just so happens we be Texicans. Texican is nothing but a human man way out on a limb. This year and next, and maybe for a hundred more. But I don’t think it’ll be forever. Some day this country’s gonna be a fine, good place to be. Maybe it needs our bones in the ground before that time can come.” – Mrs Jorgensen (Olive Carey)
A western that could easily pass you by, with Fred MacMurray playing against type as he leads a cattle drive to Abilene. Joining him on the drive are his two brothers Bless Keough (Jeffrey Hunter) who has no back bone to make decisions of his own. Nearly leaving for St Louis with his mother who wont let him be his own man. Whilst their kid brother Hade Keough (Dean Stockwell) who is more than wearing to get going, leading adult adventures with no real thought for the consequences. All making Gun For a Coward (1957) a standard moral tale in the west.
Driven more by the characters than any big set pieces that make most films of the genre memorable. Questioning the moral centre of what a man is supposed to be, in the traditional and changing form of the definition of what it is to be a man. Traditionally, standing up for your name and yourself, which still exist but is less prominent in place of self-confidence and openness with yourself. A man who is scared of pulling his gun to save his brother from a snake, backing out of a fight, would all be call for labels back before WWII. Now that the horrors of the conflict had come home with the soldiers, when being afraid was accepted amongst friends.
Throwing in the girl to the mix, the older brothers fight over Aud Niven (Janice Rule) who is first promised to the eldest of the brother Will Keough (MacMurray) who works hard whilst he waits for the day. Whilst his cowardly brother develops a real connection with the girl who can not be realised until later on. Something has to change to bring them together, and when it does, it’s the breaking and re-moulding of the man Bless who begins to stand up for himself with renewed confidence.
Not the strongest film, or memorable yet has a strong centre that shows that we have to respect others for who they are. That those who are different have a harder journey in life to realise and be understood by everyone else.