This extended film review is a reissue of my reflections of the Ranown cycle of films that director Budd Boetticher and actor Randolph Scott worked on. These were varied in strength but mostly hold up well today as tight western thrillers that pushed what can be done on a B-Movie budget. I’ve left the films in chronological order of when the films were reviewed to avoid confusion.
Westbound (1959) Revisited
I’ve decided to undertake a revisit the Ranown Cycle of films directed by Budd Boetticher and starring Randolph Scott, taking the cheap budget of a B-western and raising it with the direction and the ideas of the script to that of a A-Western, before the power of the films was really known. All culminating in Scott’s swan song to cinema with Sam Peckinpah‘s Ride the High Country (1962) where he decided to never act again, believing he was unable to surpass his performance. Westbound (1959) is the first in a disjointed series that hopes to redress my view of these films that I only started to understand as I was finishing the first watch. It will be out of sequence, based on an availability, however this time I will be using a more critical eye in order to expand my understanding of these films.
So out of the seven films I am starting with number 5, which so far feels like a more cerebral of the series. Set during the height of the civil war as most westerns are, either before, around or after that period of upheaval in American history. Which allows for a darker story to be told. When Union captain John Hayes (Scott) to undertake a mission that could change the course of the war for the side that does eventually go onto win. It’s one he does at first with reluctance, a return to an old way of life that is away from the front line of war, something that he believes in. To manage a stagecoach route to ensure the daily passage of gold to the Union is not what he had in mind.
However when he meets wounded soldier Rod Miller (Michael Dante) returning home, unable to fight himself. Having to face battles of his own at home, Hayes grows into a father figure who wants to instill new purpose the now disabled soldier. It’s a rarity to see a handicapped actor playing such a prominent role. Usually given to an extra on a battlefield or about to have a limb blown off. Placing him in a role that allows both the characters and audience to confront the issue head on. On returning home his wife Jeanie (Karen Steele) takes a while to adjust to his new situation. He’s not the man she saw go off to war. A walking casualty of war that has returned from the battlefield.
The Miller’s live in the the Colorado territory that was supportive of the Confederate campaign. Wherein we find the villains of the film. Clay Putnam (Andrew Duggan) both in the field of love and war where Hayes is concerned, coming back to town where he finds his old flame Norma (Virginia Mayo) who is caught in the middle of these two men. Clay’s right hand man – Mace (Michael Pate) who is a real thorn in his side, acting more in impulse than intellect. These are the two real difference between them, its classical really, the intelligent bad guy gets the less intelligent more physically stronger gunfighter to do the dirty work and that fact is not hidden from view.
On the surface its a class set-up for a western of the period, however underneath we find darker tones, a country whose people have no real conscience, a wounded soldier, a stagecoach load who fall to their deaths are all placed before us. Its harder hitting than that standard gunfight or brawl in the street. We have men who act with little thought for the consequences until it’s too late. Whilst Hayes and his men fight to keep the route open to ensure a steady supply of gold to the union acts as a metaphor for a country working together for the greater good. Of course set during the Civil War that idea is meaningless, its one side for the other. Move it forward to the time of production you have look further, where I can see no parallel. The is probably the weaker of the series, its heavier on characters and settings, not set in the wide open spaces, it’s very luscious in terms of landscape. I feel there is something that wants to come out, there are things going in, characters who are fighting to be heard whilst becoming too mainstream as the film progresses. Aspects could have been developed and just left.
Ride Lonesome (1959) Revisited
The second film in my journey back through the Ranown Cycle, or the 6th out of seven films that Budd Boetticher and Randolph Scott made together. Much the same as Anthony Mann and James Stewart did at the start of the decade. After the previous film Westbound (1959) which really doesn’t fit into the series as strongly as Ride Lonesome (1959) which I began to remember quite strongly as I viewed it for a second time.
From the opening titles I felt more engaged, the music more dramatic and powerful as we embark on a film that is set out in the untamed West, using a location – The Alabama Hills in Lone Pine; a favorite location of the director. Mirroring John Ford‘s use of Monument Valley. Boetticher use of the location brings out the horror and the danger. Placing cowboys into an alien world that they have to ride out of back into what they hope is civilization or ride on for eternity. Anything or anyone could be hiding behind these structures that stretch for miles. If anything this film is more cinematic out in the open, no sound-stage shots, all out on location, a western that relies on the open to tell its story.
So I’m more impressed with this later instalment of the cycle, things are looking darker if only in terms of soundtrack as we meet Ben Brigade (Scott) who has already find who is looking for, we’ve come in half way through his journey. Our traditional hero is a bounty hunter, not even the later anti-hero of the Dollars trilogy that uses his intellect to get what he wants. Instead he is driven to see this young man Billy John (James Best) hang, a man who has shot men in the back. A good enough reason to be brought to justice, not even giving his opponent a fair chance to defend himself.
The audience is already on the side of the bounty hunter, how long will that last as we meet more people at a stage stop, two men and the wife of the boss of the post. Its a barren landscape and dangerous too, as we learn when a stagecoach rides in, only to crash into the post after an attack by Native Americans who bother the five for half of the film. We also have a return to the minimal cast which is something that really works out in the open, allowing us to focus on these individuals. From the stage post we meet Sam Boone (Pernell Roberts) and Whit (James Coburn) a double act essentially, the smart and the dumb man who plot to snatch the wanted man Billy and set him free, having heard there is an amnesty on his head. However plans to head to Santa Cruz for the bounty is where we are heading.
However Santa Cruz is not really where we are heading, taking our time through open country, taking a longer route, out in the open, not hiding their tracks. The threat of Billy John’s brother Frank (Lee Van Cleef) who is already riding over in pursuit of rescuing his brother. We see little of him and his men, only a few scenes in all. Allowing more focus on the men and Mrs. Carrie Lane (Karen Steele) who has only just realised she is a widow, as she stays with these men more out of safety than anything else. She has to trust them, finding that as however united they are as a group they are as the ride on, they are divisions between them.
The divisions are best highlighted through the night scenes, heavy in dialogue and shadow leaving the characters almost in profile. Even though its basically day-for-night lighting its allows us to look inside these men and Mrs. Lane as they begin to understand each other and the situation they are in. Boetticher has definitely bounced back here with more adult western that really hits home when the truth is revealed to us. Brigades past is told to us with striking tree in the background, a hanging tree, it doesn’t take much explanation. Simultaneously the images of the past are that occurred at this location are being retold, we can imagine the awful scene that have drawn him back here for what is essentially the bounty he has really been waiting for. A reward that is worth more than any money could substitute.
The hanging tree is a familiar image in the genre that has never been so potent, always associated death, unlawful trials, racism and injustice. A lone bare tree in a wide open space allows the potential for so much imagery, becoming an arena of death for a short time, taking the Western back to ancient Rome or Greece where all could see your rise or fall from miles above. It’s all about the staging of the ideas, the emotions, out in the open even when they are held up tight inside you can feel the tension as nothing can truly escape the elements.
The Tall T (1957) Revisited
The third of film of the Ranown Cycle, and the 3rd of the series in sequence is another strong entry. Set mostly in the Lone Pine which allows The Tall T (1957) to be a visually distinctive film to watch and reflect upon once you leave it. I am really enjoying my journey back into these darker B-westerns that really don’t deserve that label, the script elevates it to something far higher. I guess the budget and number of unknown actors ultimately dictates that definition. However I think that lack of high-profile actors, apart from Randolph Scott who had fallen out of favour unlike his contemporaries doesn’t seem to care, immersing himself into the material that makes it all worthwhile. The length of these films is just about right as-well, short, sweet and incredibly sharp for the adult audience at the time. It doesn’t talk down to anyone.
The beginning of the film is pretty straight-forward, Pat Brennan (Scott) rides in from what looks like the untamed wilderness, it’s all light-hearted as we meet the people of Contention another frontier town that is full of characters. I am already trying to workout who is going to make it on the journey ahead. Beginning at a stage stop once more, a recurring location in these films. Traditionally a passing place on the journey of most westerners in the genre. Popularized by Stagecoach (1939) which I originally saw this film as. Its much more and nothing like it in many respects. After a what is a carefree trip with Brennan through town buying candy for his friend’s son, you can see Brennan is a decent man who is everyone’s friend, he can’t do wrong.
All this is a false pretense as soon as he is horses-less he’s left vulnerable to whoever passes by. Hitching a lift on a stagecoach driven by old-timer and friend Ed Rintoon (Arthur Hunnicutt) who lets his ride up top. Going well so far until they reach familiar territory – the station, its deserting which is worrying to say the least. All’s revealed from the emptiness where so much life happened, it’s a band of four men led by Frank Usher (Richard Boone) who reveals what has just happened, the death of father and son buried in the worst place, down the bottom of a well. It’s not a good start to the second half of the film. This is the beef of the film, what we have waited for, away from civilization, from law and order, where things are supposed to make sense. Now three men are in charge and its only going to get worse.
Hopes of a making a bargain are offered by newlywed Willard Mimms (John Hubbard) who offers to get a ransom from his new father-in-law. The first character to show his true colours is also the most unlikely, a prisoner negotiating his way out. He’s a coward and greedy, having married for money not love. Riding back to town to get the ransom set-up with one of the men. Leaving us with us with probably the worst of the gang who lead Brennan and Doretta Mimms (Maureen O’Sullivan) to a hide-out, an abandoned mine. We see the younger men start to show their lack of intelligence, a weakness that will eventually work in hero’s favor. These are not men you’d want to meet in town or out in the open, not so much ruthless as dangerous and stupid which is a terrible combination.
This behaviour begins to show to Brennan and Usher two maturer men who have lived enough to know what is right and wrong, life has happened to them and are stronger for it, it’s the paths they’ve taken which have defined them. You could say they are the same before taking different routes in life, they want their own lot part of the world, just going about it different ways. However the real transformation in the film is Doretta who wakes up and understand what she wants in life, able to change her life for the better by the end of the film.
Its a tense Western that doesn’t waste any time in getting going. You could easily place this film in the stage a 2 act piece that would have the audience begging for some release which you don’t get until a gun is fired. The tone of the Ranown Cycle is set by here, its taut, sparse and very adult for its time. None of the big personalities you get from other actors, Scott doesn’t come across steal scenes, he is very much the star but says very little and means a lot, you feel at ease with him on-screen especially out there you do.
Comanche Station (1960) Revisited
My original review of Comanche Station (1960) drew comparisons early on with The Searchers (1956) which is easy to see why. Take out the raging and confused racist and what you have left is a man looking for and trading for those taken by Native Americans. Take out John Wayne‘s Ethan Edwards and replace him with Randolph Scott‘s Jefferson Cody a man with a very different goal. He too knows and understand the enemy but hasn’t become consumed by them. Instead it allows him to survive as we find Scott once more out in Lone Pine, a location that has become synonymous with him and Budd Boetticher working together for the last time here before Scott’s final film two years later. We see even less of the developing west, is all man vs. the wilderness.
With the opening scene lacking any real dialogue, a series of gestures and about two or three lines we have secured Nancy Lowe (Nancy Gates) and riding hopefully back to civilisation and safety, something that both of them are still far away from. We don’t know either characters intentions, their pasts or recent experience, its straight into a situation that will need to explain to build up these characters. One flaw of the film is the lack of attention that Nancy Lowe really received, her time with the Native Americans as a captive/squaw are completely ignored, she has been saved, end off really for her. This is something which John Ford couldn’t ignore, answering The Searchers with The Two Rode Together (1961) where a female captive comes to terms, and readjust back to a white way of life. I guess for Nancy all that is yet to come. She becomes the centre of attention as the film goes on in other ways.
So with Nancy safe and on our way back to her old safe life we stop by yet another stagecoach station, a symbol of isolation and progress, a step along a journey many yet to be completed. We have already what can happen in these locations in the Boetticher’s world where danger is lurking around the corner. With a station acting as a stopping place where anyone can drop by, if that be for rest, food, good or even money and blood. This time its a gunfight against Native American’s who are fighting other men who are riding over for safety. We see how unprepared Nancy is for a gunfight, unlike her rescuer Cody who tries to keep her safe as possible as bullets fly, and joining in the fight to defend this outpost of white civilisation, also just to survive which is a very human act.
With the first fight of the film out of way another one begins in the form of words and actions, three men against one, as newly arrived Ben Lane (Claude Akins), Frank (Skip Homeier) and Dobie (Richard Rust) discover Nancy and what she represents, a newly returned captive with a price on her head. Losing what power she has, becoming a pawn and losing respect in Cody whose labelled like the others, in it for the money. Its a similar theme, one man against the odds, ganged up against as he travels the open country. His character is tested in each film as different men in these seven films (more or less). Its once again the older man Lane who is the leader, age giving him the edge, the intelligence, the younger ones are seen as muscle and weight in a battle, extra lead to fire from their guns.
Being the last film in the series I can see already from the 4 films I have now revisited clear imagery at play. We have Lone Pine a landscape where very little can live or grow, no idea what lies behind the next pass or ridge. The perfect hiding place really. A stoic figure in Scott who always has to fight on his own. Always on a journey to somewhere, with a past that is hard to match and not to envy. A single woman who plays the role of damsel in distress who has yo be saved from falling into the hands of the bad-guys who are after her. The visual style maybe the same (more or less) which creates a world for these darker stories to play out, like dime-novel without the fantasy. Its not about being yellow or your abilities with a gun. These films are about what drives us under all those guises and how they determine our actions, making for some seriously gripping films that never relent.
Decision at Sundown (1957) Revisited
The fifth review in my on and off series of revisits to the Ranown cycle of films made by Budd Boetticher and starring Randolph Scott, Decision at Sundown (1957) was the third they made together. If you don’t look at the year of release for signs are how young the films in is terms of the two men’s work/progression they are still very much in the confines of the studio back-lot, very traditional and safe in terms of setting. Not yet fully in Lone Pine as we find which they first visit in films such as Westbound (1959) which allows for a true sense of isolation to come into these tense and introspective films. We’ve been out there once already in The Tall T (1957) we know what these two are capable of.
Saying that there is a strong sense of isolation in the town of Sundown. It’s an odd beginning, as a stagecoach is held up, simply to let passenger Bart Allison (Scott) off and catch-up with his partner Sam (Noah Beery Jr.) his sidekick almost who has stood-by him through a lot. Maybe the audience’s supposed to be thrown by this outburst of violence before simply riding off? It acts as a jolt, this is not the Scott of previous films, he’s not playing the straight forward hero. Even in the Ranown cycle he’s usually the hero with a darker side to him. Here he has a single purpose which he sticks rigidly too, there’s little deviation to even look after a woman whose trapped in a bad situation. His woman was killed three years previously. We are seeing another side to the same character we later see in Comanche Station (1960) and Ride Lonesome (1959) who has more compassion.
The two strange men who ride into town cause trouble everywhere they go, not the kind of trouble that results of death and destruction, rather creating an atmosphere of unease among the towns-people. Allison is making his presence known before the big-wedding and showdown which is sure to follow. We have yet to even meet the much talked about Tate Kimbrough (John Carroll) is even seen on-screen, building him as this dangerous man who has killed his fair-share of people before owning the town of Sundown that he now owns. When we finally meet him we discover that even though he’s to marry one woman, he’s spending more time and enjoying it with another Ruby James (Valerie French) who herself is questioning her relationship. I found John Carroll to be a much cheaper imitation of Clark Gable, tall, dark but not so handsome even classically, maybe that’s the intention, Gable never played men with a dark ulterior motive or the villain.
So having establish what the film is about, a bit of context surrounding the previous film, the cannon of the actor and directors work together lets focus more on the plot. Again it’s a short film which allows things to move rather fast. Down to mainly the budget again, it’s a lot tighter, something which you can lose with a bigger more one. The town all learn of Allison’s presence at the wedding, the classic line of any man speaking of a reason why these two people should not marry or forever hold their peace. Said more out of tradition today, used more for drama on-screen, used perfectly here when Allison interrupts, he doesn’t care for the respect of the church, so driven for personal justice he carries his gun into the church, for protection and warning for Kimbrough to react. We have the whole town here, bearing witness to this threat against the man who owns the town. Another powerful figure who will have to fight to hold onto his place. Having them in the palm of his hand for two years, he even pays for their drinks at the saloon.
It’s not long until Allison and Sam are holding up in the livery stable, not the open main space with the horse where there is more places to hide. instead the more confined space of the owners back-room, where they could both spend the remainder of the film as they’re surrounded by Sheriff Swede Hansen (Andrew Duggan) who is the towns owned sheriff, a coward with a badge on who sends other to do his work. The law enforcement’s an extension of Kimbrough’s hold over the town. Aptly named Sundown, which we never see, as the events take course over the day, its more metaphorical for the gunfight’s that take place during the day that determine the course other town will next take.
Allison being driven by revenge is also deafened not blinded by the truth that Sam has to tell him about his wife, it eventually divides them. But why did Sam hold onto this secret about Allison’s wife for so long? He couldn’t bear to tell him for the fearing the damage it may do, shatter the image he holds his wife in. It’s the case believing the legend and not the fact, a powerful idea out in the west. Breaking that ideal is hard to stomach, the legend or ideal of a person we hold can be far stronger than the truth.
As the two men continue to fight, the hold of Kimbrough loosens in the town, reality is slipping back as men start to discuss what they have lost, lead by the towns doctor John Storrow (John Archer) who had always seen beyond his gestures of good will to see the real man. One who had emasculated a town, what made them strong had all but gone. It’s a film about learning and understand the truths that we hide ourselves from. It takes the strongest of men to ride into town acting like a man, wanting to settle a score to show a town full of them to see what they had lost in themselves. Not the rights and powers, the feeling of being a man. It’s an idea that has not so contemporary, the idea of a man is now more sensitive, more open to his feelings than bottling them up. We all can hide from the truth if we choose to. Scott, one of the epitome’s of the western man turns that on its head, is unable to deal with the truth until the end of the film.
Summarising where I am in my journey through the Ranown Cycle I can see that if the story is strong enough as it is here, do we really always needed the rugged outdoors of Lone Pine to set our stories against. The cast was far larger than those film, there is still a focus on characters and a number of them too. Scott is able delve into the inner reaches of what is possible with man in as few words as possible.
Buchanan Rides Alone (1958) Revisited
The sixth film in my revisit to the Ranown cycle of films, and the fourth film Buchanan Rides Alone (1958) that Randolph Scott and Budd Boetticher made together. One that is practically confined to studio back lot, one used in a number of 1950’s Westerns, mostly B-movies too. There are the odd classic which I’m reminded of. I’ve probably said this before when I look at a Randolph Scott Western they are generally B-Movies as he moved to the end of his career. However all that he brings to them, his presence, charm and down to earth being makes them stand the test of time. You could say today his contribution to cinema and the genre is something that can’t be overlooked, which has helped ensure that position. When it came to this 7 film collaboration Scott is taking a creative chance here, with a director whose been confined to B-Movies. Yet these films don’t feel like that, maybe in the supporting cast that you won’t see with A-list stars.
Anyway I’m spending too much time mumbling on when I should focusing on another tight film. I’ve already established the emphasis of the Frontier town back-lot, I feel that the best of the Ranown films are set out in the country where anything can happen, open to the elements and the evil of man lurking behind the next mountain or large rocks that populate Boetticher’s cold westerns. I decided to watch the trailer last night, a very misleading thing to do, as I thought that Scott’s character Tom Buchanan robs a bank with an accomplice. How very wrong I was, it just shows how manipulative a trailer could be in the late 1950’s. Instead he was another honest man who stands by his words, even his past as murky as it maybe, he could explain his position and past decisions, he owns his past as fictional as it really is, it becomes real.
I mentioned the evils of man out there in nature, the untamed landscape, that is not really in the Agry family who run the town of the same name. We’ve seen men in earlier Westerns, where rich cattle men owned the sheriff, who gangs who employed others to carry out their jobs lawfully. There’s no guise of the powerful figure pulling the strings from behind the scenes, instead its in your face, the face of the townspeople who are in-fact free to question the power but don’t really test its boundaries. It’s only when Buchanan rides into the border town, laid down with belts of bullets, it’s not an easy image to see the hero of the film weighed down by so much ammunition. He is joking with Sheriff Lew Agry (Barry Kelley) who we first don’t suspect of his dreams of power. It’s a light first scene, we’re being introduced to the Buchanan who just wants to pass through, easy-going and amiable. It’s not until Roy Agry’s (William Leslie) shot by Juan de la Vega (Manuel Rojas) for reasons we don’t really learn, it’s just an inevitability for the Agry’s black sheep who caused nothing but problems. Still a death in the family has to be avenged.
As it’s a Mexican who killed him it’s supposed to be easy to just go out and hang him, until they the Agry’s realise that Judge Simon Agry (Tol Avery) is running for Senator, he cant have an illegal hanging against him. So for the sake of image..and justice a quick trial that has Buchanan caught up in it as the supposed accomplice. Our hero is found innocent as he was, whilst Vega pleads guilty and happy to do so. The trial is merely for show, if justice is seen to be done then the town can move forward, a hanging and the town will still live in fear and want to be protected.
What follows is the breakdown of a male dominated family that conspire against each other. When a deal’s done to secure the release of Vega for payment of $50,000, probably a lot more today. Reflecting even then how those in power can be so underhand to ensure they stay in power. The deal doesn’t stay secret for long thanks to bumbling brother and hotel owner Amos (Peter Whitney) who is the real black-sheep of the family, or could you say the honest one of the family who has no real respect. He has only has a position thanks to his family name, without that he would be left outside and probably dead in the reality. You can’t help but empathise with him though, wanting to deliver change but forever locked out.
As in the other entries of the Ranown Cycle Scott is the stand up, hero who fights against the odds. Even though he just falls into these horrible situations that push him to test his own morals, he, doing what he has to survive and fight for the wronged man or woman. So where does it fit in with the other films, it is a strong entry, but for me it’s always going to be about Lone Pine that hides the danger and the drama, a wider stage to set the film upon. The cast is larger than the stronger films that have more tension, this is probably sitting in the middle in terms of strength of drama. This is however the dream of a better life, that ranch with a few thousand head of cattle, the dream of an ideal or a better life, a strong theme that runs throughout the cycle.
Seven Men From Now (1956) Revisited
If it wasn’t for John Wayne having a scheduling conflict we may not have had the Ranown cycle. He was supposed to be playing the lead in the latest Budd Boetticher film that his company was producing. However he was about to start on The Searchers (1956) instead of leaving his director and film without a lead he recommended a good friend of his – Randolph Scott the role. It was the start 7 film partnership that would form the Ranown cycle created by the actor and director. Making their own Monument Valley out of Lone Pine, another iconic and ready-made stage for the myth of the West to be played out in.
It’s been just under a year since I reviewed made my last entry regarding this series of films, as I remember some films were stronger than others, now I have come full circle and back to the beginning with Seven Men from Now (1956) which really set-up the formula which was reworked in the majority of the seven films. We begin with a stormy night, getting the drama going straight away, a tall and water-soaked figure walks away from the camera to the rocks in search of shelter. It’s the ever reliable and stoic Scott playing Ben Stride who finds a campfire, keeping two men warm. It’s all cosy now, asking for a cup of coffee, when we learn he has lost his horse sometime ago in a gunfight, he’s been walking all day, tired and wet from a very long day. The two men grow suspicious when they discover he was a sheriff, reaching for their guns, the camera cuts away amidst gunshots, before we see Scott riding away with two horses, him on the back of one. The only survivor, but was it out of murder or survival. I carry this dark thought with me for a few minutes, questioning his motives, is he the man I know on the screen or someone whose out of a ride for revenge.
As always he rides alone and prefers it, enjoying the company of no one unless he really has to, which comes in the form of the Greer’s a couple traveling to California. Annie (Gail Russell) and John (Walter Reed) a poor excuse for a man who is struggling to get his wagon out of a muddy patch of ground. How has he gotten this far without being killed by gunfighter’s, cowboys or even worse Chiricahua’s who are on the loose. Surrounded by danger from the unseen and his own lack of manhood. Yet Annie has stayed with him, there must be more to him than meets the eye. Stride the gentlemen he is begins to ride with them, out of duty for the couple who have somehow survived this far into the West.
So as much as he wants to be alone with his tortured thoughts as he acts as guide and security for the traveller’s. We learn later on more of his past when they stop at a way station and the arrival of Bill Masters (Lee Marvin) and Clint (John Beradino) join him, they know more than the Greer’s who are just happy to be resting. We learn that the sheriffs wife was killed during a Wells Fargo robbery, a crime that Stride couldn’t stop, loosing his position in town soon after. He’s not only lost his wife but his position in society. He’s only a man with a debt to settle with the men who killed his wife.
There are similar back-stories throughout the Ranown cycle that have created these complicated characters for Scott to play, this is just the first of them, he’s digging deep into the psychology of the men he plays. Before we learn more we see who Masters is when they face a raiding party of Chiricahua’s who up until now have been spoken about. They are soon taken care of revealing his true colours, shooting a captive man in the back. Was he one of the seven shot down leaving six for Stride to take aim at, or was he being protected, funny how he was shot in the back though.
This is one of Marvin’s larger supporting roles before rising up to top billing. We can see how this clearly more physical actor can psychologically get under the skin of our hero. Sharing the Greer’s wagon shares a story, comparing one woman to Annie, who naturally pales in comparison, taking aim at both husband John and Stride who he was aiming at more. He doesn’t need a bullet to get under his skin, whilst John’s too cowardly to defend his wives honor. This Western is not just one of action and guns, its one of the mind, making it stand out from the standard B western.
Technically we can see that the look of the films in the series is being established, the imagery of Lone Pine. Visually it’s a bit hit and miss, editing is not as slick as it can be. The cinematography is starting to show signs of something greater, however the focusing can be distracting when we cut to a new scene. That’s not to take away from what is otherwise on-screen and in the script.
I’d forgotten how short and sweet these films really are, it’s a lean film coming in at under 80 minutes. We are soon back in civilisation where more characters are met, led by Payte Bodeen (John Larch) who is possibly the leader of these men. We also learn where the money is that has been with the Greer’s the whole time. The guilt of Strides past has never really left him, taking the money into his own care, taking responsibility, ultimately taking action for the loss of his wife and position. It’s a twist I forgot was even in the film, showing that it’s been a long time since my last viewing and just how well the film works as it moves to the finale as we see the characters all being revealed for who they are, they’ve all been hiding something from us and ultimately themselves. I’ll leave you with a clip from Blazing Saddles (1974) which just shows how much I have missed Randolph Scott on my screen and the imprint he has made on the genre.
Last summer I completed work on a Film Talk that has yet to be delivered. With everyone staying at home at the moment I thought I’d share the film talk with you. Focusing on the evolving role and depiction of violence in the genre.
Tonight’s film talk is about the depiction of violence in the Western Genre. On-screen violence is a vast topic that if you could spend hours exploring it’s effects on society, censorship and how directors have each approached it in their work. Tonight I’ll be focusing on the evolution of the depiction of violence in the Western
The Great Train Robbery was the first noted Western in 1903, featuring the first use of editing to push forward a narrative and lay the foundations for the genre over the course of the next century. More notably the use of guns, ending with the a gun being aimed at the audience.
“They helped producers understanding of the important of setting and reference, the possibilities of location and action shooting…the new medium and the industry succeeded in appropriating the literary and historical tradition of the myth of the frontier and translating it’s symbols and references and its peculiar way of blending fiction and history into cinematic terms.”
Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in 20th Century America – Richard Slotkin p.254
During the silent era the genre was very popular with audiences. Innovators of the genre such as John Ford spoke of his time to fellow director Peter Bogdanovich.
“These early Westerns weren’t shoot-em-ups, they were character stories. [Harry] Carey was a great actor, and we didn’t dress him up like the cowboys you see on TV-all dolled up”
Ride, Boldly Ride : the evolution of the American Western – Mary Lea Bandy and Kevin Stoehr p.26
During the silent era a number of court cases were being held in connection to Westerns of the day. The James Boys in Missouri and Night Riders both released in 1908, both depicting the James Brothers. The Judge in the case of Block V the City of Chicago ruled against them. It was his opinion that
“…The James Boys and Night Riders were immoral not simply because they concentrated on the exploits of outlaws but because they did so exclusively, without corresponding depiction of law-abiding character that they ought to offer morally admirable characters and behaviour as a counterweight to depictions of crime…”
Classical Film Violence: Designing and Regulating Brutality in Hollywood Cinema (1930-1968) – Stephen Prince p.19
Similar rulings would have a lasting effect on the production that was later established in the 1930’s. Accompanied by the development of sound transforming how narratives we’re told. Changing the dynamic of the plot, from just visuals with the extra audio element, allowing for violence to be heard. The Production code was finally enforced in 1934, forcing filmmakers to think creatively to work around the restrictions.
“Restrictions on the image, paradoxically, open onto plenitude – the rich and fertile area of the imagination-which requires very little data to perform prodigious feats of creation. The oblique image, violence hinted but not displayed, can arouse the viewers imaginings with great ferocity.”
Classical Film Violence: Designing and Regulating Brutality in Hollywood Cinema (1930-1968) – Stephen Prince p.207
Westerns during the majority of the 1930’s were relegated to kids B-movies, some featuring a young John Wayne. If you wanted anything close to a gunplay you’d have watch a James Cagney or an Edward G Robinson film. The genre finally matured in 1939 with Stagecoach beginning a resurgence of Westerns.
During WWII images of violence filled the screen in newsreels and the first hand experiences of filmmakers of the U.S. Army Signal Corps, which I’ll touch on later. Films such as The Ox-Bow Incident (1942), which focused on mob violence.
“…Walter Van Tilburgs Clarks story, a sobering look at mob psychology and violence. While Gil, Art, and Davis [Henry Fonda, Harry Morgan and Harry Davenport], and others plead for law and more reasonable, rational behaviour to prevail, the mob has its way. It’s as if Clark is saying, and [William] Wellman and [Lamar] Trotti are confirming, that this is not at all unusual but, in fact, the natural state of human behaviour.”
The Noir Western: Darkness on the Range – David Meuel p.29
We see the result of the mob violence in this clip.
We only see the executioners setting up the horses, rigging the nooses. The only physical violence we see on-screen is handed out to the general’s son, a pacifist who’s clipped by his father. Then men executed are reduced to shadows from the trees above. The audience imagination shocks them more than the images on-screen. They have seen anyone hang, imaging the men hanging from above.
A few years later in 1946 in John Ford’s first film after leaving the Signal Corp – My Darling Clementine is released. He deals very differently with violence. It’s more traditional; we see gunfights, which are interposed with long periods of characterisation. We get to understand the motivations of the key Wyatt Earp and Doc Holiday before the final shoo-out at the infamous OK Corral.
As the 1950’s began the effects of film noir were being felt strongest with Anthony Mann and his cycle of psychological Westerns, filled with tormented men and women, struggling to understand the world around them. The director felt he had more freedom in the genre.
“It’s a primitive form. It’s not governed by rule; you can do anything with it. It has the essential pictorial qualities; has the guts of any character you want; the violence of anything you need; the sweep of anything you feel; the joy of sheer exercise, of outdoors. It is legend-and legend makes the very best cinema….”
The Wild Bunch: Sam Peckinpah, a Revolution in Hollywood, and the Making of a Legendary Film – W.K. Stratton p.73
Stevens wanted to replicate his experience of warfare for audiences back home. Also seeing boys playing cowboys in the streets. His wanted to make Shane for the kids to see what killing was really like.
“Now he re-created it on the screen in Technicolor. He’s given Americans, comfortable in their theatre seats, clutching their popcorn and sodas, a nasty taste of what death was really like.”
The Wild Bunch: Sam Peckinpah, a Revolution in Hollywood, and the Making of a Legendary Film – W.K. Stratton – W.K. Stratton p.74
At the end of the film social justice is restored, forcing Shane unfit to live among civilised people to wander forever at the close of the film.
Shane was one of a growing number of cinematic creations known as the Gunfighter, the walking embodiment of violence in the genre.
“These new takes on the Western were shaped by the internal logic of genre development, which fostered a certain kind of stylization of the Western and its hero and by the pressures and anxieties of the post-war/Cold War transition…The consonance between the formal character of the gunfighter Western and its ideological content is a genuinely poetic achievement. It gave the gunfighter films ideological and cinematic resonance and made heroic style of the gunfighter an important symbol of right and heroic actions for filmmakers, the public, and the nation’s political leadership.”
Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in 20th Century America – Richard Slotkin p.379-80
So far we have seen how violence has been developing on-screen however it’s John Ford in The Searchers (1956) as much as violence is depicted traditionally, guns being fired, yet we see no one of consequence die on camera.
“The violence in the film-ranging from the Comanche massacre of the Edwards family homes and Ethan’s discovery of Martha’s ravaged corpse to Ethan finding Lucy’s body and later his scalping of an already dead Scar-always takes place off-screen, leaving horrific acts and scenes to the power of the viewers imagination. This is a movie about violence that does not reveal its violence directly to the audience.”
Ride, Boldly Ride: the evolution of the American Western – Mary Lea Bandy and Kevin Stoehr p.193
This clip from The Searchers is a prime example of that unseen violence.
We clearly understand what’s happened to the Lucy, Ethan has buried her in the canyon he’s returned from earlier. Her body was mutilated and raped before she died. Ford relies on prior associations with Native Americans in the genre to inform us of what’s happened. The most brutal scenes are suppressed
“We feel the horror of Lucy’s death all the more because our imagination has to supply what Ethan will not tell, or in the case of Martha’s death, will not let Marty see. At the same time, keeping such things hidden not only invests them with extraordinary emotive power. It also allows the film to hint at the darkness deep in Ethan…only Scar’s death and mutilation are seen on screen. It’s as if at the end suppression is no longer possible. Things must finally be brought to light, after which there can be resolution.”
The Searchers (BFI film classics) – Edward Buscombe p.28-9
Moving to the end of the 50’s we have Anthony Mann again focusing on sexual violence too. Man of the West (1958) which rightly disturbs and angers Link (Gary Cooper’s), a now reformed bandit when an act is committed.
The First scene with Billie (Julie London) we see how this disturbs Link; Leading to his brutal fight with Coaley (Jack Lord) in the second scene. Both scenes are intense as we Link’s humanity being mentally stripped away at.
“Merely being around the Tobins brings out the worst in him – something that’s still (and maybe always be) there. Just as Billie and Coaley are stripped of their clothes, Link is bring stripped of his hard-won humanity The one bright spot is that, when Link has the chance to kill a defenceless Coaley, he can’t bring himself to do it. He hasn’t entirely reverted back to his old ways.”
The Noir Western: Darkness on the Range – David Meuel p.137
To see violence really develop you have to look to Italy with the introduction of the Spaghetti Western, cheaply made westerns using a mix of European actors and sometimes American stars. Personified by the Dollars trilogy teaming Clint Eastwood and Sergio Leone.
Up until this point there was a sense of morality in the genre, the gun brought justice to civilisation. Through skilful use of a gun you can rise you to the status of hero.
“According to [Robert] Warshow, the protagonist of the Western is in control of himself. He uses violence only when provoked and, ultimately, in defence of his vision of himself as a man of honour. For [John G.] Cawelti, the hero’s code and the epic moment (where an ‘advancing civilisation met a declining savagery’) worked to provide a ‘fictional justification for enjoying violent conflicts and expression of lawless force without feeling that they threatened the values or the fabric of society’ Violence as a moral force therefore became central to the classical Western formula.”
Myth of the Western: New Perspectives on Hollywood’s Frontier Narrative – Matthew Carter p.37
How this consideration simply goes out the window with directors like Leone and [Sergio] Corbucci according to Pauline Kael who observed this.
“It was spaghetti Westerns […] that first eliminated the morality play dimension and turned the Western into pure violent reverie. […] What made these […] popular was that they stripped the Western form of its cultural burden of morality. They discarded its civility along with hypocrisy. In a sense, they liberated the form: what the Western hero stood for was left out, and what he embodied (strength and gun power) was retained.”
Radical Frontiers in the Spaghetti Western: Politics, Violence and Popular Italian Cinema – Austin Fisher p.67
European cinema breathed new life into a purely American genre celebrating its own history. Burdened by the weight of the heroes and villains that populated it. Once removed you can use its form and write a new language.
What caused the removal of civility and morals in Italy to produce over a decade worth of film? You only need to look at the political tensions in the country to understand filmmakers and how they were responding on their work.
“There is in these films little sense of authorial surprise or shock that an outwardly democratic government might be corrupt and coercive. Certainly, the identification of state-sanctioned cruelty was hardly revelatory in a country with a living memory of totalitarianism and a rich tradition of militant insubordination. Accordingly, compared to the momentous depictions of a violent death being explored in contemporary Hollywood, the stylistics of the Italian Western as a whole reflect a considerably more blasé outlook towards brutality.”
Radical Frontiers in the Spaghetti Western – Austin Fisher p.160
A key film is Corbucci’s; Il Grande Silenzio (1968). The law is used to bounty hunters advantage to get rich. Lead by Tigrero (Klaus Kinski), his men deliver unspeakable death to one town, ignoring an amnesty that has just been passed on all outlaws. Tonally a very bleak film that even see’s the film’s hero Silenzio (Jean Louis Trintignant), himself a victim of violence eventually killed.
Back in America the production code was crumbling. Studios such as United Artist had been bypassing the code, releasing films without a seal. Those that worked with the code proved too much for one Western – One Eyed Jacks, it was still too much working with the Production Code Administration. Here’s a description of one scene that was never filmed.
“He is battered and bloody. Several teeth have been knocked out, and now half conscious he spits them out, one eye is swollen, already half-shut, blood pours in twin streams from his nose, his chin and cheekbones are bruised purple.”…“One of those shots has shattered the bridge of his nose, spraying his face and eyes with blood”…“The crowd hauls on a rope, which is attached to Bob’s right ankle. He is pulled up into the air and his dead body dangles downward, the other leg flopped awkwardly over at an angle… The barber douses Bob’s body with the kerosene and the holds a lighted match to it.”
Classical Film Violence – Stephen Prince p.191
Violence like this couldn’t be depicted for another decade, helped in part to he production code being replaced when Jack Valenti took over the, working with the major studios to bring it what we would be more familiar with – a ratings system that hoped to appease both studios and religiously conservative America.
“…the “G,” “PG,” and “R” registered with the US Patents trademark Office as certified labels of the MPAA. (The “X” category was never copyrighted since [Jack] Valenti thought if a producer felt that his movie couldn’t make the “R” cut, he would never submit it and the film would go unrated.
Hollywood Film 1963-1976 – Drew Casper p.120
As the 1960’s wore on we saw a number of pictures that really pushed the boundaries of what the public would like from Bonnie and Clyde (1967), opening the doors for Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch. A Revisionist Western that had more in common with the Spaghetti Western. However it was the volume of violence that would be remembered. His reasoning was to depict what killing was really like, much like George Stevens reflecting the television pictures of the Vietnam war.
“Look, killing is no fun. I was trying to show what the hell it’s like to be shot.”
Hollywood Film 1963-1976 – Drew Casper p.334
The film’s bookended with two violent set pieces. The opening sequence was the first to depict women and children being shot, during a bank robbery. Whilst the finale would see the 4 anti heroes attempt to save their friend before engaging in a bloodbath opposite the Mexican Revolutionary Army. Using guns never seen in a Western before this point.
The the film was met with its share of controversy, critically it was both loved and hated. Overtime its status has raised to become a classic. The violent scenes are still shocking. Sadly it never had the effect that Peckinpah intended for. Carrying his share of regret, which we can see in this interview.
During the early 1970’s Westerns began to lose their place in the cinema, fading into pastiche and obsolescence for a time. Clint Eastwood was the only director keeping them alive. Culminating in Unforgiven (1992) when retired gunfighter William Munny after years of being a family man picks up his gun one last time. Throughout the film we see old man unable to shoot properly, mount a horse, all signs of aging, yet it’s the death of his friend Ned (Morgan Freeman) that triggers something inside him.
“[Munny has ] thrown a switch or something and now a kind of machinery was back in action, a “machinery of violence,” I guess you could say. No it wasn’t glamorous. He’s back in the mode of mayhem. And he doesn’t care. He’s his old self again, at least for the moment. He doesn’t miss a beat whole he loads his rifle and talks to the journalist…Now when he goes on this suicidal mission, he’s all machine. He not only murders Daggett at point blank range but shoots some bystanders with no more compunction than someone swatting a fly. Munny has been protesting all the time that he’s changed, but maybe he’s been protesting too much.”
Clint Eastwood Interview 1992
Ride, Boldly Ride : the evolution of the American Western – Mary Lea Bandy and Kevin Stoehr p.264
Eastwood reminds us of Peckinpah’s intentions in Wild Bunch to show the destructive power of technology in the hands of mind. Both directors are aware the audiences lust to see it that all on-screen. This is not the case in the traditional form.
For violence in modern cinema a prime we should look at Quentin Tarantino, whose last two films have been set in the Wild West. His 7th Django Unchained (2012) a quasi Spaghetti Western-blaxploitation. Violence is a constant that is always there in the background before we reach the final explosive act.
“The film ends with Django taking his revenge, redecorating the walls of Candie’s mansion with blood that “has it’s own ballet movements,” as David Thompson wrote in the New Republic. “It’s Jackson Pollock on speed; and it spouts from bodies the way oil arrives in Giant or jism comes in a porno movie, it can’t wait to get out of the bodies.”
Tarantino: A Retrospective p224 – David Thomson – New Republic Review
Whereas his last film The Hateful Eight (2015) essentially an Agatha Christie in the West, with some gruesome acts along the way to the fallout feels tamer in comparison. Is this in response to the constant criticism of his use of violence?
“But it’s a hassle, it’s a pain in the ass. Maybe I can take a break on it for this next one.”
Tarantino Interview – regarding the suggestion of doubling down on the violence in The Hateful Eight (2015)
Once Upon a Time in a Western p.270
So where does that leave violence in the genre today?
Firstly the output of Westerns has dropped dramatically in the last 20 years. The genre has become far more reflexive, open to critiquing itself in films. It’s also open to genre blending more violent depictions. Women are finding a more equal space in the genre. However violence is no longer a means to restore law and order as the classical form would promise deliver. Now it’s become at times excessive and run of the mill, an action film simply set in the West
As Eastwood touched on in Unforgiven, that traditional use of violence as a release of a build up of tension is still there. It just needs to be released more often due to scenes that build up throughout a film, which audiences have been trained to respond to. Another factor is that we are being numbed by the on-screen effects of the violent images found on television.
Another film I’ve been putting off watching, I overlooked it at the time of release as I really wasn’t interested in You Were Neve Really Here (2017). Since then I’ve been slowly won over and wanted to track down the film, learning it was another Taxi Driver (1976), which in essence is The Searchers (1956). So once again I will be delving into how this film responds to the classic Western. It’s a chance to explore how the film has again influenced modern cinema. Of course on the surface it has far more in common with Martin Scorsese’s film than John Ford‘s original. The classic tale of the tortured male loner taking on the task of rescuing a young woman from the clutches of a sex-slavery i Cincinnati. I wonder is Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) still drives the murky streets still, had he come into contact with Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) or would that have been too explosive for a single film to handle.
It’s doesn’t stray far from John Wayne‘s Ethan Edward’s epic mission across untamed Native American country in search of his nieces. Filled with an uncontrollable racial hatred for the Comanches and possibly other nations who have done him wrong before we first meet him. We don’t learn of his past, or even Bickle’s we’re just allowed to spend a short time with them. Lynne Ramsay‘s allowed us understand Joe’s past in a series of fractured flashbacks that hint an unstable domestic upbringing and time in the army. It’s been explored before with Travis Henderson (Harry Dean Stanton) who was far more reflexive about his past, Wim Wenders gave us the time to explore just how he’s in his position now, a father who couldn’t face the break up of a passionate relationship, which ultimately was his own fault in Paris Texas (1984). Travis is singularly unique, a disturbed man shaped by his surroundings, unable to connect with the outside world that deeply troubles him. An explorer of an urban jungle that holds him hostage.
Joe is very much a product of his child hood and military service that have shaped the beaten shell of a man who works as a hired gun. He doesn’t shy away from how he makes his living, it defines him, just about the only job he can get, allowing him to function and support his mum. We first meet him at the end of a job, clearing up the evidence that could lead back to him. You can he’s done this many times before, it’s just part of the job. His face is obscured during this time, for now he’s just an unknown dangerous man cleaning up yet another mess with precision that he has honed overtime. This is not the have-a-go hero of Taxi Driver or the ex-Confederate soldier, we have a trained killer on yet another job, not a man to be messed about.
We learn he has something of a soft-side when he returns home to his mother (Judith Roberts) who he shares a love-hate relationship with, the only woman or even person who really loves him. The closest to violence he get’s with her is a joke about Psycho (1960), could that even be an influence on him. The stay at home son with his mother who stays about of obligation more than love.
The rescue mission comes pretty early on in this fairly compact film, his next job at the request of Senato Albert Votto (Alex Manette) who employs him to rescue his young daughter Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), whom he believes has been kidnapped and placed into a sex-slavery. Unlike Ethan Edwards and Travis Bickle he has no prior relationship with the girl whose to be rescued, he only sees her as part of another job. Before he begin we see him stock up on fresh tools for the job, including a hammer that we know already is his weapon of choice that can inflict brutal damage to his victims, no one stands a chance against him.
As with Taxi Driver he waits until night before he even rolls up outside the address, he’s dangerously cool and calm about all this, dragging over a guy who works, torturing him for information, the bare-essentials to get in, the dangers that lie ahead for him. It’s a cleaner rescue than I expected, restrained by the view of CCTV cameras that only suggest what has happened to the bodyguards who fall to their deaths. It’s over before we know it, our main concern is finding the girl, which again happens rather fast. The young girl – Nina is clearly in state of desensitisation, to escape the daily abuse she receives from the monsters who pay for her. Gone is the confident nonchalance of Jodie Foster’s Iris who has find an exterior shell to survive the murky world of prostitution she’s trapped in. Mirroring the assimilation that Debbie Edwards (Natalie Wood) whilst living with the Comanche. Never Really Here is more aware of the psychological damage that a kidnapping and slavery can do to the mind. The realisation of being rescued doesn’t quite hit Nina for sometime.
Everything then starts to go wrong for Joe as he soon loses the girl and ends up a world that all he knew and understood is being taken away from him. The closet he got to purity is taken away by corrupt cops who take Nina away, leading him into a trap that closes ever tighter into his inner circle and even his mother. The hard exterior of the hired gun begins to show signs of cracking. Before we see an even darker side when interrogates one of his mothers killers (Scott Price) sadistically numbing his pain to get information from him before he finally dies. It’s a form of unique justice that allows him to move on in search of Nina and understand what he’s become embroiled in.
It’s far more complicated than the standard search and rescue narrative that Ford laid out over 50 years ago, becoming something more complicated with each retelling of the basic plot. Stripping away the racial hatred to leave a hardened killer who has many dents in his armour, both physical and mental. We’re left a darker of corruption with a glimmer of hope for Joe and Nina, each products of their fractured lives, leaving to start a life together where they might be able to start over. All they have known has been destroyed either by their own hands or in their wake. It’s a bleak disturbing world where even beauty has a dark side. Never Really Here is by far one of the bleakest interpretations of The Searchers, having evolved into a the Western that it could have been. I wonder if a director has the courage to deliver something so disturbing to the screen?
Fort Apache (1948)
After enjoying the process of reviewing 3 films previously I’m carrying on with another Western trilogy, this time John Ford’s Cavalry Trilogy, a chance to return to three classic films that I haven’t viewed properly in a long time. During which I have read up on how they function together and what they discuss singularly and together as a whole. Beginning chronologically with Fort Apache (1948) which I remember mostly for sewing the seeds for Ford’s later film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) which I’ll come to later as I explore the first third of the trilogy.
In my opinion the trilogy is strongest at its start and end, with a weak middle with She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), my view may change after another watch. For now having seen Fort Apache (1948) I can clearly see that Ford know’s his American history, focusing this film at least during the Indian Wars just as during the time of production the Korean War only a few years from breaking out in the early 1950’s. Taking Custer’s famous Seventh Cavalry, renamed Fort Apache under the command of Lt. Col. Owen Thursday (Henry Fonda) whose at the opening of the film is making his way to begin his tenure there. In a stagecoach with his daughter Philadelphia (Shirley Temple). He’s not shy in expressing his frustration in his new posting in the wilderness, practically sent into oblivion to put him out-of-the-way for reasons we will soon begin to understand. A man whose world’s built on social order and the structure that comes with it, he’s a man easily ruffled. Whilst his daughters ready for adventure with her farther out in the frontier. We don’t even reach the Fort before we meet freshly graduated 2nd Lt. Michael Shannon O’Rourke (John Agar) awaiting an escort to the Fort. The first of many social insults for Thursday to endure, his presence is unknown to the sergeants who’ve arrived due to the broken cable. Also unaware of Philadelphia’s growing attraction to the Lt.
Fort Apache is again filled with actors from Ford’s stock company creating for the audience a welcome set of faces on the screen. From Ward Bond to Victor McLaglen, who are not just used for comic relief, they become integral to understanding the structure of the world that Thursday is exploring and trying to take control of. As much as John Wayne is given top billing with Fonda owns this film, the ideas are all liked back to him, his actions affect the plot and all those around him. Whilst Wayne’s Captain Kirby York takes the brunt of it he does help to ground the film and sell it to the general public, not that takes much effort, his own star power rising over the past decade since Ford rescued him from the world of B-movies.
Turning to life of the Fort we have two worlds, one of domesticity and one of the soldier, the two can co-exist but following a set of precise set of rules that Thursday is constantly fighting. Coming from another class he’s a gentlemen of West Point training and high society etiquette, each with their own set of rules that are meant to exist in perfect sync. Whilst the reality of domestic life on the frontier which adapts to the Army fort it can work. Lead by Mrs. Mary O’Rourke (Irene Rich) who sees knows she and other women have little place outside, take over the home, once crossing that boundary a soldier must follow another set of rules and regulations. First meeting them all at a dance with the other men, Thursday’s taken aback by the perceived lack of discipline, so swept up in his own arrival he forgets it’s George Washington Day 18th February, reminded by one of the only men who has the confidence to talk back to him – York.
Another strong example of this clash of worlds is when Thursday wants to escort his daughter back home, on learning that she has left to visit Lt. O’Rourke, the man the family and the audience know to be who she will marry. Thursday doesn’t see the young O’Rourke to be suitable to marry due to his social position, despite his West Point training, even through presidential approval, it’s not enough that the highest power in the land can afford a man to go up a class in society. It can’t be earned, it’s a birthright in the eyes of Thursday. There’s no problem for the rest of the family, who also see that his uniform is practically meaningless under the private residence of the O’Rourke’s, nearly causing an argument.
I now want to look at that seed that was sewn for Liberty Valance, the line “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend”. After what we hoped would be a peaceful resolution between the United States government and the Apache. York’s meeting with Cochise’s thought to be enough for them to return to the reservation and get changes underway. The racism in Thursday prevents the talk of peace going any further than the crossing of the border, when he can lead a charge to kill the renegade Apache, solving yet another issue of the never-ending Indian problem. By this point I had forgotten that we see them all ride off into battle and all but fall under a 4 to 1 massacre. Not just an underestimation of the enemy, a complete disregard of cultural differences and promises previously made to ensure their return.
It’s not a pleasant sight to see, all those men we have come to know and love, ride off into the vast emptiness of Monument Valley to face a death that could’ve been avoided. The recording of that battle is not what we would have hoped but does ensure that the legacy of an officer’s maintained and also that of the Fort and ultimately the Army. York makes the bold decision in his report, not seen on camera to be complicit in the lie that must be maintained for a better history and that of the West to be told. Helping build the morale of the country, something which has been done which each conflict that the United States has entered, rewriting the events to convey a myth that can be shared for generations. Essential to the American story, when the facts don’t fit the legend why bother. With all the images, paintings and social impact of Thursday supposed sacrifice on the battlefield, he has become a hero just by fighting with his boots on, it doesn’t matter what lead him there. York knows that he can’t fight that, it’s bigger than him, bigger any man in the uniform.
Ford knows the power of the story telling and the American story that he’s help to shape into the cinematic form that has become its own legend and part of the greater myth of the West. I’m still not looking forward to Yellow Ribbon, even with the drunken scenes, I just can’t see how it will even come close to the complexity of the Apache that dives head first into the fabric of the genre.
She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949)
My fears for what I thought would be a string of comic events was all but washed away coming away from She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) the middle piece of the Cavalry trilogy. I could see why I saw this as potentially being the weaker of the three. Yellow Ribbon acts as a celebration of the Cavalry. Opening with narration over the vastness of Monument Valley in beautiful Technicolor. Ford is very much home in the desert landscape that stretches for what seems like a limitless distance. His playground to get out his actors and re-enact his countries past.
Taking his cue once more from Custer, who this times named to have fallen after The Battle of Little Bighorn (1976), a major blow for both the U.S. Army and the country during its long campaign to see the Native Americans rounded up onto reservations. The treatment of the nations is the complete opposite of Fort Apache. No longer are they respected or feared for the damage they can do. Now they are a nuisance that must be resolved. We’re told that a number of plains tribes have put aside old rivalries to come together to fight the army that’s trying to pen them into land they aren’t interested in. The failure of Little BigHorn really hurts, any future defeats aren’t allowed.
Yellow Ribbon is not so much concerned with legacy as it is with the history that it hopes to make. Instead there’s a focus on the people who populate the unnamed fort where we Captain Nathan Brittles (Wayne) is 5 days away from retirement. He’s not so much concerned with what he is leaving behind but the future he’s going off to. With the focus of the film being his last patrol of the area before his retirement. Before he heads out we get to learn about his relationship with the men. First what is a long-standing friendship with Top Sgt. Quincannon (McLaghlen), you get the feeling they go back a long way. However it’s his time with both Lt. Flint Cohill (Agar again) and Second Lt. Ross Pennell (Harry Carey Jr.) new to the Ford Stock Company) who themselves are fighting for the affections of the only eligible woman on the fort – Olivia Dandridge (Joanne Dru). The chemistry between the three makes for some great scenes, not so much sexual tension. It’s a charming fight between two young men for a woman whose far maturer than both. It’s also the origin of the film’s title, a fictional tradition that neatly ties into the richness of the film. A symbol of a woman showing her affection for a soldier. Matching the yellow handkerchief that was once part of the standard uniform until 1872 (four years before the film’s set). Ford takes creative licence along with the strong influence of Frederic Remington’s depiction of the accessory, that evokes a certain romanticism of the army that has carried through the classic cycle of the Western.
“Never apologise, It’s a sign of weakness” another layer of masculine code that is laid down by The Duke, part of his image that defined his on-screen persona. Something that many men have tried to live up to during his life-time. Today however the idea of never apologising is both laughable and disturbing, that in itself is a strength in modern man. As a male myself I believe that the ability to own up to your faults or errors shows a sign of great strength. To understand you’re in the wrong and admitted is today respect, that way you can build on itself and grow as an individual. A sure sign that the image of man as defined by the duke is slowly being chipped away, becoming something of a dinosaur. Just saying that is depressing, however a raised awareness mental health in men shows that you have to understand and be in touch with your feelings instead of hiding behind a persona of a masculine mystique that can trap a man down the route of potential depression and even suicide. Looking at Wayne’s image of a man I can only take so much of it use for myself, mostly a sense of confidence and the ability to not take yourself so seriously, which he did much later in his life.
Whilst life on the fort is very pleasant, there’s a time for regulations and a time to relax and understand there’s more to life than the uniform. It’s out in the open that we see the cavalry showing what they’re made of. Out on patrol, with the addition of two women – the major’s wife Abby Allshard (Mildred Natwick) and Olivia Dandridge in female uniform and riding side-saddle. One complains of the rotating between riding and walking, whilst the older has had no stability in the last ten years. Both being escorted to a stagecoach to be taken East and away from very real dangers out in the open. The women reflect the negative side of a military life, one more from marital experience, whilst the younger is more frustrated.
Action finally gets underway each time we encounter either Apache, Southern Cheyenne etc, as much as they are pretty much faceless and nameless, they are ever present in the environment. From the cliched yells as they ride into battle to the broken English, building on the image that Ford had a hand in creating for the Native American on film. When not on-screen the patrol’s one of character and discipline, set against the backdrop of Monument Valley from butte to butte we traverse the desert for what feels like forever, I wouldn’t mind that in a Ford film any day. The riding reminds us that we are away from the security of the fort, open the elements and dangers of the open West.
Yellow Ribbon is very much a celebration of the cavalry, we didn’t have time for that in Fort Apache looked at the legacy of campaigns and the wider history that’s written. Yellow Ribbon looks more closely at the people who are in the uniform, mostly of Brittles wise old captain who has seen his share of warfare on the frontier. Wayne gives one of his best performances, something that Ford had a knack of doing on countless collaborations, maybe it was all the goading on set that forced him to give his best, or knowing that this man-made him who he was so owed him his best. Now I look forward to Rio Grande (1950) with a renewed excitement, knowing that the trilogy is a solid set of films that are all very different, showing varying sides of a history that was repeated and reflected during the production of the three films.
Rio Grande (1950)
I’ve been itching to catch Rio Grande (1950) completing the cavalry trilogy, which came out of a contractual obligation with Republic studio. Ford wanting to make his pet project The Quiet Man (1952) was allowed to be made on the provision that he make another Western first. The director not one to just make a slap-dash film gave this final cavalry outing the time it deserved. Falling back on the character of Kirby Yorke now a colonel and posted out to Fort Rio Grande on the Texas/Mexican border we find the man who was once ensuring that the legacy of another senior officer remain in-tact. Here he has concerns of his own past that are brought to light. Grande focuses on the York family in particular. Noted as the first of 5 films they would make together, a pairing that worked very well on-screen. The only woman who could truly hold her own in front of The Duke, and one that he found to be his favourite too.
Tonaly looking back at Yellow Ribbon there’s a real shift from celebration of the uniform to that of reflection of what life in the uniform can be like. The consequences of past action or military engagements, how they effect those around you on a personal level, pretty deep stuff for a Western of this period. There’s also a return to the beautiful black and white cinematography, connecting it back to the world of Fort Apache where we last found York, Allowing us to focus on the action and drama without the distraction of colour.
From the opening dialogue free scene we know we are in the world of the military, the anxious wives and mothers waiting for their men to return home from battle. Looking onto find them in the column of exhausted troops returning home. Ford again focuses on the community that is directly effected by the cavalry, or any armed force. Due to his time in the Navy’s photographic department, reflecting his experiences in the most American of genres. He turns what could be a wild West scene easily into any conflict and any time in America’s military history. Handled with great sensitivity. Not one line of dialogue can express the emotions going through the women and children waiting for fathers, husbands and brothers to return home safely. It’s here we learn that York has a son whose just been expelled from West Point, the same school where only a few years before 2nd Lt. Michael Shannon O’Rourke (John Agar) who had to fight class distinctions with Colonel Thursday. The younger Trooper “Jeff” Jefferson York (Claude Jarman Jr.) who then went back to enlist as a regular. Showing determination to ensure he sees a military future and carrying on his families legacy in uniform. The younger York doesn’t have that social stigma but could potentially carry another one – a West Point failure. The news of his failing in maths doesn’t come as a surprise to the father, which could be seen as a trait that he has passed onto his son.
Among the other enlisted men we have the youngest men of the Ford Stock Company, which are used successfully for lighter scenes and depicting the men in uniform with faces we can recognise and relate to. Daniel Boone (Harry Carey Jr.) and Travis Tyree (Ben Johnson) allow us to get under the surface of what it takes to get into the uniform, what makes a man in the cavalry. Essentially average Joe’s who want to make a life for themselves. Becoming essential to the plot as it reaches the 3rd act, showing that solider with our without stripes and medals is needed on the field of battle.
It’s the addition of Kathleen York (Maureen O’Hara) which has the potential to turns things upside down, carrying with her a deep-rooted resentment of her plantation being burnt to the ground during the Civil War. Her main reason for being on the fort, to collect her son from the cavalry, something she learns is easier said than done. Not just needing her signature, but that the willingness of her son to also sign, which form him would be a sign of giving up on himself, essentially a sign of weakness. Her resentment towards York, extends also to Sgt. Maj. Timothy Quincannon (Victor McLaglen) who carried out the order to burn hers, among other plantations in the Shenandoah Valley, part of a strategy to cripple the Confederacy at the heart, if the farms are scorched, no food can be grown to feed the army and the men fighting within them. Taking place over a 5 month period in 1864 under the orders of General Ulysses Grant. Seen in the context of Rio Grande as regrettable but necessary actions needed to speed up the wars process in the favor of the Union winning the war.
Looking at the depiction of the Native Americans who again are focus of the external conflict, the Apaches are again reduced to being vicious faceless, nameless pests for both American and Mexicans on both side of the border. When they are heard to be chanting by Quincannon they are seen as just a nuisance to be quelled with a threat. This is quickly undermined with an attack of three combined nations heading over to rescue to captured Apaches. There’s no effort to see their side of events, just something to be stopped at any cost. A cost that could lead to a court martial if the orders to bring their rein of terror to an end. Verbal orders which are carefully delivered as to avoid legal complications if they were to go horribly wrong.
These orders reflect the then contemporary policy towards Korea, if orders were made public of the countries intervention into the country were to go wrong. The social and political implications would be far greater than the result. Keeping the operation quiet until known to be a success and an American victory was far more important. Colonel York experiences the same dilemma. As much as he wants to carry out the orders, he knows the weight on the consequences o the mission failure on a personal level. I found this situation fascinating, how many failed political decisions that have been hidden from public scrutiny, probably very few with a decent press.
Concerning the York family dynamic we have a father whose hard on not just himself, understanding that historically he’s lost his family based on orders he was given that broke a family that was already split down the middle politically. Kathleen’s presence brings all of these emotions of guilt, honor and duty into question when it comes to his own family. The uniform comes before his own life and those of others, he has to follow the orders of his superiors without question, it’s the chain of command that has cost him his wife and son for 15 years. With the arrival of his son – coincidence I think not, see him begin to soften to life as a parent whilst maintaining his position. Whilst Kathleen softens over the film’s duration to realise that both the men in her life are in uniform and that comes before family. By the end of the film she sees herself more as a military wife who understands the importance of the uniform. Again ending with a scene that relies only on emotion, as the men return from another campaign, she looks on and waits for husband and son to return, finding the colonel on a travois injured, reaching out for his arm as they walk into the fort. Nothing mores needed to convey how far thy they have both come together.
Looking back at the trilogy they each explore different facets of the cavalry. Whilst celebrating they look at legacy of campaigns, the individuals involved and the impact they will have on history. The celebration of life on the fort at all levels and aspects of life from new recruits in training to those about to retire. Until the final installment Yellow Ribbon is the most romantic of the trilogy, Rio Grande pours it on thick musically with the Sons of the Pioneers and the carefully lit scenes with between Wayne and O’Hara. Ford doesn’t miss a trick, even if the last installment was purely by accident, creating a trilogy before the term franchise was even a thing in cinema, it was the actors who were the real attraction not so much the reliability of the content that guaranteed success at the box-office.
I’ve been meaning to watch Paris, Texas (1984) for quite sometime now. Only being aware that it was a modern classic and seen as a modern take on The Searchers (1956) where once again I will be coming from as I explore and try to understand what is a beautiful film no matter the reading you take from it. I know now that my next piece of work will be based on the John Ford/John Wayne classic and how it’s influence on film ever since. My exploration has now taken me to Wim Wenders classic, having only seen one other of his films and more recently his Polaroid exhibition at the Photographers Gallery last year.
So where to start with Paris, Texas, I thought it would be straight-forward modern retelling of the Western classic. That was before we met Travis (Harry Dean Stanton) who in the opening scenes collapses from a mix of heat exhaustion and dehydration. The desert has not been kind to this tall gangly man who remains mute for the first 30 minutes of the film. Relying on his gestures or lack of them to discern what he wants. When his brother Walt’s (Dean Stockwell) called to come and collect his once thought dead brother from a small hospital in the middle of the Texan desert. Texas is the first real link to The Searchers where we find the film is loosely set, the backdrop of seven years of wandering. The silence is at first worrying, has Travis become a mute, or has he been psychologically afflicted, uttering no words, relying on his strained relationship with his brother to communicate. You can only feel for them both as Walt tries to reconnect and understand his brother who just can’t keep still at first, twice he bolts before finally making the trip West to California.
Hopes of flying home are soon dashed when Travis needs to stay on the ground, he’s a complex man who we are beginning to understand as he slowly opens up to us and his brother who we learn has been bringing up his nephew as his own child for the past 4 years. Travis has been wandering for the past 4 years, but why. The journey home on the open road doesn’t pass without a few bumps along the way. The location of Paris in the state of Texas is brought up a few times as they both reminisce, a plot of land that he had hoped to have truly made his home. The wandering cowboy making a small part of the world his own, a homestead for the family he once had. Still holding onto the more fragile parts of his past for later his return to Walt’s home and being reunited with his son Hunter (Hunter Carson). All this could be read as Aaron Edwards (Walter Coy) bringing home his wayward brother Ethan (Wayne) from the wilderness after the civil war. At this point I’m beginning to see how the classic has been reworked.
Back home he begins to open up to his son, both are unsure of each other, one leaving without reason or notice, feeling abandoned, whilst the other deeply troubled by his own behaviour. A cowboy just riding off into the sunset, much like Shane yet without the young boy crying out for his return. His presence would ultimately be detrimental to those around him. The family home – which could be replaced with the Edwards homestead is equally uneasy and full of memories for Travis who begins to make up for lost time with his son who begins to allow this stranger back into his life. I feel that so many of the scenes in this film could easily be shared here, but that would be too extreme. However the father son relationship that is at the centre of the film is only suggested in the Searchers, could Lucy (Pippa Scott) or even Debbie (Lana Wood and Natalie Wood) yet unable to express that connection would have broken the Hays codes that restrained films so badly in the 1950’s. Wenders doesn’t have any of that to consider, his family have raised the boy as their own without question, and without with-holding the truth either.
The blossoming of the father-son relationship is at times both heart-warming and very moving as they begin to see each other as part of one another. An invite to walk home together is brutally snubbed as only a child can handle, whilst Travis can only look on with rejection. It’s a family home-movie that seen to be most revealing. We meet the mother Jane (Nastassja Kinski) who had a passionate relationship with a much older Travis. The images are too much for him at time to bare. For the audience it’s our first chance to see Jane, a part of his life that has only been spoken about, shaping our view of what this character means to them.
Travis finally decides to take things into his own hands, after being told more about Jane by Anne (Aurore Clément ) who had raised Hunter as her own. Jane for the past 4 years has been depositing money on a monthly basis in a bank in Houston. That’s all he needs to seek her. After spending just over half the film trying to find himself and pick up where he left off, does the real search begin. Leaving with his son in tow they head for Houston hoping that they can find one person in a city of thousands. A beautifully simple translation of plot elements for a modern audience and setting. Father and son grow closer as they get closer to finding Jane who Hunter believes he’s spotted. The search is now on, following a 7 year olds hunch they hit the road in hopes that he’s right, or face waiting another month.
Finally reaching the car and a quiet building Travis enters into a world he knows little about. This the Ethan of the film does enter the Comanche Camp and finds his Debbie very much alive and well. Working in a peep-show, another form of prostitution. Unlike Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) who was able to save the young girl from a downward spiral, our Travis here is prevented by a wall of glass and a telephone, that affords him the safety to get to know the woman he knows he’s hurt, scaring both her and himself into their own separate wildernesses. What follows are some of the longest scenes I’ve ever watched, pure conversation between two people, only a phone line connects them, the truth hopefully will break through.
Let’s go Home Debbie – Ethan’s final lines of dialogue, the hatred in him has now melted away, allowing him to see the girl, the niece that can be saved. He can now see the hope in her to bring her back to civilisation. Whilst he’s still left to wander, unable to be part of the family. Travis gives up his position to reunite his son with his mother in an equally moving ending to the latter film, Believing this is the right thing to do by his son, finally putting Jane first after what was an emotionally abusive relationship built on a destructive passion that couldn’t last. There maybe no racism but there’s plenty of anger that still has to be dealt with internally for the quiet man who drives off into the night. Ending a film that is deeply melancholic, reaching into the heart of America’s deserts to reunite a family that ultimately cannot be together. Sam Shepherd‘s simple script has taken a classic formula of the search and rescue Western and transforming it into a tragic romance between a couple that had no chance of being reignited. I just wish I’d seen this classic years ago, now I’m left wondering how many more rich films have been inspired by such a complex Western that I maybe still in the midst of my own search for some time to come.
Mad Max (1979)
It feels like a long time since I’ve got my teeth into the influence of The Searchers (1956) in film. How one little Western could really effect so many more after it’s release as just another John Wayne western, nothing to go crazy about at the time. And then the first batch of film directors to leave film school had discovered this under appreciated masterpiece, for some they really couldn’t let go, or John Ford and Wayne couldn’t let go of them. One of those was George Miller who has recently been able to go back to this anti-hero and explore him further to great success. I can’t to see where Mad Max goes next in the apocalyptic future that has breathed fresh life into an already cult classic of a film.
I’m about to undertake another extended film review, looking at the original trilogy of films, reading them as Westerns and where I can as being influenced by The Searchers, something of a preoccupation in my film watching. Beginning with the original 1979 that I was told by my dad that one of my uncles thought was crap on release. I wanted to see for myself why did he think that? I wanted to put that opinion to the test. My first watch a few years ago, left me wanting more, all the crashes, explosions and fast-paced action was all I wanted. It felt far longer than it actually is too. Looking back I found I was watching a different film, same images, but with a different set of goals in mind. Not just a refresh in the mind, but also to find the Western iconography that connects a seemingly throw-away road movie to the great American genre. A genre that can easily be transplanted to the vast Australian outback. I was surprised that the cast mostly speak in an American accents, reminding me of the dubbed English audio found in Spaghetti Westerns. Being an Australian production and cast, even made on location in the country. Maybe this was a decision to help sell the film to an international audience.
Set a few years in the future, a decidedly vague choice by Miller to keep the audience guessing, how long do we have to wait for this prediction to come true, hopefully that would never happen. We’re thrown into the start of a police chase, two interceptor cars are ready and waiting for a car to come into view. One car with a cautious officer who can’t even stand the odd swear word from his partner – a man clearly out of his comfort zone but wanting to keep the peace on the open roads of the Aussie landscape. It’s a car chase that will have massive effects for this squad of interceptors for the duration of the film. The couple in the car carried the leader – Night Rider (Vincent Gil) of a biker gang that is ultimately killed whose legacy brings forth bloodshed and violence.
We first meet the gang as they ride into town, much like a group of riders on horseback, their motions even on two-wheeled vehicles are arranged like the four-legged animals would once have dominated this open space. The bikers bring with them a brand of violence that can only be delivered on two wheels, the maneuverability and ease to all murder and rape to be carried out on the innocent. They are vicious men who show no mercy to thier victims, they’re sadistic and shocking even today.
We haven’t even met Max (Mel Gibson) whose face is kept out of view until he makes his entrance saving the day, showing that he’s not one interceptor to be messed with. Along with his partner Jim Goose (Steve Bisley) who loses his cool when he learns that their latest suspect – Johnny the Kid (Tim Burns) has to be released. All part of a rigged system that works in favor of the criminal, having no apparent evidence creates the illusion of a rigged legal system. Leading Goose to his eventual demise and a strong Searchers reference, after a few scenes that built up to the gang getting revenge him for his treatment of the Kid, a more reluctant and innocent member of the gang, dressed in more civilian clothes leads Goose to what could be seen as an Indian raid. Scar’s Comanches delivering their revenge for his mistreatment. Even leading up to the car explosion he’s reluctant to commit the act. Could the kid have been captured and adopted into the gang, being pushed to prove himself to the rest of the gang, most importantly to the new leader Toecutter (Hugh Keays-Byrne ) whose growing tired of him. The following scene goes further than Ethan Edwards entering the massacred homestead of his brother’s wife and family. We are never shown the extent of the human cost, left only to our imaginations. It’s believed to be too painful. Miller goes a step further, taking us into the hospital room, changing the shot to reveal a bed with a bed sheet over a raised framework. Max investigates, discovering the charred remains of his partner who he’ll never work with again.
From here on out we see a once law-abiding interceptor (I say that loosely as they were the law), Max becomes a man on a mission. The drive to see justice done, is forced upon him by the killing of his wife and child. He has nothing else left to live for except to use the security of his job and uniform to see that justice is delivered. Even resulting to methods not too far off what the gang would use themselves. He becomes the very thing he hates in order to ensure his wife and child’s death was not worthless. The impact of their deaths is too much for him to just sit down any more.
We are seeing the origins of a man whose destined to live a solitary life in the outback of a future that is still uncertain. I am left wondering how do we get from Mad Max to Road Warrior. Are there a number of biker gangs that take over, how does civilisation crumble to become a rare group of people who will do what is necessary to survive. All will be revealed in the middle film, which I feel is the strongest of the original trilogy. We will see how Max has transformed into a loner who wants nothing more than to be left alone like a gunfighter who knows Indians, or in this case bikers.
The Road Warrior (1981)
It’s been a few weeks since I watched the original Mad Max, which laid the foundations for what has become an Australian classic. George Miller returned to the well to produce a far more futuristic and dystopian future, using the first now as a firm foundation into what could easily be and has become a franchise (albeit 4 films) with its own unique language, which has been carried through more recently to the belated remake/reboot/sequel (I’m still not sure where it fits in but I bloody love it), a far more bombastic entry than the original entries.
Now back to the first sequel, now I remember mostly the exhilaration of watching The Road Warrior (1981) more than anything else. It was a case of re-watching to remind myself. Even the ending was a complete surprise. Opening with a short prologue that explains where we, it’s vague enough to be in the distant future, carefully and with pathos placing Max, making use of footage from the first film and archive footage from past conflicts to paint a bleak picture of how the modern world collapsing, irretrievable by the governments even then. I wonder how things would work out now with a trade war between America and the rest of the world. The fake news and underhand activities of a clandestine Russia who are unable to take responsibility for what’s clearly their own actions. Or will global warming beat all of us to the point where we self destruct?
With the prologue setting the tone we’re thrown into another road ambush between Max and a gang of bandits on bikes and cars, kited out with spikes, cross-bows and anything else they can use to inflict death on. We witnessed what was clearly the final days of what we would call civilisation as it began to crumble. Now it’s Max against the world, taking on the role of a future gunfighter replace the standard horse for a car with all the bells and whistles to survive and outwit his opponents on the open road. Riding alone if it wasn’t for with his dog, man’s only true friend. We catch a small box under the chassis with switch, the first loaded gun that we thankfully see fired later on. Ultimately he outwits these bandits, meeting Wez (Vernon Wells) whose part of a far larger gang. Clearly main adversary of the film, taking on the position last held by Toecutter, both are pretty much the same character, hell-bent for the same things in life. Wez is however far more dangerous with a short fuse, once lit has to be allowed to blow.
Clear of the first incident Max encounters a real character – The Gyro Captain (Bruce Spence) who really steals the show. Another man out there in the wilderness, trying to survive. Complete with a unique gyrocopter that allows him to escape the mayhem below. He could easily be the mad inventor sidekick if Max would only let him into his life. Max has now become a lone wolf, unable to really connect to others enough to trust them. It’s a dog eat dog world that relies on having your wits about you. One false move and your dead. For Gyro the stranger in his life is a breath of fresh air and sees in him the opportunity for some excitement instead of keeping his vehicle safe. Both men who have seen a lot since the modern world collapsed.
Gryo leads Max to where he can get his hands on more fuel, the main commodity in this dystopian world. Found in a much desired complex heavily fortified and wanted by The Humungus (Kjell Nilsson) and his gang (including Wez). It’s a constant state of war for those with the oil that they have found and will do anything to hold onto. The rag-tag band of men, women and a Feral Child (Emil Minty) are not afraid to fight, only on more civilised terms, they haven’t let the end of the world affect them too much. They are essentially good people just trying to survive. Those with all the riches in the area, whilst the uncivilised punk riders are the Native Americans of this world. Circling the compound on an almost daily basis, doing what they can to chip away at the defences of the last refuge for the oil tanker which means hope, stability and ultimately survival. The compound could easily be seen as a fort of the last of the civilisation, trying to hang onto what makes them human. Could they be the last hope for humanity in this corner of the world.
Now I remember the original deal that Max makes with the compound when he nears with one of their wounded, as much gas as he can carry in exchange for their dying man. The deal/contract doesn’t last long enough to be fulfilled before an ultimatium is made by The Humungus which determines the future of the community that have been fighting to survive for too long to give up. The tanker in exchange for their freedom, a fair deal for some, not for others and only 24 hours to make their minds up. The catalyst is ultimately the stranger among them – Max, with his unique set of skills and experience he is their Shane who can save the day. If only he chooses to stay with them is up to him. His world is far different than that of Shane who has to leave in order for civilisation to thrive. He’s very much a loner who still has a heart that has to be found before he can make a difference. One key scene in a make-shift garage between him and the communities leader Pappagallo (Michael Preston) whose able to get past all the leather coat hard-shell to find the man whose no different from anyone in the compound. It’s a classic scene that allows audience to understand Max more. Of course we have the original film to draw upon for his back-story.
In terms of Western comparison, it’s all there in the action, swap horses for cars, trucks and bikes, all pimped out with a rustic punk aesthetic, they aren’t just vehicles, they are weapons, homes before they are transport. All culminating a jaw-dropping finale that feels like it last forever. Breathtaking stunts that have produced a string of sequences that sees a huge swathe of characters meet a fantastically bloody end. Each one unique and grisly, there’s no need for repeats, it looks like George Miller was playing, when in-fact it would have been carefully laid out to look like a male fantasy of road carnage. This is what I remember the unadulterated violence, the tension of these scenes that show how precious this commodity really is to the survivors of this future.
Looking forward to the next and final installment we are left with a far shorter epilogue, learning that the narrator is in fact the Feral child, which is a precursor for Beyond Thunderdome (1984) and the commercial sellout I’m now dreading it to be. If only the trilogy wasn’t that, but a nicely compact two-parter that has an origin story and well-crafted sequel that feels very much like a Western in the classic form that feels far more modern, a conflicted man who doesn’t want to make connections with others, yet knows he has to help others in need. The law enforcer in him is not dead yet. Miller has crafted a visual language that draws on the then present, retrofitting it for the a future that is both alluring and incredible dangerous to enter.
Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1984)
I’ve been putting off the third installment for a few days now, making excuses not to sit down, until I thought, lets just do this and get it over and done with. What I felt was going to be the Millers Return of the Jedi, with plenty of money to spend now with lots of stipulations to gain the biggest return. With two major elements to sell-out, first you have a big name of the moment with rock star Tina Turner who herself had just made a successful return to the music world with her latest album, a second wind in her long career. Whilst the real Jedi factor is the kids, to reach the widest audience – appeal to the kids. True this is 15 rated film in the UK, that wouldn’t stop it getting lower ratings across the rest of the world.
Again my memory of this film has faded overtime, thinking it was far longer and much better than it actually is – I’ll get to that later. With a bigger budget at least it was still filmed on location in Australia than over the Nevada desert. The tone of the film’s set in the opening scene, a pilot and son in the cockpit of a small plane hijacking a camel drawn car. Discovering it was once again Bruce Spence in a similar role, hoping that this would be a true link to the previous film ultimately made no sense as the Gyro Captain who in the prologue took over leadership of the group that escaped in Road Warrior. Why would he leave them with only a child. Understandably his on-screen chemistry was too much to pass up for a cheeky cameo, or an attempt to make a connection to the last film that just got confused in the edit.
I couldn’t stop thinking of the recent reboot/sequel – Fury Road, how I badly compared this last entry as being the strongest influence on it. In terms of visual style it’s very strong, however it has more in common with the middle entry. I need to revisit and put that error right. Miller’s world has certainly been expanded with the bigger budget. First with Barter Town, where we find Max who was the owner of the camel drawn car wanting to get his vehicle back. Entering a dark world where remnants of the society we have known have been held onto and bent in order for survival of the fittest. They have regressed to a state of law and order that wouldn’t look out-of-place in the Wild West. Max through sheer persistence with The Collector (Frank Thring) who takes him to meet the leader of Barter Town, no not the saxophonist, this is 80’s sexy minimalist style. The big reveal of Aunty Entity (Turner) whose open to a deal, that’s after he proves his worth to her.
If you’d been wondering what the hell the title of the film meant, you don’t have to wait much longer, a throw-back to classical justice of Greece or Rome, a giant metal dome where all arguments are settled. A deals made for Max to get The Blaster (Paul Larsson) in the arena. Part of a larger scheme to disrupt the power play between the two classes that make up the town. The underworld which literally holds that power than keeps the town alive is in the hands of two people with the combined name of The Master Blaster. A little person – The Master (Angelo Rossitto) the brains, whilst The Blaster is the braugn. Together they are not to be messed with in the pig-s*** infested underworld. Connected by a metal framework over The Blaster’s shoulders. Essentially Max in a pawn in a bigger problem that he’s more than happy to get involved in for his own gain. Much like in Road Warrior, the stranger than enters with his own agenda is happy, however he’s bitten off more than he can chew.
Barter Town is an in-depth expansion into the apocalyptic future that Miller has been bringing to life. You could see it as just another collection of people just trying to survive the only way they know how. However the complexity of this town is explained away all too easily in the dialogue – namely Dr. Dealgood (Edwin Hodgeman), there purely to explain and dumb-down the rules for us of this town so explicitly we don’t really have a chance to understand on our own terms.
Our town in the Thunderdome is probably as violent as the film really gets before recycling the finale from Road Warrior. The confined space to fight in, the crowd that put themselves in danger just to see someone die is a sure sign of the regression of modern society to return to more primitive methods to settle a score. It’s the only gunfight of the film that ends, well it doesn’t really end, it leads to a form of torture. They didn’t really need Max, he was just a catalyst who discovered he still had a conscience.
You could easily break this film into two smaller films, two scripts that have been brought together in the development process. Once Max’s sent on his way to his death, much like Clint Eastwood in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) without the drawn out pain and suffering that helped make the film. Max is later found by a young woman who drags him back to a hidden paradise populated by just children with a language that first time around was interesting, now it’s just annoying, reminiscent of the more sophisticated language used in Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork who invented a form of slang of Nadsat that takes some understanding to really enjoy the novel and film. Miller’s kids are abandoned remnants of society who’ve been left behind during the escape from the worlds destruction. Believing Max to be their savior, a pilot who has come back to take them to Tomorrow Morrow another paradise that gives these young people hope of a better future. The children are on the whole annoying and just human copies of Ewok’s essentially, only now you wish you couldn’t understand them.
Sadly we like Max are stuck with these kids who some eventually accept as not being the pilot of their dreams, having a built a narrative around this now god-like figure. We’re pulled back into the desert as half of them have gone off in search of this Tomorrow Morrow. Max knows that first they’ll encounter Barter Town which if left unattended would be exploited and killed, maybe worse things. The children of a paradise are about to enter Deadwood or Tombstone essentially. Reluctantly Max becomes a parent to these feral children who begin to overrun the underworld, rescuing The Master who has lost his place in their society, treated little more than the pigs who now surround him.
A signature ending of a car chase then ensues, the only difference is that they are chasing a car on train track, changing the dynamic of the chase, a large cannibalised vehicle’s path restricted by rail, falling into the hands of Aunty Entity and her gang who are in pursuit. It looks like a sure thing, a recycling of events from the previous film, nothing is really fresh at this point, just a change in some of the elements, more children than ever. The level of violence’s reduced to almost nothing, even for a 15 rating with the odd explosion and arrow being shot, it’s just tame for a Mad Max film, let alone an action film that you’ve come to expect from this trilogy that has been made safe by the inclusion of more children. Why didn’t he feral child from Road Warrior pop up to bit someone, at least that would have been more violent.
The addition of kids and more kids has had a knock-on effect to the overall quality of the film that entered far too much into music video world. I can forgive the casting of Turner who I’m a fan of, she really owns the part and has a real presence, becoming part of this postapocalyptic world. Maybe if the children came to more harm, maybe we would have a more exciting film on our hands. Not a mess of what is two shorter films that resulted from two much studio interference asking for more of the this and less of that. The violence in this world made it dangerous, worth exploring, shocking an audience who wanted more of the same, but got something that catered for the wrong audience.
I can’t write the film off completely, there are some interesting things going on, some scenes really get your attention. In terms of the overall trilogy and the Western genre that I began this extended review looking at, Miller has used it as a framework to look at a possible future when the West was still not quite won. If an event of such explosive proportions were to strike, civilisation could easily regress to a simpler state of operating. The need for survival becomes more important that the structures that we create. Yet for the pockets of humanity that are left in this future who are trying to rebuild cling on to these simpler models to get on their feet. The goal then is to stay alive and hopefully rebuild a future that can resemble a past they once had. The trilogy starts out strongly with the opening entry working as an origin story before we really enter into a dark world where it’s survival of the fittest where anything goes. Then entering what could have been a better entry and the potential for more if they hadn’t listened to the studio too much. It’s still a strong unique trilogy that offers a bleak view of the future without coming directly out of Hollywood, whilst using the tropes of the Western as the bare bones of a different world view.
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.
Seen as an important early Western as the genre began to find its feet as Hollywood was starting to accept the genre to be taken seriously. All due to John Ford‘s Stagecoach that took not only a chance with a genre which had taken on the form of period epics of the Victorian era, such as Gunga Din (1939) and Charge of the Light Brigade (1936). All the basic elements that were refined in the silent era were recycled and reshaped as legends waiting to be retold. So with Stagecoach blowing the dust off the boots and spurs, the reins tightly held in place, the hat sitting a top the gunfighters head, the guns loaded once more, studios had to wake up and react to what was the rebirth of the Western. Warner Brothers delivered Dodge City (1939) in reaction to the tightly written multifaceted drama of misfits and outsiders, with bursts of exciting action.
I have been aware of this film for a few years, but never really took it seriously, it was only when I read about it in Gunfighter Nation – Richard Slotkin I had to get hold of the film and watch it. With stronger foundations of how the history of the West was written and perceived at the time – the Myth of conquest’s seen here in terms of progress, the United States on the up after the Depression.
The film opens up in spectacular and very idealised. A steam train pounding freshly laid tracks that are about to meet at the join between the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads, complete with the nailing of the golden spike being hammered in completing the line. Before we see the that much forgotten, much passed spike there is a really nice piece of golden age Western cinema, a race between a stagecoach and a steam train. Nature vs. technology, progress out racing what has gone before. Its breathtaking to watch and daring to capturing on film, fair enough there was some camera trickery with the help of a rear-projection, however you can see that it was carefully staged, pushing both horses and the train out on location. You could imagine such ill-fated races occurring all over the country, as riders wanted to prove their relevance in an ever-changing country. Ultimately the train wins the race as it makes its way to the unnamed towns of wheels that have followed the lines production. All of this celebration even before we have met Wade Hatton (Errol Flynn) in his first western role, a position that actors were all getting ready assume and have fun with in the coming decades, at this point it’s all still to come.
We meet him at his two sidekicks Algernon ‘Rusty’ Hart (Alan Hale) and Tex Baird (Guinn ‘Big Boy’ Williams) out near free-roaming buffalo, acknowledging the effect of their hunting on Native American’s, which leads him to lead a sheriff straight to Jeff Surrett (Bruce Cabot) and his henchmen who are too casual about it all. Of course there is little that can be done without a jail or a court, law is still a few years off reaching this part of the world, it’s an idea that can be easily escaped on horseback. Hatton is not yet ready to assume the role of law. He’s far happier wandering from job to job, bringing with him his own legend, originally from Ireland, fighting in Cuba, before the Civil War, he’s lived quite the life before hunting buffalo for the railroad. A life that most audiences would be envious of, to those around him its hard to believe they are standing in his presence, he’s a living legend whose about to write a few more pages.
It’s very easy to draw comparisons between Watton and film versions of Wyatt Earp, which I will draw upon later. Before he takes up the badge he has to live his own life before living in the cause of others. Whilst he’s off the town of newly named Dodge is thriving and growing, seen through a humorous and rambunctious montage that depicts numerous saloons, bars, dance halls, this is a boomtown that is really brought to life for a minute or so. We see some of the footage used again, probably a last-minute creative addition which doesn’t detract from the film, however without you wouldn’t see a town in a state of such rapid growth and social collapse. The violence depicted has now become cliché but was brand new at the time of release. With all the violence going in it takes the elders, the businessmen of the town to come together to reach out to Watton to leave his job behind and tame Dodge City.
Watton is already having to tame those who he’s working with, a wagon train and cattle drive combined – not much is made of the wagon train, with more emphasis on the effect that a drunkard is having on the cattle Lee Irving (William Lundigan) trigger happy is unaware of his actions, it takes a near death stampede and a shoot or be shot decision to stop him dead. Watton is the reluctant killer who in turn horrifies Lee’s sister Abbi (Olivia de Havilland) who sees only a killer not a peaceful man doing the right thing. Protecting everyone around him, making the hard decisions that others aren’t prepared to. This decision-making is soon applied to Dodge City after chaotic barroom brawl that leads to Rusty nearly being hanged by Sturrett. It’s an act that Watton can’t be ignored. He has to assume the role of law which was taken on and abused by Sturrett. Bringing me back to the Wyatt Earp connection, a reluctant lawman whose brought out of retirement to slowly bring Dodge in line with the rest of the country, wanting to be civilised as the East. Bringing back settlers who we learn had been leaving in their droves before. He single handidly transforms the town into a safe, profitable and safe place to live, gun control and a shed load of laws which we see going to the extreme at times.
I have to mention the role of Abbie Irving who began as a grieving woman to taking on a prominent role at the local paper. Yes its the women’s gossip column, but its a woman in the work place, communicating with the community. She’s not a woman to be walked all over, not even Watton until he has won her heart somethings never change. Looking at the other “prominent role” by Ann Sheridan as barroom singer Ruby Gilman whose connected to Sturrett, but her character is not really developed to be of any real consequence or danger to Watton who doesn’t even meet her. That’s the only real flaw in a Western that is brimming at the seams with ideas that are either explore or enjoyed. It’s having a lot of fun, you can see cast all are, and all in technicolor too, creating some classic imagery that has been repeated ever since.
Looking back at the film over a day later I can see a film with so much to talk about, I could be writing for days, I hope I have pinned down some of the main ideas of transformation, progress as well as the division still there after the civil war. The country maybe reunited politically and geographically the links are getting tighter by the passing of the years. Socially and lawfully there’s still away to go. Dodge City is one of the lesser known classics today, yet made during that incredible year of 1939 which transformed the medium and the genre, it can’t be forgotten.
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 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.
Another film that I’ve been putting off for a few years, not really sure it would be worth watching. It was one of the films that I was put off by the trailer. So over a decade later I’ve sat down and taken in my first Western of the new year, one with a twist…of sorts. I was initially reminded of Bite the Bullet (1975) a desert horse race led by Gene Hackman and the only woman Candice Bergen who are the only ones besides Ben Johnson that I remember on viewing a few years ago. It was another take on the genre that had all but died, needing a long rest like the horses who are sweating onscreen, something that is thankfully not repeated in Hildago (2004) which is another race film but over in the Middle East or Arabia as it was known at the end of the 19th century.
We begin at Wounded Knee (1890) which is shortened to just one grim scene, with time to reenact one photo from the massacre, did we really need to see that? However the more I think about it, it does bring that image to life for another audience who wouldn’t be aware of. For others who are aware of it, new life’s brought to the image – if that’s even possible. We first meet dispatcher Frank Hopkins (Viggo Mortensen) who arrives at the Sioux camp just before the orders are carried out, he has a massive sympathy for them and can even live alongside them as we learn when he joins Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.
The authenticity of the West is kept to the very familiar so we have an identifiable world to place the Hopkins in before he jumps onto a boat about 20 minutes in. At this stage it’s about building up the life he will leave for the unknown and the exotic of Arabia. You could say this is where the genre meets Lawrence of Arabia (1962) without Peter O’Toole and the grandeur of David Lean. Sadly there is something from this film for it to live up to the landscape that the film focuses on. One that is in stark contrast to 19th century America which is rising in recognition around the world one of the most powerful nations.
So what is Hildago lacking? First of all I think the lead is mis-cast, Viggo Mortensen who you can see has put some extra weight on for this one does have a screen presence. However he appears to be too easy-going for me here. Playing against type, usually something darker for him to chew on, there’s little for him to really get into. The dialogue lets him down too, he’s just a friendly cowboy on his holidays in Arabia happening to show them how its done in one a very traditional horse race that prides the breeding, training above the rider.
The look of the film is a that of the Western set against the Middle East landscape, you have plenty of sumptuous shots, even trying to replicate Monument Valley or even trying to reference both John Ford and David Lean whose visuals played a prominent role in their stronger films. Here the attempt it valiant but falls short for trying too hard for me and just not letting the landscape inform the photography. The number of silhouettes, and references to Richard Prince are so strong the film is lost to them at times.
Another point, going back to Viggo Mortensen briefly is the revelation he is part Native American, which is another white-washing of the culture for a white audience, which shows how far Hollywood had come even nearly 13 years ago. He doesn’t even look slightly Native American, no attempt to change any features, he here’s an idea, cast an actor with ancestry to a Native nation, just not Johnny Depp after seeing him in The Lone Ranger (2013). I must give Mortensen is dues, he is respectful of those he meets across the Atlantic, his common courtesy of the lost cowboy does him good to Sheikh Riyadh (Omar Sharif) an Jazira (Zuleikha Robinson) who begin to look past the mystery of the foreigner to see the good within in. Which makes the film too soft in places, there’s no danger posed by him, he’s a laughing-stock of all the other racers, with his mustang, among all the thoroughbreds he’s competing with. He truly is the other, before going all out Native at times.
I must touch briefly on the special effects, which I suppose now look dated, used sparingly through the film. It’s still obvious when they’re being used for dramatic effect, trying to make the Wild West look tame to that of Arabia, just send T.E. Lawrence out there to win them all over. It kind of all distracts from the natural beauty of the desert which is another character here, whose interfered with at times.
I think what saves this film from being offensive, which it isn’t, is the heart within it, not the strongest but there is a strong enough murmur that keeps you watching to see him finish. Which isn’t a forgone conclusion, we know Hildago has it in him to win, yet its the relationship between horse and man whose seen by both audience and the Arabs who accept him as a worthy competitor. Hopkins accepts his own mixed heritage which he accepts, the events of Wounded Knee have clearly effected him to push himself, picking himself up from his time with William Cody (J.K. Simmons) as a drunk. The race is a form of grieving for him, combined with the cowboy image is rather confusing. On the one hand you have the chivalrous American, yet on the other you have the respectful Native which is rare and here not all that entertaining.
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.
All I really remembered from The Hour of the Gun (1967) is mainly the blue skies and the train scenes which inspired a platform shelter I made a few years ago in the studio. After revisiting The Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957) I knew I would ultimately be taking a look at the later take on the Wyatt Earp biopic’s that was also directed by John Sturges which I’ve never known why. John Ford never thought to return to the town of Tombstone after My Darling Clementine (1946). Maybe it was a chance for Sturges to rewrite what he made a decade earlier. Feeling he could have served the legend more respectfully. I suppose he could have also wanted to carry on the legend beyond the gunfight at the infamous corral where the Clanton/Earp war came to a head.
I wonder what these two films would be like if played back to back? As one finishes at the gunfight, the later begins just before, no bravado, just silent build up, no dialogue, a few meetings of the eyes as both sides meet. Already the second half is more mature, we lose the big screen personalities of Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas for actors who can really be lost in the roles. James Garner (Earp) and Jason Robards (Doc Holiday) who are more suited, it’s not about the image of the actor, more about the legend which is being retold and extended. Going into more detail to the events after the gunfight that up to that point had been forgotten. That’s one thing film can do, draw on forgotten parts, all with a touch of Hollywood magic of course.
The first real attempt at full of realism of the events in both films comes in Tombstone (1993) and Wyatt Earp (1994) I still can’t decided which is the better film. Back to John Sturges gunfight we are now looking at the consequences of what was ultimately a questionable act by lawmen, who killed the Clanton’s with such force, the gunfight is over before you even realise it’s begun. We do still have Ike Clanton (Robert Ryan) who is out for revenge and power throughout the film. Even thought Ryan comes from the golden age of film, due to his age he’s better suited to the, never quite making it to the star status of his contemporaries but could easily act the socks off of them.
Looking at this as part of two the Wyatt Earp legend the characters are paired down to just a few brothers. We loose Holiday’s mistress friend Laura Denbow (Rhonda Fleming), written out completely, not even being mentioned. Its all about that important relationship and seeking revenge for the deaths and attacks on his family. Using the framework of the law to get revenge, loosely called justice, or his version of justice. Holiday becomes Earp’s conscience as Earp is more ready to release the lead from his six-shooter. And you can’t blame him. The law and order he has built up is being under-mind. His family at the receiving end of violence. What started out as a cattle war becomes a family war, there’s more at stake, more drama when blood is involved, both sides have been hurt here.
If I’m honest, this is not my favourite incarnation of the legend, however it does start to really explore what these two iconic men of the Wild West. They are not just cooped up in the towns the helped bring law and order to, We explore their lives beyond, as they travel the Arizona territory, trying to stay alive and settle the wrongs that have been made. The Hour of the Gun (1967) is a maturer take on a historical figure that he had not yet received. There are not great big set-pieces in this film that focuses more on character and fact which works in it’s favor. Maybe Sturges has matured also as a director, wanting to bring more truth the legend that has become that facts that everyone takes for granted.
This is one remake I have been avoiding for sometime, I’m not sure anyone who attempts to remake a John Ford western is going to succeed. There was news a few months ago that The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) is being remade and set in the 198o’s, that’s an interesting twist. There have been many films compared to The Searchers, (1956) however they are not remakes as we find with Stagecoach (1966) which was released 27 years after the original that changed the face of cinema. Thought to not only influence Citizen Kane (1941), it revitalised the genre and lastly launched the career of John Wayne who’d been stuck in a rut of b-movies for the best part of the 1930’s, he even made a few after its release – contractually.
You can’t apply the same effect to the genre or the medium of film to the remake which admittedly does expand on the film. Much like remakes of 3:10 to Yuma (2007) and True Grit (2010), I’m waiting to see how The Magnificent Seven compares now. I must confess it has been a few years since I’ve seen the original 1939 Stagecoach which was as much about making the genre more appealing to an adult audience. Bringing together social misfits or outsiders into a confined space, a vehicle on a dangerous route in the open untamed West. It was ultimately the perfect showcase for John Wayne, still baby-faced he personified a young independent America standing up for itself, playing Ringo Kid a role that was given to him by Ford – “Pappy” who had been waiting to give him the right part at the right time. He was redeemed from years of working the circuit of formulaic westerns that had no room for either story or character development. They were the training ground that saw him grow and form the character he would then play until 1976, a 50 year career.
I can’t feel the same effect in the remake with Alex Cord who fills the role in terms of stature at least, there are times where he’s definitely trying to break free of the Dukes even taller shadow. In terms of the walk and tone of his delivery. His entrance into the film is not the event that we found in 1939, the cockiness of the gun play, as he stands in the road is replaced by sitting at the side of the road for the stagecoach to reach him, not that he’s waiting for them, they are both opportunist in that respect.
What makes this interpretation stand apart is the longer running time, at nearly 2 hours allowing for more development with all of the characters, making for a richer film in that respect. I say allowing I feel its a missed chance with some characters, they do have more screen time, however its given more to Dallas (Ann-Margret) who has more of a back story. Rumoured to be the cause of few brawls in the town, not just a typical prostitute that Claire Trevor played and pushed out by the Law and Order League, its more about cleaning up the town to keep the general crime rate. She feels cursed by the legacy of death. Another characters whose drawn well is the doctor, this time played by Bing Crosby taking over Thomas Mitchell‘s role who you can’t forget, so full of life. Both actors of the same generation we meet an older doctor in Crosby, unshaven atypical drunk in appearance, however he plays a drunk doesn’t try to give up the drink. Mitchells knows he has a demon, he delivers a baby sober and celebrates that. Crosby’s is looking for the next drink all the time.
Of course you can’t have a straight copy, or it wouldn’t be a film in its own right. Making the conscious decision to not film in Monument Valley which is John Ford country, to shoot there would be a bold move. Instead sticking to more traditional landscape, which makes for a more traditional western. What we do have which is practically a like for like swap is the stagecoach driver Buck, originally Andy Devine took the reins, a loud and large figure who was regular for Ford, with Slim Pickens we have another loud character actor who made an impression on his films.
What makes this film stand apart is the larger screen time of the Apache’s lead by Geronimo are more than just rumour, we see them at the beginning of the film attacking the U.S. cavalry. There is no rolling prologue to set-up the film. Geronimo is not really mentioned and they are still the faceless, nameless enemy of the genre. I’m not critiquing that here though, more a comment in terms of the films comparison. The gunfight’s are well choreographed make for a more fearsome other who attacks the white for no reason more than they are Apache. Which oddly makes up for the lack of Monument Valley and Ford. I do however wish they hadn’t re-staged Ringo jumping through the horses. It wasn’t as grand a set-piece, used more as a means to get the stagecoach through.
The problem is that for me Stagecoach is an iconic film, to remake it’s going to be a sensitive thing to do. Getting it right, this is a star-filled piece, well semi star-filled anyway. It’s longer, darker in some respect but overall a looser film that is conscious of the shadow that is hanging over this modern piece of Wild West folklore that he it hopes to meet at some point. I am actually now considering seeking out the Johnny Cash version, made 20 years later, just to see how the story translates and transforms over time. It does still confine outcasts into the one small and dangerous vehicle, but the chemistry has not been replicated successfully.
I’ve been looking for this Western for a while now, catching it originally a few years ago and not completely understanding the subtleties of this actually quite dark film. Not on a Fordian scale, or even that of Budd Boetticher, we are returning to the murky realms of Robert Aldrich who could move from genre to genre with ease. Here in The Last Sunset (1961) he pits two leading men of Hollywood against each other. From the opening titles, if you look carefully, the same landscapes covered by two riders, taking the same path. We don’t tend to see that unless there is a chase midway into a film. It’s a chance for a double take, to question the audience attention to what is going on, to look beyond the surface of the image we are given.
We learn that Brendan ‘Bren’ O’Malley (Kirk Douglas) is on the run but in no real hurry. In fact he’s enjoying the chase, riding into the Brenkenridge Ranch, meeting Belle (Dorothy Malone) who lets him stay the night, O’Malley as like many of Douglas’s roles are neither good or bad, he’s elusive, charming with a dark streak that he carries it all off with a little too much confidence. With his time on-screen first we believe he’s the good guy as much as you can if you are familiar with Douglas’s past roles. Building up the role of Dana Stribling (Rock Hudson) who is after him. Instead of going into hiding he encourages John Brekenridge (Joseph Cotten) to take him on to lead his cattle North to Texas.
On the face if it we have a cattle drive with rivals who are waiting to kill each other, it’s anything but just that or we would have this film today, it would be a run of the mill Western that would have long been forgotten. If we under the surface we have a yearning in O’Malley for the past, an old flame in Belle who knows why he’s back. Making a deal with John for a 5th of the herd, and his wife. A very unusual deal to strike, luckily struck as John’s an alcoholic and a coward whose walked all over.
Add to that the 16-year-old daughter Melissa ‘Missy’ (Carol Lynley) who believes she’s a woman at her young age. Perceived as such in Mexico so acts that way. It’s not questioned by those around her. It’s not long for her to start falling O’Malley who at first has no interest. Cinematically this is a very dark area, even for the early 60’s leaning towards underage sex, is played innocently on-screen. O’Malley does little to encourage her. Its only when a seed that’s planted earlier in the film’s brought to light, a yellow dress that O’Malley last saw her mother at the same/similar age in that dress. Producing feelings in O’Malley to transfer his emotions from mother to daughter.
Yet the first half of the film there is a love-triangle form between O’Malley, Belle and Stribling, as John is blissfully unaware and drunk. Played by Cotten who I thought would be out-of-place, however its an interesting choice that pays off, the older man, a Confederate veteran who has a secret history of cowardice that has taken the form of alcoholism, he’s respected however by all in his company. Stribling doesn’t make a move on Belle, leaving him to fend of O’Malley who takes any chance he can get, again ignoring the admiring Missy. O’Malley taunts Belle, whistling a tune that’s repeated throughout, a motif that plays on our minds and that of Belle.
The Last Sunset’s filled with psychologically conflicted characters who are placed into this cattle drive which is not a jolly affair, darker than Tom Dunsons in Red River (1948) that sees two very different men pitted against each other. However 13 years later the Western has changed so much in that time. Good and evil becomes blurred here so they can live alongside each other for so long before the warrant that was originally raised can be fulfilled. Stribling having been made a deputy to ensure he can get justice for his sister. Even that isn’t black and white as we later find out.
The final twists which I had completely forgotten hit me as fresh as it would have originally. Maybe I should wait this long again to watch it (4 years I think?). Its a dramatic twist, the possibility that O’Malley might be Missy’s father. It would make sense. Of course there is no way to prove this, it’s down to belief alone that soon hits home for him. Leading up to a classic, fast paced edited showdown that leaves us on the edge of our seats. It’s a unique Western, much like others by Aldrich who also gave us to takes on the gunfight at the OK Corral and that’s just to begin with. He adds a psychological depth and uncertainty to his work they aren’t just a standard genre film.
This isn’t the first film that I would think to revisit of the Duke’s, However I’ve had a theory for some time, as my degree show piece really sums up in asking Did the Duke Take the Myth to the Grave? (2012), basically asking the question that with the death of John Wayne in 1979 the western was taken with him. I’ve noted before that it was definitely in decline during the 1970’s. I never thought about his own films as a contributing factor to that decline, which is far comment as he was still acting well into his 60’s. Upon finishing his biography by Scott Eyman who comments
“Perhaps it would be fair to say that McLaglen, Burt Kennedy and the other men who directed Wayne for Wayne’s own production company knew they were there to serve their star. Conversely, on a picture directed by Ford, Hawks, Hathaway or Wellman, Wayne was there to serve the director and by extension the picture” page 493.
All of Wayne’s later pictures were part or in full funded by Batjac and distributed by bigger companies. There is further mention of the directors on Waynes films by writer/director Larry Cohen –
Was Wayne working with lesser but just competent directors as the old guard were either dying off or retiring. You could say they weren’t that good-looking at the Box-office receipts of the day. However time is a different matter. Anything with Wayne in the film is usually shown on a regular basis from the 1940s up to his death there is not a day/week goes by when I don’t see one of his films in the listings. Maybe it’s his screen presence in this “inferior” films that keeps them in demand. It’s argued by Richard Goldstein in 1967 that
“Duke sees the Western as an eternal form, solid and unchanging. He is dead wrong. The Western is a living mythology, and like a vital folklore it evolves with the times. The American saga is a continuing story. The John Wayne hero is built to survive massacres, tidal waves and corruption. But it can never bear the erosion of style” page 504
Much like I have found the genre has to adapt for the times. The strength of the Dukes films withstanding all that is due to his screen presence, the role model his has created of his career. He’s the personification of America to rest of the world. Also its pure nostalgia for a film with an actor who rarely lets you down onscreen no matter his age. And that’s what I found again with The Train Robbers (1973) which I had not seen in a few years. I try to space out how often I re-watch a film among all those that are new to myself.
For me, I was originally caught up in the gold hungry riders that followed Lane (Wayne and his men along with Mrs. Lowe (Ann-Margret) are tracking down gold that’s buried in an abandoned steam train. I found that the riders who had no dialogue, just seen riding in pursuit against mysterious music, catching up with Lane and co who don’t stop and fight. And that is what I noticed most about the film this time. Wayne avoids action that a lot and is picked up on by others with him. Is this a sign of age?
The cast isn’t exactly a young one either, as I mentioned with the The Hellfighters (1968), the majority of the cast was over 50 with only a few younger, in this case Ann Margaret who is the only woman in the film. The Train Robbers was clearly written or tailored Wayne’s specifications. Which is fair enough if your own production company are making the film. However, you could have had a younger cast with Margaret still in there. However saying that you would loose the rich back stories that come with age.
You can tell I’m biased even in my critical thinking, to have this film with anyone but the Duke it might never have been made. It catered to a certain audience who had grown up with his films so they got the standard Wayne western. However it doesn’t really do much for the genre that was going through a state of change, questioning its own history and formal qualities, without forgetting the politics. A genre that had grown to a certain extent out of Wayne who still wanted to work in film and the genre.
You could say that his later films, with possible exception to The Shootist (1976) which is a beautiful swan song to him with a troubled production are not his best. It becomes about being more of the same, a chance to let him work once more without pushing him too much. I mean he was working with one lung and his health was slowly in decline. I take exception to The Cowboys (1972) which has a real charm to it that the others lack. The Train Robbers (1973) isn’t a bad film, it’s just not a great western which you come to associate with Wayne. There’s simple and engaging script, the characters are all likeable. The set-pieces are fun and allow you to enjoy the landscape, it’s just not got the presence of a film that he had made over a decade previously. True Grit (1969) is a tour-de-force for him, a culmination of past roles, happy in his assumed role of an older man in the West. It is however not as strongly connected to the genre as The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) with John Ford questioned the genre, how it’s created, what we believe and the fabric of the country that was dear to his heart.
I had completely forgotten that William Wyler directed this sweet classic of a Western that I allowed into my heart a few years ago. Based on the imagery and the tenderness of this western that I needed to be reminded off. What I took away from The Westerner (1940) originally was Lily Lantree and a historically accurate saloon of Judge Roy Bean and his own makeshift courtroom where he assumes the role of the law, sheriff and judge of Vinergaroon, Texas. A keen supporter of the cattlemen in a state that was founded on upon. With the influx of homesteaders who legally claimed land and as history tells us erected fences soon went up to protect the crops they sewed. So the with cattle wars raging in other states we have a conflict between cattlemen and homesteaders, both reaping the vast open land that is slowly being ringed off.
All this is fact (more or less), in with Gary Cooper and Doris Davenport we begin to rewrite that into myth and even folklore, An actor of Cooper’s stature, with so many classics already behind him. The stoic cowboy who stands tall, unfazed by what he’s faced with, nothing scares this man, he is a hero of the silver screen. Placed on the frontier again he can do no wrong, well he can when he’s caught between two sides of a conflict that has been going on since the end of the Civil War, peace and hope develop and war starts over as we fight for what we believe in. From the moment we first see Cooper as Cole Harden he’s accused of being a horse thief. Not fazed by the charge, knowing he’s innocent, the audience don’t even doubt it. Entering a part of the country that’s ruled by the fear of cattlemen, shot-gun trials that always end in a hanging. Surely there’s no escape from his almost certain fate until the only female Jane Ellen Mathews (Davenport) character in the film storms into his defence.
What I did forgot for sure was how effectively Harden manipulates Judge Roy Bean (Walter Brennan) who falls under the spell of his lies that he concocts under his nose. These are beautiful scenes of comedy that have the audience almost believing them until we look into his eyes, almost winking to us. We see the gullible side to Bean who adores an actress Lily Langtree (Lilian Bond), an early star to travel America. Elevating her to goddess like status without even meeting her. Harden uses this to his advantage at every opportunity to manipulate the powerful yet stupid judge who eats it all up. Harden is creating his own myth for Bean just as much as Wyler is adding his own pages to the myth of conquest, taking a fact and repackaging it for the screen, complete with conflict and even a love interest that thankfully is played down to an extent.
The real love story is between Harden and Bean, admittedly one that is hopefully to each others advantage, both have something they want. One wants peace in the town, the other wants that lock of Langtree’s hair. That in itself is a lie that is ultimately taken to the grave and only known the audience. All part of the myth-making process, when we are presented with an object, a history or origin can easily being written into it orally or through out-right lie. If told with enough authenticity and confidence we can swallow it.
Turning to the other more conventional love story that is very much played down between Harden and Jane a very modest homesteader who will not give up easily in the face of Bean. Very much a frontiers woman that are usually found on their own is here with his father and others making a go at farming. You can see Harden working his charm on her, with more sincerity than with Bean who has met his match. You could say that at one point he is using her to help his relationship with Bean – the lock of hair which he has to produce to ensure his own safety.
I found that scene with the homesteaders share some of the warmth that we find in John Ford‘s films of the same period, thinking of My Darling Clementine (1946) and The Grapes of Wrath (1940), there’s a strong sense of community and religion in those scenes as they work and play together. However I don’t think that Ford would have even looked at Bean as a subject matter for a film. As they work together to fight the fire that eventually drives them out, we see some incredible fire scenes that show the real power of the cattle men who are behind that act. Its an image that is photographic in silhouette towards the end.
You could say its a fairy tale Western, you have the hero, the villain, the damsel in distress, the oppressed people who need the hero to stand up for them. Instead of resorting to gun straight away he attempts diplomacy, the method of the 20th century man in a 19th century world that knows only violence. Its the beginning of the end as the gunfighter are all being caught, the law is sweeping through the land. There is only a few gunfights in this short and ever so sweet film that that is more a fairy tale than a legend, its too soft to be seen as hardened chapter of the West. That’s not a negative but shows how versatile the genre truly is.
- The Westerner (mrmovietimes.com)
- The Westerner (1940) (buddiesinthesaddle.blogspot.co.uk)
- The Westerner (1940) (fredrikonfilm.blogspot.co.uk)
- The Westerner (1940) (chickflickswesterns.blogspot.co.uk)
- Short Takes: The Hard Way (1943) and The Westerner (1940) (twentyfourframes.wordpress.com)
- The Westerner (1940) A Film Review (haphazard-stuff.blogspot.co.uk)
- The Westerner (1940) (2009and-scene.blogspot.co.uk)
- The Westerner (MGM, 1940) (jeffarnoldblog.blogspot.co.uk)
- The Westerner: If only Judge Bean had a blog (cinemaocd.blogspot.co.uk)
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)
There’s been a of talk around this western, ever since I read the brief outline for The Revenant (2015) I immediately made the connection with the Richard Harris film which depicts the same events in Man in the Wilderness (1971) which for a while was all but ignored until the reviews started to come out. It’s hard to ignore really, as year drew to a close I understood that both The Revenant and the earlier film are based on the same real events but two different fictional accounts of that event. Sounded a little confusing at the time, yet they both put their own spin on facts of a frontier time in America, becoming part of the legend that is America’s history and folk-lore. More recently it has been released as award-bait which it clearly has in heaps as each ceremony is leaning towards. It could also be the year to end all the Leonardo DiCaprio memes as he should get the Best Actor Oscar, which is well deserved and a long time coming really, more on that later. Also up for best picture which I can see this easily getting, even though director Alejandro González Iñárritu picked up that one last year for Birdman (2014), could he be the new John Ford, or is that too premature in terms of Oscar success. Could this be the year that a Western wins big again, something that has not been achieved this Unforgiven (1992). There has been a slow return of the genre, not in the classic form, or even a lighter tone of the 1990’s, they are more reverential and reflective, more adult than even some of the 1950’s classic which are still hard to beat. I saying this even before the end of February. I feel though that as I have built up an interest and a practice around a dying genre it has been reborn once more, I feel lucky to have that , if only it was back in the golden-age.
Anyway enough of all the chatter and down to what I think make this film, why it stands a very good chance at the Oscars. Whilst also comparing it to Man in the Wilderness which I must say now is hard to call which is better in the light of the intense experience that I felt coming out of the cinema, the imagery so raw and fresh. I couldn’t help making comparisons with Terrence Mallick when looking at how nature’s captured, the whispers of dialogue in flash-back, yet Iñárritu isn’t trying to imitate the director, it feels more like coincidence, adding another dimension to the film and to Hugh Glass’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) back story that the centre of this revenge western.
I also found myself drawing comparisons with Jeremiah Johnson (1972) and The New Word (2005) combined with Man in the Wilderness to give us this hybrid that can stand on its own two feet. Maybe its the time period that they all cover, pre-Civil War America that we have come to know and define the language of the genre. The country has yet to be won completely, we are supposed to be in is still untamed, filled with trees and at the moment snow which is another natural enemy against the group of fur trappers that want to return home with all they have caught. Immediately caught in a vicious fight with Natives who ambush them, its a bloody scene that finds even the audience wanting to hide from the arrows. From the first few seconds you are immersed into this dirty, cold and dangerous world. Helped in part by the sound design on the film, heightening your senses to think that you are not just watching these events but out there in the cold. We get a lot of opportunities to look up out to the sky from the trees, as if to say look at what we have lost since the country was won. But you can say the same for most modern countries, as they are reshaped in the image we want them to be, for our purpose. Still it doesn’t drive that idea home we are left to come to that conclusion ourselves in this still untamed wilderness of the mountain man and the settlers of the 1820’s
Without giving too much away in regards to the plot that hasn’t already slipped through the net, I found myself waiting for the bear attack, not that I was impatient that was a building of tension among the men, especially between Glass and John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) who resents him for advising their captain Andre Henry (Domhnall Gleeson) who is more open and understanding a strong leader among this band of rough men and boys who have gone out fur trapping in the wilderness, having to hide a good number of their finds before moving on, a much depleted force, only 10 left after a bloody ambush. There is a great focus on Glass and his son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) the child of mixed race who gets some abuse, only kept alive by his fathers forward thinking. Needing him to stay quiet to survive, better to be seen and not heard. Even though as we find later in the film, some nations are still living peacefully with the American’s. The push Westward has not yet begun as we know it in the genre.
Of course when that scene between the bear and Glass is happening, it’s in your face and it’s not pretty. Something rather brutal, being taken along with Glass as he is torn to pieces almost. A tiring scene, which is not something I say lightly, it lasts what seems like forever, as he is played with like a rag doll in the cover of the forest before the men come out to find him. I couldn’t help but start to draw comparisons between this and Man in the Wilderness which is an abridged version of the same events. Here its a far wider and emotional journey for all involved, the men are all rounded characters. As much as Tom Hardy is chewing his dialogue, he’s held to account by Bridger (Will Poulter) who is the conscience he really doesn’t need at his side. Hardy is a worthy foe for Glass who spends the rest of the film avenging his son, Something we don’t get in the earlier film. There’s more emotional intensity now, more reason to return alive, not just to find the men who left him for dead.
They are both strong in equal measure in terms of depiction of the Native American, who even have a few lines in their own language, we even meet the French who are abusing their power in the untamed country. I still remember the silent labour in Wilderness that will stay with me, I found it quite powerful how dignified they were portrayed. It may have been Hollywood’s way making up for all those other messy inaccurate depictions, indulging in the other if only briefly. In The Revenant they are interacted with, they are not the enemy to be feared, coming from Glass’s history he has no fear, even speaking Pawnee. They are both different films telling the same story, or version of the facts and there is nothing wrong with that.
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)
For Christmas 2014 I received a book that I’ve only just finished (I’m a slow reader) Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War by Mark Harris, the focus of the book on the journeys and events surrounding five directors who gave up their careers to document the war. Namely John Ford, John Huston, Frank Capra, George Stevens and William Wyler. Who all did their bit for their country, driving the message home that there was a war going on. Men were away from home fighting for freedom. I was making connections between the directors experience and later works, especially that of William Wyler who came away practically deafened in the name of filming the conflict for audiences back home and in uniform. His last completed documentary being Thunderbolt (1947) released after the war to the public. Only able to hear via a hearing aid and only just His adjustment back to civilian life was hard, needing to find subjects that reflected his experiences. His last civilian effort – Mrs Miniver (1942) may have been a winner at the awards yet for him it lacked the reality of real warfare. I personally left that film, uplifted, experience a classic war film on the home-front, even though made across in Hollywood. Maybe it was the actors who made it, maybe it was the on-screen comradely. The general public doesn’t go in looking for accuracy, they go for escapism and that’s what Mrs Miniver was and still is.
His first film back in civilian life The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) sees a grounding in his working, looking at those soldiers who have to return to the lives they left behind. As if they are stuck in a moment in time, whilst the rest of the world carries on. I want to seek out this film to understand it more. However what I want to talk about is a film that I haven’t seen in some time – The Big Country (1958) from a director who made very few westerns in his career. This one stands out in the genre, it has a universal quality to it. The sweeping iconic score from Jerome Moross who is much forgotten himself over the vast landscape where this bold Western plays out.
So where does the rawness come into The Big Country? that’s what I wanted to know, where are his experience of life on the screen. I have to look at this film from the point of view of the director not so much the characters which act more like vessels for himself. Each different aspects of his life. The open country that is so breathtaking for us to eat up is a reflection of the land of opportunity that Wyler came too in the early 1930’s when he escaped Nazi Germany before it could have killed him. Entering into the middle of cattle country, the big-business of the 19th century, of course a mirror of 2oth centuries being film. James McKay (Gregory Peck) is the outsider who has live a life in the refined East, and on-board sailing ships, a gentlemen entering a world that is alien to him, and where the meaning of being a man is very different, bringing with him some 20th century ideas as we find out. Coming out West to marry the woman Patricia Terrill (Carroll Baker) he met whilst she was out in his world. He is making a massive sacrifice to literally leave his world behind him for the rugged outdoors.
His manhood’s tested not long after his arrival in the form of the Hannassey brothers, the rival cattle family. They are a what McKay is not, rough with a gun at their side, not so bothered about their appearance, these are cowboys the man of the West who knows how to handle himself, nothing scares them, at least on the surface. The test is a failure of sorts, not fighting back in front of Patricia whose gun is lost and forced to bring her carriage to a halt to be harassed. She is starting to really see the man she is about to marry. Not a complete mirror image of Wyler’s first few years, having to adapt to a different way of working. The films he was given to direct. Yet come to be-known for his multiple takes, pushing even the hardest of actors which included Bette Davis.
Of course it’s only when we meet the older men of the cast, the heads of the Terrills – Maj. Henry (Charles Bickford) and Rufus Hannassey (Burl Ives) who is the complete opposite. Both powerful men in their own ways, men to be feared if crossed. For me if you take away Peck from the film you still have Ives who stole the show, chewing the scenery, owning the landscape as if he was born there. These two men could mirror the studio moguls who kept their stars in check, decided their future and could easily make enemies. Also most of them European and Jewish which is the major. The chosen enemy of the Nazi’s and resented by Americans for their success and power in their own country, making and living the American dream, dictating what audience would ultimately watch and listen to. Of course in a Western everyone is mostly American, even the rival families who are fighting for drinking rights. When you listen to Maj. Henry you can feel the hate that he feels for the Hannasssey’s who live in the mountains, not the fields of rich grass. Who should we as an audience side with? Personally I was drawn to the Hannessey’s more so Rufus who speaks more from the heart, the down-trodden man who wont stay down. I think what got me was the first time we meet him, as he interrupts a party shaming the Maj. into getting him to pick up a gun to kill him. The Maj. doesn’t take the bait, the better man, or out of gentlemanly modesty he refuses.
Of course what stands in both the families ways is the Big Muddy, land owned by school teacher Julie Maragon (Jean Simmons) who holds the real power between them. Wanting to be the meadiator, wanting peace. She is the ideal even though her land is not covered with cattle, the house is in a state of dis-repair. Best friend also of Patricia who is like one of the short-sighted, her fathers daughter in short that wont easily have her mind changed. It had been so long that I forgot the romantic outcome of the film. We’re not supposed like her much, compared to the more feminine Maragon who has more Eastern qualities which 20th century America can associate with. As much as Patricia is saying what a man should be, whilst Julie is more accepting of the man in the form he comes.
This has become more of an essay (of sorts) than a review, I want to quickly look at Steve Leech (Charlton Heston) the adoptive son of the Terrill’s who has become the man that is the ideal, the one that even Wyler may have wanted to be, but only ever be Mckay in reality which is all I could ever be out in that world. They do meet head on in a sequence that I mis-took for suspense as they both show their real strengths to each other, a long fistful goodbye, that last a good five minutes, far longer than most on-screen fights which at that length today would fall into parody. They develop a mutual respect for each other. That’s after the knowledge that we have that McKay has proved himself to be a man of the West in certain ways, adapting his knowledge from the East to the West, even if he can’t prove that to those who matter, he has to keep those success’s quite until its too late.
The finale is a long drawn out battle of two warring families finally meeting in Blanco Canyon, the rugged dangerous mountains where so many other Westerns have taken place, usually home to the Native Americans who can hide out and wait for the white man to enter into their world. Here its the home of the Hannassey’s who are the underdogs, even seen as white Native American of the film, but more acceptable because they are white. Its become warfare between two men who have to prove themselves. Not before a few tests of strength between Mckay and Buck Hannassey (Chuck Connors), where we see love losing out to honor at times. Its as dramatic as the film gets before we get down to business.
It’s a long film even for a Western but it does hold your attention for the length of 2hours and 39 minutes, nothing is wasted with time for action, romance, violence, war and hatred. That’s a to pack in to even the standard length film, it spills out on the vast canvas. When you read it in the light of the directors eyes you see something far different than just a Western, something that speaks from an lone outsider who had long been accepted by both his peers and the country he lived in. You could say he lived the American dream, thing very idea that The Big Country is all about.
I remember watching The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) during my lat year at art-school, I think I was too tired to really appreciate how good this western really is. Its been a while even at the time of release that the subject of Jesse James was adapted for the big-screen, having probably as many screen versions as Wyatt Earp. The genre itself was laying dormant, this was the beginning of a quieter, more considered era as it has now been rediscovered, rewritten for a new generation.
There is none of the bravado of the previous incarnations, the Robin Hood of the west, stealing from the rich to give to the poor. Instead we find a gunfighter, a wanted and paranoid man constantly on the run and looking over his soldier. Reality is coming to the genre, able to humanize this figure of American folk-lore. Adapting Ron Hansen‘s of the same name that de-mythologises the gunfighter, adding layers of psychology in-between all the pulp and facts that surround him and his men that rode with him.
Joining him at that the end of his life, the final year or so in 1881, the last train robbery is about to go ahead when we meet the quiet and meek Robert Ford (Casey Affleck) who does anything to not ingratiate himself with older brother Frank James (Sam Shepard) who sees him as soon an irritant, wanting to get rid of him. We have yet to meet the younger brother Jesse (Brad Pitt) who leads a number of ruthless men. It’s early days really, yet I think that Shepherd is wasted in this role, I’m not too sure of his role in his life or real age, I know they rode together. For such a big name to have such a small part seems unnecessary. We do however have the visual tone of the film set very early on, from the time-lapsing of the clouds illustrating the passing of time, as fast as it passes in the sky it wanders down on the Earth. Depicted at times like blurred memories through the camera, even a few cheeky nods to John Ford‘s frames within dark frames. A modern western that lingers in the past at times.
Narration that fills in the gaps as we move through time and into the minds of the characters, moving from James to Ford as we meander towards that moment on April 2nd 1882. We know its coming but are really in no rush to get there. Plenty is to come as the men all go they’re separate ways. The focus is rightly on Ford the killer as we learn about this wannabe Jesse James who like any fan of a hero has built up an image, wanting to learn all he can when he is in the presence of Jesse, a super-fan given that rare chance to ride and live with him.
Obviously this is too much for Jesse who has enough to worry about, constantly on the move, it’s not a fun life as he once hoped, his old friends are slowly being caught or turning themselves in. A state of paranoia is setting in. Pitt becomes unhinged in this role that he has allowed to consume him. He isn’t just playing Jesse James, he is Jesse James, one of his better roles where it’s not all about Pitt who has to share the screen with Affleck who otherwise carries the film, the responsibility of both history and eventual obscurity weighs on his shoulders. Playing the part of an outcast really in a situation over his head, struggling at times to cope.
The conclusion is longer than I thought, the repercussions of that assassination, if you can call it that. It was a indeed a cowardly shot, which has been engrained into popular culture. Shooting your enemy in the back is the cowardly way instead of facing them head-on. It’s a theme that never leaves him. We saw him shoot from begins before, he can kill if only head-on. A cultural ideal that has lasted. Usually after the assassination the film would usually draw to a close, dealing with the aftermath shows that the genre has grown up, shaking off the mystery that surround the figure. Jame’s body made available for viewing, his photograph sold to the public. The hysteria surrounding his life continued into his death and into the pages and in the next century – film where he has been reborn and died on-screen many times. So where does this entry in the Jesse James cannon fit? Based on a fictional account of his last year alive, there is at least a sense more of facts, none of the fluff from your dime novels that influenced earlier adaptations. Then again it’s not fair to trample all over the past, it allowed us to get to this point, each version a reflection of the time. With the passing of time, history can be blurred, a novel can rewrite them completely, allowing you to see things in a different light, even to return to the facts and find the difference between reality between fact and fiction.
- The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) (refractionsfilm.wordpress.com)
I’ve been looking out for this silent John Ford for a while now, one of those early epic Westerns that helped to define the language that I explore in my practice. It’s also a rare chance to see Ford’s work before he made a star out of John Wayne who he shall always be credited with. He’s nowhere to be seen in The Iron Horse (1924) which predates all the Westerns I have seen by a few years. I was lucky enough to catch the original directors cut that was not seen outside of the U.S. during its original run. I always try to go for the director’s cut of a film if it’s available as the directors intentions are then on the screen (that’s ignoring George Lucas).
Moving away from directorial choices and cuts of films to the meat of the film, the coming together of the East and the West of America, the progression of a nation. Laying down the foundations for the country to develop and prosper. I have seen the same basic story before with a much lighter tone attached, and running time slightly shorter too. That’s down to all the build-up and character development that Ford puts into the film so the running time is well deserved, not a meter of film is wasted really. As we know he never shot more than he needed, to ensure he got the picture that he wanted, not leaving anything to chance. He begins by adding a human story between a young boy and girl Miriam Marsh (Madge Bellamy) who at first I thought nothing of as the boy Davy Brandon leaves with his father to go Westward to begin to plan out a route for a transcontinental railroad. A bold journey that ends in heart for the boy when his father (James Gordon) who is killed by a two-fingered white Cheyenne who killed him to keep his secret from being revealed outside the nation he is now a part of. I can see even this early on in the depiction of the Native American, the lengths that are gone to in order to create the dark and dangerous image of the one-dimensional Native American, here a renegade white man, even more dangerous you might think, bringing together the ideas of two cultures.
Jumping forward a few years to during the Civil War we see Abraham Lincoln (Charles Edward Bull) sign a bill that allows work to begin on the transcontinental railroad, wanting to look beyond the present situation of the war, considering the peace in the future. The President’s depicted as almost god-like in his presence and screen-time. Even though limited to a few scenes his presence is felt through the rest of the film. Ford would later return to the 14th President with Henry Fonda in Young Mr. Lincoln (1939). There is otherwise no other mention of the war that is going on back East between the North and the South. Instead it’s about this milestone in American history, at the time of the making of the film less than a hundred years had passed since its initial completion as the Continental and Union Pacific railroad companies laid the track that would eventually meet.
All this plays as backdrop to the drama that unfolds within the Union Pacific as they move Westward. We see all aspects of construction, from planning the laying of track to how to get around the country whilst still keeping under budget. We see all the classic clichés we take for granted from the striking work force after receiving no pay for months, to warring Cheyenne who are a constant threat as their land is being divided up before their eyes, the Buffalo population begin to diminish at the hands of the likes of Buffalo Bill (George Waggner). As I have found before with Ford his films are nothing without the rich mix of people that fill them, from the Italian ex-soldiers to the Chinese workers. He knows what America is built upon, a mixed immigrant population that made the country he loves great which he celebrates here. It’s not just Cowboys who have a score to settle.
The main drama is between Davy and Miriam who after spending years apart are now reunited, the childhood sweethearts may have a second chance. Before having to deal with her finance Jesson (Cyril Chadwick) the villain of the film tries to get him out of the picture. It’s really not as straightforward as Hollywood romance is today or even in the golden age, there is a price to pay before they can be together. Amongst the history there’s room for a little melodrama with Ford who keeps it to a minimum as we have a lot to look at and take in.
Overall for of silent John Ford film I have not been let down, sadly there was no Harry Carey to be seen but we did have an okish replacement with George O’Brien as the older Davy Brandon who comes into the picture in the second act. We have the roots of the genre here, not all of them but a strong part of the foundation of what I love today. History beginning to be re-written on the screen. With all sorts of historical characters making an appearance, this is American folklore for the 20th century told in sweeping form.
- John Ford, The Iron Horse (1924) (buddiesinthesaddle.blogspot.co.uk)
- The Iron Horse (1924) (silent-volume.blogspot.co.uk)
- Finding Ford / The Iron Horse (1924) (wondersinthedark.wordpress.com)
- The Iron Horse (1924) (forgottenclassicsofyesteryear.blogspot.co.uk)
- Kept a rollin’… The Iron Horse (1924) (ithankyouarthur.blogspot.co.uk)
- John Ford/The Iron Horse (Fox, 1924) (jeffarnoldblog.blogspot.co.uk)
- Silent Sundays: The Iron Horse (1924) (unecinephile.blogspot.co.uk)
I first dismissed The Salvation (2014) as a foreign western, which is very unfair really. Then I saw the trailer, showing all the “best bits” to me, I was hooked, needing to see it as soon as possible. The nearest that you can get to a standard western today, if you ignore Django Unchained (2012), The Lone Ranger (2013) which are all variations on the classic genre. Here is the closet we are going to get to a dramatic tale in the West today, having more in common with a spaghetti western in terms of the violence minus the humour.
More in the Fordian vein of an immigrant rich country, focusing the in a Danish lead Jon (Mads Mikkelsen) who meets his estranged wife and child arrive after being apart for seven years. Its all happy families, being reunited once more, ok a little awkward but they are happy to be together once more. Taking a stagecoach that would have wished he hadn’t. Ending in the death and rape of his family at the hands of a gang leaders brother. All this takes the ex-soldier back to a life he gave up once he came to America. After tracking down and killing his families killers he wants to just get on with his life. It all happens so fast too.
Tonally we are seeing the best of the classic genre all rolled into one, the 1950’s and spaghetti westerns all mashed together to give us this steely determination we find with Clint Eastwood as finds the men on his list. When news of the killings reach Jon’s town Delarue’s (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) gang arrive leaving with an ultimatum for the town that I have never come across before, things get Biblical for a while is all I’ll say. Giving into his gangs demands too easily the town is indeed living in fear, paying them for their own security it’s understandable.
I’m reminded of a much older western Riding Shotgun (1954) which has its roots in the communist witch-hunt era. A town living in fear, ready to give up to easily to that emotion instead of listening to reason. More religious in morality however there is still plenty of immorality going around in the form of mayor, land officer and undertaker Keane (Jonathan Pryce). Things get brutal for Jon and his brother Peter (Mikael Persbrandt) who take on the gang themselves when the town give-up of them. Theres a bit of an anti immigrant feeling as they are happy to have their money but not their presence when things get bloody. Could this be mirroring political tensions today in Denmark or America? You could say The Salvation is more representative of young America in the 1800’s trouble around every corner. The weak being taken advantage of by the strong.
All this going on against the classic back-drop of Monument Valley out of the usual season which we recognise the landscape, it’s not the hot summer with the deep orange-red buttes that are as far as the eye can see. They sit within the yellow grass, we aren’t supposed to be overwhelmed by the landscape, more to acknowledge its presence as we see the nightmare unfold for a lone man as he fights for justice.
Whilst fighting for her own freedom is new widow Madelaine (Eva Green) a woman forever silenced after Native American’s brutally attacked her, cutting out her tongue, a supporting actress who has not a single line of dialogue, fighting her own battle amongst all gang men, mostly Delarue and Corsican (Eric Cantona) who want their way with her. Mostly taking it all only able to use gestures to allow the audience to convey her emotions which is quite as task to pull off. Whilst Cantona really does surprises me, the second in command who has taken on another form as a part-time actor. It’s a European cast in an all American genre and it works, its more rooted in fact to allow this drama to take-place.
The classic shoot-out rounds up this sweet and swift film that has packed in a lot of gunfire. It’s cleverly constructed to pit two against a whole gang without falling too much into cliche. Making the build up to this moment worthwhile, having seen one man going through a lot in a short space of time. Jon really does take a beating from all sides, those who were once his allies to his enemies who want their own justice. Ultimately no-one is right or wrong which is an interesting twist on the genre, reflecting how complex and hard life in that era must have been. There’s no hero here really making this film all the more darker which I have not before. It does however lack any lighter moments which would have allowed for character development, instead going head first into revenge and justice, seeking what is right, finding his own path.