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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.