For Christmas 2014 I received a book that I’ve only just finished (I’m a slow reader) Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War by Mark Harris, the focus of the book on the journeys and events surrounding five directors who gave up their careers to document the war. Namely John Ford, John Huston, Frank Capra, George Stevens and William Wyler. Who all did their bit for their country, driving the message home that there was a war going on. Men were away from home fighting for freedom. I was making connections between the directors experience and later works, especially that of William Wyler who came away practically deafened in the name of filming the conflict for audiences back home and in uniform. His last completed documentary being Thunderbolt (1947) released after the war to the public. Only able to hear via a hearing aid and only just His adjustment back to civilian life was hard, needing to find subjects that reflected his experiences. His last civilian effort – Mrs Miniver (1942) may have been a winner at the awards yet for him it lacked the reality of real warfare. I personally left that film, uplifted, experience a classic war film on the home-front, even though made across in Hollywood. Maybe it was the actors who made it, maybe it was the on-screen comradely. The general public doesn’t go in looking for accuracy, they go for escapism and that’s what Mrs Miniver was and still is.
His first film back in civilian life The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) sees a grounding in his working, looking at those soldiers who have to return to the lives they left behind. As if they are stuck in a moment in time, whilst the rest of the world carries on. I want to seek out this film to understand it more. However what I want to talk about is a film that I haven’t seen in some time – The Big Country (1958) from a director who made very few westerns in his career. This one stands out in the genre, it has a universal quality to it. The sweeping iconic score from Jerome Moross who is much forgotten himself over the vast landscape where this bold Western plays out.
So where does the rawness come into The Big Country? that’s what I wanted to know, where are his experience of life on the screen. I have to look at this film from the point of view of the director not so much the characters which act more like vessels for himself. Each different aspects of his life. The open country that is so breathtaking for us to eat up is a reflection of the land of opportunity that Wyler came too in the early 1930’s when he escaped Nazi Germany before it could have killed him. Entering into the middle of cattle country, the big-business of the 19th century, of course a mirror of 2oth centuries being film. James McKay (Gregory Peck) is the outsider who has live a life in the refined East, and on-board sailing ships, a gentlemen entering a world that is alien to him, and where the meaning of being a man is very different, bringing with him some 20th century ideas as we find out. Coming out West to marry the woman Patricia Terrill (Carroll Baker) he met whilst she was out in his world. He is making a massive sacrifice to literally leave his world behind him for the rugged outdoors.
His manhood’s tested not long after his arrival in the form of the Hannassey brothers, the rival cattle family. They are a what McKay is not, rough with a gun at their side, not so bothered about their appearance, these are cowboys the man of the West who knows how to handle himself, nothing scares them, at least on the surface. The test is a failure of sorts, not fighting back in front of Patricia whose gun is lost and forced to bring her carriage to a halt to be harassed. She is starting to really see the man she is about to marry. Not a complete mirror image of Wyler’s first few years, having to adapt to a different way of working. The films he was given to direct. Yet come to be-known for his multiple takes, pushing even the hardest of actors which included Bette Davis.
Of course it’s only when we meet the older men of the cast, the heads of the Terrills – Maj. Henry (Charles Bickford) and Rufus Hannassey (Burl Ives) who is the complete opposite. Both powerful men in their own ways, men to be feared if crossed. For me if you take away Peck from the film you still have Ives who stole the show, chewing the scenery, owning the landscape as if he was born there. These two men could mirror the studio moguls who kept their stars in check, decided their future and could easily make enemies. Also most of them European and Jewish which is the major. The chosen enemy of the Nazi’s and resented by Americans for their success and power in their own country, making and living the American dream, dictating what audience would ultimately watch and listen to. Of course in a Western everyone is mostly American, even the rival families who are fighting for drinking rights. When you listen to Maj. Henry you can feel the hate that he feels for the Hannasssey’s who live in the mountains, not the fields of rich grass. Who should we as an audience side with? Personally I was drawn to the Hannessey’s more so Rufus who speaks more from the heart, the down-trodden man who wont stay down. I think what got me was the first time we meet him, as he interrupts a party shaming the Maj. into getting him to pick up a gun to kill him. The Maj. doesn’t take the bait, the better man, or out of gentlemanly modesty he refuses.
Of course what stands in both the families ways is the Big Muddy, land owned by school teacher Julie Maragon (Jean Simmons) who holds the real power between them. Wanting to be the meadiator, wanting peace. She is the ideal even though her land is not covered with cattle, the house is in a state of dis-repair. Best friend also of Patricia who is like one of the short-sighted, her fathers daughter in short that wont easily have her mind changed. It had been so long that I forgot the romantic outcome of the film. We’re not supposed like her much, compared to the more feminine Maragon who has more Eastern qualities which 20th century America can associate with. As much as Patricia is saying what a man should be, whilst Julie is more accepting of the man in the form he comes.
This has become more of an essay (of sorts) than a review, I want to quickly look at Steve Leech (Charlton Heston) the adoptive son of the Terrill’s who has become the man that is the ideal, the one that even Wyler may have wanted to be, but only ever be Mckay in reality which is all I could ever be out in that world. They do meet head on in a sequence that I mis-took for suspense as they both show their real strengths to each other, a long fistful goodbye, that last a good five minutes, far longer than most on-screen fights which at that length today would fall into parody. They develop a mutual respect for each other. That’s after the knowledge that we have that McKay has proved himself to be a man of the West in certain ways, adapting his knowledge from the East to the West, even if he can’t prove that to those who matter, he has to keep those success’s quite until its too late.
The finale is a long drawn out battle of two warring families finally meeting in Blanco Canyon, the rugged dangerous mountains where so many other Westerns have taken place, usually home to the Native Americans who can hide out and wait for the white man to enter into their world. Here its the home of the Hannassey’s who are the underdogs, even seen as white Native American of the film, but more acceptable because they are white. Its become warfare between two men who have to prove themselves. Not before a few tests of strength between Mckay and Buck Hannassey (Chuck Connors), where we see love losing out to honor at times. Its as dramatic as the film gets before we get down to business.
It’s a long film even for a Western but it does hold your attention for the length of 2hours and 39 minutes, nothing is wasted with time for action, romance, violence, war and hatred. That’s a to pack in to even the standard length film, it spills out on the vast canvas. When you read it in the light of the directors eyes you see something far different than just a Western, something that speaks from an lone outsider who had long been accepted by both his peers and the country he lived in. You could say he lived the American dream, thing very idea that The Big Country is all about.
- The Big Country: A Big Mess (matineeatthebijou.blogspot.co.uk)
- The Big Country (nothingiswrittenfilm.blogspot.co.uk)
It’s not just me who has seen the teaser trailer today for Leonardo DiCaprio‘s and director Alejandro González Iñárritu who scooped up best picture and director at the Oscars last year for Birdman earlier this year. I’ve been aware of The Revenant (2015) for a few months, the plot outlines stinks of a blatant remake with a different name and a twist on an earlier Richard Harris and John Huston film Man of the Wilderness (1971) which is in a very different tone at least to the trailer, It does however visually look the same to the older neo-Western that is an incredible film that relies more on action and acting than dialogue which is kept to a minimum.
It’s to early to tell really from this teaser trailer, there is a bear in both and they are left to survive in earlier America with Native American’s, I’m not too sure there’s going to be a boat being wheeled around this time somehow. The only other question is, will this be DiCaprio’s year at the awards?
I still stand by the fact that El Dorado (1966) is a remake of Rio Bravo (1959) and to an extent an imitation. Then I think part of that is unfair when you think that John Huston remade The African Queen (1951) with Heaven Knows Mr. Allison (1957) so it’s not new to see directors of Howard Hawks generation remake a winning formula, you know the old phrase, “if it aint broke, don’t fix it”. These two took that more seriously when it came to film making, of course I’m not saying that El Dorado and Rio Bravo are word for word, scene for scene the same film just made 7 years a part. There are subtle differences which I have picked up the second time around.
Of course you can’t forget that it was Rio Bravo that was originally set to be a reunion John Wayne, Montgomery Clift and Walter Brennan, Only the older two returned from Red River (1948). Clift was unwilling after the friction between himself and The Duke, two very different men who didn’t get on behind the camera’s. Moving forward after Rio Bravo to find an older Wayne who was hitting a successful stride in the 1960’s, sustaining a record as one of the decades biggest draws, is only original to return for this film. Playing opposite contemporary Robert Mitchum, taking the drunken sheriff role, that was originally Dean Martin, to have both actors return would not be clever thinking. Here we have an actor who has more talent an experience to draw on for the darker roles, and even more time in the western genre. Whilst Brennan’s roles taken over by Arthur Hunnicutt who I have said before is an easy fit for the ageing law-man, and providing gentle comedy throughout.
The dynamic between these men alone is steady and very masculine, bouncing off each other. Enter the Ricky Nelson of the film played by James Caan, a very early role in his career as the young up-start, wanting to prove himself as a man to the elders. There is no longer that dynamic of Bravo which was more about getting the job done and male bonding. Dorado’s is more mature, with older men who are having to accept their physical problems. The main actors are all older, the original concept has grown up, whilst at the same time not taking it self seriously all the time. There is plenty of comedy, even at the expense of them all.
Instead of having a group of men who are the best, we find men who in someway handicapped. Early on gun for hire Cole Thornton (Wayne) is shot in the back, causing temporary paralysis throughout the film, impact on his performance. Still very much a man of his word, honest and true to his friend and sheriff J.P. Harrah (Robert Mitchum) who turns into a drunk half way through the film. That’s I find the strongest similarity between Mitchum and Martin’s respective character, drunk lawmen who are assisted by Wayne’s in both films. Also both films are filmed in the same location and backlot, but so were a great number of Wayne’s later films.
Moving away from the compare and contrast that has dominated this review I turn to the plot which is pretty straight forward as two sides are pitted against each other, one the Macdonald’s who are fighting against Bart Jason (Edward Asner) and his men over water. It’s a man’s world that is broken by Joey MacDonald (Michele Carey) who shoves her way into help fend off Jason’s Men.
This time around I found El Dorado more enjoyable, I let myself see it with fresh eyes, not see the characters as replacing older characters, of course to an extent they were, tweaked just slightly to be out of their comfort zone in one respect or another. Having Mississippi (James Caan) a young man who is a dabb hand with a knife rather than a gun, making him different and dangerous, even more so with a gun, a weapon unfamiliar to him. Allowing for some comedic moments, which mainly comes from Wayne and Mitchum who have great on-screen chemistry. It will never the clever classic which Rio Bravo has, with it’s moments of male bonding and explosive action, not forgetting Angie Dickinson. The rest of the films formula is there and in tact, I just wonder how Rio Lobo (1970) fits into this loose trilogy of films.
I knew The Barbarian and the Geisha (1958) wasn’t exactly John Wayne‘s personal best film, struggling to find the character, his motivations as the first General Consul aka American ambassador for Japan. Not really getting along with the director John Huston who knew what he wanted, seeming to get what he wanted out of the actor who to be honest looked like a fish out of water most of the time. In a country that just didn’t suit him visually, I think the open landscape of the west would never really let him go. From the first time we see Townsend Harris arrive in full Eastern American dress complete with top-hat, making the Duke reach nearly 7.ft. Already towering over most of the Japanese population as he tried to validate his claim to be the General Consul from America to Japan. It’s an uphill battle really against the native people who want to be left alone, having a isolationist position towards the rest of the world. We know that didn’t last long, looking at more recent history.
It’s true that the Duke does look out of place, even feel out of place, his popularity in a bit of a lull before heading back to what he knows best with director Howard Hawks in Rio Bravo (1959) which propelled and secured his future position in film history. I’m not writing off his performance here it just wasn’t his best. He was in a culture that most western audiences hand;t seen if we ignore Akira Kurosawa‘s films that were coming out of the country. Japan was depicted more as a stereotype, not a beautiful country steeped on tradition and honour. That’s something which Huston brings through in Technicolor splendour. Helped in a large part to Eiko Ando as the Geisha Okichi opposite the American barbarian and his translator whose mission was to engage and meeting the Shogun in hope his country would join the community of nation, a for-runner of the United Nations.
This is no means another take on an earlier film with the duke Blood Alley (1955) which fell into cliché and melodrama, putting to strong people opposite each other and having no chemistry. The lack of romance between Townsend and Okichi probably works in the films favour. Based on more a mutual respect for one another. Okichi having her own motives before falling for the barbarian who is more gentlemanly that usually. The dynamic is completely different, the aims of the film too. The love is nor really touched upon until the end really.
Told from the geisha’s point of view we also have a rare female perspective on these events (historically true or not) we are supposed to see the Duke from a female viewpoint which is hard to do being male, seeing him more as a role model of masculinity (not that I take all he does seriously). Ando’s narration is dropped in here and there to move the film along, even with her original intent made clear, this soon blurs after the cholera out-break which changes public opinion of the lone foreigners.
On the whole it’s a decent film, we see the Duke really out of his comfort zone, surrounded by people who are at least a foot smaller than him. Not that this was Huston’s intention it was one of a stranger in a foreign land which does work. We are made aware of that in some interesting visuals which allows the far older culture to come through. I just wish they had subtitles, however that would make the translators job pointless in some scenes. So I’m glad I have seen this gem of a film that is am interesting side step away from the usual fare which Wayne is most at home in and has cemented his position in culture and film. He did make a few duds in his time, but what actor doesn’t it?
- The Barbarian and the Geisha (1958) (everyjohnhustonmovie.blogspot.co.uk)
- Films Set in Japan – “The Barbarian and the Geisha” (1958) (tokyofox.wordpress.com)
In what was to be the last film for both Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe sees them acting their socks off in The Misfits (1961) as if they were fresh out of stage-school. Giving all they had to these two raw parts. Along with Montgomery Clift as he was nearing the end of his career and tragic life.
The wild that is America has been tamed, the cowboy is a dying breed in the form of Gay Langland (Gable), his buddies Perce Howland (Montgomery Clift) and Guido (Eli Wallach) as they fight against the inevitable change that modern life has brought. They have become relics of an old way of life and genre that has become dated. Not wanting to become part of the rat race that draws a wage of salary, tied down to a certain way of life that tears them away from being in the open. It’s a sad state of circumstance for these men.
When newly divorced Roslyn Taber (Marilyn Monroe) who herself is adapting to a life of freedom after a waste of a marriage that saw only two years of life. A woman who is so pure that is really unaware of modern life around her, unlike her male friends who have watched it changed over time. A vulnerable woman who lets life take her from place to place, a free spirit. Probably the only film that allowed her to show her full potential as an actress in her short and tragic career. John Huston still used her as an attractive young woman, which was more subtle, and at time reinforced and corrected. Even the pretty have their problems and should be depicted that way.
The Misfits (1961) has all the trappings of a western in a modern context, with a realization that the genre in its present form may longer have no more steam. It has to change, as the characters in this film are all forced to do so. Made fully aware as they round-up 6 stallions in a gruesome collection of sequences that see them each having to reconsider the directions their lives are headed. They fight themselves to decide what they all want out of life.
Full of rich conversation that comments of the changing world. Nevada being a barren landscape that allows you to run free, whilst at the same time be used as a testing ground for nuclear weapons. Americas backyard in essence. With little life in the state is a reminder of the vast open spaces that have been lost to change.
Clift gives us another sensitive man to enjoy, who pushes the limits of what he can do to feel alive and forget his problems. With the catalyst of Monroe’s Taber who makes him realize what is going on. With a passion for life and animal rights that are coming through. Even protesting to Langland who wants to shoot a rabbit, which a decade before would be unquestioned as part of pest control and farming techniques that were essential during the pioneer days.
I cannot comment on the supporting cast of Thelma Ritter‘s Isabelle Steers being much older than her female friend has seen all these changes happen, accepting them as a fact of life. Whilst the veteran pilot Guido is trapped in the past with his friends, knowing he has killed countless people without seeing one of them. A victim of warfare that has not fully adjusted to civilian life.
Returning last but not least to the performance of his career put in by Gable a man who stuck in his ways, the ways of the past, who has been at the for front on the changes to farming. Falling for Monroe which for a time seems creepy, but I learnt to accept the relationship as two lost souls who love different aspects of each other. Monroe is not willing to really understand his life, which for him is too late to change.
- New data show how closely FBI monitored Marilyn Monroe (cbsnews.com)