This extended film review is a reissue of my reflections of the Ranown cycle of films that director Budd Boetticher and actor Randolph Scott worked on. These were varied in strength but mostly hold up well today as tight western thrillers that pushed what can be done on a B-Movie budget. I’ve left the films in chronological order of when the films were reviewed to avoid confusion.
Westbound (1959) Revisited
I’ve decided to undertake a revisit the Ranown Cycle of films directed by Budd Boetticher and starring Randolph Scott, taking the cheap budget of a B-western and raising it with the direction and the ideas of the script to that of a A-Western, before the power of the films was really known. All culminating in Scott’s swan song to cinema with Sam Peckinpah‘s Ride the High Country (1962) where he decided to never act again, believing he was unable to surpass his performance. Westbound (1959) is the first in a disjointed series that hopes to redress my view of these films that I only started to understand as I was finishing the first watch. It will be out of sequence, based on an availability, however this time I will be using a more critical eye in order to expand my understanding of these films.
So out of the seven films I am starting with number 5, which so far feels like a more cerebral of the series. Set during the height of the civil war as most westerns are, either before, around or after that period of upheaval in American history. Which allows for a darker story to be told. When Union captain John Hayes (Scott) to undertake a mission that could change the course of the war for the side that does eventually go onto win. It’s one he does at first with reluctance, a return to an old way of life that is away from the front line of war, something that he believes in. To manage a stagecoach route to ensure the daily passage of gold to the Union is not what he had in mind.
However when he meets wounded soldier Rod Miller (Michael Dante) returning home, unable to fight himself. Having to face battles of his own at home, Hayes grows into a father figure who wants to instill new purpose the now disabled soldier. It’s a rarity to see a handicapped actor playing such a prominent role. Usually given to an extra on a battlefield or about to have a limb blown off. Placing him in a role that allows both the characters and audience to confront the issue head on. On returning home his wife Jeanie (Karen Steele) takes a while to adjust to his new situation. He’s not the man she saw go off to war. A walking casualty of war that has returned from the battlefield.
The Miller’s live in the the Colorado territory that was supportive of the Confederate campaign. Wherein we find the villains of the film. Clay Putnam (Andrew Duggan) both in the field of love and war where Hayes is concerned, coming back to town where he finds his old flame Norma (Virginia Mayo) who is caught in the middle of these two men. Clay’s right hand man – Mace (Michael Pate) who is a real thorn in his side, acting more in impulse than intellect. These are the two real difference between them, its classical really, the intelligent bad guy gets the less intelligent more physically stronger gunfighter to do the dirty work and that fact is not hidden from view.
On the surface its a class set-up for a western of the period, however underneath we find darker tones, a country whose people have no real conscience, a wounded soldier, a stagecoach load who fall to their deaths are all placed before us. Its harder hitting than that standard gunfight or brawl in the street. We have men who act with little thought for the consequences until it’s too late. Whilst Hayes and his men fight to keep the route open to ensure a steady supply of gold to the union acts as a metaphor for a country working together for the greater good. Of course set during the Civil War that idea is meaningless, its one side for the other. Move it forward to the time of production you have look further, where I can see no parallel. The is probably the weaker of the series, its heavier on characters and settings, not set in the wide open spaces, it’s very luscious in terms of landscape. I feel there is something that wants to come out, there are things going in, characters who are fighting to be heard whilst becoming too mainstream as the film progresses. Aspects could have been developed and just left.
Ride Lonesome (1959) Revisited
The second film in my journey back through the Ranown Cycle, or the 6th out of seven films that Budd Boetticher and Randolph Scott made together. Much the same as Anthony Mann and James Stewart did at the start of the decade. After the previous film Westbound (1959) which really doesn’t fit into the series as strongly as Ride Lonesome (1959) which I began to remember quite strongly as I viewed it for a second time.
From the opening titles I felt more engaged, the music more dramatic and powerful as we embark on a film that is set out in the untamed West, using a location – The Alabama Hills in Lone Pine; a favorite location of the director. Mirroring John Ford‘s use of Monument Valley. Boetticher use of the location brings out the horror and the danger. Placing cowboys into an alien world that they have to ride out of back into what they hope is civilization or ride on for eternity. Anything or anyone could be hiding behind these structures that stretch for miles. If anything this film is more cinematic out in the open, no sound-stage shots, all out on location, a western that relies on the open to tell its story.
So I’m more impressed with this later instalment of the cycle, things are looking darker if only in terms of soundtrack as we meet Ben Brigade (Scott) who has already find who is looking for, we’ve come in half way through his journey. Our traditional hero is a bounty hunter, not even the later anti-hero of the Dollars trilogy that uses his intellect to get what he wants. Instead he is driven to see this young man Billy John (James Best) hang, a man who has shot men in the back. A good enough reason to be brought to justice, not even giving his opponent a fair chance to defend himself.
The audience is already on the side of the bounty hunter, how long will that last as we meet more people at a stage stop, two men and the wife of the boss of the post. Its a barren landscape and dangerous too, as we learn when a stagecoach rides in, only to crash into the post after an attack by Native Americans who bother the five for half of the film. We also have a return to the minimal cast which is something that really works out in the open, allowing us to focus on these individuals. From the stage post we meet Sam Boone (Pernell Roberts) and Whit (James Coburn) a double act essentially, the smart and the dumb man who plot to snatch the wanted man Billy and set him free, having heard there is an amnesty on his head. However plans to head to Santa Cruz for the bounty is where we are heading.
However Santa Cruz is not really where we are heading, taking our time through open country, taking a longer route, out in the open, not hiding their tracks. The threat of Billy John’s brother Frank (Lee Van Cleef) who is already riding over in pursuit of rescuing his brother. We see little of him and his men, only a few scenes in all. Allowing more focus on the men and Mrs. Carrie Lane (Karen Steele) who has only just realised she is a widow, as she stays with these men more out of safety than anything else. She has to trust them, finding that as however united they are as a group they are as the ride on, they are divisions between them.
The divisions are best highlighted through the night scenes, heavy in dialogue and shadow leaving the characters almost in profile. Even though its basically day-for-night lighting its allows us to look inside these men and Mrs. Lane as they begin to understand each other and the situation they are in. Boetticher has definitely bounced back here with more adult western that really hits home when the truth is revealed to us. Brigades past is told to us with striking tree in the background, a hanging tree, it doesn’t take much explanation. Simultaneously the images of the past are that occurred at this location are being retold, we can imagine the awful scene that have drawn him back here for what is essentially the bounty he has really been waiting for. A reward that is worth more than any money could substitute.
The hanging tree is a familiar image in the genre that has never been so potent, always associated death, unlawful trials, racism and injustice. A lone bare tree in a wide open space allows the potential for so much imagery, becoming an arena of death for a short time, taking the Western back to ancient Rome or Greece where all could see your rise or fall from miles above. It’s all about the staging of the ideas, the emotions, out in the open even when they are held up tight inside you can feel the tension as nothing can truly escape the elements.
The Tall T (1957) Revisited
The third of film of the Ranown Cycle, and the 3rd of the series in sequence is another strong entry. Set mostly in the Lone Pine which allows The Tall T (1957) to be a visually distinctive film to watch and reflect upon once you leave it. I am really enjoying my journey back into these darker B-westerns that really don’t deserve that label, the script elevates it to something far higher. I guess the budget and number of unknown actors ultimately dictates that definition. However I think that lack of high-profile actors, apart from Randolph Scott who had fallen out of favour unlike his contemporaries doesn’t seem to care, immersing himself into the material that makes it all worthwhile. The length of these films is just about right as-well, short, sweet and incredibly sharp for the adult audience at the time. It doesn’t talk down to anyone.
The beginning of the film is pretty straight-forward, Pat Brennan (Scott) rides in from what looks like the untamed wilderness, it’s all light-hearted as we meet the people of Contention another frontier town that is full of characters. I am already trying to workout who is going to make it on the journey ahead. Beginning at a stage stop once more, a recurring location in these films. Traditionally a passing place on the journey of most westerners in the genre. Popularized by Stagecoach (1939) which I originally saw this film as. Its much more and nothing like it in many respects. After a what is a carefree trip with Brennan through town buying candy for his friend’s son, you can see Brennan is a decent man who is everyone’s friend, he can’t do wrong.
All this is a false pretense as soon as he is horses-less he’s left vulnerable to whoever passes by. Hitching a lift on a stagecoach driven by old-timer and friend Ed Rintoon (Arthur Hunnicutt) who lets his ride up top. Going well so far until they reach familiar territory – the station, its deserting which is worrying to say the least. All’s revealed from the emptiness where so much life happened, it’s a band of four men led by Frank Usher (Richard Boone) who reveals what has just happened, the death of father and son buried in the worst place, down the bottom of a well. It’s not a good start to the second half of the film. This is the beef of the film, what we have waited for, away from civilization, from law and order, where things are supposed to make sense. Now three men are in charge and its only going to get worse.
Hopes of a making a bargain are offered by newlywed Willard Mimms (John Hubbard) who offers to get a ransom from his new father-in-law. The first character to show his true colours is also the most unlikely, a prisoner negotiating his way out. He’s a coward and greedy, having married for money not love. Riding back to town to get the ransom set-up with one of the men. Leaving us with us with probably the worst of the gang who lead Brennan and Doretta Mimms (Maureen O’Sullivan) to a hide-out, an abandoned mine. We see the younger men start to show their lack of intelligence, a weakness that will eventually work in hero’s favor. These are not men you’d want to meet in town or out in the open, not so much ruthless as dangerous and stupid which is a terrible combination.
This behaviour begins to show to Brennan and Usher two maturer men who have lived enough to know what is right and wrong, life has happened to them and are stronger for it, it’s the paths they’ve taken which have defined them. You could say they are the same before taking different routes in life, they want their own lot part of the world, just going about it different ways. However the real transformation in the film is Doretta who wakes up and understand what she wants in life, able to change her life for the better by the end of the film.
Its a tense Western that doesn’t waste any time in getting going. You could easily place this film in the stage a 2 act piece that would have the audience begging for some release which you don’t get until a gun is fired. The tone of the Ranown Cycle is set by here, its taut, sparse and very adult for its time. None of the big personalities you get from other actors, Scott doesn’t come across steal scenes, he is very much the star but says very little and means a lot, you feel at ease with him on-screen especially out there you do.
Comanche Station (1960) Revisited
My original review of Comanche Station (1960) drew comparisons early on with The Searchers (1956) which is easy to see why. Take out the raging and confused racist and what you have left is a man looking for and trading for those taken by Native Americans. Take out John Wayne‘s Ethan Edwards and replace him with Randolph Scott‘s Jefferson Cody a man with a very different goal. He too knows and understand the enemy but hasn’t become consumed by them. Instead it allows him to survive as we find Scott once more out in Lone Pine, a location that has become synonymous with him and Budd Boetticher working together for the last time here before Scott’s final film two years later. We see even less of the developing west, is all man vs. the wilderness.
With the opening scene lacking any real dialogue, a series of gestures and about two or three lines we have secured Nancy Lowe (Nancy Gates) and riding hopefully back to civilisation and safety, something that both of them are still far away from. We don’t know either characters intentions, their pasts or recent experience, its straight into a situation that will need to explain to build up these characters. One flaw of the film is the lack of attention that Nancy Lowe really received, her time with the Native Americans as a captive/squaw are completely ignored, she has been saved, end off really for her. This is something which John Ford couldn’t ignore, answering The Searchers with The Two Rode Together (1961) where a female captive comes to terms, and readjust back to a white way of life. I guess for Nancy all that is yet to come. She becomes the centre of attention as the film goes on in other ways.
So with Nancy safe and on our way back to her old safe life we stop by yet another stagecoach station, a symbol of isolation and progress, a step along a journey many yet to be completed. We have already what can happen in these locations in the Boetticher’s world where danger is lurking around the corner. With a station acting as a stopping place where anyone can drop by, if that be for rest, food, good or even money and blood. This time its a gunfight against Native American’s who are fighting other men who are riding over for safety. We see how unprepared Nancy is for a gunfight, unlike her rescuer Cody who tries to keep her safe as possible as bullets fly, and joining in the fight to defend this outpost of white civilisation, also just to survive which is a very human act.
With the first fight of the film out of way another one begins in the form of words and actions, three men against one, as newly arrived Ben Lane (Claude Akins), Frank (Skip Homeier) and Dobie (Richard Rust) discover Nancy and what she represents, a newly returned captive with a price on her head. Losing what power she has, becoming a pawn and losing respect in Cody whose labelled like the others, in it for the money. Its a similar theme, one man against the odds, ganged up against as he travels the open country. His character is tested in each film as different men in these seven films (more or less). Its once again the older man Lane who is the leader, age giving him the edge, the intelligence, the younger ones are seen as muscle and weight in a battle, extra lead to fire from their guns.
Being the last film in the series I can see already from the 4 films I have now revisited clear imagery at play. We have Lone Pine a landscape where very little can live or grow, no idea what lies behind the next pass or ridge. The perfect hiding place really. A stoic figure in Scott who always has to fight on his own. Always on a journey to somewhere, with a past that is hard to match and not to envy. A single woman who plays the role of damsel in distress who has yo be saved from falling into the hands of the bad-guys who are after her. The visual style maybe the same (more or less) which creates a world for these darker stories to play out, like dime-novel without the fantasy. Its not about being yellow or your abilities with a gun. These films are about what drives us under all those guises and how they determine our actions, making for some seriously gripping films that never relent.
Decision at Sundown (1957) Revisited
The fifth review in my on and off series of revisits to the Ranown cycle of films made by Budd Boetticher and starring Randolph Scott, Decision at Sundown (1957) was the third they made together. If you don’t look at the year of release for signs are how young the films in is terms of the two men’s work/progression they are still very much in the confines of the studio back-lot, very traditional and safe in terms of setting. Not yet fully in Lone Pine as we find which they first visit in films such as Westbound (1959) which allows for a true sense of isolation to come into these tense and introspective films. We’ve been out there once already in The Tall T (1957) we know what these two are capable of.
Saying that there is a strong sense of isolation in the town of Sundown. It’s an odd beginning, as a stagecoach is held up, simply to let passenger Bart Allison (Scott) off and catch-up with his partner Sam (Noah Beery Jr.) his sidekick almost who has stood-by him through a lot. Maybe the audience’s supposed to be thrown by this outburst of violence before simply riding off? It acts as a jolt, this is not the Scott of previous films, he’s not playing the straight forward hero. Even in the Ranown cycle he’s usually the hero with a darker side to him. Here he has a single purpose which he sticks rigidly too, there’s little deviation to even look after a woman whose trapped in a bad situation. His woman was killed three years previously. We are seeing another side to the same character we later see in Comanche Station (1960) and Ride Lonesome (1959) who has more compassion.
The two strange men who ride into town cause trouble everywhere they go, not the kind of trouble that results of death and destruction, rather creating an atmosphere of unease among the towns-people. Allison is making his presence known before the big-wedding and showdown which is sure to follow. We have yet to even meet the much talked about Tate Kimbrough (John Carroll) is even seen on-screen, building him as this dangerous man who has killed his fair-share of people before owning the town of Sundown that he now owns. When we finally meet him we discover that even though he’s to marry one woman, he’s spending more time and enjoying it with another Ruby James (Valerie French) who herself is questioning her relationship. I found John Carroll to be a much cheaper imitation of Clark Gable, tall, dark but not so handsome even classically, maybe that’s the intention, Gable never played men with a dark ulterior motive or the villain.
So having establish what the film is about, a bit of context surrounding the previous film, the cannon of the actor and directors work together lets focus more on the plot. Again it’s a short film which allows things to move rather fast. Down to mainly the budget again, it’s a lot tighter, something which you can lose with a bigger more one. The town all learn of Allison’s presence at the wedding, the classic line of any man speaking of a reason why these two people should not marry or forever hold their peace. Said more out of tradition today, used more for drama on-screen, used perfectly here when Allison interrupts, he doesn’t care for the respect of the church, so driven for personal justice he carries his gun into the church, for protection and warning for Kimbrough to react. We have the whole town here, bearing witness to this threat against the man who owns the town. Another powerful figure who will have to fight to hold onto his place. Having them in the palm of his hand for two years, he even pays for their drinks at the saloon.
It’s not long until Allison and Sam are holding up in the livery stable, not the open main space with the horse where there is more places to hide. instead the more confined space of the owners back-room, where they could both spend the remainder of the film as they’re surrounded by Sheriff Swede Hansen (Andrew Duggan) who is the towns owned sheriff, a coward with a badge on who sends other to do his work. The law enforcement’s an extension of Kimbrough’s hold over the town. Aptly named Sundown, which we never see, as the events take course over the day, its more metaphorical for the gunfight’s that take place during the day that determine the course other town will next take.
Allison being driven by revenge is also deafened not blinded by the truth that Sam has to tell him about his wife, it eventually divides them. But why did Sam hold onto this secret about Allison’s wife for so long? He couldn’t bear to tell him for the fearing the damage it may do, shatter the image he holds his wife in. It’s the case believing the legend and not the fact, a powerful idea out in the west. Breaking that ideal is hard to stomach, the legend or ideal of a person we hold can be far stronger than the truth.
As the two men continue to fight, the hold of Kimbrough loosens in the town, reality is slipping back as men start to discuss what they have lost, lead by the towns doctor John Storrow (John Archer) who had always seen beyond his gestures of good will to see the real man. One who had emasculated a town, what made them strong had all but gone. It’s a film about learning and understand the truths that we hide ourselves from. It takes the strongest of men to ride into town acting like a man, wanting to settle a score to show a town full of them to see what they had lost in themselves. Not the rights and powers, the feeling of being a man. It’s an idea that has not so contemporary, the idea of a man is now more sensitive, more open to his feelings than bottling them up. We all can hide from the truth if we choose to. Scott, one of the epitome’s of the western man turns that on its head, is unable to deal with the truth until the end of the film.
Summarising where I am in my journey through the Ranown Cycle I can see that if the story is strong enough as it is here, do we really always needed the rugged outdoors of Lone Pine to set our stories against. The cast was far larger than those film, there is still a focus on characters and a number of them too. Scott is able delve into the inner reaches of what is possible with man in as few words as possible.
Buchanan Rides Alone (1958) Revisited
The sixth film in my revisit to the Ranown cycle of films, and the fourth film Buchanan Rides Alone (1958) that Randolph Scott and Budd Boetticher made together. One that is practically confined to studio back lot, one used in a number of 1950’s Westerns, mostly B-movies too. There are the odd classic which I’m reminded of. I’ve probably said this before when I look at a Randolph Scott Western they are generally B-Movies as he moved to the end of his career. However all that he brings to them, his presence, charm and down to earth being makes them stand the test of time. You could say today his contribution to cinema and the genre is something that can’t be overlooked, which has helped ensure that position. When it came to this 7 film collaboration Scott is taking a creative chance here, with a director whose been confined to B-Movies. Yet these films don’t feel like that, maybe in the supporting cast that you won’t see with A-list stars.
Anyway I’m spending too much time mumbling on when I should focusing on another tight film. I’ve already established the emphasis of the Frontier town back-lot, I feel that the best of the Ranown films are set out in the country where anything can happen, open to the elements and the evil of man lurking behind the next mountain or large rocks that populate Boetticher’s cold westerns. I decided to watch the trailer last night, a very misleading thing to do, as I thought that Scott’s character Tom Buchanan robs a bank with an accomplice. How very wrong I was, it just shows how manipulative a trailer could be in the late 1950’s. Instead he was another honest man who stands by his words, even his past as murky as it maybe, he could explain his position and past decisions, he owns his past as fictional as it really is, it becomes real.
I mentioned the evils of man out there in nature, the untamed landscape, that is not really in the Agry family who run the town of the same name. We’ve seen men in earlier Westerns, where rich cattle men owned the sheriff, who gangs who employed others to carry out their jobs lawfully. There’s no guise of the powerful figure pulling the strings from behind the scenes, instead its in your face, the face of the townspeople who are in-fact free to question the power but don’t really test its boundaries. It’s only when Buchanan rides into the border town, laid down with belts of bullets, it’s not an easy image to see the hero of the film weighed down by so much ammunition. He is joking with Sheriff Lew Agry (Barry Kelley) who we first don’t suspect of his dreams of power. It’s a light first scene, we’re being introduced to the Buchanan who just wants to pass through, easy-going and amiable. It’s not until Roy Agry’s (William Leslie) shot by Juan de la Vega (Manuel Rojas) for reasons we don’t really learn, it’s just an inevitability for the Agry’s black sheep who caused nothing but problems. Still a death in the family has to be avenged.
As it’s a Mexican who killed him it’s supposed to be easy to just go out and hang him, until they the Agry’s realise that Judge Simon Agry (Tol Avery) is running for Senator, he cant have an illegal hanging against him. So for the sake of image..and justice a quick trial that has Buchanan caught up in it as the supposed accomplice. Our hero is found innocent as he was, whilst Vega pleads guilty and happy to do so. The trial is merely for show, if justice is seen to be done then the town can move forward, a hanging and the town will still live in fear and want to be protected.
What follows is the breakdown of a male dominated family that conspire against each other. When a deal’s done to secure the release of Vega for payment of $50,000, probably a lot more today. Reflecting even then how those in power can be so underhand to ensure they stay in power. The deal doesn’t stay secret for long thanks to bumbling brother and hotel owner Amos (Peter Whitney) who is the real black-sheep of the family, or could you say the honest one of the family who has no real respect. He has only has a position thanks to his family name, without that he would be left outside and probably dead in the reality. You can’t help but empathise with him though, wanting to deliver change but forever locked out.
As in the other entries of the Ranown Cycle Scott is the stand up, hero who fights against the odds. Even though he just falls into these horrible situations that push him to test his own morals, he, doing what he has to survive and fight for the wronged man or woman. So where does it fit in with the other films, it is a strong entry, but for me it’s always going to be about Lone Pine that hides the danger and the drama, a wider stage to set the film upon. The cast is larger than the stronger films that have more tension, this is probably sitting in the middle in terms of strength of drama. This is however the dream of a better life, that ranch with a few thousand head of cattle, the dream of an ideal or a better life, a strong theme that runs throughout the cycle.
Seven Men From Now (1956) Revisited
If it wasn’t for John Wayne having a scheduling conflict we may not have had the Ranown cycle. He was supposed to be playing the lead in the latest Budd Boetticher film that his company was producing. However he was about to start on The Searchers (1956) instead of leaving his director and film without a lead he recommended a good friend of his – Randolph Scott the role. It was the start 7 film partnership that would form the Ranown cycle created by the actor and director. Making their own Monument Valley out of Lone Pine, another iconic and ready-made stage for the myth of the West to be played out in.
It’s been just under a year since I reviewed made my last entry regarding this series of films, as I remember some films were stronger than others, now I have come full circle and back to the beginning with Seven Men from Now (1956) which really set-up the formula which was reworked in the majority of the seven films. We begin with a stormy night, getting the drama going straight away, a tall and water-soaked figure walks away from the camera to the rocks in search of shelter. It’s the ever reliable and stoic Scott playing Ben Stride who finds a campfire, keeping two men warm. It’s all cosy now, asking for a cup of coffee, when we learn he has lost his horse sometime ago in a gunfight, he’s been walking all day, tired and wet from a very long day. The two men grow suspicious when they discover he was a sheriff, reaching for their guns, the camera cuts away amidst gunshots, before we see Scott riding away with two horses, him on the back of one. The only survivor, but was it out of murder or survival. I carry this dark thought with me for a few minutes, questioning his motives, is he the man I know on the screen or someone whose out of a ride for revenge.
As always he rides alone and prefers it, enjoying the company of no one unless he really has to, which comes in the form of the Greer’s a couple traveling to California. Annie (Gail Russell) and John (Walter Reed) a poor excuse for a man who is struggling to get his wagon out of a muddy patch of ground. How has he gotten this far without being killed by gunfighter’s, cowboys or even worse Chiricahua’s who are on the loose. Surrounded by danger from the unseen and his own lack of manhood. Yet Annie has stayed with him, there must be more to him than meets the eye. Stride the gentlemen he is begins to ride with them, out of duty for the couple who have somehow survived this far into the West.
So as much as he wants to be alone with his tortured thoughts as he acts as guide and security for the traveller’s. We learn later on more of his past when they stop at a way station and the arrival of Bill Masters (Lee Marvin) and Clint (John Beradino) join him, they know more than the Greer’s who are just happy to be resting. We learn that the sheriffs wife was killed during a Wells Fargo robbery, a crime that Stride couldn’t stop, loosing his position in town soon after. He’s not only lost his wife but his position in society. He’s only a man with a debt to settle with the men who killed his wife.
There are similar back-stories throughout the Ranown cycle that have created these complicated characters for Scott to play, this is just the first of them, he’s digging deep into the psychology of the men he plays. Before we learn more we see who Masters is when they face a raiding party of Chiricahua’s who up until now have been spoken about. They are soon taken care of revealing his true colours, shooting a captive man in the back. Was he one of the seven shot down leaving six for Stride to take aim at, or was he being protected, funny how he was shot in the back though.
This is one of Marvin’s larger supporting roles before rising up to top billing. We can see how this clearly more physical actor can psychologically get under the skin of our hero. Sharing the Greer’s wagon shares a story, comparing one woman to Annie, who naturally pales in comparison, taking aim at both husband John and Stride who he was aiming at more. He doesn’t need a bullet to get under his skin, whilst John’s too cowardly to defend his wives honor. This Western is not just one of action and guns, its one of the mind, making it stand out from the standard B western.
Technically we can see that the look of the films in the series is being established, the imagery of Lone Pine. Visually it’s a bit hit and miss, editing is not as slick as it can be. The cinematography is starting to show signs of something greater, however the focusing can be distracting when we cut to a new scene. That’s not to take away from what is otherwise on-screen and in the script.
I’d forgotten how short and sweet these films really are, it’s a lean film coming in at under 80 minutes. We are soon back in civilisation where more characters are met, led by Payte Bodeen (John Larch) who is possibly the leader of these men. We also learn where the money is that has been with the Greer’s the whole time. The guilt of Strides past has never really left him, taking the money into his own care, taking responsibility, ultimately taking action for the loss of his wife and position. It’s a twist I forgot was even in the film, showing that it’s been a long time since my last viewing and just how well the film works as it moves to the finale as we see the characters all being revealed for who they are, they’ve all been hiding something from us and ultimately themselves. I’ll leave you with a clip from Blazing Saddles (1974) which just shows how much I have missed Randolph Scott on my screen and the imprint he has made on the genre.
Last summer I completed work on a Film Talk that has yet to be delivered. With everyone staying at home at the moment I thought I’d share the film talk with you. Focusing on the evolving role and depiction of violence in the genre.
Tonight’s film talk is about the depiction of violence in the Western Genre. On-screen violence is a vast topic that if you could spend hours exploring it’s effects on society, censorship and how directors have each approached it in their work. Tonight I’ll be focusing on the evolution of the depiction of violence in the Western
The Great Train Robbery was the first noted Western in 1903, featuring the first use of editing to push forward a narrative and lay the foundations for the genre over the course of the next century. More notably the use of guns, ending with the a gun being aimed at the audience.
“They helped producers understanding of the important of setting and reference, the possibilities of location and action shooting…the new medium and the industry succeeded in appropriating the literary and historical tradition of the myth of the frontier and translating it’s symbols and references and its peculiar way of blending fiction and history into cinematic terms.”
Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in 20th Century America – Richard Slotkin p.254
During the silent era the genre was very popular with audiences. Innovators of the genre such as John Ford spoke of his time to fellow director Peter Bogdanovich.
“These early Westerns weren’t shoot-em-ups, they were character stories. [Harry] Carey was a great actor, and we didn’t dress him up like the cowboys you see on TV-all dolled up”
Ride, Boldly Ride : the evolution of the American Western – Mary Lea Bandy and Kevin Stoehr p.26
During the silent era a number of court cases were being held in connection to Westerns of the day. The James Boys in Missouri and Night Riders both released in 1908, both depicting the James Brothers. The Judge in the case of Block V the City of Chicago ruled against them. It was his opinion that
“…The James Boys and Night Riders were immoral not simply because they concentrated on the exploits of outlaws but because they did so exclusively, without corresponding depiction of law-abiding character that they ought to offer morally admirable characters and behaviour as a counterweight to depictions of crime…”
Classical Film Violence: Designing and Regulating Brutality in Hollywood Cinema (1930-1968) – Stephen Prince p.19
Similar rulings would have a lasting effect on the production that was later established in the 1930’s. Accompanied by the development of sound transforming how narratives we’re told. Changing the dynamic of the plot, from just visuals with the extra audio element, allowing for violence to be heard. The Production code was finally enforced in 1934, forcing filmmakers to think creatively to work around the restrictions.
“Restrictions on the image, paradoxically, open onto plenitude – the rich and fertile area of the imagination-which requires very little data to perform prodigious feats of creation. The oblique image, violence hinted but not displayed, can arouse the viewers imaginings with great ferocity.”
Classical Film Violence: Designing and Regulating Brutality in Hollywood Cinema (1930-1968) – Stephen Prince p.207
Westerns during the majority of the 1930’s were relegated to kids B-movies, some featuring a young John Wayne. If you wanted anything close to a gunplay you’d have watch a James Cagney or an Edward G Robinson film. The genre finally matured in 1939 with Stagecoach beginning a resurgence of Westerns.
During WWII images of violence filled the screen in newsreels and the first hand experiences of filmmakers of the U.S. Army Signal Corps, which I’ll touch on later. Films such as The Ox-Bow Incident (1942), which focused on mob violence.
“…Walter Van Tilburgs Clarks story, a sobering look at mob psychology and violence. While Gil, Art, and Davis [Henry Fonda, Harry Morgan and Harry Davenport], and others plead for law and more reasonable, rational behaviour to prevail, the mob has its way. It’s as if Clark is saying, and [William] Wellman and [Lamar] Trotti are confirming, that this is not at all unusual but, in fact, the natural state of human behaviour.”
The Noir Western: Darkness on the Range – David Meuel p.29
We see the result of the mob violence in this clip.
We only see the executioners setting up the horses, rigging the nooses. The only physical violence we see on-screen is handed out to the general’s son, a pacifist who’s clipped by his father. Then men executed are reduced to shadows from the trees above. The audience imagination shocks them more than the images on-screen. They have seen anyone hang, imaging the men hanging from above.
A few years later in 1946 in John Ford’s first film after leaving the Signal Corp – My Darling Clementine is released. He deals very differently with violence. It’s more traditional; we see gunfights, which are interposed with long periods of characterisation. We get to understand the motivations of the key Wyatt Earp and Doc Holiday before the final shoo-out at the infamous OK Corral.
As the 1950’s began the effects of film noir were being felt strongest with Anthony Mann and his cycle of psychological Westerns, filled with tormented men and women, struggling to understand the world around them. The director felt he had more freedom in the genre.
“It’s a primitive form. It’s not governed by rule; you can do anything with it. It has the essential pictorial qualities; has the guts of any character you want; the violence of anything you need; the sweep of anything you feel; the joy of sheer exercise, of outdoors. It is legend-and legend makes the very best cinema….”
The Wild Bunch: Sam Peckinpah, a Revolution in Hollywood, and the Making of a Legendary Film – W.K. Stratton p.73
Stevens wanted to replicate his experience of warfare for audiences back home. Also seeing boys playing cowboys in the streets. His wanted to make Shane for the kids to see what killing was really like.
“Now he re-created it on the screen in Technicolor. He’s given Americans, comfortable in their theatre seats, clutching their popcorn and sodas, a nasty taste of what death was really like.”
The Wild Bunch: Sam Peckinpah, a Revolution in Hollywood, and the Making of a Legendary Film – W.K. Stratton – W.K. Stratton p.74
At the end of the film social justice is restored, forcing Shane unfit to live among civilised people to wander forever at the close of the film.
Shane was one of a growing number of cinematic creations known as the Gunfighter, the walking embodiment of violence in the genre.
“These new takes on the Western were shaped by the internal logic of genre development, which fostered a certain kind of stylization of the Western and its hero and by the pressures and anxieties of the post-war/Cold War transition…The consonance between the formal character of the gunfighter Western and its ideological content is a genuinely poetic achievement. It gave the gunfighter films ideological and cinematic resonance and made heroic style of the gunfighter an important symbol of right and heroic actions for filmmakers, the public, and the nation’s political leadership.”
Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in 20th Century America – Richard Slotkin p.379-80
So far we have seen how violence has been developing on-screen however it’s John Ford in The Searchers (1956) as much as violence is depicted traditionally, guns being fired, yet we see no one of consequence die on camera.
“The violence in the film-ranging from the Comanche massacre of the Edwards family homes and Ethan’s discovery of Martha’s ravaged corpse to Ethan finding Lucy’s body and later his scalping of an already dead Scar-always takes place off-screen, leaving horrific acts and scenes to the power of the viewers imagination. This is a movie about violence that does not reveal its violence directly to the audience.”
Ride, Boldly Ride: the evolution of the American Western – Mary Lea Bandy and Kevin Stoehr p.193
This clip from The Searchers is a prime example of that unseen violence.
We clearly understand what’s happened to the Lucy, Ethan has buried her in the canyon he’s returned from earlier. Her body was mutilated and raped before she died. Ford relies on prior associations with Native Americans in the genre to inform us of what’s happened. The most brutal scenes are suppressed
“We feel the horror of Lucy’s death all the more because our imagination has to supply what Ethan will not tell, or in the case of Martha’s death, will not let Marty see. At the same time, keeping such things hidden not only invests them with extraordinary emotive power. It also allows the film to hint at the darkness deep in Ethan…only Scar’s death and mutilation are seen on screen. It’s as if at the end suppression is no longer possible. Things must finally be brought to light, after which there can be resolution.”
The Searchers (BFI film classics) – Edward Buscombe p.28-9
Moving to the end of the 50’s we have Anthony Mann again focusing on sexual violence too. Man of the West (1958) which rightly disturbs and angers Link (Gary Cooper’s), a now reformed bandit when an act is committed.
The First scene with Billie (Julie London) we see how this disturbs Link; Leading to his brutal fight with Coaley (Jack Lord) in the second scene. Both scenes are intense as we Link’s humanity being mentally stripped away at.
“Merely being around the Tobins brings out the worst in him – something that’s still (and maybe always be) there. Just as Billie and Coaley are stripped of their clothes, Link is bring stripped of his hard-won humanity The one bright spot is that, when Link has the chance to kill a defenceless Coaley, he can’t bring himself to do it. He hasn’t entirely reverted back to his old ways.”
The Noir Western: Darkness on the Range – David Meuel p.137
To see violence really develop you have to look to Italy with the introduction of the Spaghetti Western, cheaply made westerns using a mix of European actors and sometimes American stars. Personified by the Dollars trilogy teaming Clint Eastwood and Sergio Leone.
Up until this point there was a sense of morality in the genre, the gun brought justice to civilisation. Through skilful use of a gun you can rise you to the status of hero.
“According to [Robert] Warshow, the protagonist of the Western is in control of himself. He uses violence only when provoked and, ultimately, in defence of his vision of himself as a man of honour. For [John G.] Cawelti, the hero’s code and the epic moment (where an ‘advancing civilisation met a declining savagery’) worked to provide a ‘fictional justification for enjoying violent conflicts and expression of lawless force without feeling that they threatened the values or the fabric of society’ Violence as a moral force therefore became central to the classical Western formula.”
Myth of the Western: New Perspectives on Hollywood’s Frontier Narrative – Matthew Carter p.37
How this consideration simply goes out the window with directors like Leone and [Sergio] Corbucci according to Pauline Kael who observed this.
“It was spaghetti Westerns […] that first eliminated the morality play dimension and turned the Western into pure violent reverie. […] What made these […] popular was that they stripped the Western form of its cultural burden of morality. They discarded its civility along with hypocrisy. In a sense, they liberated the form: what the Western hero stood for was left out, and what he embodied (strength and gun power) was retained.”
Radical Frontiers in the Spaghetti Western: Politics, Violence and Popular Italian Cinema – Austin Fisher p.67
European cinema breathed new life into a purely American genre celebrating its own history. Burdened by the weight of the heroes and villains that populated it. Once removed you can use its form and write a new language.
What caused the removal of civility and morals in Italy to produce over a decade worth of film? You only need to look at the political tensions in the country to understand filmmakers and how they were responding on their work.
“There is in these films little sense of authorial surprise or shock that an outwardly democratic government might be corrupt and coercive. Certainly, the identification of state-sanctioned cruelty was hardly revelatory in a country with a living memory of totalitarianism and a rich tradition of militant insubordination. Accordingly, compared to the momentous depictions of a violent death being explored in contemporary Hollywood, the stylistics of the Italian Western as a whole reflect a considerably more blasé outlook towards brutality.”
Radical Frontiers in the Spaghetti Western – Austin Fisher p.160
A key film is Corbucci’s; Il Grande Silenzio (1968). The law is used to bounty hunters advantage to get rich. Lead by Tigrero (Klaus Kinski), his men deliver unspeakable death to one town, ignoring an amnesty that has just been passed on all outlaws. Tonally a very bleak film that even see’s the film’s hero Silenzio (Jean Louis Trintignant), himself a victim of violence eventually killed.
Back in America the production code was crumbling. Studios such as United Artist had been bypassing the code, releasing films without a seal. Those that worked with the code proved too much for one Western – One Eyed Jacks, it was still too much working with the Production Code Administration. Here’s a description of one scene that was never filmed.
“He is battered and bloody. Several teeth have been knocked out, and now half conscious he spits them out, one eye is swollen, already half-shut, blood pours in twin streams from his nose, his chin and cheekbones are bruised purple.”…“One of those shots has shattered the bridge of his nose, spraying his face and eyes with blood”…“The crowd hauls on a rope, which is attached to Bob’s right ankle. He is pulled up into the air and his dead body dangles downward, the other leg flopped awkwardly over at an angle… The barber douses Bob’s body with the kerosene and the holds a lighted match to it.”
Classical Film Violence – Stephen Prince p.191
Violence like this couldn’t be depicted for another decade, helped in part to he production code being replaced when Jack Valenti took over the, working with the major studios to bring it what we would be more familiar with – a ratings system that hoped to appease both studios and religiously conservative America.
“…the “G,” “PG,” and “R” registered with the US Patents trademark Office as certified labels of the MPAA. (The “X” category was never copyrighted since [Jack] Valenti thought if a producer felt that his movie couldn’t make the “R” cut, he would never submit it and the film would go unrated.
Hollywood Film 1963-1976 – Drew Casper p.120
As the 1960’s wore on we saw a number of pictures that really pushed the boundaries of what the public would like from Bonnie and Clyde (1967), opening the doors for Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch. A Revisionist Western that had more in common with the Spaghetti Western. However it was the volume of violence that would be remembered. His reasoning was to depict what killing was really like, much like George Stevens reflecting the television pictures of the Vietnam war.
“Look, killing is no fun. I was trying to show what the hell it’s like to be shot.”
Hollywood Film 1963-1976 – Drew Casper p.334
The film’s bookended with two violent set pieces. The opening sequence was the first to depict women and children being shot, during a bank robbery. Whilst the finale would see the 4 anti heroes attempt to save their friend before engaging in a bloodbath opposite the Mexican Revolutionary Army. Using guns never seen in a Western before this point.
The the film was met with its share of controversy, critically it was both loved and hated. Overtime its status has raised to become a classic. The violent scenes are still shocking. Sadly it never had the effect that Peckinpah intended for. Carrying his share of regret, which we can see in this interview.
During the early 1970’s Westerns began to lose their place in the cinema, fading into pastiche and obsolescence for a time. Clint Eastwood was the only director keeping them alive. Culminating in Unforgiven (1992) when retired gunfighter William Munny after years of being a family man picks up his gun one last time. Throughout the film we see old man unable to shoot properly, mount a horse, all signs of aging, yet it’s the death of his friend Ned (Morgan Freeman) that triggers something inside him.
“[Munny has ] thrown a switch or something and now a kind of machinery was back in action, a “machinery of violence,” I guess you could say. No it wasn’t glamorous. He’s back in the mode of mayhem. And he doesn’t care. He’s his old self again, at least for the moment. He doesn’t miss a beat whole he loads his rifle and talks to the journalist…Now when he goes on this suicidal mission, he’s all machine. He not only murders Daggett at point blank range but shoots some bystanders with no more compunction than someone swatting a fly. Munny has been protesting all the time that he’s changed, but maybe he’s been protesting too much.”
Clint Eastwood Interview 1992
Ride, Boldly Ride : the evolution of the American Western – Mary Lea Bandy and Kevin Stoehr p.264
Eastwood reminds us of Peckinpah’s intentions in Wild Bunch to show the destructive power of technology in the hands of mind. Both directors are aware the audiences lust to see it that all on-screen. This is not the case in the traditional form.
For violence in modern cinema a prime we should look at Quentin Tarantino, whose last two films have been set in the Wild West. His 7th Django Unchained (2012) a quasi Spaghetti Western-blaxploitation. Violence is a constant that is always there in the background before we reach the final explosive act.
“The film ends with Django taking his revenge, redecorating the walls of Candie’s mansion with blood that “has it’s own ballet movements,” as David Thompson wrote in the New Republic. “It’s Jackson Pollock on speed; and it spouts from bodies the way oil arrives in Giant or jism comes in a porno movie, it can’t wait to get out of the bodies.”
Tarantino: A Retrospective p224 – David Thomson – New Republic Review
Whereas his last film The Hateful Eight (2015) essentially an Agatha Christie in the West, with some gruesome acts along the way to the fallout feels tamer in comparison. Is this in response to the constant criticism of his use of violence?
“But it’s a hassle, it’s a pain in the ass. Maybe I can take a break on it for this next one.”
Tarantino Interview – regarding the suggestion of doubling down on the violence in The Hateful Eight (2015)
Once Upon a Time in a Western p.270
So where does that leave violence in the genre today?
Firstly the output of Westerns has dropped dramatically in the last 20 years. The genre has become far more reflexive, open to critiquing itself in films. It’s also open to genre blending more violent depictions. Women are finding a more equal space in the genre. However violence is no longer a means to restore law and order as the classical form would promise deliver. Now it’s become at times excessive and run of the mill, an action film simply set in the West
As Eastwood touched on in Unforgiven, that traditional use of violence as a release of a build up of tension is still there. It just needs to be released more often due to scenes that build up throughout a film, which audiences have been trained to respond to. Another factor is that we are being numbed by the on-screen effects of the violent images found on television.
I’m probably committing some crime against Westerns and even the Duke himself. Ever-since I’ve read the Charle Portis source material – I’ve felt that the Coen Brothers remake was actually a better film. At least in terms of being true to the book. However much you have the Dude – Jeff Bridges riding high with his eye-patch. Yet there’s something in John Wayne’s performance that stands the test of time. Ok he may have won the Oscar based on years of being unnoticed by his peers. There’s a magical quality in his turn as Rooster Cogburn that Bridges couldn’t recapture. However I feel it’s time reassess those thoughts as I revisit both films to see if I’ve changed my mind or am I committing a crime of some sort.
John Wayne’s ride to Oscar glory apparently started during the filming of True Grit (1969),something that director Henry Hathaway notice on set. This time the duke wasn’t working for his own production company – Batjak, instead on someone else’s time, maybe this led to a better than usual performance for a a director he’s worked with throughout his career. There’s also a lifetime of experience that the Duke brings to the role of the Marshall Rooster Cogburn from Fort Smith. He’s a curmudgeonly older man who knows what he likes and takes a lot to persuade him otherwise. Charles Portis’s text was a perfect fit, easy to both read and deliver on-screen. A grandfatherly figure who you wouldn’t want to mess with.
I noticed on this viewing that this was more than just a standard Western. OK you have a Glen Campbell as Texas Ranger La Boeuf trying out an acting careering, doing an admirable job opposite a heavy-weight of Wayne however with the help of the text they create a buddy movie of sorts, not quite a road trip with strong elements of comedy through out. For a one time actor Campbell delivers a cheeky yet confident performance opposite a veteran of the screen. He doesn’t look intimidated at all. Instead enjoys the chance to try something new. It doesn’t hurt that he also delivers the theme song for the film.
Another comedic role goes to one of my old favourites – Strother Martin even in his few scenes as horse salesman Col. G. Stonehill, who during this period is enjoying great success in film. Holding his tongue opposite the difficult Kim Darby (Mattie Ross) who tries not only her luck but also the patience of those around her. They have some great scenes that attempt to get the best of him. They help in forming how strong willed the young woman Mattie is, unafraid of what she has to do to get things done. A confidence beyond her years that has the potential to get her in trouble. I admire the character for holding her own, having the agency to go after justice herself instead of just leaving it to a man to do for her. However a little maturity would help her in how she communicates with people in the town. At first timid, she grows in confidence to the point that she can point and shoot the gun of her late father who she’s avenging. It’s known that Wayne didn’t get on with Darby and it’s visible on-screen, which here works to the scripts advantage. Creating a tension between the two leads.
The first half of the film is set in Fort Smith, with a short prologue that sets-up the who Mattie is and a glimpse of her father. Coming to this film having read the book (as I mentioned earlier) added another layer, staying true to the original text in both versions. Using olde English adds more authenticity the film, pushing the actors to work with different dialogue. It’s richer for it.
Tonally the film is probably far lighter compared to contemporary Westerns which would go far darker with villainous characters like Tom Chaney (Jeff Corey) and Ned Pepper (Robert Duvall). We’re mostly surrounded by lush green valleys and mountains, something that Hathaway is known for. The more I watch the film the more I feel at home with the film as it gently plays out over the course of two hours. With touches of violence that could be darker as Mattie enters into the adult world of criminals who roam the open country. A path she’s chosen when two men with experience could easily save her from the danger that awaits her.
It’s hard to forget how iconic the role of Cogburn was for Wayne who commented on accepting his only Oscar, “If I’d have known that I’d have put that patch on 35 years earlier” could that be a joke a jibe at the academy. An actor who had grown ever since he broke out with Stagecoach (1939) all the way through to 1970. We have “Fill your hands you son of a b****” that will forever be associated with him. The role is his and no one can take that away from him. He did so well he came back to reprise it in 1975 opposite Katharine Hepburn, which holds up pretty well too, both very different people who had the greatest respect for each other.
It seems I still hold this film in great esteem, it maybe light in tone, with an actress who has the ability to rile everybody. Yet that’s part of the magic of the film, she’s the wise beyond her years but in-experience holds her back at times. Something that the Coen Brothers address in the 2010 remake. How will I feel about that now.
It’s been a little over four weeks since I saw the original, I caught the remake last night. I must first correct myself, even working from memory of Portis’s book it feels like it wasn’t so faithful in terms of original text. However that doesn’t mean tonally it wasn’t the same, if not more authentic of the period. Westerns have grown up in terms of set dressing and costume, more inspired by the period than of contemporary designs. True Grit (2010) is a solid Western on its own terms, even before you look at how it compares to The Dukes version that rode him to Oscar glory. No such luck for Jeff Bridges in the same role, who was nominated but lost out to Colin Firth’s King George VI who didn’t need to wear and eye-patch in the role. It also wouldn’t help that Bridges had already won for Crazy Heart (2009) the previous year.
Awards aside I need to see the film on it’s own terms, than just a remake. Even though The Coen Brothers had already tried to update The Lady Killers (2004),a British classic to become a silly overly sly film that just lacked the charm of the Ealing comedy. There a few flourishes of Coen-esque comedy and darkness that sneak they’re way through into the film, which I really enjoyed, an extra layer of dark humour to the proceedings. Something they carried through to The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018).
Structurally the film is told in retrospect from an older Mattie Ross (Elizabeth Marvel) where the strong-willed nature of the character feels more suited. Hailee Steinfeld is a worthy and more welcome actress to the role, bringing both maturity with the right balance if being a child that is overwhelmed at times by the situations she puts herself in. The opening narration does away with the establishing scene in Hathaway’s version that sets up who Mattie is and her relationship to Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) who we meet in the second half of the film, allowing us to paint our own image also wanted in Texas. The relationship between Rooster and Ross is the real focus here, at the expense of LeBoeuf (Matt Damon) whose written out for an act whilst the Marshall and young employer get to know each other. It feels like a waste of Matt Damon whose character is relegated to swoop in and save the day.
There’s been a conscious effort to try not to repeat Hathaway’s Grit, however there are scenes which you just can’t run away from how they are almost shot for shot. But for the most part it’s very much an original Western that uses the text more than just being seen as a remake. They haven’t so much expanded on it as James Mangold’s 3:10 to Yuma (2007) expanded. Here we have a clever reworking of scenes even adding new ones for comic effect that built up who Cogburn was. Dialogue has been altered to sound more pleasing on the ear and loose the repetition. It’s more of a stretch for Bridges working with the Coen’s for the second time, he has to deal with both Portis’s text and the expansion of the brothers. And more importantly making the role work for him away from the tall shadow of John Wayne. It’s very much on my mind for the first few scenes before I settle in and see him as the Rooster Cogburn.
Now the question is, which film is better, the Duke’s or the Dudes? Honestly they both have their strengths, one has reached iconic status with a rich history behind. It’s regularly heralded by his fans as a classic. It’s highly enjoyable and just needs you to sit back and enjoy, you know what you’re getting with John Wayne, who rarely failed. Whereas with the Dude you are entering the world of the Coens with a unique and cine-literate language, which to work you need to understand Joel and Ethan’s work to really enjoy it. They didn’t just remake they re-molded the text to suit their needs, to work for them, dropping in some nice little changes. I did miss the interaction between Rooster and LaBoeuf that added to the charm. However we still had the main plot points with extra darkness if the world that they lived in. Whereas Hathaway’s was far cleaner and rose tinted – a product of its time. So which is better? Neither really, they both responded to the text in different ways. The originals more truthful to the text, carried by film history to a status that supposedly leaves it untouchable. Where the modern version does something different that I equally enjoy. It’s a stalemate from me and I can’t see anyway that I’m going to break that soon. As much as I have a soft-spot for The Duke I enjoy the Coen’s vision and the world they inhabit.
It feels like there’s been a string a middling Westerns in the past few years, that’s not mentioning the disappointing remake of The Magnificent Seven (2016). Both Jane Got a Gun (2015) and The Keeping Room (2014) that attempted to rebalance the role of women in the genre failed on the basis that they just plain boring. I’m all for increasing the role of women in the genre but it has to still be entertaining, to be engaged in what they are dealing with. Jane Got a Gun had no real focus, whilst The Keeping Room was too grim. The more male dominated entries in recent years have had slightly more success; The Revenant (2015) delivered a revenge thriller in the wilderness of the mountains, whilst we had a blind teenage romance in Slow West (2015) that audiences can more easily relate too. Whilst The Salvation (2014) was a return to the classic form with a European sensibility that had a real bite.
The latest entry in the genre – The Sisters Brothers (2018) felt the other night like my generations The Missouri Breaks (1976) but not so weird that I had to sit back and wonder what the hell was going on. For one we didn’t have any camp acting and there was no strange romantic pursuit to worry about. Instead we shift between the titular brothers; Eli and Charlie (John C. Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix) who’ve been contracted to meet up with investigator John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal) who himself is in pursuit of Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed). The jumping back to and fro between the two pairs takes up the first two acts oft the film, allowing you to settle into what is a gentle dynamic.
The Sisters Brothers we learn are sibling gunfighters who we learn have somehow survived life so far by little more than luck on their sides. They are able to outgun the enemy by pure chance whilst in the process destroying what the essentially need. As we see in the opening minutes, a classic gunfight surrounding a homestead that somehow leads to a barn setting fire and killing most of the horses inside. This isn’t how The Duke would have done things in Rio Bravo (1959) even when he shot dynamite in the final gunfight. There’s little planning to the Sisters who will load up and go into battle day or night. They would have probably made good soldiers in the opening minutes of a Civil War battle, unafraid of the danger that lat ahead of them. We laugh at the clear flaws in their ability to win out, they are men just trying but failing at times.
Sent on what is to become their final mission by the elusive Commodore (Rutger Hauer) putting the younger alcoholic brother Charlie in charge, hoping for a better result. Aiming to secure The Commodore’s superiority during the gold rush – a time in the genre that hast more recently been overlooked. We learn their major differences in the two brothers who may share a legacy and a status that precedes them. Charlie the more impulsive assertive alcoholic who wants to prove himself, whilst Eli is curious of the future, what modernity can do for him. Taking the time to plan his future. These are differences very important as they both continually pull them apart and push them together. It leaves Eli with a “middling” horse that we’re concerned about throughout. When we switch to Morris and Warm the tone becomes more intelligent, the conversation changes to reflect this. There’s a chance to breathe and understand what’s being discussed. Morris an Easterner who wanted to come out West for adventure soon finds his equal in Warm whose supposed to follow from a distance. Their ideas of modernity bring them ever closer together.
Through letters left by Morris to the brothers they mock the language of the more educated man who communicates his position. It’s a resistance to change and understanding that for a while keeps them a part. Tonally this doesn’t quite come off so well onscreen, it makes them look ignorant and the leads in the film the butt of the jokes and the film itself. As much as you want to root for these underachievers in life we become more concerned with what’s going on further away from them, when they finally meet and what they will discover.
Despite the uneven tone of humour and language we’re transported to a beautifully drawn image of the Wild West. Shot in multiple locations, you can see a lot of money went into the budget. And looking at how may production companies are involved (literally filling the screen) you can see the director Jacques Audiard has to prove himself worthy in his first English language film. Going from town to town which each look unique. San Francisco is the stand-out set piece that just shows where all the money’s spent. The devil is in the detail for this clear labour of love.
The final act is by far the most interesting, when they all come together in the pursuit of gold, almost becoming The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) when the lust for gold takes over with a new chemical driven techniques being employed to reveal gold in the water. The idea of speeding up the process of testing and digging for gold is thrown out in favour of an untested method. The consequences if which are not fully known or appreciated. Is this a Western with an ecological conscience, coming out of nowhere we’re shown how the lust for gold can destroy the natural world around us in the pursuit of greed. It’s the saving grace of the film, the fallout of this process complete alters the fortunes for all involved.
This isn’t really my Missouri Breaks, it’s a confused but original Western with a conscience that tries to do a lot in it’s running time. It does a good job but maybe needed a little more time to breathe. We have characters that are fully realised. Westerners vs Easterners in a changing world, set during a time of the gold-rush when the country began to change completely. The Sisters Brothers takes on a lot and does it’s best to balance it all but ultimately a flawed Western that tries honourably to bring something new to the genre.
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?
Just over a year ago I watched the first Young Guns (1988) which I found to be an interesting film. I was entertained by this take on the Lincoln County wars, emphasising the role of Billy the Kid around the cattle barons war. I left the article wanting to seek out the sequel (purely out of curiosity mainly) completing the characters journey. Below is my original review followed by my thoughts on the sequel.
Another western that I thought I’d never really watch or review. I do remember hearing some enthusiasm for the film at art-school, but thought little of it, wanting to explore the classics of the genre more at the time, which to a large extent I have since achieved, now I’ve got a few to revisit. I have since considered catching Young Guns (1988) not really knowing much about the film beyond it looking like a chance to refresh the genre, which was beginning to happen during this period such as Silverado (1985) and Pale Rider (1985) at least Clint Eastwood could be relied upon to deliver. I also saw this as a spin on The Magnificent Seven (1960) formula, bring together a group of gunfighters and send them out to save the day, which isn’t far off what happened, just without the pathos or myth-making magic which it achieved.
What’s achieved is my curiosity being pricked up, which is all you need sometimes to engage with a film. First I was drawn to the late 1980’s music video aesthetic, it was clearly aimed at a young audience who had no real interest in the genre, something for older generations who grew up during its hey-day. During this period there are glimmers of something special coming through. Another point was having the other Martin Sheen son as the lead, as Emilio Estevez was already established in film, compared to the more prominent Charlie Sheen whose actually written out of the film at around the half-way point, which also shows as how much hated being on a horse, staying long enough to get a starring credit and a paycheck.
Looking further a stronger historical connection that I found, helping when I realised that it depicted both Billy the Kid – William H. Boney and L.G.Murphy, who both appeared in Chisum (1970), skewed more for John Wayne‘s lead character during the Lincoln County War (1877-8) one of the many cattle wars of the period. The same events basically unfold but from a more relatable point of view – the young men who knew John Tunstall whose killing, that originally started the war. Instead of Chisum who was rightly worried about Murphy’s increasing ownership in Lincoln County. He’s nowhere to be seen or heard in Young Guns which is either a poor choice historically, or consciously written out to focus on those directly effected by the shooting. Having too many characters to focus on would make it a broader less engaging film.
With such a young cast who had yet to really make a mark in film it allows these six actors (ignoring Estevez) into careers of some longevity, which did happen for Keifer Sutherland, son of Donald Sutherland, which probably helped during casting. The rest of the cast I can’t say I have really seen before this film. A 50% success rate is still good going though. Placing them in this MTV-esque Western which works in some places and not in others. The music video feel of the film really has dated, the soundtrack really doesn’t work today, it attempt to set the tone but feels out-of-place, it’s neither nostalgic or dramatic, with time it’s just been lost. The casting of Terrance Stamp as John Tunstall just doesn’t work for me. Playing the “Englishman” which is over emphasised at times is really unnecessary for the audience. It’s trying to pit Englishman against Irishmen which really is just circumstance to me, just drop the point and move on. Also Stamp looks very out of place, just delivering his lines without looking awkward on-screen. I think he’s glad he was killed off after 20 minutes. He obviously leave a mark on the men – The Regulators, who start off to war.
Turning to The Regulators as characters themselves who are fully fleshed people who you can engage with. With the emphasis on Billy the Kid the assumed leader post Tunstall’s death, the historical figure that most in the audience would have heard of compared to the cattlemen who are known to those interested in history. For me it comes from reading beyond the films. As a character himself he owns the film and Estevez owns the role, really having fun, making his mark on the role whose being done justice. Looking to Charlie Sheen’s Richard ‘Dick’ Brewer who probably seen as the winger of the group who pushes everyone further before he’s killed off. Two of the Gun’s Josiah Gordon ‘Doc’ Scurlock and Charles ‘Charley’ Bowdre (Kiefer Sutherland and Casey Siemaszko) are given the love interests which don’t take over from the main plot, if anything they make them richer characters, they have more to lose as they reach the finale. I must also touch on the Navajo character ‘Jose’ Chavez y Chavez (Lou Diamond Phillips) whose half Mexican, whose allowed screen-time to discuss the American Holocaust, specifically the massacre at Sand Creek Reservation (1864), despite the fact that he would never have been there, as he wasn’t Cheyenne or Arapaho. Showing how Native American past can be recycled and jumbled to suit a script.
Young Guns reminded me of other super groups in the genre which brought together the best of the best in their fields, or even misfits such as The Professionals (1966), The Wild Bunch (1969) up to Silverado. Guns joins that long line of super groups toting guns. Long before the Avengers and DC universe films that bring together superheroes. Except everyone gets on and they have already met, cutting out a lot of exposition allowing for us to get on with the plot and see this group of young men just get on with it.
Historically I was vaguely aware of Billy the Kid’s involvement in the Lincoln County War, afterwards I feel a little more informed and refreshed, there’s more to it then the side we see. It’s small event of a much bigger, dirty, violent history, also adding the myth of the West that has been reshaped by cinema. There are a few nods to the fabric of the genre, Patrick Wayne – son of The Duke takes on the role of Pat Garrett, to Jack Palance as Murphy which you can see he’s enjoying far more than Stamp was. It’s not the strongest of films for a number of reasons which I’ve discussed, however it is fun, engaging with filled with action, you’re supporting the young men as they fight for what is right which makes up what is lacking at times. A product of its time which you can forgive its many flaws leaving me wanting to catch the sequel now.
If I’m honest I’ve been having mixed feelings leading up to watching Young Guns II (Blaze of Glory) (1990) which brought back the remaining members of the Lincoln County regulators. Partly recast and rewriting the history in a mish-mash fashion to suit a theory that Billy the Kid survived into the 1940’s. At first I thought what the hell was going on here, a rider reaches a road, is this a cross with time travel or what? My next thought was is this going to be another Little Big Man (1970) that was recounted via the oldest living Native American. Or even a Blackthorn where we find Butch Cassidy (Sam Shepard) living a new life in self imposed exile. Instead this is based on an account that saw a Bushy Bill attempt to prove he was William H Bonney fighting for his pardon by the governor of New Mexico. It was later dismissed and thrown out of court.
This is the direction we were going down, at first it threw me, why are we doing this, why not just carry on where we left off. Was this an attempt to stamp a definite mark on the screen legend of the Kid, which is not a bad thing. Coming at the audience with a curveball, the obscurity curio as a basis for a film that I already scratching my head at. I knew this was another retelling of the final days of the Kid for another generation. For me that will always be Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973) which personally is the definitive version. Guns II director Geoff Murphy even went as far as clearly replicating some shots from Peckinpah, thankfully it’s just a few from The Wild Bunch. Never the less it shows a lack of originality to produce a clear personal vision instead of relying on a flawed master of the genre’s past.
A massive flaw is that the film goes as far as rewriting the past for Pat Garret who previously appeared in the original, now we see him portrayed by William Petersen a younger actor, compared to the older Patrick Wayne. As much as these films take place in the same landscape, they see the events as very separate. Was the inclusion of the older Garrett which felt like a cameo when he wasn’t even a sheriff during the Lincoln County War or around during those times. He was a friend of the Kid and even a mentor for a time. All of this is washed away for a confused cameo before being rewritten as a villain of the this confused sequel.
I can’t help but compare Guns II to Pat Garret and Billy the Kid it would be impossible to separate the two. At times they do draw strong similarities. However the main difference is that the two films have very different points of view. Just looking at the titles of the films, Pat Garrett is filled with mixed feelings in 1973, wanting to do the job for money and power, yet knowing that he’s hunting down and killing an old friend of his. The kid is always seen being a cocky and confident, able to shoot and talk his way out of trouble. Nothing much changes there in Guns II as he rescues his friends before riding on down to “Old Mexico” where they hope to hide out. Whilst Garret is practically bribed into taking on the job and changing his personality over the course of one scene, there’s no time given to his decision it just a shocking reveal that left me confused.
The time we spend with the guns is worthwhile as we catch up Doc (Sutherland) and ‘Jose’ Chavez y Chavez (Lou Diamond Phillips) who have taken different paths. It’s tries to be a young mans films, with new faces with the Kids mirror image – Arkansas Dave Rudabaugh (Christian Slater) who buts heads with him all the time. Whilst farmer Hendry French (Alan Ruck ) and Easterner Tom O’Folliard (Balthazar Getty) wants a taste of gunfighter life. Both really unaware of all that entails. Eventually they all saddle up and ride on as Garrett and his men (not him riding on his own as 1973’s film showed him on a personal mission). The film aims to be bigger, more action filled than Peckinpah’s laconic version. Ultimately its a follow up to a bold and successful action film for the new MTV generation with a set of actors who are making a mark on Hollywood. Unlike the old timers in 1973. This is a sequel that’s riding high on the hopes of the first for better returns at the box office. It wasn’t even saved by a nodding cameo from James Coburn who gave his best in a role the small role.
For me it fails miserably. Knowing about the historical figures depicted in the two films now being so confused and coming from a strange angle really doesn’t help the legend, it hinders it, with a put on “old man” voice and heavy make-up. If anything it’s an all for one, one for all tale that sees friends fight it out to the end in the West as the had done previously but with not so much satisfaction. The weight of history didn’t even get in the way for the makers, instead they screw it over and hope that we’ll buy into. Frankly I’m considering a refund.
Fort Apache (1948)
After enjoying the process of reviewing 3 films previously I’m carrying on with another Western trilogy, this time John Ford’s Cavalry Trilogy, a chance to return to three classic films that I haven’t viewed properly in a long time. During which I have read up on how they function together and what they discuss singularly and together as a whole. Beginning chronologically with Fort Apache (1948) which I remember mostly for sewing the seeds for Ford’s later film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) which I’ll come to later as I explore the first third of the trilogy.
In my opinion the trilogy is strongest at its start and end, with a weak middle with She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), my view may change after another watch. For now having seen Fort Apache (1948) I can clearly see that Ford know’s his American history, focusing this film at least during the Indian Wars just as during the time of production the Korean War only a few years from breaking out in the early 1950’s. Taking Custer’s famous Seventh Cavalry, renamed Fort Apache under the command of Lt. Col. Owen Thursday (Henry Fonda) whose at the opening of the film is making his way to begin his tenure there. In a stagecoach with his daughter Philadelphia (Shirley Temple). He’s not shy in expressing his frustration in his new posting in the wilderness, practically sent into oblivion to put him out-of-the-way for reasons we will soon begin to understand. A man whose world’s built on social order and the structure that comes with it, he’s a man easily ruffled. Whilst his daughters ready for adventure with her farther out in the frontier. We don’t even reach the Fort before we meet freshly graduated 2nd Lt. Michael Shannon O’Rourke (John Agar) awaiting an escort to the Fort. The first of many social insults for Thursday to endure, his presence is unknown to the sergeants who’ve arrived due to the broken cable. Also unaware of Philadelphia’s growing attraction to the Lt.
Fort Apache is again filled with actors from Ford’s stock company creating for the audience a welcome set of faces on the screen. From Ward Bond to Victor McLaglen, who are not just used for comic relief, they become integral to understanding the structure of the world that Thursday is exploring and trying to take control of. As much as John Wayne is given top billing with Fonda owns this film, the ideas are all liked back to him, his actions affect the plot and all those around him. Whilst Wayne’s Captain Kirby York takes the brunt of it he does help to ground the film and sell it to the general public, not that takes much effort, his own star power rising over the past decade since Ford rescued him from the world of B-movies.
Turning to life of the Fort we have two worlds, one of domesticity and one of the soldier, the two can co-exist but following a set of precise set of rules that Thursday is constantly fighting. Coming from another class he’s a gentlemen of West Point training and high society etiquette, each with their own set of rules that are meant to exist in perfect sync. Whilst the reality of domestic life on the frontier which adapts to the Army fort it can work. Lead by Mrs. Mary O’Rourke (Irene Rich) who sees knows she and other women have little place outside, take over the home, once crossing that boundary a soldier must follow another set of rules and regulations. First meeting them all at a dance with the other men, Thursday’s taken aback by the perceived lack of discipline, so swept up in his own arrival he forgets it’s George Washington Day 18th February, reminded by one of the only men who has the confidence to talk back to him – York.
Another strong example of this clash of worlds is when Thursday wants to escort his daughter back home, on learning that she has left to visit Lt. O’Rourke, the man the family and the audience know to be who she will marry. Thursday doesn’t see the young O’Rourke to be suitable to marry due to his social position, despite his West Point training, even through presidential approval, it’s not enough that the highest power in the land can afford a man to go up a class in society. It can’t be earned, it’s a birthright in the eyes of Thursday. There’s no problem for the rest of the family, who also see that his uniform is practically meaningless under the private residence of the O’Rourke’s, nearly causing an argument.
I now want to look at that seed that was sewn for Liberty Valance, the line “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend”. After what we hoped would be a peaceful resolution between the United States government and the Apache. York’s meeting with Cochise’s thought to be enough for them to return to the reservation and get changes underway. The racism in Thursday prevents the talk of peace going any further than the crossing of the border, when he can lead a charge to kill the renegade Apache, solving yet another issue of the never-ending Indian problem. By this point I had forgotten that we see them all ride off into battle and all but fall under a 4 to 1 massacre. Not just an underestimation of the enemy, a complete disregard of cultural differences and promises previously made to ensure their return.
It’s not a pleasant sight to see, all those men we have come to know and love, ride off into the vast emptiness of Monument Valley to face a death that could’ve been avoided. The recording of that battle is not what we would have hoped but does ensure that the legacy of an officer’s maintained and also that of the Fort and ultimately the Army. York makes the bold decision in his report, not seen on camera to be complicit in the lie that must be maintained for a better history and that of the West to be told. Helping build the morale of the country, something which has been done which each conflict that the United States has entered, rewriting the events to convey a myth that can be shared for generations. Essential to the American story, when the facts don’t fit the legend why bother. With all the images, paintings and social impact of Thursday supposed sacrifice on the battlefield, he has become a hero just by fighting with his boots on, it doesn’t matter what lead him there. York knows that he can’t fight that, it’s bigger than him, bigger any man in the uniform.
Ford knows the power of the story telling and the American story that he’s help to shape into the cinematic form that has become its own legend and part of the greater myth of the West. I’m still not looking forward to Yellow Ribbon, even with the drunken scenes, I just can’t see how it will even come close to the complexity of the Apache that dives head first into the fabric of the genre.
She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949)
My fears for what I thought would be a string of comic events was all but washed away coming away from She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) the middle piece of the Cavalry trilogy. I could see why I saw this as potentially being the weaker of the three. Yellow Ribbon acts as a celebration of the Cavalry. Opening with narration over the vastness of Monument Valley in beautiful Technicolor. Ford is very much home in the desert landscape that stretches for what seems like a limitless distance. His playground to get out his actors and re-enact his countries past.
Taking his cue once more from Custer, who this times named to have fallen after The Battle of Little Bighorn (1976), a major blow for both the U.S. Army and the country during its long campaign to see the Native Americans rounded up onto reservations. The treatment of the nations is the complete opposite of Fort Apache. No longer are they respected or feared for the damage they can do. Now they are a nuisance that must be resolved. We’re told that a number of plains tribes have put aside old rivalries to come together to fight the army that’s trying to pen them into land they aren’t interested in. The failure of Little BigHorn really hurts, any future defeats aren’t allowed.
Yellow Ribbon is not so much concerned with legacy as it is with the history that it hopes to make. Instead there’s a focus on the people who populate the unnamed fort where we Captain Nathan Brittles (Wayne) is 5 days away from retirement. He’s not so much concerned with what he is leaving behind but the future he’s going off to. With the focus of the film being his last patrol of the area before his retirement. Before he heads out we get to learn about his relationship with the men. First what is a long-standing friendship with Top Sgt. Quincannon (McLaghlen), you get the feeling they go back a long way. However it’s his time with both Lt. Flint Cohill (Agar again) and Second Lt. Ross Pennell (Harry Carey Jr.) new to the Ford Stock Company) who themselves are fighting for the affections of the only eligible woman on the fort – Olivia Dandridge (Joanne Dru). The chemistry between the three makes for some great scenes, not so much sexual tension. It’s a charming fight between two young men for a woman whose far maturer than both. It’s also the origin of the film’s title, a fictional tradition that neatly ties into the richness of the film. A symbol of a woman showing her affection for a soldier. Matching the yellow handkerchief that was once part of the standard uniform until 1872 (four years before the film’s set). Ford takes creative licence along with the strong influence of Frederic Remington’s depiction of the accessory, that evokes a certain romanticism of the army that has carried through the classic cycle of the Western.
“Never apologise, It’s a sign of weakness” another layer of masculine code that is laid down by The Duke, part of his image that defined his on-screen persona. Something that many men have tried to live up to during his life-time. Today however the idea of never apologising is both laughable and disturbing, that in itself is a strength in modern man. As a male myself I believe that the ability to own up to your faults or errors shows a sign of great strength. To understand you’re in the wrong and admitted is today respect, that way you can build on itself and grow as an individual. A sure sign that the image of man as defined by the duke is slowly being chipped away, becoming something of a dinosaur. Just saying that is depressing, however a raised awareness mental health in men shows that you have to understand and be in touch with your feelings instead of hiding behind a persona of a masculine mystique that can trap a man down the route of potential depression and even suicide. Looking at Wayne’s image of a man I can only take so much of it use for myself, mostly a sense of confidence and the ability to not take yourself so seriously, which he did much later in his life.
Whilst life on the fort is very pleasant, there’s a time for regulations and a time to relax and understand there’s more to life than the uniform. It’s out in the open that we see the cavalry showing what they’re made of. Out on patrol, with the addition of two women – the major’s wife Abby Allshard (Mildred Natwick) and Olivia Dandridge in female uniform and riding side-saddle. One complains of the rotating between riding and walking, whilst the older has had no stability in the last ten years. Both being escorted to a stagecoach to be taken East and away from very real dangers out in the open. The women reflect the negative side of a military life, one more from marital experience, whilst the younger is more frustrated.
Action finally gets underway each time we encounter either Apache, Southern Cheyenne etc, as much as they are pretty much faceless and nameless, they are ever present in the environment. From the cliched yells as they ride into battle to the broken English, building on the image that Ford had a hand in creating for the Native American on film. When not on-screen the patrol’s one of character and discipline, set against the backdrop of Monument Valley from butte to butte we traverse the desert for what feels like forever, I wouldn’t mind that in a Ford film any day. The riding reminds us that we are away from the security of the fort, open the elements and dangers of the open West.
Yellow Ribbon is very much a celebration of the cavalry, we didn’t have time for that in Fort Apache looked at the legacy of campaigns and the wider history that’s written. Yellow Ribbon looks more closely at the people who are in the uniform, mostly of Brittles wise old captain who has seen his share of warfare on the frontier. Wayne gives one of his best performances, something that Ford had a knack of doing on countless collaborations, maybe it was all the goading on set that forced him to give his best, or knowing that this man-made him who he was so owed him his best. Now I look forward to Rio Grande (1950) with a renewed excitement, knowing that the trilogy is a solid set of films that are all very different, showing varying sides of a history that was repeated and reflected during the production of the three films.
Rio Grande (1950)
I’ve been itching to catch Rio Grande (1950) completing the cavalry trilogy, which came out of a contractual obligation with Republic studio. Ford wanting to make his pet project The Quiet Man (1952) was allowed to be made on the provision that he make another Western first. The director not one to just make a slap-dash film gave this final cavalry outing the time it deserved. Falling back on the character of Kirby Yorke now a colonel and posted out to Fort Rio Grande on the Texas/Mexican border we find the man who was once ensuring that the legacy of another senior officer remain in-tact. Here he has concerns of his own past that are brought to light. Grande focuses on the York family in particular. Noted as the first of 5 films they would make together, a pairing that worked very well on-screen. The only woman who could truly hold her own in front of The Duke, and one that he found to be his favourite too.
Tonaly looking back at Yellow Ribbon there’s a real shift from celebration of the uniform to that of reflection of what life in the uniform can be like. The consequences of past action or military engagements, how they effect those around you on a personal level, pretty deep stuff for a Western of this period. There’s also a return to the beautiful black and white cinematography, connecting it back to the world of Fort Apache where we last found York, Allowing us to focus on the action and drama without the distraction of colour.
From the opening dialogue free scene we know we are in the world of the military, the anxious wives and mothers waiting for their men to return home from battle. Looking onto find them in the column of exhausted troops returning home. Ford again focuses on the community that is directly effected by the cavalry, or any armed force. Due to his time in the Navy’s photographic department, reflecting his experiences in the most American of genres. He turns what could be a wild West scene easily into any conflict and any time in America’s military history. Handled with great sensitivity. Not one line of dialogue can express the emotions going through the women and children waiting for fathers, husbands and brothers to return home safely. It’s here we learn that York has a son whose just been expelled from West Point, the same school where only a few years before 2nd Lt. Michael Shannon O’Rourke (John Agar) who had to fight class distinctions with Colonel Thursday. The younger Trooper “Jeff” Jefferson York (Claude Jarman Jr.) who then went back to enlist as a regular. Showing determination to ensure he sees a military future and carrying on his families legacy in uniform. The younger York doesn’t have that social stigma but could potentially carry another one – a West Point failure. The news of his failing in maths doesn’t come as a surprise to the father, which could be seen as a trait that he has passed onto his son.
Among the other enlisted men we have the youngest men of the Ford Stock Company, which are used successfully for lighter scenes and depicting the men in uniform with faces we can recognise and relate to. Daniel Boone (Harry Carey Jr.) and Travis Tyree (Ben Johnson) allow us to get under the surface of what it takes to get into the uniform, what makes a man in the cavalry. Essentially average Joe’s who want to make a life for themselves. Becoming essential to the plot as it reaches the 3rd act, showing that solider with our without stripes and medals is needed on the field of battle.
It’s the addition of Kathleen York (Maureen O’Hara) which has the potential to turns things upside down, carrying with her a deep-rooted resentment of her plantation being burnt to the ground during the Civil War. Her main reason for being on the fort, to collect her son from the cavalry, something she learns is easier said than done. Not just needing her signature, but that the willingness of her son to also sign, which form him would be a sign of giving up on himself, essentially a sign of weakness. Her resentment towards York, extends also to Sgt. Maj. Timothy Quincannon (Victor McLaglen) who carried out the order to burn hers, among other plantations in the Shenandoah Valley, part of a strategy to cripple the Confederacy at the heart, if the farms are scorched, no food can be grown to feed the army and the men fighting within them. Taking place over a 5 month period in 1864 under the orders of General Ulysses Grant. Seen in the context of Rio Grande as regrettable but necessary actions needed to speed up the wars process in the favor of the Union winning the war.
Looking at the depiction of the Native Americans who again are focus of the external conflict, the Apaches are again reduced to being vicious faceless, nameless pests for both American and Mexicans on both side of the border. When they are heard to be chanting by Quincannon they are seen as just a nuisance to be quelled with a threat. This is quickly undermined with an attack of three combined nations heading over to rescue to captured Apaches. There’s no effort to see their side of events, just something to be stopped at any cost. A cost that could lead to a court martial if the orders to bring their rein of terror to an end. Verbal orders which are carefully delivered as to avoid legal complications if they were to go horribly wrong.
These orders reflect the then contemporary policy towards Korea, if orders were made public of the countries intervention into the country were to go wrong. The social and political implications would be far greater than the result. Keeping the operation quiet until known to be a success and an American victory was far more important. Colonel York experiences the same dilemma. As much as he wants to carry out the orders, he knows the weight on the consequences o the mission failure on a personal level. I found this situation fascinating, how many failed political decisions that have been hidden from public scrutiny, probably very few with a decent press.
Concerning the York family dynamic we have a father whose hard on not just himself, understanding that historically he’s lost his family based on orders he was given that broke a family that was already split down the middle politically. Kathleen’s presence brings all of these emotions of guilt, honor and duty into question when it comes to his own family. The uniform comes before his own life and those of others, he has to follow the orders of his superiors without question, it’s the chain of command that has cost him his wife and son for 15 years. With the arrival of his son – coincidence I think not, see him begin to soften to life as a parent whilst maintaining his position. Whilst Kathleen softens over the film’s duration to realise that both the men in her life are in uniform and that comes before family. By the end of the film she sees herself more as a military wife who understands the importance of the uniform. Again ending with a scene that relies only on emotion, as the men return from another campaign, she looks on and waits for husband and son to return, finding the colonel on a travois injured, reaching out for his arm as they walk into the fort. Nothing mores needed to convey how far thy they have both come together.
Looking back at the trilogy they each explore different facets of the cavalry. Whilst celebrating they look at legacy of campaigns, the individuals involved and the impact they will have on history. The celebration of life on the fort at all levels and aspects of life from new recruits in training to those about to retire. Until the final installment Yellow Ribbon is the most romantic of the trilogy, Rio Grande pours it on thick musically with the Sons of the Pioneers and the carefully lit scenes with between Wayne and O’Hara. Ford doesn’t miss a trick, even if the last installment was purely by accident, creating a trilogy before the term franchise was even a thing in cinema, it was the actors who were the real attraction not so much the reliability of the content that guaranteed success at the box-office.
It’s been a few years since I first saw Bone Tomahawk (2015) at the cinema, my friend enjoyed it far more than me. I could see by his visceral reaction, definitely a horror fan who had been thrilled by the dark experience of this Horror-Western. My mind was still lingering on the graphic images of violence, the splitting of a man down through the legs after a scalping. Not your average western in terms of the images that you’d generally get to see. As I reflect back on this film I am again reminded of how it references The Searchers (1956), how the themes more so in the case of this later film have been weaved into this captive rescue Western. I needed to revisit to build on my understanding of what’s become an interesting oddity in the genre.
My original review was based on my initial thoughts less than 24 hours from taking in the film, I don’t have that experience so much to rely on now. I came to this viewing with an expectation of knowing that image would be waiting for me. That didn’t put me off either, instead I was getting myself ready and excited to be taken back to those moments in the screen 3 years ago. I remembered the lines about how many arteries in the throat that needed to be cut in order to kill and a man, delivered so dry as a normal conversation, all part of the job that was so sloppily carried out by two robberies who got what they had coming to them. In-fact most of the dialogue’s written to reflect more the time period than contemporary America. Laced with a sense of decency and politeness that would usually be found back East, civilisation is making its way West.
The opening of the film takes us briefly into this dark world of cannibalism, meeting a dark figure in an out of focus shot that gruesomely kills the older of the two fools to walk through the sacred ground of the not so sacred Troglodytes that roam this region of the Wild West. Before cutting back to Spring Hope, a frontier town that where we meet the main characters of the film. The slow pacing of the dialogue reflects the atmosphere of this almost too polite town. Arthur (Patrick Wilson) man laid up on the sofa for 12 weeks with a broken leg faces a period of great boredom if it wasn’t for his nurse wife Samantha (Lili Simmons) doing her best to take his mind off the pain. Still enjoying his marital duties in one scene, telling us this is not your standard Western, we’re being taken into the domesticated West where couples could make a life for themselves. Sheriff Hunt (Kurt Russell) is a law man whose known to be trigger-happy when pushed. Joined by his back-up deputy Chicory (Richard Jenkins) making up a classic double act. We also meet the Ethan Edwards of the film Mr Brooder (Matthew Fox) a gentleman on the surface alone, go a little deeper and you find a racist with a gun that’s waiting for an excuse to shoot them dead.
With the scene set, there’s still no sign of these Troglodytes until the next morning after a black stable boy has been found brutally murdered and the jail found completely empty. Civilsation has been tainted by the dark forces which we are still yet to see or fully understand. We get a brief description from resident Native American The Professor (Zahn McClarnon) who shares all he knows about this dark off-shoot of a Native American tribe that no-one dares mention. Taking a dark path that even he won’t take to help them. Here the use of the Native American’s used to replace the radical Islamist terrorists who have been radicalised and subverted their own holy book The Quran to explain their insane actions upon the rest of the world. The only Native present in the film’s seen as a respected part of the community that no longer sees him as a threat, instead he’s been assimilated onto their world.
Unlike the Troglodytes that we are still yet to meet. The four men we met earlier set off into an eerily cold Wild West, scenery we know to know to be synonymous with the genre yet there’s something different in the air this time. We have no soundtrack to accompany this wide open space, just our thoughts of the impending danger they are about to find. First having to contend with the stubborn Arthur who shouldn’t have left his home, wanting to find his wife. Whilst his old rival Brooder feels duty bound to rescue her too. Whilst the sheriff and deputy buddy act gets underway. Hunt tries to keep them moving and in line, Russell really suits this role, as he swagger’s around the wide open landscape, it like he’s come from that time period. Again playing the leader, whilst Jenkins Chicory is a beautiful homage to a Walter Brennan type chatting his way through the nervous wait of the long journey.
Our wait is a long one, it’s painfully nail-biting at times as we finally enter the caves of the Troglodytes, it’s not long until they are first ambushed after seeing such a hopeful start to the rescue mission that for a while goes so terribly wrong. The two survivors join Samantha in a cave of torture, there’s no other words for it, just waiting for the inevitable. If not for the limping husband Arthur who by rights should have been killed by now hobbles along to save the day. What they see confounds their belief system, members of the Christian community unable to comprehend what theses cannibals are doing. Survival is the only way forward, it’s gruesome for everyone who have to make choices they would never consider back home.
My thoughts on the connection to The Searchers is somewhat different, there is a search which is more defined and much more restricted, no scope for the open vastness of the mythical space such as Monument Valley. We have a more open discussion between the characters on racism. The era of hating the Indian is over in this Western, it’s time to focus on the future, find this relic and rescue the defenceless woman, who this time can talk back. The heroes (if you can call them that) are shown and seen to be interacting in the others environment, far more than in previous films, you have to explore and ask the question – why would people do such things? before you can leave with your life. Brooder who is clearly the Ethan of the film’s sidelined here, allowed to travel with the men, however his actions are more directly questioned and fought against. Whilst Ethan has to the power to walk all over those who ride with him for a most of the film. It’s his presence and knowledge of the Comanche that make him both valuable and a danger to those who are searching for the Edwards daughters after the raid.
Leaving Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter) to question his thinking and eventually persuade him to rescue and not kill Debbie (Natalie Wood) who he believes to be tainted, no longer a white person after her time with the Comanche. Brooder is more generalised racist who has let his hatred for Native American’s seep into that for other non-white nationalities that see him become a loose cannon with the men. His gentlemanly guise is a thin veil for something that fine clothes and manners cannot hide. Whilst Ethan (John Wayne) wears is it plain-sight in his speech towards even his distant family. Martin who he rescued as a child, who had since been adopted, is seen as a mistake in his eyes, he’s no kin of his. It takes the course of the film for him to change his view.
So what’s my view on Bone Tomahawk now? It’s still a film that leaves you taken aback, the images stay with you, the ideas are now even stronger, I’ll probably sleep better having got that first viewing under my belt. It’s a very rich film that gently plays out until you’re hit with the horror of the other that America is still dealing with today in terrorist attacks and the attempts to prevent Mexican’s and other South American’s crossing the border. It’s a very prevalent film that speaks of a nations fears that won’t go away anytime soon.
I’ve been meaning to watch Paris, Texas (1984) for quite sometime now. Only being aware that it was a modern classic and seen as a modern take on The Searchers (1956) where once again I will be coming from as I explore and try to understand what is a beautiful film no matter the reading you take from it. I know now that my next piece of work will be based on the John Ford/John Wayne classic and how it’s influence on film ever since. My exploration has now taken me to Wim Wenders classic, having only seen one other of his films and more recently his Polaroid exhibition at the Photographers Gallery last year.
So where to start with Paris, Texas, I thought it would be straight-forward modern retelling of the Western classic. That was before we met Travis (Harry Dean Stanton) who in the opening scenes collapses from a mix of heat exhaustion and dehydration. The desert has not been kind to this tall gangly man who remains mute for the first 30 minutes of the film. Relying on his gestures or lack of them to discern what he wants. When his brother Walt’s (Dean Stockwell) called to come and collect his once thought dead brother from a small hospital in the middle of the Texan desert. Texas is the first real link to The Searchers where we find the film is loosely set, the backdrop of seven years of wandering. The silence is at first worrying, has Travis become a mute, or has he been psychologically afflicted, uttering no words, relying on his strained relationship with his brother to communicate. You can only feel for them both as Walt tries to reconnect and understand his brother who just can’t keep still at first, twice he bolts before finally making the trip West to California.
Hopes of flying home are soon dashed when Travis needs to stay on the ground, he’s a complex man who we are beginning to understand as he slowly opens up to us and his brother who we learn has been bringing up his nephew as his own child for the past 4 years. Travis has been wandering for the past 4 years, but why. The journey home on the open road doesn’t pass without a few bumps along the way. The location of Paris in the state of Texas is brought up a few times as they both reminisce, a plot of land that he had hoped to have truly made his home. The wandering cowboy making a small part of the world his own, a homestead for the family he once had. Still holding onto the more fragile parts of his past for later his return to Walt’s home and being reunited with his son Hunter (Hunter Carson). All this could be read as Aaron Edwards (Walter Coy) bringing home his wayward brother Ethan (Wayne) from the wilderness after the civil war. At this point I’m beginning to see how the classic has been reworked.
Back home he begins to open up to his son, both are unsure of each other, one leaving without reason or notice, feeling abandoned, whilst the other deeply troubled by his own behaviour. A cowboy just riding off into the sunset, much like Shane yet without the young boy crying out for his return. His presence would ultimately be detrimental to those around him. The family home – which could be replaced with the Edwards homestead is equally uneasy and full of memories for Travis who begins to make up for lost time with his son who begins to allow this stranger back into his life. I feel that so many of the scenes in this film could easily be shared here, but that would be too extreme. However the father son relationship that is at the centre of the film is only suggested in the Searchers, could Lucy (Pippa Scott) or even Debbie (Lana Wood and Natalie Wood) yet unable to express that connection would have broken the Hays codes that restrained films so badly in the 1950’s. Wenders doesn’t have any of that to consider, his family have raised the boy as their own without question, and without with-holding the truth either.
The blossoming of the father-son relationship is at times both heart-warming and very moving as they begin to see each other as part of one another. An invite to walk home together is brutally snubbed as only a child can handle, whilst Travis can only look on with rejection. It’s a family home-movie that seen to be most revealing. We meet the mother Jane (Nastassja Kinski) who had a passionate relationship with a much older Travis. The images are too much for him at time to bare. For the audience it’s our first chance to see Jane, a part of his life that has only been spoken about, shaping our view of what this character means to them.
Travis finally decides to take things into his own hands, after being told more about Jane by Anne (Aurore Clément ) who had raised Hunter as her own. Jane for the past 4 years has been depositing money on a monthly basis in a bank in Houston. That’s all he needs to seek her. After spending just over half the film trying to find himself and pick up where he left off, does the real search begin. Leaving with his son in tow they head for Houston hoping that they can find one person in a city of thousands. A beautifully simple translation of plot elements for a modern audience and setting. Father and son grow closer as they get closer to finding Jane who Hunter believes he’s spotted. The search is now on, following a 7 year olds hunch they hit the road in hopes that he’s right, or face waiting another month.
Finally reaching the car and a quiet building Travis enters into a world he knows little about. This the Ethan of the film does enter the Comanche Camp and finds his Debbie very much alive and well. Working in a peep-show, another form of prostitution. Unlike Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) who was able to save the young girl from a downward spiral, our Travis here is prevented by a wall of glass and a telephone, that affords him the safety to get to know the woman he knows he’s hurt, scaring both her and himself into their own separate wildernesses. What follows are some of the longest scenes I’ve ever watched, pure conversation between two people, only a phone line connects them, the truth hopefully will break through.
Let’s go Home Debbie – Ethan’s final lines of dialogue, the hatred in him has now melted away, allowing him to see the girl, the niece that can be saved. He can now see the hope in her to bring her back to civilisation. Whilst he’s still left to wander, unable to be part of the family. Travis gives up his position to reunite his son with his mother in an equally moving ending to the latter film, Believing this is the right thing to do by his son, finally putting Jane first after what was an emotionally abusive relationship built on a destructive passion that couldn’t last. There maybe no racism but there’s plenty of anger that still has to be dealt with internally for the quiet man who drives off into the night. Ending a film that is deeply melancholic, reaching into the heart of America’s deserts to reunite a family that ultimately cannot be together. Sam Shepherd‘s simple script has taken a classic formula of the search and rescue Western and transforming it into a tragic romance between a couple that had no chance of being reignited. I just wish I’d seen this classic years ago, now I’m left wondering how many more rich films have been inspired by such a complex Western that I maybe still in the midst of my own search for some time to come.
Mad Max (1979)
It feels like a long time since I’ve got my teeth into the influence of The Searchers (1956) in film. How one little Western could really effect so many more after it’s release as just another John Wayne western, nothing to go crazy about at the time. And then the first batch of film directors to leave film school had discovered this under appreciated masterpiece, for some they really couldn’t let go, or John Ford and Wayne couldn’t let go of them. One of those was George Miller who has recently been able to go back to this anti-hero and explore him further to great success. I can’t to see where Mad Max goes next in the apocalyptic future that has breathed fresh life into an already cult classic of a film.
I’m about to undertake another extended film review, looking at the original trilogy of films, reading them as Westerns and where I can as being influenced by The Searchers, something of a preoccupation in my film watching. Beginning with the original 1979 that I was told by my dad that one of my uncles thought was crap on release. I wanted to see for myself why did he think that? I wanted to put that opinion to the test. My first watch a few years ago, left me wanting more, all the crashes, explosions and fast-paced action was all I wanted. It felt far longer than it actually is too. Looking back I found I was watching a different film, same images, but with a different set of goals in mind. Not just a refresh in the mind, but also to find the Western iconography that connects a seemingly throw-away road movie to the great American genre. A genre that can easily be transplanted to the vast Australian outback. I was surprised that the cast mostly speak in an American accents, reminding me of the dubbed English audio found in Spaghetti Westerns. Being an Australian production and cast, even made on location in the country. Maybe this was a decision to help sell the film to an international audience.
Set a few years in the future, a decidedly vague choice by Miller to keep the audience guessing, how long do we have to wait for this prediction to come true, hopefully that would never happen. We’re thrown into the start of a police chase, two interceptor cars are ready and waiting for a car to come into view. One car with a cautious officer who can’t even stand the odd swear word from his partner – a man clearly out of his comfort zone but wanting to keep the peace on the open roads of the Aussie landscape. It’s a car chase that will have massive effects for this squad of interceptors for the duration of the film. The couple in the car carried the leader – Night Rider (Vincent Gil) of a biker gang that is ultimately killed whose legacy brings forth bloodshed and violence.
We first meet the gang as they ride into town, much like a group of riders on horseback, their motions even on two-wheeled vehicles are arranged like the four-legged animals would once have dominated this open space. The bikers bring with them a brand of violence that can only be delivered on two wheels, the maneuverability and ease to all murder and rape to be carried out on the innocent. They are vicious men who show no mercy to thier victims, they’re sadistic and shocking even today.
We haven’t even met Max (Mel Gibson) whose face is kept out of view until he makes his entrance saving the day, showing that he’s not one interceptor to be messed with. Along with his partner Jim Goose (Steve Bisley) who loses his cool when he learns that their latest suspect – Johnny the Kid (Tim Burns) has to be released. All part of a rigged system that works in favor of the criminal, having no apparent evidence creates the illusion of a rigged legal system. Leading Goose to his eventual demise and a strong Searchers reference, after a few scenes that built up to the gang getting revenge him for his treatment of the Kid, a more reluctant and innocent member of the gang, dressed in more civilian clothes leads Goose to what could be seen as an Indian raid. Scar’s Comanches delivering their revenge for his mistreatment. Even leading up to the car explosion he’s reluctant to commit the act. Could the kid have been captured and adopted into the gang, being pushed to prove himself to the rest of the gang, most importantly to the new leader Toecutter (Hugh Keays-Byrne ) whose growing tired of him. The following scene goes further than Ethan Edwards entering the massacred homestead of his brother’s wife and family. We are never shown the extent of the human cost, left only to our imaginations. It’s believed to be too painful. Miller goes a step further, taking us into the hospital room, changing the shot to reveal a bed with a bed sheet over a raised framework. Max investigates, discovering the charred remains of his partner who he’ll never work with again.
From here on out we see a once law-abiding interceptor (I say that loosely as they were the law), Max becomes a man on a mission. The drive to see justice done, is forced upon him by the killing of his wife and child. He has nothing else left to live for except to use the security of his job and uniform to see that justice is delivered. Even resulting to methods not too far off what the gang would use themselves. He becomes the very thing he hates in order to ensure his wife and child’s death was not worthless. The impact of their deaths is too much for him to just sit down any more.
We are seeing the origins of a man whose destined to live a solitary life in the outback of a future that is still uncertain. I am left wondering how do we get from Mad Max to Road Warrior. Are there a number of biker gangs that take over, how does civilisation crumble to become a rare group of people who will do what is necessary to survive. All will be revealed in the middle film, which I feel is the strongest of the original trilogy. We will see how Max has transformed into a loner who wants nothing more than to be left alone like a gunfighter who knows Indians, or in this case bikers.
The Road Warrior (1981)
It’s been a few weeks since I watched the original Mad Max, which laid the foundations for what has become an Australian classic. George Miller returned to the well to produce a far more futuristic and dystopian future, using the first now as a firm foundation into what could easily be and has become a franchise (albeit 4 films) with its own unique language, which has been carried through more recently to the belated remake/reboot/sequel (I’m still not sure where it fits in but I bloody love it), a far more bombastic entry than the original entries.
Now back to the first sequel, now I remember mostly the exhilaration of watching The Road Warrior (1981) more than anything else. It was a case of re-watching to remind myself. Even the ending was a complete surprise. Opening with a short prologue that explains where we, it’s vague enough to be in the distant future, carefully and with pathos placing Max, making use of footage from the first film and archive footage from past conflicts to paint a bleak picture of how the modern world collapsing, irretrievable by the governments even then. I wonder how things would work out now with a trade war between America and the rest of the world. The fake news and underhand activities of a clandestine Russia who are unable to take responsibility for what’s clearly their own actions. Or will global warming beat all of us to the point where we self destruct?
With the prologue setting the tone we’re thrown into another road ambush between Max and a gang of bandits on bikes and cars, kited out with spikes, cross-bows and anything else they can use to inflict death on. We witnessed what was clearly the final days of what we would call civilisation as it began to crumble. Now it’s Max against the world, taking on the role of a future gunfighter replace the standard horse for a car with all the bells and whistles to survive and outwit his opponents on the open road. Riding alone if it wasn’t for with his dog, man’s only true friend. We catch a small box under the chassis with switch, the first loaded gun that we thankfully see fired later on. Ultimately he outwits these bandits, meeting Wez (Vernon Wells) whose part of a far larger gang. Clearly main adversary of the film, taking on the position last held by Toecutter, both are pretty much the same character, hell-bent for the same things in life. Wez is however far more dangerous with a short fuse, once lit has to be allowed to blow.
Clear of the first incident Max encounters a real character – The Gyro Captain (Bruce Spence) who really steals the show. Another man out there in the wilderness, trying to survive. Complete with a unique gyrocopter that allows him to escape the mayhem below. He could easily be the mad inventor sidekick if Max would only let him into his life. Max has now become a lone wolf, unable to really connect to others enough to trust them. It’s a dog eat dog world that relies on having your wits about you. One false move and your dead. For Gyro the stranger in his life is a breath of fresh air and sees in him the opportunity for some excitement instead of keeping his vehicle safe. Both men who have seen a lot since the modern world collapsed.
Gryo leads Max to where he can get his hands on more fuel, the main commodity in this dystopian world. Found in a much desired complex heavily fortified and wanted by The Humungus (Kjell Nilsson) and his gang (including Wez). It’s a constant state of war for those with the oil that they have found and will do anything to hold onto. The rag-tag band of men, women and a Feral Child (Emil Minty) are not afraid to fight, only on more civilised terms, they haven’t let the end of the world affect them too much. They are essentially good people just trying to survive. Those with all the riches in the area, whilst the uncivilised punk riders are the Native Americans of this world. Circling the compound on an almost daily basis, doing what they can to chip away at the defences of the last refuge for the oil tanker which means hope, stability and ultimately survival. The compound could easily be seen as a fort of the last of the civilisation, trying to hang onto what makes them human. Could they be the last hope for humanity in this corner of the world.
Now I remember the original deal that Max makes with the compound when he nears with one of their wounded, as much gas as he can carry in exchange for their dying man. The deal/contract doesn’t last long enough to be fulfilled before an ultimatium is made by The Humungus which determines the future of the community that have been fighting to survive for too long to give up. The tanker in exchange for their freedom, a fair deal for some, not for others and only 24 hours to make their minds up. The catalyst is ultimately the stranger among them – Max, with his unique set of skills and experience he is their Shane who can save the day. If only he chooses to stay with them is up to him. His world is far different than that of Shane who has to leave in order for civilisation to thrive. He’s very much a loner who still has a heart that has to be found before he can make a difference. One key scene in a make-shift garage between him and the communities leader Pappagallo (Michael Preston) whose able to get past all the leather coat hard-shell to find the man whose no different from anyone in the compound. It’s a classic scene that allows audience to understand Max more. Of course we have the original film to draw upon for his back-story.
In terms of Western comparison, it’s all there in the action, swap horses for cars, trucks and bikes, all pimped out with a rustic punk aesthetic, they aren’t just vehicles, they are weapons, homes before they are transport. All culminating a jaw-dropping finale that feels like it last forever. Breathtaking stunts that have produced a string of sequences that sees a huge swathe of characters meet a fantastically bloody end. Each one unique and grisly, there’s no need for repeats, it looks like George Miller was playing, when in-fact it would have been carefully laid out to look like a male fantasy of road carnage. This is what I remember the unadulterated violence, the tension of these scenes that show how precious this commodity really is to the survivors of this future.
Looking forward to the next and final installment we are left with a far shorter epilogue, learning that the narrator is in fact the Feral child, which is a precursor for Beyond Thunderdome (1984) and the commercial sellout I’m now dreading it to be. If only the trilogy wasn’t that, but a nicely compact two-parter that has an origin story and well-crafted sequel that feels very much like a Western in the classic form that feels far more modern, a conflicted man who doesn’t want to make connections with others, yet knows he has to help others in need. The law enforcer in him is not dead yet. Miller has crafted a visual language that draws on the then present, retrofitting it for the a future that is both alluring and incredible dangerous to enter.
Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1984)
I’ve been putting off the third installment for a few days now, making excuses not to sit down, until I thought, lets just do this and get it over and done with. What I felt was going to be the Millers Return of the Jedi, with plenty of money to spend now with lots of stipulations to gain the biggest return. With two major elements to sell-out, first you have a big name of the moment with rock star Tina Turner who herself had just made a successful return to the music world with her latest album, a second wind in her long career. Whilst the real Jedi factor is the kids, to reach the widest audience – appeal to the kids. True this is 15 rated film in the UK, that wouldn’t stop it getting lower ratings across the rest of the world.
Again my memory of this film has faded overtime, thinking it was far longer and much better than it actually is – I’ll get to that later. With a bigger budget at least it was still filmed on location in Australia than over the Nevada desert. The tone of the film’s set in the opening scene, a pilot and son in the cockpit of a small plane hijacking a camel drawn car. Discovering it was once again Bruce Spence in a similar role, hoping that this would be a true link to the previous film ultimately made no sense as the Gyro Captain who in the prologue took over leadership of the group that escaped in Road Warrior. Why would he leave them with only a child. Understandably his on-screen chemistry was too much to pass up for a cheeky cameo, or an attempt to make a connection to the last film that just got confused in the edit.
I couldn’t stop thinking of the recent reboot/sequel – Fury Road, how I badly compared this last entry as being the strongest influence on it. In terms of visual style it’s very strong, however it has more in common with the middle entry. I need to revisit and put that error right. Miller’s world has certainly been expanded with the bigger budget. First with Barter Town, where we find Max who was the owner of the camel drawn car wanting to get his vehicle back. Entering a dark world where remnants of the society we have known have been held onto and bent in order for survival of the fittest. They have regressed to a state of law and order that wouldn’t look out-of-place in the Wild West. Max through sheer persistence with The Collector (Frank Thring) who takes him to meet the leader of Barter Town, no not the saxophonist, this is 80’s sexy minimalist style. The big reveal of Aunty Entity (Turner) whose open to a deal, that’s after he proves his worth to her.
If you’d been wondering what the hell the title of the film meant, you don’t have to wait much longer, a throw-back to classical justice of Greece or Rome, a giant metal dome where all arguments are settled. A deals made for Max to get The Blaster (Paul Larsson) in the arena. Part of a larger scheme to disrupt the power play between the two classes that make up the town. The underworld which literally holds that power than keeps the town alive is in the hands of two people with the combined name of The Master Blaster. A little person – The Master (Angelo Rossitto) the brains, whilst The Blaster is the braugn. Together they are not to be messed with in the pig-s*** infested underworld. Connected by a metal framework over The Blaster’s shoulders. Essentially Max in a pawn in a bigger problem that he’s more than happy to get involved in for his own gain. Much like in Road Warrior, the stranger than enters with his own agenda is happy, however he’s bitten off more than he can chew.
Barter Town is an in-depth expansion into the apocalyptic future that Miller has been bringing to life. You could see it as just another collection of people just trying to survive the only way they know how. However the complexity of this town is explained away all too easily in the dialogue – namely Dr. Dealgood (Edwin Hodgeman), there purely to explain and dumb-down the rules for us of this town so explicitly we don’t really have a chance to understand on our own terms.
Our town in the Thunderdome is probably as violent as the film really gets before recycling the finale from Road Warrior. The confined space to fight in, the crowd that put themselves in danger just to see someone die is a sure sign of the regression of modern society to return to more primitive methods to settle a score. It’s the only gunfight of the film that ends, well it doesn’t really end, it leads to a form of torture. They didn’t really need Max, he was just a catalyst who discovered he still had a conscience.
You could easily break this film into two smaller films, two scripts that have been brought together in the development process. Once Max’s sent on his way to his death, much like Clint Eastwood in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) without the drawn out pain and suffering that helped make the film. Max is later found by a young woman who drags him back to a hidden paradise populated by just children with a language that first time around was interesting, now it’s just annoying, reminiscent of the more sophisticated language used in Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork who invented a form of slang of Nadsat that takes some understanding to really enjoy the novel and film. Miller’s kids are abandoned remnants of society who’ve been left behind during the escape from the worlds destruction. Believing Max to be their savior, a pilot who has come back to take them to Tomorrow Morrow another paradise that gives these young people hope of a better future. The children are on the whole annoying and just human copies of Ewok’s essentially, only now you wish you couldn’t understand them.
Sadly we like Max are stuck with these kids who some eventually accept as not being the pilot of their dreams, having a built a narrative around this now god-like figure. We’re pulled back into the desert as half of them have gone off in search of this Tomorrow Morrow. Max knows that first they’ll encounter Barter Town which if left unattended would be exploited and killed, maybe worse things. The children of a paradise are about to enter Deadwood or Tombstone essentially. Reluctantly Max becomes a parent to these feral children who begin to overrun the underworld, rescuing The Master who has lost his place in their society, treated little more than the pigs who now surround him.
A signature ending of a car chase then ensues, the only difference is that they are chasing a car on train track, changing the dynamic of the chase, a large cannibalised vehicle’s path restricted by rail, falling into the hands of Aunty Entity and her gang who are in pursuit. It looks like a sure thing, a recycling of events from the previous film, nothing is really fresh at this point, just a change in some of the elements, more children than ever. The level of violence’s reduced to almost nothing, even for a 15 rating with the odd explosion and arrow being shot, it’s just tame for a Mad Max film, let alone an action film that you’ve come to expect from this trilogy that has been made safe by the inclusion of more children. Why didn’t he feral child from Road Warrior pop up to bit someone, at least that would have been more violent.
The addition of kids and more kids has had a knock-on effect to the overall quality of the film that entered far too much into music video world. I can forgive the casting of Turner who I’m a fan of, she really owns the part and has a real presence, becoming part of this postapocalyptic world. Maybe if the children came to more harm, maybe we would have a more exciting film on our hands. Not a mess of what is two shorter films that resulted from two much studio interference asking for more of the this and less of that. The violence in this world made it dangerous, worth exploring, shocking an audience who wanted more of the same, but got something that catered for the wrong audience.
I can’t write the film off completely, there are some interesting things going on, some scenes really get your attention. In terms of the overall trilogy and the Western genre that I began this extended review looking at, Miller has used it as a framework to look at a possible future when the West was still not quite won. If an event of such explosive proportions were to strike, civilisation could easily regress to a simpler state of operating. The need for survival becomes more important that the structures that we create. Yet for the pockets of humanity that are left in this future who are trying to rebuild cling on to these simpler models to get on their feet. The goal then is to stay alive and hopefully rebuild a future that can resemble a past they once had. The trilogy starts out strongly with the opening entry working as an origin story before we really enter into a dark world where it’s survival of the fittest where anything goes. Then entering what could have been a better entry and the potential for more if they hadn’t listened to the studio too much. It’s still a strong unique trilogy that offers a bleak view of the future without coming directly out of Hollywood, whilst using the tropes of the Western as the bare bones of a different world view.