Posts tagged “Little Big Man

Soldier Blue (1970)


I’ve been meaning to watch Soldier Blue (1970) for sometime, know it came out the same year and shared some themes with Little Big Man which took more of the satirical angle of the genre and the politics of the day. I come away glad to have seen the film at least, I was considering a double film review to see how they both work together, but in reality they don’t unless you take both the massacres that are depicted; working as analogies for the Vietnam War which I’ve been learning about thanks to the BBC4 documentary series, which could be summed up easily in a few sentences when you look back at the conflict that really shouldn’t have taken place. Becoming an embarrassment both at home and internationally.

The function of the Western is to make sense and explore America’s consciousness, by looking back at its past to understand the present, how far they have come and also to celebrate, which at times can be problematic as we move further forward from the original events. Our view of history changes as we develop and change out thinking, new evidence comes to light, public opinion changes too. Blue made at a time when the American public wanted a complete withdrawal, the 1968 Nixon promised just that during his election campaign, which he eventually delivered on. The Western here is functioning on less than subtle level here, and at times very literal too, which is never a good thing for any creative endeavour. I could see the politics dripping off its liberal sleeve.

Beginning as a routine delivery of gold with a small troop of cavalry soldiers, with the addition of newly freed Cheyenne captive, Kathy Maribel ‘Cresta’ Lee (Candice Bergen) dressed in white women’s clothes ready to rejoin civilization. Sitting there in silence whilst the men are ogling her, hoping to make a successful advance, not the best way to return to white society. It’s not long before they’re ambushed by the Cheyenne who massacre them. We are seeing the power of the enemy first, before the U.S army has a chance to flex its might muscles at the finale. Leaving only two survivors, Cresta and Pvt. Honus Gent (Peter Strauss), both running from the action below. We learn how very different these two people are, the approach they take to the aftermath and their eventual leaving of the site. The ex-captive has no real concern to raid the dead soldiers in order to survive, taking all the water she can get…nothing really wrong there. Whereas Gent sees the act as desecrating a war site and the dead, placing his values above survival whilst still being respectful. Both want to survive but have very different perspectives.

Gender roles here are reversed here, usually the male is foul-mouthed – which is partly why the film has an 18 rating in the UK (although that could be reduced to a 15). The more Christian soldier’s shocked at the language that she comes out with. It’s refreshing that an actress is given such colourful lines, leaving Gent in the female role, even though his uniform suggests in the male role of protector, a soldiers trained to kill and serve his country but is giving way to a woman who understand the landscape and culture they are traveling through. Cresta is able to navigate her without relying on a river that would leave them vulnerable, discern which nations they interact with, she’s the scout who takes command.

Later on we encounter a goods wagon owned by Isaac Q. Cumber (Donald Pleasence) who we learn is really an arms trader using his wagon to conceal his real purpose in the West, to make a fast buck out of the conflict that is waiting us at the end of the film. However I notice a massive plot hole here which I will turn to later. Cresta is more aware of what is going on and ultimately sides with her Cheyenne family who have not harmed her physically, psychologically we can see where her loyalties lie – with the native, or the savage in the eyes of white civilization. I found Pleasence’s more enjoyable compared to Will Penny (1968), he’s not playing the mad preacher, more the capitalist out to make money from whoever he can find. I just wish we saw more of him, saying that his character did serve a good purpose in showing up the political divide between the Gent and Cresta.

The relationship that develops between the two I feel was a little manufactured to please the studio who made the film. However it allows a conversion to take place within him showed how far Gent travels emotionally and politically at the films close. You could say Cresta made a conscientious objector out of him, protesting about the conflict he’s supposed to be favour of by the colour of his uniform. The relationship may not be all that redundant after all.

Now for the plot hole which are a few, the years supposed to be 1864, during which time most if not all Indian wars were paused to focus on the Civil War between the North and the Southern states. However Gent mentions that he lost his father the previous year at Little Big Horn to the Sioux – which was in 1876, during the height of the Indian wars. Whilst the Washita Massacre took place in 1868, 3 years after the close of the Civil war. Another plot hole revolving around the gold that was stolen with the suggestion that it would be used to buy rifles, which itself make sense however when we meet Cheyenne chief Spotted Wolf (Jorge Rivero) of the he does not want to go to war. They do have rifles, but no mention of a recent purchase. All we learn is that the Cheyenne like all nations have an understanding of trade and how to operate within the White man economy whilst still being mostly free of the capitalist world itself.

The massacre itself is a thinly (emphasis in thinly) veiled metaphor for Vietnam, I’m sitting there thinking, yeah I get it. It doesn’t have the subtlety of Little Big Man of the same event that was more desensitised and was actually led by Custer who led both campaigns. The special effects here are poor, with dummy heads clearly being used and left in shot, it’s all for shock value which becomes more entertaining when that’s nor the point and lets down the film when we know it’s all leading upto this one-sided battle. Even if the cavalry rode over the U.S. flag before killing every man woman and child their weapons could reach, the fact that the Cheyenne didn’t want to fight, it’s all pretty much lost in the mess. It wasn’t really enough to laugh as I was just disappointed really let down after all this build up, the journey Cresta and Gent have been on, wondering if they would make it back to civilisation at all, not how I want to feel about a Western. 

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Geronimo: An American Legend (1993)


Another Western that I’ve been looking out for over the years, with the wait now finally over I have mixed feelings of deflation. Comedian Rich Hall began his BBC4 documentary on the film depiction on Native Americans by starting with the assassination of Osama Bin-Laden -, soldiers uttering the word Geronimo. A word that was originally linked to the name of the Apache warrior who held out and fought until he’s forced to surrender to the U.S. army. How many other names have been so misappropriated? A name of a countries former enemy has become a term of celebration and liberation. None have the same sound to them as Geronimo as it rolls off the tongue out of all the prominent Native American figures. It’s a practice that I try to avoid, aiming to keep his name in historical context, not to use in celebration.

The 1993 film Geronimo (1993) was one of two released that year about the Apache warrior, one made a Native American produced TV movie, very different in tone, celebrating the life and times of the figure, one that I feel I should watch again to compare. And the Hollywood Western that bills the lead actor, fourth on the list below Gene Hackman and Robert Duvall. A symptom of how Hollywood make and market their films. Placing the more prominent names above others who have a larger part in the film. Also indicating the position of Native American actors in the film industry, at the bottom. The only positive you can take away from this billing is that the role went to Wes Studi, a Native American (Cherokee) and not someone in brown face, that’s some progress.

Made during the early 1990’s when there was a boom in the genre, released in between Dances With Wolves (1990), Unforgiven (1992) and Wyatt Earp (1994), the same year as the larger than life, sweeping epic – Tombstone (1993). Easily categorized as a revisionist Western, attempting to rewrite the genres pasts wrongs to tell a more honest account of history. So how did they get on? I’m reminded of Broken Arrow (1950) when James Stewart narrated Tom Jefford’s experience with the Apache, we even met Geronimo in one scene when all the tribes of the nation met for a council meeting, his own histories picked up in a Chuck Connors film – Geronimo (1962) which I might check out of curiosity. This 1990’s take on the warriors narrated by baby-faced Matt Damon as a fresh out of West point officer Lt. Britton Davis, leaving me thinking how much of Lt Dunbar has influenced him, his moments of reflection and modern thinking on a 19th century issue that’s now become part of America’s history and less talked about politics. Britton us bright-eyed and bushy-tailed as he waits to meet with his commanding officer Lt. Charles Gatewood (Jason Patric) heading off to join the stately and much admired Brigadier General George Crook (Gene Hackman) who was given the task of rounding up the Apache and sticking them on the reservation.

Now with all Native American revisionism its going to be more graphic – think Little Big Man and Soldier Blue (both 1970) et al, it’s brutal and attempting to take their side for again. Yet it still comes from the perspective of a white soldier – Davis who is reflecting over this period in history. There is however more screen time given to Wes Studi and rightly so really allowing us the best Hollywood can do depict the final days of freedom for the Apache. As revisionist the film tries to be, it takes a massive cue from John Ford, depicting the film entirely in Monument Valley, trying to be both a Cavalry film and Cheyenne Autumn (1964) which moved around the Navajo country, having now taken on this mythic form and space which allows filmmakers to tell the story of the West in this landscape almost exclusively at times. I found this distracting at times, thinking about Fort Apache or She Wore a Yellow Ribbon at times, not seeing for it wants to be.

With more screen-time given to Studi we’re allowed to understand his point of view, he’s not just a pain in the backside for the Army and the White House, He’s has a credible point of view. First meeting him at his initial surrender, brought the charge of the two Lieutenant’s who see this as a big moment in both their careers and history. For Geronimo it’s the end of his peoples way of life and loss of freedom, he’s not taken this decision lightly. It’s a film that wants to be taken seriously, giving time to both fact and action during the films run. Time for the peace talks that see the Apache accepting they’ve been worn down and needing to talk. Before things get messy after an Apache’s killed for a ghost dance (disturbing the peace) which triggers another war between them and the white eyes.

The action scenes are rather mixed, bloody at times, filled with dust which makes it hard at times to see what’s going on. OK we’re in the desert but its supposed to be discernible to the viewer. Suggesting that it was a bloody time for both sides, more so the Natives who are fighting for respect and honor at this pivotal time.

Turning to look at the other characters times taken to develop the two lieutenant’s and even the aging scout Al Sieber (Duvall) who has suffered 17 arrows and gunshots and still standing, he’s learned to respect his enemy whilst growing tired in his role. A nice character for Duvall to play, having been a presence in the genre ever since he got “shot to pieces” by the Duke in True Grit (1969) he gives the film extra strength by him just being there. I felt as much as those in uniform were given more time to grow, we got less time with Chato (Steve Reevis) a once feared warrior, now a loyal scout to the cavalry, outside of his obvious skill and knowledge he is only seen as a traitor to his people. At least he’s not being played by Charles Bronson in Chato’s Land (1972).

Summing up this film it’s an attempt to tell two sides to the same events, whilst naturally being slightly more biased to the Army, made by White men, it’s only able to go so far. We do have a more fleshed out depiction of the Apache which i can’t complain about and with subtitles which gives allows more depth, only speaking English when faced with White Eyes. I noticed also a bit of slopping editing, splicing in an elder to Crooks final treaty talk, it looked really out of place, shoe-horned in there. I can’t complain too much, its an early 90’s Western that attempts to rewrite events, yet still holding back in places.


Jeremiah Johnson (1972)


Jeremiah Johnson (1972)Coming into this film I was bringing a lot of expectation. After reading about Jeremiah Johnson (1972) in a few books I thought I had a pretty good idea of how this film would look, feel and be. I think I set my expectations a little too high, my idea of what the film is, is completely different. Also because I haven’t been able to find it until now (neither on TV or DVD) I saw it as a more sought-after film, one that if you don’t see it you’re missing something special, which is in a way I suppose. The less accessible a film is the more you look forward to seeing it. Like friends that rarely see, you make the most of the time you have together. Jeremiah Johnson and I are not quite on those terms yet.

Another reason I wanted to see this film is part of my understanding of the Native American Western, how the sub-genre developed. I was lead to believe that Robert Redford‘s titular character would become a revered other of the Crow nation in the mountains, shedding his white civilisation past to become to the other which we have seen so many times feared in the genre. I kept thinking more about Man in the Wilderness (1971) which saw Richard Harris‘s character comes closer to reaching that transformation. His was however not out of choice, more survival. Learning the way of the mountain Natives who we see as almost god-like, they have done nothing to be feared. The built-in cliché that they are dangerous savages is not really mentioned. Both films are however set before the Civil War when most Westerns take place or there-after. Western society is still forming, still moving westward and yet to truly tackle the “Indian Problem” that we see in so many other films.

So I’ve already established my initial thoughts, the early comparison to probably a better film, what’s it all about. Staying with the idea it’s about the white man becoming the other, the one whose feared, which I believe is a reading that is nonsense to an extent. He never truly crosses over from one culture to another like Lieutenant Dunbar (Kevin Costner) who rejects all that is white about him. Johnson is one of the early mountain-men as we meet a few others. The type whose found in other westerns whose respected for his knowledge of the natives, much older than those settlers making their way West. People who come with dangerous experience, if you cross them they could leave you on your own to defend yourself. Some become scouts for the Army as they built new forts. These men cannot function in society, but enable it to grow outside the boundaries we already find it. Much like the gunfighter, the danger they bring with them leaves them unable to stay in one place for too long. Out in the mountains they are able to live an acceptable life-style, one with nature you could say.

I’m still trying to pin down what this film is about, maybe an escape from what was going on in America at the time. It was the beginning of a new age of directorial freedom which I admire, enjoying the work of those who are now respected names. But that would be going of on a tangent. In westerns we rarely focus on the mountain man, we see riders traveling through, hiding out or fighting Native American’s who have a clear advantage over the white men. Here is a chance to understand the mountain man, what drives him. We first meet Johnson as a soldier returning to civilian life in a 19th century Catamaran that delivers him to the outskirts of civilisation, he’s on the cusp of the unknown. Feeling his doesn’t below down with the frontiersman and settler he leaves them all behind. Now here’s where my expectations start to get dashed. Thinking that this film was going to be mostly absent of dialogue, I found it more of  a 50/50 split really, which I still have to accept after what I had previously read. Johnson is trying to catch fish, all with his bare hands, grabbing the fish in the water. Not having any tools, a rare moment of comedy in this otherwise dramatic Western. Its here we meet for the first time Paints His Shirt Red  (Joaquín Martínez) whose the man that Johnson wants to be, to be able to live in the mountain, surrounded by prizes from his many hunts in the mountains.

Things become more complicated when he comes across a homesteader (Allyn Ann McLerie) and her son (Josh Albee) who he later adopts and renames Caleb. A silent child who was more than likely trumatised by the death of his father. Leaving his mother mentally unstable, left to wander the mountains. A victim left alive from the Natives who are seen off-screen to be. They still victims of the cliche, or are they just defending themselves. This is quite problematic for me as the 1970’s is a decade of revisionism of the genre with films such as Little Big Man (1970), the Man Called Horse films that shows them in a fresh light. There’s still a savagery about these people, mostly the Crow who are seen by other mountain men such as Bear Claw (Will Geer) and Del Gue (Stefan Gierasch) who both admire and fear those who have lived there for centuries. Of course fighting with other Nations. It is the invasion of the white man in the mountain that is causing the conflict.

I cannot ignore the two mountain men Bear Claw and Del Gue who both help form the legend that becomes Jeremiah Johnson over the course of the film. Bear Claw is an almost God-like figure who has lived in the mountains for all his adult life. He assumes the role of the teacher to Johnson teaching all he needs to know to survive. Where as Del Gue is living the dream of the mountain man, he respects and fears the Natives. First meeting him bald, not wanting to be scalped – a common form of torture carried out by Native American’s, all part of the cliche that has been built up over the time. We next meet him with a full head of hair, and some of the best lines of the film, comparing hair to God’s greatest sculptures.

“I ain’t never seen ’em, but my common sense tells me the Andes is foothills, and the Alps is for children to climb! Keep good care of your hair! These here is God’s finest scupturings! And there ain’t no laws for the brave ones! And there ain’t no asylums for the crazy ones! And there ain’t no churches, except for this right here! And there ain’t no priests excepting the birds. By God, I are a mountain man, and I’ll live ’til an arrow or a bullet finds me. And then I’ll leave my bones on this great map of the magnificent…”

He sums up what it means to be a mountain man, a free-spirit, the closest a white-man who wants to live the life of a Native American, to be with nature. These are men who want to live in the rawness of nature, rejecting civilsation for all that is primal, a part from a gun and a knife or two. It’s not an easy life as Johnson discovers, recreating the massacre scene from The Searchers (1956) that we play out in our minds. The genre has grown up to all these harsher images. He becomes a far more dangerous Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) who kills his enemy with little thought, but plenty of skill. When tired he shockingly sleeps among his victims. Its all or nothing.

I come away from the film still conflicted after the image of the film I built up in my mind has become something else – the actual film. Is is pro-Native American or not is my real question. It’s not even revisionist really. It’s another aspect of the genre that is explored in more detail, the life of the mountain man that serve little purpose in the arc of the western as whole, we hardly see them until now.

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The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) Revisited


Outlaw Josey Wales (1976)My initial review of The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) was rather fleeting capturing the flavor of the incredible western. Another one I had to watch after further reading which has encouraged me to revisit the film. First I had practically forgotten the plot, thinking it was about a Confederate who goes mad shooting everyone in his path, blood spurting everywhere, bodies falling to the ground, shooting in glorious form. (sounds disturbing when you think about it, glorifying violence)

With a fresh set of eyes, some theory in my head I came to this film with more excitement, a faded memory of the plot. Opening with a scene that couldn’t but stir even the hardest of hearts, a family man Josey Wales (Clint Eastwood) who has no sides to take is forced to join the Confederate army after a group of rebel Union soldiers killed his family and burnt the family home, his life as a simple family man and farmer is over. He has no purpose beyond exacting revenge against the  Red Legs who had wronged him, changing his life. Of course the Civil War has to come first a chance to get out all that anger that has built up within him, hopefully he can get it out of his system. All in the form of a graphic montage of violence as they go from campaign to campaign before history and reality catch up with the men he’s joined up with.

The Surrender. A chance to put the past behind them, be accepted back into a country that has been torn apart. An early turning point in the film that redirects Wales after the offer of surrender, a shameful handing over of all that makes him and his fellow soldiers men, unable to defend themselves in civilian life, stripped on man-hood. It doesn’t sit right with Wales who stays behind, just as the men lose their dignity and then their lives. Wales can trust no one who is white, both sides have turned on him. Still full of anger we see a man with no place in White America head for Native America. A reading I didn’t find the first time, a white men heads off to enemy territory, as yet untamed by his own kind who can’t even be trusted by the Natives who have had treaty made and ultimately broken.

What’s special about this western is that all the Native Americans are all played by Natives, a fairer and more honest representation of the Race that has been poorly depicted on-screen since the dawn of cinema, they are not cliché’s are caricatures. There’s a welcome return for Chief Dan George as the elder Native Lone Watie who is not a chief, just an old man, who plays the role for black comedy. Much darker than his previous big role opposite Dustin Hoffman in Little Big Man (1970) which was more about what make Native American’s better than the white man whose seen her lower than human in their eyes. Lone Watie is more a a jaded old man who just wants to be free, to live his life free of White determination and influence in his life. This appeals to Wales who really has nowhere to go, except South of the border.

I thought originally Wales traveled alone through the open country as he’s followed by pursing bounty hunters, his own kind, ex-confederates who have little other purpose, unable to live the life they fought for, no money, take up a gun and hunt any wanted man. Wales is the ultimate bounty to be caught, killed and cashed in upon. It’s up to his adversary Fletcher (John Vernon) who once lead him into battle leads a Union force of men, the Red Legs to hunt the one they left behind and still can’t catch up with through the film. Destroying my original memory of Wales going after these men who are in-fact after him. The one loner Wales builds up his own group of friends, not collecting men packing guns but Natives, old men and women and the often quiet Laura Lee (Sondra Locke) who starts out as a victim of circumstance, stuck with her daughter as they travel to her brothers home. Not exactly the band of men we would usually seeing riding together, more like a rag-tag wagon-train of misfits.

As they travel South there are tense moment when Wales encounters hunter after hunter met with dark music building up moments that are only broken by quick gun shots and wise words delivered in quick succession easing things once more. Allowing us to go on building up the cast. It’s a western with a strong distinctive difference, Clint Eastwood’s second Western he directed, he knows the genre inside out, making sense of it in a new light. Trying to correct it in some ways, using language with the Natives that is not demeaning, those scenes are rich and meaningful. On an acting front Wales’s character is something to be feared, the persona of the loner long ago established is fleshed out more so here, and inverting it surrounding him with other outsiders. We have a gunfighter who has left civilization trying to find a place to live outside of that world. We leave the security of the familiar frontier town setting for the rugged landscape that brings only danger. The Outlaw Josey Wales is a tightly woven western that unpick the genre without going into satire, correcting it without being too tongue and cheek, it’s very much about the gunfighter who wants to find his place in the world after all the shots were first fired.


A Man Called Horse (1970)


A Man Called Horse (1970)A few months ago I was reading a book at work about the depiction of Native Americans in the western genre. There was a chapter that discussed a revisionist western where an Englishman’s captured and assimilated into their culture over the course of the film. Observing how this was dealt with in comparison to others in the past which were treated more as rescue stories, returning the captured white man back to civilised society. Whilst also considering the damage that their time with a native tribe will do to the individual, will they be scarred and damaged as we found this horrifying in The Searchers (1956), or should they be abandoned or shot in Two Rode Together (1961), these are just two examples of a discussion that was going on in the 19th century. The effect of one primitive culture on a more advanced one (as we are lead to believe). Anyway back to this chapter in Invisible Natives  which discussed how a native tribe had a more positive effect on John Morgan (Richard Harris) in A Man Called Horse (1970) whose hunting teams ambushed at the beginning, hes dragged away like an animal to the camp.

Our perception of a Native is first reinforced by the classic genre which is already being twisted around. This is not a satire like Little Big Man (1970) when Jack Crabb (Dustin Hoffman) who is captured and adopted as one of their own, able to come back and forth. This is more about changing our view of a section of people from the inside out, not mocking the other, the white American. Or in this case the white Englishman who travelled the America to hunt new game. With no intention of being captured, living amongst the Sioux nation for at least a year, during a time when the westward expansion was not as big a threat as it would be by the end of the century when they were fighting for the freedom before being penned into a reservation far from their own lands. A Man Called Horse explores the possibility of that what if a white man was to enter into this world, away from his aristocratic trapping to live amongst “savages” to learn how to survive before a possible escape.

Much like Man in the Wilderness (1971) there is very little dialogue, well dialogue we can understand when we are with the Sioux which is pretty much all the time. The difference with Wilderness and Horse is we have a larger white cast in the more audience friendly Wilderness film which was set even earlier in time. There is more of an offbeat tone, as it sees a man left behind (once again Harris) who is left to die, learning to survive much like the Natives he lives in fear of for a time, learning to respect them by the films end. Coming back to Horse there is more of an open view to the other that takes in one of our own who becomes an other over the course of the film.

It’s a slow transformation that begins as an embarrassment, fighting the enemy to escape, giving into survive, to understand to make plans. That’s before life happens for Morgan who meets another captive Batise (Jean Gascon), a Frenchman who has been among them for 5 years. For Morgan he now has two enemies, one national rivalry back home, who he can talk to, the only one who understands him at first. They form an uneasy relationship, facing as allies and form of communication. They both want to leave but when and how, they have a plan which is later scuppered by unfolding events.

The depiction of the Sioux is more impartial, more honest, we get all the feather head-dresses but only when necessary, part of their visual language which the audience understands. It’s so much more through a number of montages and not having the broken English we get in most westerns. Even Dame Judith Anderson doesn’t utter a word of English, having taken the time to learn her lines in the native language. There is a levee lot respect to the culture you rarely get today. You could say that this was Dances with Wolves (1990) which has its problems with the depiction of the enemy to appear more menacing for effect.

We only see two other white men, who are both killed in the ambush, the only enemy are warring tribes, the impending danger of the white man is far away for now. This allows us to focus on the Sioux and nothing else, their culture, we have to really focus to understand what is going on and to be fair that’s not hard as they have the same problems as the civilised society. The threat of danger, respecting the dead, the pecking order of the men and love which comes out of nowhere for Morgan who was planning to get out. Allowing himself to be subjected to the Vow, which is one of the most playful things I have seen on film for an audience to stomach in main-stream film. Even in the seventies, I was struggling to figure out how this painful feat was re-enacted. A ritual that the film even states was outlawed in the 1880’s, brought back to life for this film.

I am left wanting more now, knowing there was a sequel The Return of a Man Called Horse (1976), the fact that Morgan wanted to leave now becomes an important member of their society, leads them to safer ground. We are left guessing as to where he went, did he stay with them, or does he leave. Well I know where he begins in the sequel which doesn’t help, aghhhh I just want to find out how his journey ends, how he’s been changed by his experiences, away from civilised society. Even Morgan agrees men all want the same, can’t get better than that for a message from a film that focuses on the natural enemy of the westerner.

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The Missouri Breaks (1976) Revisited


I’ve still got a long list of films that I have to revisit, not really giving them the attention respect they may deserve. Passing judgement on them too quickly or not understanding them. The Missouri Breaks (1976) I found to be flawed just over two years ago, focusing on the killings at the end of the film, It just didn’t work for me. The second time around with an understanding of westerns from that period I went into this film with more of an open mind, one that I hoped would expand my appreciation (or even produce one) of this film which is only remembered because it stars to heavy-weight actors Jack Nicholson and the unpredictable Marlon Brando who really shows he does’ really care about the role, just having a good time as infamous regulator (assassin) Lee Clayton who is as eccentric as we imagine Brando has become. Who by the late 1960’s was seen as unemployable, only Francis Ford Coppola dared take a chance with him, and it paid. Only ever having larger than life mysterious parts during the decade. Whereas Nicholsona man who could do no wrong creatively, working with everyone of the time practically.

Arthur Penn who before directed Little Big Man (1970) a spoof of the genre takes on a darker view of the genre. The frontiers of America have almost been tamed law is strengthening all the time, making it harder for bandits to have success. Something that has yet to properly reach this part of the county for Tom Logan (Nicholson) and his men who are in the business of horse rustling. The premise is pretty straight-forward, he and his men want to steal horses and sell them on.

It’s not your straight-forward western, having more of an off-beat feel, the comedy between the men in a love-hate relationship. Whilst over the civilised part of the country self-proclaimed law-man David Braxton (John McLiam) who rants nearly as much as Peter Finch‘s Howard Beale in Network (1976) having seen and done it all in the west, he believes he knows best. Carrying out justice from the beginning with a hanging of one of Logan’s friends. Something that horrifies Braxton’s daughter Jane (Kathleen Lloyd) a woman who was really meant for the civilised East.

The rustling of sheep is main threat to John McLaim who has already lost 7% per annum of his stock that year, yes he’s that accurate. Hiring renowned regulator (in other words assassin) to track down the rustlers who are operating in the area. Brando is in his element, just being himself which at times alienated me, flipping from one persona to another. He’s not trying to live up to his reputation, he’s just having fun with this character which in this film doesn’t fit. Again larger than life unlike Logan who feels threatened by men who are killing his friends unjustly, unlawfully and unfairly, there is away about dealing out justice and this just isn’t right. He can see everything around him slip away.

It’s the dynamic between the two leads which doesn’t really work for me as they play their odd game of cat and mouse. Clayton is a cunning character who knows he’s good at killing, a skill we see time and again to grisly effect. It’s still that last encounter as the men are killed one by one in quick succession, you don’t have time to really take it in, to know they are dead as the next one falls. He is indeed a fast worker. Then it’s the comeuppance the final kill that was not even worked up to, it just happens, its cowardly, not of the west, there is no honour in the kill, calculated too wait until Clayton is asleep. Maybe I’m reading the film wrong, that scene lacks the build-up, its all done before we know whats happened.

So I’m still sitting on the side same side of the fence I was a few years back. It’s a different kind of western, modern in the respect that all murders aren’t as we see them in the west, they are devious and cold, not these staged show-downs that we are used to. That is what it’s about which doesn’t sit with me.

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Dances with Wolves (1990)


Dances with Wolves (1990)I remember very little of my first encounter with Dances with Wolves (1990) whilst in my last year at art school, catching it. It played out very differently in my head, still that’s what memory can do to you when you cram in full of films, all those images, quotes and music running through you’re mind. It was time for a rematch, one that reminded me of what I have long missed. After watching Little Big Man (1970) this falls well into place in the genre. The main theme of a white man living with a Native American tribe, for Jack Crabbe (Dustin Hoffman) it was the synonymously violent Comanches, for Lt John Dunbar/Dances with Wolves (Kevin Costner) with the Sioux who are the very opposite until pushed to go to war with the Pawnee the exotic violent tribe of the film. Wolves goes into far more detail in terms of time that a white man spends being absorbed into the culture of the usual western other. The other which is seen as a savage obstacle to be overcome in the myth of conquest. We usually spend little time with Natives, earlier films such as Broken Arrow (1950) which moved back and forth between whites and the other (Apaches).

Wolves really delves into an overlooked part in it’s countries history, guided in front and behind the camera by Costner with sensitivity and grace. On screen it’s in the form of Lt John Dunbar a possible coward during the civil war, who becomes a war hero who falls for the life of the sioux on the open plains of the untouched frontier. Theres already a sense of loss in the air, the inevitable in coming, the Sioux and other nations submitting to life on reservations. If not wiped/rubbed out in the years before. Our lead character is more open than any other in the history of the west, it’s not just a sympathy for his misunderstood neighbour, it’s a real understanding that takes the first half of the film to allow him to leave his own culture and past to start a fresh life. As if he has met someone, married and moved in, cutting off his family in the process.

The idea that the Sioux are a dangerous nation is soon brushed aside with the Pawnee who are the classic enemy of the film, killing in the opening act, suggesting that they will be back for more. Their depiction is far from reality, probably a studio compromise to still have an Indian enemy only to the Sioux however. We never truly leave the stereotype, instead just touch on it when needed for conflict.

The journey is long, long enough to be swept away into a world and culture that is usually overlooked in film (as I’ve already mentioned) allowing us to make up for all of that. Costner’s Dunbar is our gateway into that culture, an open minded figure, disillusioned by his past life in the uniform of a solider who started the film on an operating table, where he could have easily have died. Comes alive on the fort where he has been posted, empty of other soldiers he keeps account of his time in a journal that acts as narration for the audience to understand his state of mind as he leaves one life in favour of another. Theres no question of becoming a “Human Being” as in Little Big Man he simply is accepted as a Sioux after a period of acceptance, breaking down the barrier of language and culture to discover understanding, something that is usually seen as another bunch of savages who won’t conform to the western way of life that is spreading across the land.

The landscape is another character in this revisionist western that looks at the open prairie as land that has all but been claimed for the white man. The buffalo we can see are slowly being wiped out, you don’t need to see a buffalo hunter riding off, the aftermath of the skinned beasts is enough to get you. Everything about this film is to make you understand their plight, not just of the Sioux but every other nation that has surrendered to white Americans who tamed the country.

There is indeed a flip side to all the great images of gunfighters, gold rushes, cattle drives and the rail-road, there had to be a price for all that. Not just on their side, we see what would have happened to Debbie Edwards (Natalie Wood) of The Searchers (1956) if she remained with her captors, not a fate worse than death, as we discover for Stands with a Fist (Mary McDonnell) a victim of a Pawnee raid that was found by the Sioux, and raised as their own. Very much the same as Jack Crabbe who too came to not just sympathise but stand with his natural enemy as one the other who he was taught to hate and kill on sight. All that fades away when you look beyond the myths and stories that are constructed to create fear in a culture on and off film that has become part of the fabric.

Dances with Wolves stands alone able to not just entertain but make us think about our pasts, not just America but other nations who have altered the future of other nations, who as primitive as they may seem were moved without consent. I know thats a generalising of far more complex issues of history. Wolves is an attempt to re-write the myth of conquest to say this too might have happened, even a white solider may have left his own culture to join another nation that lived there hundreds of years before the 1600’s. We know what will happen, its inevitable as I have said numerous times, history tells us that. If only for a few hours we see into a now lost world brought to life with respect, grace and heart for all who want peace.

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Little Big Man (1970)


Little Big Man (1970)One of a few films recommended to me during my final year at art-school by Professor Neil Campbell who opened my mind more to the western genre. Little Big Man (1970) was indeed a long and rewarding wait to finally catch this revisionist western that on the face of it can mock the genre. As we follow the life of the oldest and last Indian fighter who retells his life very much in the style that is later used by Forrest Gump (1995) without all the schmaltz of the big events of the last few decades and cgi to slip in the main character. Instead it’s a look back at both the western genre and the larger and more overlooked near genocide of the Native American as mentioned by the young interviewer of Jack Crabb (Dustin Hoffman) who comically is 122 years old, impossible really, but allows another generation become aware of its countries overlooked and shameful past.

We don’t linger on the nasty G word for too long, heading straight to the myths stereotypes of the Indian, as we see a white settlement raided, leaving only Jack and his sister hiding in a burnt out wagon, who are later taken away by a Cheyenne back to his camp. With well over half a decade of images of what could possibly happen our misconceptions are soon wiped clear, twisted on the head and thrown out.

This is not your average western of the last two decades when the Indian would capture, rape and kill their prisoners. Instead looking beyond the cliché to something more honest with humour as to what could possibly happen (stretched a bit for effect) as one man is assimilated into Cheyenne life, given the name Little Big Man. Not ignoring one of the ideas employed by the U.S. government to solve the “Indian Problem” The effect the Cheyenne’s have on Jack is dramatic as he goes onto adopt various lives throughout 1800’s America and the West. Paying homage in part to the genre that has given us so many images from the gunfighter to the medicine peddler and town drunk.

Hoffman is an interesting choice for the lead role, a small in height and not the most macho of heroes yet holds your attention as an average guy who can shout above it all. The kind that as we see gets left behind but makes the best of it. Taking on the multiple persona’s of the West we see him try and fail to live as a white man, becoming a failure in the American world, becoming only a true human being as an adopted Cheyenne. Something that is constantly mentioned among them, especially Old Lodge Skins (Chief Dan George) who speaks of the white men as not equal to any Indian, even African American’s are not worthy of the title. It is those who live out on the plains who are allowed to be called human. As if a right of passage, living up to a standard, a way of life they will never truly share. A reflection of the western societies urge to westernise everyone else they came into contact with. For once the Indian seems to have the moral high-ground, his perspective comes first.

Whereas the white-man taking the form of General George Armstrong Custer (Richard Mulligan) is once again a bigoted glory hunter who is deaf to anyone else’s views. Head strong and determine to solve the “Indian Problem” hoping to one day live in the White house. We meet the doomed general a few times, at first a towering figure who arrives out of the pages of glory to become power mad. First sending Jack and his then wife Olga (Kelly Jean Peters) west, back into the untamed country, leading us into a back and forth world for Jack as he lives amongst the Cheyenne and the whites. It’s only after a raid that he is a part of as a Mule Skinner does he truly see the barbaric nature of the U.S. cavalry who slain not just the men but the women and children with little regard for their orders. Un able to understand how his own kind, kill another that he has been raised by, conflicting emotions boil inside him. White by birth, yet Cheyenne by nature, relying on either to survive as we learn. 

Whilst being a comedy there are plenty of scenes that shake you up, leaving you in no doubt which side this film is on, after taking up with 4 wives do we see how the Cheyenne live on a reservation, before being “rubbed out” by the Army that is hard to watch, we don’t see white against Indian, it’s not a fair fight, just a slaughter of the innocent as they run for cover. Jack is seems to be the only one who can see history before him whilst it unfolds, unable to do much about it, a bystander almost in a nightmare.

Little Big Man flips the myth of conquest on its head to show the audience what it’s been overlooking, with all the settlers moving west, the gold rush, the cattle barons and the railroad, there was a great cost that was overlooked, a cost of human lives which can be overlooked as an obstacle. It doesn’t preach to us what has happened, the damage has been done politically and historically. Maybe in film the past can be redressed, hoping to rewrite that history to fill in the gaps that are usually covered over by the gunfighters and landowners. Adding another rich layer to a genre that celebrates a countries history which has become a myth that has become the facts we know today. For a time we are made to think about the others who are usually left out on the sidelines of history. If it wasn’t for Chief Dan George’s performance that rises beyond the stereotypical Indian chief to a thoughtful and wise man who can gives another viewpoint to history. There’s a sense of guilt that builds up as we see all the death and destruction, a race that has been brought to it’s knees, with all the excitement we see in the developed west we cannot forget the cost that is made both on-screen and in history.

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Professor Neil Campbell (Discussion 22/3/12)


To mark just over a year ago since my chat/discussion/conversation with professor Neil Campbell of American Studies at Derby University, I feel I should share that conversation, to allow you all to understand more where I am coming from, my position on the Western, from my degree show piece and my fascination with the Western genre.  I will link the conversation back to my writing on some of the films that we discussed

Q. Why did the Western genre lose popularity in the late 60’s?

A. The impact of television was clearly apart of that. The Television programs in that genre, was saturating the market. The genre was more accessible to viewers, here and in the U.S. Hollywood had to look to other styles or forms to gain their audiences. There was also the political climate, that of the civil rights movement that had reached a high, with riots and the death of Martin Luther King. Jr. Also the American people were beginning to question the conflict in Vietnam. This also questioned American values. In-turn the style of the Westerns didn’t tap into that at all. Being covered by the likes of John Wayne and John Ford, who were going into decline themselves. The Western doesn’t die it simply takes different forms. The classic formula was that a problem needs to be solved, the people can’t solve it, so a hero arrives. The film becomes action packed, solving the problem with violence. The classic John Ford’s fit the age anymore, being based on mythologies. Younger people are looking for something else. New directors like Sam Peckinpah, and Robert Altman who directed McCabe and Mrs Miller (1971) and Arthur Pen who directed both Left Handed Gun (1958) and Little Big Man (1970). The genre is seen now as Post Western, films about the West in the 20th and 21st century, such as No Country for Old Men (2007), that alters and plays around with the genre. The idea of the hero is now too simplistic. People don’t want to question the myth, as it sacrilegious to do so; it’s the national narrative, best seen in the Western. Today people are more cynical and sophisticated. Open Range (2003) is a classic western but also modern, so it’s like a Ford, but the Ford Western can no longer be sustained. It survives in a new form, the Contemporary America, using Western elements. So the Western has to adapt to the times to survive. The classic Western genre will always have a place, as apart of the culture, but also seen as a product of it times that tried to adapt, but was lost in the idea of the hero. Too simplistic to really survive when political tensions increased around the world and at home concerning America. The WWII required escapism, to have heroic figures saving the day, and seeing America as a place for possibilities and progress, the American dream.

Q. How has the depiction of the Native Americans effected their identity, their political position and racially?

A. In the classic western the Native Americans were seen as inferior, they had secondary importance. This produced a stereotype. They were seen amongst other obstacles to be overcome in order to progress. They were treated as just material. There was slow recognition to see them as human, not wanted to be seen on the same level as white people.  Their importance really increased around the time of the civil rights movements. Hollywood had to acknowledge this. At the time of films such as Gone with the Wind (1939) they didn’t have the vote. John Ford tried to explore this through his films Cheyenne Autumn (1964) and Sergeant Rutledge (1960) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). The minorities gradually become more human and less stereotyped. However things don’t really change until the Native Americans start to make their own films, in Post Westerns, but not in the Western style, such as Smoke Signals (1998) by director Chris Eyre, being set in a contemporary reservation. The film acknowledges the stereotypes are now apart of their identity, but seen critically and ironically, drawing stupidity out, they can laugh at it. Films such as Little Big Man (1970) is a civil rights film about the Native Americans, with lines such as “Sometimes it’s a good day to die”. Dances with Wolves (1990) however Campbell sees it as actually quite limited . Sadly there are not many Native American films being made, as they can’t get access to funding.

Q.  How has the depiction of Early America been distorted by film?

 A. It’s all about the myth; the first movies that were made during the silent era were about the West. At that time, the frontier was still out there. The Indian wars were still going on. There was a gap between the frontier and the Western expansion; these two grew up together. They had a ready-made landscape which could be mythicized. Dime novels that were being published created heroes out of gunfighter’s, for instance Jesse James who has recently been portrayed by Brad Pitt (in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007). Beachamp follows up the idea of the Duke of Death in Unforgiven (1992). The dime novels mythicized the West. This was symbiotic in radio and film and the myth takes over. People don’t care for the real West, they are more persuaded by the myth where the hero walks away and we forget the violence. The real record of the West is by the photographers such as Muybridge in landscapes that he took, the photographs are slightly more honest, but get sucked away. Ansell Adams photographs are more empty, there is no community, how America was. Films such as Heavens Gate (1980) and The Deer Hunter (1978) by director Michael Cimino depict the West more honestly regarding immigration, when people just arrived off the boats. John Ford being an Irishman, depicted immigrants but using broken English, at a time in reality when there were all sorts of languages in the country. This is explored more in Deleuze’s Cinema 1 & 2. By 1945, things changed dramatically when WWII ended. The Neo-Western was coming into being. Ford represented the old style of Western. Directors such as Altman and Peckinpah were directors of the changing genre. The genre had to find a new form; life was no longer simple. They can’t go back to the American dream, or maybe not so, with films such as No Country for Old Men (2007). Also films such as Bad Day at Black Rock (1954) by John Sturges, which was so different with slow ponderings, looking at the internal space and the landscape, looking at war and racism. The Misfits (1961) set in the Nevada open desert starring Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable. The film was based on a book by Arthur Miller directed by John Huston. The film Lone Star (1996) starring Kris Kristofferson set in the modern West, with classic elements but certainly looks at new ideas.

Q. Do you believe the majority of our knowledge of the West now comes from films?

A. In short, yes in Europe and America, only through the images, T.V. adverts and art etc, which take aspects of the mythologies. There are lots of examples of distortion, which come from 19th century American Art. I’m recommended to look at West is America, an art collection that was held in the 1990’s. The paintings are mythical, by the likes of Russel, Remington and Beerstat, from which the film-makers borrow from their art. Where as the work of Adams is not original, borrowings from paintings, and film borrows from photographs.

Q. Do you think that the Native Americans have fair representation in film and politically?

A. Yes, generally, but it depends on the voices being heard, more so now through the news, painting and films. However there are problems that still exist, people’s perceptions are broadly better and fairer, but still thought to always have feathers. There’s a film called The Exiles (1961) about a group of Native Americans who move to Los Angeles from a reservation, after being encouraged by the government. They found difficulties with alcohol, poverty and employment. However they are not shown as victims. The Urban world is so different from where they came from. Lastly the films of Sergio Leone lean towards the New Western genre.