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?
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.
Continuing my exploration of the influence of The Searchers (1956) on films, here the Western, I’m stopping in with The Unforgiven (1960) which shares and elaborates on some on the themes and even down to the imagery that’s heightened here. Also spurred on after reading a review last month of the film over at Bored and Dangerous who I in turn recommended Cheyenne Autumn (1964) to looking at the depiction of the Native Americans, which again I will touch upon.
Now I first caught this film about 5 years ago, I focused more on the mis-casting of Audrey Hepburn, now I’m not so concerned about that. I’ve also seen more films by both lead actors and the director John Huston who dabbled in practically every genre that Hollywood works it. Instead I felt from the very beginning of the film I was taken aback by the dark and mysterious soundtrack took me into a world where nothing is certain, the truth is hidden, even out in a landscape where being honest is the only way to survive and do business. It’s the arrival of a rider Johnny Portugal (John Saxon) with a saber, much like the beginning of a Shakespeare play predicting what will happen, spouting a very harsh truth that’s still cryptic enough that it lingers in the audiences mind throughout. He’s hiding in the bushes on his horse, ready to scare the life out of Rachel Zachary (Hepburn) still innocent to the world around her, the next few days are going to be quite revealing for her.
So how does this compare with The Searchers then? Well from the start, if Rachel is to be Kiowa as we are lead to believe she is the Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter) or Debbie (Natalie Wood) has long been accepted into the Zachary family, with a white mother Mattilda (Lillian Gish) and three brothers who have taken in and raised this child, now a young woman as their own. Known as an abandoned child has been long been assimilated into White civilisation. So any revelation shouldn’t cause that much harm, can it? In the home of the Edwards in the John Ford original, Martin Pawley is seem as an Edwards, there’s no question of his place in the home or in the film, accepted. Debbie has been written off as a squaw, better off dead, there’s no place for her, that’s until Ethan finally on rescuing her, decides not to kill her, instead returning her to the home of the Jorgensens, in a memorable sequence that brings the film to a close. Of course that wouldn’t make much for a film in The Unforgiven, Rachel’s identity is kept secret until much later on.
This is a time which could have seen the Jorgensens move away and settle in a different town, a town that is not aware of Debbie’s past that saw her brought up and married to Comanche chief Scar (Henry Brandon), she is far from pure in the eyes of a Wild West society, she’s tainted. So what about Rachel, at the moment she’s open to the possibility but gives it little thought when her mother brushes it aside.
I’ve not even turned to the Zachary brothers lead by Ben (Burt Lancaster) who I naturally thought would be the Ethan (John Wayne) of the film. Starting out hating her, wanting to search and hoping to kill his niece for the dirty blood that runs through her veins. Instead he’s a doting son and wrangler who has returned with a big dealing in the air with another local family. You can see his love for his mother when he literally lifts a piano on his back from a cart for her. He’s a mother boy, and father of the family. Could this be the Edwards has they survive the massacre and fought off the Comanches? The Zachary’s are a happy cohesive family on the surface, they have built a home out in the frontier, even if cows like to graze on the roof.
Everything starts to go wrong when Charlie Rawlins (Albert Salmi) who had just started courting Rachel is killed by a Kiowa. This is after we have already met them at the Zachary’s homestead, wanting to trade horses for Rachel. An offer refused which backfires. The offers refused but the question of her identity now wont go away, is she a Kiowa or not, the presence of the Native Americans suggest they mean business. A posse’s formed and they go in search of who we think are the Kiowas, it’s methodical, long and good length montage that finally leads them to Johnny Portugal the blast from the past, whose placed on trial, at the wrong end of noose. The truths revealed, with no room for the Zachary’s to wriggle out of. The tone of the film now changes, the family are seen as outcast unless they release Rachel to the Kiowa’s. To the point they want to humiliate her by stripping her down to reveal the truth, making them worse than the Kiowas are perceived to be. The Whites are just as bad if not worse.
Now onto the scenes that I hazily remember, the gunfight in the homestead, the Zacharys surrounded, minus one disgusted brother (Cash – Audie Murphy) so its 4 against an army of Kiowa’s. This is like the massacre in The Searchers as we only saw before when the secure the ranch pre-attack. Just as we saw in The Stalking Moon (1968) when its was 3 against 1. Here its more dramatic, Huston doesn’t leave anything out, every character has a dramatic moment, it’s literally jam-packed for at least 10 minutes, wanting to make every second count whilst they’re cooped up in the house. Lancaster is stronger than Ethan, able to accept Rachel for who she is and even kill her own kind, where as the Indian hater would kill them indiscriminately.
Finally I must turn to the casting of Hepburn who I originally thought was mis-cast, yet it’s her innocence that makes her perfect for the role. Not aware of who she truly is, her heritage, never questioning it. Thinking for a time she can marry her oldest brother, she has no understanding of family relationship beyond the power of love. When Charlie requests to start courting with her, she jumps at the chance, maybe to make Ben jealous, not that he would be. When she sees her Kiowa brother though, the man who killed her potential husband it brings out her natural self that she has been resisting. Resulting in an unsatisfying conclusion for me. Much like friend over at Bored and Dangerous – the happy ending, her family accept her, but does the wider society that left them all to be killed. Is family love all she needs when she knows deep down what she now wants – to be with the Kiowa. Who again are treated as one dimensional – which I’m not really surprised at, they are however allowed if however briefly to enter the white mans world to claim what is rightly theirs – Rachel.
I’ve been waiting to re-watch John Ford‘s apology for the/his depiction of Native Americans on-screen. Taking the events of the Trail of Tears (1878) that saw the Southern Cheyenne exit their reservation at Fort Robinson after having lived there for a year, waiting for more food and supplies to arrival after a group of Senators who were to see the condition of the reservation, barren, lifeless, unable to really support live. We’re told that originally over a thousand arrived, now just over 200 have survived that first year. This is the premise of the film, the rest is history. Ford took on the massive task of depicting this event in the genre that usually sees the Native American, either Apache, Cheyenne or Comanche, nations who stood up for themselves in the sight of the spreading settlers over the course of the 19th century. We know that one by one the nations tired, weak and hungry gave in and moved onto reservations after a series of unique events that would becoming the next chapter in their history.
Having read Dee Brown’s take on the event in Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee, which I surprisingly have recently read is accepted by Native Americans, all but the fact it didn’t say they survived to tell the tale to future generations. Which gives my exploration of their history something concrete to build upon. I can see my readings and then reflect them into the film adaptations. I’m taking in Cheyenne Autumn as my next film in that journey.
A few weeks ago I caught Sergeant Rutledge (1960) which was the first apologetic film that Ford made, placing the African-American soldier at the centre of the film, in a court room setting, not the strongest of films, not helped by its setting. Also feeling awkward being told in flashback which is more unusual still for him. Then followed the much heavier Two Rode Together (1961) which is lost to the conversations and the ideas it deals with. Coming to Cheyenne Autumn we have an epic on our hands, which is fair when you look at the subject matter that’s being dealt with. I have to admit it is deeply flawed in many ways which I want explore in my revisited review of his third and final apology that attempts to depict the events in a more favorable light. If another director were to take the material it would than likely be abandoned or even completely rewritten to show the Cheyenne as the antagonist not the protagonist, or even the obstacle.
So where do I begin, well the biggest and most obvious flaw is the waste of 30 minutes spent in Dodge City, where we have some comedy courtesy of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holiday (James Stewart and Arthur Kennedy) who act as the comic relief, intended to take the edge off the heavy material at the centre of the film. A mass migration of people across open country to their homeland, I can see where Ford is coming from, the audience wouldn’t be used to seeing such content, even more so in Super Panavision 70mm which leaving the audience with nowhere to be distracted, the images plastered from the top to the bottom of the screen. The comedy is an unnerving, unnecessary and ultimately distracting really. You have real human drama playing out in Ford’s mythic West – Monument Valley lines of cavalry and Cheyenne moving across it, retelling this event from history. 50 years since release the comedy has lost its impact, if there was any to be had, it’s all played up clichés which Ford is honestly better than. It shows he was unsure about the content standing on its own, drawing in an audience for a different kind of Western. With big names such as Stewart is a sure sign you’ll get some through the doors. Here he’s just having a good time,you could say, just picking up a cheque and going on after a few days on set. I know that’s not what I want to type and you don’t want to read. Ford is or has lost his touch here which can be seen elsewhere.
The basic structure of the events are correct, a year on the reservation before packing up and wanting to live with the Northern Cheyenne who were living with the Sioux under Red Cloud at Pine Ridge reservation, with a few events in between that are more or less correct, others mixed around for drama, whilst others are added for pure effect. For once the nation leaders Little Wolf and Dull Knife are based on the actual Cheyenne that lead the exodus North. Played here by Ricardo Montalban and Gilbert Roland both originally from Mexican, where the film starts to fall down. The main parts are played by non-natives playing native roles in a pro-native film. Also we have the lazily named Spanish Woman (Dolores del Rio) who really should have had more care given in developing her character. Was she a Mexican captive, or did she marry in of her own choice. Instead we here her called upon by Deborah White (Carroll Baker) the Quaker sympathiser who travels with them.
Baker’s role is allowing the audience into this group who are traveling across the open country (or going around in circles of Monument Valley (which isn’t too bad)), the audience’s supposed to understand the Cheyenne plight through the white voice who has supported them on the reservation and now acting as nurse to one of the young injured travellers. Her name is reminiscent of the female captive Debbie (Natalie Wood) in The Searchers (1956) we are getting an internal understanding of how the other is thinking. Ford not matter how much he is loosing his touch is still putting small links to his rich filmography.
Away from the trail we have the U.S cavalry who are all other place in terms of the side they take. We mainly follow Captain Archer (Richard Widmark) who is taking on the 20th century thinker or Captain Kirby (John Wayne) from Fort Apache and Rio Grande (1948 and 1950) who wanted to talk to the other instead of going in bugles blazing. Interestingly John Wayne’s son Patrick Wayne plays the Colonel Thursday role – 2nd Lt. Scott, or could he be an extension of Ethan Edwards in another life, his son wanting to avenge his father. There are other links to the Cavalry trilogy that carry on throughout the film, even further back to Stagecoach (1939). We have a director using all his familiar characters in this very unusual Western from a man who is trying his best to make the subject matter relatable to an audience who are by now used to something far more cerebral than this far darker subject.
My first experience with this film came at the comedy break, my interest was pricked up. The second time around I saw the film more for what it is, a very different kind of Western, Ford having a conscience for a body of work that has depicted a nation in a poor light. Even if he employed them in several of his films. Now I see a flawed yet rich film of a director who is no longer in his prime, his last great film – The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) was not yet celebrated as it is today. He’s putting his all into what could be a last ditch effort at greatness which could have been if only he was more sure of his instincts. He’s not so much hitting racism head on, more trying to say whilst we were making this great country, another was being lost. He half achieves that goal. If I could re-cut and recast the film in places maybe we would have another masterpiece on our hands.
A much-needed re-watch which has come a year after reading into The Stalking Moon (1968) compared to The Searchers (1956) (again) which I had to watch once more to see all the readings into the films depiction of the Native American for myself. It comes across as another possible narrative strand of The Searchers which really ends where Moon picks up. After a group of Apache are rounded up by the army, possibly having escaped a reservation or going to. Either way their freedom is over and future is determined. We discover a single white and blonde female captive Sarah Carver (Eva Marie Saint) who has been assimilated into their culture, she has assumed their language, dress and thinking.
For all intent and purposes she is a Native American, that is in the eyes of Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) who would more than likely left he to die or killed her himself. Not the army scout/Indian tracker Sam Varner (Gregory Peck) who readily accepts her as white or even just human and a woman (be that in 19th century terms). She is a free woman to do as she pleases, bringing her son with her, also that of Salvaje (Nathaniel Narcisco) which is Spanish for savage. If you know your Spanish you are already being given a pre-loaded conception of who this mostly un-seen figure is. Not unlike Scar (Henry Brandon) who we see a few times and interact with in the earlier film. The Spanish translation is cicatriz as the Mexican in the cantina tells Edwards.
I can’t really compare Varner and Edwards both are very different characters and that’s not the point of this re-exmination of the film. For me it’s about how the later film has been influenced, taking the same iconography and the depiction of the Native American. You could say they are one and the same film in some respects. A woman’s rescued from a life with the “Indians” which is either looked down on, mocked or pitied. In the genre you are better of dead than alive being a squaw. In reality women and children were only taken as prisoners, used as leverage with the army to stay on their land. Most of not all were later released, you can see where the myth begins though which has allowed the on-screen image to become bigger and more exotic. Being captured and living as one of a number of squaws with a one of the warriors or even chief, having a number of children, usually after being raped. Not a pretty picture but one that both dime novels and Hollywood and built up and reinforced.
So with this image built up on paper and on-screen, the Native American all but quieted on reservations the myth of conquest’s being formed and reinforced by clichés which we see in both The Searchers and The Stalking Moon, they are always seen through the eyes of the white man, usually the tracker who has a vast knowledge of them, which the audience dripped fed. Edwards is delivered with hate and disgust, whereas Varner’s more about the survival skills which he uses against them in order to stay alive. There is no real hatred behind his eyes, he is even close friends with his younger partner in the army a mixed race Nick Tana (Robert Forster) who looks up to him as a father figure. We can see that the fight between his two heritage was won by his white side, which in turn makes is easier for us to engage with him.
Going back to the depiction of the key Native American, both come from over-used nations – Apache and Comanche- the very names are more exotic on the ear, and sound more frightening than others. Scar the Comanche chief has lines and shares screen-time with Edwards, neither like each other and you can really feel it as they have a fruitless trading session. Whereas Salvaje is not even seen until the finale which is more about tension. He’s treated as an animal who has to be stopped in his tracks. There’s no eye to eye scene until it’s too late to do anything about, Salvaje is very one-dimensional and his only one goal to rescue his son from the white people, more able to accept his mixed heritage but not his circumstances. For the majority of the film he is only seen in the form of the aftermath of the victims he leaves as he comes in search of his son. He is the Apache Ethan Edwards going all the way to find his son, except it’s not over the course of seven years, more like a week if that.
The cost of the deaths could’ve been avoided as its pointed out to Sarah who is eager to get moving back home, knowing she needs to keep moving to survive with her son. She’s taken into the care of Varner who takes it on himself to escort her so far before getting to her destination of Silverton, her home town. She and her son (Noland Clay) who’re treated as second class citizens, with restricted travel and casual racism.
I must touch on the ranches that feature in both films, The Edwards ranch where we begin in The Searchers and with the Jorgensens as Debbie (Natalie Wood) is safely returned by to white safety and civilization, restoring her you could say. That restoration happens far earlier for Sarah, discovered at the beginning The Stalking Moon and is later invited to stay, possibly live at Varner’s ranch where we see inside far longer than the establishing scenes of Ford’s film. We only see the beginning of the Comanche raid, we don’t see anyone, nature discovers them first. The ranch is barricaded, cutting to Scar who has already found a young Debbie in the family graveyard, which is where her white life ends and “Indian” life begins. Back to New Mexico where Varner’s ranch and battle ground for the finale of the later film takes place. The danger is brought back to the homestead which eventually end with Salvajes death restoring order. Sarah’s able to adjust to White mans life along with her son, much like Debbie Edwards before her.
As I have found they share a lot of the same themes and imagery, just reordering them within the same basic landscape of the American West. It’s the last real conventional Western retelling of the same plot before we enter the modern world where Native American’s are replaced with criminals and other low-life that replace the previous obstacle. We have lost the racist in Edwards for a more well adjusted figure in Varner who can easily live among others. I guess the only true comparison would and will always be Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) whose an urban outsider, to dangerous for mainstream society. I think I know which film I’ll be watching again soon.
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.
- DANCES WITH WOLVES: Film Review (www.nativeamerican.co.uk)
- Best Picture Profile: Dances With Wolves (mylastoscar.wordpress.com)
- I’M AN INDIAN TOO (A SIOUX): “DANCES WITH WOLVES” (1990) (scottross79.wordpress.com)
- Dances with Wolves (1990) (theacademywaswrong.blogspot.co.uk)
- The Best Picture Countdown #63: Dances with Wolves (1990) (flickchickcanada.blogspot.co.uk)
- The Oscar Project #63: Dances with Wolves (1990) (hashtagworld.blogspot.co.uk)
I have never really been a massive fan of musicals, feeling they are too cerebral for my taste, not really grounded. When no film is really that grounded in reality, it’s a form of escapism. Adding to that there are some fantastic musicals that I have in fact seen and enjoyed. Turning then to the much talked about musical that takes the action of Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet from the streets of Verona and moves them to the streets of New York City in West Side Story (1961) which had me hooked from the first time we hit the streets as we are introduced to the rival gangs of the Sharks and the Jets. A clever transitions from rival families even in the sixties no longer really exist unless you are in the Mafia. The two gangs as we iconic-ally strut their stuff making themselves known to each other. The clicks that echo the youthfulness of the street hooligans who think they know best.
Amongst all this street carnage we found something more than testosterone, something that is blossoming which could change two lives forever. Maria (Natalie Wood) of the Puerto Rican immigrants and Tony (Richard Beymer) who both see beyond the mess they are associated with. Made even clearer by the theatrical special effects that marry the cinematic and stage versions of this musical that transport us a realm of fantasy, literally blurring the image to focus on the young couple.
No musical would be a musical without the music that has made it last this long now over 50 years now as a classic. Each one with its own youthful energy that grabs your attention, not one moment of my time was torn away when they were pouring their hearts out over the numbers which have become pieces in their own right.
Dealing with not just issues of street gangs but imigrations which sees new problems of social cohesion. And that of modern life for the teenager and family life. Who find themselves by joining a gang to give themselves an identity. Only age and experience which comes all too late for most of the two rival gangs. We see after a dance that war is on the cards, something which Tony the oldest of any of the gangs wants to stop, clearly more mature, even when blinded by love.
Another major part of this is the choreography by Jerome Robbins who brings the streets alive with grave and style for the kids in these gangs who instead of using violence use dance to show dominance. Bringing new meaning to dancing in the streets in sets that are not overly theatrical, extended the everyday backstreet’s of New York to that of the stage. Blowing up areas to become far bigger than they really are.
The film has a pulse, not just of the streets but of youthful energy, fun-filled whilst still dangerous. Added with the charm of its age, whilst at the heart is a tragic love that tries to overcome all the strife around them. Breaking from the traditional play I was surprised by the ending that would have been too gruesome for the streets, Maria doesn’t take her own life to be with Tony instead only talks of it in threats to scare both gangs who have exhausted themselves in the violence of the film.