There are very few pro Native American films and when they are you really have to check who the filmmakers agenda’s. Are they trying project progressive position that respects these native nations. For the best part of a century their cinematic depiction has been bordering on poor to racist at times. Rarely do we get to see a fully fleshed portrait of any of those Nations. It seems they will always be portrayed as the victims in need of help from the white man. That happens to a degree in Neither Wolf Nor Dog (2016) however you have to go beyond that initial position. Based on the premise for author Kent Nerburn who wrote the book of the same name published in 1994. Who has stayed on to write the screenplay we have maintained and honest look at the making of the film. It doesn’t sugar coat or deal with cliche’s that we associate with Native Americans.
I came to this film having read a few books already from their perspective. A few of those have been based on recommendations from authors and even Natives themselves to broaden my understanding of their position today. After reading I can understand how they resist “Getting with the programme” position, it ignores a whole history, upheaval and near eradication of a whole race. There was never a political policy of genocide, i my reading it was a combination of racism, poor military control and a deep seated hatred nationally towards the aboriginal culture of North America. It’s these actions that have left an understandably bad taste in those nations now cooped up on the worst or remains of the open land that they now call home. The reservations which are now home to 2% of the American population that, living on 1.3% of that land. I could go on saying how screwed over they are but I’d be preaching to the converted.
Neither Wolf Nor Dog (2016) has one position – to retell the origins and the writing of Nerburn’s book, giving Dan (Dave Bald Eagle) and other Lakota Sioux living on Lone Pine Reservation, California. If anything there’s a shifting of positions going on and an awakening to understand the other. Nerburn known for an earlier work that came out of an open collaboration on another reservation, Dan requests that the author come and visit his home in the hopes of writing his peoples history. Much like John G. Neihardt’s Black Elk Speaks. Ironically for the Native History to reach a wide audience it takes a white man to pen the memoir. But it’s more than that, it’s a history of a people that is finally being put on the record. If History is thought to be written by the victors, what happens to the losers, who records events from their perspective?
At first Nerburn (Christopher Sweeney) is apprehensive to take on such a task, at this point he’s not made a career as a writer. How can he record the history of a culture without fully understanding them. He enters a state of writers block before coming back with a trite introduction that uses all the possible cliches in the book. He misses the point completely offending those who he’s trying to represent. What follows is a really hard journey lead by Dan’s nephew Grover (Richard Ray Whitman) who pushes him to his limits of mental strength to understand the culture and those around him. For the audience – mostly white and British in my screen, we were on the same journey of discovery. Just what are we supposed to see in order to understand and properly engage with Native Americans.
It takes a long road trip through what remains of Lakota country for Nerburn to him to start reaching his enlightened state to write his book. Spending time immersed with Dan’s family. Not just the standard tribal traditions that films have depicted countless times before. Instead showing him the reality of life on the Res. I knew of the alcoholism and wide-spread poverty that is synonymous with the Reservations of the U.S. The author is not a passing tourist or a missionary trying to help them. If he wants to write about them he really has to be coming from their perspective.
Neither Wolf Nor Dog finely balances black comedy with the heavy hand of history hanging on the other side. There’s no running from the facts, the battles and mistreatments of their ancestors. They are dealt with sensitively and more importantly from Native perspective, which really matters here. Without lecturing the audience, who were probably aware of at least some of this awful history. Putting a human face on it makes one hell of a difference.
The budget has been spent primarily on the script that holds this cheap film together. Sweeney delivers a decent performance as the frustrated writer. It’s the Natives that really are the heart and soul of the film. Without a feather or dance in sight, both Whitman and especially Dave Bald Eagle who brings with him a charming sense of comedic timing, the wise old elder that finely balances the comic and more tragic moments. He’s one of the last links to a history that if not recorded will be lost forever. If anything I now want to read the book that inspired the film to see how this journey translated from word of mouth, the traditional the preferred method of carrying on their history. Now that history can be shared with a wider more ignorant audience willing to learn of an often overlooked people.
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.
Now I have to be honest, I never thought I’d be reviewing Captain Apache (1971), if anything I thought I’d have been ruthless and stopped watching it before the end. I even thought this was another Spaghetti Western. I am once again proven wrong, it’s a British shot and produced western that has the look of a Spaghetti Western, however maybe that’s purely on the aesthetics, it doesn’t have the richness of colours or the budget, not even the violence, sure people are shot every ten minutes or so, yet there is no blood, which Italian directors were not afraid to use and to excess sometimes. We don’t have the vocal dubbing either so we lose the out of sync dialogue in places. If anything its a low-budget entry into the genre during its period of falling out of favor with the public.
This is one of those rare British Westerns that (attempts to) follow in the footsteps of our Italian counterparts, with British restraint on the violence (maybe a budget issue), we have a star actor (Lee Van Cleef) surrounded by a practically unknown supporting cast. With exception to Carroll Baker and Stuart Whitman who have starred in a few westerns themselves. Here they have larger parts in the decidedly dodgy Western, which I’ll explain below.
The very title is today very controversial, Captain Apache a captain in the U.S. Army who is sometimes called a “Red Ass”, a derogatory term in the film and even more so today. Played with Van Cleef minus is signature tash that really makes the actors red make-up stand out even more. If he hadn’t shaved off the old tash we wouldn’t be recognise him as easily. A complete reverse of Henry Fonda in Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) for which he grew one especially, only to be told to shave it. Recognition was more important for the director and his audience, that is lost here, which takes a while to get used to.
I’ve never been happy, well no one is with the “redding-up” of white actors and this is no exception really, thankfully I have more to keep me occupied than the make-up. The plot is very disjointed, I wouldn’t say confusing as there’s not much of a plot. We follow Captain Apache and his soldiers who actually follow the Native American’s orders without question, they don’t even talk behind his back, they respect him to our knowledge. We are seeing the other, the enemy who has been fully assimilated into the white mans world. If that’s a good thing or not is another matter. It’s the people who are not in uniform who have a hard time accepting the Apache’s position in society. Historically they would never have put on the uniform of a Blue-coat which really takes this film into the realm of fantasy, history’s thrown aside for pure danger and drama.
Moving away from the depiction of the Apache we have a plot that really take a longtime to get going. We have the army investigating something about “April Morning” the last words by the Indian commissioner (not clearly mentioned), is this code for something, is April a person, for a while I thought it was Carroll Baker‘s character Maude who takes on the role of the prostitute and tacked on at the end, old love interest of the captains. We also have Stuart Whitman‘s Griffin whose hot on the trail also with his men that drop like flies around the captain. Its an odd murder investigation for sure as we just seem to get little bits of information.
For me it doesn’t make much sense, so why did I continue watching this bizarre unstructured western that tries to be a Spaghetti Western. I guess part of me was just curious to see what weird and wonderful things would happen. Maybe it was the final train sequence when everything comes together as people disappear and reappear in an assassination attempt, even then it doesn’t really make sense as the U.S. army come to the rescue out of nowhere. It’s an interesting mess of a British Western that tries to live up to others who have already made a distinctive mark on the genre.
This is one remake I have been avoiding for sometime, I’m not sure anyone who attempts to remake a John Ford western is going to succeed. There was news a few months ago that The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) is being remade and set in the 198o’s, that’s an interesting twist. There have been many films compared to The Searchers, (1956) however they are not remakes as we find with Stagecoach (1966) which was released 27 years after the original that changed the face of cinema. Thought to not only influence Citizen Kane (1941), it revitalised the genre and lastly launched the career of John Wayne who’d been stuck in a rut of b-movies for the best part of the 1930’s, he even made a few after its release – contractually.
You can’t apply the same effect to the genre or the medium of film to the remake which admittedly does expand on the film. Much like remakes of 3:10 to Yuma (2007) and True Grit (2010), I’m waiting to see how The Magnificent Seven compares now. I must confess it has been a few years since I’ve seen the original 1939 Stagecoach which was as much about making the genre more appealing to an adult audience. Bringing together social misfits or outsiders into a confined space, a vehicle on a dangerous route in the open untamed West. It was ultimately the perfect showcase for John Wayne, still baby-faced he personified a young independent America standing up for itself, playing Ringo Kid a role that was given to him by Ford – “Pappy” who had been waiting to give him the right part at the right time. He was redeemed from years of working the circuit of formulaic westerns that had no room for either story or character development. They were the training ground that saw him grow and form the character he would then play until 1976, a 50 year career.
I can’t feel the same effect in the remake with Alex Cord who fills the role in terms of stature at least, there are times where he’s definitely trying to break free of the Dukes even taller shadow. In terms of the walk and tone of his delivery. His entrance into the film is not the event that we found in 1939, the cockiness of the gun play, as he stands in the road is replaced by sitting at the side of the road for the stagecoach to reach him, not that he’s waiting for them, they are both opportunist in that respect.
What makes this interpretation stand apart is the longer running time, at nearly 2 hours allowing for more development with all of the characters, making for a richer film in that respect. I say allowing I feel its a missed chance with some characters, they do have more screen time, however its given more to Dallas (Ann-Margret) who has more of a back story. Rumoured to be the cause of few brawls in the town, not just a typical prostitute that Claire Trevor played and pushed out by the Law and Order League, its more about cleaning up the town to keep the general crime rate. She feels cursed by the legacy of death. Another characters whose drawn well is the doctor, this time played by Bing Crosby taking over Thomas Mitchell‘s role who you can’t forget, so full of life. Both actors of the same generation we meet an older doctor in Crosby, unshaven atypical drunk in appearance, however he plays a drunk doesn’t try to give up the drink. Mitchells knows he has a demon, he delivers a baby sober and celebrates that. Crosby’s is looking for the next drink all the time.
Of course you can’t have a straight copy, or it wouldn’t be a film in its own right. Making the conscious decision to not film in Monument Valley which is John Ford country, to shoot there would be a bold move. Instead sticking to more traditional landscape, which makes for a more traditional western. What we do have which is practically a like for like swap is the stagecoach driver Buck, originally Andy Devine took the reins, a loud and large figure who was regular for Ford, with Slim Pickens we have another loud character actor who made an impression on his films.
What makes this film stand apart is the larger screen time of the Apache’s lead by Geronimo are more than just rumour, we see them at the beginning of the film attacking the U.S. cavalry. There is no rolling prologue to set-up the film. Geronimo is not really mentioned and they are still the faceless, nameless enemy of the genre. I’m not critiquing that here though, more a comment in terms of the films comparison. The gunfight’s are well choreographed make for a more fearsome other who attacks the white for no reason more than they are Apache. Which oddly makes up for the lack of Monument Valley and Ford. I do however wish they hadn’t re-staged Ringo jumping through the horses. It wasn’t as grand a set-piece, used more as a means to get the stagecoach through.
The problem is that for me Stagecoach is an iconic film, to remake it’s going to be a sensitive thing to do. Getting it right, this is a star-filled piece, well semi star-filled anyway. It’s longer, darker in some respect but overall a looser film that is conscious of the shadow that is hanging over this modern piece of Wild West folklore that he it hopes to meet at some point. I am actually now considering seeking out the Johnny Cash version, made 20 years later, just to see how the story translates and transforms over time. It does still confine outcasts into the one small and dangerous vehicle, but the chemistry has not been replicated successfully.
I’ve been looking out for Ulzana’s Raid (1972) ever since I read about it a years ago, discussed in relation to Native American’s once again. Focusing this time on an army company of men in search of a band of Apache who had left the reservation at the beginning of the film. Something which I can relate to in my current work. Naturally the army’s notified of Ulzana (Joaquín Martínez) and his braves who have left over night. Today you would rightly be behind the Apache’s to make a break for freedom. I noticed as the film progress as much as it has dated it has a new relevance in the age of ISIS and Islamaphobia which has gripped parts of the world. I’ll explain my observation as I carry on. My initial reading (literally) was a comparison with McIntosh (Burt Lancaster) and Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) yes there’s more discussion about The Searchers (1956) this time focusing on how the white man functions with his knowledge of the other.
Much like my review of The Stalking Moon (1968) we have an army scout with knowledge of “Indians” for Edwards the knowledge comes from an undisclosed place in a back story that fuels his hate, scaring those around him to the point of alienation leaving him with his unwanted mixed race Cherokee Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter) who stick with him throughout, thick and thin. We can only presume his knowledge comes after leaving the Confederate Army, being absent from the surrender he follows a different path from everyone else who has seemingly adjusted to post civil war life.
With Edwards out of the army, I turn to those still in the army, Varner’s (Gregory Peck) seen as a knowledge, the army want him to stay, they feel safer with him and his partner riding with them. I can’t really imagine Peck ever being as dangerous as Wayne could ever portray. Even the white woman Sarah (Eva Marie Saint) feels safe in his company as her escorts her home. Turning to Mcintosh he is as worldly-wise as they others, you can see it on his face, he has seen a lot, done a lot and even married a Native woman for his wife. Something that Edwards would never contemplate, his racism wouldn’t allow it. He is more willing to share his knowledge as advise not to scare the cavalry men he is riding with. He wants to educate not fear them, he doesn’t need to do that as the trail of blood-shed speaks for itself. He instead explains what they do and why.
If anything the explanation for all the atrocities is better explained by the sole Apache Ke-Ni-Tay (Jorge Luke) whose allowed to have a good portion of the script. He’s better able to answer all the questions that the men have. Especially for wet behind the ears Lt. Garnett DeBuin (Bruce Davison) who sees all this death as meaningless, he wants to act without fully understanding his enemy. He’s Lt. Col. Owen Thursday (Henry Fonda) before the racism has set in, wanting to make a career and a name for himself in the army. Here’s the chance to learn and change his perspective and direction in life. With the motives for the Apache’s explained by Ke-Ni-Tay, acting as the others representative. Today he could represent the hunted ISIS (and rightly so to) he becomes the misunderstood Muslim who has done nothing wrong, whose labelled the potential terrorist in their absence. Racism without cause, fear is wrong directed to Muslims when 99% of them are as decent as everyone else we meet on the street. It’s the 1% who are disillusioned, radicalized and want to inflict harm on the rest of the world. Back in the Western of the 1970’s the Native Americans act as the Vietnamese who have been wrongly killed because of the fear of communism (I know there’s more to it than that).
I want to look at some lines from the film, something I do rarely, a few stood out for me that I have to interrogate.
Do you hate Apaches, Mr. McIntosh? – Lt. Harry Garnett DeBuin
No. – McIntosh
Well, I do. – Lt. Harry Garnett DeBuin
Well, it might not make you happy, Lieutenant, but it sure won’t make you lonesome. Most white folks hereabout feel the same way you do. – McIntosh
Why don’t you feel that way? – Lt. Harry Garnett DeBuin
It would be like hating the desert because there ain’t no water in it. For now, I can get by being plenty scared of ’em. – McIntosh:
It feels like a conversation that could have taken place in Fort Apache if rank wasn’t a problem between Thursday and Capt. Kirby York (Wayne). Instead with have the advantage of age over experience. The time to consider whether there is enough time in life to devote so much to hating a race of people. McIntosh understand his commanding officers position but has given up on the emotion as it only gets in the way of living and functioning as a human being out in the frontier.
Turning now to the violence of the film, this isn’t one that young kids could watch and get a sense of fun, the cowboy and Indian dynamic of the past is not present in this film. The violence is more brutal. Animal rights groups would today have ensure animals were treated better. There’s nothing to suggest that any animals were harmed or not. This is a few years before Heaven’s Gate (1980) and exploding horses in the name of art. As much as the violence is tame in some respects, when you see a horses neck being cut you think twice about putting a young child in front of the screen. We are meant to see these violent acts, suggesting that the Apache are not civilised, they are capable of terrible acts, making the cavalry’s presence all the more relevant. The savages have to be tamed if possible at all costs. Although history would argue they only ever acted in self defense at the threat of losing their way of life. Once again I am mixing fact with fiction and in film that doesn’t always work.
The depiction of the Native American’s doesn’t really fare that much better than the animals, They are treated once again as savages with skills of the wilderness. They become more desperate over the course of the film, as if they are broken down. They way they treat their horses/ponies is not really as animals to respect but more as tools that can be disposed of. Practically seen as people you wouldn’t want to have dinner with. They are however seen as a people who can work together with only gestures, almost as if Ulzana is orchestrating his men from a distance which I can’t help but admire.
So to sum up as I explore The Searchers through other films I am building up a bigger picture of how it has influenced others films and the western genre. It’s clear that Edwards is a powerful and very human character that interests us even to this day. The role of the outsider and racist will always be a dangerous one. Lancaster doesn’t play that role, take cues from Peck, two trackers who are able to function, to take a step back from the other. Instead its given to the younger man Lt. Harry Garnett DeBuin who as much as he is eager to learn, he is being shaped in front of our eyes. This mission wont easily leave him, just as the 1956 classic will never leave me.
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.
There’s been a of talk around this western, ever since I read the brief outline for The Revenant (2015) I immediately made the connection with the Richard Harris film which depicts the same events in Man in the Wilderness (1971) which for a while was all but ignored until the reviews started to come out. It’s hard to ignore really, as year drew to a close I understood that both The Revenant and the earlier film are based on the same real events but two different fictional accounts of that event. Sounded a little confusing at the time, yet they both put their own spin on facts of a frontier time in America, becoming part of the legend that is America’s history and folk-lore. More recently it has been released as award-bait which it clearly has in heaps as each ceremony is leaning towards. It could also be the year to end all the Leonardo DiCaprio memes as he should get the Best Actor Oscar, which is well deserved and a long time coming really, more on that later. Also up for best picture which I can see this easily getting, even though director Alejandro González Iñárritu picked up that one last year for Birdman (2014), could he be the new John Ford, or is that too premature in terms of Oscar success. Could this be the year that a Western wins big again, something that has not been achieved this Unforgiven (1992). There has been a slow return of the genre, not in the classic form, or even a lighter tone of the 1990’s, they are more reverential and reflective, more adult than even some of the 1950’s classic which are still hard to beat. I saying this even before the end of February. I feel though that as I have built up an interest and a practice around a dying genre it has been reborn once more, I feel lucky to have that , if only it was back in the golden-age.
Anyway enough of all the chatter and down to what I think make this film, why it stands a very good chance at the Oscars. Whilst also comparing it to Man in the Wilderness which I must say now is hard to call which is better in the light of the intense experience that I felt coming out of the cinema, the imagery so raw and fresh. I couldn’t help making comparisons with Terrence Mallick when looking at how nature’s captured, the whispers of dialogue in flash-back, yet Iñárritu isn’t trying to imitate the director, it feels more like coincidence, adding another dimension to the film and to Hugh Glass’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) back story that the centre of this revenge western.
I also found myself drawing comparisons with Jeremiah Johnson (1972) and The New Word (2005) combined with Man in the Wilderness to give us this hybrid that can stand on its own two feet. Maybe its the time period that they all cover, pre-Civil War America that we have come to know and define the language of the genre. The country has yet to be won completely, we are supposed to be in is still untamed, filled with trees and at the moment snow which is another natural enemy against the group of fur trappers that want to return home with all they have caught. Immediately caught in a vicious fight with Natives who ambush them, its a bloody scene that finds even the audience wanting to hide from the arrows. From the first few seconds you are immersed into this dirty, cold and dangerous world. Helped in part by the sound design on the film, heightening your senses to think that you are not just watching these events but out there in the cold. We get a lot of opportunities to look up out to the sky from the trees, as if to say look at what we have lost since the country was won. But you can say the same for most modern countries, as they are reshaped in the image we want them to be, for our purpose. Still it doesn’t drive that idea home we are left to come to that conclusion ourselves in this still untamed wilderness of the mountain man and the settlers of the 1820’s
Without giving too much away in regards to the plot that hasn’t already slipped through the net, I found myself waiting for the bear attack, not that I was impatient that was a building of tension among the men, especially between Glass and John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) who resents him for advising their captain Andre Henry (Domhnall Gleeson) who is more open and understanding a strong leader among this band of rough men and boys who have gone out fur trapping in the wilderness, having to hide a good number of their finds before moving on, a much depleted force, only 10 left after a bloody ambush. There is a great focus on Glass and his son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) the child of mixed race who gets some abuse, only kept alive by his fathers forward thinking. Needing him to stay quiet to survive, better to be seen and not heard. Even though as we find later in the film, some nations are still living peacefully with the American’s. The push Westward has not yet begun as we know it in the genre.
Of course when that scene between the bear and Glass is happening, it’s in your face and it’s not pretty. Something rather brutal, being taken along with Glass as he is torn to pieces almost. A tiring scene, which is not something I say lightly, it lasts what seems like forever, as he is played with like a rag doll in the cover of the forest before the men come out to find him. I couldn’t help but start to draw comparisons between this and Man in the Wilderness which is an abridged version of the same events. Here its a far wider and emotional journey for all involved, the men are all rounded characters. As much as Tom Hardy is chewing his dialogue, he’s held to account by Bridger (Will Poulter) who is the conscience he really doesn’t need at his side. Hardy is a worthy foe for Glass who spends the rest of the film avenging his son, Something we don’t get in the earlier film. There’s more emotional intensity now, more reason to return alive, not just to find the men who left him for dead.
They are both strong in equal measure in terms of depiction of the Native American, who even have a few lines in their own language, we even meet the French who are abusing their power in the untamed country. I still remember the silent labour in Wilderness that will stay with me, I found it quite powerful how dignified they were portrayed. It may have been Hollywood’s way making up for all those other messy inaccurate depictions, indulging in the other if only briefly. In The Revenant they are interacted with, they are not the enemy to be feared, coming from Glass’s history he has no fear, even speaking Pawnee. They are both different films telling the same story, or version of the facts and there is nothing wrong with that.
I’ve been quietly looking out for Death Wish (1974) for sometime, wondering what it was about. Then reading a brief description it became clear that this was Michael Winner‘s version of The Searchers (1956). Two years before Martin Scorsese‘s own take on the film – Taxi Driver (1976) However architect Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) is not an outsider of society. In fact he lives a middle class lifestyle. Even making his mark on his country by helping design the future for an undeveloped section of Tuscon, Arizona. Unlike Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) who drives the streets of New York at night, unable to have a normal relationship with a woman. We have moved on from John Ford‘s original wandering Confederate Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) who will never have a place in civilised society. He does have more in common with Bickle though, we all know or have seen someone who doesn’t quite fit in, standing out and whom we fear for some reason.
So how else is this quietly violent film like The Searchers and other Westerns, we must first look at the women that are/were in Kersey’s at the beginning of the film. He loves his wife Joanna (Hope Lange) who he has just returned from a holiday with. They are enjoying their freedom from their now grown up daughter, a second flourish of love, it’s a rosy picture. All this is soon lost after not even a word has barely been uttered by anyone. Normality in their lives restored, mother and daughter Carol Toby (Kathleen Tolan) have been out together. Where we meet three men, criminals out for their next easy victims who have plenty of cash to steal from. These thugs/criminals take the place of Native Americans on the street, the wild and uncontrollable, the lost and disillusioned youth of the streets with no-where to turning on the successful and affluent who have the image of an easy life. These three men track down and follow the mother and daughter home, the defenseless women are soon in the arms of the gang who leave the women ravaged, not quite raped but beaten within an inch of their life.
Nearly on a par with the ultra-violence of A Clockwork Orange (1971) but still with some way to go. The effect of the violent is soon felt when the absent men in their lives are at the hospital, who are left to accept the consequences of the crime. Joanna soon dies (not from her external injuries at least) and Carol traumatized to the point she’s moved into a psychiatric hospital. Reminding me of the powerful scene in The Searchers when Ethan and Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter) come across two women who are little more than scare children after their time with the savage natives. Time as a squaw is an experience that’s compared to a fate worse than death in the classic genre.
The women in Death Wish are silently labelled “Comanch” they are victims of street crime. For the men they both deal with their loss’ in different ways. Jack Toby (Steven Keats) Kersey’s son-in-law accepts his wives condition and does what he feels medicine and society can do for her. Whilst the elder who has lost his wife doesn’t take that option, justice has failed for him. Needing to find another way to grieve and right the many wrongs which is beginning to see on the streets of New York City. It takes him a business trip to Tuscon, working on designs for new homes on yet untouched land. He has left the East to go to the old West where. He is helping to define the future for more settlers who want to move West, except there journey is a lot safer.
It takes a trip to a Wild West film set which I recognised from a few films, where Kersey along with his colleague Sam (William Redfield) a member of a gun club awakens the gunfighter and eventual vigilante in the conscientious objector of the Korean War. A man who for years had not picked up a gun and for good reasons too. his principals are thrown to the wind on his return, his first act of self-defense becomes a chance to clean up the streets. Taking law into his own hands, a reversion to an outmoded gunfighter, long after law and order has been instated in the country. Here comes a gunfighter who wants to kill for good. Having the to break the law, to kill in order to make the streets safer.
Soon getting the attention of the police, lead by investigating officer Frank Ocha (Vincent Gardenia) who wants to restore civilised law and order. Or to put him back on-top, allowing the police to do their job. Not exactly the kind of guy you would expect, full of a cold, but wants to see this vigilante who he begins to understand, methodically getting to Kersey who is attracting attention and wannabe vigilantes, not to the same level. He’s enjoying the attention from behind the comfort of his apartment. Collecting newspapers that mention his acts/work. This the gunfighter basking in the glory of his good deeds, writing his own history, without the media even knowing him.
Instead of bringing Kersey to justice he is eventually persuaded to leave, helping to create a modern legend. To be a legendary gunfighter today you have to be a vigilante, it still happens even forty years later as have-ago-hero’s, citizens arrests. The violence in the film is far less in your face, it’s a collection of moments of tension that are built up. We first meet the criminal in the urban setting before Kersey the possible victim turns around and kills them, easing the tension. More death, but less crime as a result, does that make the act of violence right? From a man who abhorred violence soon comes to get a thrill out of it, yet feels like a hero, killing only for good. The first in a string of sequels (which I am toying with watching) he has yet to avenge his wife and daughter.
The Native Americans of the urban streets are not seen again, complete with spray paint and few words. Is he looking out for them or others like them on what has become life’s work. A frightening prospect when you think about it, an architect who allows for progression forward, yet reverts to an outmoded way of life. Much like Ethan Edwards who spent 7 years of his life filled with racial hatred looking for Comanches to kill, whilst searching for his family, was he out for his family or for blood, that’s one of the bug questions you come away with. He’s already an outsider, a Confederate who has not accepted surrender so cannot progress with the forward thinking country. Kersey is a 20th century take on that, before the more iconic and dangerous Bickle, not as prolific in his violence he is not one to get close to, there is more humanity in Bronson’s take on the outsider, a man whose known for his violent roles shows a sensitive side before he becomes the iconic role for a generation.
I’ll leave you with a quote from the original and let you decide how far we have come.
“It just so happens we be Texicans. Texican is nothing but a human man way out on a limb. This year and next, and maybe for a hundred more. But I don’t think it’ll be forever. Some day this country’s gonna be a fine, good place to be. Maybe it needs our bones in the ground before that time can come.” – Mrs Jorgensen (Olive Carey)
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.
Having not being in the studio today my mind has been preoccupied with my work, Turning to research ahead of my time in the studio tomorrow when I want to make a few more burial scaffolding’s, maybe a fire and cooking tripod (not sure of correct term) also a few bare teepees as well. I’ve decided to make more pieces for the Native Americans because it makes sense to really. They are the focus of the piece and have very little in the way of accessories when it comes to the play set’s so I need to make more.
I also came across an artist who reminds me of Jeff Koons – Yoram Wolberger who blows these toy figures up to full-scale, not just cowboys and Indians but anything that is plastic, flimsy and mass-produced.
Wolberger emphasizes the distortions of their original manufacture disallowing any real illusion and conceptually forcing the viewer to reconsider their meanings. When enlarged beyond any possibility of dismissal, we see that toy soldiers create lines between Us and Them, plastic cowboys and Indians marginalize and stereotype the Other, even wedding cake bride and groom figurines dictate our expected gender roles.
It’s not too far from my thinking with this piece, instead of hitting you head on with their production quality, instead I want to blow away the cliché or use it to break it down, to see how the images of the classic western have engrained the image of a distorted history that the mass audience sees. The Native American is clearly the victim and has rarely been given the time to fight back and live in peace.
Wolberger’s pieces allow us to see a stereotype that can be broken down. He’s looking at how the plastic is ultimately flesh and blood before a desired image’s imprinted upon it. I like the finish of the pieces, leaving on the rough edges from the 2 part-mould which would have produced these figures, showing how the image unpolished image that w desire is just a construction.