I’ve been meaning to return to The Tin Star (1957) for a while now, an under appreciated Western by Anthony Mann without James Stewart, his first Western without Stewart due to a falling out between the two of them. I wonder how he would have approached this role, making it the 8th together. Instead turning to Henry Fonda, a longtime friend of Stewart’s making for the film we have today. Paired opposite a young pre-Pyscho Anthony Perkins which itself makes for interesting reading.
I could come at this review as a could have been different with James Stewart but that would be doing a dis-service to decent film that takes on the apprentice/master relationship. Something that has been done countless times, to become a man you must be able to defend yourself. Here however you don’t need the guns to do so. They are simply tools, something that fresh-faced Sheriff Ben Owens (Anthony Perkins) has to learn the hard way. When bounty hunter Morgan ‘Morg’ Hickman (Henry Fonda) arrives with bounty in tow he wants only to collect his money and leave, keep to himself and cause no trouble. His very presence in the town causes a stir with the establishment and business that have supported Ben who took over at little notice. “This is a law and order town” is mentioned a few times to warn Hickman off interfering on his way. This is not the Clint Eastwood bounty hunter whose very presence scares those he’s about to shout down and collect on. This town has moved on from this model of keeping law and order. It’s follow the law and live by the law. Yet we still have the classic Dead or Alive posters which contradict that thinking. criminals are still wanted, however the arrive is a different matter. Hickman’s presence spreads fast through the town, no rooms at the only hotel, no room for his horse at the livery stable (on the edge of town). They don’t want him to stay, he’s a reminder of a different time, he’s outmoded.
Instead of being filled with rage, like many of Stewart’s roles, there’s no build up of emotion, not big release that leads to great dramatic scene. Instead he holds his own in a town that resists him. Taking up lodgings with another outsider Nona Mayfield (Betsy Palmer) and her mixed race son Kip (Michel Ray) a curious boy who wants only to play with others. Not having many friends due to his Native American heritage (which isn’t really mentioned outside the house). Getting off to a rocky start, it could have increased in tension however it’s dealt with calmly the next day surprisingly well.
The main focus of the film is making a sheriff out of Owens who wants to assume the role with more confidence, something that he is lacking. This could also be seen in the actors hidden sexuality, hiding him true-self on-screen to conform and get work. Can only a heterosexual male become a sheriff? His skills with a gun are rough around the edges, it takes Hickman’s presence, a former sheriff himself to help him. It’s a reluctant help, after being pleaded by the sheriff, not the image we’re used to in our law enforcement out in the West. He’s still a boy who needs to learn the ways of being a man. It takes another to teach him. We get the classic target practice scene, not played so much for comedy, more to see how far he has to go. He wants to prove himself to the town and his woman – Millie Parker (Mary Webster) who wants him to take off the badge to live a safer life, unlike her father who died with it on.
Another test comes in the form of Bart Bogardus (Neville Brand) one of the ugliest men you could get caught up in a fight with. A man who should really be wearing the badge, instead he tests the sheriff to the limit. When a posse’s formed to catch two men responsible for the deaths of two elder men, he leads the mob mentality, which is stirred up. Owens seems powerless to really do much about him. If Ben can overcome him, stand up to the brute he has come a long way, learning how to hold himself in public and as the law. The bully of the playground has no one left to push around.
The real test comes as the posse are out chasing no-one after setting a light, Hickman has resisted the lure of the reward on the two wanted brothers Ed and Zeke McGaffey (Lee Van Cleef and Peter Baldwin), again mixed race with Native American heritage, these two face the full force of racism, whilst young Kip joins in from a distance playing sheriff on his new horse. Hickman is able to put his drive for money to one-side when he knows Kip’s caught up, becoming a father figure to him. Not forgetting his sheriff in-training Ben who just wont listen to reason, stay out of it and be safe. The life he wants is fraught with danger and heartache, which can be avoided. Instead he’s headstrong and blinkered, riding in to prove himself. Ultimately, no guns are used to safe the day and bring in the two men. Even when they face a lynch mob, guns are threatened not used, showing that can be used as tools not just weapons for protection.
Tin Star is the beginning of a decline for Mann who had made some classic Westerns with Stewart, this could have been up there. Gary Cooper makes for a strong replacement in The Man of the West (1958). However from there on in it’s down and out, if we ignore a tense The Heroes of Telemark (1965) for a brief return to form. Here however we have a small budget film that tries to get into the characters, some more successful that others. There’s a lot going on in this 80 odd minute film, it’s tight with a bit of excess around the edges. I know I’ll be revisiting in future thanks to a fine performance from Fonda which gives it some weight and experience.
It’s awards season and I’ve started early this year, not that I think that Hostiles (2017) is gunning for any awards, just the timing of the release in cinema’s. Nonetheless it’s a Western which means only one thing, I’m there. Booking the tickets even with a few warm reviews I decided I had to see this for myself. Based on the manuscripts of Donald E Stewart about an army captain who reluctantly takes on a mission that changes his politics. Now this is how Soldier Blue (1970) could have gone, but decided to be more literal. I also found a few links to The Searchers (1956) which I’m always looking to explore through other films.
After years of internal wars between the White settlers, who had been shaking up and re-organising the country into a shape that more resembled their own destiny, we forget about the soldiers and people who were caught up in the Indian Wars that have left the Native Americans greatly diminished and broken. Hostiles attempts to address some of those issues in this Revisionist Western. Beginning by reverting to classic form – a Comanche raid on a family who are massacred, it’s straight to the point, gruesome and sets the tone for what is to come. Leaving wife and mother Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike) alone to bury her family, potentially altering her outlook on life too. She could have easily allowed racist tendencies to creep in and understandably too. It’s too later for Captain Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale) who is an embittered racist who has seen more than his fair share of bloodshed whilst in uniform. Easily seen as an extension of Ethan Edwards if he stayed in uniform. Yet his racism comes from another place, that is never really explored, leaving us to question how did he becomes this monster who could hate Native American’s that boils over when he discovers his family massacred, raped and captured also by Comanche’s. Blocker is given one last mission under threat of court-martial for refusing, to escort a now elderly Cheyenne chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) and his family back to their home land of Montana. Part of me thinks this is a test set by his commanding officer Col. Abraham Briggs (Stephen Lang) wants to see him suffer, to test his politics before the decorated officer retires. A big “Screw you” you could say.
The last time I saw Studi was as another historic Native American Geronimo in the 1993 film, here much older he gets slightly less screen time than his white colleagues who dominate. Showing there is still away go before they are given a fair representation in the genre. However they were portrayed with compassion unlike the Comanche who’re reduced to an obstacle to overcome – somethings never change. I’m not too surprised either, it’s a long ingrained part of the genre that is hard to shake. To achieve that they will have to be a Native American in the directors chair, with an un-compromised voice. That said The Cheyenne’s that are depicted with sensitivity, we can see they’re spirit has been broken but theirs hearts haven’t, which is the extent of the Cheyenne’s suffering is really explored.
The focus as always comes from the white man- Blocker whose our Ethan Edwards filled with racial intolerance for the Cheyenne that he has to escort across the open country. It’s his journey that we follow which has an interesting effect on him. Much like Edwards, he knows his foe very well, having learned to speak Cheyenne, he knows the enemy intimately, maybe too well. With the pomp of leaving his fort one last time he has his foe chained up, there’s no trust for the elderly warrior who puts up with this indignity. He wont rise to the bait, a decent man knows when he’s been defeated. This last throughout the discovering of the burnt out homestead where we find grief stricken Rosalie Quaid, everyone in the party can understand her pain. Pike delivers a heartfelt performance, you can really feel her pain, I wondered if she would cross into racial hate, making Yellow Hawks journey home even harder. Would her grief match the hate that of Blocker’s? Playing a vital part in Blocker’s transformation by the films close.
We start out of the fort with a small Master Sgt. Thomas Metz (Rory Cochrane) stricken with depression, Corp. Henry Woodsen (Jonathan Majors) who has been proud to serve with Blocker Lt. Rudy Kidder (Jesse Plemons) fresh out of West point ready to prove his superiors he’s worth his rank and French recruit Pvt. Philippe DeJardin (Timothée Chalamet) who has no real experience in the army. The small group meet resistance early on in the form of the Comanche who are the first of many obstacles on their long journey that has an effect on the number of men in uniform. Taking on Rosalie Quaid, could easily be seen as a burden to them. It’s the aftermath of these events that start to open up Blocker’s view of the world, starting to question his thinking. Finally confronted when he takes on army prisoner Corp. Tommy Thomas (not a very original name) (Paul Anderson) under the care of Sgt. Paul Malloy (Ryan Bingham).
Thomas is the equal of Blocker, yet he has used his racial hatred to kill a Native family whilst not under orders. Purely for them being there. A cold-blooded killer who shows no remorse for his crime, would Blocker have done the same out of uniform or has his uniform given him licence to kill and get away with it. The security position and rank have been enough, to go as far as Thomas would be a point of no return for the captain, or is this the next part of his life outside of the protection of the uniform. The Indian Wars and Frontier nearly closed he would be a monster in civilised society, an Ethan Edwards in fine clothes.
There’s a lot of ground covered both literally (and spectacularly on camera) and thematically, from racism to man first killing to forgiveness. It goes along way to get us to Montana and it’s not an easy ride with a lot to think about. Filmed over the last year it can now be easily seen as a response to America today, as it becomes increasingly alone in its world view. The development of a wall on the Southern border with Mexico. The political divide is stronger than ever with a President who you either trust implicitly or question his every tweet. Blocker is leaving one life behind for another, does he want to bring his past life to his future. Hostiles attempts to deal with a very contentious issue and does a good job – on the white man’s side. Whilst the Native American has to just accept his place in the film and history on the chin. I wish the Cheyenne had more time to talk, to explore their position, instead they are just lead and protected by the army that’s trying now to do right by them. It reminded me lastly of Cheyenne Autumn (1964), the depiction of the Southern Cheyenne joining those in the North, which is more apologetic than Hostiles that draws it out of the characters slowly, not so much the director. I can only conclude that Revisionist Westerns will only be apologising with white actors in the lead role rather than the Native’s who depiction and capacity in the film is still being determined through the winners history.
Whilst in London today, after I had an appointment I had time to kill before getting my train back home. I was in the Liverpool Street/Moorgate Station side of the capital when I came across a small shop Tusch & Egon that was selling a range of vinyl pieces. I was looking for American flags for my next models I’m going to be making. Instead I came across the largest Native American figure I have seen, with the name of the Sioux leader Chief Red Cloud. I don’t know if it was pure ignorance or that I wasn’t going deep enough with the current work. Are these figures of a more innocent time based on those of famous Native Americans? It’s a scary thought to think that children are/have played with then unaware of the added history loaded into these toys that are the predetermined enemy of the Westerner.
I had a chat with the shop-keeper who was kind enough to let me take some photo’s to share with you.
She liked my current work and was even familiar with other pieces that have also used these plastic figures. I learned there’s a new design of the figure that has seen the change to the bow and the removal of the gun to be replaced with a shield. It was a real surprise to see these figures and discover another layer to the figures which are loaded with more history than I thought. The scale of the figures did remind me of the full scale ones made by Yoram Wolberger and video piece I saw during my initial research stage of the work which brought both cowboy and Native American to an equal level, that of plastic as it was melted, a process that was manipulated by the artist.
This really is a rich subject that just keeps on giving.
I’ve been looking out for this silent John Ford for a while now, one of those early epic Westerns that helped to define the language that I explore in my practice. It’s also a rare chance to see Ford’s work before he made a star out of John Wayne who he shall always be credited with. He’s nowhere to be seen in The Iron Horse (1924) which predates all the Westerns I have seen by a few years. I was lucky enough to catch the original directors cut that was not seen outside of the U.S. during its original run. I always try to go for the director’s cut of a film if it’s available as the directors intentions are then on the screen (that’s ignoring George Lucas).
Moving away from directorial choices and cuts of films to the meat of the film, the coming together of the East and the West of America, the progression of a nation. Laying down the foundations for the country to develop and prosper. I have seen the same basic story before with a much lighter tone attached, and running time slightly shorter too. That’s down to all the build-up and character development that Ford puts into the film so the running time is well deserved, not a meter of film is wasted really. As we know he never shot more than he needed, to ensure he got the picture that he wanted, not leaving anything to chance. He begins by adding a human story between a young boy and girl Miriam Marsh (Madge Bellamy) who at first I thought nothing of as the boy Davy Brandon leaves with his father to go Westward to begin to plan out a route for a transcontinental railroad. A bold journey that ends in heart for the boy when his father (James Gordon) who is killed by a two-fingered white Cheyenne who killed him to keep his secret from being revealed outside the nation he is now a part of. I can see even this early on in the depiction of the Native American, the lengths that are gone to in order to create the dark and dangerous image of the one-dimensional Native American, here a renegade white man, even more dangerous you might think, bringing together the ideas of two cultures.
Jumping forward a few years to during the Civil War we see Abraham Lincoln (Charles Edward Bull) sign a bill that allows work to begin on the transcontinental railroad, wanting to look beyond the present situation of the war, considering the peace in the future. The President’s depicted as almost god-like in his presence and screen-time. Even though limited to a few scenes his presence is felt through the rest of the film. Ford would later return to the 14th President with Henry Fonda in Young Mr. Lincoln (1939). There is otherwise no other mention of the war that is going on back East between the North and the South. Instead it’s about this milestone in American history, at the time of the making of the film less than a hundred years had passed since its initial completion as the Continental and Union Pacific railroad companies laid the track that would eventually meet.
All this plays as backdrop to the drama that unfolds within the Union Pacific as they move Westward. We see all aspects of construction, from planning the laying of track to how to get around the country whilst still keeping under budget. We see all the classic clichés we take for granted from the striking work force after receiving no pay for months, to warring Cheyenne who are a constant threat as their land is being divided up before their eyes, the Buffalo population begin to diminish at the hands of the likes of Buffalo Bill (George Waggner). As I have found before with Ford his films are nothing without the rich mix of people that fill them, from the Italian ex-soldiers to the Chinese workers. He knows what America is built upon, a mixed immigrant population that made the country he loves great which he celebrates here. It’s not just Cowboys who have a score to settle.
The main drama is between Davy and Miriam who after spending years apart are now reunited, the childhood sweethearts may have a second chance. Before having to deal with her finance Jesson (Cyril Chadwick) the villain of the film tries to get him out of the picture. It’s really not as straightforward as Hollywood romance is today or even in the golden age, there is a price to pay before they can be together. Amongst the history there’s room for a little melodrama with Ford who keeps it to a minimum as we have a lot to look at and take in.
Overall for of silent John Ford film I have not been let down, sadly there was no Harry Carey to be seen but we did have an okish replacement with George O’Brien as the older Davy Brandon who comes into the picture in the second act. We have the roots of the genre here, not all of them but a strong part of the foundation of what I love today. History beginning to be re-written on the screen. With all sorts of historical characters making an appearance, this is American folklore for the 20th century told in sweeping form.
- John Ford, The Iron Horse (1924) (buddiesinthesaddle.blogspot.co.uk)
- The Iron Horse (1924) (silent-volume.blogspot.co.uk)
- Finding Ford / The Iron Horse (1924) (wondersinthedark.wordpress.com)
- The Iron Horse (1924) (forgottenclassicsofyesteryear.blogspot.co.uk)
- Kept a rollin’… The Iron Horse (1924) (ithankyouarthur.blogspot.co.uk)
- John Ford/The Iron Horse (Fox, 1924) (jeffarnoldblog.blogspot.co.uk)
- Silent Sundays: The Iron Horse (1924) (unecinephile.blogspot.co.uk)
A few months ago I was reading a book at work about the depiction of Native Americans in the western genre. There was a chapter that discussed a revisionist western where an Englishman’s captured and assimilated into their culture over the course of the film. Observing how this was dealt with in comparison to others in the past which were treated more as rescue stories, returning the captured white man back to civilised society. Whilst also considering the damage that their time with a native tribe will do to the individual, will they be scarred and damaged as we found this horrifying in The Searchers (1956), or should they be abandoned or shot in Two Rode Together (1961), these are just two examples of a discussion that was going on in the 19th century. The effect of one primitive culture on a more advanced one (as we are lead to believe). Anyway back to this chapter in Invisible Natives which discussed how a native tribe had a more positive effect on John Morgan (Richard Harris) in A Man Called Horse (1970) whose hunting teams ambushed at the beginning, hes dragged away like an animal to the camp.
Our perception of a Native is first reinforced by the classic genre which is already being twisted around. This is not a satire like Little Big Man (1970) when Jack Crabb (Dustin Hoffman) who is captured and adopted as one of their own, able to come back and forth. This is more about changing our view of a section of people from the inside out, not mocking the other, the white American. Or in this case the white Englishman who travelled the America to hunt new game. With no intention of being captured, living amongst the Sioux nation for at least a year, during a time when the westward expansion was not as big a threat as it would be by the end of the century when they were fighting for the freedom before being penned into a reservation far from their own lands. A Man Called Horse explores the possibility of that what if a white man was to enter into this world, away from his aristocratic trapping to live amongst “savages” to learn how to survive before a possible escape.
Much like Man in the Wilderness (1971) there is very little dialogue, well dialogue we can understand when we are with the Sioux which is pretty much all the time. The difference with Wilderness and Horse is we have a larger white cast in the more audience friendly Wilderness film which was set even earlier in time. There is more of an offbeat tone, as it sees a man left behind (once again Harris) who is left to die, learning to survive much like the Natives he lives in fear of for a time, learning to respect them by the films end. Coming back to Horse there is more of an open view to the other that takes in one of our own who becomes an other over the course of the film.
It’s a slow transformation that begins as an embarrassment, fighting the enemy to escape, giving into survive, to understand to make plans. That’s before life happens for Morgan who meets another captive Batise (Jean Gascon), a Frenchman who has been among them for 5 years. For Morgan he now has two enemies, one national rivalry back home, who he can talk to, the only one who understands him at first. They form an uneasy relationship, facing as allies and form of communication. They both want to leave but when and how, they have a plan which is later scuppered by unfolding events.
The depiction of the Sioux is more impartial, more honest, we get all the feather head-dresses but only when necessary, part of their visual language which the audience understands. It’s so much more through a number of montages and not having the broken English we get in most westerns. Even Dame Judith Anderson doesn’t utter a word of English, having taken the time to learn her lines in the native language. There is a levee lot respect to the culture you rarely get today. You could say that this was Dances with Wolves (1990) which has its problems with the depiction of the enemy to appear more menacing for effect.
We only see two other white men, who are both killed in the ambush, the only enemy are warring tribes, the impending danger of the white man is far away for now. This allows us to focus on the Sioux and nothing else, their culture, we have to really focus to understand what is going on and to be fair that’s not hard as they have the same problems as the civilised society. The threat of danger, respecting the dead, the pecking order of the men and love which comes out of nowhere for Morgan who was planning to get out. Allowing himself to be subjected to the Vow, which is one of the most playful things I have seen on film for an audience to stomach in main-stream film. Even in the seventies, I was struggling to figure out how this painful feat was re-enacted. A ritual that the film even states was outlawed in the 1880’s, brought back to life for this film.
I am left wanting more now, knowing there was a sequel The Return of a Man Called Horse (1976), the fact that Morgan wanted to leave now becomes an important member of their society, leads them to safer ground. We are left guessing as to where he went, did he stay with them, or does he leave. Well I know where he begins in the sequel which doesn’t help, aghhhh I just want to find out how his journey ends, how he’s been changed by his experiences, away from civilised society. Even Morgan agrees men all want the same, can’t get better than that for a message from a film that focuses on the natural enemy of the westerner.
- A Man Called Horse, Elliot Silverstein, 1970 (www.nativeamerican.co.uk)
- A Man Called Horse (1970) & The Return of a Man Called Horse (1976) (every70smovie.blogspot.co.uk)
- A Man Called Horse (eriklerouge.blogspot.co.uk)
- A Man Called Horse (jeffarnoldblog.blogspot.co.uk)
Featured in the Electric Open (2013) 9-30/3/13