A film originally recommended to me during my last year at art-school. I caught Lone Star (1996) a few years ago and found it to be a richly rewarding film with a lot of depth. I thought this time around I could really do the film some justice after a few more years exploration of the Western. Released during the mid 1990’s when the genre had seen something of a resurgence, beginning with Pale Rider (1985) going through to, well Lone Star and Buffalo Soldiers (1997) it would not pick up much traction until a few years ago with True Grit (2010) and Django Unchained (2012) that began to rework and understand the genre for a new audience in a time of uncertainty and political tensions. Also just in time for me to catch a few at the cinema too.
So what makes Lone Star stand the test of time to some of the more forgotten films that played fast and loose with the tropes and language of the genre, they maybe fun and action packed. It also stands alone from the pack, at a time when the life in the genre had run out of steam once more it takes the history of the genre and the state of Texas becoming more introspective. You could say it’s another modern version of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) – more on that later. Beginning with the discovery of a pair of off-duty army officers who discover a skeleton, only a few meter’s away there’s a sheriff’s badge to go with it. Could this be relic from the old West now celebrate on film, or is the body of a more recent officer of the law?
We then travel back in time to the 1960’s finding it’s like the good old days with a crooked sheriff Charlie Wade (Kris Kristofferson) who holds the Rio county in his pocket. He’s foul-mouthed, racist and greedy, he knows the power that his position gives him and abuses it to his own advantage. The other officers just let him do get away with almost anything. Except Buddy Deeds (Matthew McConaughey) who has a conscience that doesn’t agree with the status quo. Sounds familiar when you look back at the genres golden age, a crooked sheriff and a straight-laced deputy, if only they could stand up to the corruption.
Except this doesn’t feel like the old West, its more like the new West that rose from the ashes of the civil war, corruption, the cattle boom and the demise of slavery. We have a more serious Western, or you could say straight drama that’s set in the same location as the Alamo. With a mystery at the centre of the film being led by Buddy Deed’s son Charlie (Chris Cooper) who wants to prove his suspicions right and put this case to bed before politics takes over for the upcoming election for Sheriff.
Whilst the case is going on, we take a closer look at the town of Rio County, the people who inhabit it. From the school that sees the parents fighting the teachers to educate their own ideas of the country’s history. The old saying that histories written by the winners really does shine through in these scenes. Mexican parents want a more honest account of the events leading up to the Alamo and beyond before they lost land to Texas. Whilst American’s want to hold onto the myth, a fabric and important part of their own past, informed by celebration, dime novels and of course the films that blurred that history into something far bigger and yet more vague in the process.
We focus on one of those teachers, Pilar (Elizabeth Peña) who previously had a relationship with Charlie. It’s like he returned from her past to haunt her now when she picks up her son who had been arrested. We also see tensions between her and her mother Mercedes Cruz (Miriam Colon) who has her own fight with her staff who are not helping the immigrant crisis. She identifies herself as a Mexican American, wanting to speak English North of the border, trying to assert that in others is a fight. You can already see it’s not just a murder mystery, we have the border problem – which has still not gone away. The discussion around what kids should be taught in schools, the identity of the county and the State of Texas.
The local Army base is also depicted, and it’s not just about following orders and the chain of command. We have a Black Colonel Del (Joe Morton) whose latest posting has brought him back home to his estranged father – Otis (Ron Canada) whose part of the counties history and as we see the demise of Charlie Wade. The father son-relationship has it’s moments that are about to repeat themselves in Don’s own son who aspires to go to join the army. Whilst a current soldier who sees the army as a form of security in a society that wont accept the colour of her skin.
You can see a lot is going on in this film, longer than the average Western, it gives time to develop all these facets of a town that is in a state of constant change. Attempting to grapple where they all are. For Charlie it’s too things, the truth behind the death of his predecessor that has taken on mythic stature, which ultimately he won’t try and break, the truth for him and to shut the case is enough. There’s little he can really do once the truth is out. Like that finally revealed by Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, as much as he tries to set the record straight he can’t fight the myth, defeated by a journalist who refuses to publish it, knowing the power of the truth in the face of myth. Charlie understands that power far more than the old Senator who attends his old friends funeral. It’s bigger than him or anyone can really imagine.
With so much going on and little action it’s an incredible change in tone, placing this Western in the Revisionist category, one that maintains the language but has moved on in time. You can no longer settle your disagreements like men with guns outside, times have indeed changed. It’s a film that takes it’s time to spend time with characters and really get into the meat of what’s going on in that part of the world. It’s a nice change too to see where the genre has come from the rebirth in the mid-eighties that celebrated the genre to a film that really interrogates it and ask, where has it all gone.
A few years ago I found Open Range (2003) whilst I was just discovering the western genre, my final year at art-school, I was eager to explore beyond the classic genre, knowing that it starred both Robert Duvall and Kevin Costner both synonymous with the genre. My first reaction to my first viewing of this film was more negative than positive, the pastoral image of the open country that greets us at the start of the film is soon lost to an adult western. And that’s thinking that Stagecoach (1939) was adult, that’s considering it was released over 60 years earlier, the genre has grown up for its time, now here’s another take on a tried and tested plot that allows for more adult cowboys to stand up and be heard. No longer is this a young man’s game.
I think also having watching a few more westerns in between, being able to return to films I first sniffed at has helped a growing maturity that has allowed me to go back to a film that I was considering selling my copy on eBay (glad I didn’t by the way). Also reading more about the genre has opened my mind to what it’s all about, the myth of conquest originally, the birth of a new nation filled with hopes, dreams and all the danger that came with it.
Returning to the pastoral location of the west we find four men, two running the cattle outfit and two hired hands, grazing their cattle on land that is the property of cattle baron Denton Baxter (Michael Gambon) who practically owns the law and the town, trying to run these men off his land. So far it’s nothing new really, yet its the older men pushing each other around, each set in their ways, It’s only when the hired hands Mose and Button (Abraham Benrubi are caught in the middle, making the quarrel personal, its time to sort things out once and for all.
The remaining men ride back into town, stopping at the doctor’s house, home also to Sue Barlow (Annette Bening) who nurses the young Button. Leaving the two men to in town, revenge and justice is now on their minds. We have to wait the rest of the film for the final showdown which is indeed worth the wait, filled with personal exploration of both Boss Spearman (Duvall) and Charley Waite (Costner) more-so Waite a former civil war solider suffering from Post traumatic stress disorder, a condition that was not to be first diagnosed until well into the next century, dealt in 1800’s America with understanding from a gravelly older partner, something that would more likely have been met with bottling up your emotions and carrying on. Becoming more dangerous with a few guns strapped to his belt.
Its Spearman and Sue’s combined input that allows Charley to start to put to rest his demons before entering into a showdown I’ve not seen the likes of since Pale Rider (1985) and Tombstone (1993) within a more accurate frontier town that sees the townspeople rise up and support the classic stranger see that all men are treated with respect. A long yet not drawn out gun battle, feeling the right length for an all out gunfight. A classic delivery that last far longer than your average 5 minutes before gaining the towns respect.
Open Range is far more than I thought it was, a slow western that is too complex, when it needs to be complex to support a maturer cast who we can see need more than a love interest and wrong doing to see this film through. There is a love of the genre that is woven into the film, from the design of the town, to the cinematography of the landscape. Lead actors who have grown up in the genre, Duvall having been part of the dying classic to its present form. Whilst Costner has breathed new life and energy into a genre that has been tired at time.
- O: Open Range (2003) (alphabeticalfilm.wordpress.com)
- Droid Defines the Decades Best Movies #13 Open Range (2003) (moonwolves.wordpress.com)
Towards the end if the Film noir cycle, it was still producing some classic piece of cinema. The war was over but there was still a need to see the darker side of life on the big screen in the heavily religious overtones in The Night of the Hunter (1955) which gave Robert Mitchum one of his most memorable roles as the crooked preacher man Harry Powell who would stop at nothing throughout. Set during the depression era when a father Ben Harper (Peter Graves) robs a bank to give to the poor, on the run from the law, he hides the money, swearing his children John and Pearl Harper (Billy Chapin & Sally Jane Bruce) to absolute secrecy. Even the audience for a time has no knowledge of the money. Knowing more than his soon to be widowed wife Willa Harper (Shelley Winters) who believes the moneys list. In a god-fearing and tightly woven community, lead buy the likes of Icey Spoon (Evelyn Varden) who believes in traditional values and those set down by the bible.
When recently released ex-preacher Harry Powell arrives in their sleepy town, his poetic use of the scriptures has everyone under his spell. A man driven by evil, under the guise of the God, who he believes tells him to commit the awful crimes he has already committed. Having a flawed morality that allows him to go on, in the word of god-mighty. Mitchum injects him with a deadly presence that spell-bound’s everyone to see only a preacher whose interpretation of the bible that the Southern community understands, which has been lost in recent times. A dangerous predatory throw-back allowed to flourish.
Only the children, mainly young John Harper who sees right through his new father who has no intention of sticking around, driven by his negative interpretations of the bible. Wanting more than anything to break a secret that two children made with their father. A powerful bond that cannot easily be broken, John is far stronger than his younger sister Pearl who is more easily lead, thankfully remaining faithful to her older brother.
The films made up of three strong parts, all theatrical and deeply stylized by the lighting to produce a dark film where traditional American values are tested, the basic religious foundations of a country opposite the right to protect the family home. Strong performance throughout. Lillian Gish shows in the role of Rachel Cooper a spinster who takes in stray children that she still can hold her ground against the formidable Mitchum who owns the film without a doubt. It’s faultless in the making of a classic thriller in the hands of Charles Laughton who gives it his all.
It’s hard to ignore the symbolism, namely found within the book of Revelations that talks of the horsemen of the apocalypse. focusing on the white horse which can be pure, and still carry death on it’s back. Powell would’ve had interpreted this book of the bible in a way that allows the righteous to carry out evil acts.
“When the Lamb opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, “Come and see!” I looked and there before me was a pale horse! Its rider was named Death, and Hades was following close behind him. They were given power over a fourth of the earth to kill by sword, famine, and plague, and by the wild beasts of the earth.”
Unlike the pale horse which is death, ridden in film by the likes of Clint Eastwood‘s preacher in Pale Rider (1985) who kills only those who have deserve to be killed in the eyes of god. The abuse of power in the later film is more justified, to kill those who trespass on those who are good.
“I watched as the Lamb opened the first of the seven seals. Then I heard one of the four living creatures say in a voice like thunder, “Come and see!” I looked, and there before me was a white horse! Its rider held a bow, and he was given a crown, and he rode out as a conqueror bent on conquest.”
The white horse in film is seen usually as a symbol of purity or an unachievable object that cannot be tamed easily. Owned mainly by the enemy. Far rarer than other horses. Used in Night of the Hunter beautifully to illustrated the flawed righteousness of the Powell using the word of God as a reason for committing his terrible crimes, He knows he has left a trail of death in his wake. Blind to modern ethics. Whilst Winters Willa Harper wants to do right by her community and family before doing right by her new husband who puts God in the bedroom before his wife.
Gish’s spinster is the opposite of Powell, whose interpretation of the bible is all about love, taking in lost children. Even with her weary outlook on life, she doesn’t project this on those views onto the children, especially Ruby (Gloria Castillo) on the verge of adulthood, more understanding of her age and life. Life changes people, and love and understanding’s needed to do that, which the bible teaches.
A fascinating film that is rooted in religion, its power on society, and how we must use our own judgement, with an open mind to its teachings. Not being blinded by it, using it as a guide to living by the letter. An entertaining thriller that is the right length for its content, rooted in Americas fabric, yet so very of its time.