Posts tagged “Revisionist Western

Lone Star (1996) Revisited


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.

 

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The Last Samurai (2003)


The Last Samurai (2003)A film I watched purely on recommendation, not really a fan of Tom Cruise, however when it mentioned the U.S. civil war I decided to take a closer look at The Last Samurai (2003) to see what was really going on. And I wasn’t let down, even though it’s not technically a western it does have all the clever hallmarks of being a revisionist Western, cleverly reworked to look at the decline and fall of the Samurai warrior. A reflection of the Native American across the Pacific, complete with out all knowing white other Captain Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise) a troubled man of the army who cannot reconcile his part in the forced relocation and massacre of the Native American people. Which we see in the form of ever more graphic flash-backs which could relate to any massacre before 1876 when we find him now a drunk helping to sell the Winchester rifle. He’s not happy in his work, used as a heroic figure who used a rifle in the Civil War.

He’s offered the chance of a better life back in the uniform in a training role in Japan. By this time relations with the once isolationist country have warmed up. The country has become westernised, adopting the fashions, technology and even weapons. We have come a long way since the time of The Barbarian and the Geisha (1958) when relations are just being started between the two very different countries. One rooted in tradition and the past and another in asserting their dominance in the world (nothings changed there then). Now in the late 1800’s we are more in line with Unforgiven/Yurusarezaru mono (2013) when the Samurai is a seen as a dying breed, a reflection of the American gunfighter. The Last Samurai raises their status to another race that has become a relic, deeply rooted in the past, yet also very much part of the countries heritage. Once noble men at the disposal of the Emperor, who now wants them tamed if not eradicated. All part of the westernisation of the country.

Algren’s position is one of modern cinema with a conscience, looking back over the historical depiction of his own country reflected in another. He will train the Japanese army to fight the Samurai but not willingly, more out of a sense of duty and the money’s pretty good too. You’d think that guns would be a far better match for the sword wielding samurai who we meet in a gruesome batter that alters the course of the film dramatically. After killing of a fair few men Algren is taken back to the samurai village out of respect for his ability in battle. You can see some similarities between him and Lieutenant Dunbar (Kevin Costner) who is adopted/assimilated into the culture. The journey is not straight forward, it’s not a case of understanding just the culture, its a whole different mind-set. He can fight, he has the potential to be great, held back by his mind-set, not able to focus his thoughts. Whereas Dunbar is more open to what is around him, not coming with the “I’m living with savages” mindset which takes a while to wear off.

The Samurai are not depicted as savages, cinema has been more kind and even respectful to them. We hold them in awe of their skill, part of the countries culture and heritage. The genre is has strong links with the western, both drawing on each other before the release of this film. This is not Dances with Wolves (1990) in Japan, there is a sweeping feel to the movie, we are seeing the end of an era in a country through the eyes of an American which is standard for Hollywood. Which allows the audience to connect with another culture, which this time was more open to the white-man’s presence, the other was becoming a double-other (film theory talk) in order to work together. Both Algren and Dunbar are/were soldiers of the U.S. army who have come to dislike its recent campaign history. One wanting to see the West before it’s tamed and another horrified by that process. Openly criticising General Custer and his last campaign, saying he was living up to his legend. It’s as if the past has grown a deeper conscience through the guise of Japanese culture, however historically correct is another matter.

With the warrior transformation underway we see him assimilate into their culture, learning the language. Algren never gives up, determined to prove himself to these people who are almost like gods, giving their skill, honour and duty to the emperor who has turned his back on them. They are now fighting for survival, something which Algren feels the Native Americans had but were greatly outnumbered and outgunned. The same is happening here, but not without a fight all provided courtesy of cinema. And boy do we get a glorious battle even though it may never have really happened it’s all part of Hollywood and the genres attempt to rewrite history. It allows Cruise to act more than just rely on his stunts which he insists on doing. There is also little time for romance which would be very out-of place in this film. It’s thankfully held back to move the film forward. We also have Ken Watanabe as Katsumoto the leader of the Samurai and advisor to the Emperor. Watanabe has become the go-to Japanese guy for these heavier roles, bringing with him a more honest portrayal, not just someone in make-up or slightly Japanese. It’s a solid block-buster that if you go deep enough find more than just a historical action film, you get a western, always an extra treat for me.

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The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) Revisited


The Man who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)I thought I understood The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) on my first encounter a few years back. I didn’t give my best review so obviously my understanding wasn’t that informed. You could say John Ford has given us an early revisionist western before we knew what we were getting. Shaking up the genre whilst still very much in the classic form of a stranger coming into town. The first time we see two of the screen most popular actors sharing the screen, James Stewart and John Wayne who equally have made an impact on the genre.

The tale of the shooting of bandit Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin) begins in retrospect with the death of Tom Doniphon who ready to be buried. A poorly aged Stewart (Ransom Stoddard) arrives back to the town of Shinbone a senator. Why could he possibly want to be in this town, to pay his last respects to an old man? This is all before the tale is told before the local paper newspaper, eager to know why he and his wife Hallie Stoddard (Vera Miles). The connection becomes clearers as we leave the turn of the century town for a territorial frontier town on the cusp of great things or collapse.

Beginning with the classic hold up on a dark night, masked gun men bring a stagecoach to a stop to rob all of their money. Not counting on the young(er) and eager lawyer (Stewart) packing only the law in the form of books. Using on words as his weapon of choice in a land ruled by the draw of a gun. Laughed at, beaten he is left for dead by Valances men. This is however just he beginning of the legend.

Eventually brought into town by Tom Doniphon the man we have all been waiting for, the anticipation after seeing Wayne’s name in the opening titles has been held back until nearly the first half hour, building up his part after his demise. The legend that is the Duke is larger than life in now iconic dress even in black and white the colour transfer image of his role takes nothing away from the black and white masterpiece of the western genre, instead lifting him to a higher status. His first beaming smile, his presence is known, we are at ease when he is on-screen. The image is engrained on the genre and the legend. Not forgetting the numerous times he says “pilgrim” aimed at the gunless Stoddard meant he was a newcomer to the western, whilst also on a pilgrim of religious reasons, his religion being the law which he wanted to bring out with him. Which develops into both a term of affection towards the stranger and minor insult which only seems to make little difference to the stubborn lawyer.

It’s not just about bringing the dangerously wild cowboy Valance to justice, something that that town Marshall Link Appleyard (Andy Devine) is not too interested in doing, instead happier to stuff his face, having the easy life which comes with his position. The political landscape of their region is in a state of change. The unnamed territory could easily fall into the hands of the cattlemen who built it up, or into a state which would allow them to be looked after as a community. The beginning of a proper infrastructure, paid for by taxes that go to the government. Stoddard is a force for change and he doesn’t even know it. With the growing support of Shinbone through education which opens their minds to the possibilities beyond simple gun-play.

With the help of local newspaper-man Dutton Peabody (Edmond O’Brien) he builds a position of power and influence that eventually brings him back to Valance and the influence of fear and guns in the town. The showdown must take place in order for a few things to happen. For progress to move forward, for Stoddard to have some self respect and defend himself and make the town safe. This is the moment we have been waiting for, all the build-up and practice is what we sat down for. Its a long drawn out beginning which become a triumph of good over bad as Valance is finally slain down. The legend is born in those few minutes that s last longer than the length of the film. Itself is a construction of all involved, the actors, lighting, special effects and the director, it happened countess times before too and even after. 

It’s a short gun battle just a few shots, nothing like as many as those fired in Tombstone, Arizona which actually took place at the OK Corral in 1881. Because it was caught on camera, its adds another dimension, built up by the characters who believe they know what happened, a new man is born after that day. Ready for office even on the foundations of a killing, lawful or not. Not politician today would be brought to office with a criminal record as colourful as his.

Going into full political mode its time to get Shinbone’s territory represented democratically and full Fordian style. Making full use of his stock company of actors he has built up over the years we have a raucous time inside that meeting, characters showing their true colours. It’s rich in people, sound and events. All before the truth of that gunfight is revealed to Stoddard, built on the foundation of a lie, a sacrifice of one mans feelings for another’s. To settle a score that could have gone on for years to come between to equal skilled gunmen. A great man who could have had more gives it all up for the pilgrim who has taken all he’ll ever have.

The legend is sealed between the two of them. only to be revealed to a journalist who in the end doesn’t want to publish that story, which is what it will remain to all of, yet in the west it is a prime example of an event becoming screwed and taking on a life on it’s on. A grand delusion part of a countries image that fought to contain itself and prove to the world that the young nation could set an example, making hard decisions. It’s another myth of conquest, not over a native nation, but good over evil to progress and not regress to never moving forward. Why spoil something that a country has taken into their hearts, becoming part of the fabric. If the truth should be known, don’t share too loudly. Ford is rewriting the western genre as we knew it a creator of myths that could so easily be built up and smashed back down, are they lies, points of view and conjecture, its all of them and the passage of time growing into being part of history, something which Stoddard never escapes from.

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The Return of a Man Called Horse (1976)


The Return of a Man Called Horse (1976)Ever since I saw A Man Called Horse (1970) a few months back I was hungry to see the first sequel, The Return of a Man Called Horse (1976), not the most imaginative title, still it gets to the point. There is more historical backing to this tome around as we begin with the ambush of the Yellow Hand tribe as they’re forced to reallocate to land that is far away from the buffalo, their main resource to sustain themselves. Without food any society’s doomed to die. All this takes place after John Morgan (Richard Harris) has returned to his life in England, not one that is really suiting him, we found him miserable in bed, the regularity of life at home is nothing compared to what he experienced with the Yellow Hand Sioux. His instinct is to go back for one year and no more.

Set during the 1830’s the wild west is still very much untouched, with settlements springing up, such as the fort that drove away the Sioux tribe to near extinction. I could get political about this but the film does is subtly for me as white settlers make use of “friendly’ natives to drive others away, the first of many to be broken treaties. Something that Morgan/Horse is aware of when is learns of his adoptive Peoples situation.

Making use of his position to push his way into the newly built fort to understand what is gong on. His time back in civilisation has reverted him back to his natural ways, those adopted in the previous film’s, little more than memories and experiences. The spiritual side that he assimilated has been lost by his upbringing. On finding the Yellow Hand he plays the westerner giving gifts in hopes of earning their trust, the traditional trade of items for bartering with. This doesn’t go down with the elders who don’t need these gifts and superior weapons. First needing to rid themselves of the bad spirits they believe are with them. This is hard for Morgan/Horse to understand at first needing to go on  a vision quest to truly understand what is going on, getting back in touch with that spiritual side that he had since lost. This is something that we don;t get in the traditional western, focusing more on the nations relocation, its perceived and heightened savagery, which we see being deal out to an enemy tribe. There is however something that we have seen before, the white man teaching the others how to fight the white’s way. Learning new strategies, such as hiding in the woods ready to ambush the enemy.

I must say that as I saw this on DVD I had to put up with some condescending subtitles, reminding me they were talking in Sioux, which other language besides English would they be taking in. Some of the atmosphere of the last film is lost in having the Sioux speaking English. Maybe that was to reflect how immersed Morgan has become with this nation, no longer an outside, and why should we. I just wish the subtitles were a little less distracting. There is also more time spent with the Yellow Hand as a people in terms of traditions as the men join Horse in a ritual similar to the first film, it’s not as hard to watch as I’ve seen it all before to a certain extent, it’s only when boys join in do we become uncomfortable. With all the anticipation that I brought to the film, I was let down in places, the audiences is given some historical context to Morgan who lived with them for the rest of his life. However I wish there were no subtitles, less English and more time building up the enemy which become pretty faceless, we just know they are there.

The second half is action focused and fast paced after a slow build up for the spirituality before all arrows are launched in a pretty one-sided battle aka ambush. It’s not as considered or as thoughtful as the original, for many reasons, such as almost complete change in cast, apart from Harris who I can’t fault. The structure of the films weighed more towards cashing in on the previous success without really understanding it properly. The change in studio also is a big one, which would obviously lead to a change in tone and direction. Is it a worthy sequel? Yes and no, we see a valid reason for his return after a yearning to go back whilst I felt let down to an extent by the repetition of some sequences, not trying anything new, no more exploration, just expanding on what worked by tweaking it, not really that original.

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A Man Called Horse (1970)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Hombre (1967) Revisited


I originally saw Hombre (1967) with a cynical view of the western, the overuse of the Apache nation in the genre, showing that it wasn’t fresh, becoming tired.That thought was blown away when I began to read more about the film and what it was trying to say. I was trying to understand the genre without really reading about it. Meaning a revisit was in order.

Even with a hangover I still could concentrate and pick up and pull a part the ideas that are explored in the revisionist western that sees a John Russell a white man who was brought up by the Apache’s on a reservation, developing a very different outlook on the white society that he should be part of. He cares little for the white man’s way of life, seeing only bigotry, racism and violence towards his adoptive people who have brought him up with a different set of values.

Reluctantly see he shaves off his black Apache hair to reveal the classic Paul Newman look as he returns to the home where he was once rescued as a boy. Now left in his name he has to confront his white past. In a town of people who all have problems of their own. A young married couple Doris and Billy Dee (Margaret Blye and Peter Lazer) who have long since left the honeymoon period of the marriage to see the reality of living together. It’s not what they were expecting. Jessie (Diane Cilento), a woman who is world weary of the men she has loved and lost, developing a perspective on life that shocks other women around her. Whilst an eastern couple Favor and Audra Favor (Fredric March and Barbara Rush) as civilised as they appear , their view of the Native Americans is the strongest.

All these people are placed into a clever reworking of John Ford‘s Stagecoach (1939) moving us from not just the journey and the stops in between to throw in another kind of danger. Not just from Grimes (Richard Boone) who creates the situation. We  have a clash of moralities’ between white and white Apache’s. It’s no coincidence that this was made during the civil rights movement, loosing the African American struggle for the right for equality in America for the social injustice of the 1800’s that saw an entire race brought to it’s knees, rounded up and penned into reservations. A way of life that has/was all but disappeared. These band of characters who are thrown together have to work together in terrible conditions against men with guns.

However these guns are really the least of their worries, a war of ideals is being waged between two sides of the same race. The barrier is not their language but their perception when Favor’s money is stolen the passengers true colours begin to emerge. Especially between Favor and Hombre who both used to live on the same Apache reservation. The image of eating a dog is mentioned a few times, a very strong image that is hard to forget. For westerners to see such an act can be seen as barbaric. Yet to a hungry person the dog becomes the only way to survive. The values and ideas we place on each other can prevent us from coexisting in peace. A very human trait which still exists today. How we view one another determines how we interact with them, the culture and our own history.

Hombre is in fact a very strong social commentary made during the civil rights movement. A second viewing was what the doctor ordered to really understand this film. With steely-eyed Newman able to drive home the injustice with a few words and gestures. It doesn’t matter where you come from, its how you get on with others that matters. Another stand-out performance comes from Diane Cilento who acts almost as Hombre’s unwanted conscience, trying to communicate with him. All this goes on in the open landscape, a group of passengers joined together by their own short-comings and inability to accept the other.

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Dances with Wolves (1990)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Little Big Man (1970)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Shoot Out (1971)


shoot-out-1971I thought I’d give this lesser known Gregory Peck western, made during a time when tests were indeed change, the very style of the western had taken two paths, the dying classic and the revisionist. This falls into the first, a form that allowed old favourites such as Peck, John Wayne, James Stewart and their contemporaries to continue working, there was indeed still an audience and that is still here to this day, however there is a sense of tiredness, the actors aren’t spring chickens, audiences had also become more sophisticated. It shows in Shoot Out (1971) the change in tone of language from the beginning when ex-convict and bank robber Clay Lomax (Peck) is released from prison. The genre wants a new audience, even with younger characters that are employed to bring him in un-harmed.

With a simple set-up it should be straight forward, as the younger men lead by Bobby Jay Jones (Robert F. Lyons) are put to work in an older man’s world. The classic west still exists, allowing new life to breathe in it. Time has not been kind to the older men, one fresh out of jail, a saloon owner Trooper (Jeff Corey) an ex-soldier is now in a wheel chair, whilst the Jones employer Sam Foley (James Gregory) having made his lives fortune sits in waiting. Acting also as a new generation in waiting to make their own mark in film and the genre.

For Lomax he begins his freedom set out to exact revenge, yet before long he is in delivered a package that he had not bargained for, a reminder of his past, a possible daughter Decky Ortega (Dawn Lyn) who steals every scene she’s in, making up for genre that looks tired, a lead actor, whilst giving his best is just too old for the role. This coming from a period in films when older men were still being seen as fathers of young children. When in reality their own had grown up and left home. However you can still feel the drive to get to his destination and exact revenge against Foley who shot him in the back, landing him in jail for seven years.

It’s the young men who follow him who deliver most of the violence, as they stalk the man and girl across the same country that director Henry Hathaway used in True Grit (1969). If only a few more shots had been fired before Lomax finds them on his trail. A trail that sees him begin to beyond with the outspoken young girl who is already showing signs she’s seen and learned somethings in her short life, all courtesy of her now dead mother. Whilst he wants the best for her, he knows the open road is not a life for her, he starting to try and palm her off before settling for a life with her in it.

Having the children is highlight of this film, with her we have all the comedy, and the vulnerability. Yet without her we would have more danger than we have, even towards the end when everyone is at the Farrell ranch, the William Tell fun and games which delivers the real danger. It’s rare to see children being brought into the adult world of western violence, usually running for cover, or starring from the sidelines. The children do allow for different kind of violence, making us think about contemporary domestic lives, when we see children caught between adults, here directly in the firing line. Even violent crime where the child is put at risk. Bringing out the best and the worst in the characters to ensure justice is delivered at the end of the film. I just wish that after all that we had the showdown between Foley and Lomax thats where the real argument was supposed to be. It’s as if they ran out of film and made the best of the ending they could there is literally no shoot out between the two older men, more so the young and old, the kids sadly get in the way.

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McCabe & Mrs Miller (1971)


McCabe & Mrs Miller (1971)

I originally dismissed McCabe & Mrs Miller (1971) on the basis that I could hardly hear the actors talking, the action was slow and the soundtrack was much the same too. Then as I learnt more about the film, the director, the 1970’s and revisionist westerns I had to return and find out what it was really about, instead of being shallow and dismissive. Finding something I have found before with other director such as Arthur Penn and Sam Peckinpah who left their mark on the then dying genre. Breathing new life into it, for however short a time it was. McCabe & Mrs Miller feels as modern as Unforgiven (1992) or Open Range (2003) (which I really should watch again). The tone and look of the film more realistic with Robert Altman in the chair, than most of my favourite westerns. The men and women in turn of the century America talking about modern issues, such as how to trim facial hair or to a buy out of property.

What begins as a lone man (John McCabe/ Warren Beatty) wanting to start out on his own a new brothel in an old mining town. He arrives complete with his own reputation that precedes him, a killer of a politician, someone to be feared or respected. He knows what he wants. He main weapons are really charm, cunning and little business acumen. All that he really needs. The townspeople led by Sheehan (Rene Auberjonois) welcome him and his new venture, a sure winner in a town populated of mainly men. Yet its not overtly adult, there are excited men, at the site of prostitutes in this mountain town, they are a welcome addition. Life just goes on.

Things are going along smoothly for McCabe until he encounters Constance Miller (Julie Christie) a professional Madam who knows a good thing when she see’s it, joining up with McCabe, they form a casual relationship, which on-screen is confused, we never know what they are, they share a bed, the profits, yet its never overtly dealt with, it’s private and confused, like life I guess. She shakes up the business, bringing a different class of prostitutes with her, something the clients will really like and pay good money for.

For a film set in a “whore house” we don’t really see any sex, we know it happens upstairs, it’s just a part of the fabric, so why show it? Things start to fall apart for McCabe with the arrival of two men wanting to buy him out, what could be a profitable venture for him goes ever so wrong, his bravado gets the better of him, and later it gets him.

Only two years into a new century, the ways of the old west, the “whore house” is still a nice venture, yet ways of doing business are changing, to McCabe’s misfortune treating it as a game and little else. He has something pretty good and doesn’t want to part with it. An independent man, who can support himself, proud of his empire, to give it up so easy is not his way. A way that is becoming more cut-throat.

The finale is not what I expected, the atmosphere shifts from a happy mining town, to one greedy for development and change. A quiet gun fight in the snow, are we seeing a legendary gunfighter take up his gun once more, or a man fighting for his life. Whilst Miller, a woman strong on the surface seems to give into addiction, something rarely seen in westerns, simply glossed over, everyone is having problems. The final shootout has more cunning here, unlike the poorly remade fight in The Missouri Breaks (1976) which felt hollow, there was no cunning or wanting to survive, unlike here in the heavy snow that made the stakes even for both men. As the old west was dying, so had the men who wouldn’t change with it.

I’m glad I finally revisited this gem, that pleased me on many levels, the lighting which was far more accurate, as I have worked with myself, reflecting more the time, left very much in the dark. Whilst the sound quality was poor, I soon adjusted and paid even more attention, adding another layer to this modern classic. Which would be far less without Leonard Cohen‘s soundtrack which swept us off to a bygone era when life was simpler yet so much harder. Coming across as bittersweet as Bob Dylan‘s in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973), demonstrating a real change in tone in the 70’s for the genre, using contemporary music for the soundtrack.

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