Probably the only comedy western which like many others first think of is Blazing Saddles (1974) which still holds up today – mostly. I decided to take the plunge into the sub-genre with another Burt Lancaster led film The Hallelujah Trail (1965) which I was for years avoided, comedy and Western can be really silly, becoming boring. Admittedly I laughed a few times here and there, but not enough to say this is a comedy that I’ll be returning to in a rush. I did however see it through and considered some of the themes that it raised, even comedy’s of varying quality can raise some issues to discuss.
The Trail is one of the few films to actually give decent screen time to the Temperance Movement – the Feminists of the 19th century, with a focus both moral decency and more rights for women. They have always received a raw deal in a male dominated genre. Maybe it’s in light of the #MeToo movement that I’m able to this coming through more. Previously the genre has seen them as basically party-poopers who want to stop the men having any fun. Twice in 1939 we see them trying to change their society in their small way. Trying to lecture Joe Clemens (Frank McHugh) in Dodge City, luring him away both alcohol and violence. Partly helping him stay out of trouble in Errol Flynn‘s absence. The intervention doesn’t hold for long, the lure of the violence next door becomes too much to handle. Also seen as a comment of gender, if a man can’t take part in a fight and hold his liquor, is he really a man. Whilst over in Stagecoach a prostitute Dallas (Claire Trevor) is driven out of town by the Law and Order League, which could be argued to be a good thing. A town with no prostitution is always better, however that label has only been inferred in various readings of the film. Once The Ringo Kid (John Wayne) enters, his advances to Dallas are first ignored, she knows she’s no good, tainted even, we never know the real reason, it’s all inferred by the audience who decide her past from the clever dialogue and acting. Whilst Sam Peckinpah uses the South Texas Temperance Union in The Wild Buch (1969) as merely something to be shot at. He hates them enough to see them killed in the street indiscriminately by Pike Bishop (William Holden) and his men. They are lost to the crowd that are caught up in the crossfire of the bank robbery that goes wrong.
So somewhere in the middle we have the young attractive women in Hallelujah Trail led by Cora Templeton Massingale (Lee Remick) who uses their sexual power to overcome the soldiers at the for they are staying at. A political rally that encourages the band to play along and even cannons to be fired. Enough to alarm Col. Thaddeus Gearhart (Burt Lancaster) returning from a mission, is alerted to the noises back at the fort, mistaking them for an Indian invasion. The film sets out to place the army – in turn the men on the back foot, they cannot have full control of the events in this film.
Here gender roles are flipped if only for comic effect in the year of 1867 when apparently the Indian wars are over, the Plains Indian’s have all be penned off to reservations, the problem has been solved in a mere two years since the end of the Civil War, a little too simplistic and incredible inaccurate. If anything the wars continued well into the 1870’s before the “Indian Problem” was finally and dramatically resolved at Wounded Knee in 1890 with a few arguments over treaties around that same period. The film wants to quickly brush the “Indian problem” under the carpet to allow the Sioux to break out in search of whiskey that’s been promised to the town of Denver.
At the centre of the film is a fight over who gets their hands on the said whiskey. The Temperance league wants all 20 wagons worth to be poured into the river. Whilst the men wanting it, just want to safely arrive to avoid the oncoming drought that’s heading their way. Whilst the U.S. Army just wants to ensure it’s safe passage, whilst also trying to keep the peace between these two sides. That’s before the added element of the Sioux wanted the gifts they’ve been promised on a yearly basis being delivered. A standard part of the original agreements, tonnes of money, food and gifts to pacify them in turn hoping to encourage them all to adopt a life of farming. In short a lot of people want that booze. Lastly we have the Irish who are transporting 10 of the wagons, who have labor grievances that they want to take up with the trail leader Frank Wallingham (Brian Keith) an upstanding tax paying citizen and Republican.
Everyone but the army are out for manipulating the situations to suit their own goals. Understandably water in the area is scarce and not always as clean to drink as alcohol. Whilst the women who have both their looks, age and gender on their side to try to manipulate the situation in an attempt to instill abstinence in the men across the country. Of course in a comedy that doesn’t always go according to plan. Massingale is not as clean and sober as she wants to appear to be. Whilst the Sioux are rightly out for what they’ve been promised. Sadly their on-screen depiction is far worse than usual. Not only are white actors playing the chiefs, whenever they speak the narrator translates over them, even any sign language is mocked by the narrator. They are again seen as 2 dimensional people. Their goal maybe more appreciated by the audience whilst still reducing them to children in the process. Following the smell of booze that for future generations can ruin a life on the reservation.
There are moments such as the gunfight in the sandstorm which after a few minutes becomes tiresome. Well staged and meaningful in wanting to get the laughs. We get that the confusion from sides stops anyone dying because they have no clear view of the perceived enemy. It pretty much sums up the film, no one wanted to really be there making it. Lancaster was contractually obliged to take part at a reduced salary, not getting on with Remick, the jokes rarely hit the marks. If anything it’s just become very dated to watch. There are moments that stand out but very few. It’s raised slightly by some of the cinematography that achieved some daring pans above the action as it passed under the camera. However it’s essentially a comedy dud. With sole exception to the Temperance movement that’s blurred with feminism if only briefly and back-tracked on at the close of the film. There’s a lot going on in a here and it’s far too long to really call a comedy. The main problem is that it needed another script draft before reaching the screen, leading it to be an overly ambitious film that could have been so much better.
I’m hoping to see 4 of Sam Peckinpah films, Straw Dogs (1971) is the first one out of the gates, and very much by chance too. I remember reading about the film long before I really considered seeking it out – the article focused on the infamous rape scene which is probably one of the most violent scenes I have ever watch on screen. It was also a chance to see how the director, a few years after the success of The Wild Bunch (1969) and the quirky melancholic musical Western The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970) with far less violence than it’s predecessor. Moving forward he would be going across the Atlantic to a completely different environment – Great Britain, involved in no conflicts, yet struggling with rolling strikes and blackouts. The summer of love is long behind us and things are looking bleak.
Mathematician David Sumner (Dustin Hoffman) has moved to rural Cornwall to be with his new wife Amy (Susan George) who from the first few minutes is very much seen from the male gaze, the camera pans down to focus on her chest, clearly not wearing a bra. Partly out of women’s liberation and easily seen as a directorial decision to engage the male before they’re shocked later on in the film. They have just bought a hunting trap, Peckinpah has sewn a seed early on for what to expect later on. You can’t remove the potential image for violence, a man caught within the teeth of the trap that for most of the film’s fixed to the wall. I notice early on, children are dancing in a graveyard, whilst local pedophile Niles (David Warner) looks on quietly at them, not fully aware of what he’s capable of. I’m wondering where he fits into the dynamic of the film, hovering in the background used as a minor character. Warner is sadly not even credited for his role which is staggering when you see his role increase at a pivotal moment in the film.
We learn that Sumner decided to move into his wife’s family home to allow him to study and write his book, something he really wants to focus on. Having escaped his own countries violence, he can finally begin with hopefully fewer distractions. That’s not considering the sexual distraction of his newly wed wife, who sees the world around her far differently to the naive American intellectual whose still finding his feet in this foreign world. They have employed roofers who leer over Amy at any chance they get. The only attractive female in the film, she’s the only object of desire her even though she’s married, it doesn’t stop their actions. David is oblivious to all of this until he is forced to confront what is only going to be an increase of violence against the couple. I’ve not even touched upon Tom Hedden (Peter Vaughan) who spends the first half of the film in the local pub, seen as the town drunk. We don’t yet know how much power he yields over the men in the village. He’s the Cornish equivalent to a gang leader, a translation of the Western villain to British countryside. His influence and position in the community allow him a certain freedom, he’s probably never left the village since he was born.
Diversionary tactics come into play, taking David away from his wife on what is a very British past-time; Pheasant shooting, a right of passage for those in the country and part of society. The same men who have been work on the barn roof for the couple take him away, into a civilised arena of violence. Hoffman again plays the innocent, useless with a gun at first. Instead of shooting a man, who can potentially defend himself he aims at the defenceless birds who can’t seem to kill at first. When he finally kills he’s repulsed by what he has just done. Instead of taking home his kill for dinner he leaves the lifeless bird in peace. Juxtaposed with the rape scene which the film is now known for, the build up to the attack is pretty calm, as Charlie Venner (Del Henney) whom she previously had a relationship with, moves in to forcibly seduce. It becomes increasingly uncomfortable to watch as he gains control, ripping her clothes from her body before he rapes her. Where it becomes blurry for me is when it moves from what looks like rape to possibly consensual, she somehow accepts him and allows him to make love (in the loosest possible terms). Has she given in to his forceful actions, her past feelings overwhelm her working in his favour. The changes with the introduction of Norm Scutt (Ken Hutchison) carrying a rifle, he want a part of her, he wants a share of the action. Amy returns to being an object to be abused, returning her to a victim. I feel uncomfortable again, the sweaty bodies, is not just sexual joy, but pure terror and transfer of empowerment from woman to the men who have violated her. During the scene we have the first flourishes of slow-motion – the Peckinpah signature, here it’s to display the pain and violence towards Amy who has lost her freedom.
This experience naturally stays with Amy and the audience for the remainder of the film, we are forced to experience the imagery in a packed village hall. As she’s forcing herself to try and return to normality, it’s too. She can’t comes to terms with it during the course of the film, events won’t allow her to. When Hedden’s daughter Janice (Sally Thomsett) who we see leading Niles away to try and take advantage of him. She wants to abuse his innocence, unaware of his true nature she meets a fate similar to Lennie Hall’s victim in Of Mice and Men. Unaware of either’s power it ends fatally for Janice, the first victim of the night.
The finale of the film is long and drawn out, from what begins as a car accident develops into a full blown home invasion as Hedden on the look out for Niles now in the care of still innocent Sumner who wants to defend his house turns into a homestead under act from the natives who use all their forces to try and break through. A once civilised man is broken as he turns to violence, doing all he believes is necessary to protect his home from outsiders who want to kill his guest and obligation, wanting to do the right thing becomes very dark and murky. I’m reminded of the farmer Tony Martin who shot dead a burglar after entering his property. He too went to fatal lengths to ensure the safety of his property, sparking a nationwide debate. A real-life parallel, not as extreme as the Hollywood depiction, we can still see the lengths that even a quiet man will to.
We don’t truly get to see what happens to the last men standing, where do they go from here. Have the images of a war that have been broadcast daily on his TV been subliminally brainwashing him to pick up a gun a shoot. Has his countries love for guns become part of his identity, laying dormant ready to be awoken. I leave the film shaken by the imagery, the intensity of violence an intense and relentless barrage that we are more than glad to end. I’m now interested to see how the violence couple dynamic is carried through to The Getaway (1972), a modern day Bonnie and Clyde (1967) who get a thrill from violence, unlike the Sumner’s who used it as a last resort.
I watched Convoy (1978) purely on the basis it was directed by Sam Peckinpah, not so much it’s based upon the song of the same name. Taking the lyrics and expanding it into feature-length film. My only other experience with the song being played on an episode of The Simpsons, thinking it was a tune written by the writing team. Finding out when this came in the listings that it actually exist as a track in its own right. So I took the plunge to see how Peckinpah could expand what is essentially a novelty song into what is basically an extended music video with the directors own trademark touches. However I could see early on that this was to be his last neo-Western and sadly not Peckinpah’s best. Sitting back I began to take this all in.
So, trucks or as we call them in the UK – Lorries don’t have the same cultural importance as they have in the states. It’s true both vehicles are the life blood of keeping the countries going, distributing and delivering up and down the countries keeping business happy, healthy and running. Without them both would be massively affected, which we can’t avoid, we can’t take them for granted. Now we also have Peckinpah to consider, when he works in the present his view of the world of bleak, the Wild West there a romantic loss for a bygone era, he wants to be part of that somehow. Convoy placed in the present we have to think harder to understand the modern language that constructs the modern West which we are exploring.
The Trucks replacing wagons that traveled the then untamed landscape and frontiers of America, here lead by Martin ‘Rubber Duck’ Penwald (Kris Kristofferson) who along with a fellow truckers Bobby ‘Love Machine’ ‘Pig Pen’ (Burt Young) and Spider Mike (Franklyn Ajaye) who couldn’t shake crooked Sheriff Lyle ‘Cottonmouth’ Wallace (Ernest Borgnine) who will do anything to arrest them or see them out-of-pocket. Drunk on power all that his rank would allow him to get away with. Translated to the West a crooked sherif stopping a wagon train getting through, charging them financially and “legally” when and however he can. abusing the power of the law until it truly backfires when the truckers rebel in a truck stop, beating up three cops including the Sheriff who is out for round two after already taking a nice bribe from them. They’ve had enough, snapping and take out their built up anger and resentment out on them.
The brawl marks the start of the overuse of the slow-motion shot, every fall, punch, action, and reaction’s slowed down, the director of photography had to be really patient on this film, adjusting the speed multiple times for every other shot. The technique looses all meaning from this point, before this film it was a signature of his work, emphasising the act of violence, here it’s just looks silly. He could easily have been making the film just a few minutes longer, not that it really made much of a difference. Last used effectively by the director in Cross of Iron (1977) which really benefited from the overuse, an ultra violent setting and the themes explored were a major part of the films power to convey the message of PDST. I can’t move away from the point without touching on his physical state, by this point he was affected by his alcoholism and drug addiction, you can see how his vices were effecting his work. If he was sober this work could have been so much better for it.
Saying that minus the addictions this could have been a better film, it relies too much on the novelty song to tell the narrative, the narrative and the song are one and the same. The reliance of the lyrics and the track really doesn’t allow it to stand on its own. Peckinpah had become lazy by this point and has just let the lyrics act as narration at points. I wanted to be interested in the ever-growing convoy of trucks that joined the cause that had grown and spread from one state to another as they aim to reach the Mexican border as did the Wild Bunch nearly a decade earlier but for different reasons. This was an escape of the system, the injustices of the unscrupulous law and the working conditions of the working man – the truck driver.
I was preoccupied by its visual connection with Sugarland Express (1974) which is a superior film, again with a convoy that time of police cars following an escaped convict with his girlfriend Goldie Hawn. Complete with old-timer cop – Ben Johnson who never left the rear-view mirror. Borgnine is clearly enjoying the role, his mustache the finishing touch to this corrupt man who will do anything to get ‘Rubber Duck’ behind bars. Whilst Johnson’s tired and wants to go home, but can’t rest until he has his prisoner back. Where they really differ if the energy that convey, both set in the South it’s a working class society that’s being depicted. There’s a youthful energy in the earlier film that really gets you excited. Whereas Convoy wants to be more political, making a statement about working conditions, the sense of fun that is in the comradery of these men over the radio they share, allowing them to swell in numbers.
I haven’t even touched on the depiction of women in the film, first meeting them at the truck stop, the two we follow throughout have more power of their destiny’s. Widow Woman (Madge Sinclair) a truck driver herself whose in the only truck to come off the road, thinking she would be die early on, instead she is rescued by her male counterparts. She is respected by them. Not so much for Melissa (Ali MacGraw) a photographer who has her own mind, free to express herself but still mainly seen as a sex-object, she even hides in the cabin of the trucks when things get rough up front.
Ultimately it’s a flawed film that might have been better off in the hands of another director. There is a clear vision is that is let down by the reliance of a novelty song that restricts it, making it a forgettable and flimsy film. There’s potential but falls short at times, relying on slow-motion. You can see the actors are having fun driving into things, but why, that’s what I want to know. I don’t think I’ll be returning to this later work by Peckinpah anytime soon, which is sad as I have always enjoyed his work.
There’s a list of films that I know about and have accepted that it’s going to be very unlikely that I’ll be able to watch. I thought Bring me the Head of Afredo Garcia (1974) was one of those films. Thankfully that is no longer the case. First aware of it during a Sam Peckinpah documentary on a DVD, probably for Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973) or The Wild Bunch (1969) I would always look out for Garcia’s Head, just in the hope that it would appear to me. And out of nowhere – Bam! Probably Peckpinpah’s finest work post Wild Bunch.
One of the few films he made when he felt he wasn’t “whoring himself out” which I can understand, work for someone else’s ideas and vision instead of your own which he found more satisfying, but it was all too late to save him from alcoholism that killed him. If he was allowed to see his vision through maybe, just maybe he would have produced more interested un-compromised work. I wonder what Major Dundee (1965) would have been like if it wasn’t take away from him? All this questions and very few answers, at least we have a directors cut of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid that shows how dedicated he was to the Western, how his vision of a dystopia’s depicted by looking back.
Moving forward a year to Alfredo’s Garcia’s Head his last true Western in the neo style, is Peckinpah being allowed a longer leash from Hollywood to get his own passion project made, after Billy the Kid was mangled in the editing room. Maybe that was his “compromise” allowed him to get on with this will less interference from the studio? Looking at Bring Me the Head it feels more personal, he’s been allowed the length that he wants. His cast is familiar to him, casting Warren Oates who was one of the Wild Bunch who all met with a bloody end. Here he’s the focus of the film, a pianist in a bar Bennie who recognises a photo that has being doing the rounds – an Alfredo Garcia no idea why to him, a few men are after him.
Now lets rewind a few minutes to a Mexican version of The Godfather, no introductions, just straight into a family of power, the daughter of the family’s patriarch and godfather want to know whose impregnated his daughter, she wont speak until her own life’s threatened, does she finally speak, a bounty’s made for this still unknown man who hasn’t long to live. What kind of film have we let ourselves in for here. Who in the 20th century gives such an order, still its carried out, leading to a montage of search across the country, names crossed off, locations checked, still no sign until Sappensly (Robert Webber) and Quill (Gig Young) meet Bennie whose the first lead anyone’s had so far. Leading to him being hired/encouraged to go on the search for him and bring back his head.
A 20th century bounty hunter, complete with car and machete, about to make his fortune – $10,000 is waiting for him. The journey wouldn’t be the same without his lover Elita (Isela Vega) bar-room floosey and singer who he has grown to love. To me it’s a Mexican Western with a white man out on the make for some big bucks. Is he made in the same vein as the man with no name from the Dollars trilogy or the troubled loner in Randolph Scott’s image. It all starts out so innocently before they’re met by bikers and another chance to see Kris Kristofferson, reminding us of far darker scenes in Straw Dogs (1971, another I have not yet seen). The road to Garcia is a bumpy dangerous one paved with not temptations but those of a foreign land that is not known to the white man.
Violence is following him every step of the way, all of this bloodshed and for what? The head of a guy he only knew slightly. There are few moments of tenderness in the film, as it all turns sour when they arrive in the village of Garcia. It seems that nature beat them to the man who we would never meet alive. Forcing our hero – if you can call him that to sink lower than he would have thought. A blatant comment of screen violence of how far other filmmakers would go for on-screen violence. Only met further by Peckinpah who shows how brutal violence can be, reusing what is by now a well established technique – using slow-motion to emphasise what the releasing of bullets, piercing a human body, how fast death can then reach someone. Admittedly I knew what he was doing so the effects are lessened on me. Still it was beautifully edited, each time a gun fight was filmed it was taken from every angle, using what feels like every camera angle. With more open space he has been able to extenuate the effect of violence.
Ultimately the film’s summed up by Bennie who through all the lengths he goes to get the head of Garcia he has come so far to gain so little at great expense. He has caused so much death, for what – desecrating a grave over a family disagreement. Letting the family know how he feels the only way he knows how or grown accustomed to. It’s a sad end to a beautifully sad film that depicts the lengths a person will go to, even when the West has been won, borders have been made, and you hope that people have progressed morally from these reprehensible acts that keeps crime alive. Compared to his other films its unique, back in Mexico, a country Peckinpah is comfortable in. You can see a clear argument for his ideas on-screen, that of violence in the modern world, you can find it anywhere if you look hard enough. For Bennie that was too close.
I was inspired to get out of my collection a film I hadn’t seen in a few years thanks to m friend over at Once Upon a Screen. It was one of the first classics that I devoured when my interest in film was developing, hungry for the more obvious pieces that everyone knows without really having to look to far, readily available to watch you could say. Bonnie and Clyde (1967) is also a turning point in American film, breaking the mold of the decaying studio system to deliver one of the then most violent films. Very much a product of its time, that has stood the test of time, still having the power to shock. It may look dated in places however that’s hardly something to complain about, it’s almost 50 years old, yes 50 years old, a film about two of the most prolific bank-robbers of depression era America, a two-man Jesse James gang that drive around the Deep South, robbing from the rich banks that prevented them having the life they felt they deserved.
I can’t leave the subject of violence that my friend discussed, It wasn’t used for the sake of violence. Like any content it has to be used properly and for a reason, unless the intention is to throw you off-balance, a stylistic choice by the director. Violence has since this film and The Wild Bunch (1969) been attributed to a rise in violence which is nonsense, violence was there before both those films and as we know after the events in France its still happens. No one is blaming film-violence for the acts of terrorism there. It comes from a root cause, a method to scare and control. Violence of the screen acts only as a mirror image of life, if we don’t see violence behind the security of a projected image we don’t truly understand the power of violence. It’s not glorified by Arthur Penn its simply mirrored and exaggerated in order to show us how bloody and horrific it really is. Just what Peckinpah built upon two years later using slow-motion that became a signature in hos work. If we re forced to look at it we’re engrossed by it, which we should be repulsed by. The images on the news is the real violence which we’re warned about before a piece of broadcast. To deny violence on-screen is to deny that it happens, much the same goes for strong language which is used right is a true reflection. Obviously not all audience should be exposed to this, learning the dangers of the world through the comfort of fairy tales that have dark characters and morals that stay with you, allowing you to understand the world around you as you grow up. Violence and strong language if dealt with sensitively can be powerful weapons in their own right.
Enough of the lecture and onto the film that I hadn’t seen since I was at uni so over 3 years ago now. I think that was long enough to forget most of the plot, even the odd clip didn’t really join up all the dots. Allowing me to go into this film very much with a fresh pair of eyes, maybe that’s the power of the images that they stay with you long enough that they you can feel their presence even as they fade into the long-term-memory. The events had long since faded leaving a sense of visceral violence and youthful energy that excites you, even though it’s about bank robberies. We are slowly lulled into a false sense of security, an uncertain time of un-seen poverty in America via old photographs that depict suffering, poverty and struggle to survive against the odds, the banks and ultimately the system that itself is fighting to stand-up. Before we meet a young couple in the oddest of situation, a crime is about to be committed, the start of a strange relationship between Clyde Barrow (Warren Beatty) and Bonnie Parker (Faye Dunaway). Sparks fly between them but not in the standard sexual sense, getting their kicks on the open road in the small towns of Deep South.
It’s the youthful energy that sets this film alight, we don’t really care about what they do in the beginning, no bloods shed. They are stealing from the rich, whilst respecting the poor. In the beginning it’s just the too of them, riding the open road, enjoying the spoils in the cars that come and go like the clothes on their back. As if they don’t have a care in the world, they have their whole lives ahead of them. Before meeting their getaway driver C.W. Moss (Michael J. Pollard) who wants to share the spoils, add some excitement to his otherwise boring life. It beats the routine of adult life they are now trapped in. Are they escaping adulthood or just the responsibility of it? They are using their bodies to get what they want, becoming powerful forces in the Southern states, forcing the hand of the already stretched banks. They are unaware of the effect they are having, a danger to society, only interested in the notoriety that is produces, they relish it, they are somebody, the Barrow gang as they come to be known when they join up with older brother Buck (Gene Hackman) and wife Blanche (Estelle Parsons) who is trapped between her upbringing and obligation to her husband.
We have our outsider within the gang acting (Blanche) as the conscience of the film. Scared witless by the acts of violence that escalate, and torn by her love for Buck. Screaming at any given time, out of fear or excitement the line becomes blurred as she comes to accept her position in the gang, neither a prisoner nor a participant in the robberies. We the audience however have the choice to continue watching or turn-away. I stayed. There was too much to not ignore. I noticed that as however modern the content, the violence of the bolemic blood. It’s very classic in terms of production. The interior car scenes are all completed with front and rear projection, this could be due to budget or stylistic choices, to have a classic look, when as early as the mid-fifties car scenes were being taken to the location. We’re reminded we are looking at an artifice not reality, it shows up on-screen, yet we don;t care as we are lost in the energy and conversation of the Barrow gang. We are looking at kids, young people swept up in the moment before reality soon comes back to haunt them.
I could go on about the plot, which we all know, it is also a road trip that charts the life of these two lovers on the run from the law. They start loosing that youthful edge as the presence of the police is not far behind them. Numerous shoot-outs which I had forgotten reference films from the era, loud and messy affairs that are nostalgic for that era of film before the Hays code had been enforced on American film. It’s finally breaking free from those restraints. However as much as they are loosening there lies within a moral, that all these acts of violence will catch-up with you. As we have come to have burned in our minds, as one of modern cinema’s greatest scenes begins to unfold, bringing a close to an era in the South.
The gunning down of Bonnie and Clyde is the only scene I have re-watched away from the film, yet connected to the film is even more powerful, we’ve been taken on a thrill ride through open country, sex, violence and silliness. Reality kicks in, and orders restored in the world, our image of the film’s shattered and reformed. Violence is not a nice thing, as a mentioned earlier, it can kill with ease. The slow-motion image of their death, two dancing corpses being pumped with bullets is hard to swallow yet at the same time parodies the death scene, that moment actors relish, to leave the screen with a dramatic exit. They are also leaving life to something less exciting…death that has no escape. Driving that image home is enough to shock the audience, whilst at the same time wow them with this effect.
Bonnie and Clyde was a turning point in cinema there-after there was no point where you could go back, the fast images of death have been burned into a generation. Wanting more, seeing more on the TV at night with the Vietnam war showing death every night, when it happens everyday on our streets. Cinema had to reflect that not shy away from reality which is far darker than it wanted us to believe. It’s not even just a standard crime thriller as the characters each question their position in society, all equally “rednecks” who are fighting against the stereotype to be something more, it has a voice for the younger generation that was then still fighting to be heard against the establishment.
- Bonnie and Clyde (1967) (lecinemadreams.blogspot.co.uk)
- The Dueling Divas Blogathon: Female Rivalry in Bonnie & Clyde (1967) (thewonderfulworldofcinema.wordpress.com)
- Savage Friday: Bonnie and Clyde (1967) (reflectionsonfilmandtelevision.blogspot.co.uk)
- Film #65: Bonnie and Clyde (1967) (scottsfilmwatch.blogspot.co.uk)
I’ve decided to undertake a revisit the Ronown Cycle of films directed by Budd Boetticher and starring Randolph Scott, taking the cheap budget of a B-western and raising it with the direction and the ideas of the script to that of a A-Western, before the power of the films was really known. All culminating in Scott’s swan song to cinema with Sam Peckinpah‘s Ride the High Country (1962) where he decided to never act again, believing he was unable to surpass his performance. Westbound (1959) is the first in a disjointed series that hopes to redress my view of these films that I only started to understand as I was finishing the first watch. It will be out of sequence, based on an availability, however this time I will be using a more critical eye in order to expand my understanding of these films.
So out of the seven films I am starting with number 5, which so far feels like a more cerebral of the series. Set during the height of the civil war as most westerns are, either before, around or after that period of upheaval in American history. Which allows for a darker story to be told. When Union captain John Hayes (Scott) to undertake a mission that could change the course of the war for the side that does eventually go onto win. It’s one he does at first with reluctance, a return to an old way of life that is away from the front line of war, something that he believes in. To manage a stagecoach route to ensure the daily passage of gold to the Union is not what he had in mind.
However when he meets wounded soldier Rod Miller (Michael Dante) returning home, unable to fight himself. Having to face battles of his own at home, Hayes grows into a father figure who wants to instill new purpose the now disabled soldier. It’s a rarity to see a handicapped actor playing such a prominent role. Usually given to an extra on a battlefield or about to have a limb blown off. Placing him in a role that allows both the characters and audience to confront the issue head on. On returning home his wife Jeanie (Karen Steele) takes a while to adjust to his new situation. He’s not the man she saw go off to war. A walking casualty of war that has returned from the battlefield.
The Miller’s live in the the Colorado territory that was supportive of the Confederate campaign. Wherein we find the villains of the film. Clay Putnam (Andrew Duggan) both in the field of love and war where Hayes is concerned, coming back to town where he finds his old flame Norma (Virginia Mayo) who is caught in the middle of these two men. Clay’s right hand man – Mace (Michael Pate) who is a real thorn in his side, acting more in impulse than intellect. These are the two real difference between them, its classical really, the intelligent bad guy gets the less intelligent more physically stronger gunfighter to do the dirty work and that fact is not hidden from view.
On the surface its a class set-up for a western of the period, however underneath we find darker tones, a country whose people have no real conscience, a wounded soldier, a stagecoach load who fall to their deaths are all placed before us. Its harder hitting than that standard gunfight or brawl in the street. We have men who act with little thought for the consequences until it’s too late. Whilst Hayes and his men fight to keep the route open to ensure a steady supply of gold to the union acts as a metaphor for a country working together for the greater good. Of course set during the Civil War that idea is meaningless, its one side for the other. Move it forward to the time of production you have look further, where I can see no parallel. The is probably the weaker of the series, its heavier on characters and settings, not set in the wide open spaces, it’s very luscious in terms of landscape. I feel there is something that wants to come out, there are things going in, characters who are fighting to be heard whilst becoming too mainstream as the film progresses. Aspects could have been developed and just left.
Another Sam Peckinpah film in as many days, and one I was unaware that even existed, being a much earlier film in his back – catalogue of work. Probably made with more studio control, yet The Deadly Companions (1961) does have some of the hallmarks of his later work. I do feel it’s slightly more successful than his next film Major Dundee (1962), but that’s for another review.
Focusing on his debut film he has pulled together an interesting cast, with Maureen O’Hara who became synonymous with the Westerns, a woman who could easily stand up to men, one that even earned the admiration of John Wayne on and off-screen. It is also her Irish roots that makes her come across as someone not to cross. However I feel she was miscast in the role of dancer Kit Tildon who is a social outcast, shunned by the other women in her town. Mirroring Claire Trevor‘s Dallas in Stagecoach (1939) a prostitute just trying to make a living, whilst also aspiring to be more. I feel age is the real factor as O’Hara is clearly not in her 20s or 30’s who has a son of ten.
Looking at the rest of the cast we have recurring actor Chill Wills and Strother Martin who are strong and defined character actors in the genre. Also surprisingly for me as I have never seen Brian Keith in a leading role delivers a strong performance, here as known simply by the name of Yellowleg after saving the life of confederate runaway Turk (Wills) and Billy Keplinger (Steve Cochran). Together they are an odd group, lead by the ex-Union soldier (Kieth) who we are left puzzled by. Barking orders at everyone, joining these two men as they ride out to rob a bank. Always keeping his hat on, even in spite of the Parson (Martin), leaving us to wonder what is under there. It’s believed that he has been scalped during the war and doesn’t want to show his scar. We fear him and don’t trust the man yet are intrigued as to his motivations as much as Turk and Billy are.
On meeting Kit’s son Mead Tildon Jr. (Billy Vaughan) we believe that he maybe the father although this is never really made clear to us even as the film progress, and probably why it’s a much-forgotten film of Peckinpah, because of the plot holes that leave is wondering what is his connection. We also learn that Yellowleg has been wounded by a bullet in the shoulder that affects his aim with a gun which sadly takes the life of Tildon Jr. filling him with guilt and a need to right his wrong towards the grieving mother (who should really have been played by someone younger, or cast an older son).
It’s the sense of guilt and obligation that comes with the guilt in hopes of redeeming Yellowleg in order to move on. To have that forgiveness from a social outcast who has been terribly wronged. He wants to escort Kit to the burial place of the son’s father, her husband that now lies within Apache territory, something that she is willing to do alone, probably why O’Hara was chosen for the role, her stubbornness and strength of character over the other aspects of the role. Heading off alone she is soon followed by Yellowleg and his two friends (I say that lightly) who are ordered as if they are in the military, They are more bothered about robbing a bank thank riding with him, They are seen was his troops or backup that are obligated by association alone to follow him. Turk strangely has dreams of rejoining the Confederate army, carrying an officer’s cap with him which begins to consume him as the film progresses.
Where the film starts to fall down in the love interest that develops it doesn’t feel natural for Peckinpah to have that in his films. Of course having the only woman and lead actor pair-up is natural for films of that era, there are worse on-screen pairings. It’s the outsider element which draws them together, however it does detract from what the characters have, that dynamic of a mother’s child killer escorting her to his final resting place, whilst also having his own demons. Also the added element of the Apaches is very unique and not really explored in great detail. They are seen as unhinged, affected by the western society as they play around with a stagecoach they have previously stolen.
On the face of it The Deadly Companions does have strong themes which seem to be lost along the way, with interesting casting that really doesn’t help the film. Still this is a debut film and very much not in the same vein as most Westerns of the day. No killer would be seen to wear his guilt on his sleeve as openly as Yellowleg who coming from civilised society maybe bring that sensibility with him to the west.
- The Deadly Companions (1961) (buddiesinthesaddle.blogspot.co.uk)
- The Deadly Companions (1961) (westernsontheblog.blogspot.co.uk)
- The Deadly Companions (Paramount, 1961) (jeffarnoldblog.blogspot.co.uk)
- Beginnings and Endings: Sam Peckinpah’s The Deadly Companions (1961) (movingpicturetrash.blogspot.co.uk)
Yet another western I have been meaning to revisit to better understand. My first reading of the film was completely off, as I realised after listening to a lecture from Richard Slotkin, now I really do have a far better understanding of The Wild Bunch (1969) which does indeed overshadow the rest of Sam Peckinpah‘s work, when he has so much more to offer to cinema. Instead of going over the plot I want to more analyse the film interns of how I read it, looking at certain elements and quotes which really do stand out for me, which probably shows why it stands out more so than others. It’s not just the violence that he wanted to amplify to the audience, Peckinpah, hated violence (not that you’d know it from his films) almost glorifying it, yet this has a knock on effect as we see the action, the deaths, the falls shot in slow-motion, we’re forced to look at the image for longer, it’s a form of torture, you want violence, here it is, in all of its bloody form, you look on staring at this beautiful image not really comprehending that you are seeing someone die before your eyes. At full speed and on the streets we don’t have that luxury, our memory replays the moments of real violence in real-time, or sped up we have no time to really process what has happened until it’s over in a flash. Peckinpah stretches those moments to allow us to process, to understand and if we want…enjoy the brutality.
With the more obvious element that stays with you long after the credits have rolled I want to focus on the Wild Bunch themselves, who in history were really Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid and their gang. Taking the title and placing it on to an equally dangerous group of men, lead by Pike Bishop (William Holden) and his right hand man Dutch Engstrom (Ernest Borgnine), playing old men who lead a bunch of gunfighter’s who we meet in the close of their era and the death of the West. Their time is almost up and they know it. Hoping that they will be carrying out no more jobs after the bank-robbery, which leads me onto my first quote which struck me.
If they move, kill ’em! – Pike Bishop
To be honest Pike
delivers most of these lines, this one is led with such military precision, there is no thought for the casualties. Those held up in the bank are collateral damage they just don’t matter in the mission, get the money and go. It’s cold blooded. Yet we spend most of our time with these men, much like most westerns, focusing on the heroes, these are reversed, leading us to believe the heroes lead by Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan) who was once a member of this gang, given a chance to redeem himself. He is the anti-hero (of sorts) that are ordered to lead a gang of misfits, the scum of the earth in search of the wild bunch. Thornton has his own lines which such as
We’re after men. And I wish to God I was with them. – Thornton
There’s a yearning to even for him for the old days, for the male companionship he no longer has, surrounded by idiots who can’t even shoot the right men. Yet they are his only hope of ensuring his freedom which is in the hands of a railway man. He wants to feel alive, to be a man, to have some honour again.
I found that over the course of the film it wasn’t just a swan-song to the classics of the genre, such as John Ford’s, Hathaway’s, and Hawks etc that focus on the hero of the hour, there are no heroes here, their words and ideas are flawed, not those of men with honour that you would look up to. An argument between Pike and Dutch about a man’s words is a great example of this moral western that takes the violence by the throat and shakes it up.
What would you do in his place? He gave his word – Pike
He gave his word to a railroad. – Engstrom
It’s his word. – Pike
That ain’t what counts! It’s who you give it *to*! – Engstrong
The idea of a man’s word is a powerful masculine idea, a man’s word is worth more than a signature on a legal document to some people. It’s on the same level as the strength of a man’s hand-shake, a judgement I use myself, it’s a greeting with a stranger, or a positive start to an interview etc. A man’s word is a step further, a promise that binds two men together intrinsically. What’s being discussed here is who Thornton gives his word to, the enemy that is the railroad man (Harrigan) Albert Dekker who employs him, making him a traitor to Dutch who was like a brother to Thornton, this is a betrayal much like a partner having an affair and living with them. You could say; sleeping with the enemy. Where it becomes blurry is Pike arguing the point of the fact he still gave his word, it doesn’t matter who to, he;s accepted that he has changed sides and has to live with that, respecting him. Giving your word and keeping it shows the sign of a strong man.
Another quote to look at is
(talking about the railroad) There was a man named Harrigan. Used to have a way of doin’ things. I made him change his ways. A hell of a lot of people, Dutch, just can’t stand to be wrong. – Pike
Pride. – Dutch
And they can’t forget it… that pride… being wrong. Or learn by it – Pike
How ’bout us, Pike? You reckon we learned – vein’ wrong, today? – Dutch
I sure hope to God we did. – Pike
The glory days of their ability to strike fear into people, forcing them to change, to act fast. They are glorifying themselves as being almost gods, people to fear. Harrigan has become a man to fear as he has finally come after him, taking the law into his own hands, that at the start of the film caused countless innocent victims shot in cross-fire. Pike and Dutch are also reminiscing of better times, the height of the gunfighter that they were a part of it is no longer there. They encounter the latest vehicles that even outmoded the horse, a form of transport they have come to rely on and is synonymous with the western. Ironically used to kill Cable Hogue (Jason Robards) in The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970) the good old days are over.
I want to touch one other aspect that is the US Army that is never portrayed in a positive light throughout the film. Traditionally the cavalry are the trooping the colours, riding in, sounding their bugles before quelling and pacifying the enemy in no time. Peckinpah portrays them as incompetent, even the main men think little of them. This could easily reflect Peckinpah’s and many other liberal directors who wanted to hit out at the Vietnam War, a divisive war, reflected into the countries own domestic past we see a different army that is unable to get up and react to weapons being stolen from under their noses. An embarrassment for any army, filled with raw recruits unaware of what they have to do.
It may have took a few attempts to really understand The Wild Bunch for me is a morality western, a Neo-Western if you want to be picky as its questions the genre and the countries past, taking it and reforming it to be viewed by an audience who is drawn by violence and the legend that has blurred the countries past, the two myth and fact is intertwined, only those who study American history (before 1900) really know what happened. I am slowly seeing the connections and the differences between fact and film fiction. I can see why this film overshadows the rest, the characters are painted on a wider canvas, morality is blurred and the violence is heightened. It’s a sweeping western that doesn’t even show a Native American, replaced with the Mexican Army who are more intelligently depicted than before, they are not just drunk gringos who sleep out in the afternoon sun with a sombrero covering their faces. They are fully formed people, which is something we don’t get from the Natives. The main cast is filled with actors who have hugely played the good-guys in westerns, here playing cold killers who have their own moral code that if you think about it would frighten you. Should we really listen to what these cowboy role models oft he silver screen have told us?
- The Wild Bunch (Sam Peckinpah, 1969) (forrestinfocus.wordpress.com)
- The Wild Bunch (1969) ** (1001moviesblog.blogspot.co.uk)
- The Wild Bunch (1969) A Film by Sam Peckinpah (arethehillsgoingtomarchoff.blogspot.co.uk)
- The Wild Bunch (1969) (buddiesinthesaddle.blogspot.co.uk)
- The Wild Bunch (1969) (dfordoom-movieramblings.blogspot.co.uk)
- The Wild Bunch (Warner Bros, 1969) (jeffarnoldblog.blogspot.co.uk)
- The Wild Bunch…Part 1 (myfavoritewesterns.com)
I first watched Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973) when I discovered Sam Peckinpah properly at art-school, like most of the western films I have reviewed. Another which I had not fully understood apart from Pat Garrett (James Coburn) is given the badge of sheriff with one main objective in mind, to bring in Billy the Kid (Kris Kristofferson). Along with a very quiet and aloof Bob Dylan as aspiring bandit Alias who also provided the melancholic soundtrack which really struck a chord in a few scenes. Which has really made sense this time around as a cast of new and old actors, two generations of men and women are in the old west, a west that is fading in the 1880’s which reflects the state of the western genre, as actors from the golden age are retiring or dying, making way for fresh talent to make it’s own mark.
The older generation lead by James Coburn who wasn’t really that old at the time of film, in his mid forties, it was only a matter of hair and make-up, along with his years of experience that allowed him to take on this iconic role of America’s gunfighter past. Whilst Kristofferson a young country singer turned actor represented the new blood that was ready to take over the reigns. It was for Peckinpah to see the baton was passed on with a real sense of loss, the passage of time marked between one generation, a new way of thinking, a generation outmoded and outdated. Having to only think about surviving and trying not to die.
At the heart of this however is a friendship between two men who once rode together, building up a reputation of fear, death and gunfire, creating legends wherever they went. Part of the fabric of the west before it was tamed, fenced off and regulated to ensure its prosperity as a nation. These two men were a dying breed. Throughout we see friends of both men fall before the gun, in timely Peckinpah violence, allowing us to see how dangerous it really was, not quite glorified, using fake blood that wasn’t far off tomato ketchup, the action is more real than the blood that leaves the dying man.
My focus was on the older members of the cast from Slim Pickens, Jack Elam and Katy Jurado who had all made their mark on the genre as character actors creating more depth around the leads they supported for years before. All meeting horrible ends, each having their moment. I still get a little choked up when Sheriff Baker (Slim Pickens) goes off to the river to die, joined by his wife Mrs Baker (Jurado) who watched him drift off to the next world. Two very different figures who have met age head on, accepting their mortality, accompanied by Dylan’s Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door that only plays for a moment, being both an obvious choice and spiritual, paying respect to the dying who made their mark on the land.
Whilst the younger men are showing their age, the skill with the gun, is something to show off, cocky to an extent that they don’t respect the older gunfighter who have the upper hand still whilst they are still around. Brought down by Garrett who reluctantly sees the job through, his duty to the men who elected him during the age of the cattle baron. He may have the upper hand which ultimately costs him more than his life, a friend who he rode with for years. To ask anyone to kill a friend is a terrible and impossible thing to ask of anyone. Made hard still by the pressure of responsibility and age which bears down on him. A conflicted man, unlike the less complicated Billy (William H. Bonney) the Kid who as much as he respects his friend still has a confidence only the young can carry.
Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid is a landmark film in that is marks the beginning of the end really of the classic genre, the older man are hanging up their gun belts and seeking the easier life. Whilst the younger more violent driven genre which is rewriting the past, becoming more honest. Peckinpah as I have said before loves this genre, coming into it at a point when it’s worn out, needing to be regenerated to carry on, making the end of something that was once glorious. Which all his westerns deal with, never positive, full of death and despair. Violence a trademark of the director is very much their, with an absence more so of the slow-motion which is held restrained for stable scenes, to mark the passage of time, something that is growing ever more between the past and the present for him.
- Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973) ** (1001moviesblog.blogspot.co.uk)
- Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (nothingiswrittenfilm.blogspot.co.uk)
- Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (wondersinthedark.wordpress.com)
- Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973) (buddiesinthesaddle.blogspot.co.uk)
- 1973: Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (Sam Peckinpah) (goodfellamovies.blogspot.co.uk)
With a very distinctive visual style and portrayal of violence, I knew I was in for something both beautiful and gloriously violent. That’s not to say that Sam Peckinpah enjoyed violence for which he will always be remembered for, in fact it was quite the opposite, hating it with a passion. Increasing the volume greatly from The Wild Bunch (1969) which can seem tame in comparison to the much later Cross of Iron (1977) on the Nazi battlefield in Russia.
It’s very rare that we actually sympathise with a German soldier, something I have only done twice before; All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) and Das Boot (1981). Again it doesn’t really matter what side these soldiers are on, seen more as men in the midst of a war they are loosing. Focusing on their dynamics rather than the politics of the conflict as the began their retreat from Russia in 1943. The main conflict is between the decorated and rebellious Rolf Stiener (James Coburn) and the Prussian Captain Hauptmann (Maximilian Schell) who wants the Iron Cross medal, an iconic and sought after piece in the Third Reich. A personal fight for glory is being waged between two men. A clash of class ideals is going on between these influential men on the Russian front.
The opening titles of this film are fascinating, matched to a frantic succession of images that depict the rise to power of Hitler and the Nazi army, as if they are playing a game, just children taking over the playground. Tinged with cynicism of the weary soldier characterised by Coburn who gas grown to hate all that is about the war and probably Germany. Still he carries out his orders and looks out for his men throughout. Even pitying a young prisoner they find, not having the heart to kill a boy in uniform, which would amount to murder not a legal killing in his and the mens eyes.
Theres a battle within the structure of command, between the colonel Oberst (James Mason) and his assistant Captain Hauptmann (David Warner). Both weary of the war, knowing they have all but lost, wondering when they will surrender. Warner plays a depressed captain whose hopes have been all but lost to the ravages of war, whilst the colonel is holding together his command. Handling a glory hungry upper-class Prussian who will stop at nothing in gaining the Iron Cross, unable to return to his family without one.
A lot of subject matter is discussed here, from the ethics of prisoner treatment to the glory of fighting, philosophy of the individual. By no means is this just a find the enemy and shooter dead kind of a film. It’s both intelligent and thought-provoking as we see the injured soldier, how they are treated by the higher ranks, the mental stresses of war, dramatically seen in slow-motion flashbacks. Whichever side of war you are on, it’s never easy for the simple soldier out there fighting. Who can lose that sense of purpose, killing, running and following orders that lose all meaning with all the death and destruction around them.
The violence found within The Wild Bunch was for its time controversial, by the time of Cross of Iron we had grown used to it all. The very setting of the latter film delivers us more studies of death as they slowed down to not enjoy but be horrified by. Cinematically we see a life coming to an end in far more than a flash of an explosion or a round of bullets piercing flesh and blood. Being forced to see such brutality makes death a spectacle to watch in awe. It’s just a trick, whilst in reality it’s anything but. This heightened experience of war makes it more real and at the same time hype real, what is over in a second we now see for 10 seconds.
It’s ultimately about two men at logger heads, at either end of the social spectrum placed into a world that a power struggle. No one really wins as we leave them when the Russians once more advance. I’m cheering for no one at this point, drained by all the violence that has been spewing out of the screen. All the tired men just trying to live another day as best they can. Isn’t that we are all trying to do, get through the day the best we can, making the most of what we have? Ok maybe a bit extreme there, I’m not in a war zone not knowing if I’ll be alive by the end of the day. For me I’ve just discovered a hidden gem of Peckinpah’s that deserves more praise than it receives, understanding his subject matter, always following the underdog at his demise, just what he does best.
- Film Review: Cross of Iron, 1977: Directed by Sam Peckinpah starring James Coburn & Maximilian Schell
- Cross of Iron (misterneil.blogspot.co.uk)
- 0032 Cross of Iron (popcornnights.wordpress.com)
- #64 – CROSS OF IRON (warmoviebuff.blogspot.co.uk)
- Cross of Iron (nothingiswrittenfilm.blogspot.co.uk)
- Cross of Iron: Short of Greatness (swordofelysium.wordpress.com)
- Slow Motion in Sam Pekinpah’s Cross of Iron (ardfilmjournal.wordpress.com)
- World War II Marathon: Cross of Iron (1977) (billsmovieemporium.wordpress.com)