Last year I wrote an unused Film Talk which I would like to share with you. A more in-depth look at a comic book hero – that draws closely to the Western genre. It’s a continuation of my exploration of the genre that my practice explores. Logan (2017) is one if the rare comic book films that I’ll actually sit down at watch. Partly because I grew up watching the TV show as a child. Also the film, much like Deadpool (2016 & 18) is far darker than the lighter MCU that has become so popular over the last decade. It’s easy to draw comparisons between the two genres, they touch at many points, Logan or Wolverine is a character that requires further examination.
Tonight I’d like to explore and share a passion of mine, the Western. Logan (2017), which can be read as a Western. Taking my original review of the film as a starting point I have explored and expanded by research to find richer connections to the film. I’ll be focusing on one aspect of the genre – the gunfighter. Looking a few key films – The Gunfighter (1950), Shane (1953) and Unforgiven (1992). Showing clips together with comparisons to Logan.
Historically gunfighter’s such as Billy the Kid, Jesse James and Younger gang, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’s Wild Bunch first reach notoriety due to the cheaply and mass-produced dime novel that first created the characters and situations that produced the folk-law, which Hollywood has used as source material since the birth of film.
The Gunfighter is in fact a 20th century creation post WWII taking two forms. “…in which professionalism in the arts of violence is the hero’s defining characteristic. These new takes on the Western were shaped by the internal logic of genre development, which fostered a certain kind of stylization of the Western and its hero and by the pressures and anxieties of the post-war/Cold War transition…The consonance between the formal character of the gunfighter Western and its ideological content is a genuinely poetic achievement. It gave the gunfighter films ideological and cinematic resonance and made heroic style of the gunfighter an important symbol of right and heroic actions for filmmakers, the public, and the nation’s political leadership.”
Gunfighter Nation – Richard Slotkin, Pg. 379-80
Using this thinking it’s easy to translate the loner gunfighter figure to the comic book universe – Wolverine or Logan who we’ve seen cinematically struggle with his position and circumstances as a mutant in the X-Men universe. Born in the 19th with his natural mutations – claws and healing are transformed in the 20th century by a Dr. Rice. His bony claws becomes Adamantinium a fictional metal that in turn creates the killing machine who has already learned to block out his violent past, the 20th century has transformed into a living Winchester rifle or Colt gun.
The film depiction of Wolverine has been seen on-screen and portrayed by Hugh Jackman since X-Men (2000) a character that has become a favourite among fans, relatable in terms of him being an outsider, unable to fit in with society or even those who he lives with – the X-Men. So almost 20 years later his story has now come full circle and has come to it’s natural end for both actor and character in Logan.
Set in the year 2029, we have avoided the apocalyptic future as depicted in Days of Futures Past (2014) where we last saw Logan. We find Logan is driving a limo under his birth name of James Howlett, he’s living and nursing his old mentor Charles Xavier who has a dementia which is only amplified with his mutant abilities; making an episode of confusion more devastating thanks to his telepathic and telekinetic abilities, which we see twice in the film. They are living over the border in Mexico, a common location in the Western for outlaws and gunfighter’s to hide out and escape the law. They are living with an albino – Caliban (Stephen Merchant) who we learn is a human sat-nav. Logan is in rough shape, he struggles to keep up with every passing battle, be it with humans or mutants. His time is slowly up, the ability to heal is starting to fail him.
Turning to the history of the gunfighter in the genre, we first see one depicted in
The Gunfighter. Played by Gregory Peck, Johnny Ringo is an obscure gunfighter found by the films writer Andre DeToth, who found him in Eugene Cunningham’s Triggernometry; A Gallery of Gunfighters (1934). There is little known about this outlaw apart from
“… a few vicious murders, a reputation for heavy drinking, and a couple of intriguing mysteries. He was said to have had a cultured manner (evidenced by an ability to quote Shakespeare) and to have been the scion of an aristocratic southern family ruined in the Civil War. He also died mysteriously, murdered, murdered by someone who gave him no chance to draw, and his draw, and his reputation was such that chief suspect bragged that he has done it.”
Gunfighter Nation – Richard Slotkin, – Pg. 383
This first set of clip’s comes from the beginning of The Gunfighter, Ringo’s played by arrives in a town saloon where he wants to find an old lover and mother to his son. He’s instantly recognised and comes with a built-in unwanted celebrity status. He just wants to keep a low profile, meet his kid and start his life over. And then we see Logan has stopped to buy some medication for Xavier, before meeting Pierce
We can see that Logan is still plagued by a fading celebrity status and hero-worship; Pierce another mutant with a robotic arm has done his research on him and is in awe of him.
The film is set in a future where it’s thought that no more Mutants have been born, so the genes are dying out, they are a dying race. Much like the gunfighter’s who are either being killed off or have been caught by the law that has been spreading West through the country. The gunfighter has been outmoded.
“The gunfighter enters the narrative already knowing that the Wild West’s promise of fame and power (or of redemption) is an illusion; that the vision of the Frontier as limitless in its possibilities for the personal and social perfection is a mirage; and that he himself has been rendered isolated and vulnerable by the very things that have made him victorious in the past”
Gunfighter Nation – Richard Slotkin, Pg. 390
We can see that Logan is very much like Ringo, there’s a short scene where he’s cleaning pus from off his claw, they aren’t functioning as well as they used to.
I mentioned earlier the film is set in a time of no new mutants, this is before the introduction of Laura, a genetically engineered child, born in the lab – by Transigen – a pharmaceutical company who have raised Laura and others for the purposes of developing and passing on the mutant genes to the wider population. She acts as a baton passing in the universe to carry on the Wolverine role. Logan has a hard time accepting their relationship. Laura being younger is naturally far stronger, agile and full of rage like her father has.
She brings her a number of X-Men comics, a self referential tool that connect us to the roots of the wider marvel universe and the creation of Western legend. The superhero equivalent of the dime novel, which I’ll touch on later.
About half way through the film Logan, Laura and Xavier are on the run from Transigen. They are in a hotel room, a classic passing place in the Western. Where by chance (or directors choice) to find Shane is on TV. It’s commented on a few times during those short scenes, given emphasis and lines even raised at the end of the film.
To see how Shane operates in Logan we need to discuss the code that a gunfighter and by extension Logan has tried to live by. For Shane (Alan Ladd) he has chosen to live by this code and so has his counterpart Wilson (Jack Palance) at the final showdown
“The exchange between Shane and Wilson is formal and stylized, and both men appear conscious that they are going through a familiar, predictable, even trite, but nonetheless essential, ritual.”
Gunfighter Nation – Richard Slotkin, Pg. 399
Firstly they both respect each other as gunfighter’s, giving each other proper chance, not much time but the chance to draw their guns before attempting to kill each other. The would only do so facing each other. As Westerns have taught us, it’s frowned upon to shoot in the back, or whilst the others unarmed. Lastly they only fight with just cause, Shane has no personal debt to take up Wilson, it take an insult to finally goad him into action. Then Shane can kill him, freeing the homesteaders and farmers to live in peace and not fear Ryker (Emile Meyer) and his men. Logan has attempted to live by a code, one instilled by his mentor Xavier who wanted to fight when only necessary and to pick your fights wisely.
Returning to the X-Men comics, which are the universes dime novels. Superheroes are living in the same era as the publication, much like Buffalo Bill, although he worked with the writers to build and establish his own legend that formed the myth of the West.
“…in a Ned Buntline dime novel published in 1869 and stage melodrama that premiered in 1871. [William] Cody has already acquired a word of mouth reputation as an excellent scout and hunting guiding, but after 1869 his newly acquired dime-novel celebrity made his name familiar to a national audience while linking it with spectacular and utterly fictitious adventures”
Gunfighter Nation – Richard Slotkin Pg. 69
The X-Men comics contain a myth that Laura buys into, believing that the coordinates in one of the issues are real for a place called Eden in North Dakota. Borrowing directly from that universe to inform the film. Logan tries to explain to the young girl out the truth behind these comics.
The dime novel writer does play a minor role in the screen Western, usually sitting on the side-lines of the films events. Talking to the gunfighter and others in between the shoot-outs. Usually a small guy with glasses and would never carries a gun, his weapon of choice is his pen, and the words he writes. A strong example of writer can be found in Unforgiven, is W.W. Beauchamp played by Saul Rubinek. We see him taking notes from Little Bill Daggett – Gene Hackman of how fact and fiction of an event differ. He has to wait for the troubled gunfighter William Munny – Clint Eastwood the personification of the genre.
These next clips see Beauchamp learning the truth about English Bob (Richard Harris) whose in jail after refusing to handover his guns. Whilst in Logan, the reality of the comic books being demystified to Laura
Munny is much like Logan in that they have tried to give up that part of their life to function as a family man. Logan is still plagued by the effect of the violence he has inflicted on others. Munny can’t really remember as he was usually drunk at the time of his killings. Whilst Logan tries to repress those memories and the emotions connected to them. Here he is confronted with a blurred mythologised version of his own life story. When Munny is faced with his first killing in years he is very rusty and not engaged in the act of killing from the outset.
“A shot of Munny with the barrel in the foreground and foreshadows his eventual decision to take decisive and deadly action…Ned pleads that he cannot shoot the prone boy and Munny stretches towards the front of the frame and grabs the gun…he has crossed the line into the world of violence.”
Film as Genre – John Sanders – Pg. 64
The tired gunfighter is mirrored in the two fights between Logan and 23 – the genetically engineered mutant – based on Logan’s DNA, a far superior, younger, stronger version of the aging Logan who we see struggling to keep up, regenerate and fight. Lets see both fights in these clips.
The classic Western went out of it’s way to mythologise the West, it’s history and sell it to the audience. The modern Revisionist Westerns such as Unforgiven and Logan wanted to demystify that myth, however by the close of Logan it deviates from the to reinforces it’s own myth. The comic books are based more on reality than Logan gives them credit. The printed legend has become fact.
Lastly I’d like to take a look at the bloody fight between Logan and 23 on the North Dakota and Canadian border. Logan has taken a full dose of a drug that increases his performance, he’s pumped up with man-made adrenaline. It works to a point, his own fragility soon returns, nature has won out ultimately. Again looking at Unforgiven, Munny switches from old family man to bloody thirsty killer.
“He’s back in the mode of mayhem. And he doesn’t care. He’s his old self again, at least for the moment. He doesn’t miss a beat while he loads his rifle and talks to the journalist. Before, he’s been very rusty, having trouble getting on his horse, he wasn’t shooting very well. He wasn’t nailing people with the first shot. Now, when he goes on this suicidal mission, he’s all machine. He not only coldly murders Daggett at point-blank range but he shoots some bystanders with no more compunction than someone swatting a fly.”
Eastwood – Interview
Ride, Boldly Ride – Mary Lea Bandy & Kevin Stoehr – Pg 264
It takes a killing of his friend to cross that line into his violent past. For Logan it’s the survival of a younger generation and a paternal instinct towards Laura. Both men are driven by primal and personal urges.
With every gunfight there are deaths, but rarely the hero, Logan is buried and read over by Laura, reciting a Shane’s goodbye speech to Joey. It’s a little broken but the message remains in tact; that leading a violent life can only lead to a lonely life, one away from society and those you love.
Logan heavily relies on rich lineage of cinematic and printed history to say goodbye to one of the most iconic Marvel characters – Wolverine. Through the films and comic books we have seen a tortured man, who has generated an aura of celebrity status in some circles. Much like the Wild West gunfighter whose skill with a gun raises him to a position of awe and wonderment – a celebrity which comes at a great cost
“The existence of his profession is in itself an implicitly hard-boiled commentary on the nature of American society; and the psychic isolation his profession begets gives the gunfighter the alienated perspective he needs to articulate such a critique: What sort of society is it in which those who have money can hire a killer? And what kind of people are we, that our strong men find such work to their liking? But more important than his critical function is the gunfighters embodiment of the central paradox of America’s self image in an era of Cold War “subversion,” and the thermonuclear balance of terror; our sense of being at once supremely powerful and utterly vulnerable, politically dominant and yet helpless to shape the course of critical events.”
Gunfighter Nation – Richard Slotkin – Pg 383
I’ve been waiting to catch the Japanese remake of Unforgiven (1992), wondering how it would compare, which I can’t help but do. On the face of it these two films are the same in terms of the basic plot, the three men who ride into avenge a prostitute has been attacked. There is however more added depth to Unforgiven/Yurusarezaru mono (2013) with the added strand of their countries civil war between the now samurai and Shoshon in the 1860’s, which mirrors the American civil, I don’t remember that in Eastwoods western at all. (However I haven’t seen it in 4 years) which gives the characters more of a back-story, not just gunfighters who left a trail of death and destruction in their wake. Much the same goes for the two elder men Jubei Kamata (Ken Watanabe) and Kingo Baba (Akira Emoto) who start out on one last job in hopes of collecting the reward money. Something that Jubei has long since given up since his days of killing to survive. To raise a family and work a small farm. You could say on the surface that he is a changed man who is simply struggling to keep his family alive in the 1880’s. Whilst Kingo is willing to go on one more job.
With Jebei’s wife long dead he soon gives into his friends persuasive words, riding out a while later. Its still very much the same film, switching 19th century America for Japan, its’s that simple. Of course the dialogue is different, at times I can’t read the subtitles as some bright spark decided to make them white in a font that becomes invisible in the snow. Moving on we soon meet up with a younger man who wants to join up with the veteran swords men, ready for another killing. Even his back story is fleshed out more, finding out he is a Anui a race that the then Emperor was trying to reduce, much like the taming of the Native American over the other side of the Pacific.
Add into the mix the small town where all the action takes places we have the sherif who exerts more power than necessary. Using violence to quell violence. Much younger than Gene Hackman‘s Little Bill Daggett who mirrored by the far younger sherif who doesn’t care who he hurts, using the law to shield himself. Whilst the group of prostitutes are struggling to be listened to. You could say it’s a feminist film, but I’m not too sure, as much as there women are willing to defend themselves, they still pay for men to do the dirty work. They are hiding behind the strength of a man and his gun/sword.
I think to really compare both films I need to re-watch the original Eastwood classic to truly understand what is going on. I think there was a conscious effort to make this version stand alone, whilst the main story elements are the same, it would;t be the same without the final showdown which was shaken up and completely different. I didn’t feel the terror at the transformed man, maybe it was the snow that soften it, not as dramatic as the rain on the soaked ground. Again I have to see for myself. It was however interesting to see once more the relationship between American and Japanese cinema. Before it was Kurosawa‘s Yojimbo (1961) and Seven Samurai (1954), who influenced Sergio Leone and John Sturges The compliment is being returned from Clint Eastwood by Sang-il Lee.
Moving onto or backwards to the original as directed by Clint Eastwood I found myself understanding both in greater detail and his own observations of the western as a genre, how it formed. The violence of the west and the gunfighter which has recently seen his latest film American Sniper (2014) becoming the most successful war film of all time (probably to be beaten later his year). Focusing always on the man behind the violence, not the act itself, what drives man/person to act in such a brutal and dangerous way toward others. Scaring those around you, in order to have power, dominance, material wealth, and self-confidence.
When a man gives up that violence as we find with both Jubei and William Munny they are tamed by wires who have died by the time we meet them. Now a shadow of their former self’s, trying to do good by their family. Before we have seen the lone gunfighter’s come into town, not looking for a fight, always walking into it by the films end. Which happens here in great style. And in great tradition of the aged gunfighter Eastwood carries that on, in his last western role, becoming then too old to really so it justice. I can see strokes of El Dorado (1966), The Gunfighter (1950) and The Shootist (1976) they are no longer the young men they once were, struggling to get on a horse or even walk without some ailment holding them back. Time is their only true enemy. Munny is no longer able to shoot straight without changing weapon at least once.
The legend of the gunfighter and the west itself it question the form of travelling writer/biographer W.W. Beauchamp (Saul Rubinek) who arrives with English Bob (Richard Harris) one of the last great gunfighter’s who legend is bigger than himself. A status constructed by the writer and a lot of creative license to mythologize the untamed west, glorifying a man to become more than his actions. Creating a history that sells to the masses, attracting tourism and money. The very foundations of the genre, which can sometimes be based more on fact if in the right hands. Beauchamp spends most of his time discussing the events of English Bob’s gunfights with Daggett who puts the writers book to shame, the truth behind the legend which. The facts are sometimes harder to swallow than fictions. We discover that the man now in jail had only survived so long was down to pure luck Drawing your gun first was never a sure way to win a gunfight, it takes skill and thinking to win at a draw. Draw your gun first as your aim is not always right, giving the other a chance. Add to that the alcoholic element for Bob who is painted in a far darker insidious light, is more malicious in his killings. Not the brave man who saved the day, more of a lucky drunk who could’t stop shooting. The skill of the gunfighter in the pages of dime novels or the screen is a romanticised vision of an age of survival; kill or be killed.
This is also a macho trait which we find in the youngest of the two men in ride with Munny to avenge the prostitute. The ‘Schofield Kid’ (Jaimz Woolvett) creates his own legend, first recruiting Munny to join him on what could be an adventure, a quick job that itself had been blown out of proportion. Stating that he has killed 5 men before they start even begin, knowing his youth is holding him back to match Munny’s record which is never really totted up. A very masculine trait to “big” yourself up to look and feel better, reputation is a very important part of masculinity. This doesn’t wash with Munny who eventually joins up with on friend Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman) who then all join up. I can see even at the start, the subtle changes that were made between this and the Japanese remake to have its own identity, to not just be a scene for scene copy unlike I Died a Thousand Times (1955) which allows it to be the same in terms of structure whilst having its own identity, its own culture.
Both have these built-in myths of past fighters, with swords or guns who have had great battles which have been constructed around the events which were probably bloody and full of horror, alcohol, and fear. If you deconstruct both films down to their main points we have a male figure who has lead a violent life, which has a built in legend and reputation that others have built up and admired. Without the facts to hand we have no idea what really happened, the trauma, the horror, more importantly the shame they now carry with them. I remember from my first review a few years back of the Eastwood original I focused on how the violence in a man can be tamed or even suppressed, able to reform. Until it’s triggered we don’t know how dangerous we can still. Eastwood’s gunfighter will always be more terrifying cinematically, probably because I am a great western fan than of samurai which is almost equal in its horror of the slaughter of the men. The changing of the end is what I was most critical of, going for the sherif first was a wrong footing, the main villain is always killed last.
Whatever these two films are, they do carry on that great tradition of that American/Japanese cinematic relationship of informing each others story telling. Showing the western is not dead and both countries have very different but similar histories which at the heart of human. All cultures create legends out of historical figures from moments they would sooner forget.
- Unforgiven (2013) (disasteryear20xx.blogspot.co.uk)
- Unforgiven (2013, Japanese) (yacowar.blogspot.co.uk)
- Unforgiven (1992) (rogersworst.blogspot.co.uk)
- Sound in Unforgiven (1992) (tdf165.wordpress.com)
- 4. Unforgiven (1992) (maltinsworstratings.blogspot.co.uk)
- Unforgiven (1992) (haksreviews.blogspot.co.uk)
- Unforgiven (1992) (coffeebeancinema.blogspot.co.uk)
- Unforgiven (1992) (unitedstatesofcinema.blogspot.co.uk)