My first encounter with this film was on my birthday during the install of my degree show. I was recommended to watch it by a friend who knew I would like it. That’s an understatement, I loved it. My memory of High Plains Drifter (1973) has long since faded, all I could remember was the ghoulish red town and the whipping flash-backs which stay with you long after the credits have rolled. In terms of the western genre this has more in common with its Italian cousin, the spaghetti western which strictly speaking are not westerns, they have the form of the genre but don’t really have the language of the American full-breed which if I’m honest are less violent during their greatest period. The violence was exploited and amplified. Once you get over the dubbing of all but the American star of the film (Lee Van Cleef, Clint Eastwood et al.) you have this pumped up action film with more sex and violence than you’d have found to that point in the home of the genre. They didn’t carry the legendary status in the characters as subtly as Shane (1953), having built them up in the opening titles as these already fastest guns in the west-types such as Django (1966) where we are treated to another installment. Back home they’re stirred into action, not wanting to fight and draw their guns so easily, having more progression in the gunfighters.
Looking at Clint Eastwood’s influences his time with Sergio Leone strongly influenced him, the violence the stranger with no name, the anti-hero who you end up routing for comes out on top. His first western behind the camera he is still find his own unique voice, one he is adopting from the persona of the man with no name. The tone of Drifter is very European, its hard to sum up in a few sentences, the town looks freshly built, making it more become a backdrop that standout, it’s a newish town that is trying to sustain itself. Laying it’s foundations next to a lake that seems too close for comfort, suggesting it could all be washed away in stormy night. It all becomes very fragile. The town of Lago is actually another character that’s abused in the film (more about abuse later) which we see is transformed, blown up and eventually burnt down. Its part on the film is on some levels more important than the people who inhabit it.
Turning to the townspeople I’m reminded of Bad Day at Black Rock (1955) a town with a dark secret that is bubbling on the surface ready to spill over. Except we don’t have a strong replacement for the mean Robert Ryan who did actually scare the life out of Spencer Tracy (during filming) who was the outsider looking for the truth. The secrets a lot looser here as the film takes on more of a horror tone, Clint’s not giving us a straight Western, it’s a Western-Horror complete with flashbacks which you don’t really see in genre, that plague your mind. A sequence which is played out at least twice but feels a lot more in the mind. It’s the conscience of the town put on the screen.
There is also a strong influence of The Magnificent Seven (1960) or should I say more precisely The Seven Samurai (1954) a cowardly town turn here to one outsider (not seven) that is more dangerous than the men they have been home to for at least a year that have played host to that have just been killed. Except these are all Mexicans who are fighting off bandito’s, they are American citizens who should by rights be able to pick up a gun and fight without fear. They seen off the Mexicans and almost solved the “Indian problem“, why are they so afraid? They need Clint’s stranger who doesn’t really care for them at all. Which leads me back to the flashbacks which are very important in our understanding of who he is, or in fact was. He is not so much flesh and blood as he has ghostly presence, he knows more about the town than he lets on. I believe he is ghost of the whipped town Marshall Jim Duncan (Buddy Van Horn) who we see in versions of the same scene that we’re reminded off. It’s the reason that The Stranger is here, the reason the town’s scared of the men who will be riding back for revenge after a year in prison. We follow these men back, they are ruthless in their journey, killing for horses, clothes and fun, these are dangerous men for sure.
The Stranger’s presence in Lago shakes everything up, from his first hours he has raped a woman Sarah Belding (Verna Bloom) which is brutal to watch, yet filmed from the woman’s perspective a glimmer of what is to come from Unforgiven (1992) nearly 20 years later. As much as Eastwood is a feminist he wants to come across as the revengeful type who will take what he wants. Maybe this was Duncan’s lover, we just don’t know. We do know that she vocal in her experience to the law who simply want to pacify her modern views that wont be accepted until the next century. We don’t linger as much on the rape as we do in Eastwood’s later film which hinges on request of the prostitute who places a bounty on the man who disfigured her. From a lower position in society they are exerting more power than the men who want to keep both cases quiet. Ironically their next encounter is much more consensual after working his charm and danger, as if he has broken a horse in, now he simply has to ride it when he wants (yes I know it’s a poor analogy but suits the film).
Here in Lago having The Stranger in town is very much to their advantage who abuses that power. From the beginning he turns things on there head. With a free card to do as he please, have what he wants he makes the much small person Mordecai (Billy Curtis) the sheriff and mayor of the town, the butt of the jokes, is placed in the strongest position behind the stranger. He’s not there for comedy with Clint who wants to play with these people who are fighting themselves more than they had before. It’s chaos in Lago. In-fact Mordecai’s built up, from being this typically comedic role to one of great importance, he uses his position to abuse those who have given him s*** for years, now it’s his turn. He is also another way into the past of the town, he too has a connection to the late Marshall, which may lead to his role in the film being so prominent.
I could go on forever about this film there is a lot going on so I’m going to turn instead to the ending which once again got me thinking of another piece I could make in the future, as the town is literally painted red, bringing new meaning to the phrase, which ironically has roots in my home county of Leicestershire in the town of Melton Mowbray when the Marquis ran riot causing mayhem and literally painting the town red in places. This is too strong to be coincidence, turning the idea on its head so the townspeople are causing the mayhem, they are preparing themselves, practically inviting the trouble. Renaming the town Hell, which has move to the surface of the Earth. The town can be seen far quiet a distance now, in one uniform colour of bright fake-blood.
All brought about by Eastwood’s ghost which is more than just showing up the town. He is getting revenge on them all, luring them into a false sense of security before deaths unleashed upon them. The role of the gunfighter’s turned on its head, no longer is he the gun for hire or protector of the people he is using his position to induce fear and draw it from his own past. Could he be the devil as the film draws to a close, he rode literally out of nothing and back into nothing, as if the ghost can now rest peacefully knowing that he has settled his unfinished business. Eastwood early on is showing that the standard western has to change, with his Italian influences and the changing language of cinema. You could say this is more fun than the formulaic Western but that would be ignoring the level of violence and rape that goes on. He is definitely pushing the boundaries of what you can do with the genre which he is reshaping in his image.
- High Plains Drifter (1973) (westernsontheblog.blogspot.co.uk)
- High Plains Drifter as Social Commentary (thewesternwordslinger.blogspot.co.uk)
- High Plains Drifter (1973) (buddiesinthesaddle.blogspot.co.uk)
- Clint Eastwood’s film High Plains Drifter (1973) (tim-shey.blogspot.co.uk)
- High Plains Drifter (1973) (sonofcelluloid.blogspot.co.uk)
- High Plains Drifter (nothingiswrittenfilm.blogspot.co.uk)
- High Plains Drifter (1973) (commonsensemoviereviews.blogspot.co.uk)
- HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER (1973) (cinefilestv.blogspot.co.uk)
- High Plains Drifter (Universal, 1973) (jeffarnoldblog.blogspot.co.uk)
- High Plains Drifter (1973) (voyagesextraordinaires.blogspot.co.uk)
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)