Posts tagged “Stagecoach

The Hallelujah Trail (1965)


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.

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Dodge City (1939)


Seen as an important early Western as the genre began to find its feet as Hollywood was starting to accept the genre to be taken seriously. All due to John Ford‘s Stagecoach that took not only a chance with a genre which had taken on the form of period epics of the Victorian era, such as Gunga Din (1939) and Charge of the Light Brigade (1936). All the basic elements that were refined in the silent era were recycled and reshaped as legends waiting to be retold. So with Stagecoach blowing the dust off the boots and spurs, the reins tightly held in place, the hat sitting a top the gunfighters head, the guns loaded once more, studios had to wake up and react to what was the rebirth of the Western. Warner Brothers delivered Dodge City (1939) in reaction to the tightly written multifaceted drama of misfits and outsiders, with bursts of exciting action.

I have been aware of this film for a few years, but never really took it seriously, it was only when I read about it in Gunfighter Nation – Richard Slotkin I had to get hold of the film and watch it. With stronger foundations of how the history of the West was written and perceived at the time – the Myth of conquest’s seen here in terms of progress, the United States on the up after the Depression.

The film opens up in spectacular and very idealised. A steam train pounding freshly laid tracks that are about to meet at the join between the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads, complete with the nailing of the golden spike being hammered in completing the line. Before we see the that much forgotten, much passed spike there is a really nice piece of golden age Western cinema, a race between a stagecoach and a steam train. Nature vs. technology, progress out racing what has gone before. Its breathtaking to watch and daring to capturing on film, fair enough there was some camera trickery with the help of a rear-projection, however you can see that it was carefully staged, pushing both horses and the train out on location. You could imagine such ill-fated races occurring all over the country, as riders wanted to prove their relevance in an ever-changing country. Ultimately the train wins the race as it makes its way to the unnamed towns of wheels that have followed the lines production.  All of this celebration even before we have met Wade Hatton (Errol Flynn) in his first western role, a position that actors were all getting ready assume and have fun with in the coming decades, at this point it’s all still to come.

We meet him at his two sidekicks Algernon ‘Rusty’ Hart (Alan Hale) and Tex Baird (Guinn ‘Big Boy’ Williams) out near free-roaming buffalo, acknowledging the effect of their hunting on Native American’s, which leads him to lead a sheriff straight to Jeff Surrett (Bruce Cabot) and his henchmen who are too casual about it all. Of course there is little that can be done without a jail or a court, law is still a few years off reaching this part of the world, it’s an idea that can be easily escaped on horseback. Hatton is not yet ready to assume the role of law. He’s far happier wandering from job to job, bringing with him his own legend, originally from Ireland, fighting in Cuba, before the Civil War, he’s lived quite the life before hunting buffalo for the railroad. A life that most audiences would be envious of, to those around him its hard to believe they are standing in his presence, he’s a living legend whose about to write a few more pages.

It’s very easy to draw comparisons between Watton and film versions of Wyatt Earp, which I will draw upon later. Before he takes up the badge he has to live his own life before living in the cause of others. Whilst he’s off the town of newly named Dodge is thriving and growing, seen through a humorous and rambunctious montage that depicts numerous saloons, bars, dance halls, this is a boomtown that is really brought to life for a minute or so. We see some of the footage used again, probably a last-minute creative addition which doesn’t detract from the film, however without you wouldn’t see a town in a state of such rapid growth and social collapse. The violence depicted has now become cliché but was brand new at the time of release. With all the violence going in it takes the elders, the businessmen of the town to come together to reach out to Watton to leave his job behind and tame Dodge City.

Watton is already having to tame those who he’s working with, a wagon train and cattle drive combined – not much is made of the wagon train, with more emphasis on the effect that a drunkard is having on the cattle Lee Irving (William Lundigan) trigger happy is unaware of his actions, it takes a near death stampede and a shoot or be shot decision to stop him dead. Watton is the reluctant killer who in turn horrifies Lee’s sister Abbi (Olivia de Havilland) who sees only a killer not a peaceful man doing the right thing. Protecting everyone around him, making the hard decisions that others aren’t prepared to. This decision-making is soon applied to Dodge City after chaotic barroom brawl that leads to Rusty nearly being hanged by Sturrett. It’s an act that Watton can’t be ignored. He has to assume the role of law which was taken on and abused by Sturrett. Bringing me back to the Wyatt Earp connection, a reluctant lawman whose brought out of retirement to slowly bring Dodge in line with the rest of the country, wanting to be civilised as the East. Bringing back settlers who we learn had been leaving in their droves before. He single handidly transforms the town into a safe, profitable and safe place to live, gun control and a shed load of laws which we see going to the extreme at times.

I have to mention the role of Abbie Irving who began as a grieving woman to taking on a prominent role at the local paper. Yes its the women’s gossip column, but its a woman in the work place, communicating with the community. She’s not a woman to be walked all over, not even Watton until he has won her heart somethings never change. Looking at the other “prominent role” by Ann Sheridan as barroom singer Ruby Gilman whose connected to Sturrett, but her character is not really developed to be of any real consequence or danger to Watton who doesn’t even meet her. That’s the only real flaw in a Western that is brimming at the seams with ideas that are either explore or enjoyed. It’s having a lot of fun, you can see cast all are, and all in technicolor too, creating some classic imagery that has been repeated ever since.

Looking back at the film over a day later I can see a film with so much to talk about, I could be writing for days, I hope I have pinned down some of the main ideas of transformation, progress as well as the division still there after the civil war. The country maybe reunited politically and geographically the links are getting tighter by the passing of the years. Socially and lawfully there’s still away to go. Dodge City is one of the lesser known classics today, yet made during that incredible year of 1939 which transformed the medium and the genre, it can’t be forgotten.

 


Stagecoach (1966)


Stagecoach (1966)This is one remake I have been avoiding for sometime, I’m not sure anyone who attempts to remake a John Ford western is going to succeed. There was news a few months ago that The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) is being remade and set in the 198o’s, that’s an interesting twist. There have been many films compared to The Searchers, (1956) however they are not remakes as we find with Stagecoach (1966) which was released 27 years after the original that changed the face of cinema. Thought to not only influence Citizen Kane (1941), it revitalised the genre and lastly launched the career of John Wayne who’d been stuck in a rut of b-movies for the best part of the 1930’s, he even made a few after its release – contractually.

You can’t apply the same effect to the genre or the medium of film to the remake which admittedly does expand on the film. Much like remakes of 3:10 to Yuma (2007) and True Grit (2010), I’m waiting to see how The Magnificent Seven compares now. I must confess it has been a few years since I’ve seen the original 1939 Stagecoach which was as much about making the genre more appealing to an adult audience. Bringing together social misfits or outsiders into a confined space, a vehicle on a dangerous route in the open untamed West. It was ultimately the perfect showcase for John Wayne, still baby-faced he personified a young independent America standing up for itself, playing Ringo Kid a role that was given to him by Ford – “Pappy” who had been waiting to give him the right part at the right time. He was redeemed from years of working the circuit of formulaic westerns that had no room for either story or character development. They were the training ground that saw him grow and form the character he would then play until 1976, a 50 year career.

I can’t feel the same effect in the remake with Alex Cord who fills the role in terms of stature at least, there are times where he’s definitely trying to break free of the Dukes even taller shadow. In terms of the walk and tone of his delivery. His entrance into the film is not the event that we found in 1939, the cockiness of the gun play, as he stands in the road is replaced by sitting at the side of the road for the stagecoach to reach him, not that he’s waiting for them, they are both opportunist in that respect.

What makes this interpretation stand apart is the longer running time, at nearly 2 hours allowing for more development with all of the characters, making for a richer film in that respect. I say allowing I feel its a missed chance with some characters, they do have more screen time, however its given more to Dallas (Ann-Margret) who has more of a back story. Rumoured to be the cause of few brawls in the town, not just a typical prostitute that Claire Trevor played and pushed out by the Law and Order League, its more about cleaning up the town to keep the general crime rate. She feels cursed by the legacy of death. Another characters whose drawn well is the doctor, this time played by Bing Crosby taking over Thomas Mitchell‘s role who you can’t forget, so full of life. Both actors of the same generation we meet an older doctor in Crosby, unshaven atypical drunk in appearance, however he plays a drunk doesn’t try to give up the drink. Mitchells knows he has a demon, he delivers a baby sober and celebrates that. Crosby’s is looking for the next drink all the time.

Of course you can’t have a straight copy, or it wouldn’t be a film in its own right. Making the conscious decision to not film in Monument Valley which is John Ford country, to shoot there would be a bold move. Instead sticking to more traditional landscape, which makes for a more traditional western. What we do have which is practically a like for like swap is the stagecoach driver Buck, originally Andy Devine took the reins, a loud and large figure who was regular for Ford, with Slim Pickens we have another loud character actor who made an impression on his films.

What makes this film stand apart is the larger screen time of the Apache’s lead by Geronimo are more than just rumour, we see them at the beginning of the film attacking the U.S. cavalry. There is no rolling prologue to set-up the film. Geronimo is not really mentioned and they are still the faceless, nameless enemy of the genre. I’m not critiquing that here though, more a comment in terms of the films comparison. The gunfight’s are well choreographed make for a more fearsome other who attacks the white for no reason more than they are Apache. Which oddly makes up for the lack of Monument Valley and Ford.  I do however wish they hadn’t re-staged Ringo jumping through the horses. It wasn’t as grand a set-piece, used more as a means to get the stagecoach through.

The problem is that for me Stagecoach is an iconic film, to remake it’s going to be a sensitive thing to do. Getting it right, this is a star-filled piece, well semi star-filled anyway. It’s longer, darker in some respect but overall a looser film that is conscious of the shadow that is hanging over this modern piece of Wild West folklore that he it hopes to meet at some point. I am actually now considering seeking out the Johnny Cash version, made 20 years later, just to see how the story translates and transforms over time. It does still confine outcasts into the one small and dangerous vehicle, but the chemistry has not been replicated successfully.


The Deadly Companions (1961)


The Deadly Companions (1961)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.

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Citizen Kane (1941) Revisited


Citizen Kane (1941)This is one review I never thought I’d be ever writing up. Theres a few reasons really behind why i had to get around my dislike for Citizen Kane (1941) which was recently overtaken by Vertigo (1958) in the BFI’s latest Sight and Sound greatest films of all time poll, made by a whole host of directors, critics and other esteemed film folk. After 50/60 years of being  on-top Orson Welles‘s masterpiece was overthrown by Alfred Hitchcock voyeuristic private detective thriller. At the end of the day all these polls are incredibly subjective, the IMDB Top 250 poll is changes constantly, we have The Shawshank Redemption (1994) currently in the top-spot, the only definitive classic from the “golden age” in the top ten is 12 Angry Men (1957) and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966). Of course we do have The Godfather Parts 1 and 2 completing the top 3. It’s always varying. Probably influenced this time if year by the awards season.

Putting all that aside to focus on why I wasn’t really enamoured by the “greatest film of all time” I found it at the time of first viewing to be self-indulgent. I could easily see its technical achievements which lead to film noir in the following decade. I was watching it to see what all the fuss was about, not looking into what was going on in terms of story telling and the technical combined, Something I have since rectified, understanding it to be both innovative in terms of both aspects. Welles coming from radio stardom on the other side of the country with his realistic telling of War of the Worlds, he had a natural flair for story telling which Hollywood had to have. On strict conditions set down by the man himself, no outside interference from the studio, his choice of actors and production team, very much a crafted piece of work that pushed the boundaries. With a little help from Stagecoach (1939) which he referenced, I think I now need to watch that to see the connections.

History lesson over and onto the opening shot which was a number of transitions that leads the audience into the Xanadu home of tycoon Charles Foster Kane (Welles) who we see in his final moments of life, his last words begin a journey back through his life, a journalist investigates the importance of that last word, something we all begin to want to know. A new way of storytelling is born, retrospectively looking at the life of a fictional characters who was larger than life, even larger than the man Kane was “based upon” William Randolph Hearst turning him into caricature, a man who wanted to loved by all he knew, without loving anyone really himself. The story of a sad man who made it big before losing his media empire.

All this is made even more real with a fictional news reel that pardon the pun reels you into this world that is entirely constructed for the film. This is where you could say its self indulgent, to bathe in the glory of what this man was, before realising that the great man in the news reel was a fallible man who appeared more successful. We no longer see the powerful figures in films as these great indestructible people. They are now full of faults like everyone else.

On the technical side there is also a lot going on, from the dissolves that take us into his life, intruding into his own life. To the set design which is more elaborate than many films of the previous decade to this. Welles creates world that is so grand in scale that you are taken, losing yourself to the high angles and stretched out pieces that go on endlessly. Incredibly theatrical in design allowing for a grand figure to be explored, pulled apart and put back together again. Leaving a reporter still none the wiser as to what Rosebud means. Only the audience is allowed to know that secret as the evidence as the life of Kane is burnt.

It’s easy to say it’s just a comment on the media, how it has the power in influence world events, or even local ones. It’s so much more really, a new form of narrative is born, techniques are crafted. I would now say it’s an important film to say the least, but not the most important film, I guess that will always evade me, they are all so different, with their own strengths and weaknesses. Kane indulges on Kane, a look into the life of a man who wants what we all want love in the form of a fictional biography.

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Hombre (1967) Revisited


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

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

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

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

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

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

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Open Range (2003) Revisited


A few years ago I found Open Range (2003) whilst I was just discovering the western genre, my final year at art-school, I was eager to explore beyond the classic genre, knowing that it starred both Robert Duvall and Kevin Costner both synonymous with the genre. My first reaction to my first viewing of this film was more negative than positive, the pastoral image of the open country that greets us at the start of the film is soon lost to an adult western. And that’s thinking that Stagecoach (1939) was adult, that’s considering it was released over 60 years earlier, the genre has grown up for its time, now here’s another take on a tried and tested plot that allows for more adult cowboys to stand up and be heard. No longer is this a young man’s game.

I think also having watching a few more westerns in between, being able to return to films I first sniffed at has helped a growing maturity that has allowed me to go back to a film that I was considering selling my copy on eBay (glad I didn’t by the way). Also reading more about the genre has opened my mind to what it’s all about, the myth of conquest originally, the birth of a new nation filled with hopes, dreams and all the danger that came with it.

Returning to the pastoral location of the west we find four men, two running the cattle outfit and two hired hands, grazing their cattle on land that is the property of cattle baron Denton Baxter (Michael Gambon) who practically owns the law and the town, trying to run these men off his land. So far it’s nothing new really, yet its the older men pushing each other around, each set in their ways, It’s only when the hired hands Mose and Button  (Abraham Benrubi  are caught in the middle, making the quarrel personal, its time to sort things out once and for all.

The remaining men ride back into town, stopping at the doctor’s house, home also to Sue Barlow (Annette Bening) who nurses the young Button. Leaving the two men to in town, revenge and justice is now on their minds. We have to wait the rest of the film for the final showdown which is indeed worth the wait, filled with personal exploration of both Boss Spearman (Duvall) and Charley Waite (Costner) more-so Waite a former civil war solider suffering from Post traumatic stress disorder, a condition that was not to be first diagnosed until well into the next century, dealt in 1800’s America with understanding from a gravelly older partner, something that would more likely have been met with bottling up your emotions and carrying on. Becoming more dangerous with a few guns strapped to his belt.

Its Spearman and Sue’s combined input that allows Charley to start to put to rest his demons before entering into a showdown I’ve not seen the likes of since Pale Rider (1985) and Tombstone (1993) within a more accurate frontier town that sees the townspeople rise up and support the classic stranger see that all men are treated with respect. A long yet not drawn out gun battle, feeling the right length for an all out gunfight. A classic delivery that last far longer than your average 5 minutes before gaining the towns respect.

Open Range is far more than I thought it was, a slow western that is too complex, when it needs to be complex to support a maturer cast who we can see need more than a love interest and wrong doing to see this film through. There is a love of the genre that is woven into the film, from the design of the town, to the cinematography of the landscape. Lead actors who have grown up in the genre, Duvall having been part of the dying classic to its present form. Whilst Costner has breathed new life and energy into a genre that has been tired at time.

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The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970)


The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970)It’s taken me too long to get around to watching The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970) I don’t know why really either, not knowing what it was really about until I thought, just stick it on, sit back and relax. And relax I did as another turn of the century Sam Peckinpah western unfolded. A more gentle affair from a director known for his bloody violence that will always be associated with him, which overlooks the rest of his work. which includes this. 

A man who is left to die has to go on a journey that begins with survival and revenge becomes so much more when he Cable Hogue (Jason Robards) finds  what he has prayed for the last few days, dehydrated and desperate for salvation. Not really a religious man he turns to God, who is directed towards the water that he has been praying for. Leading him once back into civilization and financial success in the form of a stagecoach station that he hopes to construct. Taking the opportunity to reap what he has been given.

This gift of water is something he isn’t so easy to give away, charging everyone at first just drink from it, costing one man his life and a philandering preacher man Joshua (David Warner) an uneasy hand in friendship.

It seems whatever Hogue has to do gain respect and trust he has a fight on his hand, with the little he has he later reaps from those who love him. Especially one prostitute Hildy (Stella Stevens) who he sees so much hope and love in, he will go to the other side of the Earth for her. Who we are first introduced to in most masculine way, that is forever burned in the viewers mind. We are seeing a flawed and imperfect man who wants to make his mark, to be known by a few.

The majority of the film takes place in the stagecoach station/stop, as people come and go. A light sweeping piece of film, but remains true to the genre of the wild west. Peckinpah is more comfortable, playing with the fabric of the film, manipulating its speed for comic effect, which today could be seen as dated, yet works for the film that doesn’t take itself to seriously. And when it does, its graceful in showing the passing of time, through a musical number of the overlapping of images, he wants us to be lost in what made the western so great, always returning to the stagecoach, which was the first real form of travel for the masses, and first updating the genre in Stagecoach (1939). Fleshing out the drivers of the vehicle, mainly in the form of Slim Pickens that clearly references the original driver from Stagecoach’s Andy Devinethe overweight and grumpy but loveable driver.

I felt there was a need for Peckinpah to respond to the earlier film The Misfits (1961) that saw the death of the cowboy from the modern world perspective. In Hogue it’s a chance to see this at a much earlier date, when a stronger romantic air was around. We have a group of character who don’t fit into society, not wanting to conform to the ways of civilization until they really are forced to in their own ways. The introduction of the automobile scares those who have not seen it, a greater danger than before to be reckoned with.

Lastly there is a re-teaming of Strother Martin and L.Q. Jones who were the comic relief in The Wild Bunch (1969) that were brought back into different characters, but very much the same on the surface. Very much in the steps of John Ford and his stock company of actors who played similar roles in numerous films, a gesture is being made in his direction. And the real test of the man for Hogue who at the beginning was stranded alone in the desert by these two. They test each others strength as men, and in the end Hogue is the stronger man for waiting for them to return, having learnt a lot over the duration of the film. Whilst the double act learn when to give up and accept their place. Before a low-key and poignant end to the film that sums up where we have come from and now to.


Vertigo to the Top


Kim Novak - Vertigo (1958)The news that Alfred Hitchcock’s classic thriller Vertigo (1958) has been voted the greatest film of all time, the first time in 50 years, knocking the “impressive” Citizen Kane (1941) off the top spot for the first time. I’m guessing it hasn’t fallen far from its top spot. This is the first time the fall has occurred in the 50 years since the poll was first run, starting in 1952 and ran every ten years. Times have changed since the last vote in 2002.

I have never really seen the appeal to Citizen Kane, I can see the technical sophistication of the film, how it has influence the visual style. Orson Welles himself is noted for referring to another of my favourite directors John Ford, watching Stagecoach (1939) over and over, learning from another master of cinema. The narrative is retrospective melodrama of a newspaper mogul that leans of the self-indulgence of the director, that translates into the main character.

However it’s thought today that style is no longer more important than substance, something that is lacking in film today. Audiences today want more introspective films that explore the inner workings of the mind. Our drives and desires. Hitchcock maybe been unable to garner the praise he deserved in his lifetime, that just how it is for great works, and those who produce them, Their value increases with the passing of time. We can revisit and start to understand and unpick the films. Vertigo was his most personal film, knowing exactly what he wanted in front of the camera.

With the BFI‘s current retrospective of the auteurs work has allowed for film fans who appreciate Hitchcock’s back catalogue with a sense of respect and awe. Around 50 classics that stand the test of time. And that’s the very definition of a classic, having a conscious or unconscious effect on culture, and the work that follows that is in turn influenced work of others.

This news is an indication as the direction as to where films must now go, the internal struggles of the individuals coupled with spectacular in the next ten years. Films such as the recent Batman trilogy and Inception (2010) both by Christopher NolanAt the other end of the scale we have work by the unpredictable but highly entertaining Coen Brothers. Whilst at the other end of the spectrum we have the likes of the highly imaginative and controversial David Lynch and Cronenberg who push the boundaries of the form and fabric of film. Whilst directors like Steven Speilberg produce the blockbusters that entertain the soul with emotion and spectacle, that doesn’t mean he is the best director, none of his films feature in the top 50.

I noticed also that a number of silent films are featured in the top 50, that could be influence by the success of The Artist (2011). We cannot deny the increasing access to DVDs that are bringing silent films and those not so old come back into our awareness. DVD sales have definitely boosted since they arrived at the turn of the century. DVDs are more accessible that its predecessor the VHS which degrades with time. The falling prices of classics and the content they contain on as little as once disc is more than any tape could hold.

I wonder whether Vertigo will still be at the top of the table come 2022 when the list is re-evaluated, or will another film that could supercede this psychological thriller. Right Now I can’t think of one. Will Orson Welles sophistication be more relevant as it was 20 years ago, or has the increasing sophistication audience keep Vertigo’s Scottie and Judy/Madeline in the belfry?


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