Continuing my exploration of the influence of The Searchers (1956) on films, here the Western, I’m stopping in with The Unforgiven (1960) which shares and elaborates on some on the themes and even down to the imagery that’s heightened here. Also spurred on after reading a review last month of the film over at Bored and Dangerous who I in turn recommended Cheyenne Autumn (1964) to looking at the depiction of the Native Americans, which again I will touch upon.
Now I first caught this film about 5 years ago, I focused more on the mis-casting of Audrey Hepburn, now I’m not so concerned about that. I’ve also seen more films by both lead actors and the director John Huston who dabbled in practically every genre that Hollywood works it. Instead I felt from the very beginning of the film I was taken aback by the dark and mysterious soundtrack took me into a world where nothing is certain, the truth is hidden, even out in a landscape where being honest is the only way to survive and do business. It’s the arrival of a rider Johnny Portugal (John Saxon) with a saber, much like the beginning of a Shakespeare play predicting what will happen, spouting a very harsh truth that’s still cryptic enough that it lingers in the audiences mind throughout. He’s hiding in the bushes on his horse, ready to scare the life out of Rachel Zachary (Hepburn) still innocent to the world around her, the next few days are going to be quite revealing for her.
So how does this compare with The Searchers then? Well from the start, if Rachel is to be Kiowa as we are lead to believe she is the Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter) or Debbie (Natalie Wood) has long been accepted into the Zachary family, with a white mother Mattilda (Lillian Gish) and three brothers who have taken in and raised this child, now a young woman as their own. Known as an abandoned child has been long been assimilated into White civilisation. So any revelation shouldn’t cause that much harm, can it? In the home of the Edwards in the John Ford original, Martin Pawley is seem as an Edwards, there’s no question of his place in the home or in the film, accepted. Debbie has been written off as a squaw, better off dead, there’s no place for her, that’s until Ethan finally on rescuing her, decides not to kill her, instead returning her to the home of the Jorgensens, in a memorable sequence that brings the film to a close. Of course that wouldn’t make much for a film in The Unforgiven, Rachel’s identity is kept secret until much later on.
This is a time which could have seen the Jorgensens move away and settle in a different town, a town that is not aware of Debbie’s past that saw her brought up and married to Comanche chief Scar (Henry Brandon), she is far from pure in the eyes of a Wild West society, she’s tainted. So what about Rachel, at the moment she’s open to the possibility but gives it little thought when her mother brushes it aside.
I’ve not even turned to the Zachary brothers lead by Ben (Burt Lancaster) who I naturally thought would be the Ethan (John Wayne) of the film. Starting out hating her, wanting to search and hoping to kill his niece for the dirty blood that runs through her veins. Instead he’s a doting son and wrangler who has returned with a big dealing in the air with another local family. You can see his love for his mother when he literally lifts a piano on his back from a cart for her. He’s a mother boy, and father of the family. Could this be the Edwards has they survive the massacre and fought off the Comanches? The Zachary’s are a happy cohesive family on the surface, they have built a home out in the frontier, even if cows like to graze on the roof.
Everything starts to go wrong when Charlie Rawlins (Albert Salmi) who had just started courting Rachel is killed by a Kiowa. This is after we have already met them at the Zachary’s homestead, wanting to trade horses for Rachel. An offer refused which backfires. The offers refused but the question of her identity now wont go away, is she a Kiowa or not, the presence of the Native Americans suggest they mean business. A posse’s formed and they go in search of who we think are the Kiowas, it’s methodical, long and good length montage that finally leads them to Johnny Portugal the blast from the past, whose placed on trial, at the wrong end of noose. The truths revealed, with no room for the Zachary’s to wriggle out of. The tone of the film now changes, the family are seen as outcast unless they release Rachel to the Kiowa’s. To the point they want to humiliate her by stripping her down to reveal the truth, making them worse than the Kiowas are perceived to be. The Whites are just as bad if not worse.
Now onto the scenes that I hazily remember, the gunfight in the homestead, the Zacharys surrounded, minus one disgusted brother (Cash – Audie Murphy) so its 4 against an army of Kiowa’s. This is like the massacre in The Searchers as we only saw before when the secure the ranch pre-attack. Just as we saw in The Stalking Moon (1968) when its was 3 against 1. Here its more dramatic, Huston doesn’t leave anything out, every character has a dramatic moment, it’s literally jam-packed for at least 10 minutes, wanting to make every second count whilst they’re cooped up in the house. Lancaster is stronger than Ethan, able to accept Rachel for who she is and even kill her own kind, where as the Indian hater would kill them indiscriminately.
Finally I must turn to the casting of Hepburn who I originally thought was mis-cast, yet it’s her innocence that makes her perfect for the role. Not aware of who she truly is, her heritage, never questioning it. Thinking for a time she can marry her oldest brother, she has no understanding of family relationship beyond the power of love. When Charlie requests to start courting with her, she jumps at the chance, maybe to make Ben jealous, not that he would be. When she sees her Kiowa brother though, the man who killed her potential husband it brings out her natural self that she has been resisting. Resulting in an unsatisfying conclusion for me. Much like friend over at Bored and Dangerous – the happy ending, her family accept her, but does the wider society that left them all to be killed. Is family love all she needs when she knows deep down what she now wants – to be with the Kiowa. Who again are treated as one dimensional – which I’m not really surprised at, they are however allowed if however briefly to enter the white mans world to claim what is rightly theirs – Rachel.
If it wasn’t for John Wayne having a scheduling conflict we may not have had the Ranown cycle. He was supposed to be playing the lead in the latest Budd Boetticher film that his company was producing. However he was about to start on The Searchers (1956) instead of leaving his director and film without a lead he recommended a good friend of his – Randolph Scott the role. It was the start 7 film partnership that would form the Ranown cycle created by the actor and director. Making their own Monument Valley out of Lone Pine, another iconic and ready-made stage for the myth of the West to be played out in.
It’s been just under a year since I reviewed made my last entry regarding this series of films, as I remember some films were stronger than others, now I have come full circle and back to the beginning with Seven Men from Now (1956) which really set-up the formula which was reworked in the majority of the seven films. We begin with a stormy night, getting the drama going straight away, a tall and water-soaked figure walks away from the camera to the rocks in search of shelter. It’s the ever reliable and stoic Scott playing Ben Stride who finds a campfire, keeping two men warm. It’s all cosy now, asking for a cup of coffee, when we learn he has lost his horse sometime ago in a gunfight, he’s been walking all day, tired and wet from a very long day. The two men grow suspicious when they discover he was a sheriff, reaching for their guns, the camera cuts away amidst gunshots, before we see Scott riding away with two horses, him on the back of one. The only survivor, but was it out of murder or survival. I carry this dark thought with me for a few minutes, questioning his motives, is he the man I know on the screen or someone whose out of a ride for revenge.
As always he rides alone and prefers it, enjoying the company of no one unless he really has to, which comes in the form of the Greer’s a couple traveling to California. Annie (Gail Russell) and John (Walter Reed) a poor excuse for a man who is struggling to get his wagon out of a muddy patch of ground. How has he gotten this far without being killed by gunfighter’s, cowboys or even worse Chiricahua’s who are on the loose. Surrounded by danger from the unseen and his own lack of manhood. Yet Annie has stayed with him, there must be more to him than meets the eye. Stride the gentlemen he is begins to ride with them, out of duty for the couple who have somehow survived this far into the West.
So as much as he wants to be alone with his tortured thoughts as he acts as guide and security for the traveller’s. We learn later on more of his past when they stop at a way station and the arrival of Bill Masters (Lee Marvin) and Clint (John Beradino) join him, they know more than the Greer’s who are just happy to be resting. We learn that the sheriffs wife was killed during a Wells Fargo robbery, a crime that Stride couldn’t stop, loosing his position in town soon after. He’s not only lost his wife but his position in society. He’s only a man with a debt to settle with the men who killed his wife.
There are similar back-stories throughout the Ranown cycle that have created these complicated characters for Scott to play, this is just the first of them, he’s digging deep into the psychology of the men he plays. Before we learn more we see who Masters is when they face a raiding party of Chiricahua’s who up until now have been spoken about. They are soon taken care of revealing his true colours, shooting a captive man in the back. Was he one of the seven shot down leaving six for Stride to take aim at, or was he being protected, funny how he was shot in the back though.
This is one of Marvin’s larger supporting roles before rising up to top billing. We can see how this clearly more physical actor can psychologically get under the skin of our hero. Sharing the Greer’s wagon shares a story, comparing one woman to Annie, who naturally pales in comparison, taking aim at both husband John and Stride who he was aiming at more. He doesn’t need a bullet to get under his skin, whilst John’s too cowardly to defend his wives honor. This Western is not just one of action and guns, its one of the mind, making it stand out from the standard B western.
Technically we can see that the look of the films in the series is being established, the imagery of Lone Pine. Visually it’s a bit hit and miss, editing is not as slick as it can be. The cinematography is starting to show signs of something greater, however the focusing can be distracting when we cut to a new scene. That’s not to take away from what is otherwise on-screen and in the script.
I’d forgotten how short and sweet these films really are, it’s a lean film coming in at under 80 minutes. We are soon back in civilisation where more characters are met, led by Payte Bodeen (John Larch) who is possibly the leader of these men. We also learn where the money is that has been with the Greer’s the whole time. The guilt of Strides past has never really left him, taking the money into his own care, taking responsibility, ultimately taking action for the loss of his wife and position. It’s a twist I forgot was even in the film, showing that it’s been a long time since my last viewing and just how well the film works as it moves to the finale as we see the characters all being revealed for who they are, they’ve all been hiding something from us and ultimately themselves. I’ll leave you with a clip from Blazing Saddles (1974) which just shows how much I have missed Randolph Scott on my screen and the imprint he has made on the genre.
I’ve been waiting to re-watch John Ford‘s apology for the/his depiction of Native Americans on-screen. Taking the events of the Trail of Tears (1878) that saw the Southern Cheyenne exit their reservation at Fort Robinson after having lived there for a year, waiting for more food and supplies to arrival after a group of Senators who were to see the condition of the reservation, barren, lifeless, unable to really support live. We’re told that originally over a thousand arrived, now just over 200 have survived that first year. This is the premise of the film, the rest is history. Ford took on the massive task of depicting this event in the genre that usually sees the Native American, either Apache, Cheyenne or Comanche, nations who stood up for themselves in the sight of the spreading settlers over the course of the 19th century. We know that one by one the nations tired, weak and hungry gave in and moved onto reservations after a series of unique events that would becoming the next chapter in their history.
Having read Dee Brown’s take on the event in Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee, which I surprisingly have recently read is accepted by Native Americans, all but the fact it didn’t say they survived to tell the tale to future generations. Which gives my exploration of their history something concrete to build upon. I can see my readings and then reflect them into the film adaptations. I’m taking in Cheyenne Autumn as my next film in that journey.
A few weeks ago I caught Sergeant Rutledge (1960) which was the first apologetic film that Ford made, placing the African-American soldier at the centre of the film, in a court room setting, not the strongest of films, not helped by its setting. Also feeling awkward being told in flashback which is more unusual still for him. Then followed the much heavier Two Rode Together (1961) which is lost to the conversations and the ideas it deals with. Coming to Cheyenne Autumn we have an epic on our hands, which is fair when you look at the subject matter that’s being dealt with. I have to admit it is deeply flawed in many ways which I want explore in my revisited review of his third and final apology that attempts to depict the events in a more favorable light. If another director were to take the material it would than likely be abandoned or even completely rewritten to show the Cheyenne as the antagonist not the protagonist, or even the obstacle.
So where do I begin, well the biggest and most obvious flaw is the waste of 30 minutes spent in Dodge City, where we have some comedy courtesy of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holiday (James Stewart and Arthur Kennedy) who act as the comic relief, intended to take the edge off the heavy material at the centre of the film. A mass migration of people across open country to their homeland, I can see where Ford is coming from, the audience wouldn’t be used to seeing such content, even more so in Super Panavision 70mm which leaving the audience with nowhere to be distracted, the images plastered from the top to the bottom of the screen. The comedy is an unnerving, unnecessary and ultimately distracting really. You have real human drama playing out in Ford’s mythic West – Monument Valley lines of cavalry and Cheyenne moving across it, retelling this event from history. 50 years since release the comedy has lost its impact, if there was any to be had, it’s all played up clichés which Ford is honestly better than. It shows he was unsure about the content standing on its own, drawing in an audience for a different kind of Western. With big names such as Stewart is a sure sign you’ll get some through the doors. Here he’s just having a good time,you could say, just picking up a cheque and going on after a few days on set. I know that’s not what I want to type and you don’t want to read. Ford is or has lost his touch here which can be seen elsewhere.
The basic structure of the events are correct, a year on the reservation before packing up and wanting to live with the Northern Cheyenne who were living with the Sioux under Red Cloud at Pine Ridge reservation, with a few events in between that are more or less correct, others mixed around for drama, whilst others are added for pure effect. For once the nation leaders Little Wolf and Dull Knife are based on the actual Cheyenne that lead the exodus North. Played here by Ricardo Montalban and Gilbert Roland both originally from Mexican, where the film starts to fall down. The main parts are played by non-natives playing native roles in a pro-native film. Also we have the lazily named Spanish Woman (Dolores del Rio) who really should have had more care given in developing her character. Was she a Mexican captive, or did she marry in of her own choice. Instead we here her called upon by Deborah White (Carroll Baker) the Quaker sympathiser who travels with them.
Baker’s role is allowing the audience into this group who are traveling across the open country (or going around in circles of Monument Valley (which isn’t too bad)), the audience’s supposed to understand the Cheyenne plight through the white voice who has supported them on the reservation and now acting as nurse to one of the young injured travellers. Her name is reminiscent of the female captive Debbie (Natalie Wood) in The Searchers (1956) we are getting an internal understanding of how the other is thinking. Ford not matter how much he is loosing his touch is still putting small links to his rich filmography.
Away from the trail we have the U.S cavalry who are all other place in terms of the side they take. We mainly follow Captain Archer (Richard Widmark) who is taking on the 20th century thinker or Captain Kirby (John Wayne) from Fort Apache and Rio Grande (1948 and 1950) who wanted to talk to the other instead of going in bugles blazing. Interestingly John Wayne’s son Patrick Wayne plays the Colonel Thursday role – 2nd Lt. Scott, or could he be an extension of Ethan Edwards in another life, his son wanting to avenge his father. There are other links to the Cavalry trilogy that carry on throughout the film, even further back to Stagecoach (1939). We have a director using all his familiar characters in this very unusual Western from a man who is trying his best to make the subject matter relatable to an audience who are by now used to something far more cerebral than this far darker subject.
My first experience with this film came at the comedy break, my interest was pricked up. The second time around I saw the film more for what it is, a very different kind of Western, Ford having a conscience for a body of work that has depicted a nation in a poor light. Even if he employed them in several of his films. Now I see a flawed yet rich film of a director who is no longer in his prime, his last great film – The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) was not yet celebrated as it is today. He’s putting his all into what could be a last ditch effort at greatness which could have been if only he was more sure of his instincts. He’s not so much hitting racism head on, more trying to say whilst we were making this great country, another was being lost. He half achieves that goal. If I could re-cut and recast the film in places maybe we would have another masterpiece on our hands.
I can’t remember the last time I spent some real time with this work which I’ve been working loosely with since the summer. Today I’ve spent some good time in the studio playing with my lights and projector, directing them onto the white models I made in the summer. I’ve finally been able to do what I set out to all those months ago. It was rather satisfying to see these ideas take form, if they worked or didn’t was another thing, to actually follow through on a thought that had been there for a long time means I’m happier for it.
So it was all about colour to begin win, wanting to shine block colour, taking the phrase almost literally – painting the town red – with light. I found that the red was coming out more pink, turning to less obvious colours such as green and blue, before finishing with orange. Photographically the results aren’t the best. I found myself returning to earlier work, which is not where I want to be heading, I need to move away from the literal yet atmospheric.
Moving onto another idea I had was to project video onto these essentially blank canvases which meant getting the projector out and finding clips of Westerns I have, seeing what work. Not really choosing anything in particular I went for the rollerskating scene from Heaven’s Gate (1980) which pushed me to consider how to really use the projector and the model, which with every consecutive scene grew ans grew. With this scene it was more about how can I cove the whole or the majority of the model.
It was nice to see how the image consumed the model, becoming an outdoor cinema, projecting its image against a saloon. The image come up well on the model, it will ultimately vary depending on the model being projected onto. I moved onto a scene from The Searchers (1956) which was more of the same. I went to another scene from the film, this time bringing another model, meaning that the projector had to move back to accommodate them both.
What happened here was that the images took on a status of being bigger, yet still very much part of the same world. When I saw the landscape against the more urban models, this is something I wanted to explore, the background being part of these models in the foreground. Pushing it further with the final gunfight in True Grit (1969) which had wide open spaces to take advantage of.
This particular scene worked more so because of the action, the cinematic presentation of the scene, these gigantic god-like being behind the models. I also moved all four of the models in front of the projector, experimenting with layout, creating shadows, which ultimately don’t really matter as the image is still caught on the models in front, the light becomes sculptural. I carried the god-like status through to the next scene – the family massacre in Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) which I was very pleased with, partly down to the close-ups.
For the last set-up I positioned the models into a more conventional street set-up, with a gunfight from A Few Dollars More (1965) which drew me to my final thoughts of the day, linking nicely to the original inspiration of the Marquis in Melton – Street violence, or that of gunfights in the genre. I’d like to see how more models and more gunfight scenes work with this set-up. I still want to see how the cowboy figures work in terms of shadows they produce.
So as you can see I have been very busy and had lots of fun, immersed in the Western. To me this piece is about the violence that is created/depicted in the genre, this is where I maybe leading this piece going forward.
I’ve been waiting for Sergeant Rutledge (1960) for a few years now, one of John Ford’s apologetic films for past on-screen depictions, this time focusing on African-Americans who when on-screen had previously been given the role of the idiot, the butler, the naive slave, anything but up-standing citizen who can contribute to society. Ultimately the fall guy and the butt of the jokes. It wasn’t really until Sidney Poitier came along, did the depiction of Black characters start to change, or just those he depicted, given his pride and strength in each role during the 1950’s – 60’s. Sadly even here in Sergeant Rutledge their depiction isn’t that much better really. Even from Ford who was trying to right his own wrongs which go back as far as playing a member of the KKK in Birth of a Nation (1915). Guilt he was hoping to rid himself of, I can’t really see many Black characters in his past film, a white world as depicted in Ford’s West. Of course he’s not alone in his contribution to the genre.
However is showing that he’s willing to pay his dues, taking on a court-martial of a black Sergeant whose accused of rape and double murder. There is even some historical fact in there, a segregated troop of Black soldiers, however their depiction still has hints of stereotype slip through. That’s not to take away from otherwise seen as upstanding soldiers who follow the chain of command, it’s an admirable attempt for its time. Not surprisingly the main character – Rutledge (Woody Strode) is relegated to a supporting role credit, when the whole film revolves around his actions. I remember being similarly annoyed by his credit ranking in The Professionals (1966), another symptom of racism in Hollywood. It’s alright to have them on-screen but give them too much credit that would lead beyond tokenism towards fully rounded roles that rely on stronger parts, Strode’s in this film is far stronger, maybe his strongest role of his career.
Being one of Ford’s apologies, 4 if you count The Searchers (1956) which confronts the racism that can consume a man, the depiction of the other is still classical. Jumping to Two Rode Together (1961) which picks up where The Searchers left things, answering the hard questions of what happens to the returned captive, tainted by the others blood, time among them, how society reacts to the captive, do they react as the Jorgensen’s did, an open embrace, or do they fear them, reject them and leave them to return to the safety of the other. It’s a talkie heavy film that debates all these questions, whilst Ford’s last effort is a grander affair – Cheyenne Autumn (1964) which depicts the Trail of Tears, it’s a brave film from a man who defines the genre, who has seen the shape it has taken, overlooking the past, hoping to add his last page of revisionism. Only really let down by the comedy that is weirdly inserted, thought to be necessary to break up the darker themes,
Turning then to his second apology in more detail we have another talking heavy, a courtroom western, which have never been the strongest in the genre, mulling over the facts of the case before judgements delivered. Thankfully it’s broken up by the use of flashbacks, to build up not just the generals picture of what happened, but for the audience to see what Black officers are capable of. Ford’s also quite at home, returning again to Monument Valley, which validates this as part of the myth, his myth of the West, Black Westerns are rare, such as Buck and the Preacher (1972) which is more revisionist in tone yet more of a blaxploitation than a true Western.
The trial begins without even seeing Rutledge who is only spoken about, his guilt is almost a certainty in the eyes of one Captain Shattuck (Carleton Young) who sees more the colour of his skin and the negative connotations that go with it. Whereas Lt. Tom Cantrell (Jeffrey Hunter) believes far different, you could say he has a personal interest in being the defence for the accused. The first evidence is given by a semi Ford regular Constance Towers as Mary Beecher whose painted as a victim at the hands of Rutledge, the lights are lowered to focus on her testimony which is soon revealed to be more enlightening when she’s allowed to continue, we see a soldier who comes to her rescue from a common enemy – the Apache who have killed already. Rutledge‘s wounded by a gunshot, needing to rest, but still carries out his duty to the civilian. Would a murderer and rapist be capable of doing that?
The evidence stacks up allowing you to builds up and picture, even doubt starts to creep in, did he really commit rape and murder, the audiences tested, more so the original intended audience of the early sixties who was very much divided, just as the civil rights movement was starting up. This film is a precursor to the thinking that a man shouldn’t be judged on the colour of his skin, the connotations that are sadly still very much alive in the States.
Ford does his best to bring this very confined Western alive. The courtroom is predominantly white, who’ve been predisposed to judge Rutledge as guilty. Whilst those in the Black troop look up to the first Sergent, the top man, top dog, he’s almost raised to a legendary status for his actions on and off the screen, respected for his ideals which comes in the form of a song that we get at the beginning and end of the film. He’s part of filmic cavalry history, this is how Ford wants to frame Rutledge and the others as heroes up their with the likes of Kirby and Yorke (John Wayne). However it’s a hard fight due to the material which does drag which is due to the restraints of legal dialogue which you have to pay attention to. Characters are strength which doesn’t fail Ford who are still rounded with their foibles, most notable between Col. Otis Fosgate (Willis Bouchey) and his wife Mrs. Cordelia Fosgate (Billie Burke), the old married couple constrained by rank, position and racial assumptions.
Ultimately it’s a much forgotten film due to the rarity of the Black troop, there have been others since celebrating the forgotten, part of Ford’s admiration for American servicemen. In-terms of apologies, its heavy handed at times, a different take on the ideas might have been more successful. Its a product of it’s time and he was fighting under those politics. I’m glad I’ve finally seen the film, building up a bigger picture of a director I admire, in terms of his myth it adds another page which is usually turned too fast to see his stronger work.
Every since my performance at the weekend at ImpFest (2016) I have been considering my next performance. Do I want to repeat that one at a later date, more than likely. I have another postcard piece – Out of Curiosity (2016) which consists of around 60+ postcards which involves a male and female character. Looking forward to a more ambitious idea for a new piece looks beyond the postcards replacing dialogue for a single scene from a film. I would like to look at acting out a whole film, taking on the role of the predominant character in each scene. At the moment my heart is saying The Searchers (1956) which I would love to work with. I would ultimately have to make this piece over a long period of time. Considering a number of elements, a possible minimal set, costume, the dialogue which I would have to transcribe too. Would I also remove the postcard element to focus on the more performative element or have the two together which work well. It’s an exciting whilst at the same time a very daunting prospect. Whichever film I ultimately choose I will have lot to consider.
If you look at the latter part of John Wayne‘s post winning his best actor Oscar for True Grit (1969) which was well on earned, he was on form, was in part awarded to him out of guilt for being over-looked for past performance, then having been in front of the camera for 40 years. It’s far more polite than the honorary awarded which can be even awarded after death. A sorry for missing you statue that we see given to those who have graced our screens for decades, some of the recipients even kiss them, joke about it being their first to be nominated or considered for. It could have been the only one that Leonardo DiCaprio would have got if it wasn’t for his SIXTH nomination and the track record that awards seasons that ensure he finally won, add a bit of guilt he finally won. OK so back tracking to The Duke you could say his better years are over, this is something I have mentioned in past reviews so I won’t go over the same ground for too long. He didn’t go on to make any really great films that stand-up to True Grit, The Searchers (1956)… the list is endless, he produced classics every few years.
The last one prior to his obvious swan song is The Cowboys (1972), often mentioned as Wayne’s personal favorite. On a second watch I can see why he was fond of this now charming yet controversial Western that has a bitter-sweet place in my heart. With a long career behind him and a few more years left in him, he had created and wanted to maintain a screen image. He had nurtured new talent that had gone onto have successful careers, formed friendships with others too. Here he was able to find and allow much younger talent in front of the screen, 11 young men all younger than 16 able to live out their fantasy, starring in a film with John Wayne, who the hell wouldn’t if they had the chance? Another reason could be to be surrounded by boys who were the ages of his sons when he was mostly away filming, missing out on their upbringing. Whilst also sharing them with his first two ex-wives. A mix of guilt and paternal feeling that you might not consider at first.
Another reason why this film has a clasp on that classic status is its uniqueness, even in the 1970’s it was rare even for a Western is to have its populated with children on a cattle run. The film takes its roots a little more in fact, as Wil Anderson (Wayne) admits he was 13 on his first cattle drive. So you have to start somewhere. Children grew up quicker in the 19th century, they didn’t have it much better over in the UK, either being chimney sweeps or a life in the workhouse, maybe out in the fresh air was sliiiiighty better for them. Not mentioning the early starts, the rough conditions, the short nights and the dangers of the unknown, along with constantly proving your worth. Hmm maybe I should have a re-think on that one.
There’s also the undeniably beautiful cinematography thanks to Robert Surtees who has given us the images that could have almost been captured decades earlier. Rich in blue skies, the classic imagery of the cattle drive feels fresh after years of seeing the genre depict the event on countless occasions, here it feels like a documentary at times. Together with an early John Williams score that shows hints of greater things yet to come. We have moments of grandeur before something a little quirky, he has yet to reach his own real style.
So we have a refreshed take on one of the oldest forms of Western, driven by an actor whose rarely producing the film, he’s the actor for hire, listening to the director Mark Rydell who is able to get a matured yet not cliched performance out of The Duke, he’s not simply playing a version of his image, he’s bringing out the father figure in him. Whilst being too old to conceivavably have young children on-screen he is able to act as a mentor to a new generation who will have to grow from being boys to young men. Which is pushing me towards seeking out the Young Guns (1988) to see how these young men roles might have lead them Of course that was more about a vehicle for another generation of actors coming through and an attempt to restart the genre.
There are a few aspects which disturbs me about The Cowboys, the first was quickly wiped away, the depiction of the Mexican Cimarron (A Martinez) who was seen as more confident, a cowboy in the making. First seen breaking a horse, showing his potential employer that he is more than worthy of a place on the trail. He’s dismissed before they even set off because of the violence he brings to the company. His heritage is never mentioned, he has no other name other than Cimarron which suggest he’s had to fend for himself, may have even forgotten his surname or have been given his name by someone other than a parent in his short life. He does hover return after rescuing one of the white cowboys from drowning, proving he can be a team player, having grown up over the course of the film to that point. Another is the boys picking up guns and ultimately killing with them. First they are taken away from them, locked away on the wagon by Anderson wanting a clean and safe drive. Its only when they feel the need to exact revenge do they resort to violence that is usually carried out by men. It’s as if they have to prove their worth as men in a world of testosterone. Today you could read this as young soldiers fighting against their will for a guerilla outfit that has trained boys to fight. This has been seen before if not as prominently in another Wayne film The Horse Soldiers (1959)where young boys at a military academy, of course the setting is far different – Civil War, different rules apply here, yet they do discuss sending these boys into the line of fire. Boys who are at an academy to become soldiers, so you can more easily forgive the depiction.
The bittersweet-ness I am however left with is one of those rare times when the Duke was killed on-screen. I was dreading seeing it happen again, it has given Bruce Dern a story to dine out on forever. However Wayne was rarely at the receiving end of a fatal bullet, the hero, the last man standing who saw the job and the film through to it’s end. Maybe this was seen as a rare departure for him, allowing the boys to take on the drive or simply ride off. You can see the motivations for picking up a gun and acting lower than those who stole the cattle. After seeing a larger than life screen idol being beaten by a young actor before being shot in an unfair fight, the boys are only acting out what any of us in the audience would want to do in that world. Each shot, every punch hurts not only the characters but those who have followed him on the screen, not just the boys on the cattle drive, its all the motivation you’d need
I feel I have come away from this film better able to express how I feel about a latter film of the Duke who was very much in legacy mode by then, wanting to keep working until his body finally gave out on him as we see 4 years later in The Shootist (1976) which had to be shot around his failing health. Its a film that not many actors of his generation would make, the hero never dies in the classic genre, they live on. However he hasn’t really died, his spirit lives on in his films, his ideals (on screen more so) and image of the west that he created, reflected out to the world, this is the genre starting to bow out, here in a way that pays homage whilst still wanting to reinvent itself for a new audience. It still on TV at least 1 once a month in the UK alone, just shows the popularity of the film and the power of the John Wayne.
I’ve been looking out for Ulzana’s Raid (1972) ever since I read about it a years ago, discussed in relation to Native American’s once again. Focusing this time on an army company of men in search of a band of Apache who had left the reservation at the beginning of the film. Something which I can relate to in my current work. Naturally the army’s notified of Ulzana (Joaquín Martínez) and his braves who have left over night. Today you would rightly be behind the Apache’s to make a break for freedom. I noticed as the film progress as much as it has dated it has a new relevance in the age of ISIS and Islamaphobia which has gripped parts of the world. I’ll explain my observation as I carry on. My initial reading (literally) was a comparison with McIntosh (Burt Lancaster) and Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) yes there’s more discussion about The Searchers (1956) this time focusing on how the white man functions with his knowledge of the other.
Much like my review of The Stalking Moon (1968) we have an army scout with knowledge of “Indians” for Edwards the knowledge comes from an undisclosed place in a back story that fuels his hate, scaring those around him to the point of alienation leaving him with his unwanted mixed race Cherokee Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter) who stick with him throughout, thick and thin. We can only presume his knowledge comes after leaving the Confederate Army, being absent from the surrender he follows a different path from everyone else who has seemingly adjusted to post civil war life.
With Edwards out of the army, I turn to those still in the army, Varner’s (Gregory Peck) seen as a knowledge, the army want him to stay, they feel safer with him and his partner riding with them. I can’t really imagine Peck ever being as dangerous as Wayne could ever portray. Even the white woman Sarah (Eva Marie Saint) feels safe in his company as her escorts her home. Turning to Mcintosh he is as worldly-wise as they others, you can see it on his face, he has seen a lot, done a lot and even married a Native woman for his wife. Something that Edwards would never contemplate, his racism wouldn’t allow it. He is more willing to share his knowledge as advise not to scare the cavalry men he is riding with. He wants to educate not fear them, he doesn’t need to do that as the trail of blood-shed speaks for itself. He instead explains what they do and why.
If anything the explanation for all the atrocities is better explained by the sole Apache Ke-Ni-Tay (Jorge Luke) whose allowed to have a good portion of the script. He’s better able to answer all the questions that the men have. Especially for wet behind the ears Lt. Garnett DeBuin (Bruce Davison) who sees all this death as meaningless, he wants to act without fully understanding his enemy. He’s Lt. Col. Owen Thursday (Henry Fonda) before the racism has set in, wanting to make a career and a name for himself in the army. Here’s the chance to learn and change his perspective and direction in life. With the motives for the Apache’s explained by Ke-Ni-Tay, acting as the others representative. Today he could represent the hunted ISIS (and rightly so to) he becomes the misunderstood Muslim who has done nothing wrong, whose labelled the potential terrorist in their absence. Racism without cause, fear is wrong directed to Muslims when 99% of them are as decent as everyone else we meet on the street. It’s the 1% who are disillusioned, radicalized and want to inflict harm on the rest of the world. Back in the Western of the 1970’s the Native Americans act as the Vietnamese who have been wrongly killed because of the fear of communism (I know there’s more to it than that).
I want to look at some lines from the film, something I do rarely, a few stood out for me that I have to interrogate.
Do you hate Apaches, Mr. McIntosh? – Lt. Harry Garnett DeBuin
No. – McIntosh
Well, I do. – Lt. Harry Garnett DeBuin
Well, it might not make you happy, Lieutenant, but it sure won’t make you lonesome. Most white folks hereabout feel the same way you do. – McIntosh
Why don’t you feel that way? – Lt. Harry Garnett DeBuin
It would be like hating the desert because there ain’t no water in it. For now, I can get by being plenty scared of ’em. – McIntosh:
It feels like a conversation that could have taken place in Fort Apache if rank wasn’t a problem between Thursday and Capt. Kirby York (Wayne). Instead with have the advantage of age over experience. The time to consider whether there is enough time in life to devote so much to hating a race of people. McIntosh understand his commanding officers position but has given up on the emotion as it only gets in the way of living and functioning as a human being out in the frontier.
Turning now to the violence of the film, this isn’t one that young kids could watch and get a sense of fun, the cowboy and Indian dynamic of the past is not present in this film. The violence is more brutal. Animal rights groups would today have ensure animals were treated better. There’s nothing to suggest that any animals were harmed or not. This is a few years before Heaven’s Gate (1980) and exploding horses in the name of art. As much as the violence is tame in some respects, when you see a horses neck being cut you think twice about putting a young child in front of the screen. We are meant to see these violent acts, suggesting that the Apache are not civilised, they are capable of terrible acts, making the cavalry’s presence all the more relevant. The savages have to be tamed if possible at all costs. Although history would argue they only ever acted in self defense at the threat of losing their way of life. Once again I am mixing fact with fiction and in film that doesn’t always work.
The depiction of the Native American’s doesn’t really fare that much better than the animals, They are treated once again as savages with skills of the wilderness. They become more desperate over the course of the film, as if they are broken down. They way they treat their horses/ponies is not really as animals to respect but more as tools that can be disposed of. Practically seen as people you wouldn’t want to have dinner with. They are however seen as a people who can work together with only gestures, almost as if Ulzana is orchestrating his men from a distance which I can’t help but admire.
So to sum up as I explore The Searchers through other films I am building up a bigger picture of how it has influenced others films and the western genre. It’s clear that Edwards is a powerful and very human character that interests us even to this day. The role of the outsider and racist will always be a dangerous one. Lancaster doesn’t play that role, take cues from Peck, two trackers who are able to function, to take a step back from the other. Instead its given to the younger man Lt. Harry Garnett DeBuin who as much as he is eager to learn, he is being shaped in front of our eyes. This mission wont easily leave him, just as the 1956 classic will never leave me.
A much-needed re-watch which has come a year after reading into The Stalking Moon (1968) compared to The Searchers (1956) (again) which I had to watch once more to see all the readings into the films depiction of the Native American for myself. It comes across as another possible narrative strand of The Searchers which really ends where Moon picks up. After a group of Apache are rounded up by the army, possibly having escaped a reservation or going to. Either way their freedom is over and future is determined. We discover a single white and blonde female captive Sarah Carver (Eva Marie Saint) who has been assimilated into their culture, she has assumed their language, dress and thinking.
For all intent and purposes she is a Native American, that is in the eyes of Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) who would more than likely left he to die or killed her himself. Not the army scout/Indian tracker Sam Varner (Gregory Peck) who readily accepts her as white or even just human and a woman (be that in 19th century terms). She is a free woman to do as she pleases, bringing her son with her, also that of Salvaje (Nathaniel Narcisco) which is Spanish for savage. If you know your Spanish you are already being given a pre-loaded conception of who this mostly un-seen figure is. Not unlike Scar (Henry Brandon) who we see a few times and interact with in the earlier film. The Spanish translation is cicatriz as the Mexican in the cantina tells Edwards.
I can’t really compare Varner and Edwards both are very different characters and that’s not the point of this re-exmination of the film. For me it’s about how the later film has been influenced, taking the same iconography and the depiction of the Native American. You could say they are one and the same film in some respects. A woman’s rescued from a life with the “Indians” which is either looked down on, mocked or pitied. In the genre you are better of dead than alive being a squaw. In reality women and children were only taken as prisoners, used as leverage with the army to stay on their land. Most of not all were later released, you can see where the myth begins though which has allowed the on-screen image to become bigger and more exotic. Being captured and living as one of a number of squaws with a one of the warriors or even chief, having a number of children, usually after being raped. Not a pretty picture but one that both dime novels and Hollywood and built up and reinforced.
So with this image built up on paper and on-screen, the Native American all but quieted on reservations the myth of conquest’s being formed and reinforced by clichés which we see in both The Searchers and The Stalking Moon, they are always seen through the eyes of the white man, usually the tracker who has a vast knowledge of them, which the audience dripped fed. Edwards is delivered with hate and disgust, whereas Varner’s more about the survival skills which he uses against them in order to stay alive. There is no real hatred behind his eyes, he is even close friends with his younger partner in the army a mixed race Nick Tana (Robert Forster) who looks up to him as a father figure. We can see that the fight between his two heritage was won by his white side, which in turn makes is easier for us to engage with him.
Going back to the depiction of the key Native American, both come from over-used nations – Apache and Comanche- the very names are more exotic on the ear, and sound more frightening than others. Scar the Comanche chief has lines and shares screen-time with Edwards, neither like each other and you can really feel it as they have a fruitless trading session. Whereas Salvaje is not even seen until the finale which is more about tension. He’s treated as an animal who has to be stopped in his tracks. There’s no eye to eye scene until it’s too late to do anything about, Salvaje is very one-dimensional and his only one goal to rescue his son from the white people, more able to accept his mixed heritage but not his circumstances. For the majority of the film he is only seen in the form of the aftermath of the victims he leaves as he comes in search of his son. He is the Apache Ethan Edwards going all the way to find his son, except it’s not over the course of seven years, more like a week if that.
The cost of the deaths could’ve been avoided as its pointed out to Sarah who is eager to get moving back home, knowing she needs to keep moving to survive with her son. She’s taken into the care of Varner who takes it on himself to escort her so far before getting to her destination of Silverton, her home town. She and her son (Noland Clay) who’re treated as second class citizens, with restricted travel and casual racism.
I must touch on the ranches that feature in both films, The Edwards ranch where we begin in The Searchers and with the Jorgensens as Debbie (Natalie Wood) is safely returned by to white safety and civilization, restoring her you could say. That restoration happens far earlier for Sarah, discovered at the beginning The Stalking Moon and is later invited to stay, possibly live at Varner’s ranch where we see inside far longer than the establishing scenes of Ford’s film. We only see the beginning of the Comanche raid, we don’t see anyone, nature discovers them first. The ranch is barricaded, cutting to Scar who has already found a young Debbie in the family graveyard, which is where her white life ends and “Indian” life begins. Back to New Mexico where Varner’s ranch and battle ground for the finale of the later film takes place. The danger is brought back to the homestead which eventually end with Salvajes death restoring order. Sarah’s able to adjust to White mans life along with her son, much like Debbie Edwards before her.
As I have found they share a lot of the same themes and imagery, just reordering them within the same basic landscape of the American West. It’s the last real conventional Western retelling of the same plot before we enter the modern world where Native American’s are replaced with criminals and other low-life that replace the previous obstacle. We have lost the racist in Edwards for a more well adjusted figure in Varner who can easily live among others. I guess the only true comparison would and will always be Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) whose an urban outsider, to dangerous for mainstream society. I think I know which film I’ll be watching again soon.
It’s been a few years since I caught Nevada Smith (1966), then a few months ago we it was on as background, I had completely forgotten what the Western was actually about. Meaning it was time for a revisit. I’m doing quite a few in recent months, parts because I want to understand the films more, and there’s little to watch, this was a little of both really. I originally found the film to be about a mixed race half white/Kia whose out for revenge for the death of his parents at the hands of gold thieves meeting people along the way as he tracks down the three men responsible for the deaths. Which essentially the film is.
What else is this take on the other in the Wild West? Again the other’s played by a popular White actor Steve McQueen who is able to play the naive young man (white, Kiowa or mixed race) and draw in the audience which it clearly does. However as time has proven the draw if money takes away a decent representation of the Native American on film. Usually employing them in films more as extra’s, if on-screen they are not their for more than a few seconds, or pushed to the background to allowing the box-office draws or foreign English speaking actors caked in make-up to the fore. Its not practiced today in Hollywood (one lesson they have learned from except for Johnny Depp).
Nevada Smith begins being reminiscent of The Searchers (1956) (yes I know I keep returning to that film) but only briefly, where I wonder about the direction of the rest of the film. Instead of the white man being attacked the mixed race are attacked, leaving the often forgotten Native to fend for himself. Here we follow him after returning to the family home, complete with inset shot of the massacre in low light. Where we were once kept away believing the image would be too much for the audience to take in. We are still not given much information, even ten years later. We we are given a bleak description of how his parents were killed later on. Ford doesn’t like to linger with the images, the horrors of the Comanche are too much to accept. When it’s a white man inflicting the violence we can take more.
Moving away from that striking connection to the older film which it doesn’t try to replicate, instead it moves on making its own narrative. Instead of burying himself in hate for the killers of his family. Can this illiterate young man who can’t eve defend himself be a match for this killers who have not just skill but the edge of life experience on their side, whilst Smith has to learn all of this from scratch or die in the process.
In that process he is ready and pretty much willing to ignore his mixed heritage, adopting or assuming the ways of the White gunslinger. The preferred image of the Western. I don’t thin it would be the same film if he went around the film wearing his Native dress, the film would not have the same appeal, and would probably not one McQueen’s better films. It would lean more towards Burt Lancaster‘s role in Apache (1954) which is laughable (as straight as he may play the part) today.
Smith learns to draw and fire a gun, does his mixed heritage work to his advantage. However he also has to learn to read in order to pass himself as a white man, live in a white mans world that demands to be civilised not living as a savage Indian that may not understand, held back by these differences. If Smith accepted his Kiowa this would be a very different film, becoming in the eyes of a white audience a savage, played by a white man, he could be a more dangerous man to watch and fear also.
Moving away from the Native American themes (that dominate my own thinking at the moment) I can see a decent revenge film with the added texture. Looking at it today, it’s innocent but that doesn’t take away from the journey that Smith goes on to track his families killers, one by one he finds them and kills them as justice allows him. The deaths slowly reach Tom Fitch (Karl Malden) who begins to fear him. It takes the rest of the film for us to catch up with him, building him up to a dangerous man. Along the way Smith allows himself to be humiliated by others if it allows him to get to the next man. He does however use his skills and Kiowa knowledge to stay ahead of everyone (most of the time), right up to the end. helped with the christian intervention of Father Zaccardi (Raf Vallone) who introduces him to the bible. Allowing him to leave his Kiowa heritage for the white christian that was apparently waiting to come out. Or is it a combination of the two spiritual sides coming out and together, giving him a perspective on life that leads to the final showdown where violence is no substitute for forgiveness.
My thinking on the film has greatly improved or even deepened you might say, not the strongest of films exploring the Native American. The standard white cast and lead who we are supposed to accept as the other (without as much make as Lancaster). It was Hollywood of its day so what are we to know. We do have a decent revenge film which is entertaining which what you want at the end of the day, which I had the first time round, now its a richer experience.