If I’m honest I had no reason before now to really return to Rio Conchos (1964). It was inspiration for an early piece of work that I’ve made. The unfinished mansion of the confederates who had fled after the surrender at the end of the civil war. I could see the potential in the building, even looking at how it was first framed, from behind the pillars on the porch we have no idea what state the new home is in. The focus of the work has been put into the entrance, emphasising the need to display the power they had once lost back over the border. A need to assert power and stature in a foreign country was clearly essential for Col. Theron Pardee (Edmond O’Brien). This time around I wasn’t so much drawn to the mansion, that drive has been fulfilled, allowing me to focus on what was just a chance to return to a curio of a Western that had faded in the memory.
The memory had become so fragmented that the mansion was really all I remembered. Leaving me to truly rediscover what is really another chance to explore the influence of The Searchers (1956). From the opening scenes I could see clear comparisons between them. We see a number of Apache’s being gunned down just as they are about to pay their respect to the dead they have brought out to cremate. We find James Lassiter (Richard Boone) hiding from view. He enjoys the killing, showing no respect for these Native Americans wanting to say good-bye. If there were more Apache’s he would surely have carried on until he had no more rounds of ammunition. Much like Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) whose stopped by Reverend Clayton (Ward Bond) who can see that this same emotion is all-consuming in the man on a mission of search and destroy.
The very next seen we found Lassiter sleeping in the burnt out homestead when he’s found by Union Captain Haven (Stuart Whitman) and his men. Not so much for killing the Apache’s, more so the gun he used. This could easily have been an alternate version of The Searchers – Edwards, a Confederate solider who we learn wasn’t present at the surrender. Also he could have been so grief-stricken that he stayed in the also burned out homestead and avoided the 7 year search, which would mean no film. It’s a version of events that’s taken up in Conchos instead, who without a supporting community and family a search was never carried out. Lassiter does however know who killed his family, not that we learn this until the final act of the film.
Brought into face justice at a military outposts that doubles as refuge for families making their way West. Everyone is living in a world if fear, something that Lassiter has experience first-hand, changing his outlook on life. A selfish shell of a man who resents the union for winning the civil war and the Apaches for killing his wife and child. Left to rot with his old friend and partner Rodriguez (Anthony Franciosa) who I saw as another Mexican stereotype whose allowed to be a little more than the sidekick at times.
Now for the subplot, the rife used by Lassister had previously stolen, before being sold on. Captain Haven want’s to track down these stolen weapons, hoping to use a gunpowder as bait to bring them to the guns. Something he feels he can achieve if he enlist the help of his newest prisoner. An unorthodox method that sees them cross the border. The prisoner sees this as an opportunity to test his luck, bribing them to also release Rodriguez, a ruthless man who will do anything as long as he gets his own way. Waging his own war against the victors of war as he carries out one last campaign.
Made during the early days of the civil rights movement we have Jim Brown’s Sgt. Ben Franklyn a rare Black soldier, depicting progress in the Union army, a victory for the freed slaves and taking note also of Sergeant Rutledge (1960) which had an all black unit of men. Here they’re mixed, reflecting the hope for better integration within the contemporary U.S. army. Here Franklyn, named after one of America’s founding fathers plays a fairly decent sized role for a traditionally white-centric film and role. He’s able to freely express himself to his superior, no fear of reprisal, carrying out orders and most importantly he gains the respect of Lassiter who a few years before fought for his continued life as a slave.
Moving the focus back to Lassiter whose not afraid to make personal sacrifices, he’s on a mission, one that even he doesn’t really know about. We finally begin to see a more human side of him when they’re surrounded by a band of Apaches who surround another burned out house. A house that only holds reminders of a past that he has yet to resolve. When we see him turn from killer to protector. He becomes the other in order to help them get away. Even their captor, a Squaw – Sally (Wende Wagner) who he begins to see more as a woman and human being to protect. She loses the image of Mexican Apache to become someone to be protect. She’s the Debbie of the film, whilst Boones – Ethan Edwards has begun his long journey to redemption and hopes of moving on. He faces one last challenge, to fight his Confederate past when he’s brought to Rio Conchos, the new base for Pardee’s men south of the border. Becoming Confedardo’s. Hoping to rebuild and return for another chance of glory that has rejected them.
The final act is full of emotional and physical pain for everyone left alive. Visually it’s a little hard to make out at times what is going on, shot in day-for-night conditions for the finale as they tied up men who by this point has been dragged by Apache horses. A form of torture ordered by Blondebeard (sounds more like a pirate than a Native American name) Kevin Hagen who we learn killed Lassiter’s wife and child. The Scar of the film is finally revealed and is just as mean as his white opposite who came for him. It’s a dramatic fiery mess that draws to a close what has been not so much boiling over but simmering for a while. Boone plays the sneaky under-hand kind of man, layered with grief and anger, not quite a hero or anti-hero, he just wants what is justice in his eyes and that’s all that matters.
A few years ago I came away from The Homesman (2014) with a negative opinion of the film. I was left cold by the twist in the final act that left me wondering why would they do that to Hilary Swank‘s character. Without thinking it maybe a faithful adaptation of the source material by Glendon Swarthout, which is where my frustration must be properly directed not to actor/director Tommy Lee Jones. Soon after watching the film the DVD was off the shelve and out of my mind, written off as a bad film. That was a few years ago, allowing me to come back and give the Western another chance. I remember being too critical of it, not looking at the beauty that was on the screen. I’ve come away from this revisit feeling far more satisfied, maybe I needed that gap of time to reflect and think, lets give this another go. One of those better decisions made on a whim which has paid off. So why, just why has this film got better with age for me.
Firstly I was struck by the films visual beauty, it’s been a while since I’ve seen a recent Western that has captured the vast openness of the landscape with such delicacy. Placing man on horseback only adds to this splendor. For a time we’re allowed some romanticism of the West before this land is finally tamed. Leaving a sketchy plot to be fleshed out again for me. Beginning with spinster Mary B Cuddy (Swank) a god-fearing woman who works her farm and becoming desperate to find a man and settle down. The reason for her permanent marital status soon becomes blindingly obvious. Her over bearing god-fearing nature, doesn’t make her wife material for single men wanting to make a mark on the land. As much as we understand the reasons for her rejections, you can’t help but feel bad for her. She wants what everyone else has. Social pressure is not on her side either, living alone at her age can only be frowned upon or the talk of the town.
I’m reminded once again of other independent women in the genre, a whole band of women try to make their way across a trail in Meeks Cutoff (2010) relying on two man to lead the way, who are essential lost and clueless. We are left wondering if they make it to the end of the trail. That’s of no concern for Mrs Jorgensen (Olive Carey) and her daughter Laurie (Vera Miles) in The Searchers (1956) who are left waiting for men to return from their 7 year search for two younger women. Both are able and willing to make a life in the West, domesticating the space around them. Cuddy is more than able to survive, but now that’s no longer enough. We see three women lose their grip on their mental faculties, developing conditions that clearly need help that is beyond the abilities of their families or townspeople. Again I’m reminded of The Searchers if only briefly, a rag doll that’s mothered one of the disturbed women like one of those found at an Army fort, rescued white women from Native Americans, clearly disturbed, but drawn to the doll that was once Debbie’s. Clearly a substitute for lost children and a reference to the genre’s past.
We’ve not even met George Brigg’s (Lee Jones) who is still a way off, allowing us to really get to know Cuddy unable to find a husband, takes up the opportunity, fighting against public opinion to take on the task of Homesman, carrying these three troubled women over the Missouri River to Iowa where better care awaits them. Cuddy may appear to be a strong women, yet there are moments of weakness, wondering how much she has taken on alone. Why does she do it, is it distraction from her spinster life, a chance to prove herself in the eyes of god and maybe meet a man who wants her at the end of the trail. With her characters fully fleshed out, we understand and empathise with her.
Now we can meet Briggs a man who’s not off to the best start, smoked out of a sod-house that he’s broken into. Everything we learn about him we struggle to take at face value. It’s only through his actions that we begin to trust him. His meeting with Cuddy can only be seen as miraculous leading him to take the job of helping ensure that 4 women make across the open country. Even today the Wild West is still perceived to be a man’s world, as much as Cuddy wants to go it alone, she still relies on a man for security. She asks for little else from him expect his word to complete the journey under threat of God’s wrath. Or it maybe the promise of $300 at the end of the job.
Either way it’s a long journey that is met with a few obstacles along the way that lead up to the twist I had completely forgotten – Cuddy’s death. The reason I all but gave up on the film. It wasn’t a fever, but a suicide. Unable to go on living as a spinster and a giving into her natural urges and not staying true to her faith. Leaving Briggs with the women to look after, something he hadn’t signed up to, however he rises to the challenge, causing a change of character in him, which surprises me.
I can still see the feminist connections between The Homesman and Unforgiven (1992). Here we have a man working out of obligation for a woman, Cuddy’s takes control, causing a limited role reversal to occur. Whilst in Clint Eastwoods film, three men come to avenge a woman who they hardly know. Taking payment for a job to exact justice that the law won’t deliver for them. Both films see women attempt to take control of their destiny’s in a male dominated landscape. Also looked down upon by society, the prostitutes for their profession whilst Cuddy has become a social concern, without really helping her. Ultimately it’s the men who save the day in both films, they carry the guns and the knowledge to save the women and return to a state of living outside that where women exist. Staying with Homesman to conclude the closing scenes see a transformation to become a better man unlike William Munny whose lost to the violence that was once his life. It takes more time with a woman to soften a man of the West, or the modern West.
It’s awards season and I’ve started early this year, not that I think that Hostiles (2017) is gunning for any awards, just the timing of the release in cinema’s. Nonetheless it’s a Western which means only one thing, I’m there. Booking the tickets even with a few warm reviews I decided I had to see this for myself. Based on the manuscripts of Donald E Stewart about an army captain who reluctantly takes on a mission that changes his politics. Now this is how Soldier Blue (1970) could have gone, but decided to be more literal. I also found a few links to The Searchers (1956) which I’m always looking to explore through other films.
After years of internal wars between the White settlers, who had been shaking up and re-organising the country into a shape that more resembled their own destiny, we forget about the soldiers and people who were caught up in the Indian Wars that have left the Native Americans greatly diminished and broken. Hostiles attempts to address some of those issues in this Revisionist Western. Beginning by reverting to classic form – a Comanche raid on a family who are massacred, it’s straight to the point, gruesome and sets the tone for what is to come. Leaving wife and mother Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike) alone to bury her family, potentially altering her outlook on life too. She could have easily allowed racist tendencies to creep in and understandably too. It’s too later for Captain Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale) who is an embittered racist who has seen more than his fair share of bloodshed whilst in uniform. Easily seen as an extension of Ethan Edwards if he stayed in uniform. Yet his racism comes from another place, that is never really explored, leaving us to question how did he becomes this monster who could hate Native American’s that boils over when he discovers his family massacred, raped and captured also by Comanche’s. Blocker is given one last mission under threat of court-martial for refusing, to escort a now elderly Cheyenne chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) and his family back to their home land of Montana. Part of me thinks this is a test set by his commanding officer Col. Abraham Briggs (Stephen Lang) wants to see him suffer, to test his politics before the decorated officer retires. A big “Screw you” you could say.
The last time I saw Studi was as another historic Native American Geronimo in the 1993 film, here much older he gets slightly less screen time than his white colleagues who dominate. Showing there is still away go before they are given a fair representation in the genre. However they were portrayed with compassion unlike the Comanche who’re reduced to an obstacle to overcome – somethings never change. I’m not too surprised either, it’s a long ingrained part of the genre that is hard to shake. To achieve that they will have to be a Native American in the directors chair, with an un-compromised voice. That said The Cheyenne’s that are depicted with sensitivity, we can see they’re spirit has been broken but theirs hearts haven’t, which is the extent of the Cheyenne’s suffering is really explored.
The focus as always comes from the white man- Blocker whose our Ethan Edwards filled with racial intolerance for the Cheyenne that he has to escort across the open country. It’s his journey that we follow which has an interesting effect on him. Much like Edwards, he knows his foe very well, having learned to speak Cheyenne, he knows the enemy intimately, maybe too well. With the pomp of leaving his fort one last time he has his foe chained up, there’s no trust for the elderly warrior who puts up with this indignity. He wont rise to the bait, a decent man knows when he’s been defeated. This last throughout the discovering of the burnt out homestead where we find grief stricken Rosalie Quaid, everyone in the party can understand her pain. Pike delivers a heartfelt performance, you can really feel her pain, I wondered if she would cross into racial hate, making Yellow Hawks journey home even harder. Would her grief match the hate that of Blocker’s? Playing a vital part in Blocker’s transformation by the films close.
We start out of the fort with a small Master Sgt. Thomas Metz (Rory Cochrane) stricken with depression, Corp. Henry Woodsen (Jonathan Majors) who has been proud to serve with Blocker Lt. Rudy Kidder (Jesse Plemons) fresh out of West point ready to prove his superiors he’s worth his rank and French recruit Pvt. Philippe DeJardin (Timothée Chalamet) who has no real experience in the army. The small group meet resistance early on in the form of the Comanche who are the first of many obstacles on their long journey that has an effect on the number of men in uniform. Taking on Rosalie Quaid, could easily be seen as a burden to them. It’s the aftermath of these events that start to open up Blocker’s view of the world, starting to question his thinking. Finally confronted when he takes on army prisoner Corp. Tommy Thomas (not a very original name) (Paul Anderson) under the care of Sgt. Paul Malloy (Ryan Bingham).
Thomas is the equal of Blocker, yet he has used his racial hatred to kill a Native family whilst not under orders. Purely for them being there. A cold-blooded killer who shows no remorse for his crime, would Blocker have done the same out of uniform or has his uniform given him licence to kill and get away with it. The security position and rank have been enough, to go as far as Thomas would be a point of no return for the captain, or is this the next part of his life outside of the protection of the uniform. The Indian Wars and Frontier nearly closed he would be a monster in civilised society, an Ethan Edwards in fine clothes.
There’s a lot of ground covered both literally (and spectacularly on camera) and thematically, from racism to man first killing to forgiveness. It goes along way to get us to Montana and it’s not an easy ride with a lot to think about. Filmed over the last year it can now be easily seen as a response to America today, as it becomes increasingly alone in its world view. The development of a wall on the Southern border with Mexico. The political divide is stronger than ever with a President who you either trust implicitly or question his every tweet. Blocker is leaving one life behind for another, does he want to bring his past life to his future. Hostiles attempts to deal with a very contentious issue and does a good job – on the white man’s side. Whilst the Native American has to just accept his place in the film and history on the chin. I wish the Cheyenne had more time to talk, to explore their position, instead they are just lead and protected by the army that’s trying now to do right by them. It reminded me lastly of Cheyenne Autumn (1964), the depiction of the Southern Cheyenne joining those in the North, which is more apologetic than Hostiles that draws it out of the characters slowly, not so much the director. I can only conclude that Revisionist Westerns will only be apologising with white actors in the lead role rather than the Native’s who depiction and capacity in the film is still being determined through the winners history.
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.