I’m hoping to see 4 of Sam Peckinpah films, Straw Dogs (1971) is the first one out of the gates, and very much by chance too. I remember reading about the film long before I really considered seeking it out – the article focused on the infamous rape scene which is probably one of the most violent scenes I have ever watch on screen. It was also a chance to see how the director, a few years after the success of The Wild Bunch (1969) and the quirky melancholic musical Western The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970) with far less violence than it’s predecessor. Moving forward he would be going across the Atlantic to a completely different environment – Great Britain, involved in no conflicts, yet struggling with rolling strikes and blackouts. The summer of love is long behind us and things are looking bleak.
Mathematician David Sumner (Dustin Hoffman) has moved to rural Cornwall to be with his new wife Amy (Susan George) who from the first few minutes is very much seen from the male gaze, the camera pans down to focus on her chest, clearly not wearing a bra. Partly out of women’s liberation and easily seen as a directorial decision to engage the male before they’re shocked later on in the film. They have just bought a hunting trap, Peckinpah has sewn a seed early on for what to expect later on. You can’t remove the potential image for violence, a man caught within the teeth of the trap that for most of the film’s fixed to the wall. I notice early on, children are dancing in a graveyard, whilst local pedophile Niles (David Warner) looks on quietly at them, not fully aware of what he’s capable of. I’m wondering where he fits into the dynamic of the film, hovering in the background used as a minor character. Warner is sadly not even credited for his role which is staggering when you see his role increase at a pivotal moment in the film.
We learn that Sumner decided to move into his wife’s family home to allow him to study and write his book, something he really wants to focus on. Having escaped his own countries violence, he can finally begin with hopefully fewer distractions. That’s not considering the sexual distraction of his newly wed wife, who sees the world around her far differently to the naive American intellectual whose still finding his feet in this foreign world. They have employed roofers who leer over Amy at any chance they get. The only attractive female in the film, she’s the only object of desire her even though she’s married, it doesn’t stop their actions. David is oblivious to all of this until he is forced to confront what is only going to be an increase of violence against the couple. I’ve not even touched upon Tom Hedden (Peter Vaughan) who spends the first half of the film in the local pub, seen as the town drunk. We don’t yet know how much power he yields over the men in the village. He’s the Cornish equivalent to a gang leader, a translation of the Western villain to British countryside. His influence and position in the community allow him a certain freedom, he’s probably never left the village since he was born.
Diversionary tactics come into play, taking David away from his wife on what is a very British past-time; Pheasant shooting, a right of passage for those in the country and part of society. The same men who have been work on the barn roof for the couple take him away, into a civilised arena of violence. Hoffman again plays the innocent, useless with a gun at first. Instead of shooting a man, who can potentially defend himself he aims at the defenceless birds who can’t seem to kill at first. When he finally kills he’s repulsed by what he has just done. Instead of taking home his kill for dinner he leaves the lifeless bird in peace. Juxtaposed with the rape scene which the film is now known for, the build up to the attack is pretty calm, as Charlie Venner (Del Henney) whom she previously had a relationship with, moves in to forcibly seduce. It becomes increasingly uncomfortable to watch as he gains control, ripping her clothes from her body before he rapes her. Where it becomes blurry for me is when it moves from what looks like rape to possibly consensual, she somehow accepts him and allows him to make love (in the loosest possible terms). Has she given in to his forceful actions, her past feelings overwhelm her working in his favour. The changes with the introduction of Norm Scutt (Ken Hutchison) carrying a rifle, he want a part of her, he wants a share of the action. Amy returns to being an object to be abused, returning her to a victim. I feel uncomfortable again, the sweaty bodies, is not just sexual joy, but pure terror and transfer of empowerment from woman to the men who have violated her. During the scene we have the first flourishes of slow-motion – the Peckinpah signature, here it’s to display the pain and violence towards Amy who has lost her freedom.
This experience naturally stays with Amy and the audience for the remainder of the film, we are forced to experience the imagery in a packed village hall. As she’s forcing herself to try and return to normality, it’s too. She can’t comes to terms with it during the course of the film, events won’t allow her to. When Hedden’s daughter Janice (Sally Thomsett) who we see leading Niles away to try and take advantage of him. She wants to abuse his innocence, unaware of his true nature she meets a fate similar to Lennie Hall’s victim in Of Mice and Men. Unaware of either’s power it ends fatally for Janice, the first victim of the night.
The finale of the film is long and drawn out, from what begins as a car accident develops into a full blown home invasion as Hedden on the look out for Niles now in the care of still innocent Sumner who wants to defend his house turns into a homestead under act from the natives who use all their forces to try and break through. A once civilised man is broken as he turns to violence, doing all he believes is necessary to protect his home from outsiders who want to kill his guest and obligation, wanting to do the right thing becomes very dark and murky. I’m reminded of the farmer Tony Martin who shot dead a burglar after entering his property. He too went to fatal lengths to ensure the safety of his property, sparking a nationwide debate. A real-life parallel, not as extreme as the Hollywood depiction, we can still see the lengths that even a quiet man will to.
We don’t truly get to see what happens to the last men standing, where do they go from here. Have the images of a war that have been broadcast daily on his TV been subliminally brainwashing him to pick up a gun a shoot. Has his countries love for guns become part of his identity, laying dormant ready to be awoken. I leave the film shaken by the imagery, the intensity of violence an intense and relentless barrage that we are more than glad to end. I’m now interested to see how the violence couple dynamic is carried through to The Getaway (1972), a modern day Bonnie and Clyde (1967) who get a thrill from violence, unlike the Sumner’s who used it as a last resort.
Another western that I thought I’d never really watch or review. I do remember hearing some enthusiasm for the film at art-school, but thought little of it, wanting to explore the classics of the genre more at the time, which to a large extent I have since achieved, now I’ve got a few to revisit. I have since considered catching Young Guns (1988) not really knowing much about the film beyond it looking like a chance to refresh the genre, which was beginning to happen during this period such as Silverado (1985) and Pale Rider (1985) at least Clint Eastwood could be relied upon to deliver. I also saw this as a spin on The Magnificent Seven (1960) formula, bring together a group of gunfighters and send them out to save the day, which isn’t far off what happened, just without the pathos or myth-making magic which it achieved.
What’s achieved is my curiosity being pricked up, which is all you need sometimes to engage with a film. First I was drawn to the late 1980’s music video aesthetic, it was clearly aimed at a young audience who had no real interest in the genre, something for older generations who grew up during its hey-day. During this period there are glimmers of something special coming through. Another point was having the other Martin Sheen son as the lead, as Emilio Estevez was already established in film, compared to the more prominent Charlie Sheen whose actually written out of the film at around the half-way point, which also shows as how much hated being on a horse, staying long enough to get a starring credit and a paycheck.
Looking further a stronger historical connection that I found, helping when I realised that it depicted both Billy the Kid – William H. Boney and L.G.Murphy, who both appeared in Chisum (1970), skewed more for John Wayne‘s lead character during the Lincoln County War (1877-8) one of the many cattle wars of the period. The same events basically unfold but from a more relatable point of view – the young men who knew John Tunstall whose killing, that originally started the war. Instead of Chisum who was rightly worried about Murphy’s increasing ownership in Lincoln County. He’s nowhere to be seen or heard in Young Guns which is either a poor choice historically, or consciously written out to focus on those directly effected by the shooting. Having too many characters to focus on would make it a broader less engaging film.
With such a young cast who had yet to really make a mark in film it allows these six actors (ignoring Estevez) into careers of some longevity, which did happen for Keifer Sutherland, son of Donald Sutherland, which probably helped during casting. The rest of the cast I can’t say I have really seen before this film. A 50% success rate is still good going though. Placing them in this MTV-esque Western which works in some places and not in others. The music video feel of the film really has dated, the soundtrack really doesn’t work today, it attempt to set the tone but feels out-of-place, it’s neither nostalgic or dramatic, with time it’s just been lost. The casting of Terrance Stamp as John Tunstall just doesn’t work for me. Playing the “Englishman” which is over emphasised at times is really unnecessary for the audience. It’s trying to pit Englishman against Irishmen which really is just circumstance to me, just drop the point and move on. Also Stamp looks very out of place, just delivering his lines without looking awkward on-screen. I think he’s glad he was killed off after 20 minutes. He obviously leave a mark on the men – The Regulators, who start off to war.
Turning to The Regulators as characters themselves who are fully fleshed people who you can engage with. With the emphasis on Billy the Kid the assumed leader post Tunstall’s death, the historical figure that most in the audience would have heard of compared to the cattlemen who are known to those interested in history. For me it comes from reading beyond the films. As a character himself he owns the film and Estevez owns the role, really having fun, making his mark on the role whose being done justice. Looking to Charlie Sheen’s Richard ‘Dick’ Brewer who probably seen as the winger of the group who pushes everyone further before he’s killed off. Two of the Gun’s Josiah Gordon ‘Doc’ Scurlock and Charles ‘Charley’ Bowdre (Kiefer Sutherland and Casey Siemaszko) are given the love interests which don’t take over from the main plot, if anything they make them richer characters, they have more to lose as they reach the finale. I must also touch on the Navajo character ‘Jose’ Chavez y Chavez (Lou Diamond Phillips) whose half Mexican, whose allowed screen-time to discuss the American Holocaust, specifically the massacre at Sand Creek Reservation (1864), despite the fact that he would never have been there, as he wasn’t Cheyenne or Arapaho. Showing how Native American past can be recycled and jumbled to suit a script.
Young Guns reminded me of other super groups in the genre which brought together the best of the best in their fields, or even misfits such as The Professionals (1966), The Wild Bunch (1969) up to Silverado. Guns joins that long line of super groups toting guns. Long before the Avengers and DC universe films that bring together superheroes. Except everyone gets on and they have already met, cutting out a lot of exposition allowing for us to get on with the plot and see this group of young men just get on with it.
Historically I was vaguely aware of Billy the Kid’s involvement in the Johnson County War, afterwards I feel a little more informed and refreshed, there’s more to it then the side we see. It’s small event of a much bigger, dirty, violent history, also adding the myth of the West that has been reshaped by cinema. There are a few nods to the fabric of the genre, Patrick Wayne – son of The Duke takes on the role of Pat Garrett, to Jack Palance as Murphy which you can see he’s enjoying far more than Stamp was. It’s not the strongest of films for a number of reasons which I’ve discussed, however it is fun, engaging with filled with action, you’re supporting the young men as they fight for what is right which makes up what is lacking at times. A product of its time which you can forgive its many flaws leaving me wanting to catch the sequel now.
There’s a list of films that I know about and have accepted that it’s going to be very unlikely that I’ll be able to watch. I thought Bring me the Head of Afredo Garcia (1974) was one of those films. Thankfully that is no longer the case. First aware of it during a Sam Peckinpah documentary on a DVD, probably for Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973) or The Wild Bunch (1969) I would always look out for Garcia’s Head, just in the hope that it would appear to me. And out of nowhere – Bam! Probably Peckpinpah’s finest work post Wild Bunch.
One of the few films he made when he felt he wasn’t “whoring himself out” which I can understand, work for someone else’s ideas and vision instead of your own which he found more satisfying, but it was all too late to save him from alcoholism that killed him. If he was allowed to see his vision through maybe, just maybe he would have produced more interested un-compromised work. I wonder what Major Dundee (1965) would have been like if it wasn’t take away from him? All this questions and very few answers, at least we have a directors cut of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid that shows how dedicated he was to the Western, how his vision of a dystopia’s depicted by looking back.
Moving forward a year to Alfredo’s Garcia’s Head his last true Western in the neo style, is Peckinpah being allowed a longer leash from Hollywood to get his own passion project made, after Billy the Kid was mangled in the editing room. Maybe that was his “compromise” allowed him to get on with this will less interference from the studio? Looking at Bring Me the Head it feels more personal, he’s been allowed the length that he wants. His cast is familiar to him, casting Warren Oates who was one of the Wild Bunch who all met with a bloody end. Here he’s the focus of the film, a pianist in a bar Bennie who recognises a photo that has being doing the rounds – an Alfredo Garcia no idea why to him, a few men are after him.
Now lets rewind a few minutes to a Mexican version of The Godfather, no introductions, just straight into a family of power, the daughter of the family’s patriarch and godfather want to know whose impregnated his daughter, she wont speak until her own life’s threatened, does she finally speak, a bounty’s made for this still unknown man who hasn’t long to live. What kind of film have we let ourselves in for here. Who in the 20th century gives such an order, still its carried out, leading to a montage of search across the country, names crossed off, locations checked, still no sign until Sappensly (Robert Webber) and Quill (Gig Young) meet Bennie whose the first lead anyone’s had so far. Leading to him being hired/encouraged to go on the search for him and bring back his head.
A 20th century bounty hunter, complete with car and machete, about to make his fortune – $10,000 is waiting for him. The journey wouldn’t be the same without his lover Elita (Isela Vega) bar-room floosey and singer who he has grown to love. To me it’s a Mexican Western with a white man out on the make for some big bucks. Is he made in the same vein as the man with no name from the Dollars trilogy or the troubled loner in Randolph Scott’s image. It all starts out so innocently before they’re met by bikers and another chance to see Kris Kristofferson, reminding us of far darker scenes in Straw Dogs (1971, another I have not yet seen). The road to Garcia is a bumpy dangerous one paved with not temptations but those of a foreign land that is not known to the white man.
Violence is following him every step of the way, all of this bloodshed and for what? The head of a guy he only knew slightly. There are few moments of tenderness in the film, as it all turns sour when they arrive in the village of Garcia. It seems that nature beat them to the man who we would never meet alive. Forcing our hero – if you can call him that to sink lower than he would have thought. A blatant comment of screen violence of how far other filmmakers would go for on-screen violence. Only met further by Peckinpah who shows how brutal violence can be, reusing what is by now a well established technique – using slow-motion to emphasise what the releasing of bullets, piercing a human body, how fast death can then reach someone. Admittedly I knew what he was doing so the effects are lessened on me. Still it was beautifully edited, each time a gun fight was filmed it was taken from every angle, using what feels like every camera angle. With more open space he has been able to extenuate the effect of violence.
Ultimately the film’s summed up by Bennie who through all the lengths he goes to get the head of Garcia he has come so far to gain so little at great expense. He has caused so much death, for what – desecrating a grave over a family disagreement. Letting the family know how he feels the only way he knows how or grown accustomed to. It’s a sad end to a beautifully sad film that depicts the lengths a person will go to, even when the West has been won, borders have been made, and you hope that people have progressed morally from these reprehensible acts that keeps crime alive. Compared to his other films its unique, back in Mexico, a country Peckinpah is comfortable in. You can see a clear argument for his ideas on-screen, that of violence in the modern world, you can find it anywhere if you look hard enough. For Bennie that was too close.
If I’m honest I wasn’t going to write about Rawhide (1951) I was only watching it as it sounded good from the description so there I went and recorded it on a whim almost. It doesn’t even conform to the themes I’m exploring in my work at present, or the exploration of that film I’ve mentioned far too often recently. It also bares no relation to the later long Western TV series (1959-65) which introduced us to Clint Eastwood the rest they say is history in regards that show. The film of the same name is much more forgotten today, with two actors that I have to admit aren’t my favourite either, Tyrone Power and Susan Hayward are two that have never really excited me. It seems the more I explore I find myself going in directions I never imagined. Part of that’s down to the film’s director Henry Hathaway who never failed to deliver a decent film which this is.
It’s a Western in the classical form which is something I’ve not been watching a lot of recently, wanting or finding more in the films I’ve been choosing. It’s a good old-fashioned good versus bad which is the foundation of the film, the setting of a stagecoach station is more familiar after both Comanche Station (1960) ans more recently The Hateful Eight (2015) which itself has stronger connections with the spaghetti Western The Great Silence (1968) which are more obvious and far stronger, I can’t say too much as I have yet to see the film, for now I’ll let this video do the explaining.
I can instead draw on the slightly weaker connections to Rawhide, so there will be a few spoilers here. Again most of the action takes place in a stagecoach station, yet we start at very different points. There’s a mythical introduction of the Overland Express, a stagecoach that ran from California to St Louis and back again, taking only 25 days. For the time revolutionary, today it’s incredibly slow, the nearest we’d get today is a bullet train, how times have changed. That establishes the world are going to spend the film in before moving into the characters that are treated more unconventionally. Unlike Quentin Tarantino‘s film that merely uses the stagecoach as a form of transport to bring half the characters to Minnie’s where they’re snowed in for the rest of the film. We don’t have that claustrophobia or collection of colourful characters in the earlier film which allows the characters to move more freely.
Where it really begins to show comparisons is in the big reveal in Eight when we have the long flashback and the previous parts are revealed. When the work that the four we meet at the making preparations to the guests who are yet to arrive. Of course its more overt in the later film, with the older its only a small portion of the film as Rafe Zimmerman (Hugh Marlowe) and his gang of fellow in-mates who have just escaped are preparing for the evening stage to come in. The act of fooling the passengers whilst Tom Owens (Power) and Vinnie Holt (Hayward) who are held prisoner have to fight for freedom, hopefully getting word to the morning stage which is carrying the gold that Zimmerman is waiting for.
Moving away from that connection I have to look at how the characters are dealt with, the order which they’re killed off, which is rather out of traditional sequence. We begin with Stage boss Sam Todd (Edgar Buchanan) who is usually the drunk comic relief, I’d have hoped he would have had more screen time looking at his billing in the film, compared to others. Shot down in the first 10 minutes which is quite brave for a popular supporting actor. Then at the end of the film (yes more spoilers) Zimmerman’s shot by one of his own men Tevis (Jack Elam) who is woman hungry and uncontrollable, leaving the last gunfight to take place between Tevis and Owens. Traditionally this should have been between Owens and Zimmerman, however a risks taken here, its more realistic to see infighting of a gang that crumbles at the end when it becomes all too much.
There is no real clear hero, at least a male hero as we find when the final shots come from the only woman (Hayward) in the film, much the same as Marshal Will Kane’s Quaker wife Amy Fowler Kane (Grace Kelly) who saves her husband. These two women break the mold of gunfighter’s, picking up a gun and saving the day. Owens is too much f a coward, dropping his gun at the sight of a child being shot at, instead of preventing that atrocious act being seen through. What this shows it a few things, that not all men are built to carry a gun and fight with it. Women are more than able to defend themselves. Children were also involved in these dangerous gunfight’s, something we also see in The Deadly Companions (1961) where a child’s death is at the centre of the film. The child in the earlier plays a much smaller part, which is built up for tension at the end, dangers being directed at the little girl whose in the care of her Aunt who was only trying to bring her to her paternal grandparents. This is years before we have women and children thrown into the action of The Wild Bunch (1969). Tame for sure but you have to start somewhere.
Looking quickly at the Susan Hayward who as beautiful her screen presence is she’s easily suits the West, adding both beauty whilst not being afraid to muck in as we see her digging a hole. Most women of the West are either farmers wives or dancers, she is clearly neither of those types. A single woman who takes a big risk to travel across the country with a young child in tow. I might be looking out for more of her work in future. The rests of the cast are all well-defined, I see similarities in Gratz (George Tobias) and O.B. (James Parks) yet the latter is more educated than the Mexican who simply follows orders and can’t see what is really going on around him.
Made at the beginning of the 1950’s we have a decade of more emotion and psychology entering the genre. Its a small injection of something different to the genre that is about to be shaken from its classic form to reveal more exciting imagery and ideas.
I was inspired to get out of my collection a film I hadn’t seen in a few years thanks to m friend over at Once Upon a Screen. It was one of the first classics that I devoured when my interest in film was developing, hungry for the more obvious pieces that everyone knows without really having to look to far, readily available to watch you could say. Bonnie and Clyde (1967) is also a turning point in American film, breaking the mold of the decaying studio system to deliver one of the then most violent films. Very much a product of its time, that has stood the test of time, still having the power to shock. It may look dated in places however that’s hardly something to complain about, it’s almost 50 years old, yes 50 years old, a film about two of the most prolific bank-robbers of depression era America, a two-man Jesse James gang that drive around the Deep South, robbing from the rich banks that prevented them having the life they felt they deserved.
I can’t leave the subject of violence that my friend discussed, It wasn’t used for the sake of violence. Like any content it has to be used properly and for a reason, unless the intention is to throw you off-balance, a stylistic choice by the director. Violence has since this film and The Wild Bunch (1969) been attributed to a rise in violence which is nonsense, violence was there before both those films and as we know after the events in France its still happens. No one is blaming film-violence for the acts of terrorism there. It comes from a root cause, a method to scare and control. Violence of the screen acts only as a mirror image of life, if we don’t see violence behind the security of a projected image we don’t truly understand the power of violence. It’s not glorified by Arthur Penn its simply mirrored and exaggerated in order to show us how bloody and horrific it really is. Just what Peckinpah built upon two years later using slow-motion that became a signature in hos work. If we re forced to look at it we’re engrossed by it, which we should be repulsed by. The images on the news is the real violence which we’re warned about before a piece of broadcast. To deny violence on-screen is to deny that it happens, much the same goes for strong language which is used right is a true reflection. Obviously not all audience should be exposed to this, learning the dangers of the world through the comfort of fairy tales that have dark characters and morals that stay with you, allowing you to understand the world around you as you grow up. Violence and strong language if dealt with sensitively can be powerful weapons in their own right.
Enough of the lecture and onto the film that I hadn’t seen since I was at uni so over 3 years ago now. I think that was long enough to forget most of the plot, even the odd clip didn’t really join up all the dots. Allowing me to go into this film very much with a fresh pair of eyes, maybe that’s the power of the images that they stay with you long enough that they you can feel their presence even as they fade into the long-term-memory. The events had long since faded leaving a sense of visceral violence and youthful energy that excites you, even though it’s about bank robberies. We are slowly lulled into a false sense of security, an uncertain time of un-seen poverty in America via old photographs that depict suffering, poverty and struggle to survive against the odds, the banks and ultimately the system that itself is fighting to stand-up. Before we meet a young couple in the oddest of situation, a crime is about to be committed, the start of a strange relationship between Clyde Barrow (Warren Beatty) and Bonnie Parker (Faye Dunaway). Sparks fly between them but not in the standard sexual sense, getting their kicks on the open road in the small towns of Deep South.
It’s the youthful energy that sets this film alight, we don’t really care about what they do in the beginning, no bloods shed. They are stealing from the rich, whilst respecting the poor. In the beginning it’s just the too of them, riding the open road, enjoying the spoils in the cars that come and go like the clothes on their back. As if they don’t have a care in the world, they have their whole lives ahead of them. Before meeting their getaway driver C.W. Moss (Michael J. Pollard) who wants to share the spoils, add some excitement to his otherwise boring life. It beats the routine of adult life they are now trapped in. Are they escaping adulthood or just the responsibility of it? They are using their bodies to get what they want, becoming powerful forces in the Southern states, forcing the hand of the already stretched banks. They are unaware of the effect they are having, a danger to society, only interested in the notoriety that is produces, they relish it, they are somebody, the Barrow gang as they come to be known when they join up with older brother Buck (Gene Hackman) and wife Blanche (Estelle Parsons) who is trapped between her upbringing and obligation to her husband.
We have our outsider within the gang acting (Blanche) as the conscience of the film. Scared witless by the acts of violence that escalate, and torn by her love for Buck. Screaming at any given time, out of fear or excitement the line becomes blurred as she comes to accept her position in the gang, neither a prisoner nor a participant in the robberies. We the audience however have the choice to continue watching or turn-away. I stayed. There was too much to not ignore. I noticed that as however modern the content, the violence of the bolemic blood. It’s very classic in terms of production. The interior car scenes are all completed with front and rear projection, this could be due to budget or stylistic choices, to have a classic look, when as early as the mid-fifties car scenes were being taken to the location. We’re reminded we are looking at an artifice not reality, it shows up on-screen, yet we don;t care as we are lost in the energy and conversation of the Barrow gang. We are looking at kids, young people swept up in the moment before reality soon comes back to haunt them.
I could go on about the plot, which we all know, it is also a road trip that charts the life of these two lovers on the run from the law. They start loosing that youthful edge as the presence of the police is not far behind them. Numerous shoot-outs which I had forgotten reference films from the era, loud and messy affairs that are nostalgic for that era of film before the Hays code had been enforced on American film. It’s finally breaking free from those restraints. However as much as they are loosening there lies within a moral, that all these acts of violence will catch-up with you. As we have come to have burned in our minds, as one of modern cinema’s greatest scenes begins to unfold, bringing a close to an era in the South.
The gunning down of Bonnie and Clyde is the only scene I have re-watched away from the film, yet connected to the film is even more powerful, we’ve been taken on a thrill ride through open country, sex, violence and silliness. Reality kicks in, and orders restored in the world, our image of the film’s shattered and reformed. Violence is not a nice thing, as a mentioned earlier, it can kill with ease. The slow-motion image of their death, two dancing corpses being pumped with bullets is hard to swallow yet at the same time parodies the death scene, that moment actors relish, to leave the screen with a dramatic exit. They are also leaving life to something less exciting…death that has no escape. Driving that image home is enough to shock the audience, whilst at the same time wow them with this effect.
Bonnie and Clyde was a turning point in cinema there-after there was no point where you could go back, the fast images of death have been burned into a generation. Wanting more, seeing more on the TV at night with the Vietnam war showing death every night, when it happens everyday on our streets. Cinema had to reflect that not shy away from reality which is far darker than it wanted us to believe. It’s not even just a standard crime thriller as the characters each question their position in society, all equally “rednecks” who are fighting against the stereotype to be something more, it has a voice for the younger generation that was then still fighting to be heard against the establishment.
- Bonnie and Clyde (1967) (lecinemadreams.blogspot.co.uk)
- The Dueling Divas Blogathon: Female Rivalry in Bonnie & Clyde (1967) (thewonderfulworldofcinema.wordpress.com)
- Savage Friday: Bonnie and Clyde (1967) (reflectionsonfilmandtelevision.blogspot.co.uk)
- Film #65: Bonnie and Clyde (1967) (scottsfilmwatch.blogspot.co.uk)
Yet another western I have been meaning to revisit to better understand. My first reading of the film was completely off, as I realised after listening to a lecture from Richard Slotkin, now I really do have a far better understanding of The Wild Bunch (1969) which does indeed overshadow the rest of Sam Peckinpah‘s work, when he has so much more to offer to cinema. Instead of going over the plot I want to more analyse the film interns of how I read it, looking at certain elements and quotes which really do stand out for me, which probably shows why it stands out more so than others. It’s not just the violence that he wanted to amplify to the audience, Peckinpah, hated violence (not that you’d know it from his films) almost glorifying it, yet this has a knock on effect as we see the action, the deaths, the falls shot in slow-motion, we’re forced to look at the image for longer, it’s a form of torture, you want violence, here it is, in all of its bloody form, you look on staring at this beautiful image not really comprehending that you are seeing someone die before your eyes. At full speed and on the streets we don’t have that luxury, our memory replays the moments of real violence in real-time, or sped up we have no time to really process what has happened until it’s over in a flash. Peckinpah stretches those moments to allow us to process, to understand and if we want…enjoy the brutality.
With the more obvious element that stays with you long after the credits have rolled I want to focus on the Wild Bunch themselves, who in history were really Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid and their gang. Taking the title and placing it on to an equally dangerous group of men, lead by Pike Bishop (William Holden) and his right hand man Dutch Engstrom (Ernest Borgnine), playing old men who lead a bunch of gunfighter’s who we meet in the close of their era and the death of the West. Their time is almost up and they know it. Hoping that they will be carrying out no more jobs after the bank-robbery, which leads me onto my first quote which struck me.
If they move, kill ’em! – Pike Bishop
To be honest Pike
delivers most of these lines, this one is led with such military precision, there is no thought for the casualties. Those held up in the bank are collateral damage they just don’t matter in the mission, get the money and go. It’s cold blooded. Yet we spend most of our time with these men, much like most westerns, focusing on the heroes, these are reversed, leading us to believe the heroes lead by Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan) who was once a member of this gang, given a chance to redeem himself. He is the anti-hero (of sorts) that are ordered to lead a gang of misfits, the scum of the earth in search of the wild bunch. Thornton has his own lines which such as
We’re after men. And I wish to God I was with them. – Thornton
There’s a yearning to even for him for the old days, for the male companionship he no longer has, surrounded by idiots who can’t even shoot the right men. Yet they are his only hope of ensuring his freedom which is in the hands of a railway man. He wants to feel alive, to be a man, to have some honour again.
I found that over the course of the film it wasn’t just a swan-song to the classics of the genre, such as John Ford’s, Hathaway’s, and Hawks etc that focus on the hero of the hour, there are no heroes here, their words and ideas are flawed, not those of men with honour that you would look up to. An argument between Pike and Dutch about a man’s words is a great example of this moral western that takes the violence by the throat and shakes it up.
What would you do in his place? He gave his word – Pike
He gave his word to a railroad. – Engstrom
It’s his word. – Pike
That ain’t what counts! It’s who you give it *to*! – Engstrong
The idea of a man’s word is a powerful masculine idea, a man’s word is worth more than a signature on a legal document to some people. It’s on the same level as the strength of a man’s hand-shake, a judgement I use myself, it’s a greeting with a stranger, or a positive start to an interview etc. A man’s word is a step further, a promise that binds two men together intrinsically. What’s being discussed here is who Thornton gives his word to, the enemy that is the railroad man (Harrigan) Albert Dekker who employs him, making him a traitor to Dutch who was like a brother to Thornton, this is a betrayal much like a partner having an affair and living with them. You could say; sleeping with the enemy. Where it becomes blurry is Pike arguing the point of the fact he still gave his word, it doesn’t matter who to, he;s accepted that he has changed sides and has to live with that, respecting him. Giving your word and keeping it shows the sign of a strong man.
Another quote to look at is
(talking about the railroad) There was a man named Harrigan. Used to have a way of doin’ things. I made him change his ways. A hell of a lot of people, Dutch, just can’t stand to be wrong. – Pike
Pride. – Dutch
And they can’t forget it… that pride… being wrong. Or learn by it – Pike
How ’bout us, Pike? You reckon we learned – vein’ wrong, today? – Dutch
I sure hope to God we did. – Pike
The glory days of their ability to strike fear into people, forcing them to change, to act fast. They are glorifying themselves as being almost gods, people to fear. Harrigan has become a man to fear as he has finally come after him, taking the law into his own hands, that at the start of the film caused countless innocent victims shot in cross-fire. Pike and Dutch are also reminiscing of better times, the height of the gunfighter that they were a part of it is no longer there. They encounter the latest vehicles that even outmoded the horse, a form of transport they have come to rely on and is synonymous with the western. Ironically used to kill Cable Hogue (Jason Robards) in The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970) the good old days are over.
I want to touch one other aspect that is the US Army that is never portrayed in a positive light throughout the film. Traditionally the cavalry are the trooping the colours, riding in, sounding their bugles before quelling and pacifying the enemy in no time. Peckinpah portrays them as incompetent, even the main men think little of them. This could easily reflect Peckinpah’s and many other liberal directors who wanted to hit out at the Vietnam War, a divisive war, reflected into the countries own domestic past we see a different army that is unable to get up and react to weapons being stolen from under their noses. An embarrassment for any army, filled with raw recruits unaware of what they have to do.
It may have took a few attempts to really understand The Wild Bunch for me is a morality western, a Neo-Western if you want to be picky as its questions the genre and the countries past, taking it and reforming it to be viewed by an audience who is drawn by violence and the legend that has blurred the countries past, the two myth and fact is intertwined, only those who study American history (before 1900) really know what happened. I am slowly seeing the connections and the differences between fact and film fiction. I can see why this film overshadows the rest, the characters are painted on a wider canvas, morality is blurred and the violence is heightened. It’s a sweeping western that doesn’t even show a Native American, replaced with the Mexican Army who are more intelligently depicted than before, they are not just drunk gringos who sleep out in the afternoon sun with a sombrero covering their faces. They are fully formed people, which is something we don’t get from the Natives. The main cast is filled with actors who have hugely played the good-guys in westerns, here playing cold killers who have their own moral code that if you think about it would frighten you. Should we really listen to what these cowboy role models oft he silver screen have told us?
- The Wild Bunch (Sam Peckinpah, 1969) (forrestinfocus.wordpress.com)
- The Wild Bunch (1969) ** (1001moviesblog.blogspot.co.uk)
- The Wild Bunch (1969) A Film by Sam Peckinpah (arethehillsgoingtomarchoff.blogspot.co.uk)
- The Wild Bunch (1969) (buddiesinthesaddle.blogspot.co.uk)
- The Wild Bunch (1969) (dfordoom-movieramblings.blogspot.co.uk)
- The Wild Bunch (Warner Bros, 1969) (jeffarnoldblog.blogspot.co.uk)
- The Wild Bunch…Part 1 (myfavoritewesterns.com)
I watched this based on recommendation from a number of sources, One-Eyed Jacks (1961) is another of those misunderstood films on the time on release by a one-time actor/director, such as Charles Laughton who directed The Night of the Hunter (1955) which also fell foul to similar results. Both now highly regarded classics of both the Western and film noir respectively. One-Eyed Jacks could have been more successful if it was made and released during the dark psychological 50’s. Even with the working combination of Marlon Brando and Karl Malden in On The Waterfront (1954) and A Streetcar Names Desire (1951). Maybe it’s because the film so intensely charged that it was too much to see two men once bank robbers who rode together turn so viciously away from each other.
With a dream western cast, calling in a huge number of supporting actors who are synonymous with the genre, from Hank Worden through to Katy Jurado and Slim Pickens I can only presume the rest were busy working with John Wayne or John Ford at the time of filming. It’s rich is passion and a dark heart that travels from Mexico to the coat of California as two men must find justice. With Brando in front and behind the camera we’ve a different kind of western, one that is brooding and dark, full of psychology, whilst the actor who had already done a handful of westerns fits easily into the world he is bringing together. With heavy touches of visual theatrics, such as hiding the Mexicans in pursuit behind sandstorm, not properly insight to both Rio (Brando) or the audience who try to make out what they are seeing. This too is where a father/son like relationship that was once strong, built on a shared need for women and greed is broken when Dad Longworth leaves to buy new horses, taking the opportunity to start over again. Leaving Rio with little choice but to give himself up to the authorities that surround him. A price he will not forget to be repaid.
Jumping forward 5 years we see two men making a break from prison, nothing will stop these two men, Rio and Chico Modesto (Larry Duran) from freedom. With one goal, to find Dad Longworth ad kill him. It’s not the bandit after the sherif who put him behind bars, it’s the betrayed friend righting a wrong that he can’t forget. Meeting along the way, Bob Armory, one of Ben Johnson‘s finest performance outside of the Ford Stock Company and The Wild Bunch (1969) as another bandit who won’t be messed around when he joins up with Rio who has a bigger reputation with a gun. Who watching the changes in his new temperamental partner.
On arriving in California we find a now respectable Longworth, a reformed gun-man now as town sherif, with a Mexican family in his life. The life of freedom and abiding the law has paid off for him, everyone knows his past, a past he has chosen to rewrite for himself, which will soon be re-evaluated when Rio arrives to find him. Living the life he could have had, fuelling his anger, the need to kill him grows stronger still. Adding to that he meets Longworth’s step-daughter Louisa (Pina Pellicer) who becomes his love interest, yet bordering on incest, if only related by marriage.
Both men are very much the same, shaped by how events five years previously panned out, sending them both in different directions. Both a liars hiding their past from the women in their lives. It’s only a matter of time until they both can’t take anymore, who will shoot first? There are many opportunities to silence one another, the audience is left frustrated by the will they won’t they, not of love but kill, something not often replicated in the western. Surrounded by characters who are all playing against the type we usually see on-screen and so effectively too.
I’m pleased I’ve finally watched this sometimes forgotten classic, I wonder what else Brando may have directed if he wasn’t put off by the public response, with such adult themes. A film that was originally 5 hours long was recut into this still impressive form. Will we ever see that version, much like Cimino‘s Heaven’s Gate (1980) whose directors cut is 4 hours long. Brando’s reported in-experience behind the camera was sadly not seen for the genius he was today. Like so many actor/directors of his time that weren’t given the chance to make more, with visions so ahead of their time, it’s a case of if only.
With a very distinctive visual style and portrayal of violence, I knew I was in for something both beautiful and gloriously violent. That’s not to say that Sam Peckinpah enjoyed violence for which he will always be remembered for, in fact it was quite the opposite, hating it with a passion. Increasing the volume greatly from The Wild Bunch (1969) which can seem tame in comparison to the much later Cross of Iron (1977) on the Nazi battlefield in Russia.
It’s very rare that we actually sympathise with a German soldier, something I have only done twice before; All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) and Das Boot (1981). Again it doesn’t really matter what side these soldiers are on, seen more as men in the midst of a war they are loosing. Focusing on their dynamics rather than the politics of the conflict as the began their retreat from Russia in 1943. The main conflict is between the decorated and rebellious Rolf Stiener (James Coburn) and the Prussian Captain Hauptmann (Maximilian Schell) who wants the Iron Cross medal, an iconic and sought after piece in the Third Reich. A personal fight for glory is being waged between two men. A clash of class ideals is going on between these influential men on the Russian front.
The opening titles of this film are fascinating, matched to a frantic succession of images that depict the rise to power of Hitler and the Nazi army, as if they are playing a game, just children taking over the playground. Tinged with cynicism of the weary soldier characterised by Coburn who gas grown to hate all that is about the war and probably Germany. Still he carries out his orders and looks out for his men throughout. Even pitying a young prisoner they find, not having the heart to kill a boy in uniform, which would amount to murder not a legal killing in his and the mens eyes.
Theres a battle within the structure of command, between the colonel Oberst (James Mason) and his assistant Captain Hauptmann (David Warner). Both weary of the war, knowing they have all but lost, wondering when they will surrender. Warner plays a depressed captain whose hopes have been all but lost to the ravages of war, whilst the colonel is holding together his command. Handling a glory hungry upper-class Prussian who will stop at nothing in gaining the Iron Cross, unable to return to his family without one.
A lot of subject matter is discussed here, from the ethics of prisoner treatment to the glory of fighting, philosophy of the individual. By no means is this just a find the enemy and shooter dead kind of a film. It’s both intelligent and thought-provoking as we see the injured soldier, how they are treated by the higher ranks, the mental stresses of war, dramatically seen in slow-motion flashbacks. Whichever side of war you are on, it’s never easy for the simple soldier out there fighting. Who can lose that sense of purpose, killing, running and following orders that lose all meaning with all the death and destruction around them.
The violence found within The Wild Bunch was for its time controversial, by the time of Cross of Iron we had grown used to it all. The very setting of the latter film delivers us more studies of death as they slowed down to not enjoy but be horrified by. Cinematically we see a life coming to an end in far more than a flash of an explosion or a round of bullets piercing flesh and blood. Being forced to see such brutality makes death a spectacle to watch in awe. It’s just a trick, whilst in reality it’s anything but. This heightened experience of war makes it more real and at the same time hype real, what is over in a second we now see for 10 seconds.
It’s ultimately about two men at logger heads, at either end of the social spectrum placed into a world that a power struggle. No one really wins as we leave them when the Russians once more advance. I’m cheering for no one at this point, drained by all the violence that has been spewing out of the screen. All the tired men just trying to live another day as best they can. Isn’t that we are all trying to do, get through the day the best we can, making the most of what we have? Ok maybe a bit extreme there, I’m not in a war zone not knowing if I’ll be alive by the end of the day. For me I’ve just discovered a hidden gem of Peckinpah’s that deserves more praise than it receives, understanding his subject matter, always following the underdog at his demise, just what he does best.
- Film Review: Cross of Iron, 1977: Directed by Sam Peckinpah starring James Coburn & Maximilian Schell
- Cross of Iron (misterneil.blogspot.co.uk)
- 0032 Cross of Iron (popcornnights.wordpress.com)
- #64 – CROSS OF IRON (warmoviebuff.blogspot.co.uk)
- Cross of Iron (nothingiswrittenfilm.blogspot.co.uk)
- Cross of Iron: Short of Greatness (swordofelysium.wordpress.com)
- Slow Motion in Sam Pekinpah’s Cross of Iron (ardfilmjournal.wordpress.com)
- World War II Marathon: Cross of Iron (1977) (billsmovieemporium.wordpress.com)