Another Western that I’ve been looking out for over the years, with the wait now finally over I have mixed feelings of deflation. Comedian Rich Hall began his BBC4 documentary on the film depiction on Native Americans by starting with the assassination of Osama Bin-Laden -, soldiers uttering the word Geronimo. A word that was originally linked to the name of the Apache warrior who held out and fought until he’s forced to surrender to the U.S. army. How many other names have been so misappropriated? A name of a countries former enemy has become a term of celebration and liberation. None have the same sound to them as Geronimo as it rolls off the tongue out of all the prominent Native American figures. It’s a practice that I try to avoid, aiming to keep his name in historical context, not to use in celebration.
The 1993 film Geronimo (1993) was one of two released that year about the Apache warrior, one made a Native American produced TV movie, very different in tone, celebrating the life and times of the figure, one that I feel I should watch again to compare. And the Hollywood Western that bills the lead actor, fourth on the list below Gene Hackman and Robert Duvall. A symptom of how Hollywood make and market their films. Placing the more prominent names above others who have a larger part in the film. Also indicating the position of Native American actors in the film industry, at the bottom. The only positive you can take away from this billing is that the role went to Wes Studi, a Native American (Cherokee) and not someone in brown face, that’s some progress.
Made during the early 1990’s when there was a boom in the genre, released in between Dances With Wolves (1990), Unforgiven (1992) and Wyatt Earp (1994), the same year as the larger than life, sweeping epic – Tombstone (1993). Easily categorized as a revisionist Western, attempting to rewrite the genres pasts wrongs to tell a more honest account of history. So how did they get on? I’m reminded of Broken Arrow (1950) when James Stewart narrated Tom Jefford’s experience with the Apache, we even met Geronimo in one scene when all the tribes of the nation met for a council meeting, his own histories picked up in a Chuck Connors film – Geronimo (1962) which I might check out of curiosity. This 1990’s take on the warriors narrated by baby-faced Matt Damon as a fresh out of West point officer Lt. Britton Davis, leaving me thinking how much of Lt Dunbar has influenced him, his moments of reflection and modern thinking on a 19th century issue that’s now become part of America’s history and less talked about politics. Britton us bright-eyed and bushy-tailed as he waits to meet with his commanding officer Lt. Charles Gatewood (Jason Patric) heading off to join the stately and much admired Brigadier General George Crook (Gene Hackman) who was given the task of rounding up the Apache and sticking them on the reservation.
Now with all Native American revisionism its going to be more graphic – think Little Big Man and Soldier Blue (both 1970) et al, it’s brutal and attempting to take their side for again. Yet it still comes from the perspective of a white soldier – Davis who is reflecting over this period in history. There is however more screen time given to Wes Studi and rightly so really allowing us the best Hollywood can do depict the final days of freedom for the Apache. As revisionist the film tries to be, it takes a massive cue from John Ford, depicting the film entirely in Monument Valley, trying to be both a Cavalry film and Cheyenne Autumn (1964) which moved around the Navajo country, having now taken on this mythic form and space which allows filmmakers to tell the story of the West in this landscape almost exclusively at times. I found this distracting at times, thinking about Fort Apache or She Wore a Yellow Ribbon at times, not seeing for it wants to be.
With more screen-time given to Studi we’re allowed to understand his point of view, he’s not just a pain in the backside for the Army and the White House, He’s has a credible point of view. First meeting him at his initial surrender, brought the charge of the two Lieutenant’s who see this as a big moment in both their careers and history. For Geronimo it’s the end of his peoples way of life and loss of freedom, he’s not taken this decision lightly. It’s a film that wants to be taken seriously, giving time to both fact and action during the films run. Time for the peace talks that see the Apache accepting they’ve been worn down and needing to talk. Before things get messy after an Apache’s killed for a ghost dance (disturbing the peace) which triggers another war between them and the white eyes.
The action scenes are rather mixed, bloody at times, filled with dust which makes it hard at times to see what’s going on. OK we’re in the desert but its supposed to be discernible to the viewer. Suggesting that it was a bloody time for both sides, more so the Natives who are fighting for respect and honor at this pivotal time.
Turning to look at the other characters times taken to develop the two lieutenant’s and even the aging scout Al Sieber (Duvall) who has suffered 17 arrows and gunshots and still standing, he’s learned to respect his enemy whilst growing tired in his role. A nice character for Duvall to play, having been a presence in the genre ever since he got “shot to pieces” by the Duke in True Grit (1969) he gives the film extra strength by him just being there. I felt as much as those in uniform were given more time to grow, we got less time with Chato (Steve Reevis) a once feared warrior, now a loyal scout to the cavalry, outside of his obvious skill and knowledge he is only seen as a traitor to his people. At least he’s not being played by Charles Bronson in Chato’s Land (1972).
Summing up this film it’s an attempt to tell two sides to the same events, whilst naturally being slightly more biased to the Army, made by White men, it’s only able to go so far. We do have a more fleshed out depiction of the Apache which i can’t complain about and with subtitles which gives allows more depth, only speaking English when faced with White Eyes. I noticed also a bit of slopping editing, splicing in an elder to Crooks final treaty talk, it looked really out of place, shoe-horned in there. I can’t complain too much, its an early 90’s Western that attempts to rewrite events, yet still holding back in places.
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.
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.
This isn’t the first film that I would think to revisit of the Duke’s, However I’ve had a theory for some time, as my degree show piece really sums up in asking Did the Duke Take the Myth to the Grave? (2012), basically asking the question that with the death of John Wayne in 1979 the western was taken with him. I’ve noted before that it was definitely in decline during the 1970’s. I never thought about his own films as a contributing factor to that decline, which is far comment as he was still acting well into his 60’s. Upon finishing his biography by Scott Eyman who comments
“Perhaps it would be fair to say that McLaglen, Burt Kennedy and the other men who directed Wayne for Wayne’s own production company knew they were there to serve their star. Conversely, on a picture directed by Ford, Hawks, Hathaway or Wellman, Wayne was there to serve the director and by extension the picture” page 493.
All of Wayne’s later pictures were part or in full funded by Batjac and distributed by bigger companies. There is further mention of the directors on Waynes films by writer/director Larry Cohen –
Was Wayne working with lesser but just competent directors as the old guard were either dying off or retiring. You could say they weren’t that good-looking at the Box-office receipts of the day. However time is a different matter. Anything with Wayne in the film is usually shown on a regular basis from the 1940s up to his death there is not a day/week goes by when I don’t see one of his films in the listings. Maybe it’s his screen presence in this “inferior” films that keeps them in demand. It’s argued by Richard Goldstein in 1967 that
“Duke sees the Western as an eternal form, solid and unchanging. He is dead wrong. The Western is a living mythology, and like a vital folklore it evolves with the times. The American saga is a continuing story. The John Wayne hero is built to survive massacres, tidal waves and corruption. But it can never bear the erosion of style” page 504
Much like I have found the genre has to adapt for the times. The strength of the Dukes films withstanding all that is due to his screen presence, the role model his has created of his career. He’s the personification of America to rest of the world. Also its pure nostalgia for a film with an actor who rarely lets you down onscreen no matter his age. And that’s what I found again with The Train Robbers (1973) which I had not seen in a few years. I try to space out how often I re-watch a film among all those that are new to myself.
For me, I was originally caught up in the gold hungry riders that followed Lane (Wayne and his men along with Mrs. Lowe (Ann-Margret) are tracking down gold that’s buried in an abandoned steam train. I found that the riders who had no dialogue, just seen riding in pursuit against mysterious music, catching up with Lane and co who don’t stop and fight. And that is what I noticed most about the film this time. Wayne avoids action that a lot and is picked up on by others with him. Is this a sign of age?
The cast isn’t exactly a young one either, as I mentioned with the The Hellfighters (1968), the majority of the cast was over 50 with only a few younger, in this case Ann Margaret who is the only woman in the film. The Train Robbers was clearly written or tailored Wayne’s specifications. Which is fair enough if your own production company are making the film. However, you could have had a younger cast with Margaret still in there. However saying that you would loose the rich back stories that come with age.
You can tell I’m biased even in my critical thinking, to have this film with anyone but the Duke it might never have been made. It catered to a certain audience who had grown up with his films so they got the standard Wayne western. However it doesn’t really do much for the genre that was going through a state of change, questioning its own history and formal qualities, without forgetting the politics. A genre that had grown to a certain extent out of Wayne who still wanted to work in film and the genre.
You could say that his later films, with possible exception to The Shootist (1976) which is a beautiful swan song to him with a troubled production are not his best. It becomes about being more of the same, a chance to let him work once more without pushing him too much. I mean he was working with one lung and his health was slowly in decline. I take exception to The Cowboys (1972) which has a real charm to it that the others lack. The Train Robbers (1973) isn’t a bad film, it’s just not a great western which you come to associate with Wayne. There’s simple and engaging script, the characters are all likeable. The set-pieces are fun and allow you to enjoy the landscape, it’s just not got the presence of a film that he had made over a decade previously. True Grit (1969) is a tour-de-force for him, a culmination of past roles, happy in his assumed role of an older man in the West. It is however not as strongly connected to the genre as The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) with John Ford questioned the genre, how it’s created, what we believe and the fabric of the country that was dear to his heart.
I thought I’d give this lesser known Gregory Peck western, made during a time when tests were indeed change, the very style of the western had taken two paths, the dying classic and the revisionist. This falls into the first, a form that allowed old favourites such as Peck, John Wayne, James Stewart and their contemporaries to continue working, there was indeed still an audience and that is still here to this day, however there is a sense of tiredness, the actors aren’t spring chickens, audiences had also become more sophisticated. It shows in Shoot Out (1971) the change in tone of language from the beginning when ex-convict and bank robber Clay Lomax (Peck) is released from prison. The genre wants a new audience, even with younger characters that are employed to bring him in un-harmed.
With a simple set-up it should be straight forward, as the younger men lead by Bobby Jay Jones (Robert F. Lyons) are put to work in an older man’s world. The classic west still exists, allowing new life to breathe in it. Time has not been kind to the older men, one fresh out of jail, a saloon owner Trooper (Jeff Corey) an ex-soldier is now in a wheel chair, whilst the Jones employer Sam Foley (James Gregory) having made his lives fortune sits in waiting. Acting also as a new generation in waiting to make their own mark in film and the genre.
For Lomax he begins his freedom set out to exact revenge, yet before long he is in delivered a package that he had not bargained for, a reminder of his past, a possible daughter Decky Ortega (Dawn Lyn) who steals every scene she’s in, making up for genre that looks tired, a lead actor, whilst giving his best is just too old for the role. This coming from a period in films when older men were still being seen as fathers of young children. When in reality their own had grown up and left home. However you can still feel the drive to get to his destination and exact revenge against Foley who shot him in the back, landing him in jail for seven years.
It’s the young men who follow him who deliver most of the violence, as they stalk the man and girl across the same country that director Henry Hathaway used in True Grit (1969). If only a few more shots had been fired before Lomax finds them on his trail. A trail that sees him begin to beyond with the outspoken young girl who is already showing signs she’s seen and learned somethings in her short life, all courtesy of her now dead mother. Whilst he wants the best for her, he knows the open road is not a life for her, he starting to try and palm her off before settling for a life with her in it.
Having the children is highlight of this film, with her we have all the comedy, and the vulnerability. Yet without her we would have more danger than we have, even towards the end when everyone is at the Farrell ranch, the William Tell fun and games which delivers the real danger. It’s rare to see children being brought into the adult world of western violence, usually running for cover, or starring from the sidelines. The children do allow for different kind of violence, making us think about contemporary domestic lives, when we see children caught between adults, here directly in the firing line. Even violent crime where the child is put at risk. Bringing out the best and the worst in the characters to ensure justice is delivered at the end of the film. I just wish that after all that we had the showdown between Foley and Lomax thats where the real argument was supposed to be. It’s as if they ran out of film and made the best of the ending they could there is literally no shoot out between the two older men, more so the young and old, the kids sadly get in the way.
- Shoot Out (Universal, 1971) (jeffarnoldblog.blogspot.co.uk)
- Shoot Out (1971) (every70smovie.blogspot.co.uk)
- THE CLASSIC WESTERN IN TWILIGHT: SHOOT OUT by Fred Blosser (newimprovedgorman.blogspot.co.uk)