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.
Now this is a rarity, a review of a superhero film. Previously I’ve seen a few superhero films, I could give a list – mainly X-Men, as I grew up with the cartoon as a child. Only a few months ago I caught Deadpool (2016), yes I’m a bit slower when it comes to the costumed characters. When I heard this film in the same breath of the Western I was more interested in seeing Logan (2017) billed as being Hugh Jackman‘s final outing as the angry clawed loner. Also to be the first and possibly worthy film for the character – which I can’t really comment on.
I can however draw on my understanding of the Western in relation to Logan, which will take up the majority of my time here. So let’s get under, saddle up and ride on out. Or in Logan/James Hewlett (Jackman) is a limo driver in the year 2029, living in Mexico. He is clearly tired and ravaged by time, the years haven’t been good to him. The once virile mutant filled with rage really doesn’t want to get into fight, he’s become reluctant to draw out the adamantium that have become more of a curse than before. The feeling of immortality has long faded, age and time is catching up with him. Much like in The Gunfighter (1950) – Johnny Ringo (Gregory Peck) who wants to lay down his gun, tired of killing and running, wanting a normal life. His celebrity has long-lost it’s appeal, now a target for young wannabe’s hungry for that trophy and title “I shot Johnny Ringo”. Wolverine/Logan is our gunfighter who has gone into hiding, nursing Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) whose suffering with dementia, needing medication to keep him lucid. Any drop in dosage can unleashed his now uncontrolled mental abilities can be felt on an almost planetary scale – it’s just not worth thinking about.
So if Logan is the gunfighter, Xavier is the elderly parent who once took him under his wing, brought him up to be the man he hoped to be like. It would be wrong to compare Xavier to a Walter Brennan character who acted as the older sidekick whose life experience’s are shared with our hero. We also have a mutant tracker, an albino Caliban (Stephen Merchant) is the unwitting sidekick who keeps both in check. We have the first of our principal characters in place now.
The film begins as it means go on, setting the tone, its hard language and bloody violence, not through Logan wanting to deliver it. Coming from a place of self-defense of self-preservation, showing that there is a place for violence in the comic book universe beyond imaginary buildings and cities being blown up in a computer. The violence leaves little to the imagination, even quick editing we are still left feel slightly queasy at the body parts being cut into and off into multiple victims throughout the film. It’s also the first time that I’ve heard Stewart swearing and as coarsely. I’m reminded of Unforgiven (1992) that sees violence rise from the embers of once prolific gunfighter William Munny (Clint Eastwood,) who picks his gun up hopefully for the last time, a big pay off that will support his family. Turning back to an old undisturbed part of his life, thought to be tamed by his dead wife. What we see is a resurgence in those aggressive emotions, the death of his friend Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman) a line has been crossed, up to this point he’s been rusty with his rifle, not able to mount a horse without assistance, a shadow of his former self. Logan is Munny just with a adamantium skeleton – no need for the rifle here.
The films director (James Mangold) has been pretty blatant in his sources of inspiration – namely Shane (1953), the titular gunfighter played by Alan Ladd who enters into civilisation if only briefly to free a town from the strangle hold of Ryker (Emile Meyer) threatening the homesteaders who were trying to make a life for themselves. Then there’s the annoying kid Joey Starrett (Brandon De Wilde) who looked up and adored the man with a gun, who could handle it with such finesse and skill it put his own father Joe Starrett (Van Heflin) to shame, he was not the man who he wanted to look up to. That was something he had to learn and accept. The acts of violence that Shane commits are held back to the end of the film, allowing us to see this strong stoic figure who only shoots when he really needs to. This skill is more than just that, it’s a form of defense that stops him functioning in society. He ultimately has to ride on away from the homesteaders who have chosen a peaceful life. The link’s seen in a few scenes Logan, we see it literally on TV, supposed to be nearly 100 years old (76 years, but whose counting). Showing that it still hows the power to hold the attention of an audience. The scenes carefully chosen to include Shane.
Our Shane is clearly Logan whose followed by his own kid (spoiler!!) a young Mexican girl – Laura (Dafne Keen) herself on the run from an army of men and mutant who want to capture her. Her own existence is very similar to Logan’s, through no fault of her own plagued by this mutation that has been engineered, thanks to mad scientist – Dr. Rice (Richard E. Grant), a connection to the X-Men cannon. One of a new generation who are on the run, the gunfighter of the Marvel universe start even younger. No need for guns, they were born with their own gifts (if you can call them that.
Away from the Western connections and themes we have that of family, having only Xavier and Caliban as Logan’s family, its dysfunctional, a father figure who has become the receiver of care. Family isn’t something that comes naturally to him, the violence in him does not allow it to really happen. All he’s ever had has either left him or been killed. With the unwanted arrival of Laura his world starts to change, his perspective on life, he softens up towards the end if only reluctantly. She also acts as a way of the character carrying on in future films and the wider Marvel comic universe which I know little about. Here she’s just a child, but one with more than her share of issues to conquer in order to function. The baton’s passed here as characters die, passing them onto new ones.
I’ll end where I began, I’ll probably never again review another comic book film, this however spoke to me, my passions, the ideas in the western are very strong. You could say the comic book super hero is just another gunfighter, their adventures chronicled in the pulp that made them. The dime novels of the 1800’s did the same for Buffalo Bill and Jesse James and numerous others, the legends were being printed, the truth being blurred with each publication, which is referenced also in the film with a subtle self-awareness that doesn’t take you out of the film. You could say it’s a Western, just with an angry guy you don’t want to cross.
There’s been a of talk around this western, ever since I read the brief outline for The Revenant (2015) I immediately made the connection with the Richard Harris film which depicts the same events in Man in the Wilderness (1971) which for a while was all but ignored until the reviews started to come out. It’s hard to ignore really, as year drew to a close I understood that both The Revenant and the earlier film are based on the same real events but two different fictional accounts of that event. Sounded a little confusing at the time, yet they both put their own spin on facts of a frontier time in America, becoming part of the legend that is America’s history and folk-lore. More recently it has been released as award-bait which it clearly has in heaps as each ceremony is leaning towards. It could also be the year to end all the Leonardo DiCaprio memes as he should get the Best Actor Oscar, which is well deserved and a long time coming really, more on that later. Also up for best picture which I can see this easily getting, even though director Alejandro González Iñárritu picked up that one last year for Birdman (2014), could he be the new John Ford, or is that too premature in terms of Oscar success. Could this be the year that a Western wins big again, something that has not been achieved this Unforgiven (1992). There has been a slow return of the genre, not in the classic form, or even a lighter tone of the 1990’s, they are more reverential and reflective, more adult than even some of the 1950’s classic which are still hard to beat. I saying this even before the end of February. I feel though that as I have built up an interest and a practice around a dying genre it has been reborn once more, I feel lucky to have that , if only it was back in the golden-age.
Anyway enough of all the chatter and down to what I think make this film, why it stands a very good chance at the Oscars. Whilst also comparing it to Man in the Wilderness which I must say now is hard to call which is better in the light of the intense experience that I felt coming out of the cinema, the imagery so raw and fresh. I couldn’t help making comparisons with Terrence Mallick when looking at how nature’s captured, the whispers of dialogue in flash-back, yet Iñárritu isn’t trying to imitate the director, it feels more like coincidence, adding another dimension to the film and to Hugh Glass’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) back story that the centre of this revenge western.
I also found myself drawing comparisons with Jeremiah Johnson (1972) and The New Word (2005) combined with Man in the Wilderness to give us this hybrid that can stand on its own two feet. Maybe its the time period that they all cover, pre-Civil War America that we have come to know and define the language of the genre. The country has yet to be won completely, we are supposed to be in is still untamed, filled with trees and at the moment snow which is another natural enemy against the group of fur trappers that want to return home with all they have caught. Immediately caught in a vicious fight with Natives who ambush them, its a bloody scene that finds even the audience wanting to hide from the arrows. From the first few seconds you are immersed into this dirty, cold and dangerous world. Helped in part by the sound design on the film, heightening your senses to think that you are not just watching these events but out there in the cold. We get a lot of opportunities to look up out to the sky from the trees, as if to say look at what we have lost since the country was won. But you can say the same for most modern countries, as they are reshaped in the image we want them to be, for our purpose. Still it doesn’t drive that idea home we are left to come to that conclusion ourselves in this still untamed wilderness of the mountain man and the settlers of the 1820’s
Without giving too much away in regards to the plot that hasn’t already slipped through the net, I found myself waiting for the bear attack, not that I was impatient that was a building of tension among the men, especially between Glass and John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) who resents him for advising their captain Andre Henry (Domhnall Gleeson) who is more open and understanding a strong leader among this band of rough men and boys who have gone out fur trapping in the wilderness, having to hide a good number of their finds before moving on, a much depleted force, only 10 left after a bloody ambush. There is a great focus on Glass and his son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) the child of mixed race who gets some abuse, only kept alive by his fathers forward thinking. Needing him to stay quiet to survive, better to be seen and not heard. Even though as we find later in the film, some nations are still living peacefully with the American’s. The push Westward has not yet begun as we know it in the genre.
Of course when that scene between the bear and Glass is happening, it’s in your face and it’s not pretty. Something rather brutal, being taken along with Glass as he is torn to pieces almost. A tiring scene, which is not something I say lightly, it lasts what seems like forever, as he is played with like a rag doll in the cover of the forest before the men come out to find him. I couldn’t help but start to draw comparisons between this and Man in the Wilderness which is an abridged version of the same events. Here its a far wider and emotional journey for all involved, the men are all rounded characters. As much as Tom Hardy is chewing his dialogue, he’s held to account by Bridger (Will Poulter) who is the conscience he really doesn’t need at his side. Hardy is a worthy foe for Glass who spends the rest of the film avenging his son, Something we don’t get in the earlier film. There’s more emotional intensity now, more reason to return alive, not just to find the men who left him for dead.
They are both strong in equal measure in terms of depiction of the Native American, who even have a few lines in their own language, we even meet the French who are abusing their power in the untamed country. I still remember the silent labour in Wilderness that will stay with me, I found it quite powerful how dignified they were portrayed. It may have been Hollywood’s way making up for all those other messy inaccurate depictions, indulging in the other if only briefly. In The Revenant they are interacted with, they are not the enemy to be feared, coming from Glass’s history he has no fear, even speaking Pawnee. They are both different films telling the same story, or version of the facts and there is nothing wrong with that.
My first encounter with this film was on my birthday during the install of my degree show. I was recommended to watch it by a friend who knew I would like it. That’s an understatement, I loved it. My memory of High Plains Drifter (1973) has long since faded, all I could remember was the ghoulish red town and the whipping flash-backs which stay with you long after the credits have rolled. In terms of the western genre this has more in common with its Italian cousin, the spaghetti western which strictly speaking are not westerns, they have the form of the genre but don’t really have the language of the American full-breed which if I’m honest are less violent during their greatest period. The violence was exploited and amplified. Once you get over the dubbing of all but the American star of the film (Lee Van Cleef, Clint Eastwood et al.) you have this pumped up action film with more sex and violence than you’d have found to that point in the home of the genre. They didn’t carry the legendary status in the characters as subtly as Shane (1953), having built them up in the opening titles as these already fastest guns in the west-types such as Django (1966) where we are treated to another installment. Back home they’re stirred into action, not wanting to fight and draw their guns so easily, having more progression in the gunfighters.
Looking at Clint Eastwood’s influences his time with Sergio Leone strongly influenced him, the violence the stranger with no name, the anti-hero who you end up routing for comes out on top. His first western behind the camera he is still find his own unique voice, one he is adopting from the persona of the man with no name. The tone of Drifter is very European, its hard to sum up in a few sentences, the town looks freshly built, making it more become a backdrop that standout, it’s a newish town that is trying to sustain itself. Laying it’s foundations next to a lake that seems too close for comfort, suggesting it could all be washed away in stormy night. It all becomes very fragile. The town of Lago is actually another character that’s abused in the film (more about abuse later) which we see is transformed, blown up and eventually burnt down. Its part on the film is on some levels more important than the people who inhabit it.
Turning to the townspeople I’m reminded of Bad Day at Black Rock (1955) a town with a dark secret that is bubbling on the surface ready to spill over. Except we don’t have a strong replacement for the mean Robert Ryan who did actually scare the life out of Spencer Tracy (during filming) who was the outsider looking for the truth. The secrets a lot looser here as the film takes on more of a horror tone, Clint’s not giving us a straight Western, it’s a Western-Horror complete with flashbacks which you don’t really see in genre, that plague your mind. A sequence which is played out at least twice but feels a lot more in the mind. It’s the conscience of the town put on the screen.
There is also a strong influence of The Magnificent Seven (1960) or should I say more precisely The Seven Samurai (1954) a cowardly town turn here to one outsider (not seven) that is more dangerous than the men they have been home to for at least a year that have played host to that have just been killed. Except these are all Mexicans who are fighting off bandito’s, they are American citizens who should by rights be able to pick up a gun and fight without fear. They seen off the Mexicans and almost solved the “Indian problem“, why are they so afraid? They need Clint’s stranger who doesn’t really care for them at all. Which leads me back to the flashbacks which are very important in our understanding of who he is, or in fact was. He is not so much flesh and blood as he has ghostly presence, he knows more about the town than he lets on. I believe he is ghost of the whipped town Marshall Jim Duncan (Buddy Van Horn) who we see in versions of the same scene that we’re reminded off. It’s the reason that The Stranger is here, the reason the town’s scared of the men who will be riding back for revenge after a year in prison. We follow these men back, they are ruthless in their journey, killing for horses, clothes and fun, these are dangerous men for sure.
The Stranger’s presence in Lago shakes everything up, from his first hours he has raped a woman Sarah Belding (Verna Bloom) which is brutal to watch, yet filmed from the woman’s perspective a glimmer of what is to come from Unforgiven (1992) nearly 20 years later. As much as Eastwood is a feminist he wants to come across as the revengeful type who will take what he wants. Maybe this was Duncan’s lover, we just don’t know. We do know that she vocal in her experience to the law who simply want to pacify her modern views that wont be accepted until the next century. We don’t linger as much on the rape as we do in Eastwood’s later film which hinges on request of the prostitute who places a bounty on the man who disfigured her. From a lower position in society they are exerting more power than the men who want to keep both cases quiet. Ironically their next encounter is much more consensual after working his charm and danger, as if he has broken a horse in, now he simply has to ride it when he wants (yes I know it’s a poor analogy but suits the film).
Here in Lago having The Stranger in town is very much to their advantage who abuses that power. From the beginning he turns things on there head. With a free card to do as he please, have what he wants he makes the much small person Mordecai (Billy Curtis) the sheriff and mayor of the town, the butt of the jokes, is placed in the strongest position behind the stranger. He’s not there for comedy with Clint who wants to play with these people who are fighting themselves more than they had before. It’s chaos in Lago. In-fact Mordecai’s built up, from being this typically comedic role to one of great importance, he uses his position to abuse those who have given him s*** for years, now it’s his turn. He is also another way into the past of the town, he too has a connection to the late Marshall, which may lead to his role in the film being so prominent.
I could go on forever about this film there is a lot going on so I’m going to turn instead to the ending which once again got me thinking of another piece I could make in the future, as the town is literally painted red, bringing new meaning to the phrase, which ironically has roots in my home county of Leicestershire in the town of Melton Mowbray when the Marquis ran riot causing mayhem and literally painting the town red in places. This is too strong to be coincidence, turning the idea on its head so the townspeople are causing the mayhem, they are preparing themselves, practically inviting the trouble. Renaming the town Hell, which has move to the surface of the Earth. The town can be seen far quiet a distance now, in one uniform colour of bright fake-blood.
All brought about by Eastwood’s ghost which is more than just showing up the town. He is getting revenge on them all, luring them into a false sense of security before deaths unleashed upon them. The role of the gunfighter’s turned on its head, no longer is he the gun for hire or protector of the people he is using his position to induce fear and draw it from his own past. Could he be the devil as the film draws to a close, he rode literally out of nothing and back into nothing, as if the ghost can now rest peacefully knowing that he has settled his unfinished business. Eastwood early on is showing that the standard western has to change, with his Italian influences and the changing language of cinema. You could say this is more fun than the formulaic Western but that would be ignoring the level of violence and rape that goes on. He is definitely pushing the boundaries of what you can do with the genre which he is reshaping in his image.
- High Plains Drifter (1973) (westernsontheblog.blogspot.co.uk)
- High Plains Drifter as Social Commentary (thewesternwordslinger.blogspot.co.uk)
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I’ve watched two gunfighter westerns in a row now, Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957) and now The Gunfighter (1950), both of which I’ve not seen in sometime. Both sharing the theme of the life of the gunfighter, not having a place to call his own. A reputation built upon fear and sheer luck, not able to stay in one place for too long. I could stop the review there,I have just summed up The Gunfighter in a few sentences, but that wouldn’t do the film justice, which isn’t fair. So I will be going to explore this very short film that takes place mostly in a saloon bar-room. Used as a place of hide-out from the rest of the world that is wanting to put a bullet in him.
After running from one town at the beginning where he is tested by a “squirt” who wants to makes his mark in the world, to earn a name is gunned down legally (back in the Wild West) which at the time is still acceptable. The right to defend yourself is enshrined into the American Bill of Right you can understand the countries relationship with the deadly weapon. That hasn’t really changed much, of course you need a licence now and a motive for defence has to be rigorously tested in court. The Gunfighter explores the psyche of the gunfighter properly for the first time here. The giant men of the west such a Wyatt Earp, Billy the Kid and the likes are or were dangerous men who have been glorified. Earp did as we know become a marshal as I have recently seen portrayed by Burt Lancaster. Both Earp and Johnny Ringo (Gregory Peck (in The Gunfighter)) both have learnt from past gun-fights that it’s not really a life to aspire for. It’s an aspect masculinity that is really a flaw that needs to be kept in check. To know when to draw a gun, to defend oneself.
Packed into the short running time we have the repercussions of that last gunfight as three brothers come after him. That’s not before we discover how good Ringo is with a gun, he is not a man to be messed with. Or one that wants to mess around, wanting the quiet life now, becoming to talk of the town where we spend the majority of the film. The saloon, his hide-out from the world, and probably where he killed most of his victims all over the West, it’s only the interior and people that change. It also reflects how trapped he is, unable to move freely for the reputation that precedes him. Boys skipping school to catch a glimpse of what they believe to be an idol in their town, seeing him as a role model and not a murderer.
It’s thanks to old friends such as Marshal Mark Strett (Millard Mitchell) that support him, keeping him safe from those wanting to try their luck with Ringo. Learning that Strett is himself a reformed gunfighter who went straight to now enforcing the law. We also have Mac the barman (Karl Malden) who is both in awe of Ringo yet is able to look beyond to see the man without the gun. A man who just wants to see his old flame, school teacher Peggy Walsh (Helen Westcott) who couldn’t accept him. Forcing him to leave her and his son behind.
The Gunfighter is not all about the action that comes from bar-room brawls and quarrels that have to be sorted like gentlemen out of the street. Its about having to deal with your path in life and how it affects other people. Taking the route of violence may have its appeal at first, which wears off when you start to really hurt and kill. Summed up far better by William Munny (Clint Eastwood) years later in a few lines.
“It’s a hell of a thing, killing a man. Take away all he’s got and all he’s ever gonna have.”
When you look into the life of a gunfighter once the crowds have gone, what do you really have? People living in fear, families of victims wanting vengeance and justice, the fear of someone being faster than you are. That’s before you get the glory that comes with the title of being a gunfighter, not to be crossed or wronged. Losing out on having a family and a partner to call your own. The Gunfighter starts to take the western seriously, the figures of the West before were seen as heroic figures before the law takes them down or they change their ways. Now the western is growing up as the 1950’s are beginning.
- Movie Review: Gregory Peck in The Gunfighter (1950) (mark-markmywords.blogspot.co.uk)
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I’ve been waiting to catch the Japanese remake of Unforgiven (1992), wondering how it would compare, which I can’t help but do. On the face of it these two films are the same in terms of the basic plot, the three men who ride into avenge a prostitute has been attacked. There is however more added depth to Unforgiven/Yurusarezaru mono (2013) with the added strand of their countries civil war between the now samurai and Shoshon in the 1860’s, which mirrors the American civil, I don’t remember that in Eastwoods western at all. (However I haven’t seen it in 4 years) which gives the characters more of a back-story, not just gunfighters who left a trail of death and destruction in their wake. Much the same goes for the two elder men Jubei Kamata (Ken Watanabe) and Kingo Baba (Akira Emoto) who start out on one last job in hopes of collecting the reward money. Something that Jubei has long since given up since his days of killing to survive. To raise a family and work a small farm. You could say on the surface that he is a changed man who is simply struggling to keep his family alive in the 1880’s. Whilst Kingo is willing to go on one more job.
With Jebei’s wife long dead he soon gives into his friends persuasive words, riding out a while later. Its still very much the same film, switching 19th century America for Japan, its’s that simple. Of course the dialogue is different, at times I can’t read the subtitles as some bright spark decided to make them white in a font that becomes invisible in the snow. Moving on we soon meet up with a younger man who wants to join up with the veteran swords men, ready for another killing. Even his back story is fleshed out more, finding out he is a Anui a race that the then Emperor was trying to reduce, much like the taming of the Native American over the other side of the Pacific.
Add into the mix the small town where all the action takes places we have the sherif who exerts more power than necessary. Using violence to quell violence. Much younger than Gene Hackman‘s Little Bill Daggett who mirrored by the far younger sherif who doesn’t care who he hurts, using the law to shield himself. Whilst the group of prostitutes are struggling to be listened to. You could say it’s a feminist film, but I’m not too sure, as much as there women are willing to defend themselves, they still pay for men to do the dirty work. They are hiding behind the strength of a man and his gun/sword.
I think to really compare both films I need to re-watch the original Eastwood classic to truly understand what is going on. I think there was a conscious effort to make this version stand alone, whilst the main story elements are the same, it would;t be the same without the final showdown which was shaken up and completely different. I didn’t feel the terror at the transformed man, maybe it was the snow that soften it, not as dramatic as the rain on the soaked ground. Again I have to see for myself. It was however interesting to see once more the relationship between American and Japanese cinema. Before it was Kurosawa‘s Yojimbo (1961) and Seven Samurai (1954), who influenced Sergio Leone and John Sturges The compliment is being returned from Clint Eastwood by Sang-il Lee.
Moving onto or backwards to the original as directed by Clint Eastwood I found myself understanding both in greater detail and his own observations of the western as a genre, how it formed. The violence of the west and the gunfighter which has recently seen his latest film American Sniper (2014) becoming the most successful war film of all time (probably to be beaten later his year). Focusing always on the man behind the violence, not the act itself, what drives man/person to act in such a brutal and dangerous way toward others. Scaring those around you, in order to have power, dominance, material wealth, and self-confidence.
When a man gives up that violence as we find with both Jubei and William Munny they are tamed by wires who have died by the time we meet them. Now a shadow of their former self’s, trying to do good by their family. Before we have seen the lone gunfighter’s come into town, not looking for a fight, always walking into it by the films end. Which happens here in great style. And in great tradition of the aged gunfighter Eastwood carries that on, in his last western role, becoming then too old to really so it justice. I can see strokes of El Dorado (1966), The Gunfighter (1950) and The Shootist (1976) they are no longer the young men they once were, struggling to get on a horse or even walk without some ailment holding them back. Time is their only true enemy. Munny is no longer able to shoot straight without changing weapon at least once.
The legend of the gunfighter and the west itself it question the form of travelling writer/biographer W.W. Beauchamp (Saul Rubinek) who arrives with English Bob (Richard Harris) one of the last great gunfighter’s who legend is bigger than himself. A status constructed by the writer and a lot of creative license to mythologize the untamed west, glorifying a man to become more than his actions. Creating a history that sells to the masses, attracting tourism and money. The very foundations of the genre, which can sometimes be based more on fact if in the right hands. Beauchamp spends most of his time discussing the events of English Bob’s gunfights with Daggett who puts the writers book to shame, the truth behind the legend which. The facts are sometimes harder to swallow than fictions. We discover that the man now in jail had only survived so long was down to pure luck Drawing your gun first was never a sure way to win a gunfight, it takes skill and thinking to win at a draw. Draw your gun first as your aim is not always right, giving the other a chance. Add to that the alcoholic element for Bob who is painted in a far darker insidious light, is more malicious in his killings. Not the brave man who saved the day, more of a lucky drunk who could’t stop shooting. The skill of the gunfighter in the pages of dime novels or the screen is a romanticised vision of an age of survival; kill or be killed.
This is also a macho trait which we find in the youngest of the two men in ride with Munny to avenge the prostitute. The ‘Schofield Kid’ (Jaimz Woolvett) creates his own legend, first recruiting Munny to join him on what could be an adventure, a quick job that itself had been blown out of proportion. Stating that he has killed 5 men before they start even begin, knowing his youth is holding him back to match Munny’s record which is never really totted up. A very masculine trait to “big” yourself up to look and feel better, reputation is a very important part of masculinity. This doesn’t wash with Munny who eventually joins up with on friend Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman) who then all join up. I can see even at the start, the subtle changes that were made between this and the Japanese remake to have its own identity, to not just be a scene for scene copy unlike I Died a Thousand Times (1955) which allows it to be the same in terms of structure whilst having its own identity, its own culture.
Both have these built-in myths of past fighters, with swords or guns who have had great battles which have been constructed around the events which were probably bloody and full of horror, alcohol, and fear. If you deconstruct both films down to their main points we have a male figure who has lead a violent life, which has a built in legend and reputation that others have built up and admired. Without the facts to hand we have no idea what really happened, the trauma, the horror, more importantly the shame they now carry with them. I remember from my first review a few years back of the Eastwood original I focused on how the violence in a man can be tamed or even suppressed, able to reform. Until it’s triggered we don’t know how dangerous we can still. Eastwood’s gunfighter will always be more terrifying cinematically, probably because I am a great western fan than of samurai which is almost equal in its horror of the slaughter of the men. The changing of the end is what I was most critical of, going for the sherif first was a wrong footing, the main villain is always killed last.
Whatever these two films are, they do carry on that great tradition of that American/Japanese cinematic relationship of informing each others story telling. Showing the western is not dead and both countries have very different but similar histories which at the heart of human. All cultures create legends out of historical figures from moments they would sooner forget.
- Unforgiven (2013) (disasteryear20xx.blogspot.co.uk)
- Unforgiven (2013, Japanese) (yacowar.blogspot.co.uk)
- Unforgiven (1992) (rogersworst.blogspot.co.uk)
- Sound in Unforgiven (1992) (tdf165.wordpress.com)
- 4. Unforgiven (1992) (maltinsworstratings.blogspot.co.uk)
- Unforgiven (1992) (haksreviews.blogspot.co.uk)
- Unforgiven (1992) (coffeebeancinema.blogspot.co.uk)
- Unforgiven (1992) (unitedstatesofcinema.blogspot.co.uk)
I must say I wouldn’t have watched this film if it wasn’t for my manager at work who recommended I watch City Slickers (1991). And he’s someone who’s hard to impress when it comes to films. And luckily I had the chance to catch the film for myself, to see what all the fuss was about. I knew it was a comedy as soon as Billy Crystal was mentioned, I wasn’t put off by that, usually seeing comedy and westerns as very hit and miss. My mind is slowly changing when it comes to these two genres coming together. Even after seeing Blazing Saddles (1974) agin which made me re-think my position on the sub-genre.
At the time of City Slickers release there was a number of westerns around from Dances with Wolves (1990), Unforgiven (1992) before summing up with Tombstone (1993). There just the ones of the top of my head. There was a rebirth of sorts which I was too young to really enjoy, there is a slowly building wave now lead by Quentin Tarantino‘s Django Unchained (2012) who is already working on his take of Magnificent Seven (1960) with The Hateful Eight (2015 at the moment) going into production at the end of the year. Of course back in the day when all I was bothered about more child related things comedies came out in response to this new wave of westerns such as City Slickers which took three men of the city and placed them on a working ranch. Each with their own problems, as they hit middle age. Mitch Robbins (Billy Crystal) who feels lost in life, unhappy in his job, needing to be reminded what is important in his life. Whilst his two friends are hitting different dilemma’s in their life. For Phil Berquist (Daniel Stern) he is stuck in a loveless marriage to a woman who undermines him, yet is trapped by her and his father in law in a job that keeps them going. Ending up committing adultery with a checkout girl. And Ed Furillo (Bruno Kirby) who has just married a 20-year-old model doesn’t want to ruin what he has with children, wanting the couples life for as long as he can handle it.
What they need is to escape their everyday lives (conveniently arranged by Phil) to join a cattle drive from New Mexico to Colorado. Not any old holiday, having to learn the ropes (no pun intended) before starting on the drive. The film is very aware of what it is, both a homage and a modern take on one of the oldest American genre’s. Setting up three men who are lost in life, having to come leave there lives to find themselves. Moving the action to a contemporary setting, the cowboy way of life lasted in reality for around 20 years, starting after the civil war before the rail road was completed and fences went up everywhere. The land was their full of the dangers open landscape, having to live by their wits alone. This drive is no different, except with a whole history that explores the myth that they helped to create.
Joined on the drive by a father and son dentists, two brothers who make ice-cream and a lone woman, all strangers to the outdoors they are put through their paces, having to adapt quickly to the cowboy life, from riding a horse to lassooing stray cattle. It’s all there. Before they begin the drive there is a reminder of the start of the drive in Red River (1948) its both fun and loving how they all howl, hee-haw before setting off that what they saw in the movies they are finally engaging with themselves, John Wayne and Montgomery Clift aren’t there to assist them, they are instead there in spirit to spur them on.
Leading the drive is an ageing cowboy Curly (Jack Palance) one of the remaining actors from the golden era of the genre, as both a nod to that era and a link to a way of life that is dying if we let it just pass us by. A tough character who is old and set in his way. You could say he’s a stereotype of the cowboy, or a link to a bygone era both on and off-screen. Passing on his knowledge to Mitch who after starting out on the wrong path they soon reach and understanding before his extended cameo comes to an end.
The streetwise cowboys are soon thrown in at the deep end, discovering what it’s like to live on a drive, not startling the cattle, the drunkenness at night (and day). It’s not what they expected. Causing them to take a hold of the drive and see it through, along with getting a new perspective on their lives. Some are stronger than others as we find out, leaving those behind to see the drive through, a real test of what it is to be a cowboy and ultimately a man when things get tough in the modern-day. Reality is what makes this film work, with a self-awareness of a genre, which is again seen in the guise of a film that pays homage to. Set against a landscape that I’ve seen countless times before filled with men on horseback. Going back again to retrace those footsteps once more. There is something magical about that which would be more so if I was there on a drive. The comedy is quick and still fresh today, we still have the same problems in our own lives, made more so by the reality of the cowboy who knew what happens to the cattle at the end of the journey. We are never far away from reality, kept back only by nostalgia.
It was a toss-up between re-watching Unforgiven (1992) and Gran Torino (2008), the latter won by a clear factor, I’d not seen it yet. And I’m happy with my decision. I didn’t think Clint Eastwood could top himself after both Letters from Iwo Jima and Flags of our Fathers (both 2006) both emotional powerful and tender pieces of work. Gran Torino is a different beast that shows we are seeing a man then in his late seventies really understand his medium and not afraid to wear his heart on his sleeve. He has been known in the past for some hit and miss films, well with me at least, now on on winning streak for the last decade (ignoring J.Edgar (2011).
We begin at a low point in Walt Kowalksi (Eastwood) is is saying goodbye to his wife at a catholic funeral. A traditional man set in his ways whilst the rest of the world has moved on. His neighbourhood has changed in recent years, his new neighbours are Chinese, not his first choice by any means. Treating them with contempt and racial slurs. Ignorant of their culture and beliefs but can see just as them when it comes to street crime. Something that will not stand for, especially on his property, ready to pick up his gun and defend himself.
When a local Chinese-American gang begin to threaten and encourage neighbour Thao(Bee Vang) to join their gang it we see a gradual change in Walt’s approach to his neighbours, especially after his treasured car is threatened. It takes the open arms of Sue (Ahney Her) who challenges his ideas and perceptions, welcoming him into their house, partly out of gratitude for her family being saved from an encounter from the same gang. He gives in, having little choice really but to play the gentlemen. He begins to open up to the new culture whilst staying stuck on how he feels about the waste of space Thao who has yet to prove himself to be a man to him and his own family.
It’s the relationship between Thao and Walt that makes this film work, beginning to take the young man under his wing, first out of obligation, giving him jobs to do. Thao soon starts to prove his potential with a way still to go, to be a man who Walt can respect and even care for as a friend. Whilst local father (Christopher Carley) who wanted to stay true to Walt’s late wives wish fights even harder to be respected by Walt who time and again turns him away, believing he knows little about life. Someone who is starting out in life with blinkers on, unaware of the real troubles in life.
There are two men pushing themselves to be more to an older man who believes he is what it is to be a man, not afraid to show gangs he is not afraid of them, displaying a gun, one of metal, another just his hand like a child to the Indians in the playground. For Clint is a chance to reference his career in the westerns, the lone man facing the enemy, pulling the trigger of his gun with ease before blowing away the smoke from the end of the barrel to complete the job with bravado. Now in the suburban streets a veteran who has seen far worse dangers than thugs who believe they are all big and powerful.
It seems the older men of the three has the most growth in the film, although later on, he let’s go of his past perceptions, to protect those who are more vulnerable. Becoming not the role-model that others believe he will be, becoming a braver man. We all believe that its going to end as it has always done before, a round of bullets to the gang who have given everyone hell and some smart words. Instead we are given the ultimate betrayal as an audience, hurting us, breaking the rules of cinema. It takes the older man to break with tradition to show how it can be done, setting an example for others. That violence isn’t the answer to our problems. To be man enough to stand alone, becoming the stronger man, than standing behind a fun.
Much as it’s about becoming a man and taking on responsibilities and perceptions by society, there’s a car, that 1972 Ford Gran Torino, that allows a man to take off on his journey and course in life, full of many roads to choose from. As cliché as it sounds its true, once you are able to be independent, free from restraints you can make your own choices and grow. Something that can happen at any age.
A very male film that asks what it is to be a man, either to stand alone, taking responsibility for your actions, and self, at any age. If it means having a car or a massive collection of tools. To hide behind a gun that creates the illusion of power and masculinity. Eastwood by the time of this film is a master of his art, it takes his quiet sets to consider what he is making, which we see on-screen and enjoy all the more for his time on and behind it.
- Gran Torino, a masterpiece (ideasforimagine.wordpress.com)
- Clint Eastwood’s (Director) Latest 10 Movies vs. Greatest 10 Movies (sleeplessthought.wordpress.com)
- VIDEO: MOVIES: REVIEW: Gran Torino (2008) (clintjcl.wordpress.com)
- Gran Torino (2008) (movierob.wordpress.com)
- Gran Torino (2008) (howardhoreviewblog.wordpress.com)
- Gran Torino (ccrook11.wordpress.com)
- Gran Torino (2008) (howardhofilmblog.wordpress.com)
- Gran Torino (justanormalblogger.wordpress.com)
- Changeling – 7.5/10. (robwatchesmovies.wordpress.com)
- Gran Torino (amorandoa.wordpress.com)
To mark just over a year ago since my chat/discussion/conversation with professor Neil Campbell of American Studies at Derby University, I feel I should share that conversation, to allow you all to understand more where I am coming from, my position on the Western, from my degree show piece and my fascination with the Western genre. I will link the conversation back to my writing on some of the films that we discussed
Q. Why did the Western genre lose popularity in the late 60’s?
A. The impact of television was clearly apart of that. The Television programs in that genre, was saturating the market. The genre was more accessible to viewers, here and in the U.S. Hollywood had to look to other styles or forms to gain their audiences. There was also the political climate, that of the civil rights movement that had reached a high, with riots and the death of Martin Luther King. Jr. Also the American people were beginning to question the conflict in Vietnam. This also questioned American values. In-turn the style of the Westerns didn’t tap into that at all. Being covered by the likes of John Wayne and John Ford, who were going into decline themselves. The Western doesn’t die it simply takes different forms. The classic formula was that a problem needs to be solved, the people can’t solve it, so a hero arrives. The film becomes action packed, solving the problem with violence. The classic John Ford’s fit the age anymore, being based on mythologies. Younger people are looking for something else. New directors like Sam Peckinpah, and Robert Altman who directed McCabe and Mrs Miller (1971) and Arthur Pen who directed both Left Handed Gun (1958) and Little Big Man (1970). The genre is seen now as Post Western, films about the West in the 20th and 21st century, such as No Country for Old Men (2007), that alters and plays around with the genre. The idea of the hero is now too simplistic. People don’t want to question the myth, as it sacrilegious to do so; it’s the national narrative, best seen in the Western. Today people are more cynical and sophisticated. Open Range (2003) is a classic western but also modern, so it’s like a Ford, but the Ford Western can no longer be sustained. It survives in a new form, the Contemporary America, using Western elements. So the Western has to adapt to the times to survive. The classic Western genre will always have a place, as apart of the culture, but also seen as a product of it times that tried to adapt, but was lost in the idea of the hero. Too simplistic to really survive when political tensions increased around the world and at home concerning America. The WWII required escapism, to have heroic figures saving the day, and seeing America as a place for possibilities and progress, the American dream.
Q. How has the depiction of the Native Americans effected their identity, their political position and racially?
A. In the classic western the Native Americans were seen as inferior, they had secondary importance. This produced a stereotype. They were seen amongst other obstacles to be overcome in order to progress. They were treated as just material. There was slow recognition to see them as human, not wanted to be seen on the same level as white people. Their importance really increased around the time of the civil rights movements. Hollywood had to acknowledge this. At the time of films such as Gone with the Wind (1939) they didn’t have the vote. John Ford tried to explore this through his films Cheyenne Autumn (1964) and Sergeant Rutledge (1960) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). The minorities gradually become more human and less stereotyped. However things don’t really change until the Native Americans start to make their own films, in Post Westerns, but not in the Western style, such as Smoke Signals (1998) by director Chris Eyre, being set in a contemporary reservation. The film acknowledges the stereotypes are now apart of their identity, but seen critically and ironically, drawing stupidity out, they can laugh at it. Films such as Little Big Man (1970) is a civil rights film about the Native Americans, with lines such as “Sometimes it’s a good day to die”. Dances with Wolves (1990) however Campbell sees it as actually quite limited . Sadly there are not many Native American films being made, as they can’t get access to funding.
Q. How has the depiction of Early America been distorted by film?
A. It’s all about the myth; the first movies that were made during the silent era were about the West. At that time, the frontier was still out there. The Indian wars were still going on. There was a gap between the frontier and the Western expansion; these two grew up together. They had a ready-made landscape which could be mythicized. Dime novels that were being published created heroes out of gunfighter’s, for instance Jesse James who has recently been portrayed by Brad Pitt (in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007). Beachamp follows up the idea of the Duke of Death in Unforgiven (1992). The dime novels mythicized the West. This was symbiotic in radio and film and the myth takes over. People don’t care for the real West, they are more persuaded by the myth where the hero walks away and we forget the violence. The real record of the West is by the photographers such as Muybridge in landscapes that he took, the photographs are slightly more honest, but get sucked away. Ansell Adams photographs are more empty, there is no community, how America was. Films such as Heavens Gate (1980) and The Deer Hunter (1978) by director Michael Cimino depict the West more honestly regarding immigration, when people just arrived off the boats. John Ford being an Irishman, depicted immigrants but using broken English, at a time in reality when there were all sorts of languages in the country. This is explored more in Deleuze’s Cinema 1 & 2. By 1945, things changed dramatically when WWII ended. The Neo-Western was coming into being. Ford represented the old style of Western. Directors such as Altman and Peckinpah were directors of the changing genre. The genre had to find a new form; life was no longer simple. They can’t go back to the American dream, or maybe not so, with films such as No Country for Old Men (2007). Also films such as Bad Day at Black Rock (1954) by John Sturges, which was so different with slow ponderings, looking at the internal space and the landscape, looking at war and racism. The Misfits (1961) set in the Nevada open desert starring Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable. The film was based on a book by Arthur Miller directed by John Huston. The film Lone Star (1996) starring Kris Kristofferson set in the modern West, with classic elements but certainly looks at new ideas.
Q. Do you believe the majority of our knowledge of the West now comes from films?
A. In short, yes in Europe and America, only through the images, T.V. adverts and art etc, which take aspects of the mythologies. There are lots of examples of distortion, which come from 19th century American Art. I’m recommended to look at West is America, an art collection that was held in the 1990’s. The paintings are mythical, by the likes of Russel, Remington and Beerstat, from which the film-makers borrow from their art. Where as the work of Adams is not original, borrowings from paintings, and film borrows from photographs.
Q. Do you think that the Native Americans have fair representation in film and politically?
A. Yes, generally, but it depends on the voices being heard, more so now through the news, painting and films. However there are problems that still exist, people’s perceptions are broadly better and fairer, but still thought to always have feathers. There’s a film called The Exiles (1961) about a group of Native Americans who move to Los Angeles from a reservation, after being encouraged by the government. They found difficulties with alcohol, poverty and employment. However they are not shown as victims. The Urban world is so different from where they came from. Lastly the films of Sergio Leone lean towards the New Western genre.