Seen as an important early Western as the genre began to find its feet as Hollywood was starting to accept the genre to be taken seriously. All due to John Ford‘s Stagecoach that took not only a chance with a genre which had taken on the form of period epics of the Victorian era, such as Gunga Din (1939) and Charge of the Light Brigade (1936). All the basic elements that were refined in the silent era were recycled and reshaped as legends waiting to be retold. So with Stagecoach blowing the dust off the boots and spurs, the reins tightly held in place, the hat sitting a top the gunfighters head, the guns loaded once more, studios had to wake up and react to what was the rebirth of the Western. Warner Brothers delivered Dodge City (1939) in reaction to the tightly written multifaceted drama of misfits and outsiders, with bursts of exciting action.
I have been aware of this film for a few years, but never really took it seriously, it was only when I read about it in Gunfighter Nation – Richard Slotkin I had to get hold of the film and watch it. With stronger foundations of how the history of the West was written and perceived at the time – the Myth of conquest’s seen here in terms of progress, the United States on the up after the Depression.
The film opens up in spectacular and very idealised. A steam train pounding freshly laid tracks that are about to meet at the join between the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads, complete with the nailing of the golden spike being hammered in completing the line. Before we see the that much forgotten, much passed spike there is a really nice piece of golden age Western cinema, a race between a stagecoach and a steam train. Nature vs. technology, progress out racing what has gone before. Its breathtaking to watch and daring to capturing on film, fair enough there was some camera trickery with the help of a rear-projection, however you can see that it was carefully staged, pushing both horses and the train out on location. You could imagine such ill-fated races occurring all over the country, as riders wanted to prove their relevance in an ever-changing country. Ultimately the train wins the race as it makes its way to the unnamed towns of wheels that have followed the lines production. All of this celebration even before we have met Wade Hatton (Errol Flynn) in his first western role, a position that actors were all getting ready assume and have fun with in the coming decades, at this point it’s all still to come.
We meet him at his two sidekicks Algernon ‘Rusty’ Hart (Alan Hale) and Tex Baird (Guinn ‘Big Boy’ Williams) out near free-roaming buffalo, acknowledging the effect of their hunting on Native American’s, which leads him to lead a sheriff straight to Jeff Surrett (Bruce Cabot) and his henchmen who are too casual about it all. Of course there is little that can be done without a jail or a court, law is still a few years off reaching this part of the world, it’s an idea that can be easily escaped on horseback. Hatton is not yet ready to assume the role of law. He’s far happier wandering from job to job, bringing with him his own legend, originally from Ireland, fighting in Cuba, before the Civil War, he’s lived quite the life before hunting buffalo for the railroad. A life that most audiences would be envious of, to those around him its hard to believe they are standing in his presence, he’s a living legend whose about to write a few more pages.
It’s very easy to draw comparisons between Watton and film versions of Wyatt Earp, which I will draw upon later. Before he takes up the badge he has to live his own life before living in the cause of others. Whilst he’s off the town of newly named Dodge is thriving and growing, seen through a humorous and rambunctious montage that depicts numerous saloons, bars, dance halls, this is a boomtown that is really brought to life for a minute or so. We see some of the footage used again, probably a last-minute creative addition which doesn’t detract from the film, however without you wouldn’t see a town in a state of such rapid growth and social collapse. The violence depicted has now become cliché but was brand new at the time of release. With all the violence going in it takes the elders, the businessmen of the town to come together to reach out to Watton to leave his job behind and tame Dodge City.
Watton is already having to tame those who he’s working with, a wagon train and cattle drive combined – not much is made of the wagon train, with more emphasis on the effect that a drunkard is having on the cattle Lee Irving (William Lundigan) trigger happy is unaware of his actions, it takes a near death stampede and a shoot or be shot decision to stop him dead. Watton is the reluctant killer who in turn horrifies Lee’s sister Abbi (Olivia de Havilland) who sees only a killer not a peaceful man doing the right thing. Protecting everyone around him, making the hard decisions that others aren’t prepared to. This decision-making is soon applied to Dodge City after chaotic barroom brawl that leads to Rusty nearly being hanged by Sturrett. It’s an act that Watton can’t be ignored. He has to assume the role of law which was taken on and abused by Sturrett. Bringing me back to the Wyatt Earp connection, a reluctant lawman whose brought out of retirement to slowly bring Dodge in line with the rest of the country, wanting to be civilised as the East. Bringing back settlers who we learn had been leaving in their droves before. He single handidly transforms the town into a safe, profitable and safe place to live, gun control and a shed load of laws which we see going to the extreme at times.
I have to mention the role of Abbie Irving who began as a grieving woman to taking on a prominent role at the local paper. Yes its the women’s gossip column, but its a woman in the work place, communicating with the community. She’s not a woman to be walked all over, not even Watton until he has won her heart somethings never change. Looking at the other “prominent role” by Ann Sheridan as barroom singer Ruby Gilman whose connected to Sturrett, but her character is not really developed to be of any real consequence or danger to Watton who doesn’t even meet her. That’s the only real flaw in a Western that is brimming at the seams with ideas that are either explore or enjoyed. It’s having a lot of fun, you can see cast all are, and all in technicolor too, creating some classic imagery that has been repeated ever since.
Looking back at the film over a day later I can see a film with so much to talk about, I could be writing for days, I hope I have pinned down some of the main ideas of transformation, progress as well as the division still there after the civil war. The country maybe reunited politically and geographically the links are getting tighter by the passing of the years. Socially and lawfully there’s still away to go. Dodge City is one of the lesser known classics today, yet made during that incredible year of 1939 which transformed the medium and the genre, it can’t be forgotten.
Another foreign film that I have been aware off but wasn’t in a rush to watch, waiting for a TV airing instead, which surprisingly paid off. I remember hearing good things about A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014), a Iranian horror, with a rare female focus which is honestly very refreshing. You could easily say this is a feminist horror. With a female protagonist whose the titular girl who we follow. Beginning of a false footing with a quietly macho guy Arash (Arash Marandi) who we see loitering around a fence, before climbing over to rescue a cat, his cat. The opposite to what Marlon Brando would do (not rescue a cat), more likely o kick in the fence, venting his pent-up anger. Arash is not your typical male hero, if anything he’s the opposite of that in Bad City and fictional Iranian ghost town where the film’s based.
We see that Arash’s walked all over by his father (Marshall Manesh) drug dealer/Pimp Saeed (Dominic Rains) coming for more money that his heroin addicted father owes. His son is doing his best to look after him, who has clearly turned to drugs in the wake of his wife’s death. It’s unusual to see the son living at home and looking after his father on the screen. Of course this a more contemporary situation that Hollywood would never depict, instead it would be the daughter, looking after her father. It reminded me of Westerns, the unmarried daughter staying at home with her elderly father – sometimes blind or very ill and/cranky. This is the way I read the film after some time. A thread that I will pick up on later.
We’ve not even seen the titular girl, or so I thought we had when Saeed meets the first woman, Atti (Mozhan Marnò) in the film, who turns out to be one of his prostitutes who just wants her cut before we finally see the girl (Sheila Vand), dressed in a Hijab, not unusual in itself, but the lone figure in the dark scaring plays upon our inbuilt fears of the Islam and turning it on itself. The fear of the unknown figure within its environment inciting fear to other Iranians. At this point we are held at a distance, unsure of what real danger she poses. Interrupted at a forced sex act, fear is all the figure conveys at this stage.
Following the girl home to her basement flat, seeing her next as just a normal girl, whose shy and reclusive yet beautifully innocent features, how could this be the same girl under the hijab? We have an outsider who enjoys indie music on vinyl and seems to enjoy her own time. It’s the next few scenes that unveil her true identity and power as she lures Saeed to his demise at the hands of a female vampire. This I really didn’t see coming. I took the title too literally here which if anything has surprised me The lone stranger who walks the streets is the one you least suspect, a young woman, a vampire that to some extent is a lone gunfighter prowling the streets at night.
It’s a clever premise, playing on our fears of Islamic extremism and building on that in one of the countries whose dominant religion is Islam. Writing this review after such a horrific week, I feel this film is more relevant. We need to remember the power of fear and what it can do those who it’s inflicted upon. This fear has been confronted to an extent in A Girl Walks Home… instead if fearing the hijab for no reason other than that of extremism, we are actually given something to fear, the supernatural, a being who has take human form, nothing to do with Islam, merely the form of the vampire takes.
I’m reminded of Bone Tomahawk (2015) which played on similar fears, using the Native American and really going far out and giving the characters something to really fear and the audience too. Which leads me nicely back to the Western comparison which started with the role reversal placing Arash in the classic female role that falls for the stranger, the gunfighter, who ultimately tames him and they ride off into the sunset, or leaves her with her father. He falls for the strange girl, whose startled by the emotion that he brings out in her, she like any gunfighter is not used to such attention and the thoughts and feelings that they experience. Fighting against her natural urges and actions, doing what a vampire does best. Placing all this action in Iran is even braver.
A female lead, who plays on the fears of Islamic extremism in the guise of a horror. Does that make a female lead more acceptable, or get under the radar of censorship? Either way it’s playing against type completely for not just the horror genre but for cinema as a whole. Placing a woman in the protagonist role, the bad guy who has to be either killed or tamed. I couldn’t see a way to her demise happening. Could Arash have seen beyond her perceived innocence to see the truth? That’s the question we are left with, after all the violence she has caused, for good or bad she has done her bit to clean up Bad City the only way she knows how. As a gunfighter can only use his guns – using violence to bring peace to the town/city they are in.
In terms of horror it’s maybe not as scary as you hope, the ideas it explores and subvert make up for the lack of horror. When we do get it, it’s all about the build up, wondering how she will bite. Its the final attack that leaves you in awe as she rescues the damsel in distress. The moments which are slowed down create a sense of real awe and spectacle heightened by the black and white cinematography, be them horror or not. For me the real strength of the film is gender swapping of roles a Western in the guise of a horror, which for me is an added bonus. Ultimately it’s a refreshing film that takes our fears, placing them in a completely foreign country.
A film originally recommended to me during my last year at art-school. I caught Lone Star (1996) a few years ago and found it to be a richly rewarding film with a lot of depth. I thought this time around I could really do the film some justice after a few more years exploration of the Western. Released during the mid 1990’s when the genre had seen something of a resurgence, beginning with Pale Rider (1985) going through to, well Lone Star and Buffalo Soldiers (1997) it would not pick up much traction until a few years ago with True Grit (2010) and Django Unchained (2012) that began to rework and understand the genre for a new audience in a time of uncertainty and political tensions. Also just in time for me to catch a few at the cinema too.
So what makes Lone Star stand the test of time to some of the more forgotten films that played fast and loose with the tropes and language of the genre, they maybe fun and action packed. It also stands alone from the pack, at a time when the life in the genre had run out of steam once more it takes the history of the genre and the state of Texas becoming more introspective. You could say it’s another modern version of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) – more on that later. Beginning with the discovery of a pair of off-duty army officers who discover a skeleton, only a few meter’s away there’s a sheriff’s badge to go with it. Could this be relic from the old West now celebrate on film, or is the body of a more recent officer of the law?
We then travel back in time to the 1960’s finding it’s like the good old days with a crooked sheriff Charlie Wade (Kris Kristofferson) who holds the Rio county in his pocket. He’s foul-mouthed, racist and greedy, he knows the power that his position gives him and abuses it to his own advantage. The other officers just let him do get away with almost anything. Except Buddy Deeds (Matthew McConaughey) who has a conscience that doesn’t agree with the status quo. Sounds familiar when you look back at the genres golden age, a crooked sheriff and a straight-laced deputy, if only they could stand up to the corruption.
Except this doesn’t feel like the old West, its more like the new West that rose from the ashes of the civil war, corruption, the cattle boom and the demise of slavery. We have a more serious Western, or you could say straight drama that’s set in the same location as the Alamo. With a mystery at the centre of the film being led by Buddy Deed’s son Charlie (Chris Cooper) who wants to prove his suspicions right and put this case to bed before politics takes over for the upcoming election for Sheriff.
Whilst the case is going on, we take a closer look at the town of Rio County, the people who inhabit it. From the school that sees the parents fighting the teachers to educate their own ideas of the country’s history. The old saying that histories written by the winners really does shine through in these scenes. Mexican parents want a more honest account of the events leading up to the Alamo and beyond before they lost land to Texas. Whilst American’s want to hold onto the myth, a fabric and important part of their own past, informed by celebration, dime novels and of course the films that blurred that history into something far bigger and yet more vague in the process.
We focus on one of those teachers, Pilar (Elizabeth Peña) who previously had a relationship with Charlie. It’s like he returned from her past to haunt her now when she picks up her son who had been arrested. We also see tensions between her and her mother Mercedes Cruz (Miriam Colon) who has her own fight with her staff who are not helping the immigrant crisis. She identifies herself as a Mexican American, wanting to speak English North of the border, trying to assert that in others is a fight. You can already see it’s not just a murder mystery, we have the border problem – which has still not gone away. The discussion around what kids should be taught in schools, the identity of the county and the State of Texas.
The local Army base is also depicted, and it’s not just about following orders and the chain of command. We have a Black Colonel Del (Joe Morton) whose latest posting has brought him back home to his estranged father – Otis (Ron Canada) whose part of the counties history and as we see the demise of Charlie Wade. The father son-relationship has it’s moments that are about to repeat themselves in Don’s own son who aspires to go to join the army. Whilst a current soldier who sees the army as a form of security in a society that wont accept the colour of her skin.
You can see a lot is going on in this film, longer than the average Western, it gives time to develop all these facets of a town that is in a state of constant change. Attempting to grapple where they all are. For Charlie it’s too things, the truth behind the death of his predecessor that has taken on mythic stature, which ultimately he won’t try and break, the truth for him and to shut the case is enough. There’s little he can really do once the truth is out. Like that finally revealed by Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, as much as he tries to set the record straight he can’t fight the myth, defeated by a journalist who refuses to publish it, knowing the power of the truth in the face of myth. Charlie understands that power far more than the old Senator who attends his old friends funeral. It’s bigger than him or anyone can really imagine.
With so much going on and little action it’s an incredible change in tone, placing this Western in the Revisionist category, one that maintains the language but has moved on in time. You can no longer settle your disagreements like men with guns outside, times have indeed changed. It’s a film that takes it’s time to spend time with characters and really get into the meat of what’s going on in that part of the world. It’s a nice change too to see where the genre has come from the rebirth in the mid-eighties that celebrated the genre to a film that really interrogates it and ask, where has it all gone.
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.
A few months ago I wrote a review about Barbary Coast (1935) which saw the Western trying to survive in the guise of another genre, then the gangster which if you think about is/was an updated version of that genre. It was fascinating to see what is honestly a much forgotten film, even with Edward G. Robinson in the lead, a fish out of water whose the shark that swims with the fishes who are the genre. Staying with the 1930’s, and the struggling Western I came across the sub genre of the Victorian epic, a more familiar film is Gunga Din (1939) however I’d like to focus on Beau Geste (1939) also.
As Richard Slotkin explained in Gunfighter Nation it was the Western in a different guise, moving the action from one large nation to another, which could be England or France throughout their all-conquering empire. Here we have the French aristocracy and 3 English brothers who’ve been adopted into it. Before meeting the brothers we see a troop of the Foreign Legion arriving at an outpost, populate entirely with the dead soldiers who once occupied. You can see they all died in battle, hanging over the parapet in the fort. They have all met grisly ends, that much is clear, we don’t yet know how they reached that fate.
Jumping back 15 years we meet these 3 brothers as children in the comfort of a stately home in the country, playing war in the pond with model battleships complete with explosives. From a young age they want to go off and play war. When a side looses instead of leaving it as that, onto the next campaign they treat the loosing side with respect, sending the loosing side off into the waters, setting fire to them, enacting a Viking burial. They have a respect for the dead even at the tender ages of 10 if not younger. They have an understanding of gallantry and honor in the field of battle, something that we shall see come through in the film. After this scene we see the sale of a sapphire, however it doesn’t get passed the children who hide, one inside a suit of knights armor – Beau Geste, on the surface its funny to see the child hiding. He’s escaping into a soldier’s uniform that has probably seen battle. Now its acts as protection against unseeing eyes in peace time of France.
Moving forward 15 years again to almost the time we first started the film, we finally meet the adult brothers, who are not really English but young American stars, still who cares they sold tickets and I’m not going to knock Gary Cooper in anything from the 1930’s. It’s all happy families in the midst of the England which they will soon go out to protect. The young girl who knew the brothers, now a young woman Isobel Rivers (Susan Hayward) is now the affections for John Geste (Ray Milland). However before they leave the Blue Jewel, (not sure if it’s a sapphire goes missing in quick switching off of the lights. A family treasure’s stolen before them. Unusually before they begin to investigate they allow Isobel to leave, as she’s a woman she’s above suspicion. It’s gallantry of an old respectable world that sees her leave, Leaving only the men and Lady Patricia Brandon (Heather Thatcher) and the men to work it out.
They don’t get very far before the action soon moves to a desert in Morocco, two of the brothers Beau and Digby (Robert Preston) are now in uniform, they’ve done their training and now ready for to defend the Empire. It’s all one happy Empire out here, and the troops are keeping the peace. This can easily be translated to America, enlisted soldiers living on the fort, protecting civilians from “Indian attack”. In Geste the land around this is sand dunes for miles, they are the only civilisation for miles. The new recruits are about to be introduced, the scruff’s that have made it this far are ready to defend. These include the final brother John who can’t be separated from them for long, combined with a strong of duty to his country.
I haven’t even looked at the broken chain of command, the power-driven Sergeant Markoff (Brian Donlevy) who will do anything to take command from the dying outpost commander Lieutenant Martin has died after a long fever leaving disciplinarian in command of the fort. This allows him to work on the men, bearing down hard on them like never before, making life hard for them. Training is over and a new regime has come into force. Teaming up with none thief and spy Rassinoff (J. Carrol Naish) who inform him of an impending mutiny among the men. They’ve had enough of being worked to death in this inhospitable landscape, time to rebel.
With all this set-up we go into a much darker second half that sees the fort pushed to the limit of endurance of following the chain of command. The Mutiny is soon thwarted when Markoff blows it wide open, placing all but the Geste brothers under arrest, they are the only ones with bayonets, armed but unable to fire at their fellow-men. The chain of commands being tested when hostile or Moroccan forces who surround them. It’s time to put the mutiny and prisoners to one side and defend, it’s all men to their stations – about 30 odd. You can see from the first wave that it’s futile to keep up the attack for too long. However this is a film and the Legionnaires must win, at least for now.Each wave represent an attack by Native Americans, coming back with more expendable warriors to fall at the guns of the Blue coats.
As the men start to fall they aren’t left as they fell, instead in a unorthodox manoeuver the fallen are propped up, acting as number of things. A second defence to take the bullets, as decoy soldiers acting as an improvised illusion, the appearance of more men when there are far less. The men left alive carry on, but know that once they fall they’re bodies will receive the respect of the fallen. I’ve never seen such a tactic used in on-screen battle, it’s a desperate move by a desperate man who wants not only power but wealth that’s promised in the rumor of the Sapphire being in the possession of one of the Geste brothers, Markoff will do anything for it. The rules if war and chain of command mean nothing to him. In the far off outpost they are alone and at times have to make up their own rules. It’s up to the Geste brothers to finally remind us of what they learned back home in England, they are the opposite of what the officers above them represent.
Maybe now I need to see more Victorian epics and see how they translate to the Western, see how the legends are created for another empire that can easily be rewritten for another. My exploration of this genre never ceases to amaze me.
If it wasn’t for John Wayne having a scheduling conflict we may not have had the Ranown cycle. He was supposed to be playing the lead in the latest Budd Boetticher film that his company was producing. However he was about to start on The Searchers (1956) instead of leaving his director and film without a lead he recommended a good friend of his – Randolph Scott the role. It was the start 7 film partnership that would form the Ranown cycle created by the actor and director. Making their own Monument Valley out of Lone Pine, another iconic and ready-made stage for the myth of the West to be played out in.
It’s been just under a year since I reviewed made my last entry regarding this series of films, as I remember some films were stronger than others, now I have come full circle and back to the beginning with Seven Men from Now (1956) which really set-up the formula which was reworked in the majority of the seven films. We begin with a stormy night, getting the drama going straight away, a tall and water-soaked figure walks away from the camera to the rocks in search of shelter. It’s the ever reliable and stoic Scott playing Ben Stride who finds a campfire, keeping two men warm. It’s all cosy now, asking for a cup of coffee, when we learn he has lost his horse sometime ago in a gunfight, he’s been walking all day, tired and wet from a very long day. The two men grow suspicious when they discover he was a sheriff, reaching for their guns, the camera cuts away amidst gunshots, before we see Scott riding away with two horses, him on the back of one. The only survivor, but was it out of murder or survival. I carry this dark thought with me for a few minutes, questioning his motives, is he the man I know on the screen or someone whose out of a ride for revenge.
As always he rides alone and prefers it, enjoying the company of no one unless he really has to, which comes in the form of the Greer’s a couple traveling to California. Annie (Gail Russell) and John (Walter Reed) a poor excuse for a man who is struggling to get his wagon out of a muddy patch of ground. How has he gotten this far without being killed by gunfighter’s, cowboys or even worse Chiricahua’s who are on the loose. Surrounded by danger from the unseen and his own lack of manhood. Yet Annie has stayed with him, there must be more to him than meets the eye. Stride the gentlemen he is begins to ride with them, out of duty for the couple who have somehow survived this far into the West.
So as much as he wants to be alone with his tortured thoughts as he acts as guide and security for the traveller’s. We learn later on more of his past when they stop at a way station and the arrival of Bill Masters (Lee Marvin) and Clint (John Beradino) join him, they know more than the Greer’s who are just happy to be resting. We learn that the sheriffs wife was killed during a Wells Fargo robbery, a crime that Stride couldn’t stop, loosing his position in town soon after. He’s not only lost his wife but his position in society. He’s only a man with a debt to settle with the men who killed his wife.
There are similar back-stories throughout the Ranown cycle that have created these complicated characters for Scott to play, this is just the first of them, he’s digging deep into the psychology of the men he plays. Before we learn more we see who Masters is when they face a raiding party of Chiricahua’s who up until now have been spoken about. They are soon taken care of revealing his true colours, shooting a captive man in the back. Was he one of the seven shot down leaving six for Stride to take aim at, or was he being protected, funny how he was shot in the back though.
This is one of Marvin’s larger supporting roles before rising up to top billing. We can see how this clearly more physical actor can psychologically get under the skin of our hero. Sharing the Greer’s wagon shares a story, comparing one woman to Annie, who naturally pales in comparison, taking aim at both husband John and Stride who he was aiming at more. He doesn’t need a bullet to get under his skin, whilst John’s too cowardly to defend his wives honor. This Western is not just one of action and guns, its one of the mind, making it stand out from the standard B western.
Technically we can see that the look of the films in the series is being established, the imagery of Lone Pine. Visually it’s a bit hit and miss, editing is not as slick as it can be. The cinematography is starting to show signs of something greater, however the focusing can be distracting when we cut to a new scene. That’s not to take away from what is otherwise on-screen and in the script.
I’d forgotten how short and sweet these films really are, it’s a lean film coming in at under 80 minutes. We are soon back in civilisation where more characters are met, led by Payte Bodeen (John Larch) who is possibly the leader of these men. We also learn where the money is that has been with the Greer’s the whole time. The guilt of Strides past has never really left him, taking the money into his own care, taking responsibility, ultimately taking action for the loss of his wife and position. It’s a twist I forgot was even in the film, showing that it’s been a long time since my last viewing and just how well the film works as it moves to the finale as we see the characters all being revealed for who they are, they’ve all been hiding something from us and ultimately themselves. I’ll leave you with a clip from Blazing Saddles (1974) which just shows how much I have missed Randolph Scott on my screen and the imprint he has made on the genre.
Nearly 4 years ago I revisited Blazing Saddles (1974) that was before I really understood it beyond the surface level reading of the film which is perfectly valid. However the more I have read about the Western genre, the more I can understand this comedy Western, which I’m sure is still the most profitable of the genre, reaching beyond the male dominated audience to reach one far broader who would never usually seek out a Cowboy film.
So lets remember what I discovered originally (briefly) before moving on to a darker and in-depth
- The fart joke – “Of course Saddles was the first film to feature a fart joke, which again i found hilarious, yet for different reasons, as many films depicted cowboys camping, sitting around a fire eating beans, which must if you think about it create a lot of wind if that is all you eat for a while. Acting as not just a joke but a great comment on the genre, something that you wouldn’t first think about.”
- Black Sheriff – “The major flipping of convention is the casting of an African American in the lead role and as the sheriff (Cleavon Little) placing him in a world that is still coming to terms the emancipation of slaves, especially in the South, which as we see took it hard, not with a second agenda that is never revealed to the people of Rock Ridge when Bart is made sheriff by rail-road baron Hedley Lamarr (Harvey Korman) (not to be confused with Hedy Lamarr) makes him sheriff of a town ear-marked for demolition by the workers for the laying of more track. A clever way’s needed to scare of the people, without buying the land which would be a long drawn out process.”
- Flat-pack town – “Everything about the genre is more rigorously challenging the conventions of the genre more than the earlier Cat Ballou (1965) which was more introvert in it’s exploration. A very big gag that’s played out to fool the enemy before they finally enter the town is to build a replica of fronts to recreate the town, down to the smallest detail. The very aesthetic of the genre’s mocked. The fourth walls broken many times, something that very few films do, and something Brooks has done time again to great success.”
Now moving to a more political angle of the film which Westerns have been used time and again to reflect the thinking of modern American politics both at home and abroad. The Vietnam War may have been over for a few years and troops now home, however the nation was still reeling from the images and the trauma that’s brought home with the veterans of what was a national shame. So take the politics of the war and spread it across the Wild West.
The war on Communism becomes the spreading the railway from East to West, the latest stretch reaching just outside Rock Ridge a small town in the way of progress, or the progress in the form that modern America wants. That’s not before we meet our soon to be Sheriff Bart (Cleavon Little) who along with other railroad workers do not play-up to the stereotypes that the genre and cinema have reinforced, singing a modern American standard, in the face of an ol’ time tune by the white Americans who are the idiots. The perception of the others underestimated, much like the 5 stages communist occupation, that the Eisenhower administration started out with being used by the North Vietnamese were using, taking China’s lead, instead of considering that is could be adapted for their own culture.
Moving forward past the N***** jokes which still hit, playing up the ignorance of the white town, afraid of the until then (1874) freed slaves. There is a town meeting, the second that they have in the film. Where the leaders of the town stand there is a board, all Johnson’s, with different initials, it’s the same regime under a different member of the family that has gone unquestioned for seemingly decades or centuries, this is the norm of the town, a black Sheriff, a foreigner coming into, supposed to infiltrate in the guise of law enforcement from the enemy soon becomes an ally. It’s like the soldiers over in Vietnam who saw the madness joined in with the natives and fought back. It’s treason but acceptable in the Wild West where.
Bart and Jim (The Waco Kid) (Gene Wilder) see past the sides they are supposed to be upon, defined by politics, genre and history to take on the corrupt establishment. This time the power-mad Headly Lemar (Harvey Korman) and the puppet Governor William J. Lepetomane (Mel Brooks) who dreams of the higher office. It’s all about strategy, using power to overcome the other. The new sheriff and old gunslinger whose cleaned up his act come together and work on a plan that will fool the railroad men along with the hired guns that are sent into do the job they don’t want to do themselves. They can’t buy the land, it must be taken with force, reflecting the government not being able to talk or sway the Vietnamese of the South from not adopting communism.
So the plan, build a duplicate of the town of Rock Ridge that will fool the incoming army (a band of misfits, criminals, Nazi’s, bandito’s, rapists, all the scum of the earth coming together and do what the railroad won’t to, kill. The replica takes the language of the classic Hollywood back-lot literally, building town fronts (in one night) with the help of defective railroad workers – African-Americans and Chinese who put their differences aside for this act. The replica they build along with wooden people are accepted, fooling the mercenaries. This is the jungle the natural habitat of the Vietcong who know and understand their environment better than any foreign soldier who enters. They can fool them, allowing a few to die, the native has the upper hand throughout. It’s a genius piece of writing and satire, combining the genre that tears up and puts back together the country in a different with the conventions of warfare in the jungle.
- Moving onto my last point of this film, I find the ending in a new light, I previously found the breaking of the fourth wall to be too much “I did and still don’t like the ending that sees the cast of the film breaking away from their world of the west into that of the black-lot’s which then makes you aware that you are watching actors playing roles. Is this about how the fights in the films never got so out of hand they spilled over into other productions. The line between the reality of the film and our reality is never healed, the damage is done so why bother or try to return to what was. Something that still bothers me, becoming a comment on the reality of films that I have never liked, even in the Looney Tunes cartoons that had self-aware characters who spoke to the audience, yet that was far more apart of their appeal, to engage and entertain the audience by talking directly with them. I find that still disconcerting.”
Now I see it in a different light, as the world of the screen breaks into the real world, or that of the fabricated real world which we have been digesting for the course of the film. This could be taken further to the images of the then War in Vietnam which had been recently brought home. This is a film that wants to show up the illusions, reveal the truth of the mayhem of it all, that you can’t get away from what you have watched. Those who create the images have no idea what is really going on, as much as they stick to the plot it now unfolds closer to home, the fourth wall is not just broken its smashed into tiny pieces.
Looking back at this film for now the third time I finally get what this film is all about, on one level it’s all American, all about celebrating a genre which has shown overtime how flexible and durable it in when it comes to mocking it. It’s also one of the smartest films you can watch, if you get passed the gags which you could be found on the floor at times.
I’ve been waiting to re-watch John Ford‘s apology for the/his depiction of Native Americans on-screen. Taking the events of the Trail of Tears (1878) that saw the Southern Cheyenne exit their reservation at Fort Robinson after having lived there for a year, waiting for more food and supplies to arrival after a group of Senators who were to see the condition of the reservation, barren, lifeless, unable to really support live. We’re told that originally over a thousand arrived, now just over 200 have survived that first year. This is the premise of the film, the rest is history. Ford took on the massive task of depicting this event in the genre that usually sees the Native American, either Apache, Cheyenne or Comanche, nations who stood up for themselves in the sight of the spreading settlers over the course of the 19th century. We know that one by one the nations tired, weak and hungry gave in and moved onto reservations after a series of unique events that would becoming the next chapter in their history.
Having read Dee Brown’s take on the event in Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee, which I surprisingly have recently read is accepted by Native Americans, all but the fact it didn’t say they survived to tell the tale to future generations. Which gives my exploration of their history something concrete to build upon. I can see my readings and then reflect them into the film adaptations. I’m taking in Cheyenne Autumn as my next film in that journey.
A few weeks ago I caught Sergeant Rutledge (1960) which was the first apologetic film that Ford made, placing the African-American soldier at the centre of the film, in a court room setting, not the strongest of films, not helped by its setting. Also feeling awkward being told in flashback which is more unusual still for him. Then followed the much heavier Two Rode Together (1961) which is lost to the conversations and the ideas it deals with. Coming to Cheyenne Autumn we have an epic on our hands, which is fair when you look at the subject matter that’s being dealt with. I have to admit it is deeply flawed in many ways which I want explore in my revisited review of his third and final apology that attempts to depict the events in a more favorable light. If another director were to take the material it would than likely be abandoned or even completely rewritten to show the Cheyenne as the antagonist not the protagonist, or even the obstacle.
So where do I begin, well the biggest and most obvious flaw is the waste of 30 minutes spent in Dodge City, where we have some comedy courtesy of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holiday (James Stewart and Arthur Kennedy) who act as the comic relief, intended to take the edge off the heavy material at the centre of the film. A mass migration of people across open country to their homeland, I can see where Ford is coming from, the audience wouldn’t be used to seeing such content, even more so in Super Panavision 70mm which leaving the audience with nowhere to be distracted, the images plastered from the top to the bottom of the screen. The comedy is an unnerving, unnecessary and ultimately distracting really. You have real human drama playing out in Ford’s mythic West – Monument Valley lines of cavalry and Cheyenne moving across it, retelling this event from history. 50 years since release the comedy has lost its impact, if there was any to be had, it’s all played up clichés which Ford is honestly better than. It shows he was unsure about the content standing on its own, drawing in an audience for a different kind of Western. With big names such as Stewart is a sure sign you’ll get some through the doors. Here he’s just having a good time,you could say, just picking up a cheque and going on after a few days on set. I know that’s not what I want to type and you don’t want to read. Ford is or has lost his touch here which can be seen elsewhere.
The basic structure of the events are correct, a year on the reservation before packing up and wanting to live with the Northern Cheyenne who were living with the Sioux under Red Cloud at Pine Ridge reservation, with a few events in between that are more or less correct, others mixed around for drama, whilst others are added for pure effect. For once the nation leaders Little Wolf and Dull Knife are based on the actual Cheyenne that lead the exodus North. Played here by Ricardo Montalban and Gilbert Roland both originally from Mexican, where the film starts to fall down. The main parts are played by non-natives playing native roles in a pro-native film. Also we have the lazily named Spanish Woman (Dolores del Rio) who really should have had more care given in developing her character. Was she a Mexican captive, or did she marry in of her own choice. Instead we here her called upon by Deborah White (Carroll Baker) the Quaker sympathiser who travels with them.
Baker’s role is allowing the audience into this group who are traveling across the open country (or going around in circles of Monument Valley (which isn’t too bad)), the audience’s supposed to understand the Cheyenne plight through the white voice who has supported them on the reservation and now acting as nurse to one of the young injured travellers. Her name is reminiscent of the female captive Debbie (Natalie Wood) in The Searchers (1956) we are getting an internal understanding of how the other is thinking. Ford not matter how much he is loosing his touch is still putting small links to his rich filmography.
Away from the trail we have the U.S cavalry who are all other place in terms of the side they take. We mainly follow Captain Archer (Richard Widmark) who is taking on the 20th century thinker or Captain Kirby (John Wayne) from Fort Apache and Rio Grande (1948 and 1950) who wanted to talk to the other instead of going in bugles blazing. Interestingly John Wayne’s son Patrick Wayne plays the Colonel Thursday role – 2nd Lt. Scott, or could he be an extension of Ethan Edwards in another life, his son wanting to avenge his father. There are other links to the Cavalry trilogy that carry on throughout the film, even further back to Stagecoach (1939). We have a director using all his familiar characters in this very unusual Western from a man who is trying his best to make the subject matter relatable to an audience who are by now used to something far more cerebral than this far darker subject.
My first experience with this film came at the comedy break, my interest was pricked up. The second time around I saw the film more for what it is, a very different kind of Western, Ford having a conscience for a body of work that has depicted a nation in a poor light. Even if he employed them in several of his films. Now I see a flawed yet rich film of a director who is no longer in his prime, his last great film – The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) was not yet celebrated as it is today. He’s putting his all into what could be a last ditch effort at greatness which could have been if only he was more sure of his instincts. He’s not so much hitting racism head on, more trying to say whilst we were making this great country, another was being lost. He half achieves that goal. If I could re-cut and recast the film in places maybe we would have another masterpiece on our hands.
Another film that I’ve been putting off for a few years, not really sure it would be worth watching. It was one of the films that I was put off by the trailer. So over a decade later I’ve sat down and taken in my first Western of the new year, one with a twist…of sorts. I was initially reminded of Bite the Bullet (1975) a desert horse race led by Gene Hackman and the only woman Candice Bergen who are the only ones besides Ben Johnson that I remember on viewing a few years ago. It was another take on the genre that had all but died, needing a long rest like the horses who are sweating onscreen, something that is thankfully not repeated in Hildago (2004) which is another race film but over in the Middle East or Arabia as it was known at the end of the 19th century.
We begin at Wounded Knee (1890) which is shortened to just one grim scene, with time to reenact one photo from the massacre, did we really need to see that? However the more I think about it, it does bring that image to life for another audience who wouldn’t be aware of. For others who are aware of it, new life’s brought to the image – if that’s even possible. We first meet dispatcher Frank Hopkins (Viggo Mortensen) who arrives at the Sioux camp just before the orders are carried out, he has a massive sympathy for them and can even live alongside them as we learn when he joins Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.
The authenticity of the West is kept to the very familiar so we have an identifiable world to place the Hopkins in before he jumps onto a boat about 20 minutes in. At this stage it’s about building up the life he will leave for the unknown and the exotic of Arabia. You could say this is where the genre meets Lawrence of Arabia (1962) without Peter O’Toole and the grandeur of David Lean. Sadly there is something from this film for it to live up to the landscape that the film focuses on. One that is in stark contrast to 19th century America which is rising in recognition around the world one of the most powerful nations.
So what is Hildago lacking? First of all I think the lead is mis-cast, Viggo Mortensen who you can see has put some extra weight on for this one does have a screen presence. However he appears to be too easy-going for me here. Playing against type, usually something darker for him to chew on, there’s little for him to really get into. The dialogue lets him down too, he’s just a friendly cowboy on his holidays in Arabia happening to show them how its done in one a very traditional horse race that prides the breeding, training above the rider.
The look of the film is a that of the Western set against the Middle East landscape, you have plenty of sumptuous shots, even trying to replicate Monument Valley or even trying to reference both John Ford and David Lean whose visuals played a prominent role in their stronger films. Here the attempt it valiant but falls short for trying too hard for me and just not letting the landscape inform the photography. The number of silhouettes, and references to Richard Prince are so strong the film is lost to them at times.
Another point, going back to Viggo Mortensen briefly is the revelation he is part Native American, which is another white-washing of the culture for a white audience, which shows how far Hollywood had come even nearly 13 years ago. He doesn’t even look slightly Native American, no attempt to change any features, he here’s an idea, cast an actor with ancestry to a Native nation, just not Johnny Depp after seeing him in The Lone Ranger (2013). I must give Mortensen is dues, he is respectful of those he meets across the Atlantic, his common courtesy of the lost cowboy does him good to Sheikh Riyadh (Omar Sharif) an Jazira (Zuleikha Robinson) who begin to look past the mystery of the foreigner to see the good within in. Which makes the film too soft in places, there’s no danger posed by him, he’s a laughing-stock of all the other racers, with his mustang, among all the thoroughbreds he’s competing with. He truly is the other, before going all out Native at times.
I must touch briefly on the special effects, which I suppose now look dated, used sparingly through the film. It’s still obvious when they’re being used for dramatic effect, trying to make the Wild West look tame to that of Arabia, just send T.E. Lawrence out there to win them all over. It kind of all distracts from the natural beauty of the desert which is another character here, whose interfered with at times.
I think what saves this film from being offensive, which it isn’t, is the heart within it, not the strongest but there is a strong enough murmur that keeps you watching to see him finish. Which isn’t a forgone conclusion, we know Hildago has it in him to win, yet its the relationship between horse and man whose seen by both audience and the Arabs who accept him as a worthy competitor. Hopkins accepts his own mixed heritage which he accepts, the events of Wounded Knee have clearly effected him to push himself, picking himself up from his time with William Cody (J.K. Simmons) as a drunk. The race is a form of grieving for him, combined with the cowboy image is rather confusing. On the one hand you have the chivalrous American, yet on the other you have the respectful Native which is rare and here not all that entertaining.
During my reading of Gunfighter Nation by Richard Slotkin I read how the Western went into decline during the 1930’s during the depression, John Wayne‘s career failed to take off with The Big Trail (1930), leading him to working on b-movies and serials for almost a decade. The genre went the same way, or did it really? The basic formula for the western may have left the frontier, the open spaces yet to be tamed for the civilised East in the guise of the Gangster genre, lead by James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson who were the rebels against society pressing down on them. A few films were mentioned in the book, which also mentioned Barbary Coast (1935) which is a rare return to the frontier age – the gold rush of the late 1940’s in San-Francisco. Admittedly it was also a chance to see a younger Robinson on-screen, during his early on-screen appearances, this was a rare, very rare side-move to the western (of sorts).
A blend of the gangster and the western, an interesting combination by Howard Hawks who would have better success over a decade later with the straight Western including The Big Sky (1952) and Red River (1948). Staying in the mid-Thirties for now we have a strange cast line-up which would not out of place for the decade, it’s the genre which sticks out like a sore thumb. Until you really think about it, the arrival of a ship from New York to the coast of San Francisco, carrying people hoping to find their fortune in the new state. The genre typically depicts the long journey to the California, add a Gangster with a ring in his ear to make him look exotic we have Luis Chamalis (Edward G. Robinson) we have our owner of a casino in period dress. Enter his new girl fresh of the boat from New York we have Mary ‘Swan’ Rutledge (Miriam Hopkins) who initially has her own intentions of getting rich quick, marrying a man who died off-screen before the film begins.
So we have the need to get rich quick, which was a strong desire during the depression, the rise out of poverty that held the country back. The Gold-rush was a similar (not guaranteed) way of getting rich, something the audience can relate to, finding that gold and starting over again. I can now see where this film sits, so time to sit back, enjoy and read between the lines of the two genres that have been brought together. As in the Westerns the casino game are rigged in favour of the house, run (under duress) by Swan a woman who came to easily accept her situation, yet still being able to see what is going on around her. She’s not your average screen female, holding her own in front of Chamalis who runs the town.
His organisation doesn’t work from shadowary crime underworld of the streets, instead he is able to flex his muscle in broad daylight. If anything the gangster character he usually played in the decade has more visible power than before. With his right-hand man Knuckles Jacoby (Brian Donlevy) who makes that power known around town, the then much smaller San Francisco which is deep in fog for the duration of the film which creates a depression look to the film. Adding to that cast we have a Western standard in Walter Brennan who plays a Old Atrocity an odd character who switches sides based on his conscience. Not the usual character he would play for Hawks in future films. Nonetheless he’s always a delight to watch, wondering if he will have his false teeth on or not, which adds another little layer to any of his roles.
A nice addition to the cast is Joel McCrea who I find to have much better roles in the 1930’s before he got trapped in his B-movies playing the by-the book cowboy which really leave me bored, by his reliable persona. Here he plays a young romantic who has struck gold, lived alone for a few years, not seeing a woman during that time. When he meets Swan in her moment of escape from San Francisco, for both it’s a moment of weakness, finding the good in each other. For me it’s his youthful optimism that make him more interesting to watch on-screen, here we see him discover what his woman is really like as he leaves his home to return to New York he has a realisation. We also have Harry Carey who is always an added bonus to any film he’s in, you know it’s going to be half-decent film
Back in the boom-town, we have a fight for the freedom of the press, which is controlled by Chamalis who oppresses the local paper to stopping spreading the idea of law and order which was going to feature in the first issue. It’s a power that organised crime can control in the frontier more easily unlike 80-90 years later when papers became more powerful, able to expose criminals for who they are, financially able to stand up against the low-lives of the street. That dynamic is not yet in place, out here in the frontier there is more power to be had.
Taking this as a mix of genre’s Barbary Coast is an interesting study of how the Western attempted to resurface during the depression from the standard formula and tropes of the genre which were already established in the previous 30 years. In terms of success, it stands out for being different, the fog, Robinson feeling a little out of place playing the same role except not on a city back-lot which we more easily associate with him, and that’s what I take away from this film more than anything else.