I’ve been meaning to return to The Tin Star (1957) for a while now, an under appreciated Western by Anthony Mann without James Stewart, his first Western without Stewart due to a falling out between the two of them. I wonder how he would have approached this role, making it the 8th together. Instead turning to Henry Fonda, a longtime friend of Stewart’s making for the film we have today. Paired opposite a young pre-Pyscho Anthony Perkins which itself makes for interesting reading.
I could come at this review as a could have been different with James Stewart but that would be doing a dis-service to decent film that takes on the apprentice/master relationship. Something that has been done countless times, to become a man you must be able to defend yourself. Here however you don’t need the guns to do so. They are simply tools, something that fresh-faced Sheriff Ben Owens (Anthony Perkins) has to learn the hard way. When bounty hunter Morgan ‘Morg’ Hickman (Henry Fonda) arrives with bounty in tow he wants only to collect his money and leave, keep to himself and cause no trouble. His very presence in the town causes a stir with the establishment and business that have supported Ben who took over at little notice. “This is a law and order town” is mentioned a few times to warn Hickman off interfering on his way. This is not the Clint Eastwood bounty hunter whose very presence scares those he’s about to shout down and collect on. This town has moved on from this model of keeping law and order. It’s follow the law and live by the law. Yet we still have the classic Dead or Alive posters which contradict that thinking. criminals are still wanted, however the arrive is a different matter. Hickman’s presence spreads fast through the town, no rooms at the only hotel, no room for his horse at the livery stable (on the edge of town). They don’t want him to stay, he’s a reminder of a different time, he’s outmoded.
Instead of being filled with rage, like many of Stewart’s roles, there’s no build up of emotion, not big release that leads to great dramatic scene. Instead he holds his own in a town that resists him. Taking up lodgings with another outsider Nona Mayfield (Betsy Palmer) and her mixed race son Kip (Michel Ray) a curious boy who wants only to play with others. Not having many friends due to his Native American heritage (which isn’t really mentioned outside the house). Getting off to a rocky start, it could have increased in tension however it’s dealt with calmly the next day surprisingly well.
The main focus of the film is making a sheriff out of Owens who wants to assume the role with more confidence, something that he is lacking. This could also be seen in the actors hidden sexuality, hiding him true-self on-screen to conform and get work. Can only a heterosexual male become a sheriff? His skills with a gun are rough around the edges, it takes Hickman’s presence, a former sheriff himself to help him. It’s a reluctant help, after being pleaded by the sheriff, not the image we’re used to in our law enforcement out in the West. He’s still a boy who needs to learn the ways of being a man. It takes another to teach him. We get the classic target practice scene, not played so much for comedy, more to see how far he has to go. He wants to prove himself to the town and his woman – Millie Parker (Mary Webster) who wants him to take off the badge to live a safer life, unlike her father who died with it on.
Another test comes in the form of Bart Bogardus (Neville Brand) one of the ugliest men you could get caught up in a fight with. A man who should really be wearing the badge, instead he tests the sheriff to the limit. When a posse’s formed to catch two men responsible for the deaths of two elder men, he leads the mob mentality, which is stirred up. Owens seems powerless to really do much about him. If Ben can overcome him, stand up to the brute he has come a long way, learning how to hold himself in public and as the law. The bully of the playground has no one left to push around.
The real test comes as the posse are out chasing no-one after setting a light, Hickman has resisted the lure of the reward on the two wanted brothers Ed and Zeke McGaffey (Lee Van Cleef and Peter Baldwin), again mixed race with Native American heritage, these two face the full force of racism, whilst young Kip joins in from a distance playing sheriff on his new horse. Hickman is able to put his drive for money to one-side when he knows Kip’s caught up, becoming a father figure to him. Not forgetting his sheriff in-training Ben who just wont listen to reason, stay out of it and be safe. The life he wants is fraught with danger and heartache, which can be avoided. Instead he’s headstrong and blinkered, riding in to prove himself. Ultimately, no guns are used to safe the day and bring in the two men. Even when they face a lynch mob, guns are threatened not used, showing that can be used as tools not just weapons for protection.
Tin Star is the beginning of a decline for Mann who had made some classic Westerns with Stewart, this could have been up there. Gary Cooper makes for a strong replacement in The Man of the West (1958). However from there on in it’s down and out, if we ignore a tense The Heroes of Telemark (1965) for a brief return to form. Here however we have a small budget film that tries to get into the characters, some more successful that others. There’s a lot going on in this 80 odd minute film, it’s tight with a bit of excess around the edges. I know I’ll be revisiting in future thanks to a fine performance from Fonda which gives it some weight and experience.
It’s awards season and I’ve started early this year, not that I think that Hostiles (2017) is gunning for any awards, just the timing of the release in cinema’s. Nonetheless it’s a Western which means only one thing, I’m there. Booking the tickets even with a few warm reviews I decided I had to see this for myself. Based on the manuscripts of Donald E Stewart about an army captain who reluctantly takes on a mission that changes his politics. Now this is how Soldier Blue (1970) could have gone, but decided to be more literal. I also found a few links to The Searchers (1956) which I’m always looking to explore through other films.
After years of internal wars between the White settlers, who had been shaking up and re-organising the country into a shape that more resembled their own destiny, we forget about the soldiers and people who were caught up in the Indian Wars that have left the Native Americans greatly diminished and broken. Hostiles attempts to address some of those issues in this Revisionist Western. Beginning by reverting to classic form – a Comanche raid on a family who are massacred, it’s straight to the point, gruesome and sets the tone for what is to come. Leaving wife and mother Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike) alone to bury her family, potentially altering her outlook on life too. She could have easily allowed racist tendencies to creep in and understandably too. It’s too later for Captain Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale) who is an embittered racist who has seen more than his fair share of bloodshed whilst in uniform. Easily seen as an extension of Ethan Edwards if he stayed in uniform. Yet his racism comes from another place, that is never really explored, leaving us to question how did he becomes this monster who could hate Native American’s that boils over when he discovers his family massacred, raped and captured also by Comanche’s. Blocker is given one last mission under threat of court-martial for refusing, to escort a now elderly Cheyenne chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) and his family back to their home land of Montana. Part of me thinks this is a test set by his commanding officer Col. Abraham Briggs (Stephen Lang) wants to see him suffer, to test his politics before the decorated officer retires. A big “Screw you” you could say.
The last time I saw Studi was as another historic Native American Geronimo in the 1993 film, here much older he gets slightly less screen time than his white colleagues who dominate. Showing there is still away go before they are given a fair representation in the genre. However they were portrayed with compassion unlike the Comanche who’re reduced to an obstacle to overcome – somethings never change. I’m not too surprised either, it’s a long ingrained part of the genre that is hard to shake. To achieve that they will have to be a Native American in the directors chair, with an un-compromised voice. That said The Cheyenne’s that are depicted with sensitivity, we can see they’re spirit has been broken but theirs hearts haven’t, which is the extent of the Cheyenne’s suffering is really explored.
The focus as always comes from the white man- Blocker whose our Ethan Edwards filled with racial intolerance for the Cheyenne that he has to escort across the open country. It’s his journey that we follow which has an interesting effect on him. Much like Edwards, he knows his foe very well, having learned to speak Cheyenne, he knows the enemy intimately, maybe too well. With the pomp of leaving his fort one last time he has his foe chained up, there’s no trust for the elderly warrior who puts up with this indignity. He wont rise to the bait, a decent man knows when he’s been defeated. This last throughout the discovering of the burnt out homestead where we find grief stricken Rosalie Quaid, everyone in the party can understand her pain. Pike delivers a heartfelt performance, you can really feel her pain, I wondered if she would cross into racial hate, making Yellow Hawks journey home even harder. Would her grief match the hate that of Blocker’s? Playing a vital part in Blocker’s transformation by the films close.
We start out of the fort with a small Master Sgt. Thomas Metz (Rory Cochrane) stricken with depression, Corp. Henry Woodsen (Jonathan Majors) who has been proud to serve with Blocker Lt. Rudy Kidder (Jesse Plemons) fresh out of West point ready to prove his superiors he’s worth his rank and French recruit Pvt. Philippe DeJardin (Timothée Chalamet) who has no real experience in the army. The small group meet resistance early on in the form of the Comanche who are the first of many obstacles on their long journey that has an effect on the number of men in uniform. Taking on Rosalie Quaid, could easily be seen as a burden to them. It’s the aftermath of these events that start to open up Blocker’s view of the world, starting to question his thinking. Finally confronted when he takes on army prisoner Corp. Tommy Thomas (not a very original name) (Paul Anderson) under the care of Sgt. Paul Malloy (Ryan Bingham).
Thomas is the equal of Blocker, yet he has used his racial hatred to kill a Native family whilst not under orders. Purely for them being there. A cold-blooded killer who shows no remorse for his crime, would Blocker have done the same out of uniform or has his uniform given him licence to kill and get away with it. The security position and rank have been enough, to go as far as Thomas would be a point of no return for the captain, or is this the next part of his life outside of the protection of the uniform. The Indian Wars and Frontier nearly closed he would be a monster in civilised society, an Ethan Edwards in fine clothes.
There’s a lot of ground covered both literally (and spectacularly on camera) and thematically, from racism to man first killing to forgiveness. It goes along way to get us to Montana and it’s not an easy ride with a lot to think about. Filmed over the last year it can now be easily seen as a response to America today, as it becomes increasingly alone in its world view. The development of a wall on the Southern border with Mexico. The political divide is stronger than ever with a President who you either trust implicitly or question his every tweet. Blocker is leaving one life behind for another, does he want to bring his past life to his future. Hostiles attempts to deal with a very contentious issue and does a good job – on the white man’s side. Whilst the Native American has to just accept his place in the film and history on the chin. I wish the Cheyenne had more time to talk, to explore their position, instead they are just lead and protected by the army that’s trying now to do right by them. It reminded me lastly of Cheyenne Autumn (1964), the depiction of the Southern Cheyenne joining those in the North, which is more apologetic than Hostiles that draws it out of the characters slowly, not so much the director. I can only conclude that Revisionist Westerns will only be apologising with white actors in the lead role rather than the Native’s who depiction and capacity in the film is still being determined through the winners history.
I’ve been meaning to watch Soldier Blue (1970) for sometime, know it came out the same year and shared some themes with Little Big Man which took more of the satirical angle of the genre and the politics of the day. I come away glad to have seen the film at least, I was considering a double film review to see how they both work together, but in reality they don’t unless you take both the massacres that are depicted; working as analogies for the Vietnam War which I’ve been learning about thanks to the BBC4 documentary series, which could be summed up easily in a few sentences when you look back at the conflict that really shouldn’t have taken place. Becoming an embarrassment both at home and internationally.
The function of the Western is to make sense and explore America’s consciousness, by looking back at its past to understand the present, how far they have come and also to celebrate, which at times can be problematic as we move further forward from the original events. Our view of history changes as we develop and change out thinking, new evidence comes to light, public opinion changes too. Blue made at a time when the American public wanted a complete withdrawal, the 1968 Nixon promised just that during his election campaign, which he eventually delivered on. The Western here is functioning on less than subtle level here, and at times very literal too, which is never a good thing for any creative endeavour. I could see the politics dripping off its liberal sleeve.
Beginning as a routine delivery of gold with a small troop of cavalry soldiers, with the addition of newly freed Cheyenne captive, Kathy Maribel ‘Cresta’ Lee (Candice Bergen) dressed in white women’s clothes ready to rejoin civilization. Sitting there in silence whilst the men are ogling her, hoping to make a successful advance, not the best way to return to white society. It’s not long before they’re ambushed by the Cheyenne who massacre them. We are seeing the power of the enemy first, before the U.S army has a chance to flex its might muscles at the finale. Leaving only two survivors, Cresta and Pvt. Honus Gent (Peter Strauss), both running from the action below. We learn how very different these two people are, the approach they take to the aftermath and their eventual leaving of the site. The ex-captive has no real concern to raid the dead soldiers in order to survive, taking all the water she can get…nothing really wrong there. Whereas Gent sees the act as desecrating a war site and the dead, placing his values above survival whilst still being respectful. Both want to survive but have very different perspectives.
Gender roles here are reversed here, usually the male is foul-mouthed – which is partly why the film has an 18 rating in the UK (although that could be reduced to a 15). The more Christian soldier’s shocked at the language that she comes out with. It’s refreshing that an actress is given such colourful lines, leaving Gent in the female role, even though his uniform suggests in the male role of protector, a soldiers trained to kill and serve his country but is giving way to a woman who understand the landscape and culture they are traveling through. Cresta is able to navigate her without relying on a river that would leave them vulnerable, discern which nations they interact with, she’s the scout who takes command.
Later on we encounter a goods wagon owned by Isaac Q. Cumber (Donald Pleasence) who we learn is really an arms trader using his wagon to conceal his real purpose in the West, to make a fast buck out of the conflict that is waiting us at the end of the film. However I notice a massive plot hole here which I will turn to later. Cresta is more aware of what is going on and ultimately sides with her Cheyenne family who have not harmed her physically, psychologically we can see where her loyalties lie – with the native, or the savage in the eyes of white civilization. I found Pleasence’s more enjoyable compared to Will Penny (1968), he’s not playing the mad preacher, more the capitalist out to make money from whoever he can find. I just wish we saw more of him, saying that his character did serve a good purpose in showing up the political divide between the Gent and Cresta.
The relationship that develops between the two I feel was a little manufactured to please the studio who made the film. However it allows a conversion to take place within him showed how far Gent travels emotionally and politically at the films close. You could say Cresta made a conscientious objector out of him, protesting about the conflict he’s supposed to be favour of by the colour of his uniform. The relationship may not be all that redundant after all.
Now for the plot hole which are a few, the years supposed to be 1864, during which time most if not all Indian wars were paused to focus on the Civil War between the North and the Southern states. However Gent mentions that he lost his father the previous year at Little Big Horn to the Sioux – which was in 1876, during the height of the Indian wars. Whilst the Washita Massacre took place in 1868, 3 years after the close of the Civil war. Another plot hole revolving around the gold that was stolen with the suggestion that it would be used to buy rifles, which itself make sense however when we meet Cheyenne chief Spotted Wolf (Jorge Rivero) of the he does not want to go to war. They do have rifles, but no mention of a recent purchase. All we learn is that the Cheyenne like all nations have an understanding of trade and how to operate within the White man economy whilst still being mostly free of the capitalist world itself.
The massacre itself is a thinly (emphasis in thinly) veiled metaphor for Vietnam, I’m sitting there thinking, yeah I get it. It doesn’t have the subtlety of Little Big Man of the same event that was more desensitised and was actually led by Custer who led both campaigns. The special effects here are poor, with dummy heads clearly being used and left in shot, it’s all for shock value which becomes more entertaining when that’s nor the point and lets down the film when we know it’s all leading upto this one-sided battle. Even if the cavalry rode over the U.S. flag before killing every man woman and child their weapons could reach, the fact that the Cheyenne didn’t want to fight, it’s all pretty much lost in the mess. It wasn’t really enough to laugh as I was just disappointed really let down after all this build up, the journey Cresta and Gent have been on, wondering if they would make it back to civilisation at all, not how I want to feel about a Western.
When it comes to Charlton Heston in Westerns it’s a mixed bag for me, having a few classics to his name. Known more for his Biblical work which suits him more, or his more just readily associated with them, either way I’m really got in the saddle with Will Penny (1968). Initially thinking it was going to be like Monte Walsh (1970) which again looked at aging cowboys who were coming to the end of the lives in the saddle, or so we thought. I was quite taken with the film, taking two of the genres bigger supporting actors are given this quiet film to relax and get comfortable.
Looking at Will Penny you can see it’s definitely a precursor to Walsh who follows on from the earlier. Focusing on Heston’s film for now I want to look at how he has made this cosy domestic Western. For a cowboy we see very little of the rugged open country that we associate with the genre. At the opening of the film we see cows being driven to a station, rounded up ready to go off to slaughter. We only hear of the promise of the train, which we wait for, whilst wages are paid out to the men. It’s virtually unseen to have the bureaucracy of the cattle drive on display. It’s generally get the cows the market, blow off some steam and see how much money’s left over before you join up on another drive.
It’s the next job which we focus on, where the men are heading off to. Two men Blue and Dutchy (Lee Majors and Anthony Zerbe) are making plans to find another drive before winter sets in, another cowboy is wanting to get the train to see his father one last time. There’s no place for having a good time here, it’s about keeping the money coming in, not spending it as fast as you can. The realities of Frontier life without any of the Hollywood trappings. Penny (Heston) is one of the more experienced men on the drive, who can’t easily being driven to violence before losing his job, he just wants to survive and do his job. Now Penny’s supposed to be playing older than he is, in his mid 40’s he still looks too young, relying on grey hair dye and the elements to age him up. It’s true life expectancy wasn’t that good in the frontier, however Hollywood is pushing it slightly.
He eventually rides off with Blue and Dutchy who we next see camping when an Elk’s spotted in the distance, fresh meat for the taking that leads only to trouble. The three men fight over it when an unscrupulous Preacher Quint (Donald Pleasence) and his boys who claim the game for themselves. One played by Bruce Dern in an early screen appearance setting the tone for his career. The gang lead by the fathers twisted interpretation of the good book taking the eye for an eye passage too literally. The death of his son he wants to avenge along with his sons who wont give up their quest for “justice”
Being a rare domestic Western there was more time given to Dutchy’s self inflicted gunshot wound. He’s not left for dead – for long anyway. Taking him to a small farm where the Penny and Blue want to get him to a doctor. Advised by the farmer best to let him die, come and have a drink instead. There’s little drama in these scenes, its pure conversation. Dutchy romanticses his accident to passing mother Catherine Allen (Joan Hackett) and son whose shocked at the story, taking his boasts at face value, painting Penny in a poor light. All moving at a steady pace, with no sense of urgency before they reach the town of Alfred where he does finally get care, where we leave him and Blue for a long time.
The focus now on Penny who finds himself a job, after bringing back the dead predecessor, again no drama, only that implied by the dialogue. Employed by Alex played by Ben Johnson whose settling into the older roles comfortably. We think that Penny can rest easy now for the winter just around the corner, his troubles are just about to begin. With the appearance of Mother and son once more in his own cabin, he wants to go easy and fair on them before his return. Even after she held him at gun point. Reflecting how hard it must have been for traveling families to defend themselves out on the frontier. Meeting himself with a bloody encounter with Quint and his boys. The group aren’t the hardest of men I’ve seen in the genre, acting like Native Americans would have been depicted, jumping around, throwing Penny around. Pleasance is strangely suited to the role known for the playing the bad guy this looks like fun for him. They leave Penny for dead in the now snowy Rocky’s, its survival time for him.
Arriving back and taken into his cabin, nursed back to health, we discover a more vulnerable side to Penny and the predictable build up of a romance between him and Catherine. It’s these scenes in and around the cabin that make it takes us into the home and the family dynamic like never before. Of course there have been many families, either warring against one another or all grown up, dysfunctional and feuding. Here these a sense of new love and discovery, without even knowing it. Brought to an abrupt end by the arrival of Quint and his boys, disrupting the dynamic, Penny now a prisoner, Catherine a sexual object to be played with. I’m reminded of the forced dance scene in Day of the Outlaw (1959) when the passing renegade soldiers lead by Burl Ives men who are finally allowed to let off steam, treat the most desirable woman Helen Crane (Tina Louise) as little more than a rag doll, showing no respect for her. The scene is drawn directly from. It’s just as painful to watch as the woman can do little or nothing about it. Made worse by a woman who came with the men who does nothing to stop it.
Falling back into the rules of the genre the hero has to save the day, if only to save his dignity and self-respect, with the help of Blue and Dutchy who appear out of nowhere its time to get the guns out and finally sort the Quint family out. Allowing domesticity and reality to set back in, Alex and his men ride into view and the mother and son have to face reality, not just of where they live, but with who. Penny is reluctant to settle down, feeling his life has not allowed him earlier to do so has left him emotionally at a disadvantage. Unsure if his own skills could support a family, knocking his confidence greatly, he has to carry on alone, riding off into the wilderness, this time out of choice, he had the option to make a family, a life on a farm. His own inadequacies, perceived or real hold him back. A more honest ending, for the film and the man who would have rode away with her, decides not to. A mature and hard decision to make narratively and emotionally for the audience. With reluctance I accepted his decision, nothing in his life has prepared him for a family, running away scared, better off he may think, still he leaves a potential family and lover to survive alone.
I have to admit that I’ve avoided Cowboys & Aliens (2011) for years, not wanting to see it thinking that it was a silly combination of the two – Cowboys and Aliens, how can that work and be worth my time. So as I made a point to avoid this film. The more I have read and explored the genre, I have finally seen and actually really enjoyed this blend of two of my favorite genres; Western and Science Fiction, I never thought how fun it could be. I had been put off also by a trailer which suggested that Daniel Craig‘s character had been possessed by an alien, uncontrollable, causing destruction wherever he went. I guess that’s the art of marketing when it works well, to suggest something else from the same material.
So suspicions allayed and defences down I was actually looking forward to the blend, seeing what happens when genre’s collide. I knew that it worked when Westerns are combined with comedy and to an extent – Musicals. If your going to bring Science fiction into the West it has to be good. Going down the route of alien abduction we find Jake Lonergan (Craig) is dazed and confused, no memory of who he is or where he is, with the addition of a chunky bit of out of the world kit on his wrist. Soon surrounded by men who know he’s vulnerable, get a taste of what this bracelet can do, blasting them off the face of the earth. More power than any Winchester Rifle could ever pack. Setting the tone for the film, its going to loud, bombastic and not taking either genre too seriously. Craig’s playing the stranger that rides into town, a stranger even to himself, and the town he’s about to enter.
Getting into town we meet almost everyone who we are going to be spending our time with in the film. Paying particular attention to the cattleman’s trigger happy son Percy Dolarhyde (Paul Dano) who takes his father position in the town to his head, thinking he can get away with almost anything. Not the usual role for Dano who we see arrested a few scenes later. Moving then to the cattle drive which is has stopped for the night this is the first time that we see the aliens presence really felt in the film. A series of explosions that leave all but one dead. It’s a mad scene of confusion that leaves everyone bewilders us, we haven’t seen the aliens, just understanding that they are here and not about to leave.
It’s only when they get to town the following night do we see the space-ships flying low, abducting half the town, looking as if they are pulled away on some metallic hooks that could have easily harpooned them. At this point I thought they would not be coming back. It’s another mad scene that both amazes and confuses everyone. Over in a flash before you can even comprehend what has happened. It’s just plain madness that leaves the townspeople both defencless and bewildered, having witnessed something that could have easily come out of a H.G. Wells novel. The nearest comparison I can draw is to The Valley of Gwangi (1969), an obscure Ray Harryhausen film that pits dinosaurs and other monsters against cowboys. Not his best effort but still fun to watch.
50 years later with more sophisticated special effects more has been achieved, I don’t even question them. I’m more concerned with how people from the 19th century would react with futurist technology, I’m thinking in terms of anthropology, how these people unfamiliar with technology that is far more advanced than even the steam train or the telegraph system that helped the development of the Western world. Here they are seeing technology far beyond their comprehension. But they aren’t really thinking about that, it’s the human cost, the loss of life that preoccupied them, the most they have to hand is a round or more of bullets.
We learn more about Lonergan when he teams up with Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford) who after a disagreement see the advantage he gives him and the posse that travels the open country, meeting up with Lonergans old gang, who have moved on since his disappearance, reminiscent of the leadership fight in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969). We are starting to piece together who Lonergan really is, his past and how he lost his memory. A journey that leads him to only female in the film – Ella Swenson (Olivia Wilde) who herself is abducted by the aliens who we have still yet to meet. When we are out in the open country, the camera remains as close to the ground as possible, we are staying in the Wild West and the cinematographic conventions, its the aliens have to share that space and world, only leaving to fly around once.
It’s only when we meet the Apache do things get really interesting, For now these two sides, the white settlers and the Apache have to come together to fight, stronger together, using White leadership and tactics, there’s some sort of meeting of the minds. When it comes to the survival of humanity it’s a different story, not the a war of colours and politics that we usually find in the genre. It makes for an interesting change, it’s messy, gory and fun. Clearly the filmmakers are having fun here, pitting alien against man; white and red. This is what science fiction does – ask question, what if, how could etc. One is playing out here, how would two opposing sides in America’s West survive and alien invasion?
The finale is female led, Ella is the real hero, with Lonergan’s help as he rescue’s the abducted townspeople. I found it refreshing for a woman to save the day in the Wild West, placed in a position of power, she can talk to both White and Apache. She is superior and otherworldly, quite literally, unlike those she could just watch on as see them being killed/harvested by the aliens. Could Lonergan and the others have really come together without the otherworldly intervention that saves the day? Now I can’t see why I put off seeing this film for so long, its a great fun film to watch if you want to see cowboys and aliens fight each other. It’s not meant to go down as a classic, just to entertain which it does, the actors take it more seriously than we do, steeped in the history of the genre we are seeing something literally out of this world happening. Just kicking myself for not watching it earlier.
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.
Another Western that I thought I would never see, so when it came up in the listings I grabbed the opportunity. A few weeks later I’ve finally caught this late period Western with an older Kirk Douglas. It first came to my attention when I found the trailer when I was working on Dancing in the West (2013), I eventually dropped the trailer from the final cut. The images of the trailer didn’t leave me, wanting to seek out the film which not so sought after in the genre. For me it was to see an older Douglas when his profile was not as strong as his son Michael. There’s enough room for two on the big screen – just.
Posse (1975) is not the longest of film by any stretch of the imagination, its straight into the action and it doesn’t really slow down, with a political edge that grabbed by attention. Texas State Marshall Howard Nightingale (Douglas) is leading a posse, we only know they are law by the badges they wear. Their actions are questionable, a nighttime raid on Jack Strawhorn’s (Bruce Dern) gang, having seen a great number of Westerns, there’s no honor in this raid, the men are caught off guard, with no chance to defend themselves. Even killed when they are clearly unarmed, which goes against the unspoken code which the audience has been educated in. All of Strawhorn’s men are killed within a few minutes, its systematic and cold, leaving the leader of the gang to ride off to fight another day.
The same systematic attacks carried out in daylight when the posse catch up with Strawhorn’s new less experience incompetent gang who are surrounded and killed one by one without really getting close. Strawhorn had briefed these men to shoot when they reach a certain point, no sooner. This doesn’t really sink in for them, firing when fired at, natural instincts come through, which the silent posse use to their advantage. Again these men are taken out one by one, some unarmed whilst others really don’t help themselves by getting in the line of fire. These are two sides where the leaders don’t directly get involved until the very end – could this be a proxy war in the West? Both men do deliver orders but don’t directly get involved until they are forced to. Nightingale finally arrests his man, bringing him one step closer to the office of Senator.
I’m reminded of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) which saw Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) who legend has it killed the outlaw Valance. This act raises his profile and helps him eventually reach the office of Senator. Except he knows he wasn’t the killer. His whole rise to power is based on a myth which he doesn’t argue with until the end of the film. Nightingale is purposefully building his own legend on the outlaws that he brings in or has killed. He is aware of his reputation and the power that it has to further his career.
We see that Nightingale has power or money at least, his own personal train that allows him to travel before breaking away with the horses that go with them. Pulling into Tesoto, a Texan town is later used for a political rally. A town where Strawhorn had previously shot a sheriff, leaving the town vulnerable to further attack, the arrival of Nightingale can only be a good thing. Bringing with him the man they wanted, Nightingale celebrated by most, but not all, the most influential man – the press – Harold Hellman (James Stacy) who won’t print favorable reports on the would be Senator.
With Strawthorn in jail, it’s time to ride the glory of the arrest, Nightingale holds an outdoor rally, which works pretty well for him, if only they went to the polls the next morning. Everything starts to go downhill from here on in. The train ride to the gallows comes to an abrupt end not too far out of town. Turning the tables on Nightingale who becomes powerless to do anything, his men are trailing behind unable to help. This is something I’ve never really seen, the hero so helpless to do anything up to the close of the film. Then again this is Douglas who has played some ambiguous conflicted men who we are somehow drawn to, neither good nor bad, this one is leaning towards the bad, riding on his political and legal powers to hopefully win the day.
None of that goes to plan, now a hostage, his men are forced to find the money to set him free, it’s the last job they’ll do for him before they cross over to other side and ride off Strawthorn. This is after they hear of their possible futures, less than desirable they hoped for. Less money for all, and for one less status, with that threat ahead they have to fight for themselves, and who can really blame them, with the opportunity they grab it with both hands. Leaving us with a very unusual ending in film, the hero is left alone, thwarted by the bad guy who rides off into the sunset. Yet our hero doesn’t really have the classic traits, sure he caught the bad guy, but he rode off with the men who first caught him. It shows the ambiguity of real life, also that politicians will always be politicians, using their position for their own gain.
Posse is a rarity for sure that uses the genre to look at politicians in more detail in the Western guise, the image of the squeaky clean politician who fights for his people is blown clear away. One of the more overt political Westerns, a politician displaying his power which ultimtely fails in public view. The image of Stoddard cannot exist here, he like the others is corrupt, using power to fight wars and gains that they can only do with position. Lastly the casting of Dern opposite Douglas is very clever, Dern plays a darker Douglas, going that step further from questionable to being the all out bad guy or “son of a b****” that made him go for the bleaker roles in the 1970’s.
Another western that I thought I’d never really watch or review. I do remember hearing some enthusiasm for the film at art-school, but thought little of it, wanting to explore the classics of the genre more at the time, which to a large extent I have since achieved, now I’ve got a few to revisit. I have since considered catching Young Guns (1988) not really knowing much about the film beyond it looking like a chance to refresh the genre, which was beginning to happen during this period such as Silverado (1985) and Pale Rider (1985) at least Clint Eastwood could be relied upon to deliver. I also saw this as a spin on The Magnificent Seven (1960) formula, bring together a group of gunfighters and send them out to save the day, which isn’t far off what happened, just without the pathos or myth-making magic which it achieved.
What’s achieved is my curiosity being pricked up, which is all you need sometimes to engage with a film. First I was drawn to the late 1980’s music video aesthetic, it was clearly aimed at a young audience who had no real interest in the genre, something for older generations who grew up during its hey-day. During this period there are glimmers of something special coming through. Another point was having the other Martin Sheen son as the lead, as Emilio Estevez was already established in film, compared to the more prominent Charlie Sheen whose actually written out of the film at around the half-way point, which also shows as how much hated being on a horse, staying long enough to get a starring credit and a paycheck.
Looking further a stronger historical connection that I found, helping when I realised that it depicted both Billy the Kid – William H. Boney and L.G.Murphy, who both appeared in Chisum (1970), skewed more for John Wayne‘s lead character during the Lincoln County War (1877-8) one of the many cattle wars of the period. The same events basically unfold but from a more relatable point of view – the young men who knew John Tunstall whose killing, that originally started the war. Instead of Chisum who was rightly worried about Murphy’s increasing ownership in Lincoln County. He’s nowhere to be seen or heard in Young Guns which is either a poor choice historically, or consciously written out to focus on those directly effected by the shooting. Having too many characters to focus on would make it a broader less engaging film.
With such a young cast who had yet to really make a mark in film it allows these six actors (ignoring Estevez) into careers of some longevity, which did happen for Keifer Sutherland, son of Donald Sutherland, which probably helped during casting. The rest of the cast I can’t say I have really seen before this film. A 50% success rate is still good going though. Placing them in this MTV-esque Western which works in some places and not in others. The music video feel of the film really has dated, the soundtrack really doesn’t work today, it attempt to set the tone but feels out-of-place, it’s neither nostalgic or dramatic, with time it’s just been lost. The casting of Terrance Stamp as John Tunstall just doesn’t work for me. Playing the “Englishman” which is over emphasised at times is really unnecessary for the audience. It’s trying to pit Englishman against Irishmen which really is just circumstance to me, just drop the point and move on. Also Stamp looks very out of place, just delivering his lines without looking awkward on-screen. I think he’s glad he was killed off after 20 minutes. He obviously leave a mark on the men – The Regulators, who start off to war.
Turning to The Regulators as characters themselves who are fully fleshed people who you can engage with. With the emphasis on Billy the Kid the assumed leader post Tunstall’s death, the historical figure that most in the audience would have heard of compared to the cattlemen who are known to those interested in history. For me it comes from reading beyond the films. As a character himself he owns the film and Estevez owns the role, really having fun, making his mark on the role whose being done justice. Looking to Charlie Sheen’s Richard ‘Dick’ Brewer who probably seen as the winger of the group who pushes everyone further before he’s killed off. Two of the Gun’s Josiah Gordon ‘Doc’ Scurlock and Charles ‘Charley’ Bowdre (Kiefer Sutherland and Casey Siemaszko) are given the love interests which don’t take over from the main plot, if anything they make them richer characters, they have more to lose as they reach the finale. I must also touch on the Navajo character ‘Jose’ Chavez y Chavez (Lou Diamond Phillips) whose half Mexican, whose allowed screen-time to discuss the American Holocaust, specifically the massacre at Sand Creek Reservation (1864), despite the fact that he would never have been there, as he wasn’t Cheyenne or Arapaho. Showing how Native American past can be recycled and jumbled to suit a script.
Young Guns reminded me of other super groups in the genre which brought together the best of the best in their fields, or even misfits such as The Professionals (1966), The Wild Bunch (1969) up to Silverado. Guns joins that long line of super groups toting guns. Long before the Avengers and DC universe films that bring together superheroes. Except everyone gets on and they have already met, cutting out a lot of exposition allowing for us to get on with the plot and see this group of young men just get on with it.
Historically I was vaguely aware of Billy the Kid’s involvement in the Johnson County War, afterwards I feel a little more informed and refreshed, there’s more to it then the side we see. It’s small event of a much bigger, dirty, violent history, also adding the myth of the West that has been reshaped by cinema. There are a few nods to the fabric of the genre, Patrick Wayne – son of The Duke takes on the role of Pat Garrett, to Jack Palance as Murphy which you can see he’s enjoying far more than Stamp was. It’s not the strongest of films for a number of reasons which I’ve discussed, however it is fun, engaging with filled with action, you’re supporting the young men as they fight for what is right which makes up what is lacking at times. A product of its time which you can forgive its many flaws leaving me wanting to catch the sequel now.
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.