Since we entered lockdown in the UK for some reason I’ve been watching a foreign language film every Monday. The standout has been Kon Tiki (2012) that had me on the edge of my seat during some scenes. Today I kept up the habit with The Warrior that was screened a few weeks ago in memory of the Indian actor Irrfan Khan who’s I’s previously seen in a handful of films, most recently The Lunchbox (2013) about an ageing office worker who communicates via his lunchbox to a mystery chef whose meals have been accidentally sent to him. They can’t fix the fault in this intricate system, instead the embrace it and develop an almost romantic relationship with one another. Again that film was screened again after his death. Having already seen that I decided upon this earlier film The Warrior that I thought would be more violent from the title. Instead its more like the Indian version of Unforgiven (1992), leading me to read this film as a Western which I found very surprising coming from a very different culture it fits the tropes of the ageing gunfighter perfectly. Far less violent than Eastwood’s interpretation on the subject it still has a strong grip on the tropes when translated to India.
Set during the 1500’s, India’s Feudal period we meet a father and son who live in a desert environment, Irrfan with pretty convincing wig of long hair, part his warriors uniform that sees him collecting the debts of a tribal leader – a Prince John type character – Lord (Anupam Shyam) who rules the region with an iron fist. We meet him as an elderly man loses his life after failing to pay his taxes. It’s Lafcadia (Khan) who beheads him minutes into the film. He does this with some apprehension. This lead warrior has lost or losing the will to kill anymore, after what could have been years of loyal service is starting to see who he has become. What was once a job to feed his only son Katiba (Puru Chibber) he has to make a change.
On the next raid – that of the dead man’s village he’s reluctant to take part on the violence as the pillage and kill everyone. Just like William Munny (Clint Eastwood) who doesn’t really want to take up his gun again after becoming a family man. It’s brutal but brief what we see in the village, eventually Lafcadia’s sword is covered in blood, the leader of this group has taken part in his last job before realising he can’t take anymore lives.
On attempting to escape with his son who looks up to him as his only living relative they start out only to fail, leading to a bounty on his head being ordered by the Lord by the next day. It’s pretty much found him or be killed yourself in this region of Rajasthan. When the remaining warriors can’t find him they know they have to bring back a head to please Lord or face his wrath themselves. A scapegoat is found and head is delivered. That’t not before they find Lafcadia’s on his own who can identify the head. It’s an awful moment in the film that is shared with Lafcadia’s whose choices have just made his decision more costly for him. Warrior isn’t afraid to go where other films won’t, violence against children is usually a massive no-no, here it’s dealt with tastefully and briefly. I can only think of The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) and the suggestion of violence in Mad Max (1979) as comparable scenes in the Western genre that come close to this painful moment swiftly cuts from the visual of the act of the boys death to how it affects the father left speechless. We see the cost of the lone fighter having to lead a lonely life but that’s on arrival to the town where the numerous films are set, we are saved from this moment of violence.
His destination now is to Kullu in the Himalayas, a location that we are shown a few times along his journey that, meeting along the way a young man and a thief in Riaz (Noor Mani) whose started out early on a potential life of crime, we don’t learn where he wants to go, but feel obligated to follow the adopted father figure in Lafcadia. It starts to becomes Josey Wales picking up people on his journey unwittingly, we only have one more with an elderly blind (Damayanti Marfatia) woman, blind but can still see with her other senses. Able to tell by touch alone the kind of people she’s following. She doesn’t bring much to the film in terms of screen time but her presence makes Lafcadia think that he his past life, can he ever hide from it and start a fresh.
Played out like a road movie it feels longer than it actually is, coming in at around the 80 minute mark we come into more danger for the final act as one village is being evacuated, where the final showdown takes place. Lafcadia can finally start to lay his demons to rest, taking up the sword once more to take down his old friend who looked upto him. Again the violence is kept to a minimum, we are suggested more violence than we see on screen. These maybe dangerous men but we are mainly shown that from the aftermath. The gunfighters of the Feudal era having taken up a role that is a life-long role out of survival and circumstance and little else.
Warrior is an interesting take on the gunfighter tropes of the Western, Irrfan Khan may look too old for the role at first glance yet he brings a maturity of a man whose made mistakes in order to survive and do the best for his family who I wanted to know more about. Set during an era of fear, death and uncertainty when India like many other countries were fragmented. He makes the film work as we you feel the weight if his regrets and the pain that he feels deep down.
This extended film review is a reissue of my reflections of the Ranown cycle of films that director Budd Boetticher and actor Randolph Scott worked on. These were varied in strength but mostly hold up well today as tight western thrillers that pushed what can be done on a B-Movie budget. I’ve left the films in chronological order of when the films were reviewed to avoid confusion.
Westbound (1959) Revisited
I’ve decided to undertake a revisit the Ranown Cycle of films directed by Budd Boetticher and starring Randolph Scott, taking the cheap budget of a B-western and raising it with the direction and the ideas of the script to that of a A-Western, before the power of the films was really known. All culminating in Scott’s swan song to cinema with Sam Peckinpah‘s Ride the High Country (1962) where he decided to never act again, believing he was unable to surpass his performance. Westbound (1959) is the first in a disjointed series that hopes to redress my view of these films that I only started to understand as I was finishing the first watch. It will be out of sequence, based on an availability, however this time I will be using a more critical eye in order to expand my understanding of these films.
So out of the seven films I am starting with number 5, which so far feels like a more cerebral of the series. Set during the height of the civil war as most westerns are, either before, around or after that period of upheaval in American history. Which allows for a darker story to be told. When Union captain John Hayes (Scott) to undertake a mission that could change the course of the war for the side that does eventually go onto win. It’s one he does at first with reluctance, a return to an old way of life that is away from the front line of war, something that he believes in. To manage a stagecoach route to ensure the daily passage of gold to the Union is not what he had in mind.
However when he meets wounded soldier Rod Miller (Michael Dante) returning home, unable to fight himself. Having to face battles of his own at home, Hayes grows into a father figure who wants to instill new purpose the now disabled soldier. It’s a rarity to see a handicapped actor playing such a prominent role. Usually given to an extra on a battlefield or about to have a limb blown off. Placing him in a role that allows both the characters and audience to confront the issue head on. On returning home his wife Jeanie (Karen Steele) takes a while to adjust to his new situation. He’s not the man she saw go off to war. A walking casualty of war that has returned from the battlefield.
The Miller’s live in the the Colorado territory that was supportive of the Confederate campaign. Wherein we find the villains of the film. Clay Putnam (Andrew Duggan) both in the field of love and war where Hayes is concerned, coming back to town where he finds his old flame Norma (Virginia Mayo) who is caught in the middle of these two men. Clay’s right hand man – Mace (Michael Pate) who is a real thorn in his side, acting more in impulse than intellect. These are the two real difference between them, its classical really, the intelligent bad guy gets the less intelligent more physically stronger gunfighter to do the dirty work and that fact is not hidden from view.
On the surface its a class set-up for a western of the period, however underneath we find darker tones, a country whose people have no real conscience, a wounded soldier, a stagecoach load who fall to their deaths are all placed before us. Its harder hitting than that standard gunfight or brawl in the street. We have men who act with little thought for the consequences until it’s too late. Whilst Hayes and his men fight to keep the route open to ensure a steady supply of gold to the union acts as a metaphor for a country working together for the greater good. Of course set during the Civil War that idea is meaningless, its one side for the other. Move it forward to the time of production you have look further, where I can see no parallel. The is probably the weaker of the series, its heavier on characters and settings, not set in the wide open spaces, it’s very luscious in terms of landscape. I feel there is something that wants to come out, there are things going in, characters who are fighting to be heard whilst becoming too mainstream as the film progresses. Aspects could have been developed and just left.
Ride Lonesome (1959) Revisited
The second film in my journey back through the Ranown Cycle, or the 6th out of seven films that Budd Boetticher and Randolph Scott made together. Much the same as Anthony Mann and James Stewart did at the start of the decade. After the previous film Westbound (1959) which really doesn’t fit into the series as strongly as Ride Lonesome (1959) which I began to remember quite strongly as I viewed it for a second time.
From the opening titles I felt more engaged, the music more dramatic and powerful as we embark on a film that is set out in the untamed West, using a location – The Alabama Hills in Lone Pine; a favorite location of the director. Mirroring John Ford‘s use of Monument Valley. Boetticher use of the location brings out the horror and the danger. Placing cowboys into an alien world that they have to ride out of back into what they hope is civilization or ride on for eternity. Anything or anyone could be hiding behind these structures that stretch for miles. If anything this film is more cinematic out in the open, no sound-stage shots, all out on location, a western that relies on the open to tell its story.
So I’m more impressed with this later instalment of the cycle, things are looking darker if only in terms of soundtrack as we meet Ben Brigade (Scott) who has already find who is looking for, we’ve come in half way through his journey. Our traditional hero is a bounty hunter, not even the later anti-hero of the Dollars trilogy that uses his intellect to get what he wants. Instead he is driven to see this young man Billy John (James Best) hang, a man who has shot men in the back. A good enough reason to be brought to justice, not even giving his opponent a fair chance to defend himself.
The audience is already on the side of the bounty hunter, how long will that last as we meet more people at a stage stop, two men and the wife of the boss of the post. Its a barren landscape and dangerous too, as we learn when a stagecoach rides in, only to crash into the post after an attack by Native Americans who bother the five for half of the film. We also have a return to the minimal cast which is something that really works out in the open, allowing us to focus on these individuals. From the stage post we meet Sam Boone (Pernell Roberts) and Whit (James Coburn) a double act essentially, the smart and the dumb man who plot to snatch the wanted man Billy and set him free, having heard there is an amnesty on his head. However plans to head to Santa Cruz for the bounty is where we are heading.
However Santa Cruz is not really where we are heading, taking our time through open country, taking a longer route, out in the open, not hiding their tracks. The threat of Billy John’s brother Frank (Lee Van Cleef) who is already riding over in pursuit of rescuing his brother. We see little of him and his men, only a few scenes in all. Allowing more focus on the men and Mrs. Carrie Lane (Karen Steele) who has only just realised she is a widow, as she stays with these men more out of safety than anything else. She has to trust them, finding that as however united they are as a group they are as the ride on, they are divisions between them.
The divisions are best highlighted through the night scenes, heavy in dialogue and shadow leaving the characters almost in profile. Even though its basically day-for-night lighting its allows us to look inside these men and Mrs. Lane as they begin to understand each other and the situation they are in. Boetticher has definitely bounced back here with more adult western that really hits home when the truth is revealed to us. Brigades past is told to us with striking tree in the background, a hanging tree, it doesn’t take much explanation. Simultaneously the images of the past are that occurred at this location are being retold, we can imagine the awful scene that have drawn him back here for what is essentially the bounty he has really been waiting for. A reward that is worth more than any money could substitute.
The hanging tree is a familiar image in the genre that has never been so potent, always associated death, unlawful trials, racism and injustice. A lone bare tree in a wide open space allows the potential for so much imagery, becoming an arena of death for a short time, taking the Western back to ancient Rome or Greece where all could see your rise or fall from miles above. It’s all about the staging of the ideas, the emotions, out in the open even when they are held up tight inside you can feel the tension as nothing can truly escape the elements.
The Tall T (1957) Revisited
The third of film of the Ranown Cycle, and the 3rd of the series in sequence is another strong entry. Set mostly in the Lone Pine which allows The Tall T (1957) to be a visually distinctive film to watch and reflect upon once you leave it. I am really enjoying my journey back into these darker B-westerns that really don’t deserve that label, the script elevates it to something far higher. I guess the budget and number of unknown actors ultimately dictates that definition. However I think that lack of high-profile actors, apart from Randolph Scott who had fallen out of favour unlike his contemporaries doesn’t seem to care, immersing himself into the material that makes it all worthwhile. The length of these films is just about right as-well, short, sweet and incredibly sharp for the adult audience at the time. It doesn’t talk down to anyone.
The beginning of the film is pretty straight-forward, Pat Brennan (Scott) rides in from what looks like the untamed wilderness, it’s all light-hearted as we meet the people of Contention another frontier town that is full of characters. I am already trying to workout who is going to make it on the journey ahead. Beginning at a stage stop once more, a recurring location in these films. Traditionally a passing place on the journey of most westerners in the genre. Popularized by Stagecoach (1939) which I originally saw this film as. Its much more and nothing like it in many respects. After a what is a carefree trip with Brennan through town buying candy for his friend’s son, you can see Brennan is a decent man who is everyone’s friend, he can’t do wrong.
All this is a false pretense as soon as he is horses-less he’s left vulnerable to whoever passes by. Hitching a lift on a stagecoach driven by old-timer and friend Ed Rintoon (Arthur Hunnicutt) who lets his ride up top. Going well so far until they reach familiar territory – the station, its deserting which is worrying to say the least. All’s revealed from the emptiness where so much life happened, it’s a band of four men led by Frank Usher (Richard Boone) who reveals what has just happened, the death of father and son buried in the worst place, down the bottom of a well. It’s not a good start to the second half of the film. This is the beef of the film, what we have waited for, away from civilization, from law and order, where things are supposed to make sense. Now three men are in charge and its only going to get worse.
Hopes of a making a bargain are offered by newlywed Willard Mimms (John Hubbard) who offers to get a ransom from his new father-in-law. The first character to show his true colours is also the most unlikely, a prisoner negotiating his way out. He’s a coward and greedy, having married for money not love. Riding back to town to get the ransom set-up with one of the men. Leaving us with us with probably the worst of the gang who lead Brennan and Doretta Mimms (Maureen O’Sullivan) to a hide-out, an abandoned mine. We see the younger men start to show their lack of intelligence, a weakness that will eventually work in hero’s favor. These are not men you’d want to meet in town or out in the open, not so much ruthless as dangerous and stupid which is a terrible combination.
This behaviour begins to show to Brennan and Usher two maturer men who have lived enough to know what is right and wrong, life has happened to them and are stronger for it, it’s the paths they’ve taken which have defined them. You could say they are the same before taking different routes in life, they want their own lot part of the world, just going about it different ways. However the real transformation in the film is Doretta who wakes up and understand what she wants in life, able to change her life for the better by the end of the film.
Its a tense Western that doesn’t waste any time in getting going. You could easily place this film in the stage a 2 act piece that would have the audience begging for some release which you don’t get until a gun is fired. The tone of the Ranown Cycle is set by here, its taut, sparse and very adult for its time. None of the big personalities you get from other actors, Scott doesn’t come across steal scenes, he is very much the star but says very little and means a lot, you feel at ease with him on-screen especially out there you do.
Comanche Station (1960) Revisited
My original review of Comanche Station (1960) drew comparisons early on with The Searchers (1956) which is easy to see why. Take out the raging and confused racist and what you have left is a man looking for and trading for those taken by Native Americans. Take out John Wayne‘s Ethan Edwards and replace him with Randolph Scott‘s Jefferson Cody a man with a very different goal. He too knows and understand the enemy but hasn’t become consumed by them. Instead it allows him to survive as we find Scott once more out in Lone Pine, a location that has become synonymous with him and Budd Boetticher working together for the last time here before Scott’s final film two years later. We see even less of the developing west, is all man vs. the wilderness.
With the opening scene lacking any real dialogue, a series of gestures and about two or three lines we have secured Nancy Lowe (Nancy Gates) and riding hopefully back to civilisation and safety, something that both of them are still far away from. We don’t know either characters intentions, their pasts or recent experience, its straight into a situation that will need to explain to build up these characters. One flaw of the film is the lack of attention that Nancy Lowe really received, her time with the Native Americans as a captive/squaw are completely ignored, she has been saved, end off really for her. This is something which John Ford couldn’t ignore, answering The Searchers with The Two Rode Together (1961) where a female captive comes to terms, and readjust back to a white way of life. I guess for Nancy all that is yet to come. She becomes the centre of attention as the film goes on in other ways.
So with Nancy safe and on our way back to her old safe life we stop by yet another stagecoach station, a symbol of isolation and progress, a step along a journey many yet to be completed. We have already what can happen in these locations in the Boetticher’s world where danger is lurking around the corner. With a station acting as a stopping place where anyone can drop by, if that be for rest, food, good or even money and blood. This time its a gunfight against Native American’s who are fighting other men who are riding over for safety. We see how unprepared Nancy is for a gunfight, unlike her rescuer Cody who tries to keep her safe as possible as bullets fly, and joining in the fight to defend this outpost of white civilisation, also just to survive which is a very human act.
With the first fight of the film out of way another one begins in the form of words and actions, three men against one, as newly arrived Ben Lane (Claude Akins), Frank (Skip Homeier) and Dobie (Richard Rust) discover Nancy and what she represents, a newly returned captive with a price on her head. Losing what power she has, becoming a pawn and losing respect in Cody whose labelled like the others, in it for the money. Its a similar theme, one man against the odds, ganged up against as he travels the open country. His character is tested in each film as different men in these seven films (more or less). Its once again the older man Lane who is the leader, age giving him the edge, the intelligence, the younger ones are seen as muscle and weight in a battle, extra lead to fire from their guns.
Being the last film in the series I can see already from the 4 films I have now revisited clear imagery at play. We have Lone Pine a landscape where very little can live or grow, no idea what lies behind the next pass or ridge. The perfect hiding place really. A stoic figure in Scott who always has to fight on his own. Always on a journey to somewhere, with a past that is hard to match and not to envy. A single woman who plays the role of damsel in distress who has yo be saved from falling into the hands of the bad-guys who are after her. The visual style maybe the same (more or less) which creates a world for these darker stories to play out, like dime-novel without the fantasy. Its not about being yellow or your abilities with a gun. These films are about what drives us under all those guises and how they determine our actions, making for some seriously gripping films that never relent.
Decision at Sundown (1957) Revisited
The fifth review in my on and off series of revisits to the Ranown cycle of films made by Budd Boetticher and starring Randolph Scott, Decision at Sundown (1957) was the third they made together. If you don’t look at the year of release for signs are how young the films in is terms of the two men’s work/progression they are still very much in the confines of the studio back-lot, very traditional and safe in terms of setting. Not yet fully in Lone Pine as we find which they first visit in films such as Westbound (1959) which allows for a true sense of isolation to come into these tense and introspective films. We’ve been out there once already in The Tall T (1957) we know what these two are capable of.
Saying that there is a strong sense of isolation in the town of Sundown. It’s an odd beginning, as a stagecoach is held up, simply to let passenger Bart Allison (Scott) off and catch-up with his partner Sam (Noah Beery Jr.) his sidekick almost who has stood-by him through a lot. Maybe the audience’s supposed to be thrown by this outburst of violence before simply riding off? It acts as a jolt, this is not the Scott of previous films, he’s not playing the straight forward hero. Even in the Ranown cycle he’s usually the hero with a darker side to him. Here he has a single purpose which he sticks rigidly too, there’s little deviation to even look after a woman whose trapped in a bad situation. His woman was killed three years previously. We are seeing another side to the same character we later see in Comanche Station (1960) and Ride Lonesome (1959) who has more compassion.
The two strange men who ride into town cause trouble everywhere they go, not the kind of trouble that results of death and destruction, rather creating an atmosphere of unease among the towns-people. Allison is making his presence known before the big-wedding and showdown which is sure to follow. We have yet to even meet the much talked about Tate Kimbrough (John Carroll) is even seen on-screen, building him as this dangerous man who has killed his fair-share of people before owning the town of Sundown that he now owns. When we finally meet him we discover that even though he’s to marry one woman, he’s spending more time and enjoying it with another Ruby James (Valerie French) who herself is questioning her relationship. I found John Carroll to be a much cheaper imitation of Clark Gable, tall, dark but not so handsome even classically, maybe that’s the intention, Gable never played men with a dark ulterior motive or the villain.
So having establish what the film is about, a bit of context surrounding the previous film, the cannon of the actor and directors work together lets focus more on the plot. Again it’s a short film which allows things to move rather fast. Down to mainly the budget again, it’s a lot tighter, something which you can lose with a bigger more one. The town all learn of Allison’s presence at the wedding, the classic line of any man speaking of a reason why these two people should not marry or forever hold their peace. Said more out of tradition today, used more for drama on-screen, used perfectly here when Allison interrupts, he doesn’t care for the respect of the church, so driven for personal justice he carries his gun into the church, for protection and warning for Kimbrough to react. We have the whole town here, bearing witness to this threat against the man who owns the town. Another powerful figure who will have to fight to hold onto his place. Having them in the palm of his hand for two years, he even pays for their drinks at the saloon.
It’s not long until Allison and Sam are holding up in the livery stable, not the open main space with the horse where there is more places to hide. instead the more confined space of the owners back-room, where they could both spend the remainder of the film as they’re surrounded by Sheriff Swede Hansen (Andrew Duggan) who is the towns owned sheriff, a coward with a badge on who sends other to do his work. The law enforcement’s an extension of Kimbrough’s hold over the town. Aptly named Sundown, which we never see, as the events take course over the day, its more metaphorical for the gunfight’s that take place during the day that determine the course other town will next take.
Allison being driven by revenge is also deafened not blinded by the truth that Sam has to tell him about his wife, it eventually divides them. But why did Sam hold onto this secret about Allison’s wife for so long? He couldn’t bear to tell him for the fearing the damage it may do, shatter the image he holds his wife in. It’s the case believing the legend and not the fact, a powerful idea out in the west. Breaking that ideal is hard to stomach, the legend or ideal of a person we hold can be far stronger than the truth.
As the two men continue to fight, the hold of Kimbrough loosens in the town, reality is slipping back as men start to discuss what they have lost, lead by the towns doctor John Storrow (John Archer) who had always seen beyond his gestures of good will to see the real man. One who had emasculated a town, what made them strong had all but gone. It’s a film about learning and understand the truths that we hide ourselves from. It takes the strongest of men to ride into town acting like a man, wanting to settle a score to show a town full of them to see what they had lost in themselves. Not the rights and powers, the feeling of being a man. It’s an idea that has not so contemporary, the idea of a man is now more sensitive, more open to his feelings than bottling them up. We all can hide from the truth if we choose to. Scott, one of the epitome’s of the western man turns that on its head, is unable to deal with the truth until the end of the film.
Summarising where I am in my journey through the Ranown Cycle I can see that if the story is strong enough as it is here, do we really always needed the rugged outdoors of Lone Pine to set our stories against. The cast was far larger than those film, there is still a focus on characters and a number of them too. Scott is able delve into the inner reaches of what is possible with man in as few words as possible.
Buchanan Rides Alone (1958) Revisited
The sixth film in my revisit to the Ranown cycle of films, and the fourth film Buchanan Rides Alone (1958) that Randolph Scott and Budd Boetticher made together. One that is practically confined to studio back lot, one used in a number of 1950’s Westerns, mostly B-movies too. There are the odd classic which I’m reminded of. I’ve probably said this before when I look at a Randolph Scott Western they are generally B-Movies as he moved to the end of his career. However all that he brings to them, his presence, charm and down to earth being makes them stand the test of time. You could say today his contribution to cinema and the genre is something that can’t be overlooked, which has helped ensure that position. When it came to this 7 film collaboration Scott is taking a creative chance here, with a director whose been confined to B-Movies. Yet these films don’t feel like that, maybe in the supporting cast that you won’t see with A-list stars.
Anyway I’m spending too much time mumbling on when I should focusing on another tight film. I’ve already established the emphasis of the Frontier town back-lot, I feel that the best of the Ranown films are set out in the country where anything can happen, open to the elements and the evil of man lurking behind the next mountain or large rocks that populate Boetticher’s cold westerns. I decided to watch the trailer last night, a very misleading thing to do, as I thought that Scott’s character Tom Buchanan robs a bank with an accomplice. How very wrong I was, it just shows how manipulative a trailer could be in the late 1950’s. Instead he was another honest man who stands by his words, even his past as murky as it maybe, he could explain his position and past decisions, he owns his past as fictional as it really is, it becomes real.
I mentioned the evils of man out there in nature, the untamed landscape, that is not really in the Agry family who run the town of the same name. We’ve seen men in earlier Westerns, where rich cattle men owned the sheriff, who gangs who employed others to carry out their jobs lawfully. There’s no guise of the powerful figure pulling the strings from behind the scenes, instead its in your face, the face of the townspeople who are in-fact free to question the power but don’t really test its boundaries. It’s only when Buchanan rides into the border town, laid down with belts of bullets, it’s not an easy image to see the hero of the film weighed down by so much ammunition. He is joking with Sheriff Lew Agry (Barry Kelley) who we first don’t suspect of his dreams of power. It’s a light first scene, we’re being introduced to the Buchanan who just wants to pass through, easy-going and amiable. It’s not until Roy Agry’s (William Leslie) shot by Juan de la Vega (Manuel Rojas) for reasons we don’t really learn, it’s just an inevitability for the Agry’s black sheep who caused nothing but problems. Still a death in the family has to be avenged.
As it’s a Mexican who killed him it’s supposed to be easy to just go out and hang him, until they the Agry’s realise that Judge Simon Agry (Tol Avery) is running for Senator, he cant have an illegal hanging against him. So for the sake of image..and justice a quick trial that has Buchanan caught up in it as the supposed accomplice. Our hero is found innocent as he was, whilst Vega pleads guilty and happy to do so. The trial is merely for show, if justice is seen to be done then the town can move forward, a hanging and the town will still live in fear and want to be protected.
What follows is the breakdown of a male dominated family that conspire against each other. When a deal’s done to secure the release of Vega for payment of $50,000, probably a lot more today. Reflecting even then how those in power can be so underhand to ensure they stay in power. The deal doesn’t stay secret for long thanks to bumbling brother and hotel owner Amos (Peter Whitney) who is the real black-sheep of the family, or could you say the honest one of the family who has no real respect. He has only has a position thanks to his family name, without that he would be left outside and probably dead in the reality. You can’t help but empathise with him though, wanting to deliver change but forever locked out.
As in the other entries of the Ranown Cycle Scott is the stand up, hero who fights against the odds. Even though he just falls into these horrible situations that push him to test his own morals, he, doing what he has to survive and fight for the wronged man or woman. So where does it fit in with the other films, it is a strong entry, but for me it’s always going to be about Lone Pine that hides the danger and the drama, a wider stage to set the film upon. The cast is larger than the stronger films that have more tension, this is probably sitting in the middle in terms of strength of drama. This is however the dream of a better life, that ranch with a few thousand head of cattle, the dream of an ideal or a better life, a strong theme that runs throughout the cycle.
Seven Men From Now (1956) Revisited
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.
Last summer I completed work on a Film Talk that has yet to be delivered. With everyone staying at home at the moment I thought I’d share the film talk with you. Focusing on the evolving role and depiction of violence in the genre.
Tonight’s film talk is about the depiction of violence in the Western Genre. On-screen violence is a vast topic that if you could spend hours exploring it’s effects on society, censorship and how directors have each approached it in their work. Tonight I’ll be focusing on the evolution of the depiction of violence in the Western
The Great Train Robbery was the first noted Western in 1903, featuring the first use of editing to push forward a narrative and lay the foundations for the genre over the course of the next century. More notably the use of guns, ending with the a gun being aimed at the audience.
“They helped producers understanding of the important of setting and reference, the possibilities of location and action shooting…the new medium and the industry succeeded in appropriating the literary and historical tradition of the myth of the frontier and translating it’s symbols and references and its peculiar way of blending fiction and history into cinematic terms.”
Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in 20th Century America – Richard Slotkin p.254
During the silent era the genre was very popular with audiences. Innovators of the genre such as John Ford spoke of his time to fellow director Peter Bogdanovich.
“These early Westerns weren’t shoot-em-ups, they were character stories. [Harry] Carey was a great actor, and we didn’t dress him up like the cowboys you see on TV-all dolled up”
Ride, Boldly Ride : the evolution of the American Western – Mary Lea Bandy and Kevin Stoehr p.26
During the silent era a number of court cases were being held in connection to Westerns of the day. The James Boys in Missouri and Night Riders both released in 1908, both depicting the James Brothers. The Judge in the case of Block V the City of Chicago ruled against them. It was his opinion that
“…The James Boys and Night Riders were immoral not simply because they concentrated on the exploits of outlaws but because they did so exclusively, without corresponding depiction of law-abiding character that they ought to offer morally admirable characters and behaviour as a counterweight to depictions of crime…”
Classical Film Violence: Designing and Regulating Brutality in Hollywood Cinema (1930-1968) – Stephen Prince p.19
Similar rulings would have a lasting effect on the production that was later established in the 1930’s. Accompanied by the development of sound transforming how narratives we’re told. Changing the dynamic of the plot, from just visuals with the extra audio element, allowing for violence to be heard. The Production code was finally enforced in 1934, forcing filmmakers to think creatively to work around the restrictions.
“Restrictions on the image, paradoxically, open onto plenitude – the rich and fertile area of the imagination-which requires very little data to perform prodigious feats of creation. The oblique image, violence hinted but not displayed, can arouse the viewers imaginings with great ferocity.”
Classical Film Violence: Designing and Regulating Brutality in Hollywood Cinema (1930-1968) – Stephen Prince p.207
Westerns during the majority of the 1930’s were relegated to kids B-movies, some featuring a young John Wayne. If you wanted anything close to a gunplay you’d have watch a James Cagney or an Edward G Robinson film. The genre finally matured in 1939 with Stagecoach beginning a resurgence of Westerns.
During WWII images of violence filled the screen in newsreels and the first hand experiences of filmmakers of the U.S. Army Signal Corps, which I’ll touch on later. Films such as The Ox-Bow Incident (1942), which focused on mob violence.
“…Walter Van Tilburgs Clarks story, a sobering look at mob psychology and violence. While Gil, Art, and Davis [Henry Fonda, Harry Morgan and Harry Davenport], and others plead for law and more reasonable, rational behaviour to prevail, the mob has its way. It’s as if Clark is saying, and [William] Wellman and [Lamar] Trotti are confirming, that this is not at all unusual but, in fact, the natural state of human behaviour.”
The Noir Western: Darkness on the Range – David Meuel p.29
We see the result of the mob violence in this clip.
We only see the executioners setting up the horses, rigging the nooses. The only physical violence we see on-screen is handed out to the general’s son, a pacifist who’s clipped by his father. Then men executed are reduced to shadows from the trees above. The audience imagination shocks them more than the images on-screen. They have seen anyone hang, imaging the men hanging from above.
A few years later in 1946 in John Ford’s first film after leaving the Signal Corp – My Darling Clementine is released. He deals very differently with violence. It’s more traditional; we see gunfights, which are interposed with long periods of characterisation. We get to understand the motivations of the key Wyatt Earp and Doc Holiday before the final shoo-out at the infamous OK Corral.
As the 1950’s began the effects of film noir were being felt strongest with Anthony Mann and his cycle of psychological Westerns, filled with tormented men and women, struggling to understand the world around them. The director felt he had more freedom in the genre.
“It’s a primitive form. It’s not governed by rule; you can do anything with it. It has the essential pictorial qualities; has the guts of any character you want; the violence of anything you need; the sweep of anything you feel; the joy of sheer exercise, of outdoors. It is legend-and legend makes the very best cinema….”
The Wild Bunch: Sam Peckinpah, a Revolution in Hollywood, and the Making of a Legendary Film – W.K. Stratton p.73
Stevens wanted to replicate his experience of warfare for audiences back home. Also seeing boys playing cowboys in the streets. His wanted to make Shane for the kids to see what killing was really like.
“Now he re-created it on the screen in Technicolor. He’s given Americans, comfortable in their theatre seats, clutching their popcorn and sodas, a nasty taste of what death was really like.”
The Wild Bunch: Sam Peckinpah, a Revolution in Hollywood, and the Making of a Legendary Film – W.K. Stratton – W.K. Stratton p.74
At the end of the film social justice is restored, forcing Shane unfit to live among civilised people to wander forever at the close of the film.
Shane was one of a growing number of cinematic creations known as the Gunfighter, the walking embodiment of violence in the genre.
“These new takes on the Western were shaped by the internal logic of genre development, which fostered a certain kind of stylization of the Western and its hero and by the pressures and anxieties of the post-war/Cold War transition…The consonance between the formal character of the gunfighter Western and its ideological content is a genuinely poetic achievement. It gave the gunfighter films ideological and cinematic resonance and made heroic style of the gunfighter an important symbol of right and heroic actions for filmmakers, the public, and the nation’s political leadership.”
Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in 20th Century America – Richard Slotkin p.379-80
So far we have seen how violence has been developing on-screen however it’s John Ford in The Searchers (1956) as much as violence is depicted traditionally, guns being fired, yet we see no one of consequence die on camera.
“The violence in the film-ranging from the Comanche massacre of the Edwards family homes and Ethan’s discovery of Martha’s ravaged corpse to Ethan finding Lucy’s body and later his scalping of an already dead Scar-always takes place off-screen, leaving horrific acts and scenes to the power of the viewers imagination. This is a movie about violence that does not reveal its violence directly to the audience.”
Ride, Boldly Ride: the evolution of the American Western – Mary Lea Bandy and Kevin Stoehr p.193
This clip from The Searchers is a prime example of that unseen violence.
We clearly understand what’s happened to the Lucy, Ethan has buried her in the canyon he’s returned from earlier. Her body was mutilated and raped before she died. Ford relies on prior associations with Native Americans in the genre to inform us of what’s happened. The most brutal scenes are suppressed
“We feel the horror of Lucy’s death all the more because our imagination has to supply what Ethan will not tell, or in the case of Martha’s death, will not let Marty see. At the same time, keeping such things hidden not only invests them with extraordinary emotive power. It also allows the film to hint at the darkness deep in Ethan…only Scar’s death and mutilation are seen on screen. It’s as if at the end suppression is no longer possible. Things must finally be brought to light, after which there can be resolution.”
The Searchers (BFI film classics) – Edward Buscombe p.28-9
Moving to the end of the 50’s we have Anthony Mann again focusing on sexual violence too. Man of the West (1958) which rightly disturbs and angers Link (Gary Cooper’s), a now reformed bandit when an act is committed.
The First scene with Billie (Julie London) we see how this disturbs Link; Leading to his brutal fight with Coaley (Jack Lord) in the second scene. Both scenes are intense as we Link’s humanity being mentally stripped away at.
“Merely being around the Tobins brings out the worst in him – something that’s still (and maybe always be) there. Just as Billie and Coaley are stripped of their clothes, Link is bring stripped of his hard-won humanity The one bright spot is that, when Link has the chance to kill a defenceless Coaley, he can’t bring himself to do it. He hasn’t entirely reverted back to his old ways.”
The Noir Western: Darkness on the Range – David Meuel p.137
To see violence really develop you have to look to Italy with the introduction of the Spaghetti Western, cheaply made westerns using a mix of European actors and sometimes American stars. Personified by the Dollars trilogy teaming Clint Eastwood and Sergio Leone.
Up until this point there was a sense of morality in the genre, the gun brought justice to civilisation. Through skilful use of a gun you can rise you to the status of hero.
“According to [Robert] Warshow, the protagonist of the Western is in control of himself. He uses violence only when provoked and, ultimately, in defence of his vision of himself as a man of honour. For [John G.] Cawelti, the hero’s code and the epic moment (where an ‘advancing civilisation met a declining savagery’) worked to provide a ‘fictional justification for enjoying violent conflicts and expression of lawless force without feeling that they threatened the values or the fabric of society’ Violence as a moral force therefore became central to the classical Western formula.”
Myth of the Western: New Perspectives on Hollywood’s Frontier Narrative – Matthew Carter p.37
How this consideration simply goes out the window with directors like Leone and [Sergio] Corbucci according to Pauline Kael who observed this.
“It was spaghetti Westerns […] that first eliminated the morality play dimension and turned the Western into pure violent reverie. […] What made these […] popular was that they stripped the Western form of its cultural burden of morality. They discarded its civility along with hypocrisy. In a sense, they liberated the form: what the Western hero stood for was left out, and what he embodied (strength and gun power) was retained.”
Radical Frontiers in the Spaghetti Western: Politics, Violence and Popular Italian Cinema – Austin Fisher p.67
European cinema breathed new life into a purely American genre celebrating its own history. Burdened by the weight of the heroes and villains that populated it. Once removed you can use its form and write a new language.
What caused the removal of civility and morals in Italy to produce over a decade worth of film? You only need to look at the political tensions in the country to understand filmmakers and how they were responding on their work.
“There is in these films little sense of authorial surprise or shock that an outwardly democratic government might be corrupt and coercive. Certainly, the identification of state-sanctioned cruelty was hardly revelatory in a country with a living memory of totalitarianism and a rich tradition of militant insubordination. Accordingly, compared to the momentous depictions of a violent death being explored in contemporary Hollywood, the stylistics of the Italian Western as a whole reflect a considerably more blasé outlook towards brutality.”
Radical Frontiers in the Spaghetti Western – Austin Fisher p.160
A key film is Corbucci’s; Il Grande Silenzio (1968). The law is used to bounty hunters advantage to get rich. Lead by Tigrero (Klaus Kinski), his men deliver unspeakable death to one town, ignoring an amnesty that has just been passed on all outlaws. Tonally a very bleak film that even see’s the film’s hero Silenzio (Jean Louis Trintignant), himself a victim of violence eventually killed.
Back in America the production code was crumbling. Studios such as United Artist had been bypassing the code, releasing films without a seal. Those that worked with the code proved too much for one Western – One Eyed Jacks, it was still too much working with the Production Code Administration. Here’s a description of one scene that was never filmed.
“He is battered and bloody. Several teeth have been knocked out, and now half conscious he spits them out, one eye is swollen, already half-shut, blood pours in twin streams from his nose, his chin and cheekbones are bruised purple.”…“One of those shots has shattered the bridge of his nose, spraying his face and eyes with blood”…“The crowd hauls on a rope, which is attached to Bob’s right ankle. He is pulled up into the air and his dead body dangles downward, the other leg flopped awkwardly over at an angle… The barber douses Bob’s body with the kerosene and the holds a lighted match to it.”
Classical Film Violence – Stephen Prince p.191
Violence like this couldn’t be depicted for another decade, helped in part to he production code being replaced when Jack Valenti took over the, working with the major studios to bring it what we would be more familiar with – a ratings system that hoped to appease both studios and religiously conservative America.
“…the “G,” “PG,” and “R” registered with the US Patents trademark Office as certified labels of the MPAA. (The “X” category was never copyrighted since [Jack] Valenti thought if a producer felt that his movie couldn’t make the “R” cut, he would never submit it and the film would go unrated.
Hollywood Film 1963-1976 – Drew Casper p.120
As the 1960’s wore on we saw a number of pictures that really pushed the boundaries of what the public would like from Bonnie and Clyde (1967), opening the doors for Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch. A Revisionist Western that had more in common with the Spaghetti Western. However it was the volume of violence that would be remembered. His reasoning was to depict what killing was really like, much like George Stevens reflecting the television pictures of the Vietnam war.
“Look, killing is no fun. I was trying to show what the hell it’s like to be shot.”
Hollywood Film 1963-1976 – Drew Casper p.334
The film’s bookended with two violent set pieces. The opening sequence was the first to depict women and children being shot, during a bank robbery. Whilst the finale would see the 4 anti heroes attempt to save their friend before engaging in a bloodbath opposite the Mexican Revolutionary Army. Using guns never seen in a Western before this point.
The the film was met with its share of controversy, critically it was both loved and hated. Overtime its status has raised to become a classic. The violent scenes are still shocking. Sadly it never had the effect that Peckinpah intended for. Carrying his share of regret, which we can see in this interview.
During the early 1970’s Westerns began to lose their place in the cinema, fading into pastiche and obsolescence for a time. Clint Eastwood was the only director keeping them alive. Culminating in Unforgiven (1992) when retired gunfighter William Munny after years of being a family man picks up his gun one last time. Throughout the film we see old man unable to shoot properly, mount a horse, all signs of aging, yet it’s the death of his friend Ned (Morgan Freeman) that triggers something inside him.
“[Munny has ] thrown a switch or something and now a kind of machinery was back in action, a “machinery of violence,” I guess you could say. No it wasn’t glamorous. He’s back in the mode of mayhem. And he doesn’t care. He’s his old self again, at least for the moment. He doesn’t miss a beat whole he loads his rifle and talks to the journalist…Now when he goes on this suicidal mission, he’s all machine. He not only murders Daggett at point blank range but shoots some bystanders with no more compunction than someone swatting a fly. Munny has been protesting all the time that he’s changed, but maybe he’s been protesting too much.”
Clint Eastwood Interview 1992
Ride, Boldly Ride : the evolution of the American Western – Mary Lea Bandy and Kevin Stoehr p.264
Eastwood reminds us of Peckinpah’s intentions in Wild Bunch to show the destructive power of technology in the hands of mind. Both directors are aware the audiences lust to see it that all on-screen. This is not the case in the traditional form.
For violence in modern cinema a prime we should look at Quentin Tarantino, whose last two films have been set in the Wild West. His 7th Django Unchained (2012) a quasi Spaghetti Western-blaxploitation. Violence is a constant that is always there in the background before we reach the final explosive act.
“The film ends with Django taking his revenge, redecorating the walls of Candie’s mansion with blood that “has it’s own ballet movements,” as David Thompson wrote in the New Republic. “It’s Jackson Pollock on speed; and it spouts from bodies the way oil arrives in Giant or jism comes in a porno movie, it can’t wait to get out of the bodies.”
Tarantino: A Retrospective p224 – David Thomson – New Republic Review
Whereas his last film The Hateful Eight (2015) essentially an Agatha Christie in the West, with some gruesome acts along the way to the fallout feels tamer in comparison. Is this in response to the constant criticism of his use of violence?
“But it’s a hassle, it’s a pain in the ass. Maybe I can take a break on it for this next one.”
Tarantino Interview – regarding the suggestion of doubling down on the violence in The Hateful Eight (2015)
Once Upon a Time in a Western p.270
So where does that leave violence in the genre today?
Firstly the output of Westerns has dropped dramatically in the last 20 years. The genre has become far more reflexive, open to critiquing itself in films. It’s also open to genre blending more violent depictions. Women are finding a more equal space in the genre. However violence is no longer a means to restore law and order as the classical form would promise deliver. Now it’s become at times excessive and run of the mill, an action film simply set in the West
As Eastwood touched on in Unforgiven, that traditional use of violence as a release of a build up of tension is still there. It just needs to be released more often due to scenes that build up throughout a film, which audiences have been trained to respond to. Another factor is that we are being numbed by the on-screen effects of the violent images found on television.
The last half of this year I’ve been catching up on Deadwood the TV series, which I was recommended back at art school but thought I should concentrate on the films rather than getting bogged down in boxset after boxset. It’s only been since the arrival of the the TV movie that I thought that even before watching it I should watch the boxset before I even attempt the film. Feeling it’s better to know what came before I even jump in. I read that there are particular episodes to watch for plot points, why not watch the whole thing. From just watching this epic TV series that was cancelled in its prime I enjoyed the rich use of language, instead of all the usual cliches there’s an insistence on using the correct grammar of the time. As I have learned the F-bomb and it’s many variations were used far more commonly in the 1800’s than now. From the first few episodes I could see there was a power struggle going on for the gold mines. Before turning to issues such as succession into the Union of America, all the political implications that come with that reality for a town that is basically under the control of a few men – Al Swearengen (Ian McShane) Sheriff Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant) and Cy Toliver (Powers Boothe) who basically ran the town to their own advantage. All before the third seasons story arc devoted to the threat of power from the all powerful prospector George Hearst (Gerald McRaney) who threatened the very existence of the town.
I’ve not even mentioned the colourful population, mixing historical figures who lived or passed through the town, giving then series a rich connection to Wild West history, blending with fiction and newspaper accounts from the town. I could find very little to criticise about Deadwood, if anything I wanted more, to see it run longer than its short screen life. As season 3 began I watched more intensely than before, just dropping in when I could to see what was going on from week to week to see whose neck was going be slit next.
Deadwood: The Movie (2019) set 10 years after the last events, although made 13 years after it was cancelled, a year or two either side doesn’t really matter as we get to catch up with the whole town on the day it joins the state of South Dakota, bringing them even further towards the progress that is rapidly cross over the states of America. We arrive by train bringing with us both Hearst, now a US senator for California and Alma Ellsworth (Molly Parker) who both left at the close of the final episode bringing all surviving characters back to the camp. Progress is indeed happening for the town/camp as and it’s coming thick and fast. Yet for some old habits die hard…or not at all.
As we find each of the characters flashbacks are used in the first hour to remind reviewers of past relationships, acts and deals that have been done. For me it wasn’t all that helpful, more a hinderance, my fault there. Subtly used to cover ground that could have been wasted in what is essentially an extended episode of the Western drama. They are free of the restrictions of TV back in the mid 2000’s which Deadwood was leading the charge in recreating these extended arc plots. The creators of the show have done well to get most of the cast back to return for this to happen. The location and sets are meticulously recreated, nothing has been left to chance, before expanding upon it to reflect the passing of time. I’d be lying if I hadn’t thought about recreating it myself in cardboard form.
Now is a chance to tie up loose ends and see how those ends have taken our characters. Firstly we found a dying Swearengen who has been diagnosed with kidney failure, with only days to live. Bullock who was thought to have lost the election is now town Marshall, whilst the weaselly E.B. Farnham (William Sanderson) is still the mayor and runs the hotel across from the Gem. Somethings never and should never change in a town that seems to resist change if it doesn’t benefit the few in power. I’m glad that the relationship between Calamity Jane (Robin Weigert) and Joanie Stubbs (Kim Dickens) has been picked up and still working in a time that would have frowned upon them. Whilst the depiction of Mr Wu (Keone Young) has not really changed, but it could be argued Chinese people it reflects the treatment of this race.
The main focus of the film was the ramifications of Hearst’s effect on the town, Trixie’s (Paula Malcomson) attempted assassination of the ex-prospector who hasn’t given up his greed for land and being done wrong. A resolution was needed really to account for the guilt and grief that she has been feelings. There’s still plenty of bad feeling for the corrupt senator, who could easily be seen as the Trumpian figure of this world. We also had a return to the bloodshed, with a much loved figure being shot in hopes of a land-grab by Hearst, which doesn’t go unnoticed by the camp that soon retaliate in a town that doesn’t easily forgive as it does forget.
It’s classic Deadwood in HD and I’m not complaining. With all the resolutions going on, there’s still plenty to shock you in this camp. I feel that it’s a much needed proper conclusion that was never achieved before in the third season, that did it’s very best to deliver a season long plot that did deliver but needed a fourth to really see how things ended. This TV movies goes a long way to showing what could have been done. I wish more time was spent with some characters, mainly the women of the camp, and supporting cast members who fell to the sides as we focused on resolutions which was the main purpose of the film. That being said it was a satisfying return to the camp.
I’m probably committing some crime against Westerns and even the Duke himself. Ever-since I’ve read the Charle Portis source material – I’ve felt that the Coen Brothers remake was actually a better film. At least in terms of being true to the book. However much you have the Dude – Jeff Bridges riding high with his eye-patch. Yet there’s something in John Wayne’s performance that stands the test of time. Ok he may have won the Oscar based on years of being unnoticed by his peers. There’s a magical quality in his turn as Rooster Cogburn that Bridges couldn’t recapture. However I feel it’s time reassess those thoughts as I revisit both films to see if I’ve changed my mind or am I committing a crime of some sort.
John Wayne’s ride to Oscar glory apparently started during the filming of True Grit (1969),something that director Henry Hathaway notice on set. This time the duke wasn’t working for his own production company – Batjak, instead on someone else’s time, maybe this led to a better than usual performance for a a director he’s worked with throughout his career. There’s also a lifetime of experience that the Duke brings to the role of the Marshall Rooster Cogburn from Fort Smith. He’s a curmudgeonly older man who knows what he likes and takes a lot to persuade him otherwise. Charles Portis’s text was a perfect fit, easy to both read and deliver on-screen. A grandfatherly figure who you wouldn’t want to mess with.
I noticed on this viewing that this was more than just a standard Western. OK you have a Glen Campbell as Texas Ranger La Boeuf trying out an acting careering, doing an admirable job opposite a heavy-weight of Wayne however with the help of the text they create a buddy movie of sorts, not quite a road trip with strong elements of comedy through out. For a one time actor Campbell delivers a cheeky yet confident performance opposite a veteran of the screen. He doesn’t look intimidated at all. Instead enjoys the chance to try something new. It doesn’t hurt that he also delivers the theme song for the film.
Another comedic role goes to one of my old favourites – Strother Martin even in his few scenes as horse salesman Col. G. Stonehill, who during this period is enjoying great success in film. Holding his tongue opposite the difficult Kim Darby (Mattie Ross) who tries not only her luck but also the patience of those around her. They have some great scenes that attempt to get the best of him. They help in forming how strong willed the young woman Mattie is, unafraid of what she has to do to get things done. A confidence beyond her years that has the potential to get her in trouble. I admire the character for holding her own, having the agency to go after justice herself instead of just leaving it to a man to do for her. However a little maturity would help her in how she communicates with people in the town. At first timid, she grows in confidence to the point that she can point and shoot the gun of her late father who she’s avenging. It’s known that Wayne didn’t get on with Darby and it’s visible on-screen, which here works to the scripts advantage. Creating a tension between the two leads.
The first half of the film is set in Fort Smith, with a short prologue that sets-up the who Mattie is and a glimpse of her father. Coming to this film having read the book (as I mentioned earlier) added another layer, staying true to the original text in both versions. Using olde English adds more authenticity the film, pushing the actors to work with different dialogue. It’s richer for it.
Tonally the film is probably far lighter compared to contemporary Westerns which would go far darker with villainous characters like Tom Chaney (Jeff Corey) and Ned Pepper (Robert Duvall). We’re mostly surrounded by lush green valleys and mountains, something that Hathaway is known for. The more I watch the film the more I feel at home with the film as it gently plays out over the course of two hours. With touches of violence that could be darker as Mattie enters into the adult world of criminals who roam the open country. A path she’s chosen when two men with experience could easily save her from the danger that awaits her.
It’s hard to forget how iconic the role of Cogburn was for Wayne who commented on accepting his only Oscar, “If I’d have known that I’d have put that patch on 35 years earlier” could that be a joke a jibe at the academy. An actor who had grown ever since he broke out with Stagecoach (1939) all the way through to 1970. We have “Fill your hands you son of a b****” that will forever be associated with him. The role is his and no one can take that away from him. He did so well he came back to reprise it in 1975 opposite Katharine Hepburn, which holds up pretty well too, both very different people who had the greatest respect for each other.
It seems I still hold this film in great esteem, it maybe light in tone, with an actress who has the ability to rile everybody. Yet that’s part of the magic of the film, she’s the wise beyond her years but in-experience holds her back at times. Something that the Coen Brothers address in the 2010 remake. How will I feel about that now.
It’s been a little over four weeks since I saw the original, I caught the remake last night. I must first correct myself, even working from memory of Portis’s book it feels like it wasn’t so faithful in terms of original text. However that doesn’t mean tonally it wasn’t the same, if not more authentic of the period. Westerns have grown up in terms of set dressing and costume, more inspired by the period than of contemporary designs. True Grit (2010) is a solid Western on its own terms, even before you look at how it compares to The Dukes version that rode him to Oscar glory. No such luck for Jeff Bridges in the same role, who was nominated but lost out to Colin Firth’s King George VI who didn’t need to wear and eye-patch in the role. It also wouldn’t help that Bridges had already won for Crazy Heart (2009) the previous year.
Awards aside I need to see the film on it’s own terms, than just a remake. Even though The Coen Brothers had already tried to update The Lady Killers (2004),a British classic to become a silly overly sly film that just lacked the charm of the Ealing comedy. There a few flourishes of Coen-esque comedy and darkness that sneak they’re way through into the film, which I really enjoyed, an extra layer of dark humour to the proceedings. Something they carried through to The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018).
Structurally the film is told in retrospect from an older Mattie Ross (Elizabeth Marvel) where the strong-willed nature of the character feels more suited. Hailee Steinfeld is a worthy and more welcome actress to the role, bringing both maturity with the right balance if being a child that is overwhelmed at times by the situations she puts herself in. The opening narration does away with the establishing scene in Hathaway’s version that sets up who Mattie is and her relationship to Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) who we meet in the second half of the film, allowing us to paint our own image also wanted in Texas. The relationship between Rooster and Ross is the real focus here, at the expense of LeBoeuf (Matt Damon) whose written out for an act whilst the Marshall and young employer get to know each other. It feels like a waste of Matt Damon whose character is relegated to swoop in and save the day.
There’s been a conscious effort to try not to repeat Hathaway’s Grit, however there are scenes which you just can’t run away from how they are almost shot for shot. But for the most part it’s very much an original Western that uses the text more than just being seen as a remake. They haven’t so much expanded on it as James Mangold’s 3:10 to Yuma (2007) expanded. Here we have a clever reworking of scenes even adding new ones for comic effect that built up who Cogburn was. Dialogue has been altered to sound more pleasing on the ear and loose the repetition. It’s more of a stretch for Bridges working with the Coen’s for the second time, he has to deal with both Portis’s text and the expansion of the brothers. And more importantly making the role work for him away from the tall shadow of John Wayne. It’s very much on my mind for the first few scenes before I settle in and see him as the Rooster Cogburn.
Now the question is, which film is better, the Duke’s or the Dudes? Honestly they both have their strengths, one has reached iconic status with a rich history behind. It’s regularly heralded by his fans as a classic. It’s highly enjoyable and just needs you to sit back and enjoy, you know what you’re getting with John Wayne, who rarely failed. Whereas with the Dude you are entering the world of the Coens with a unique and cine-literate language, which to work you need to understand Joel and Ethan’s work to really enjoy it. They didn’t just remake they re-molded the text to suit their needs, to work for them, dropping in some nice little changes. I did miss the interaction between Rooster and LaBoeuf that added to the charm. However we still had the main plot points with extra darkness if the world that they lived in. Whereas Hathaway’s was far cleaner and rose tinted – a product of its time. So which is better? Neither really, they both responded to the text in different ways. The originals more truthful to the text, carried by film history to a status that supposedly leaves it untouchable. Where the modern version does something different that I equally enjoy. It’s a stalemate from me and I can’t see anyway that I’m going to break that soon. As much as I have a soft-spot for The Duke I enjoy the Coen’s vision and the world they inhabit.
It feels like there’s been a string a middling Westerns in the past few years, that’s not mentioning the disappointing remake of The Magnificent Seven (2016). Both Jane Got a Gun (2015) and The Keeping Room (2014) that attempted to rebalance the role of women in the genre failed on the basis that they just plain boring. I’m all for increasing the role of women in the genre but it has to still be entertaining, to be engaged in what they are dealing with. Jane Got a Gun had no real focus, whilst The Keeping Room was too grim. The more male dominated entries in recent years have had slightly more success; The Revenant (2015) delivered a revenge thriller in the wilderness of the mountains, whilst we had a blind teenage romance in Slow West (2015) that audiences can more easily relate too. Whilst The Salvation (2014) was a return to the classic form with a European sensibility that had a real bite.
The latest entry in the genre – The Sisters Brothers (2018) felt the other night like my generations The Missouri Breaks (1976) but not so weird that I had to sit back and wonder what the hell was going on. For one we didn’t have any camp acting and there was no strange romantic pursuit to worry about. Instead we shift between the titular brothers; Eli and Charlie (John C. Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix) who’ve been contracted to meet up with investigator John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal) who himself is in pursuit of Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed). The jumping back to and fro between the two pairs takes up the first two acts oft the film, allowing you to settle into what is a gentle dynamic.
The Sisters Brothers we learn are sibling gunfighters who we learn have somehow survived life so far by little more than luck on their sides. They are able to outgun the enemy by pure chance whilst in the process destroying what the essentially need. As we see in the opening minutes, a classic gunfight surrounding a homestead that somehow leads to a barn setting fire and killing most of the horses inside. This isn’t how The Duke would have done things in Rio Bravo (1959) even when he shot dynamite in the final gunfight. There’s little planning to the Sisters who will load up and go into battle day or night. They would have probably made good soldiers in the opening minutes of a Civil War battle, unafraid of the danger that lat ahead of them. We laugh at the clear flaws in their ability to win out, they are men just trying but failing at times.
Sent on what is to become their final mission by the elusive Commodore (Rutger Hauer) putting the younger alcoholic brother Charlie in charge, hoping for a better result. Aiming to secure The Commodore’s superiority during the gold rush – a time in the genre that hast more recently been overlooked. We learn their major differences in the two brothers who may share a legacy and a status that precedes them. Charlie the more impulsive assertive alcoholic who wants to prove himself, whilst Eli is curious of the future, what modernity can do for him. Taking the time to plan his future. These are differences very important as they both continually pull them apart and push them together. It leaves Eli with a “middling” horse that we’re concerned about throughout. When we switch to Morris and Warm the tone becomes more intelligent, the conversation changes to reflect this. There’s a chance to breathe and understand what’s being discussed. Morris an Easterner who wanted to come out West for adventure soon finds his equal in Warm whose supposed to follow from a distance. Their ideas of modernity bring them ever closer together.
Through letters left by Morris to the brothers they mock the language of the more educated man who communicates his position. It’s a resistance to change and understanding that for a while keeps them a part. Tonally this doesn’t quite come off so well onscreen, it makes them look ignorant and the leads in the film the butt of the jokes and the film itself. As much as you want to root for these underachievers in life we become more concerned with what’s going on further away from them, when they finally meet and what they will discover.
Despite the uneven tone of humour and language we’re transported to a beautifully drawn image of the Wild West. Shot in multiple locations, you can see a lot of money went into the budget. And looking at how may production companies are involved (literally filling the screen) you can see the director Jacques Audiard has to prove himself worthy in his first English language film. Going from town to town which each look unique. San Francisco is the stand-out set piece that just shows where all the money’s spent. The devil is in the detail for this clear labour of love.
The final act is by far the most interesting, when they all come together in the pursuit of gold, almost becoming The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) when the lust for gold takes over with a new chemical driven techniques being employed to reveal gold in the water. The idea of speeding up the process of testing and digging for gold is thrown out in favour of an untested method. The consequences if which are not fully known or appreciated. Is this a Western with an ecological conscience, coming out of nowhere we’re shown how the lust for gold can destroy the natural world around us in the pursuit of greed. It’s the saving grace of the film, the fallout of this process complete alters the fortunes for all involved.
This isn’t really my Missouri Breaks, it’s a confused but original Western with a conscience that tries to do a lot in it’s running time. It does a good job but maybe needed a little more time to breathe. We have characters that are fully realised. Westerners vs Easterners in a changing world, set during a time of the gold-rush when the country began to change completely. The Sisters Brothers takes on a lot and does it’s best to balance it all but ultimately a flawed Western that tries honourably to bring something new to the genre.
Another film I’ve been putting off watching, I overlooked it at the time of release as I really wasn’t interested in You Were Neve Really Here (2017). Since then I’ve been slowly won over and wanted to track down the film, learning it was another Taxi Driver (1976), which in essence is The Searchers (1956). So once again I will be delving into how this film responds to the classic Western. It’s a chance to explore how the film has again influenced modern cinema. Of course on the surface it has far more in common with Martin Scorsese’s film than John Ford‘s original. The classic tale of the tortured male loner taking on the task of rescuing a young woman from the clutches of a sex-slavery i Cincinnati. I wonder is Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) still drives the murky streets still, had he come into contact with Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) or would that have been too explosive for a single film to handle.
It’s doesn’t stray far from John Wayne‘s Ethan Edward’s epic mission across untamed Native American country in search of his nieces. Filled with an uncontrollable racial hatred for the Comanches and possibly other nations who have done him wrong before we first meet him. We don’t learn of his past, or even Bickle’s we’re just allowed to spend a short time with them. Lynne Ramsay‘s allowed us understand Joe’s past in a series of fractured flashbacks that hint an unstable domestic upbringing and time in the army. It’s been explored before with Travis Henderson (Harry Dean Stanton) who was far more reflexive about his past, Wim Wenders gave us the time to explore just how he’s in his position now, a father who couldn’t face the break up of a passionate relationship, which ultimately was his own fault in Paris Texas (1984). Travis is singularly unique, a disturbed man shaped by his surroundings, unable to connect with the outside world that deeply troubles him. An explorer of an urban jungle that holds him hostage.
Joe is very much a product of his child hood and military service that have shaped the beaten shell of a man who works as a hired gun. He doesn’t shy away from how he makes his living, it defines him, just about the only job he can get, allowing him to function and support his mum. We first meet him at the end of a job, clearing up the evidence that could lead back to him. You can he’s done this many times before, it’s just part of the job. His face is obscured during this time, for now he’s just an unknown dangerous man cleaning up yet another mess with precision that he has honed overtime. This is not the have-a-go hero of Taxi Driver or the ex-Confederate soldier, we have a trained killer on yet another job, not a man to be messed about.
We learn he has something of a soft-side when he returns home to his mother (Judith Roberts) who he shares a love-hate relationship with, the only woman or even person who really loves him. The closest to violence he get’s with her is a joke about Psycho (1960), could that even be an influence on him. The stay at home son with his mother who stays about of obligation more than love.
The rescue mission comes pretty early on in this fairly compact film, his next job at the request of Senato Albert Votto (Alex Manette) who employs him to rescue his young daughter Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), whom he believes has been kidnapped and placed into a sex-slavery. Unlike Ethan Edwards and Travis Bickle he has no prior relationship with the girl whose to be rescued, he only sees her as part of another job. Before he begin we see him stock up on fresh tools for the job, including a hammer that we know already is his weapon of choice that can inflict brutal damage to his victims, no one stands a chance against him.
As with Taxi Driver he waits until night before he even rolls up outside the address, he’s dangerously cool and calm about all this, dragging over a guy who works, torturing him for information, the bare-essentials to get in, the dangers that lie ahead for him. It’s a cleaner rescue than I expected, restrained by the view of CCTV cameras that only suggest what has happened to the bodyguards who fall to their deaths. It’s over before we know it, our main concern is finding the girl, which again happens rather fast. The young girl – Nina is clearly in state of desensitisation, to escape the daily abuse she receives from the monsters who pay for her. Gone is the confident nonchalance of Jodie Foster’s Iris who has find an exterior shell to survive the murky world of prostitution she’s trapped in. Mirroring the assimilation that Debbie Edwards (Natalie Wood) whilst living with the Comanche. Never Really Here is more aware of the psychological damage that a kidnapping and slavery can do to the mind. The realisation of being rescued doesn’t quite hit Nina for sometime.
Everything then starts to go wrong for Joe as he soon loses the girl and ends up a world that all he knew and understood is being taken away from him. The closet he got to purity is taken away by corrupt cops who take Nina away, leading him into a trap that closes ever tighter into his inner circle and even his mother. The hard exterior of the hired gun begins to show signs of cracking. Before we see an even darker side when interrogates one of his mothers killers (Scott Price) sadistically numbing his pain to get information from him before he finally dies. It’s a form of unique justice that allows him to move on in search of Nina and understand what he’s become embroiled in.
It’s far more complicated than the standard search and rescue narrative that Ford laid out over 50 years ago, becoming something more complicated with each retelling of the basic plot. Stripping away the racial hatred to leave a hardened killer who has many dents in his armour, both physical and mental. We’re left a darker of corruption with a glimmer of hope for Joe and Nina, each products of their fractured lives, leaving to start a life together where they might be able to start over. All they have known has been destroyed either by their own hands or in their wake. It’s a bleak disturbing world where even beauty has a dark side. Never Really Here is by far one of the bleakest interpretations of The Searchers, having evolved into a the Western that it could have been. I wonder if a director has the courage to deliver something so disturbing to the screen?
A few years ago I had decided not to catch the reboot of The Magnificent Seven which received mixed to poor reviews. Knowing that I would surely find it on TV somehow in the coming years. There wasn’t a great need to go out and waste my money on the film. Now that time has come almost 3 years after it’s release I can finally say I have caught the Antoine Fuqua remake. Below you can find my thoughts on the original film, which itself is essentially a remake of an even better film – The Seven Samurai which inspired a whole sub-genre of Westerns during the 1960s, which culminated in The Wild Bunch at the close of the decade. Now I have come full circle.
I decided a few weeks ago not to catch the reboot of The Magnificent Seven which has had mixed to poor reviews. I’m sure that I’ll catch it in a year or so, however I feel I don’t want to waste my money on potentially a poor film. However I still wanted to catch the original, which itself is the Western take of Akira Kurosawa ‘s samurai epic The Seven Samurai (1954) that is a film that mixes pathos, legend and great character dynamic. It’s a lot to live up even for a western 6 years later across the Pacific. It had also been a good few years since I caught this film, all I could really remember was the final shoot-out and the deaths that hit me hard, even today they still have the same effect. A part of me is wondering how the modern take on the film has worked, I read it allegories the current climate in America, looking at Donald Trump for instance, there’s a lot more going on than him thankfully to inspire the themes of the film.
Looking back to the 1960 take of the film the reading I get is one of support for the invasion of Vietnam, which was at the time the right thing to do. Stopping the spread of communism in the East which already had a negative result in Korea creating two new countries after the intervention. Now the threat had moved to mainland Asia which would have made Russia’s grip on more vulnerable countries. America had already proven itself a superpower during and after WWII so why not continue to flex those muscles. Of course all of that is now history and forms the background for this film that has practically left them in the dust.
So moving that into a wild west context where do you take this politics. We have a group of gunfighter’s who’re requested by a Mexican village to help them fight off bandito’s who routinely take the lions share of their harvest. Pretty similar to the original film, just repositioning to the basic elements. I vaguely remembered any of that until the film opened in the village where the actions going to be centred when Calvera (Eli Wallach) and his men ride in, warning that on his return he wants their harvest. These farmers have never picked up a gun, only had a violent thoughts which they have never acted upon until they’re forced to reconsider. I’ve recently been reading Richard Slotkin’s Gunfighter Nation which is again widening my understanding of the genre, which in turn is helping me when it comes to this and other films. Here the Mexican farmers are clearly the Vietnamese who are incapable of saving themselves, needing the U.S. to ride in and save them. Mexican’s in the genre have mostly been seen as little better than savages, just above Native American’s. Of course it takes a three Mexican’s to cross the border to America to seek that help.
Over in America we haven’t even started to look at the seven heroes who are yet to be assembled. We do however meet the first three before any mention of a call to arms by the farmers. A funeral has just been refused, leaving the traveling salesmen who paid confused until he’s told that the dead man is a Native American, leaving the funeral directors hands tied. It’s only until an enlightened gunfighter Chris Larabee Adams (Yul Brynner) Vin Tanner (Steve McQueen) who starts a fight for scenes with the more experienced actor, take over the funeral, picking up their guns, using force to see that a man, Native American or not is given a decent burial. Showing that America has since made its peace, an internal Wild West problem resolved, with a few against equal rights, which can translate to the beginning of the civil rights movements.
Once the plea for help was heard by Adams whose seen as a brave man, after being seen taking a dead man, with Tanner riding shotgun, they see a leader of men who can fight off Calvera. Is this Mexico aspiring to be America, looking up to their neighbours who fought off and won numerous conflicts? Now its time to advertise the position to all those who can make it and show themselves to be honourable gunfighter’s, or brave men of good character with a gun. I have to discuss each member of the, who get varying screen time (apart from McQueen). First to arrive is Harry Luck (Brad Dexter) who isn’t the most explored character, he has a history with Adams, possibly a card shark who has survived because of his ability with the gun. I just wish he was given more time, which is hard to do with so many actors to consider, vying for screen time, it looks like his scene were either cut or left on the page.
We have already been introduced to McQueen’s Tanner who is fighting for scenes with Brynner who gives his best to the rising star and epitome of cool. A man whose found wandering from job to job, is this one going to give him purpose, even if it’s for a meager $20, maybe the price of potential freedom is more valuable to him.
Next up we have Chico (Horst Buchholz) who isn’t actually considered a member of the group until they are off on their way. Being the youngest he has the most to prove, not just to himself but to the other more experienced men. He’s given a reaction test of sorts, which he breaks under the pressure to perform, possibly seeing a darker side he is afraid of. Possibly out of his depth to prove himself, is he about to mix with men more dangerous than he considers himself.
We turn to Britt (James Coburn) a cowboy who we finding proving he’s faster than another, ending up out of a job. He takes proving himself on his own terms and in his own time, his distinctive skill is knife throwing. It’s enough to distinguish him from the other men, but not really exploited enough in the film, becoming just a hired gun in some respects.
Charles Bronson’s Bernardo O’Reilly who we discover is a Mexican considers his skills to be unworthy of the fee on offer, until he’s persuaded. He’s the only one to win the adoration of the villages children, seen as a hero, braver than their own fathers. Until he corrects them, given his own definition of bravery, that which carries the responsibility of family and being a farmer. You don’t need to pick up a gun to be labelled brave, that’s something wrongly applied by society and myth.
Lastly we have the more interesting and laconic gunfighter’s whose all but lost his nerve, a life behind the gun for Lee (Robert Vaughn) may appear to be a gentlemen with all the airs and graces, yet they have come at a cost of his state of mind. He’s the only one to wear gloves, he sees/saw himself as a professional who wont get his hands truly dirty. We see him avoiding the action when they seven are surrounded. It’s only when the final showdown happens does he realise he has to retain some bravery to die with honour.
The small army come in and train the farmers to take up arms, which they take from the dead that pile up across the duration of the film. It’s a transformation from the meek to the brave for the Mexicans who eventually take control of their destiny. We feel uplifted to see the Mexicans taking ownership of their futures, after learning from the more confident Americans who have brought with them guns and violence. Of course that’s not what the average film viewer takes away, they see knights on horseback, wearing cowboy hats in to save the day, sharing their knowledge and skills. These gunfighter’s are all aware of what they have, but ultimately what they have lost, glory is not going to win back the lost lives in their past, no wives and children, it’s not a safe life to lead, however they weapon they have chosen is not just a tool of defence against danger it becomes a symbol of danger and death. We’re taught what is important in life and a gun isn’t one of them, a powerful symbol that helped to win the West is being discarded. However I take away the pain of seeing these characters fall to their deaths, after following them through the duration to fall under a few bullet, we realise that’s all it takes ultimately. After all the build up and there is a lot of it we have what we wanted, a bloody gunfight after forgetting the true cost of violence.
I just finished the remake and was throughly let down really, as with any remake, you always partly thinking about the original (American version) where they deviated, made it their own, which is what you want to do and not just do a scene for scene remake, which is a waste of everyone involved’s time and cheating the audience of a new spin on a successful plot. The first clear difference is that no longer are a town of helpless Mexicans in jeopardy, instead it the all white settlers of Rose Creek who are at the mercy of land hungry Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard) shoots up the town with little regard for innocent life. So your standard villain really whose a little too trigger happy. It’s a change from the stereotype of the helpless Mexican who needs the strong white American male to save the day. Now they saving their neighbours, so no crossing the border this time.
The mix of the gunfighters I thought for a time was a little more varied, we have the standard main two leads Chisolm (Denzel Washington) and Faraday (Chris Pratt) who take on the McQueen and Brynner roles respectively. Followed up by the now cowardly Confederate sharp-shooter Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke) taking on the Robert Wagner role quite well. Then the last which I can pin point to the original cast and the start of the diversity quota (which isn’t a bad thing) is Billy Rocks (Byung-Hun Lee) the knife thrower takes on Charles Coburn’s role, and partner to Robicheaux. Then we have men who we meet along the way during quick recruitment process under the supervision of their employer Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett) who is about the only one in Rose Creek whose shown any initiative to get some help, her gender is no barrier to getting help whilst all the men would rather she mourn her husbands death – she definitely doesn’t know or need a place to define her.
The remake does give agency not just at least one woman, whose allowed to fire a gun, but also another black lead, something Westerns are slowly accepting that black actors can take the lead and audience aren’t turning away from them. Helped in part by Jamie Fox and Samuel L Jackson in Quentin Tarantino’s last two films, he accepts that the past was not as white as the genre had once depicted it. If we ignore the blip that was Wild Wild West (1999) there have been very few black actors in decent support roles have been given the chance to paint a more true picture of the West. Washington’s Chisolm is not defined by his character’s ethnicity until the final scenes. Instead he’s seen as a naturally leader who can inspire, recruit and try and save a town from falling into the wrong hands.
When the team’s assembled they don’t gel as well as the original 1960 team that allowed the audience to get to know them, love them understand them as they interacted with the villagers. They do hang out together but there’s more jokes at the others expense. A lot of time is given to Robicheaux’s inability to fire a gun in battle, a symptom of his cowardice that comes as a result of PTSD from the civil war, which is brushed over before he rides off to the sidelines. Before making uncharacteristically 180 degree turn and come back all guns blazing, which makes no sense for his character.
A major criticism of the final half of the film is a drawn out final battle, when originally staged in The Seven Samurai (1954) there was a steady pacing, matched with tension as they sent wave after wave to attack the enemy. The 1960 remake saw a lot of time devoted to building up the characters, as did the original, which painfully pays off in the final 20 minutes as the majority fall to an honourable death, drawing a few tears from the audience. The majority of the time was given over to the final battle, we had a nice short and sweet, a taste of what is on offer from just seven men. Before going down an extended sequence of setting up concealed trenches and traps for Bogue and his army to ride into. The final engagement is a drawn out protracted affair which really should have been edited down by at least 10 minutes for more character development to happen. Without it I just couldn’t care as much for these men from varying background, some brought in out of tokenism and others for box-office draw, so when they died there was nothing to feel for them.
Then comes the real killer – Bogue’s secret weapon, a Howitzer which is revealed to finally mow down the resistance. Just its presence is too much for the battle, we know his army should in theory should have won in terms of numbers. Underestimating the resistance of the village who fight to the last. The Howitzer is just too extreme in a game of one sided one-up-manship, literally overkill and unfair. Maybe this is coming from watching a lot of classic Westerns, that sense of fair play, a man should only be shot with a gun in his hand, a chance to defend himself, never shot in the back. Another rule that is broken here. Fuqua could be argued to depicting a Wild West that was more unfair than previously seen, so maybe more true to the violence that went on in short bursts around the country. However the early machine gun was a little too much overkill.
There’s too many negative points in this film for me really like or care about this film. It’s forgotten what made the other films work, the characters, without them, the film is just a bunch of scenes which join up to make a plot. If you don’t care about the characters who are putting their lives on the line, what’s the point really. Even the star power wasn’t enough to pull me along. Usually I switch off from the film if I just don’t care, but I wanted to see how the much belated film holds up. Even with the modern updates which are positives, it’s not enough for me to come back for more. The last few years have seen some middle of the road to poor Westerns being released, some rightly straight to DVD, some just boring. Hopefully The Sisters Brothers (2018) will be a return to form for a genre which has bursts of energy before falling on a tired classic formula that has a place, but not so much for new releases unless it’s done right and The Magnificent Seven (2016) should really have been left at the pre-production stage.
A few months ago I decided to explore the original Mad Max trilogy before it was expanded into what is now an anthology of films. During that process of re-evaluating the films, reading them as Westerns and how the relate to one another I realised I needed to revisit the most recent addition to get a fresh reading of the film. I want to correct my errors and hopefully expand my understanding.
I’m really pleased to have finally seen all 4 parts of the Mad Max Anthology as it’s now known, able to see how the original trilogy progressed before regressing into cash in for children. However I said all that a few months ago. I couldn’t finish the year without completing the set. Before I really dig into Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) I reread my original review, firstly I forgot I was lucky enough to see it in 3D which is something I’ve not done for over a year. With an overload of action, explosion it’s perfect to have been viewed in that format.
This was my biggest error: “I’d say Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) re-boot is more of an amalgamation of the three earlier films. With the past built into flashbacks the other two are built-in in terms of borrowing elements here and there to recreate that world for a new audience.”
This makes no sense really.George Miller has updated the aesthetic whilst staying true to the punk apocalyptic style that makes it so unique and tantalizingly dangerous to not watch. A style that was truly defined by the time of The Road Wrarrior (1982), which moved the action from just before human society collapsed before jumping forward into a world of makeshift vehicles that had to both protect and attack. Tanks with attitude. Here we are just thrown into what is just another day in this world, we have to accept it for what it is. One that is barren, destructive and deadly to all those who don’t follow the rules of the few. Max’s (Tom Hardy) car has been retained – the V8 Interceptor if only for lineage, it has also ensured that whoever starts out driving that car, it’s going to be Max.
Moving on I can that as much as this has Mad Max at the title character, he takes a back seat for most of the film, allowing it take a refreshing feminist angle in the sci-fi/action genre. Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) who leaves the Citadel where film began is believed to be en-route for a routine fuel run. Only to take a different course and bid for freedom. Taking with her 4 young women who we learn are the property of Immorten Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) who bears stronger resemblance to The Humungus (Kjell Nilsson) who again wore a mask, almost a Darth Vader type that relies on makeshift technology to sustain him. Immorten Joe is essentially a dictator who through his own pain has deflected it to those below him, becoming an almost god-like figure who can incite fear just by his presence. Controlling access to water, decent food and even his own bloodline, which he views more as property than a family. The 4 women are essentially sex-slaves who have now broken free on their way to the promised land of The Green Place. Another vague term that could mean anything in this future, an idealised Eden or even Tomorrow Morrow where the kids from Beyond Thunderdome (1984) hoped to reach. Those who escape have held onto a dream of freedom.
The goal of reaching The Green Place is the drive for Furiosa and the women who’ve made a desperate and dangerous bid for freedom. Behind them they have Immorten Joe and his army of spiky cars, trucks and anything else on wheels (not forgetting the rock guitarist who maintains a steady rhythm for a war cry as they head into battle. Once more we have entered a regressed state of civilisation as those who want to seek out a better life, even if it’s a glimmer of something better, a paradise in the desert.
So where does this leave Max? Who for the first act is all but the prisoner of Immorten Joe who has him hanging high above as bait over a car during the charge of fire to reach Furiosa. Who after a while breaks free and makes himself known to the women. At first he’s very much on the defensive, this is default Max-mode, untrusting of anyone, plagued by flashbacks, and just wanting to get out trouble to be on his own again. Before he can even consider that he has to help those in need first. Again the reluctant hero who comes to the rescue. Not that Furiosa needs much rescuing, even her disability doesn’t stop her driving a tank and shooting a gun. Having a assumed a classically male role in film she’s very much Max’s equal. Turning to the 4 women they are in different states of mind, all happy to be on the run, free of their past lives, however for some it offered security which their future may not offer.
Once again I saw the film in its standard format of colour, I’ll lookout for a black and white version. However in its absence we’re treated to a beautifully rendered series of scenes in heavy blues, which have been digitally altered to emphasise the 4 women, they signify hope of a better future, almost angels in a world of despair, able to bear children. It proves that digital film can if used subtly can improve the film. I’d be wrong to say Fury Road is anything but subtle for long. It’s full of bright exciting action sequences that have been enhanced by the increased sophistication of special effects since the last film was released 30 years previously. I just hope they don’t get the Lucas treatment a few years down the line.
Ultimately Mad Max: Fury Road is a very modern take on character (not a franchise) that has retained its essential ingredients whilst infusing it with a feminist sensibility that doesn’t take anything away from the Mel Gibson incarnation of the 1980’s. We have a disturbed man who wants to survive on his own terms is reminded of his humanity every so often. Saving those worst off. He may still save the day but never takes the glory, he leaves that for those who most deserve it, that’s the mark of a true hero. It’s still very much a Western too, the barren landscape, the reluctant hero who rides (well drives) in to save the day. But he cannot stay among them, troubled by his own demons that he must learn to live with on his own or tame in the wilderness.
Just over a year ago I watched the first Young Guns (1988) which I found to be an interesting film. I was entertained by this take on the Lincoln County wars, emphasising the role of Billy the Kid around the cattle barons war. I left the article wanting to seek out the sequel (purely out of curiosity mainly) completing the characters journey. Below is my original review followed by my thoughts on the sequel.
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 Lincoln 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.
If I’m honest I’ve been having mixed feelings leading up to watching Young Guns II (Blaze of Glory) (1990) which brought back the remaining members of the Lincoln County regulators. Partly recast and rewriting the history in a mish-mash fashion to suit a theory that Billy the Kid survived into the 1940’s. At first I thought what the hell was going on here, a rider reaches a road, is this a cross with time travel or what? My next thought was is this going to be another Little Big Man (1970) that was recounted via the oldest living Native American. Or even a Blackthorn where we find Butch Cassidy (Sam Shepard) living a new life in self imposed exile. Instead this is based on an account that saw a Bushy Bill attempt to prove he was William H Bonney fighting for his pardon by the governor of New Mexico. It was later dismissed and thrown out of court.
This is the direction we were going down, at first it threw me, why are we doing this, why not just carry on where we left off. Was this an attempt to stamp a definite mark on the screen legend of the Kid, which is not a bad thing. Coming at the audience with a curveball, the obscurity curio as a basis for a film that I already scratching my head at. I knew this was another retelling of the final days of the Kid for another generation. For me that will always be Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973) which personally is the definitive version. Guns II director Geoff Murphy even went as far as clearly replicating some shots from Peckinpah, thankfully it’s just a few from The Wild Bunch. Never the less it shows a lack of originality to produce a clear personal vision instead of relying on a flawed master of the genre’s past.
A massive flaw is that the film goes as far as rewriting the past for Pat Garret who previously appeared in the original, now we see him portrayed by William Petersen a younger actor, compared to the older Patrick Wayne. As much as these films take place in the same landscape, they see the events as very separate. Was the inclusion of the older Garrett which felt like a cameo when he wasn’t even a sheriff during the Lincoln County War or around during those times. He was a friend of the Kid and even a mentor for a time. All of this is washed away for a confused cameo before being rewritten as a villain of the this confused sequel.
I can’t help but compare Guns II to Pat Garret and Billy the Kid it would be impossible to separate the two. At times they do draw strong similarities. However the main difference is that the two films have very different points of view. Just looking at the titles of the films, Pat Garrett is filled with mixed feelings in 1973, wanting to do the job for money and power, yet knowing that he’s hunting down and killing an old friend of his. The kid is always seen being a cocky and confident, able to shoot and talk his way out of trouble. Nothing much changes there in Guns II as he rescues his friends before riding on down to “Old Mexico” where they hope to hide out. Whilst Garret is practically bribed into taking on the job and changing his personality over the course of one scene, there’s no time given to his decision it just a shocking reveal that left me confused.
The time we spend with the guns is worthwhile as we catch up Doc (Sutherland) and ‘Jose’ Chavez y Chavez (Lou Diamond Phillips) who have taken different paths. It’s tries to be a young mans films, with new faces with the Kids mirror image – Arkansas Dave Rudabaugh (Christian Slater) who buts heads with him all the time. Whilst farmer Hendry French (Alan Ruck ) and Easterner Tom O’Folliard (Balthazar Getty) wants a taste of gunfighter life. Both really unaware of all that entails. Eventually they all saddle up and ride on as Garrett and his men (not him riding on his own as 1973’s film showed him on a personal mission). The film aims to be bigger, more action filled than Peckinpah’s laconic version. Ultimately its a follow up to a bold and successful action film for the new MTV generation with a set of actors who are making a mark on Hollywood. Unlike the old timers in 1973. This is a sequel that’s riding high on the hopes of the first for better returns at the box office. It wasn’t even saved by a nodding cameo from James Coburn who gave his best in a role the small role.
For me it fails miserably. Knowing about the historical figures depicted in the two films now being so confused and coming from a strange angle really doesn’t help the legend, it hinders it, with a put on “old man” voice and heavy make-up. If anything it’s an all for one, one for all tale that sees friends fight it out to the end in the West as the had done previously but with not so much satisfaction. The weight of history didn’t even get in the way for the makers, instead they screw it over and hope that we’ll buy into. Frankly I’m considering a refund.
Fort Apache (1948)
After enjoying the process of reviewing 3 films previously I’m carrying on with another Western trilogy, this time John Ford’s Cavalry Trilogy, a chance to return to three classic films that I haven’t viewed properly in a long time. During which I have read up on how they function together and what they discuss singularly and together as a whole. Beginning chronologically with Fort Apache (1948) which I remember mostly for sewing the seeds for Ford’s later film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) which I’ll come to later as I explore the first third of the trilogy.
In my opinion the trilogy is strongest at its start and end, with a weak middle with She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), my view may change after another watch. For now having seen Fort Apache (1948) I can clearly see that Ford know’s his American history, focusing this film at least during the Indian Wars just as during the time of production the Korean War only a few years from breaking out in the early 1950’s. Taking Custer’s famous Seventh Cavalry, renamed Fort Apache under the command of Lt. Col. Owen Thursday (Henry Fonda) whose at the opening of the film is making his way to begin his tenure there. In a stagecoach with his daughter Philadelphia (Shirley Temple). He’s not shy in expressing his frustration in his new posting in the wilderness, practically sent into oblivion to put him out-of-the-way for reasons we will soon begin to understand. A man whose world’s built on social order and the structure that comes with it, he’s a man easily ruffled. Whilst his daughters ready for adventure with her farther out in the frontier. We don’t even reach the Fort before we meet freshly graduated 2nd Lt. Michael Shannon O’Rourke (John Agar) awaiting an escort to the Fort. The first of many social insults for Thursday to endure, his presence is unknown to the sergeants who’ve arrived due to the broken cable. Also unaware of Philadelphia’s growing attraction to the Lt.
Fort Apache is again filled with actors from Ford’s stock company creating for the audience a welcome set of faces on the screen. From Ward Bond to Victor McLaglen, who are not just used for comic relief, they become integral to understanding the structure of the world that Thursday is exploring and trying to take control of. As much as John Wayne is given top billing with Fonda owns this film, the ideas are all liked back to him, his actions affect the plot and all those around him. Whilst Wayne’s Captain Kirby York takes the brunt of it he does help to ground the film and sell it to the general public, not that takes much effort, his own star power rising over the past decade since Ford rescued him from the world of B-movies.
Turning to life of the Fort we have two worlds, one of domesticity and one of the soldier, the two can co-exist but following a set of precise set of rules that Thursday is constantly fighting. Coming from another class he’s a gentlemen of West Point training and high society etiquette, each with their own set of rules that are meant to exist in perfect sync. Whilst the reality of domestic life on the frontier which adapts to the Army fort it can work. Lead by Mrs. Mary O’Rourke (Irene Rich) who sees knows she and other women have little place outside, take over the home, once crossing that boundary a soldier must follow another set of rules and regulations. First meeting them all at a dance with the other men, Thursday’s taken aback by the perceived lack of discipline, so swept up in his own arrival he forgets it’s George Washington Day 18th February, reminded by one of the only men who has the confidence to talk back to him – York.
Another strong example of this clash of worlds is when Thursday wants to escort his daughter back home, on learning that she has left to visit Lt. O’Rourke, the man the family and the audience know to be who she will marry. Thursday doesn’t see the young O’Rourke to be suitable to marry due to his social position, despite his West Point training, even through presidential approval, it’s not enough that the highest power in the land can afford a man to go up a class in society. It can’t be earned, it’s a birthright in the eyes of Thursday. There’s no problem for the rest of the family, who also see that his uniform is practically meaningless under the private residence of the O’Rourke’s, nearly causing an argument.
I now want to look at that seed that was sewn for Liberty Valance, the line “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend”. After what we hoped would be a peaceful resolution between the United States government and the Apache. York’s meeting with Cochise’s thought to be enough for them to return to the reservation and get changes underway. The racism in Thursday prevents the talk of peace going any further than the crossing of the border, when he can lead a charge to kill the renegade Apache, solving yet another issue of the never-ending Indian problem. By this point I had forgotten that we see them all ride off into battle and all but fall under a 4 to 1 massacre. Not just an underestimation of the enemy, a complete disregard of cultural differences and promises previously made to ensure their return.
It’s not a pleasant sight to see, all those men we have come to know and love, ride off into the vast emptiness of Monument Valley to face a death that could’ve been avoided. The recording of that battle is not what we would have hoped but does ensure that the legacy of an officer’s maintained and also that of the Fort and ultimately the Army. York makes the bold decision in his report, not seen on camera to be complicit in the lie that must be maintained for a better history and that of the West to be told. Helping build the morale of the country, something which has been done which each conflict that the United States has entered, rewriting the events to convey a myth that can be shared for generations. Essential to the American story, when the facts don’t fit the legend why bother. With all the images, paintings and social impact of Thursday supposed sacrifice on the battlefield, he has become a hero just by fighting with his boots on, it doesn’t matter what lead him there. York knows that he can’t fight that, it’s bigger than him, bigger any man in the uniform.
Ford knows the power of the story telling and the American story that he’s help to shape into the cinematic form that has become its own legend and part of the greater myth of the West. I’m still not looking forward to Yellow Ribbon, even with the drunken scenes, I just can’t see how it will even come close to the complexity of the Apache that dives head first into the fabric of the genre.
She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949)
My fears for what I thought would be a string of comic events was all but washed away coming away from She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) the middle piece of the Cavalry trilogy. I could see why I saw this as potentially being the weaker of the three. Yellow Ribbon acts as a celebration of the Cavalry. Opening with narration over the vastness of Monument Valley in beautiful Technicolor. Ford is very much home in the desert landscape that stretches for what seems like a limitless distance. His playground to get out his actors and re-enact his countries past.
Taking his cue once more from Custer, who this times named to have fallen after The Battle of Little Bighorn (1976), a major blow for both the U.S. Army and the country during its long campaign to see the Native Americans rounded up onto reservations. The treatment of the nations is the complete opposite of Fort Apache. No longer are they respected or feared for the damage they can do. Now they are a nuisance that must be resolved. We’re told that a number of plains tribes have put aside old rivalries to come together to fight the army that’s trying to pen them into land they aren’t interested in. The failure of Little BigHorn really hurts, any future defeats aren’t allowed.
Yellow Ribbon is not so much concerned with legacy as it is with the history that it hopes to make. Instead there’s a focus on the people who populate the unnamed fort where we Captain Nathan Brittles (Wayne) is 5 days away from retirement. He’s not so much concerned with what he is leaving behind but the future he’s going off to. With the focus of the film being his last patrol of the area before his retirement. Before he heads out we get to learn about his relationship with the men. First what is a long-standing friendship with Top Sgt. Quincannon (McLaghlen), you get the feeling they go back a long way. However it’s his time with both Lt. Flint Cohill (Agar again) and Second Lt. Ross Pennell (Harry Carey Jr.) new to the Ford Stock Company) who themselves are fighting for the affections of the only eligible woman on the fort – Olivia Dandridge (Joanne Dru). The chemistry between the three makes for some great scenes, not so much sexual tension. It’s a charming fight between two young men for a woman whose far maturer than both. It’s also the origin of the film’s title, a fictional tradition that neatly ties into the richness of the film. A symbol of a woman showing her affection for a soldier. Matching the yellow handkerchief that was once part of the standard uniform until 1872 (four years before the film’s set). Ford takes creative licence along with the strong influence of Frederic Remington’s depiction of the accessory, that evokes a certain romanticism of the army that has carried through the classic cycle of the Western.
“Never apologise, It’s a sign of weakness” another layer of masculine code that is laid down by The Duke, part of his image that defined his on-screen persona. Something that many men have tried to live up to during his life-time. Today however the idea of never apologising is both laughable and disturbing, that in itself is a strength in modern man. As a male myself I believe that the ability to own up to your faults or errors shows a sign of great strength. To understand you’re in the wrong and admitted is today respect, that way you can build on itself and grow as an individual. A sure sign that the image of man as defined by the duke is slowly being chipped away, becoming something of a dinosaur. Just saying that is depressing, however a raised awareness mental health in men shows that you have to understand and be in touch with your feelings instead of hiding behind a persona of a masculine mystique that can trap a man down the route of potential depression and even suicide. Looking at Wayne’s image of a man I can only take so much of it use for myself, mostly a sense of confidence and the ability to not take yourself so seriously, which he did much later in his life.
Whilst life on the fort is very pleasant, there’s a time for regulations and a time to relax and understand there’s more to life than the uniform. It’s out in the open that we see the cavalry showing what they’re made of. Out on patrol, with the addition of two women – the major’s wife Abby Allshard (Mildred Natwick) and Olivia Dandridge in female uniform and riding side-saddle. One complains of the rotating between riding and walking, whilst the older has had no stability in the last ten years. Both being escorted to a stagecoach to be taken East and away from very real dangers out in the open. The women reflect the negative side of a military life, one more from marital experience, whilst the younger is more frustrated.
Action finally gets underway each time we encounter either Apache, Southern Cheyenne etc, as much as they are pretty much faceless and nameless, they are ever present in the environment. From the cliched yells as they ride into battle to the broken English, building on the image that Ford had a hand in creating for the Native American on film. When not on-screen the patrol’s one of character and discipline, set against the backdrop of Monument Valley from butte to butte we traverse the desert for what feels like forever, I wouldn’t mind that in a Ford film any day. The riding reminds us that we are away from the security of the fort, open the elements and dangers of the open West.
Yellow Ribbon is very much a celebration of the cavalry, we didn’t have time for that in Fort Apache looked at the legacy of campaigns and the wider history that’s written. Yellow Ribbon looks more closely at the people who are in the uniform, mostly of Brittles wise old captain who has seen his share of warfare on the frontier. Wayne gives one of his best performances, something that Ford had a knack of doing on countless collaborations, maybe it was all the goading on set that forced him to give his best, or knowing that this man-made him who he was so owed him his best. Now I look forward to Rio Grande (1950) with a renewed excitement, knowing that the trilogy is a solid set of films that are all very different, showing varying sides of a history that was repeated and reflected during the production of the three films.
Rio Grande (1950)
I’ve been itching to catch Rio Grande (1950) completing the cavalry trilogy, which came out of a contractual obligation with Republic studio. Ford wanting to make his pet project The Quiet Man (1952) was allowed to be made on the provision that he make another Western first. The director not one to just make a slap-dash film gave this final cavalry outing the time it deserved. Falling back on the character of Kirby Yorke now a colonel and posted out to Fort Rio Grande on the Texas/Mexican border we find the man who was once ensuring that the legacy of another senior officer remain in-tact. Here he has concerns of his own past that are brought to light. Grande focuses on the York family in particular. Noted as the first of 5 films they would make together, a pairing that worked very well on-screen. The only woman who could truly hold her own in front of The Duke, and one that he found to be his favourite too.
Tonaly looking back at Yellow Ribbon there’s a real shift from celebration of the uniform to that of reflection of what life in the uniform can be like. The consequences of past action or military engagements, how they effect those around you on a personal level, pretty deep stuff for a Western of this period. There’s also a return to the beautiful black and white cinematography, connecting it back to the world of Fort Apache where we last found York, Allowing us to focus on the action and drama without the distraction of colour.
From the opening dialogue free scene we know we are in the world of the military, the anxious wives and mothers waiting for their men to return home from battle. Looking onto find them in the column of exhausted troops returning home. Ford again focuses on the community that is directly effected by the cavalry, or any armed force. Due to his time in the Navy’s photographic department, reflecting his experiences in the most American of genres. He turns what could be a wild West scene easily into any conflict and any time in America’s military history. Handled with great sensitivity. Not one line of dialogue can express the emotions going through the women and children waiting for fathers, husbands and brothers to return home safely. It’s here we learn that York has a son whose just been expelled from West Point, the same school where only a few years before 2nd Lt. Michael Shannon O’Rourke (John Agar) who had to fight class distinctions with Colonel Thursday. The younger Trooper “Jeff” Jefferson York (Claude Jarman Jr.) who then went back to enlist as a regular. Showing determination to ensure he sees a military future and carrying on his families legacy in uniform. The younger York doesn’t have that social stigma but could potentially carry another one – a West Point failure. The news of his failing in maths doesn’t come as a surprise to the father, which could be seen as a trait that he has passed onto his son.
Among the other enlisted men we have the youngest men of the Ford Stock Company, which are used successfully for lighter scenes and depicting the men in uniform with faces we can recognise and relate to. Daniel Boone (Harry Carey Jr.) and Travis Tyree (Ben Johnson) allow us to get under the surface of what it takes to get into the uniform, what makes a man in the cavalry. Essentially average Joe’s who want to make a life for themselves. Becoming essential to the plot as it reaches the 3rd act, showing that solider with our without stripes and medals is needed on the field of battle.
It’s the addition of Kathleen York (Maureen O’Hara) which has the potential to turns things upside down, carrying with her a deep-rooted resentment of her plantation being burnt to the ground during the Civil War. Her main reason for being on the fort, to collect her son from the cavalry, something she learns is easier said than done. Not just needing her signature, but that the willingness of her son to also sign, which form him would be a sign of giving up on himself, essentially a sign of weakness. Her resentment towards York, extends also to Sgt. Maj. Timothy Quincannon (Victor McLaglen) who carried out the order to burn hers, among other plantations in the Shenandoah Valley, part of a strategy to cripple the Confederacy at the heart, if the farms are scorched, no food can be grown to feed the army and the men fighting within them. Taking place over a 5 month period in 1864 under the orders of General Ulysses Grant. Seen in the context of Rio Grande as regrettable but necessary actions needed to speed up the wars process in the favor of the Union winning the war.
Looking at the depiction of the Native Americans who again are focus of the external conflict, the Apaches are again reduced to being vicious faceless, nameless pests for both American and Mexicans on both side of the border. When they are heard to be chanting by Quincannon they are seen as just a nuisance to be quelled with a threat. This is quickly undermined with an attack of three combined nations heading over to rescue to captured Apaches. There’s no effort to see their side of events, just something to be stopped at any cost. A cost that could lead to a court martial if the orders to bring their rein of terror to an end. Verbal orders which are carefully delivered as to avoid legal complications if they were to go horribly wrong.
These orders reflect the then contemporary policy towards Korea, if orders were made public of the countries intervention into the country were to go wrong. The social and political implications would be far greater than the result. Keeping the operation quiet until known to be a success and an American victory was far more important. Colonel York experiences the same dilemma. As much as he wants to carry out the orders, he knows the weight on the consequences o the mission failure on a personal level. I found this situation fascinating, how many failed political decisions that have been hidden from public scrutiny, probably very few with a decent press.
Concerning the York family dynamic we have a father whose hard on not just himself, understanding that historically he’s lost his family based on orders he was given that broke a family that was already split down the middle politically. Kathleen’s presence brings all of these emotions of guilt, honor and duty into question when it comes to his own family. The uniform comes before his own life and those of others, he has to follow the orders of his superiors without question, it’s the chain of command that has cost him his wife and son for 15 years. With the arrival of his son – coincidence I think not, see him begin to soften to life as a parent whilst maintaining his position. Whilst Kathleen softens over the film’s duration to realise that both the men in her life are in uniform and that comes before family. By the end of the film she sees herself more as a military wife who understands the importance of the uniform. Again ending with a scene that relies only on emotion, as the men return from another campaign, she looks on and waits for husband and son to return, finding the colonel on a travois injured, reaching out for his arm as they walk into the fort. Nothing mores needed to convey how far thy they have both come together.
Looking back at the trilogy they each explore different facets of the cavalry. Whilst celebrating they look at legacy of campaigns, the individuals involved and the impact they will have on history. The celebration of life on the fort at all levels and aspects of life from new recruits in training to those about to retire. Until the final installment Yellow Ribbon is the most romantic of the trilogy, Rio Grande pours it on thick musically with the Sons of the Pioneers and the carefully lit scenes with between Wayne and O’Hara. Ford doesn’t miss a trick, even if the last installment was purely by accident, creating a trilogy before the term franchise was even a thing in cinema, it was the actors who were the real attraction not so much the reliability of the content that guaranteed success at the box-office.
Mad Max (1979)
It feels like a long time since I’ve got my teeth into the influence of The Searchers (1956) in film. How one little Western could really effect so many more after it’s release as just another John Wayne western, nothing to go crazy about at the time. And then the first batch of film directors to leave film school had discovered this under appreciated masterpiece, for some they really couldn’t let go, or John Ford and Wayne couldn’t let go of them. One of those was George Miller who has recently been able to go back to this anti-hero and explore him further to great success. I can’t to see where Mad Max goes next in the apocalyptic future that has breathed fresh life into an already cult classic of a film.
I’m about to undertake another extended film review, looking at the original trilogy of films, reading them as Westerns and where I can as being influenced by The Searchers, something of a preoccupation in my film watching. Beginning with the original 1979 that I was told by my dad that one of my uncles thought was crap on release. I wanted to see for myself why did he think that? I wanted to put that opinion to the test. My first watch a few years ago, left me wanting more, all the crashes, explosions and fast-paced action was all I wanted. It felt far longer than it actually is too. Looking back I found I was watching a different film, same images, but with a different set of goals in mind. Not just a refresh in the mind, but also to find the Western iconography that connects a seemingly throw-away road movie to the great American genre. A genre that can easily be transplanted to the vast Australian outback. I was surprised that the cast mostly speak in an American accents, reminding me of the dubbed English audio found in Spaghetti Westerns. Being an Australian production and cast, even made on location in the country. Maybe this was a decision to help sell the film to an international audience.
Set a few years in the future, a decidedly vague choice by Miller to keep the audience guessing, how long do we have to wait for this prediction to come true, hopefully that would never happen. We’re thrown into the start of a police chase, two interceptor cars are ready and waiting for a car to come into view. One car with a cautious officer who can’t even stand the odd swear word from his partner – a man clearly out of his comfort zone but wanting to keep the peace on the open roads of the Aussie landscape. It’s a car chase that will have massive effects for this squad of interceptors for the duration of the film. The couple in the car carried the leader – Night Rider (Vincent Gil) of a biker gang that is ultimately killed whose legacy brings forth bloodshed and violence.
We first meet the gang as they ride into town, much like a group of riders on horseback, their motions even on two-wheeled vehicles are arranged like the four-legged animals would once have dominated this open space. The bikers bring with them a brand of violence that can only be delivered on two wheels, the maneuverability and ease to all murder and rape to be carried out on the innocent. They are vicious men who show no mercy to thier victims, they’re sadistic and shocking even today.
We haven’t even met Max (Mel Gibson) whose face is kept out of view until he makes his entrance saving the day, showing that he’s not one interceptor to be messed with. Along with his partner Jim Goose (Steve Bisley) who loses his cool when he learns that their latest suspect – Johnny the Kid (Tim Burns) has to be released. All part of a rigged system that works in favor of the criminal, having no apparent evidence creates the illusion of a rigged legal system. Leading Goose to his eventual demise and a strong Searchers reference, after a few scenes that built up to the gang getting revenge him for his treatment of the Kid, a more reluctant and innocent member of the gang, dressed in more civilian clothes leads Goose to what could be seen as an Indian raid. Scar’s Comanches delivering their revenge for his mistreatment. Even leading up to the car explosion he’s reluctant to commit the act. Could the kid have been captured and adopted into the gang, being pushed to prove himself to the rest of the gang, most importantly to the new leader Toecutter (Hugh Keays-Byrne ) whose growing tired of him. The following scene goes further than Ethan Edwards entering the massacred homestead of his brother’s wife and family. We are never shown the extent of the human cost, left only to our imaginations. It’s believed to be too painful. Miller goes a step further, taking us into the hospital room, changing the shot to reveal a bed with a bed sheet over a raised framework. Max investigates, discovering the charred remains of his partner who he’ll never work with again.
From here on out we see a once law-abiding interceptor (I say that loosely as they were the law), Max becomes a man on a mission. The drive to see justice done, is forced upon him by the killing of his wife and child. He has nothing else left to live for except to use the security of his job and uniform to see that justice is delivered. Even resulting to methods not too far off what the gang would use themselves. He becomes the very thing he hates in order to ensure his wife and child’s death was not worthless. The impact of their deaths is too much for him to just sit down any more.
We are seeing the origins of a man whose destined to live a solitary life in the outback of a future that is still uncertain. I am left wondering how do we get from Mad Max to Road Warrior. Are there a number of biker gangs that take over, how does civilisation crumble to become a rare group of people who will do what is necessary to survive. All will be revealed in the middle film, which I feel is the strongest of the original trilogy. We will see how Max has transformed into a loner who wants nothing more than to be left alone like a gunfighter who knows Indians, or in this case bikers.
The Road Warrior (1981)
It’s been a few weeks since I watched the original Mad Max, which laid the foundations for what has become an Australian classic. George Miller returned to the well to produce a far more futuristic and dystopian future, using the first now as a firm foundation into what could easily be and has become a franchise (albeit 4 films) with its own unique language, which has been carried through more recently to the belated remake/reboot/sequel (I’m still not sure where it fits in but I bloody love it), a far more bombastic entry than the original entries.
Now back to the first sequel, now I remember mostly the exhilaration of watching The Road Warrior (1981) more than anything else. It was a case of re-watching to remind myself. Even the ending was a complete surprise. Opening with a short prologue that explains where we, it’s vague enough to be in the distant future, carefully and with pathos placing Max, making use of footage from the first film and archive footage from past conflicts to paint a bleak picture of how the modern world collapsing, irretrievable by the governments even then. I wonder how things would work out now with a trade war between America and the rest of the world. The fake news and underhand activities of a clandestine Russia who are unable to take responsibility for what’s clearly their own actions. Or will global warming beat all of us to the point where we self destruct?
With the prologue setting the tone we’re thrown into another road ambush between Max and a gang of bandits on bikes and cars, kited out with spikes, cross-bows and anything else they can use to inflict death on. We witnessed what was clearly the final days of what we would call civilisation as it began to crumble. Now it’s Max against the world, taking on the role of a future gunfighter replace the standard horse for a car with all the bells and whistles to survive and outwit his opponents on the open road. Riding alone if it wasn’t for with his dog, man’s only true friend. We catch a small box under the chassis with switch, the first loaded gun that we thankfully see fired later on. Ultimately he outwits these bandits, meeting Wez (Vernon Wells) whose part of a far larger gang. Clearly main adversary of the film, taking on the position last held by Toecutter, both are pretty much the same character, hell-bent for the same things in life. Wez is however far more dangerous with a short fuse, once lit has to be allowed to blow.
Clear of the first incident Max encounters a real character – The Gyro Captain (Bruce Spence) who really steals the show. Another man out there in the wilderness, trying to survive. Complete with a unique gyrocopter that allows him to escape the mayhem below. He could easily be the mad inventor sidekick if Max would only let him into his life. Max has now become a lone wolf, unable to really connect to others enough to trust them. It’s a dog eat dog world that relies on having your wits about you. One false move and your dead. For Gyro the stranger in his life is a breath of fresh air and sees in him the opportunity for some excitement instead of keeping his vehicle safe. Both men who have seen a lot since the modern world collapsed.
Gryo leads Max to where he can get his hands on more fuel, the main commodity in this dystopian world. Found in a much desired complex heavily fortified and wanted by The Humungus (Kjell Nilsson) and his gang (including Wez). It’s a constant state of war for those with the oil that they have found and will do anything to hold onto. The rag-tag band of men, women and a Feral Child (Emil Minty) are not afraid to fight, only on more civilised terms, they haven’t let the end of the world affect them too much. They are essentially good people just trying to survive. Those with all the riches in the area, whilst the uncivilised punk riders are the Native Americans of this world. Circling the compound on an almost daily basis, doing what they can to chip away at the defences of the last refuge for the oil tanker which means hope, stability and ultimately survival. The compound could easily be seen as a fort of the last of the civilisation, trying to hang onto what makes them human. Could they be the last hope for humanity in this corner of the world.
Now I remember the original deal that Max makes with the compound when he nears with one of their wounded, as much gas as he can carry in exchange for their dying man. The deal/contract doesn’t last long enough to be fulfilled before an ultimatium is made by The Humungus which determines the future of the community that have been fighting to survive for too long to give up. The tanker in exchange for their freedom, a fair deal for some, not for others and only 24 hours to make their minds up. The catalyst is ultimately the stranger among them – Max, with his unique set of skills and experience he is their Shane who can save the day. If only he chooses to stay with them is up to him. His world is far different than that of Shane who has to leave in order for civilisation to thrive. He’s very much a loner who still has a heart that has to be found before he can make a difference. One key scene in a make-shift garage between him and the communities leader Pappagallo (Michael Preston) whose able to get past all the leather coat hard-shell to find the man whose no different from anyone in the compound. It’s a classic scene that allows audience to understand Max more. Of course we have the original film to draw upon for his back-story.
In terms of Western comparison, it’s all there in the action, swap horses for cars, trucks and bikes, all pimped out with a rustic punk aesthetic, they aren’t just vehicles, they are weapons, homes before they are transport. All culminating a jaw-dropping finale that feels like it last forever. Breathtaking stunts that have produced a string of sequences that sees a huge swathe of characters meet a fantastically bloody end. Each one unique and grisly, there’s no need for repeats, it looks like George Miller was playing, when in-fact it would have been carefully laid out to look like a male fantasy of road carnage. This is what I remember the unadulterated violence, the tension of these scenes that show how precious this commodity really is to the survivors of this future.
Looking forward to the next and final installment we are left with a far shorter epilogue, learning that the narrator is in fact the Feral child, which is a precursor for Beyond Thunderdome (1984) and the commercial sellout I’m now dreading it to be. If only the trilogy wasn’t that, but a nicely compact two-parter that has an origin story and well-crafted sequel that feels very much like a Western in the classic form that feels far more modern, a conflicted man who doesn’t want to make connections with others, yet knows he has to help others in need. The law enforcer in him is not dead yet. Miller has crafted a visual language that draws on the then present, retrofitting it for the a future that is both alluring and incredible dangerous to enter.
Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1984)
I’ve been putting off the third installment for a few days now, making excuses not to sit down, until I thought, lets just do this and get it over and done with. What I felt was going to be the Millers Return of the Jedi, with plenty of money to spend now with lots of stipulations to gain the biggest return. With two major elements to sell-out, first you have a big name of the moment with rock star Tina Turner who herself had just made a successful return to the music world with her latest album, a second wind in her long career. Whilst the real Jedi factor is the kids, to reach the widest audience – appeal to the kids. True this is 15 rated film in the UK, that wouldn’t stop it getting lower ratings across the rest of the world.
Again my memory of this film has faded overtime, thinking it was far longer and much better than it actually is – I’ll get to that later. With a bigger budget at least it was still filmed on location in Australia than over the Nevada desert. The tone of the film’s set in the opening scene, a pilot and son in the cockpit of a small plane hijacking a camel drawn car. Discovering it was once again Bruce Spence in a similar role, hoping that this would be a true link to the previous film ultimately made no sense as the Gyro Captain who in the prologue took over leadership of the group that escaped in Road Warrior. Why would he leave them with only a child. Understandably his on-screen chemistry was too much to pass up for a cheeky cameo, or an attempt to make a connection to the last film that just got confused in the edit.
I couldn’t stop thinking of the recent reboot/sequel – Fury Road, how I badly compared this last entry as being the strongest influence on it. In terms of visual style it’s very strong, however it has more in common with the middle entry. I need to revisit and put that error right. Miller’s world has certainly been expanded with the bigger budget. First with Barter Town, where we find Max who was the owner of the camel drawn car wanting to get his vehicle back. Entering a dark world where remnants of the society we have known have been held onto and bent in order for survival of the fittest. They have regressed to a state of law and order that wouldn’t look out-of-place in the Wild West. Max through sheer persistence with The Collector (Frank Thring) who takes him to meet the leader of Barter Town, no not the saxophonist, this is 80’s sexy minimalist style. The big reveal of Aunty Entity (Turner) whose open to a deal, that’s after he proves his worth to her.
If you’d been wondering what the hell the title of the film meant, you don’t have to wait much longer, a throw-back to classical justice of Greece or Rome, a giant metal dome where all arguments are settled. A deals made for Max to get The Blaster (Paul Larsson) in the arena. Part of a larger scheme to disrupt the power play between the two classes that make up the town. The underworld which literally holds that power than keeps the town alive is in the hands of two people with the combined name of The Master Blaster. A little person – The Master (Angelo Rossitto) the brains, whilst The Blaster is the braugn. Together they are not to be messed with in the pig-s*** infested underworld. Connected by a metal framework over The Blaster’s shoulders. Essentially Max in a pawn in a bigger problem that he’s more than happy to get involved in for his own gain. Much like in Road Warrior, the stranger than enters with his own agenda is happy, however he’s bitten off more than he can chew.
Barter Town is an in-depth expansion into the apocalyptic future that Miller has been bringing to life. You could see it as just another collection of people just trying to survive the only way they know how. However the complexity of this town is explained away all too easily in the dialogue – namely Dr. Dealgood (Edwin Hodgeman), there purely to explain and dumb-down the rules for us of this town so explicitly we don’t really have a chance to understand on our own terms.
Our town in the Thunderdome is probably as violent as the film really gets before recycling the finale from Road Warrior. The confined space to fight in, the crowd that put themselves in danger just to see someone die is a sure sign of the regression of modern society to return to more primitive methods to settle a score. It’s the only gunfight of the film that ends, well it doesn’t really end, it leads to a form of torture. They didn’t really need Max, he was just a catalyst who discovered he still had a conscience.
You could easily break this film into two smaller films, two scripts that have been brought together in the development process. Once Max’s sent on his way to his death, much like Clint Eastwood in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) without the drawn out pain and suffering that helped make the film. Max is later found by a young woman who drags him back to a hidden paradise populated by just children with a language that first time around was interesting, now it’s just annoying, reminiscent of the more sophisticated language used in Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork who invented a form of slang of Nadsat that takes some understanding to really enjoy the novel and film. Miller’s kids are abandoned remnants of society who’ve been left behind during the escape from the worlds destruction. Believing Max to be their savior, a pilot who has come back to take them to Tomorrow Morrow another paradise that gives these young people hope of a better future. The children are on the whole annoying and just human copies of Ewok’s essentially, only now you wish you couldn’t understand them.
Sadly we like Max are stuck with these kids who some eventually accept as not being the pilot of their dreams, having a built a narrative around this now god-like figure. We’re pulled back into the desert as half of them have gone off in search of this Tomorrow Morrow. Max knows that first they’ll encounter Barter Town which if left unattended would be exploited and killed, maybe worse things. The children of a paradise are about to enter Deadwood or Tombstone essentially. Reluctantly Max becomes a parent to these feral children who begin to overrun the underworld, rescuing The Master who has lost his place in their society, treated little more than the pigs who now surround him.
A signature ending of a car chase then ensues, the only difference is that they are chasing a car on train track, changing the dynamic of the chase, a large cannibalised vehicle’s path restricted by rail, falling into the hands of Aunty Entity and her gang who are in pursuit. It looks like a sure thing, a recycling of events from the previous film, nothing is really fresh at this point, just a change in some of the elements, more children than ever. The level of violence’s reduced to almost nothing, even for a 15 rating with the odd explosion and arrow being shot, it’s just tame for a Mad Max film, let alone an action film that you’ve come to expect from this trilogy that has been made safe by the inclusion of more children. Why didn’t he feral child from Road Warrior pop up to bit someone, at least that would have been more violent.
The addition of kids and more kids has had a knock-on effect to the overall quality of the film that entered far too much into music video world. I can forgive the casting of Turner who I’m a fan of, she really owns the part and has a real presence, becoming part of this postapocalyptic world. Maybe if the children came to more harm, maybe we would have a more exciting film on our hands. Not a mess of what is two shorter films that resulted from two much studio interference asking for more of the this and less of that. The violence in this world made it dangerous, worth exploring, shocking an audience who wanted more of the same, but got something that catered for the wrong audience.
I can’t write the film off completely, there are some interesting things going on, some scenes really get your attention. In terms of the overall trilogy and the Western genre that I began this extended review looking at, Miller has used it as a framework to look at a possible future when the West was still not quite won. If an event of such explosive proportions were to strike, civilisation could easily regress to a simpler state of operating. The need for survival becomes more important that the structures that we create. Yet for the pockets of humanity that are left in this future who are trying to rebuild cling on to these simpler models to get on their feet. The goal then is to stay alive and hopefully rebuild a future that can resemble a past they once had. The trilogy starts out strongly with the opening entry working as an origin story before we really enter into a dark world where it’s survival of the fittest where anything goes. Then entering what could have been a better entry and the potential for more if they hadn’t listened to the studio too much. It’s still a strong unique trilogy that offers a bleak view of the future without coming directly out of Hollywood, whilst using the tropes of the Western as the bare bones of a different world view.
Probably the only comedy western which like many others first think of is Blazing Saddles (1974) which still holds up today – mostly. I decided to take the plunge into the sub-genre with another Burt Lancaster led film The Hallelujah Trail (1965) which I was for years avoided, comedy and Western can be really silly, becoming boring. Admittedly I laughed a few times here and there, but not enough to say this is a comedy that I’ll be returning to in a rush. I did however see it through and considered some of the themes that it raised, even comedy’s of varying quality can raise some issues to discuss.
The Trail is one of the few films to actually give decent screen time to the Temperance Movement – the Feminists of the 19th century, with a focus both moral decency and more rights for women. They have always received a raw deal in a male dominated genre. Maybe it’s in light of the #MeToo movement that I’m able to this coming through more. Previously the genre has seen them as basically party-poopers who want to stop the men having any fun. Twice in 1939 we see them trying to change their society in their small way. Trying to lecture Joe Clemens (Frank McHugh) in Dodge City, luring him away both alcohol and violence. Partly helping him stay out of trouble in Errol Flynn‘s absence. The intervention doesn’t hold for long, the lure of the violence next door becomes too much to handle. Also seen as a comment of gender, if a man can’t take part in a fight and hold his liquor, is he really a man. Whilst over in Stagecoach a prostitute Dallas (Claire Trevor) is driven out of town by the Law and Order League, which could be argued to be a good thing. A town with no prostitution is always better, however that label has only been inferred in various readings of the film. Once The Ringo Kid (John Wayne) enters, his advances to Dallas are first ignored, she knows she’s no good, tainted even, we never know the real reason, it’s all inferred by the audience who decide her past from the clever dialogue and acting. Whilst Sam Peckinpah uses the South Texas Temperance Union in The Wild Buch (1969) as merely something to be shot at. He hates them enough to see them killed in the street indiscriminately by Pike Bishop (William Holden) and his men. They are lost to the crowd that are caught up in the crossfire of the bank robbery that goes wrong.
So somewhere in the middle we have the young attractive women in Hallelujah Trail led by Cora Templeton Massingale (Lee Remick) who uses their sexual power to overcome the soldiers at the for they are staying at. A political rally that encourages the band to play along and even cannons to be fired. Enough to alarm Col. Thaddeus Gearhart (Burt Lancaster) returning from a mission, is alerted to the noises back at the fort, mistaking them for an Indian invasion. The film sets out to place the army – in turn the men on the back foot, they cannot have full control of the events in this film.
Here gender roles are flipped if only for comic effect in the year of 1867 when apparently the Indian wars are over, the Plains Indian’s have all be penned off to reservations, the problem has been solved in a mere two years since the end of the Civil War, a little too simplistic and incredible inaccurate. If anything the wars continued well into the 1870’s before the “Indian Problem” was finally and dramatically resolved at Wounded Knee in 1890 with a few arguments over treaties around that same period. The film wants to quickly brush the “Indian problem” under the carpet to allow the Sioux to break out in search of whiskey that’s been promised to the town of Denver.
At the centre of the film is a fight over who gets their hands on the said whiskey. The Temperance league wants all 20 wagons worth to be poured into the river. Whilst the men wanting it, just want to safely arrive to avoid the oncoming drought that’s heading their way. Whilst the U.S. Army just wants to ensure it’s safe passage, whilst also trying to keep the peace between these two sides. That’s before the added element of the Sioux wanted the gifts they’ve been promised on a yearly basis being delivered. A standard part of the original agreements, tonnes of money, food and gifts to pacify them in turn hoping to encourage them all to adopt a life of farming. In short a lot of people want that booze. Lastly we have the Irish who are transporting 10 of the wagons, who have labor grievances that they want to take up with the trail leader Frank Wallingham (Brian Keith) an upstanding tax paying citizen and Republican.
Everyone but the army are out for manipulating the situations to suit their own goals. Understandably water in the area is scarce and not always as clean to drink as alcohol. Whilst the women who have both their looks, age and gender on their side to try to manipulate the situation in an attempt to instill abstinence in the men across the country. Of course in a comedy that doesn’t always go according to plan. Massingale is not as clean and sober as she wants to appear to be. Whilst the Sioux are rightly out for what they’ve been promised. Sadly their on-screen depiction is far worse than usual. Not only are white actors playing the chiefs, whenever they speak the narrator translates over them, even any sign language is mocked by the narrator. They are again seen as 2 dimensional people. Their goal maybe more appreciated by the audience whilst still reducing them to children in the process. Following the smell of booze that for future generations can ruin a life on the reservation.
There are moments such as the gunfight in the sandstorm which after a few minutes becomes tiresome. Well staged and meaningful in wanting to get the laughs. We get that the confusion from sides stops anyone dying because they have no clear view of the perceived enemy. It pretty much sums up the film, no one wanted to really be there making it. Lancaster was contractually obliged to take part at a reduced salary, not getting on with Remick, the jokes rarely hit the marks. If anything it’s just become very dated to watch. There are moments that stand out but very few. It’s raised slightly by some of the cinematography that achieved some daring pans above the action as it passed under the camera. However it’s essentially a comedy dud. With sole exception to the Temperance movement that’s blurred with feminism if only briefly and back-tracked on at the close of the film. There’s a lot going on in a here and it’s far too long to really call a comedy. The main problem is that it needed another script draft before reaching the screen, leading it to be an overly ambitious film that could have been so much better.
Last year I wrote an unused Film Talk which I would like to share with you. A more in-depth look at a comic book hero – that draws closely to the Western genre. It’s a continuation of my exploration of the genre that my practice explores. Logan (2017) is one if the rare comic book films that I’ll actually sit down at watch. Partly because I grew up watching the TV show as a child. Also the film, much like Deadpool (2016 & 18) is far darker than the lighter MCU that has become so popular over the last decade. It’s easy to draw comparisons between the two genres, they touch at many points, Logan or Wolverine is a character that requires further examination.
Tonight I’d like to explore and share a passion of mine, the Western. Logan (2017), which can be read as a Western. Taking my original review of the film as a starting point I have explored and expanded by research to find richer connections to the film. I’ll be focusing on one aspect of the genre – the gunfighter. Looking a few key films – The Gunfighter (1950), Shane (1953) and Unforgiven (1992). Showing clips together with comparisons to Logan.
Historically gunfighter’s such as Billy the Kid, Jesse James and Younger gang, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’s Wild Bunch first reach notoriety due to the cheaply and mass-produced dime novel that first created the characters and situations that produced the folk-law, which Hollywood has used as source material since the birth of film.
The Gunfighter is in fact a 20th century creation post WWII taking two forms. “…in which professionalism in the arts of violence is the hero’s defining characteristic. These new takes on the Western were shaped by the internal logic of genre development, which fostered a certain kind of stylization of the Western and its hero and by the pressures and anxieties of the post-war/Cold War transition…The consonance between the formal character of the gunfighter Western and its ideological content is a genuinely poetic achievement. It gave the gunfighter films ideological and cinematic resonance and made heroic style of the gunfighter an important symbol of right and heroic actions for filmmakers, the public, and the nation’s political leadership.”
Gunfighter Nation – Richard Slotkin, Pg. 379-80
Using this thinking it’s easy to translate the loner gunfighter figure to the comic book universe – Wolverine or Logan who we’ve seen cinematically struggle with his position and circumstances as a mutant in the X-Men universe. Born in the 19th with his natural mutations – claws and healing are transformed in the 20th century by a Dr. Rice. His bony claws becomes Adamantinium a fictional metal that in turn creates the killing machine who has already learned to block out his violent past, the 20th century has transformed into a living Winchester rifle or Colt gun.
The film depiction of Wolverine has been seen on-screen and portrayed by Hugh Jackman since X-Men (2000) a character that has become a favourite among fans, relatable in terms of him being an outsider, unable to fit in with society or even those who he lives with – the X-Men. So almost 20 years later his story has now come full circle and has come to it’s natural end for both actor and character in Logan.
Set in the year 2029, we have avoided the apocalyptic future as depicted in Days of Futures Past (2014) where we last saw Logan. We find Logan is driving a limo under his birth name of James Howlett, he’s living and nursing his old mentor Charles Xavier who has a dementia which is only amplified with his mutant abilities; making an episode of confusion more devastating thanks to his telepathic and telekinetic abilities, which we see twice in the film. They are living over the border in Mexico, a common location in the Western for outlaws and gunfighter’s to hide out and escape the law. They are living with an albino – Caliban (Stephen Merchant) who we learn is a human sat-nav. Logan is in rough shape, he struggles to keep up with every passing battle, be it with humans or mutants. His time is slowly up, the ability to heal is starting to fail him.
Turning to the history of the gunfighter in the genre, we first see one depicted in
The Gunfighter. Played by Gregory Peck, Johnny Ringo is an obscure gunfighter found by the films writer Andre DeToth, who found him in Eugene Cunningham’s Triggernometry; A Gallery of Gunfighters (1934). There is little known about this outlaw apart from
“… a few vicious murders, a reputation for heavy drinking, and a couple of intriguing mysteries. He was said to have had a cultured manner (evidenced by an ability to quote Shakespeare) and to have been the scion of an aristocratic southern family ruined in the Civil War. He also died mysteriously, murdered, murdered by someone who gave him no chance to draw, and his draw, and his reputation was such that chief suspect bragged that he has done it.”
Gunfighter Nation – Richard Slotkin, – Pg. 383
This first set of clip’s comes from the beginning of The Gunfighter, Ringo’s played by arrives in a town saloon where he wants to find an old lover and mother to his son. He’s instantly recognised and comes with a built-in unwanted celebrity status. He just wants to keep a low profile, meet his kid and start his life over. And then we see Logan has stopped to buy some medication for Xavier, before meeting Pierce
We can see that Logan is still plagued by a fading celebrity status and hero-worship; Pierce another mutant with a robotic arm has done his research on him and is in awe of him.
The film is set in a future where it’s thought that no more Mutants have been born, so the genes are dying out, they are a dying race. Much like the gunfighter’s who are either being killed off or have been caught by the law that has been spreading West through the country. The gunfighter has been outmoded.
“The gunfighter enters the narrative already knowing that the Wild West’s promise of fame and power (or of redemption) is an illusion; that the vision of the Frontier as limitless in its possibilities for the personal and social perfection is a mirage; and that he himself has been rendered isolated and vulnerable by the very things that have made him victorious in the past”
Gunfighter Nation – Richard Slotkin, Pg. 390
We can see that Logan is very much like Ringo, there’s a short scene where he’s cleaning pus from off his claw, they aren’t functioning as well as they used to.
I mentioned earlier the film is set in a time of no new mutants, this is before the introduction of Laura, a genetically engineered child, born in the lab – by Transigen – a pharmaceutical company who have raised Laura and others for the purposes of developing and passing on the mutant genes to the wider population. She acts as a baton passing in the universe to carry on the Wolverine role. Logan has a hard time accepting their relationship. Laura being younger is naturally far stronger, agile and full of rage like her father has.
She brings her a number of X-Men comics, a self referential tool that connect us to the roots of the wider marvel universe and the creation of Western legend. The superhero equivalent of the dime novel, which I’ll touch on later.
About half way through the film Logan, Laura and Xavier are on the run from Transigen. They are in a hotel room, a classic passing place in the Western. Where by chance (or directors choice) to find Shane is on TV. It’s commented on a few times during those short scenes, given emphasis and lines even raised at the end of the film.
To see how Shane operates in Logan we need to discuss the code that a gunfighter and by extension Logan has tried to live by. For Shane (Alan Ladd) he has chosen to live by this code and so has his counterpart Wilson (Jack Palance) at the final showdown
“The exchange between Shane and Wilson is formal and stylized, and both men appear conscious that they are going through a familiar, predictable, even trite, but nonetheless essential, ritual.”
Gunfighter Nation – Richard Slotkin, Pg. 399
Firstly they both respect each other as gunfighter’s, giving each other proper chance, not much time but the chance to draw their guns before attempting to kill each other. The would only do so facing each other. As Westerns have taught us, it’s frowned upon to shoot in the back, or whilst the others unarmed. Lastly they only fight with just cause, Shane has no personal debt to take up Wilson, it take an insult to finally goad him into action. Then Shane can kill him, freeing the homesteaders and farmers to live in peace and not fear Ryker (Emile Meyer) and his men. Logan has attempted to live by a code, one instilled by his mentor Xavier who wanted to fight when only necessary and to pick your fights wisely.
Returning to the X-Men comics, which are the universes dime novels. Superheroes are living in the same era as the publication, much like Buffalo Bill, although he worked with the writers to build and establish his own legend that formed the myth of the West.
“…in a Ned Buntline dime novel published in 1869 and stage melodrama that premiered in 1871. [William] Cody has already acquired a word of mouth reputation as an excellent scout and hunting guiding, but after 1869 his newly acquired dime-novel celebrity made his name familiar to a national audience while linking it with spectacular and utterly fictitious adventures”
Gunfighter Nation – Richard Slotkin Pg. 69
The X-Men comics contain a myth that Laura buys into, believing that the coordinates in one of the issues are real for a place called Eden in North Dakota. Borrowing directly from that universe to inform the film. Logan tries to explain to the young girl out the truth behind these comics.
The dime novel writer does play a minor role in the screen Western, usually sitting on the side-lines of the films events. Talking to the gunfighter and others in between the shoot-outs. Usually a small guy with glasses and would never carries a gun, his weapon of choice is his pen, and the words he writes. A strong example of writer can be found in Unforgiven, is W.W. Beauchamp played by Saul Rubinek. We see him taking notes from Little Bill Daggett – Gene Hackman of how fact and fiction of an event differ. He has to wait for the troubled gunfighter William Munny – Clint Eastwood the personification of the genre.
These next clips see Beauchamp learning the truth about English Bob (Richard Harris) whose in jail after refusing to handover his guns. Whilst in Logan, the reality of the comic books being demystified to Laura
Munny is much like Logan in that they have tried to give up that part of their life to function as a family man. Logan is still plagued by the effect of the violence he has inflicted on others. Munny can’t really remember as he was usually drunk at the time of his killings. Whilst Logan tries to repress those memories and the emotions connected to them. Here he is confronted with a blurred mythologised version of his own life story. When Munny is faced with his first killing in years he is very rusty and not engaged in the act of killing from the outset.
“A shot of Munny with the barrel in the foreground and foreshadows his eventual decision to take decisive and deadly action…Ned pleads that he cannot shoot the prone boy and Munny stretches towards the front of the frame and grabs the gun…he has crossed the line into the world of violence.”
Film as Genre – John Sanders – Pg. 64
The tired gunfighter is mirrored in the two fights between Logan and 23 – the genetically engineered mutant – based on Logan’s DNA, a far superior, younger, stronger version of the aging Logan who we see struggling to keep up, regenerate and fight. Lets see both fights in these clips.
The classic Western went out of it’s way to mythologise the West, it’s history and sell it to the audience. The modern Revisionist Westerns such as Unforgiven and Logan wanted to demystify that myth, however by the close of Logan it deviates from the to reinforces it’s own myth. The comic books are based more on reality than Logan gives them credit. The printed legend has become fact.
Lastly I’d like to take a look at the bloody fight between Logan and 23 on the North Dakota and Canadian border. Logan has taken a full dose of a drug that increases his performance, he’s pumped up with man-made adrenaline. It works to a point, his own fragility soon returns, nature has won out ultimately. Again looking at Unforgiven, Munny switches from old family man to bloody thirsty killer.
“He’s back in the mode of mayhem. And he doesn’t care. He’s his old self again, at least for the moment. He doesn’t miss a beat while he loads his rifle and talks to the journalist. Before, he’s been very rusty, having trouble getting on his horse, he wasn’t shooting very well. He wasn’t nailing people with the first shot. Now, when he goes on this suicidal mission, he’s all machine. He not only coldly murders Daggett at point-blank range but he shoots some bystanders with no more compunction than someone swatting a fly.”
Eastwood – Interview
Ride, Boldly Ride – Mary Lea Bandy & Kevin Stoehr – Pg 264
It takes a killing of his friend to cross that line into his violent past. For Logan it’s the survival of a younger generation and a paternal instinct towards Laura. Both men are driven by primal and personal urges.
With every gunfight there are deaths, but rarely the hero, Logan is buried and read over by Laura, reciting a Shane’s goodbye speech to Joey. It’s a little broken but the message remains in tact; that leading a violent life can only lead to a lonely life, one away from society and those you love.
Logan heavily relies on rich lineage of cinematic and printed history to say goodbye to one of the most iconic Marvel characters – Wolverine. Through the films and comic books we have seen a tortured man, who has generated an aura of celebrity status in some circles. Much like the Wild West gunfighter whose skill with a gun raises him to a position of awe and wonderment – a celebrity which comes at a great cost
“The existence of his profession is in itself an implicitly hard-boiled commentary on the nature of American society; and the psychic isolation his profession begets gives the gunfighter the alienated perspective he needs to articulate such a critique: What sort of society is it in which those who have money can hire a killer? And what kind of people are we, that our strong men find such work to their liking? But more important than his critical function is the gunfighters embodiment of the central paradox of America’s self image in an era of Cold War “subversion,” and the thermonuclear balance of terror; our sense of being at once supremely powerful and utterly vulnerable, politically dominant and yet helpless to shape the course of critical events.”
Gunfighter Nation – Richard Slotkin – Pg 383
Another day, another Western, I’ve not written so much in a week in a long time. My third Western in a row, something must be going on for me to write such volume in over a year. If I’m honest I’ve been avoiding Rango (2011) for years, thinking that the combination of Johnny Depp and Westerns was going to be a bad idea. That was after the awful The Lone Ranger (2013) that saw him turn the iconic character of Tonto into nothing more than a bloated stereotype, showing that he had no or little respect for a nation that he claims to have family heritage. Both directed by Gore Verbinski But before catching him in a far more interesting multi-layered quirky Dead Man (1995) which breathed some new life into the genre thanks to Jim Jarmusch a director that I’m beginning to warm to. So you have a director to thank, oh and a very brief trailer for this film that made me think, maybe, just maybe I should give this film a chance.
For a kids film it’s a pretty good introduction to a genre that is generally watched by an older generation that grew up with it during the classical period of the genre. Something I am still very jealous about. I do however had good access to some of the best films that the genre produced and the opportunity to read into and beyond the images that captivated a whole generation and a country that holds as part of their culture. So what does Rango do that captivated me so much tonight. Beginning in a contained space I was reminded of a very early Pixar short, a snowman trying to get to the attention of a girl sunbathing in another snow-globe across the shelf. Rango is very reverential of both animation and film as a whole. It’s a spoof with real heart.
The titular Chameleon is essentially a dreamer who has everything he believes he needs in life, escape to his own fantasy world. That’s until his glass world’s smashed, his whole world is literally brought crashing down into the middle of an Arizona/Utah highway where he meets what looks like an Amardillo on its last legs, complete with trye tread running through its body. Advising him to cross to the other side of the road to find water. For some reason – common sense he doesn’t, after seeing what happened to the soon to be dead animal. Early on you can see that the quality of animation is incredible, not knowing at this point that more animals are going to be find in the Wild West town of Dirt, remember this is a kids film.
The town of Dirt works on two levels, one set in the desert with little to no water left to keep the assorted animals that would populate the desert come to inhabit this town that mixes classic 19th century with contemporary features. It’s all done with love and a heap of fun so adults and kids can really enjoy this old Western town. We’re told that we’re witnessing the final days of the dreamer Chameleon who somehow lands on his feet. A stranger who walks into town, soon becoming the sheriff – following a long line of failed men who have died in quick succession trying to keep this dying town alive.
A clever reflection of both the present and past, the lack of money’s mirrored in the drought that has become the sole currency that these animals know and need in order to survive and live. Controlled by the puppet master mayor Ned Beatty – a voice I shall never forgive for being Lotso the Bear in Toy Story 3 (2010), a perfect bit of casting for the turtle that has Dirt in the palm of his hands. Rango has used his gift of performing to his advantage, talking his way into a new life that could very easily come undone in the wrong situation. Depp here is perfect in the role, you could say it’s another version of his bumbling Captain Jack Sparrow who finds his way in and out situations based purely on luck really.
In the West you need a little more than luck, you need a mirage that takes produces a charming tribute to Clint Eastwood when his likeness is found not far from a golf buggy. Known as the The Spirit of the West (Timothy Olyphant) our not so heroic Chameleon has to save the day. It would be a bit much to ask a young audience to buy a mirage of The Duke sadly. The world that Rango’s inhabiting continues to delve into nostalgia of the genre, set around Monument Valley where the animals adventure to find the water that we learn has been stolen, a fun alternative to the classic gold that has been, if you’ll pardon the pun “mined to death” in the genre. It becomes more accessible to kids who may no little or nothing about the West beyond cowboys and Indians that have come to be the defining image of the genre.
Overall Rango is really good fun, which you want for a kids film, with beautifully detailed scenery, the modelling of the characters is equally strong. They are each unique and come with their own backstory, I can remember a chicken dressed as a veteran confederate soldier with an arrow going through one eye and come out around the back of his head. The very logic of his being is even mentioned, these are just citizens to be seen in the background they are integral parts of the town of Dirt. I come away from the film thinking, why did I wait so long for what is a loving animated romp that works for both adults and kids. Sure it’s not a classic, all I know is, I wont be avoiding it in future, instead looking forward to catching it.
It’s always refreshing to see a different side of the Western, a genre dominated by the male, who according to cinema tamed the West for civilisation to out and make it home for everyone back east. However that’s not really how it went. Of course there are plenty of notable male figures who went out there and mapped out the uncharted landscape that was once home to Native American tribes that were more than just an obstacle to overcome (not as the genre would have you believe). Women were part of the families, the farmers, the homesteaders that came out West and made it their own along with the men. Westward the Women (1951) may take certain creative licence in the making of the film. However they too are an essential part of the American story that needs to be addressed and celebrated. Sadly not as much as we would hope. Seen as the figures that stay at home, the dancers or prostitutes that need to be saved, or stay out of sight until they need to save our hero from himself. They have been able to tame their men, not so much the landscape that they would’ve had to travel in the process. These women are the un-celebrated pioneers that made it possible to pit down roots out West and unite the States. Westward the Women goes someway to redressing the balance of their depiction on screen, even within the confines of the early 1950’s I can see some boundaries being crossed.
A land populated with just men was obviously not going to work for long, 4 years was long enough for those in California around 1851 – set exactly a century ago, we see an America that has just started to really be discovered, the fur trade had come to an end, the Cattle trails were about to take off, we had left the gold rush behind. Waiting for the civil war to break out a decade later. There’s a group of men who have been working for Roy E. Whitman (John McIntire) who has been able to make a success of the valley he has cultivated and worked for years. His men need what they have been lacking for quite sometime – sex. There’s no amount of drinking, gambling or fighting can substitute the loving of a good woman. Reinforcing the union of marriage on-screen, we see Whitman recruit the only man who could possibly bring a wagon train of women from back East to marry 100 sex-starved men. Turning to Buck Wyatt (Robert Taylor) who wants nothing to do with women, the prospect of bring back a large number alone is not something he would freely sign up for. We all know he doesn’t need much convincing when a large fee is waved in front of him.
Next thing we know we are in a hall in Chicago, recruiting 150 single women, prepared to travel across dangerous open country to marry men they have never met. Warned of the dangers, we see that not even half of them are prepared for what is ahead of them. The civilised life is all they know, wanting to shake it all loose for something new and unexplored. There not all your typical American’s we have a more international cast, reflecting the different nationalities that made the West their home. I was wondering how the process of recruiting would be carried out, freely signing up and warned of the dangers is what should be expected, not one woman balks at the prospect. Showing that these women at least are willing to meet the men on a level playing field. Before we leave to make the long journey men are recruited separately by Wyatt with one rule – stay away from the women, which makes perfect sense. As little interaction between the guides and passengers would stop any trouble breaking out. Touching on the potential drama that could arise.
Wagon’s begin to roll, there’s a sense of purpose and drive in the women, about to set off for a new life. The easy part is now over. After a few days in wagon train boot camp they set off. It’s a rather muted affair, there’s not soundtrack that lifts the mood, in-fact we have none throughout, a brave choice that allows the women to own the film and the journey. It’s a journey that could easily have taken the route of Red River‘s (1948) long and torturous cattle drive. Seeing Wyatt begin to take on the hardened leader that won’t see his rules broken. Ultimately he’s left with a few men to see them through. Along the way we see the women encounter multiple obstacles that are each given decent time to unfold. That includes the obligatory romance for Wyatt and one of the women – French woman Fifi Danon (Denise Darcel) which feels unnecessary at times. We even have moments where the film could easily pass the Bechdel test, with men restricted they’re forced to talk about the trail and all the trials that come with it.
There’s another journey that Wyatt goes on, that of a growing respect for the women he’s been leading. It’s not easy to learn either, as they take on more and more of the work, to the point that they have to support a wagon that looses a wheel on an alkaline desert, whilst a woman’s in labour (yes we see a pregnant woman on-screen – she wears a larger shirt). They all know what needs to be done and just do it. Shocking the two remaining men in the party. Depicted on-screen as equal if not better than the men at times, having had to prove themselves in the male gaze.
Meeks Cuttoff (2010) is one of the few films that depicts strong women having to make the perilous journey West. Far bleaker than this earlier film that does it’s best to show the women to not be weak, feeble creatures who can’t compete with the men. Kelly Reichardt‘s later film depict women who are more than capable of working alongside the men and even surpassing them. William A. Wellman‘s film is far broader in approach, there’s little time for character studies of all the women in the wagon train. We do however see that they can pull their weight, they are no longer supporting players in the plot or the film as a whole. Ultimately they only relinquish their gender roles for a few months before entering a life of domesticity. Even when they choose the partner from just a photo, they’ll have little control once they settle down into married life.
With over 50 years between both films we have seen as massive change in the depiction of women in the Western. They are no longer just the stay at home wives, they are part of the fabric and history, able to stand up and be as good as the men, sometimes better. Sadly the quality of the films today is still patchy – Jane Got a Gun (2015) with all it’s good intentions is a mess of a film, wanting to give the woman more agency and lot of baggy, fragmented backstory. Unlike the more refined focused Brimstone (2016) that allows a mute woman Liz (Dakota Fanning ) who see defending herself and her family to a satisfying conclusion, her back story is broken up into a more cohesive form with religious overtones that makes sense as the film progresses. Westward the Women is at the beginning of a small strand of the genre that focuses on women that has been lagging behind for far too long. It’s a shame it’s taken so long.
I’ve recently started to re-watch the Richard Slotkin lectures on the Western genre, he goes into great detail about how the genre was reborn in 1939. From spending the majority of the 1930’s in the obscurity of the B-movie, it was regenerated as part of re-engerising the country during the great depression, encouraging the public to look back and celebrate their recent history. In the past I’ve looked at both Stagecoach and Dodge City, even Union Pacific that were all released during that prolific year in Hollywood history. Another lesser known piece is The Oklahoma Kid (1939) that was part of Warner Brothers attempt to breathe new life into the Western. Slotkin didn’t really have many kind words for the film, putting it down to mis-casting of both James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart who were known more for their gangster roles during the decade. Criminals fighting back against an unfair system. The genre itself was a reformed Western in a different guise, brought up-to-date with tommy guns and speakeasy’s in place of Winchesters and saloons.
I had to see for myself just what The Oklahoma Kid was all about, seeing a younger Cagey and Bogart who are clearly out of their comfort zones. Having previously seen Bogart paired opposite Errol Flynn (who suited the genre) in Virginia City (1940) an unspoken sequel to Dodge City released the previous year. Set up as another chance to see the dashing Aussie in the West, with only a few lines of dialogue to explain his accent, allowing the audience to easily accept him in the Wild West as we wait for him to ride in and save the day. He’s nowhere to be found in The Oklahoma Kid, the other Warners production of 1939. A smaller production that had spent more money on having two big actors share the screen.
It didn’t take long for me to see that Cagney was not really playing the cowboy, he was still the gangster out for himself. We first meet him as he robs sacks of gold meant for the Cherokee nation who had just been forced off thier land in what was fast becoming Oklahoma state. The Kid (Cagney) is seen lurking in the rocks, waiting to make his move on men lead by Whip McCord (Bogart) who have just left a stagecoach. One bad-guy steals from another, there’s no sense of respect for each of them. You admire the Kid’s ingenuity but left wondering whose side is this guy on. He steals money from thieves, why didn’t he join the other men? Does he only work alone like Ringo the Kid (John Wayne) who we know would never commit such a crime. Oklahoma seems to lack any sense if morality. We have yet to learn what McCord is all about, beyond the fact he wants to steal money meant for the poor.
The film is again set-up as a historical Western, much like Dodge City and Union Pacific, allowing us to believe that these events could have happened, we are transported to the era when America was progress, long before the Great Depression. We are nearing the close of the frontier now, set in the mid 1890’s, where not so many future Westerns are set unless it serves a different purpose thematically to the film. We are present at the birth of a new State, settlers have gathered for a land-rush that grounds the film in some sense of history, real or fictional, it sets the scene for progress and the film to unfold. A lot of work goes into the storytelling of both Dodge and Kid the backdrop is seen to be very important.
In most films of the Golden age there is usually a clearly defined hero, however in both Dodge and Kid the heroes are reluctant, more so The Kid as he wants to only help when it serves his own purpose. Leaving our screens to focus on corruption to set into the young town of Tulsa after McCord blackmail’s town founder and future mayor Ned Kincaid (Harvey Stephens) allowing for vices to co-exist with virtue, becoming just another Wild West town full of gambling, alcohol and sex, with the church pushed to the back. Progress is still a long way off for this young town. Bogart’s gang have laid the foundations to own the town of Tulsa, even explaining as much before the land rush is even over. Bending the rules for his own ends.
We meet The Kid again living in a hut, there’s a baby crying, we are led to believe that this could be his baby, who we learn is Mexican as he sing to them in Spanish. Before learning that this is just a hideout, as there’s a $500 reward for him, not that bothers him. Riding into Tulsa to find his father’s Ned Kincaid has been framed for murder, under the penalty of hanging, the traditional punishment in the West. How can this upstanding citizen who ran for mayor be capable of committing such a crime. The Kid or as we learn is the son of Kincaid, the bad son who was left to lead a life of crime. The Kid puts family above all other priorities, as we see his drive to clear his father’s name sees him push for his own form of justice. However his guns only get him so far, when the advice of Jane Hardwick (Rosemary Lane) tells him that he needs the law on his side to do things the right way.
What follows is a showdown that stretches the length of the West as McCord’s men are tracked down and killed. Just like a gangster driving around led by rumours as he tracks down those who have wronged him. The Kid has only his horse and tracks to follow and that’s enough to see him leave only McCord for the final showdown. Staged just like a gangster film we know we aren’t far from the urban streets of the Chicago or New York when it comes to these two leads. Both actors are very much out of their comfort zone here resorting to fisticuffs until one is shot. We never really left the 1930’s, not with Cagney and Bogie together. Run for Cover (1955) sees a far more at ease actor in the genre, having broken free from the tropes and language of a genre that define and typecast him for a decade. Whilst Bogart came into his own during the 1940’s as Film noir and darker roles beckoned for him.
I can see that the money was spent on Dodge City, with the large set pieces and far expanded cast. The Oklahoma Kid still clings to the language of B-Westerns, the sped up horse chase across the open country, the costumes and characters that are mostly 2 dimensional, the running time doesn’t really allow much to happen when we cross so much time during this film. Now I’ve seen practically all the major Westerns of 1939 I can see that some are still trying to make the leap to the big budgets and concepts that allowed it last for over 30 years.
I made the mistake of thinking this The Quick and the Dead (1987) was the Sharon Stone and Gene Hackman film released under the same name 7 years later. Then again I can’t really see Sam Elliott sharing the screen with those two. Saying that, he was one of the Earp brothers in Tombstone (1993) released just before. In the past I’ve been recommended to look at Sam Elliot’s work, like many others, to me he’s the stranger at the bowling alley bar talking about the Dude in The Big Lebowski (1998), a man whose at peace with himself, radiating life long experience and one to listen to. A bar-room fly that you’d sot next to for hours as you sip on your beer. Elliot surely is a man with some stories to tell or words of wisdom to bestow to anyone who cares to listen.
Taking this as my first Sam Elliot film as a lead, The Quick and the Dead was a real surprise. I can see he takes his cues for his persona in the Wild West from a number of sources, yet very much his own man. He’s Sam Elliot in the Wild West, leaving his light touch on the genre. A combination of Randolph Scott’s stoicism and John Wayne’s delivery, but taking his own lead. Playing Con Vallian a frontiers man who soon sympathises with a family of homesteaders, not unlike the Starrett’s in Shane (1953). However this family the McKaskel’s are still very much on the move to their final destination. It’s a clever reshuffling of the elements of the original whilst very much being it’s own film.
With the McKaskels being in the move, they soon move into trouble when their horses are stolen by Doc Shabitt (Matt Clark) and his men. Not knowing that they have a guardian angel in the form of buckskin wearing Vallian who starting hovering around the family who he believes are out of their depth. When Duncan McKaskel (Tom Conti) does what the audience thinks is impossible in retrieving his horses, with a little luck behind him he invites a whole lot of trouble too. Shabbit and his men are after them, whilst aware that they are getting help from somewhere. The opening gunfight comes close to the miracle quality, not unlike the Clint Eastwood’s Preacher in Pale Rider (1985) the silent type who don’t see until the act is done. Vallian is far from holy, or a performer of miracles, he knows how to stay safe in a gunfight, the son of a mountain man and a Blackfoot squaw he has the ability to blend into the surroundings. He has something that neither the homesteaders or gunfighters have – he’s one with nature. The other that’s able to return the civilisation from time to time.
Now I’m careful not to apply the term gunfighter to Vallian who may possess the skill to take out his enemy just as well, however he doesn’t have the same temperament that they generally come with. Maybe it’s his laid back nature, his ability to give advice without a second thought that it won’t be taken. He doesn’t carry with him the reputation of Shane who wears it like a badge that he hides just out of view. Even when he takes a shine to the McKaskels he doesn’t show off his skills, train the boy (whose not annoying). Instead he’s a more humanised figure, his lack of interaction with civilisation is about right. He can defend, kill and hunt without producing an aura of fear in others. Is he the ideal man of the West, or just a civilised mountain man?
Staying with the Shane connection, the relationship between Shane (Alan Ladd) and Marian (Jean Arthur) that is merely touched upon. Shane won’t allow himself to get to close, there’s a spark between them which he won’t ignite as he knows it will only bring trouble for him and those around him. Vallian is more overt with his feelings towards Susanna (Kate Capshaw) which naturally annoys Duncan, the compliments soon wear thin. A woman of such beauty doesn’t belong in West. She’s like a rare jewel that has yet to be discovered. The old phrase of “you can look but you can’t touch” is broken here, they allow themselves a moment or two of romantic danger. Think how more dangerous Shane could have been if both Marian and Shane were caught just kissing by Joe (Van Heflin) would that have been enough to make this cowardly man pick up a gun and shoot his rival, the wrong one for him, loosing his and our concentration as the film reaches it’s final act. Censorship of the 1950’s would ultimately have played a role in film preventing things getting too heated.
Having the family move through open country in The Quick and the Dead allows Vallian to try and dissuade the family from the fate which awaits them. If it’s not the riders in pursuit it could be Native American’s still roaming free. They don’t truly know how Wild the West is. It doesn’t put them off, even the news of Little Bighorn, which brings the death of Susanna’s soldier brother who served in the 7th cavalry. Nothing will stop them making their way to live their American dream. Eventually they have to and want to defend themselves against the riders who finally (diminished in numbers) arrive to threaten their way of life. Their who journey’s fueled by greed and lust, one that takes them through various terrain, how could they remain so focused and driven to get their hands on what potentially is not their.
With all the violence in The Quick and the Dead it’s a pretty chilled out journey as we travel West for a new life, one that see’s a family forced to defend themselves and take up arms. We are in pretty safe company with Elliot who casually saves the day. He has a strong and relaxed screen presence that’s perfect for a film of this length. I can’t imagine him playing the role any darker or light, it’s just right, a chilled out Western that aims to get you from A to B with a few nice jolts along the way that stir things up for everyone. I’ll certainly be looking out for his work in the future.
Since delivering a film talk about A Kind of Loving (1962) I’ve been exploring the kitchen sink dramas of the early-mid 1960’s a purely British genre of films that explored modern life for the average person. Generally set up north and generally involving getting someone pregnant out of wedlock – a big deal back in the day. The backdrop to all of this was the gritty urban back-streets, the factories that were the backbone of modern Britain. Most produced by one studio – Woodfall and three directors who had varying success before moving in different directions. Definitely a collection of films to look out for, drama without the budget and still having an impact.
One of those Woodfall films – A Taste of Honey (1961) a comedy drama about a teenage girl Jo (Rita Tushingham) who falls pregnant after a cheeky romance with a black sailor Jimmy (Paul Danquah) whilst on shore-leave. Who was both exploring her burgeoning new adult feelings and giving into these new urges without really considering the consequences of the romance that ultimately left her pregnant and needing to then support herself. Whilst at also struggling to put up with her alcoholic mother Helen (Dora Bryan) who brought real comic timing to the film, both acting as relief and the reality of her home life not being as perfect as films of the time would have you believe. Yes you can find the odd alcoholic parent on film, but not the extent they are seen having an effect on a young daughters life.
So after a year of exploring this brand of British I noticed a more unusual film The Trap (1966) starring Tushingham also and Oliver Reed in a pioneer era Western, and even more unusual it was a British production. Set during the same era as The Revenant (2015), Man in the Wilderness (1971) and Jeremiah Johnson (1972) a pretty much untapped source for Western genre story telling. Instead focusing on post Civil War era. There’s a lot of history pre-civil war to be explored. The Trap is a rare look at British settlers in the undeveloped San-Francisco – the landscape still untouched from the gold mining boom that was probably going on elsewhere in the landscape of this film. Instead we focus on the trappers – namely a French trapper La Bete (The Beast) played by Reed with a confused accent which you learn to live with.
What really drew me to the film was the idea of a mute girl – having seen The Shape of Water (2017) on it’s release, which was a performance more reliant on acting skills than the delivery of dialogue, it allowed Tushingham to really push herself and rely more on reactions to her acting. Playing a young woman once rescued from Crow who rapped and killed her family. The shock of the events left her mute for the rest of her life. You wonder whether she will ever get over the shock and find her voice to speak again. Yet the magic of these mute roles is that a big part of you doesn’t want her to speak, it would just ruin the effect. All the build up to be destroyed with her voice. Probably raspy at best and strained, why inflict an audience with that reveal. Like most mute characters the condition comes from a place of childhood or past truama leaving them mute. The doomed hero of The Great Silence – Silence (Jean-Louis Trintignant) is left with a permanent scar and disability after witnessing his families murder. Whilst more recently Eva Green‘s Madeline in The Salvation (2014) has her tongue cut out by the hands of her captor Henry Delarue (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). The muteness of these characters does not comes from a natural disability, but one inflicted through a violent past that they must learn to live with.
For Eve (Tushingham) she is forced into a marriage of circumstance to save a family from ruin. When La Bete comes for a large sum of money from the richest man in town – (Rex Sevenoaks) whose more than willing to hand over the money to save his family. Whilst his wife (Barbara Chilcott) taking on the role of the man here uses her questionable inititative and hands over the help – Eve a woman whose unable to question her position or task. Her class does not allow her to. We see other women earlier on being auctioned off to the highest bidder, brought over on a steamboat solely for the wifely property to the local men. However this transaction is free and ensures a families future – not picked up again at the end of the film either. Leaving Eve in the care/custody of La Bete, a brute of a man who knows everything about hunting, trapping and how to survive in the wild and little about women beyond his yearning for a wife. A perfect match for the overly masculine Reed who chews up the part with relish. Life in the wild is not something that comes naturally to Eve, who slowly adapts to life in the wilderness.
Her wits are needed when a traumatic hunting accident leaves La Bete at her mercy and care. Having first to fend off a pack of wolves, before becoming a nurse and ultimately his wife in more than name. It’s a challenge that fills the third act of the film. Being pushed to her own limits to ensure that Le Bete survives the Winter. Coming out in Spring to be closer than before she has still suffering from her past that prevents her from truly being his wife. Sending her out further than she imagined, out in to the arms of her old enemy – The Crow who are more Christian than she would expect. Their depiction may not be the best, however they are shown in a more positive light, as they rescue her and nurse her back to health. Not all Native American’s are the same as the film suggests. Would this be enough to break her self inflicted muteness or will she remain silent forever. A scene near the close of the film shows potential for an outburst from Eve who later realises what she needs to be happy in life.
The Trap is not best Western, let down by it’s budget mainly. It does however allow for a focus on pure acting from a then young Tushingham who is mainly all smiles and frowns. Her face is straining to express emotions at times. Usually these roles really show what a actor is made of, here we can see she’s at the edge of her range. There are times she does rightly carry the scene, however others she’s clearly struggling most of the time opposite the literal giant of Reed whose loving being out in the elements. It’s another take on the woman as victim at the hands of the savage. The savage becomes a white trapper here who understands the land just as well as his Native counterpart. A curio of a Western that has to be seen to see how a foreign country views the American West, instead of focusing the traditional they switch to the Davy Crockett era that’s refreshing for the audience.
If I’m honest I had no reason before now to really return to Rio Conchos (1964). It was inspiration for an early piece of work that I’ve made. The unfinished mansion of the confederates who had fled after the surrender at the end of the civil war. I could see the potential in the building, even looking at how it was first framed, from behind the pillars on the porch we have no idea what state the new home is in. The focus of the work has been put into the entrance, emphasising the need to display the power they had once lost back over the border. A need to assert power and stature in a foreign country was clearly essential for Col. Theron Pardee (Edmond O’Brien). This time around I wasn’t so much drawn to the mansion, that drive has been fulfilled, allowing me to focus on what was just a chance to return to a curio of a Western that had faded in the memory.
The memory had become so fragmented that the mansion was really all I remembered. Leaving me to truly rediscover what is really another chance to explore the influence of The Searchers (1956). From the opening scenes I could see clear comparisons between them. We see a number of Apache’s being gunned down just as they are about to pay their respect to the dead they have brought out to cremate. We find James Lassiter (Richard Boone) hiding from view. He enjoys the killing, showing no respect for these Native Americans wanting to say good-bye. If there were more Apache’s he would surely have carried on until he had no more rounds of ammunition. Much like Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) whose stopped by Reverend Clayton (Ward Bond) who can see that this same emotion is all-consuming in the man on a mission of search and destroy.
The very next seen we found Lassiter sleeping in the burnt out homestead when he’s found by Union Captain Haven (Stuart Whitman) and his men. Not so much for killing the Apache’s, more so the gun he used. This could easily have been an alternate version of The Searchers – Edwards, a Confederate solider who we learn wasn’t present at the surrender. Also he could have been so grief-stricken that he stayed in the also burned out homestead and avoided the 7 year search, which would mean no film. It’s a version of events that’s taken up in Conchos instead, who without a supporting community and family a search was never carried out. Lassiter does however know who killed his family, not that we learn this until the final act of the film.
Brought into face justice at a military outposts that doubles as refuge for families making their way West. Everyone is living in a world if fear, something that Lassiter has experience first-hand, changing his outlook on life. A selfish shell of a man who resents the union for winning the civil war and the Apaches for killing his wife and child. Left to rot with his old friend and partner Rodriguez (Anthony Franciosa) who I saw as another Mexican stereotype whose allowed to be a little more than the sidekick at times.
Now for the subplot, the rife used by Lassister had previously stolen, before being sold on. Captain Haven want’s to track down these stolen weapons, hoping to use a gunpowder as bait to bring them to the guns. Something he feels he can achieve if he enlist the help of his newest prisoner. An unorthodox method that sees them cross the border. The prisoner sees this as an opportunity to test his luck, bribing them to also release Rodriguez, a ruthless man who will do anything as long as he gets his own way. Waging his own war against the victors of war as he carries out one last campaign.
Made during the early days of the civil rights movement we have Jim Brown’s Sgt. Ben Franklyn a rare Black soldier, depicting progress in the Union army, a victory for the freed slaves and taking note also of Sergeant Rutledge (1960) which had an all black unit of men. Here they’re mixed, reflecting the hope for better integration within the contemporary U.S. army. Here Franklyn, named after one of America’s founding fathers plays a fairly decent sized role for a traditionally white-centric film and role. He’s able to freely express himself to his superior, no fear of reprisal, carrying out orders and most importantly he gains the respect of Lassiter who a few years before fought for his continued life as a slave.
Moving the focus back to Lassiter whose not afraid to make personal sacrifices, he’s on a mission, one that even he doesn’t really know about. We finally begin to see a more human side of him when they’re surrounded by a band of Apaches who surround another burned out house. A house that only holds reminders of a past that he has yet to resolve. When we see him turn from killer to protector. He becomes the other in order to help them get away. Even their captor, a Squaw – Sally (Wende Wagner) who he begins to see more as a woman and human being to protect. She loses the image of Mexican Apache to become someone to be protect. She’s the Debbie of the film, whilst Boones – Ethan Edwards has begun his long journey to redemption and hopes of moving on. He faces one last challenge, to fight his Confederate past when he’s brought to Rio Conchos, the new base for Pardee’s men south of the border. Becoming Confedardo’s. Hoping to rebuild and return for another chance of glory that has rejected them.
The final act is full of emotional and physical pain for everyone left alive. Visually it’s a little hard to make out at times what is going on, shot in day-for-night conditions for the finale as they tied up men who by this point has been dragged by Apache horses. A form of torture ordered by Blondebeard (sounds more like a pirate than a Native American name) Kevin Hagen who we learn killed Lassiter’s wife and child. The Scar of the film is finally revealed and is just as mean as his white opposite who came for him. It’s a dramatic fiery mess that draws to a close what has been not so much boiling over but simmering for a while. Boone plays the sneaky under-hand kind of man, layered with grief and anger, not quite a hero or anti-hero, he just wants what is justice in his eyes and that’s all that matters.
A few years ago I came away from The Homesman (2014) with a negative opinion of the film. I was left cold by the twist in the final act that left me wondering why would they do that to Hilary Swank‘s character. Without thinking it maybe a faithful adaptation of the source material by Glendon Swarthout, which is where my frustration must be properly directed not to actor/director Tommy Lee Jones. Soon after watching the film the DVD was off the shelve and out of my mind, written off as a bad film. That was a few years ago, allowing me to come back and give the Western another chance. I remember being too critical of it, not looking at the beauty that was on the screen. I’ve come away from this revisit feeling far more satisfied, maybe I needed that gap of time to reflect and think, lets give this another go. One of those better decisions made on a whim which has paid off. So why, just why has this film got better with age for me.
Firstly I was struck by the films visual beauty, it’s been a while since I’ve seen a recent Western that has captured the vast openness of the landscape with such delicacy. Placing man on horseback only adds to this splendor. For a time we’re allowed some romanticism of the West before this land is finally tamed. Leaving a sketchy plot to be fleshed out again for me. Beginning with spinster Mary B Cuddy (Swank) a god-fearing woman who works her farm and becoming desperate to find a man and settle down. The reason for her permanent marital status soon becomes blindingly obvious. Her over bearing god-fearing nature, doesn’t make her wife material for single men wanting to make a mark on the land. As much as we understand the reasons for her rejections, you can’t help but feel bad for her. She wants what everyone else has. Social pressure is not on her side either, living alone at her age can only be frowned upon or the talk of the town.
I’m reminded once again of other independent women in the genre, a whole band of women try to make their way across a trail in Meeks Cutoff (2010) relying on two man to lead the way, who are essential lost and clueless. We are left wondering if they make it to the end of the trail. That’s of no concern for Mrs Jorgensen (Olive Carey) and her daughter Laurie (Vera Miles) in The Searchers (1956) who are left waiting for men to return from their 7 year search for two younger women. Both are able and willing to make a life in the West, domesticating the space around them. Cuddy is more than able to survive, but now that’s no longer enough. We see three women lose their grip on their mental faculties, developing conditions that clearly need help that is beyond the abilities of their families or townspeople. Again I’m reminded of The Searchers if only briefly, a rag doll that’s mothered one of the disturbed women like one of those found at an Army fort, rescued white women from Native Americans, clearly disturbed, but drawn to the doll that was once Debbie’s. Clearly a substitute for lost children and a reference to the genre’s past.
We’ve not even met George Brigg’s (Lee Jones) who is still a way off, allowing us to really get to know Cuddy unable to find a husband, takes up the opportunity, fighting against public opinion to take on the task of Homesman, carrying these three troubled women over the Missouri River to Iowa where better care awaits them. Cuddy may appear to be a strong women, yet there are moments of weakness, wondering how much she has taken on alone. Why does she do it, is it distraction from her spinster life, a chance to prove herself in the eyes of god and maybe meet a man who wants her at the end of the trail. With her characters fully fleshed out, we understand and empathise with her.
Now we can meet Briggs a man who’s not off to the best start, smoked out of a sod-house that he’s broken into. Everything we learn about him we struggle to take at face value. It’s only through his actions that we begin to trust him. His meeting with Cuddy can only be seen as miraculous leading him to take the job of helping ensure that 4 women make across the open country. Even today the Wild West is still perceived to be a man’s world, as much as Cuddy wants to go it alone, she still relies on a man for security. She asks for little else from him expect his word to complete the journey under threat of God’s wrath. Or it maybe the promise of $300 at the end of the job.
Either way it’s a long journey that is met with a few obstacles along the way that lead up to the twist I had completely forgotten – Cuddy’s death. The reason I all but gave up on the film. It wasn’t a fever, but a suicide. Unable to go on living as a spinster and a giving into her natural urges and not staying true to her faith. Leaving Briggs with the women to look after, something he hadn’t signed up to, however he rises to the challenge, causing a change of character in him, which surprises me.
I can still see the feminist connections between The Homesman and Unforgiven (1992). Here we have a man working out of obligation for a woman, Cuddy’s takes control, causing a limited role reversal to occur. Whilst in Clint Eastwoods film, three men come to avenge a woman who they hardly know. Taking payment for a job to exact justice that the law won’t deliver for them. Both films see women attempt to take control of their destiny’s in a male dominated landscape. Also looked down upon by society, the prostitutes for their profession whilst Cuddy has become a social concern, without really helping her. Ultimately it’s the men who save the day in both films, they carry the guns and the knowledge to save the women and return to a state of living outside that where women exist. Staying with Homesman to conclude the closing scenes see a transformation to become a better man unlike William Munny whose lost to the violence that was once his life. It takes more time with a woman to soften a man of the West, or the modern West.
Sight and Sound ran an article on psychological Westerns, with a smaller side piece darker Westerns starring Robert Mitchum. I’ve been keeping a look out for these film, so far this year I’ve seen two – Track of the Cat (1954) and today Pursued (1947). I can’t begin the review without a brief look at Track of the Cat which just on a visual level is fascinating. The colour pallet restricted to black and white, with splashes of red, every other colour was muted down – unless you were Mitchum. He wasn’t even the overall focus of the film that saw a family restricted by the biting cold of the mountain snow. Even more so with the threat of a black cat that had been spotted. With a terrifying performance from Beulah Bondi as the matriarch who used the bible to keep her family in line. Not thinking about how the scriptures were doing more damage than good. Driving the husband and father Philip Tonge to drink, hiding a bottle of whiskey in every thinkable place, yes a serious look at alcoholism in the genre.
Coming back to the earlier film directed by a Western director Raoul Walsh in this black and white noiresque Western set again the barren landscape of Gallup, New Mexico, which mentions the Mexico Border war 1910-19, however the costume is very confusing as to the era it depicts until we return from the front lines. I’m reminded tonally of Ramrod (1947) which is more overt in it’s visual connection to noir, with Veronica Lake paired opposite Joel McCrea. I still find that film confusing even after a second watch a few years ago. Unlike the majority of of Pursued which as with most noirs that are told in flashback. With the arrival of Thor Callum (Teresa Wright) who rides into join a man in hiding with a burnt out wreck of a homestead. We find Jeb Rand (Mitchum) wounded, tired and scared.
Beginning the film where he began his short life as we fade into flashback. A young boy hiding in a basement is rescued by a woman Mrs Callum (Judith Anderson) who welcomes him to live with her two young children. Life is not safe for them as they are soon on the run themselves. It’s a film of great upheaval and change for everyone in the Callum family. It’s not just a time of change politically but also on a domestic level. With such a focus on the family the film leans more towards drama than action which the Western generally fits into. We meet the children who are able to hold more screen time, danger is slowly creeping into their lives when Jeb’s horse is shot dead from under him. My first reaction was that it’s pretty dark in any film to kill a child. Thankfully he lives to be filled with fear that he takes home to the family. A child who we know has been plagued with bad dreams which we see flash upon the screen throughout the film.
We also meet an embittered Grant Callum (Dean Jagger) who soon loses an arm, which doesn’t stop him trying to muddy Jeb’s family name. But why is he out to get Jeb, how can an innocent boy have incurred the anger of this man. The ex husband of Mrs Callum who is more than happy and capable to raise three children alone, shows little fear, aware of the reasons but these are not revealed to us. The audience is left in suspense for the films duration. Tensions introduced between brothers Jeb and Adam Callum (John Rodney) after Jeb returns home early from the border war. The vendetta against Jeb is about to enter a new adult phase of fateful violence that follows him like a curse. Pushing him away from his adoptive family and love Thor who for a long time shuns him for the hurt he causes.
The question of why looms heavy over the this film. Why is Grant Callum so determined to see Jeb outcast from those he loves, to get him alone and kill him. All whilst Jeb is tortured by his recurring dream that he struggles to understand he returns to to brotherly rivalry that ends in death. Leading to the a court case being heard with the dead body in the room. The pressure to do right by the deceased and the accused has never been so acute. Whatever the result Jeb is cast out by his family, trying to find a way back into their favor. Something made harder with the a new man in Thor’s life, which is manipulated by Grant who tries to further push Jeb into the line of fire.
Throughout the film I noticed that we were missing one key ingredient of the noir genre – the femme fatale which is revealed late on and maintained for a few minutes before we are drawn into the safety of a happy ending. The women save the day after the Callum en-masse close in on Jeb who was destined to meet the fate of the rest of his family. The ending allows the woman rarely to take control on-screen, unlike the man who is generally expected to. Where there is pretty much a happy ending here, I much prefer the bleakness of Track of the Cat that left a family forced to come together under extreme pressure after such heavy losses. The turmoil that the respective families go through can’t fairly be compared. It’s the intensity of the situations and how they are resolved and that makes for more dramatic ending. Maybe it’s due to more confidence in the director, the script or a combination of both and the times that the films are made in. Either way they are both very interesting and obscure Westerns that dare to push the boundaries of the genre as it blurs with another.
I’ve just shared a Museum of Modern Art post of a video that was an introduction to the Western genre. Not that I need much of an introduction, It’s a massive love of my life. What I was fascinated with was the question that the narrator/curator posed towards the end of the 13 minute video. Is the Western dead? Well looking at my first review of the year and films I have lined up to watch at home, I can safely say that it’s very much alive. Last night I was caught off-guard with Norwegian film – In Order of Disappearance/Kraftidioten (2014) that’s a million miles away on the surface of being a Western. Then I only have to think about films such as A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014) which flipped the genres gender conventions to create something refreshing. Released the same year In Order of Disappearance continues that reinvention of the genre. Moving the tropes and placing them in the snow of Norway.
We begin with a middle-aged couple, Nils Dickman (Stellan Skarsgård) is dressing for an award ceremony in his honor – citizen of the year. All for doing what – clearing the roads with his impressive snow-plow. Making our efforts in the UK to survive even just a week of snow look pathetic. A landscape that he has tamed, an immigrant who has made the land his own, as has accepted him as one of their own. So far it’s nothing out of the ordinary, a society has accepted a stranger. It’s the brutal scenes later that night, two younger men are grabbed at an airport, result in one being found dead the next morning. On learning that the dead man Ingvar (Aron Eskeland) is the son of Nils and his wife, being told that he died of an overdose. Something that the father doesn’t believe. Similar to a young man being found dead after a gunfight in the West, labelled a gunfighter after never picking up a gun in his life. A verdict that Nils won’t accept lying down, unlike his wife who wants to mourn and move on.
The screen cuts to an untranslated title card with a cross and a name, I learn that this is form the film is going to take, it takes a few times to see these title cards. Nils accidentally learns the truth about his son’s death he’s given a new purpose in life – to avenge his son. He’s the Norwegian Paul Kersey from Death Wish (1974) with a more focused reason for getting his gun out to take out the men behind his son’s death. It’s hard to believe that this man, whose only a few more years from retirement is full of vengeful energy that at times can be darkly comedic. Never underestimate the power if grief when it’s channeled through anger that sees a life being avenged far beyond the violence that took the first life.
The title cards allows the film to be broken up into chapters, one murder per chapter allows us to see a staggered progression. Nils is making his way through a mafia group lead by an emotionally driven Greven – Ole Forsby (Pål Sverre Hagen) a man-child who we learn has taken over the family drug business, having been spoiled as a child. A combination of his position and upbringing create a monster who we wait to lash out. All this is easily translatable to the West, the man with all the power, controlling a town, the local economy in his pockets, surrounded by men who are both dangerous, stupid and not to be trusted.
Unbeknownst to the mafia who believe this is a war between rival gangs, not a single man on a deadly mission to exact justice for his son, things become more complicated. With the arrival of the a Serbian on a drug run he gets caught up actually starting a war. It’s a level of violence that Nils was not prepared for. He’d already tried to get to Ole with no success after his assassin tried to manipulate the situation for himself. It’s easy to make the comparison again to the West, a lone man tries to avenge his son, knowing he’s getting closer, killing Native Americans or a gang in town, working from afar, an unknown can work more effectively. However the unconsidered variable could bring rival gangs or nations into what potentially could be a war.
Nils finally strikes where he can really hurt Ole, by kidnapping his son, unaware of the complexity of his situation he’s not just invited Ole and his men, but the Serbians lead by Papa (Bruno Ganz) which is a clever piece of casting, the old guard meeting the new and less experience, no less dangerous. You really have to be paying attention to the deaths and the relationship between the Ole’s men, how this ultimately affects the final outcome. It’s a quick battle before the arms are finally lowered, enough blood has been shared, leaving the survivors tired and wanting to just get on with the rest of their lives in peace.
In order of Disappearance does what it says on the tin, an orderly death count that builds up the tension between three different groups in a landscape that could easily kill anyone of them. Much like the Western it relies on the independent man to stand up for himself, take law into his own hands to see that justice’s done. However as with life, its more complicated than that. The first few deaths are treated more lightly, as they mount up we see less of them or they become more brutal, but the results are always felt. The release of tension at the end is well earned in the freezing landscape allowing you to breathe again. To say the Western is dead is giving up too easily, look hard and read between lines of films released today and you won’t have far to go.
My first encounter with The Last Train from Gun Hill (1959) was a few years ago when I was working on Dancing in the West (2013), which features a few pieces of found footage from the film. I have more in Iron Horse of the Studio (2015) which lifted the train outside and arriving into Gun Hill where the majority of the action takes place. Otherwise I had very little knowledge of the film beyond that fact it starred Kirk Douglas who arrives on the train.
But why does he arrive in Gun Hill asking for Craig Belden (Anthony Quinn). Away from anything even related to Trains we have a Native American mother and son, whose clearly mixed race, he has a white father. Riding through the woods on a horse drawn buggy. Passing Rick Belden (Earl Holliman) and Smithers (Brian G. Hutton) who are her attackers and killers. It’s pretty obvious what their intentions are they as they up alongside them. Throwing the boy aside, they don’t wait long before they rape and kill her. Usually it’s the white woman whose raped by the Native American in the classical form of the Western. Here the roles are reversed, the woman – Catherine Morgan (Ziva Rodann) whose seen as worthless and little more than a sexual plaything to be abused as if she has no soul – not in the Christian white man’s view.
Back in her home town, a group of boys are after a retelling of a classic gunfight from 9-10 years ago. Gun control has been enforced in this town, making it a far safer place to be, far from the crime committed in the wilderness of the frontier. Town Marshall Matt Morgan (Kirk Douglas) whose happy to retell the story, creating his own legend for awestruck kids who want to experience the danger of the past as modern day audiences do through watching these films. It’s only when he’s led by his son to his wife body. Clearly upset and equipped with evidence (a saddle with the initials B.C.) He knows where he must go, but doesn’t know what he will really find on arrival. His old friend Craig Belden, could he be the killer and rapist of his wife or is there more to this than meets the eye. Turning against a friend is something no man wants to do or takes lightly.
We haven’t even met patriarch and cattle baron Belden who has power not just over his son but also the town of Gun Hill. Not only does he want his saddle but he allows his son to be beaten up by his right hand-man. A sadistic side that is rarely seen, usually the father deals out the violence himself, not delegating to his staff, who happily take over. It’s a challenge to his son’s Rick manhood. He wants him to defend himself, not so much to win but to stand his ground. Belden could be compared with Broken Lance‘s (1954) Matt Devereaux (Spender Tracy) driven by power, mistrust and frustration. His whole family are slowly driven. Whilst a grief-stricken Morgan dressed in black throughout the rest of the film, arrives with the saddle in tow, he knows what he has to do is going to hurt. Is he an avenger of death in human form with the protection of a marshal’s badge, allowing him to deal out the justice he seeks, that any other man would have to be careful to achieve.
Gun Hill to Morgan is like traveling back in time to the lawless town he once tamed, except it’s not his to even attempt to tame. Instead to try and remove two elements to face justice back home. No one is prepared to help in, living in the pockect’s of his old friend who will allow safe passage on the last train if his son goes free. It’s a lot to ask of Morgan having come all this way to give up on his mission without so much as a fight. He does have one ally in the long-term girlfriend Linda (Carolyn Jones) who wont even go home with Belden. Her reluctance works in the favour of the visiting marshal, an angel you could say whose fighting her own conscience in a town that wants her to conform. Proposing a wager on her own success, only to withdraw when she realises she’s just as bad as them. A typical woman of the frontier whose in s relationship with the man of the town, only to see the error of her ways. However she’s soul searching throughout the film, making her stand apart from other women in the genre.
I come away from Gun Hill a western that really does manipulate the world it’s functioning in. retelling stories of the West as if it’s all be won. A Train that rides right into the middle of town to position it as the main focus of the film. Whilst a marshal is happy to stay in the comfort of a hotel room waiting for the right time to face the music of the town that wants him dead. The hotel room becomes his own prison and temporary marshals office, working away from home, the law never left him throughout his time in Gun Hill is short lived but he has an effect that hopefully will send ripples through the town. I’m glad I’ve been able to piece together the clips I’ve seen previously, making sense of them now has allowed me to see a more complex western that could be darker. Made up with solid performance by a cast who are enjoying a script that goes further than your standard corruption in town.