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.
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.
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.