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.
I’m hoping to see 4 of Sam Peckinpah films, Straw Dogs (1971) is the first one out of the gates, and very much by chance too. I remember reading about the film long before I really considered seeking it out – the article focused on the infamous rape scene which is probably one of the most violent scenes I have ever watch on screen. It was also a chance to see how the director, a few years after the success of The Wild Bunch (1969) and the quirky melancholic musical Western The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970) with far less violence than it’s predecessor. Moving forward he would be going across the Atlantic to a completely different environment – Great Britain, involved in no conflicts, yet struggling with rolling strikes and blackouts. The summer of love is long behind us and things are looking bleak.
Mathematician David Sumner (Dustin Hoffman) has moved to rural Cornwall to be with his new wife Amy (Susan George) who from the first few minutes is very much seen from the male gaze, the camera pans down to focus on her chest, clearly not wearing a bra. Partly out of women’s liberation and easily seen as a directorial decision to engage the male before they’re shocked later on in the film. They have just bought a hunting trap, Peckinpah has sewn a seed early on for what to expect later on. You can’t remove the potential image for violence, a man caught within the teeth of the trap that for most of the film’s fixed to the wall. I notice early on, children are dancing in a graveyard, whilst local pedophile Niles (David Warner) looks on quietly at them, not fully aware of what he’s capable of. I’m wondering where he fits into the dynamic of the film, hovering in the background used as a minor character. Warner is sadly not even credited for his role which is staggering when you see his role increase at a pivotal moment in the film.
We learn that Sumner decided to move into his wife’s family home to allow him to study and write his book, something he really wants to focus on. Having escaped his own countries violence, he can finally begin with hopefully fewer distractions. That’s not considering the sexual distraction of his newly wed wife, who sees the world around her far differently to the naive American intellectual whose still finding his feet in this foreign world. They have employed roofers who leer over Amy at any chance they get. The only attractive female in the film, she’s the only object of desire her even though she’s married, it doesn’t stop their actions. David is oblivious to all of this until he is forced to confront what is only going to be an increase of violence against the couple. I’ve not even touched upon Tom Hedden (Peter Vaughan) who spends the first half of the film in the local pub, seen as the town drunk. We don’t yet know how much power he yields over the men in the village. He’s the Cornish equivalent to a gang leader, a translation of the Western villain to British countryside. His influence and position in the community allow him a certain freedom, he’s probably never left the village since he was born.
Diversionary tactics come into play, taking David away from his wife on what is a very British past-time; Pheasant shooting, a right of passage for those in the country and part of society. The same men who have been work on the barn roof for the couple take him away, into a civilised arena of violence. Hoffman again plays the innocent, useless with a gun at first. Instead of shooting a man, who can potentially defend himself he aims at the defenceless birds who can’t seem to kill at first. When he finally kills he’s repulsed by what he has just done. Instead of taking home his kill for dinner he leaves the lifeless bird in peace. Juxtaposed with the rape scene which the film is now known for, the build up to the attack is pretty calm, as Charlie Venner (Del Henney) whom she previously had a relationship with, moves in to forcibly seduce. It becomes increasingly uncomfortable to watch as he gains control, ripping her clothes from her body before he rapes her. Where it becomes blurry for me is when it moves from what looks like rape to possibly consensual, she somehow accepts him and allows him to make love (in the loosest possible terms). Has she given in to his forceful actions, her past feelings overwhelm her working in his favour. The changes with the introduction of Norm Scutt (Ken Hutchison) carrying a rifle, he want a part of her, he wants a share of the action. Amy returns to being an object to be abused, returning her to a victim. I feel uncomfortable again, the sweaty bodies, is not just sexual joy, but pure terror and transfer of empowerment from woman to the men who have violated her. During the scene we have the first flourishes of slow-motion – the Peckinpah signature, here it’s to display the pain and violence towards Amy who has lost her freedom.
This experience naturally stays with Amy and the audience for the remainder of the film, we are forced to experience the imagery in a packed village hall. As she’s forcing herself to try and return to normality, it’s too. She can’t comes to terms with it during the course of the film, events won’t allow her to. When Hedden’s daughter Janice (Sally Thomsett) who we see leading Niles away to try and take advantage of him. She wants to abuse his innocence, unaware of his true nature she meets a fate similar to Lennie Hall’s victim in Of Mice and Men. Unaware of either’s power it ends fatally for Janice, the first victim of the night.
The finale of the film is long and drawn out, from what begins as a car accident develops into a full blown home invasion as Hedden on the look out for Niles now in the care of still innocent Sumner who wants to defend his house turns into a homestead under act from the natives who use all their forces to try and break through. A once civilised man is broken as he turns to violence, doing all he believes is necessary to protect his home from outsiders who want to kill his guest and obligation, wanting to do the right thing becomes very dark and murky. I’m reminded of the farmer Tony Martin who shot dead a burglar after entering his property. He too went to fatal lengths to ensure the safety of his property, sparking a nationwide debate. A real-life parallel, not as extreme as the Hollywood depiction, we can still see the lengths that even a quiet man will to.
We don’t truly get to see what happens to the last men standing, where do they go from here. Have the images of a war that have been broadcast daily on his TV been subliminally brainwashing him to pick up a gun a shoot. Has his countries love for guns become part of his identity, laying dormant ready to be awoken. I leave the film shaken by the imagery, the intensity of violence an intense and relentless barrage that we are more than glad to end. I’m now interested to see how the violence couple dynamic is carried through to The Getaway (1972), a modern day Bonnie and Clyde (1967) who get a thrill from violence, unlike the Sumner’s who used it as a last resort.
I’ve been meaning to return to The Tin Star (1957) for a while now, an under appreciated Western by Anthony Mann without James Stewart, his first Western without Stewart due to a falling out between the two of them. I wonder how he would have approached this role, making it the 8th together. Instead turning to Henry Fonda, a longtime friend of Stewart’s making for the film we have today. Paired opposite a young pre-Pyscho Anthony Perkins which itself makes for interesting reading.
I could come at this review as a could have been different with James Stewart but that would be doing a dis-service to decent film that takes on the apprentice/master relationship. Something that has been done countless times, to become a man you must be able to defend yourself. Here however you don’t need the guns to do so. They are simply tools, something that fresh-faced Sheriff Ben Owens (Anthony Perkins) has to learn the hard way. When bounty hunter Morgan ‘Morg’ Hickman (Henry Fonda) arrives with bounty in tow he wants only to collect his money and leave, keep to himself and cause no trouble. His very presence in the town causes a stir with the establishment and business that have supported Ben who took over at little notice. “This is a law and order town” is mentioned a few times to warn Hickman off interfering on his way. This is not the Clint Eastwood bounty hunter whose very presence scares those he’s about to shout down and collect on. This town has moved on from this model of keeping law and order. It’s follow the law and live by the law. Yet we still have the classic Dead or Alive posters which contradict that thinking. criminals are still wanted, however the arrive is a different matter. Hickman’s presence spreads fast through the town, no rooms at the only hotel, no room for his horse at the livery stable (on the edge of town). They don’t want him to stay, he’s a reminder of a different time, he’s outmoded.
Instead of being filled with rage, like many of Stewart’s roles, there’s no build up of emotion, not big release that leads to great dramatic scene. Instead he holds his own in a town that resists him. Taking up lodgings with another outsider Nona Mayfield (Betsy Palmer) and her mixed race son Kip (Michel Ray) a curious boy who wants only to play with others. Not having many friends due to his Native American heritage (which isn’t really mentioned outside the house). Getting off to a rocky start, it could have increased in tension however it’s dealt with calmly the next day surprisingly well.
The main focus of the film is making a sheriff out of Owens who wants to assume the role with more confidence, something that he is lacking. This could also be seen in the actors hidden sexuality, hiding him true-self on-screen to conform and get work. Can only a heterosexual male become a sheriff? His skills with a gun are rough around the edges, it takes Hickman’s presence, a former sheriff himself to help him. It’s a reluctant help, after being pleaded by the sheriff, not the image we’re used to in our law enforcement out in the West. He’s still a boy who needs to learn the ways of being a man. It takes another to teach him. We get the classic target practice scene, not played so much for comedy, more to see how far he has to go. He wants to prove himself to the town and his woman – Millie Parker (Mary Webster) who wants him to take off the badge to live a safer life, unlike her father who died with it on.
Another test comes in the form of Bart Bogardus (Neville Brand) one of the ugliest men you could get caught up in a fight with. A man who should really be wearing the badge, instead he tests the sheriff to the limit. When a posse’s formed to catch two men responsible for the deaths of two elder men, he leads the mob mentality, which is stirred up. Owens seems powerless to really do much about him. If Ben can overcome him, stand up to the brute he has come a long way, learning how to hold himself in public and as the law. The bully of the playground has no one left to push around.
The real test comes as the posse are out chasing no-one after setting a light, Hickman has resisted the lure of the reward on the two wanted brothers Ed and Zeke McGaffey (Lee Van Cleef and Peter Baldwin), again mixed race with Native American heritage, these two face the full force of racism, whilst young Kip joins in from a distance playing sheriff on his new horse. Hickman is able to put his drive for money to one-side when he knows Kip’s caught up, becoming a father figure to him. Not forgetting his sheriff in-training Ben who just wont listen to reason, stay out of it and be safe. The life he wants is fraught with danger and heartache, which can be avoided. Instead he’s headstrong and blinkered, riding in to prove himself. Ultimately, no guns are used to safe the day and bring in the two men. Even when they face a lynch mob, guns are threatened not used, showing that can be used as tools not just weapons for protection.
Tin Star is the beginning of a decline for Mann who had made some classic Westerns with Stewart, this could have been up there. Gary Cooper makes for a strong replacement in The Man of the West (1958). However from there on in it’s down and out, if we ignore a tense The Heroes of Telemark (1965) for a brief return to form. Here however we have a small budget film that tries to get into the characters, some more successful that others. There’s a lot going on in this 80 odd minute film, it’s tight with a bit of excess around the edges. I know I’ll be revisiting in future thanks to a fine performance from Fonda which gives it some weight and experience.
It’s awards season and I’ve started early this year, not that I think that Hostiles (2017) is gunning for any awards, just the timing of the release in cinema’s. Nonetheless it’s a Western which means only one thing, I’m there. Booking the tickets even with a few warm reviews I decided I had to see this for myself. Based on the manuscripts of Donald E Stewart about an army captain who reluctantly takes on a mission that changes his politics. Now this is how Soldier Blue (1970) could have gone, but decided to be more literal. I also found a few links to The Searchers (1956) which I’m always looking to explore through other films.
After years of internal wars between the White settlers, who had been shaking up and re-organising the country into a shape that more resembled their own destiny, we forget about the soldiers and people who were caught up in the Indian Wars that have left the Native Americans greatly diminished and broken. Hostiles attempts to address some of those issues in this Revisionist Western. Beginning by reverting to classic form – a Comanche raid on a family who are massacred, it’s straight to the point, gruesome and sets the tone for what is to come. Leaving wife and mother Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike) alone to bury her family, potentially altering her outlook on life too. She could have easily allowed racist tendencies to creep in and understandably too. It’s too later for Captain Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale) who is an embittered racist who has seen more than his fair share of bloodshed whilst in uniform. Easily seen as an extension of Ethan Edwards if he stayed in uniform. Yet his racism comes from another place, that is never really explored, leaving us to question how did he becomes this monster who could hate Native American’s that boils over when he discovers his family massacred, raped and captured also by Comanche’s. Blocker is given one last mission under threat of court-martial for refusing, to escort a now elderly Cheyenne chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) and his family back to their home land of Montana. Part of me thinks this is a test set by his commanding officer Col. Abraham Briggs (Stephen Lang) wants to see him suffer, to test his politics before the decorated officer retires. A big “Screw you” you could say.
The last time I saw Studi was as another historic Native American Geronimo in the 1993 film, here much older he gets slightly less screen time than his white colleagues who dominate. Showing there is still away go before they are given a fair representation in the genre. However they were portrayed with compassion unlike the Comanche who’re reduced to an obstacle to overcome – somethings never change. I’m not too surprised either, it’s a long ingrained part of the genre that is hard to shake. To achieve that they will have to be a Native American in the directors chair, with an un-compromised voice. That said The Cheyenne’s that are depicted with sensitivity, we can see they’re spirit has been broken but theirs hearts haven’t, which is the extent of the Cheyenne’s suffering is really explored.
The focus as always comes from the white man- Blocker whose our Ethan Edwards filled with racial intolerance for the Cheyenne that he has to escort across the open country. It’s his journey that we follow which has an interesting effect on him. Much like Edwards, he knows his foe very well, having learned to speak Cheyenne, he knows the enemy intimately, maybe too well. With the pomp of leaving his fort one last time he has his foe chained up, there’s no trust for the elderly warrior who puts up with this indignity. He wont rise to the bait, a decent man knows when he’s been defeated. This last throughout the discovering of the burnt out homestead where we find grief stricken Rosalie Quaid, everyone in the party can understand her pain. Pike delivers a heartfelt performance, you can really feel her pain, I wondered if she would cross into racial hate, making Yellow Hawks journey home even harder. Would her grief match the hate that of Blocker’s? Playing a vital part in Blocker’s transformation by the films close.
We start out of the fort with a small Master Sgt. Thomas Metz (Rory Cochrane) stricken with depression, Corp. Henry Woodsen (Jonathan Majors) who has been proud to serve with Blocker Lt. Rudy Kidder (Jesse Plemons) fresh out of West point ready to prove his superiors he’s worth his rank and French recruit Pvt. Philippe DeJardin (Timothée Chalamet) who has no real experience in the army. The small group meet resistance early on in the form of the Comanche who are the first of many obstacles on their long journey that has an effect on the number of men in uniform. Taking on Rosalie Quaid, could easily be seen as a burden to them. It’s the aftermath of these events that start to open up Blocker’s view of the world, starting to question his thinking. Finally confronted when he takes on army prisoner Corp. Tommy Thomas (not a very original name) (Paul Anderson) under the care of Sgt. Paul Malloy (Ryan Bingham).
Thomas is the equal of Blocker, yet he has used his racial hatred to kill a Native family whilst not under orders. Purely for them being there. A cold-blooded killer who shows no remorse for his crime, would Blocker have done the same out of uniform or has his uniform given him licence to kill and get away with it. The security position and rank have been enough, to go as far as Thomas would be a point of no return for the captain, or is this the next part of his life outside of the protection of the uniform. The Indian Wars and Frontier nearly closed he would be a monster in civilised society, an Ethan Edwards in fine clothes.
There’s a lot of ground covered both literally (and spectacularly on camera) and thematically, from racism to man first killing to forgiveness. It goes along way to get us to Montana and it’s not an easy ride with a lot to think about. Filmed over the last year it can now be easily seen as a response to America today, as it becomes increasingly alone in its world view. The development of a wall on the Southern border with Mexico. The political divide is stronger than ever with a President who you either trust implicitly or question his every tweet. Blocker is leaving one life behind for another, does he want to bring his past life to his future. Hostiles attempts to deal with a very contentious issue and does a good job – on the white man’s side. Whilst the Native American has to just accept his place in the film and history on the chin. I wish the Cheyenne had more time to talk, to explore their position, instead they are just lead and protected by the army that’s trying now to do right by them. It reminded me lastly of Cheyenne Autumn (1964), the depiction of the Southern Cheyenne joining those in the North, which is more apologetic than Hostiles that draws it out of the characters slowly, not so much the director. I can only conclude that Revisionist Westerns will only be apologising with white actors in the lead role rather than the Native’s who depiction and capacity in the film is still being determined through the winners history.