One of the first true epics of sound cinema, The Big Trail left a deep and permanent imprint on movie history without a lot of people knowing about it. The late 1920s saw the cinema forcibly redefined by the advent of sound, a ruction for audiences, filmmakers, and theatre owners alike. True colour film processes would arrive soon after, but most filmmakers shied away from any further innovation until television forced them to fight for an audience. When they did, they would turn to the widescreen format, which had been introduced unsuccessfully in the 1920s. In France, Abel Gance’s Napoleon (1927) had demonstrated the artistic potency of the format, and three years later, The Big Trail came at the leading edge of another, brief campaign to promote the format in American filmmaking.
A mammoth undertaking by the Fox Film Corporation, The Big Trail was shot, incredibly, in six different versions simultaneously: editions in four alternate languages, a standard 35mm format version, and another in an experimental 70mm widescreen process called Grandeur. The exhausting labour and cost involved in this reflected the cumbersome demands of the era’s technology, and came on top of a colossal, already difficult location shoot that trailed nearly 2,000 miles across five states. Fox may have hoped to maximise the film’s box office potential by making so many versions, but instead The Big Trail became a sad failure, as most exhibitors refused to take up the widescreen format and the regular-sized print couldn’t make enough money to cover the huge expense during the straits of the early Depression.
The Big Trail languished in relative obscurity for a long time as a result, whilst the similar, but far creakier Cimarron would capture the Best Picture Oscar a year later. Director Raoul Walsh took a blow to his career and wouldn’t get to helm another film of such a scale for some time. The new male star he had discovered for the project would languish in small roles and B westerns for nearly a decade. That young man, a former college footballer and bit-part player, was recommended to Walsh by mutual friend John Ford, who liked the actor’s cocky walk. He came on The Big Trail’s set named Marion Morrison, but thanks to Walsh and a cadre of studio executives, continued his career under the name they chose for him—John Wayne.
Walsh himself had been a rough-and-tumble cowboy actor in the pioneering days of Hollywood and dabbled in directing even before he appeared in D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915), including work on the legendary docudrama The Life of General Villa (1913), starring the great bandit-revolutionary as himself. Walsh evolved into one of the most sublimely rigorous and no-nonsense of classical Hollywood filmmakers. With The Big Trail, he matched Lewis Milestone’s work on All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) in freeing early sound film from its stagy reflexes to discover the world at large. For Walsh, this discovery resulted in a relative crudeness, with dialogue recorded out in the open and sometimes muffled by a general clamour, but also fascinatingly rich and with a lively naturalism quite different to the smoother, but more artificial textures that would become the norm.
As a film, The Big Trail shows its age in places, but its general vigour and expanse is still breathtaking. As a depiction of the travails of early pioneers, it still dwarfs many amongst generations of imitations. The plot is merely sufficient to lend the film a through-line that sustains the panoramic study in a human tide on the move. Wayne plays frontiersman Breck Coleman, a product of life in the western expanses, one who credits his knowledge of hunting and exploring to the Native American tribes he grew up amongst. Coleman knows the land and can clear a path across the country for a huge wagon train forming at a trading post in Missouri, intending to be the first such large expedition to go across the country to claim farm land in Washington state. At first, Coleman is uninterested in joining the expedition because he’s on the hunt for the killers of his friend, Ben Griswold; someone tried to make the crime look like an Indian raid, but Breck looked closer and found signs revealing the true culprits, including the stub of a burnt-out cigar. Whilst he tells another old friend, Zeke (Tully Marshall) about this, Red Flack (Tyrone Power Sr.), the man hired to lead a cattle team ahead of the wagons and blaze the Oregon Trail, overhears him and is clearly rattled. Breck finds he leaves behind the same brand of cigar in his wake, and Walsh employs a brief flashback to illustrate the processes of Breck’s deduction, revealing his discovery of Griswold’s last camp site in the wilderness and his comprehension of a masked crime. As he probes further, Breck discovers a large quantity of pelts probably stolen off Griswold were sold to the trading post by a man named Lopez (Charles Stevens), who happens to be a friend and employee of Flack.
Breck agrees to scout for the wagon train so he can stick close to this suspect pair and see if he can dig up more evidence and bring them to whatever kind of justice the moment provides. Meanwhile, he accidentally antagonises some of his prospective charges. He mistakes proper Southern belle Ruth Cameron (Marguerite Churchill) for another girl he knows and plants a kiss on her, only to realise his mistake as she stomps off in an offended huff. Ruth is the daughter of a greatly respected Southern elder, but she’s set on building a new life with her brother Dave (David Rollins) and younger sister. She has a self-appointed guardian and would-be suitor of traditionally gallant credentials, Bill Thorpe (Ian Keith), who claims to be a plantation owner looking for adventure and tries repeatedly to talk Ruth into marrying him. He exchanges pithy words with Breck, as the young man tries to apologise to Ruth—except that Thorpe is actually a gambler who can’t stay at the trading post lest he be hung and can’t go back lest he be shot thanks to excessive displays of his prodigious skills with firearms. But he’s friends with Flack, and he joins the wagon train with an eye to netting Ruth and taking out Breck as a favour to his pal. Breck tries to do his job whilst avoiding Thorpe’s various attempts to kill him, barely surviving one ambush in which his horse is killed. Meanwhile, Breck negotiates safe passage through Cheyenne territory with their chief, Black Elk (John Big Tree), but danger waits as other native nations join in a coalition to block their path through the Rocky Mountains.
The basic storyline is familiar genre melodrama and mostly serves to give a little sinew to what is otherwise a survey of frontier experience, a depiction of a communal event that strays legitimately into the true definition of epic as an account of the social flux and great undertaking that creates a nation. Walsh records this with such elaborate detail and rhythmic intensity that he creates a virtually pantheistic work of art. Although there’s a brief patch of speechifying towards the end, when Breck underlines the overall meaning of the event, Walsh is for the most part happy to let his images speak—visions of prairie schooners rocking along in clouds of dust under the rays of the setting sun, his characters traversing rivers and mountains and forests. The unusual, laborious shoot meant that The Big Trail comes close in nature to one of Robert Flaherty’s staged documentaries simply by the unavoidable authenticity of much on screen, the peculiar thrill of such moments as the wagons being lowered with improvised cranes down a cliff face and trying to negotiate a swollen river. The vast number of extras look unusually like the kind of people they’re portraying. Walsh delights in zeroing in on sights like strong, muscular woman chopping down trees and lashing along their oxen amongst the broad diorama of human activity, this moving city in the wilderness, all achieved without recourse to tricks like back projection.
The admiration for the pluck of ordinary men and women is typical of Walsh, who stayed in the Hollywood game as a jack-of-all-trades but made his clearest mark in Warner Bros. plebeian melodramas, like They Drive By Night (1940) and Manpower (1941), and films with sociological breadth, like The Bowery (1933) and The Roaring Twenties (1939), the latter a particularly potent influence on subsequent waves of filmmakers from Orson Welles to Martin Scorsese. Walsh could handle any genre, but found real focus in gangster and war films. Where his great rivals in the classic cadre of macho auteurs Ford, DeMille, and Hawks, tended towards mythologising in their different ways, Walsh, like William Wellman, retained something of a reportorial attitude, comprehending the shifts from the plucky energy of the ’30s to a despair over the illusions of the American dream (The Roaring Twenties), the defeat of individualism (High Sierra, 1941), the neurotic birth of the atomic age (White Heat, 1949), and overtures of fascist power and resistance in the burgeoning Cold War (The Naked and the Dead, 1958). The Big Trail, meanwhile, feels like a preparatory sketch for those canonical Western epics, Hawks’ Red River (1948) and Ford’s The Searchers (1956), whilst How the West Was Won (1963) is a partial remake. Like Red River, The Big Trail watches an intimate drama play out in the midst of a massive undertaking, and neither can resolve until the end of the trail is reached. Like The Searchers, the quest to write a form of justice and human meaning upon an impassive and voraciously expansive landscape and the need for safe harbours and human connection remain in constant tension.
The drama in The Big Trail is much more elemental than what Walsh usually offered, but it’s rewarding to look closely at Thorpe and Flack, a divergent pair of characters united by the fact they’re both nefarious criminals, forming with Lopez a kind of shadow society within the greater enterprise. Thorpe is a fake gentleman, slick and charismatic, precursor to John Carradine’s similar, if more ambiguous character in Stagecoach (1939) but also a type for whom Walsh might later have offered far more sympathy as the man who can’t submit to a society bent on ironing out wrinkles like him, dogged by his impulses towards nobility rather than merely using that attitude as a disguise. Indeed, by the time of White Heat, Walsh would reveal the processes of empathy completely inverted: the psychotic, desperate Cody Jarrett had become the hero and the man quietly shadowing him to bring him to justice the villain. Keith has lean charisma in the role of Thorpe, and he would later become a favourite actor of Cecil B. DeMille. Flack is a monstrous brute who nonetheless has great reserves of native cunning and authority, and reportedly provided the direct inspiration for Popeye’s Bluto. Power, a former matinee idol as his then-teenage son would become, looked gnarled and terrible by this time. With bushy beard, snaggy, rotten teeth, and belly-deep, broken-bottle voice, he creates an unsubtle, but galvanising villain, like some kind of prehistoric monster born aberrantly in human form. Both Thorpe and Flack represent fading varieties of authority, the raw force of the barbarian king and the deceptive lethalness of the pseudo-aristocrat who wants to be taken for a slave-owning oligarch, men who tellingly “lead” the expedition but don’t actually do much for it.
Interestingly, Walsh would later combine the Thorpe and Flack characters to create his unstable antiheroes who waver between nobility and base violence, particularly White Heat’s Cody Jarrett and The Naked and the Dead’s Sgt. Croft, who, like Flack, is an ancient kind of he-man who leads his team on an epic mission but with more Melvillian overtones per Norman Mailer’s source novel. Meanwhile Walsh pulls apart the presumptions of a film he starred in, The Birth of a Nation; note that Ruth is, like the central family of that film, a Cameron, but is running away from her legacy following the telling death of the old patriarch and the loss of property and standing; Thorpe mentions that there “isn’t a home in all the South that wouldn’t be happy to take in the daughter of Colonel Cameron” (notably, much later Walsh would take on the legacy of slavery more pointedly in A Band of Angels, 1957). By contrast, Breck is the egalitarian son of the frontier who doesn’t fear a fight. but also easily negotiates with the Indians he understands and with whom he shares a worldview. Meanwhile, Ruth’s brother Dave takes the place of another character Walsh was fond of, the fresh-faced neophyte anxious to take his place amongst men. Walsh also plays with his camera and storytelling methods: the flashback to Breck’s discovery of Griswold’s camp counts as an unusual touch for the time, whilst Walsh’s way of shooting the fleet of prairie schooners, including a shot from inside one wagon as it negotiates the land, surely influenced Ford’s work on Stagecoach.
The photography by Lucien Andriot and Arthur Edeson is remarkably alive to physical texture—the grains of wood in the fixtures of the wagons seem almost alive—whilst occasionally capturing some larger spirit than the merely physical in their visuals, such as rays of sunlight gushing through clouds over the convoy, the bone-chilling final hunt sequence in the forest at the extremes of mortality. Walsh’s grasp on orchestrating massive action and hordes of extras and the precision of his flow of vignettes, suggests what he learnt from Griffith, as well as the relentless logic of his horizontal compositions. But even as he contends with some hokey comedy and the simplicity of the story, Walsh has left the Victorian sentiments of Griffith far behind: here there are only strong and hardy people contending with the land. The soundtrack captures a constant clamour of juddering wheels and rattling pots and lowing cattle, the ambient din of the wagon train, with enriching authenticity, the kind of effect that would later be commonplace, but here still has a quality of discovery. The final sequences, filmed in the midst of California’s awe-inspiring redwoods, sees the wagon train climb down from soaring white mountains to verdant valley floors fringed by the great trees, underlining a feeling of having passed into some mythical realm where gigantism is a norm and everything is touched with a dusting of mythology. Critic Fred Camper tellingly saw The Big Trail it as an epic where the place of the individual human was displaced by nature at the heart of the film, and this often feels quite true, laying seeds for the ways later generations of filmmakers like Werner Herzog, Terrence Malick, and Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu would attempt a similar sensitisation to environment as character.
Walsh might also have been taking a few ideas from the trickle of Soviet Realist films in the way he plays down individuals in favour of observing group action with an intensive eye for their way of life. Interpolated title cards reinforce the heroic bluster in the film’s take on the colonising event, but for much of its length, The Big Trail actually takes a droll, even laid-back approach to the human level. Breck and Ruth’s thorny romance is played mostly for light comedy as Ruth remains superficially cold to Breck’s ardent attempts to romance her. Ruth obeys a programmed cultural loyalty that sees her gravitating to Thorpe in spite of all warning signs, whilst even the Comanche who come along for the ride can recognise their budding relationship, labelling her “Coleman’s Squaw” to her extreme aggravation. Some of the humour verges on silly, particularly as Zeke’s drinking buddy, Windy Bill (Russ Powell), ruffles Thorpe’s savour faire as he tries to romance Ruth by making animal noises. El Brendel contributes his patented comic Swede act for some gags that were probably hoary at the time, contending with his rather perturbingly large, forceful mother-in-law and at one point, sitting in a mud puddle only to explain the mud’s so deep he’s actually still on top of his horse. The sight of Zeke and Windy drunk as lords as they set out on the great expedition does a lot to dent the grandiosity with a sense of human scruffiness. Ruth decides to leave the wagon train with Thorpe after feeling humiliated by the jokes of the pioneers and Indians, and Thorpe decides to try to complete his job for Flack by taking a chance to gun down Breck before departing.
Lucky for Breck that Zeke keeps an eye out for him and plugs Thorpe as he’s taking aim at Breck’s back. This sparks a brief travail for Breck as Ruth, misinterpreting what Dave reports of the event, accuses Breck of murder, an accusation Flask tries to take advantage of. Fortunately, Zeke intervening to set the record straight and an Indian attack head off trouble for Flack. The settlers circle their wagons and battle off the massed attackers. Breck still can’t prosecute his vengeance against Flask and Lopez, not until they make a move as the convoy nears its destination and the necessity of stopping him before he can bring in outside authorities grows urgent. It’s truly fascinating to see Wayne here at the very start of his career, easily commanding the screen as a leading man in spite of his youth and tenderfoot status. Gary Cooper was initially commissioned to play Breck, and it’s easy to see at this time why Wayne would be taken as a substitute, just as tall but still fairly rangy, dashingly handsome in a way hard to associate with his older, craggier visage. It’s clear from the first moment what a different screen persona he wields compared to Cooper’s cagey intensity, with his hearty laughter and easy stride and yawing line deliveries. Cooper often played characters adapted to a rugged life in a cautious and thoughtful way, whereas Wayne just seems to belong in this world, body and soul. There’s still something boyish to Wayne here, his good looks rather foxy and his voice ringing a little higher, accentuated by the old Vitaphone sound recording, that’s particularly appealing. Some of the half-suppressed playfulness filmmakers like Ford and Henry Hathaway could get out of Wayne later is evident here, particularly in the scene when he accidentally kisses Churchill’s Ruth with a young masher’s energy.
Churchill is less engaging, though she handles well the crucial moments when she finally gives up trying to hold in her feelings for Breck and begs him not to go after Flack and Lopez, and she has a certain pithy tilt of chin and flash of eye that repeatedly demonstrates that under the remnant façade of the prim Southern belle, Ruth is a hardy, worthy lady. Walsh was particularly great when it came to vivid action finales for his films, pushing push them to perfect visual and thematic nexus images—the church steps at the end of The Roaring Twenties, the battle on the electrical wires in Manpower, the exploding gas tank in White Heat—and The Big Trail builds to a spellbinding vignette high in a snowy forest where Lopez collapses and freezes to death whilst Flack forges on, only for Breck to catch up with him with the two men oblivious to each other on either side of a colossal, toppled redwood stem. Snow billows, light shafts, the flash of Breck’s knife blade, a gunshot, and death, Flack’s huge body collapsing by the fallen tree, another titan of an age about to meet civilisation’s at once revolutionary and withering touch. When Breck and Ruth are reunited, Walsh returns to the midst of the colossal redwoods, like organ pipes for a colossal cathedral of nature, climaxing in a final shot tilting up along another giant redwood, this one growing and titanic, to the sun far above. The images here haunted me for months after first watching the film, as if Walsh had captured the essence of a time and place that never quite existed, the fantastic world every dreamer reaches for. The Big Trail might not have found the stature it deserved in its time, but it testifies to the great power the medium could wield even as its very nature changed.
My conversion to Quentin Tarantino fan has been a fraught and slow one, and not for the reasons some of you might imagine. I’m not that squeamish about violence and profanity, though I will admit they are not my favorite things. No, the real reason I started digging in my heels about Tarantino is that a very aggressive group of male film fans with whom I used to be associated kept insisting that I had to see his films. I don’t like being told what to do, and I especially don’t like to be told by a bunch of men with anger management issues and sexist tendencies. So it came to pass that it was 2008 before I saw one of his directing efforts, Grindhouse: Deathproof (2007). It was a rather unfortunate experience, as his homage to this form of cinema was so faithful that it bored me to tears. Nonetheless, the thaw between Mr. T and myself began, and though I still haven’t seen much of his oeuvre, I thoroughly enjoyed the Kill Bill movies and look forward to viewing others.
Which brings me to his latest film, The Hateful Eight. I was genuinely excited about seeing it, particularly since he was bringing back the widescreen, celluloid film format I remember so fondly from my childhood PLUS an overture and intermission. Why, I haven’t seen those lovely interludes in a proper theatrical setting since The Sound of Music (1965)—and believe me, a lot of films today could use them! I relished the idea of spending a New Year’s Day packed into the vintage Music Box Theatre with a sold-out crowd of 860 to see a genuine movie event. Even waiting outside in the cold for the patrons of the previous sold-out show to exit the theatre and the staff to clean up after them was kind of a thrill. We got some very good seats about 10 rows back from the specially rigged wide screen and waited for the lights to dim and the film to jitter slightly along the sprockets of the 70mm projector, through the Ennio Morricone overture, and finally to the opening vista of a snow-covered range in Wyoming. It was kind of downhill from there.
Tarantino’s choice of genre—a western set during Reconstruction—is an interesting one at this current moment in U.S. history. As racial tensions run high, in part because of the failure to sustain the advances of Reconstruction beyond the pitifully short 12 years it lasted, a bit of truth-telling to the country’s frantic white supremacists and “postracial” neoliberals is certainly in order. The writer/director’s transmitter of choice is a fully empowered African American named Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) who fought for his freedom as a member of the Union Army; indeed, as a gun-toting bounty hunter who always brings ’em in dead and who claims a close friendship with Abraham Lincoln (read Barack Obama), he’s their worst nightmare.
The crackers he’s about to instruct constellate certain types. John Ruth (Kurt Russell) is a fellow bounty hunter whose nickname, “The Hangman,” refers to his preference to bring ’em in alive. He doesn’t really say so, but it seems he believes in the American system of justice whose foundation is that everyone has a right to their day in court. He also adjudicates life and death on the road to Red Rock by deciding to let Warren and Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), a goofy guy who claims he’s headed to Red Rock to become their next sheriff, ride with him after they are stranded with a blizzard approaching. Chris, whose daddy was the leader of the infamous Mannix’s Marauders, a band of Confederate soldiers who kept fighting for the cause mainly by killing blacks anywhere and everywhere they found them, represents eager, uneducated youth, sure he’s ready to uphold the law in a land where violently breaking it is more the rule than the exception. The prisoner Ruth is transporting to Red Rock is Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), an unrepentant outlaw and racist whose obviously drawn-on black eye and function as a punching bag and target for disgusting bodily emissions are so cartoonish that her roles as plot device and (not very funny) comic relief are never really in question. Also, since she’s destined to hang, her enlightenment is neither needed nor wanted.
This being a Tarantino film, we know that this caravan is headed for some kind of bloody reckoning and that it will come at Minnie’s Haberdashery, the waystation where they must ride out the blizzard before reaching their final destination. Minnie (Dana Gourrier) and her husband, Sweet Dave (Gene Jones), are away. Bob (Demián Bichir), a shaggy Mexican, has been left in charge of the store. General Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern), an elderly Confederate officer who is on his way to Red Rock to erect a tombstone for his son, who died there while trying to seek his fortune, is holed up with two other stuck travelers, hangman Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth) and cowboy Joe Gage (Michael Madsen). Warren turns sleuth at this point, noticing clues that all is not what it seems at Minnie’s, turning this western into a very crude episode of Murder, She Wrote as the cast of characters bob and weave around each other and start dying. All that’s left is to wait for Warren to call them all together to solve the mystery and finger the bad guys.
There are things about The Hateful Eight to admire. Tarantino seems to be more interested in creating character arcs that reveal some changes and depths of understanding. Warren is by far the most full-blooded of the film’s characters, revealing intelligence, cunning in dealing with a racist world, literacy far beyond what might be expected of a man of his background, and leadership skills. Although he appears to be named for Charles Marquis Warren, a pulp fiction writer, as well as a screenwriter and director of numerous western films and TV shows, he seems modeled in part on Robert Smalls, a slave who freed himself and others in a daring escape, joined the Union Army, lobbied Abraham Lincoln to enlist more black soldiers, and eventually served as a congressman from South Carolina. Ruth seems to have an emotional life, with an appreciation of music, an ability to compromise when he lets Daisy off her handcuff tether to him to eat dinner, and a genuine admiration for Warren as a fellow professional of uncommon skill. Even Chris, who initially offers a healthy helping of bigotry to Warren and greets Smithers with outsized respect, seems to grow into his supposed role as a lawman to work with Warren. Only Daisy resists redemption, which marks her out as the baddest of the bad in Tarantino’s eyes and deserving of everything she gets, though, in fact, the script reveals there is a far worse person associated with her in the eyes of the law.
I also applaud Tarantino’s attention to detail in showing how westerners handle blizzard conditions. It was really interesting to see guidelines strung between the store, the outhouse, and the stable through looped poles struck into the ground, and the camerawork of his regular DP, Robert Richardson, did all but put the ice on our noses as stagecoach driver O.B. Jackson (James Parks) struggles against gale-force winds to reach the store from the outhouse. That said, I found a singular lack of imagination in the use of the widescreen format for the duration of the film. Expecting great things from the beautiful panoramic shot that opens the film, I was dismayed that Tarantino immediately slaps us into a claustrophobic stagecoach for some lengthy conversation between Ruth, Warren, Mannix, and Domergue that made me wonder (probably correctly) if the whole thing had been filmed on a soundstage using really good process shots to show the great outdoors through the slivers of window that made it into the extra-wide frame.
After the coach ride, we are again largely confined to the interior of the haberdashery. I have read that Tarantino’s use of Panavision was to record the landscape of the face, but honestly, any camera at all can capture a good close-up of a face (see my review of The Lodger, a 35mm-shot film from 1926, for more on this). In fact, Richardson doesn’t spend all that much time on faces, but rather uses blocking that suggests Cinerama, whose logo is displayed during the opening credits. He divides the screen in thirds and places objects, mainly the characters, squarely in each zone when they are not large enough to fill the screen. This blocking makes demands on the actors and lighting technicians that other films don’t, and thus, there is a real finesse required of everyone to make the technique work. More than that, there needs to be a compelling reason and vision to use it. Westerns tend to be a natural fit because the ethos of the genre is conquest of the wide-open spaces. In this case, I feel Tarantino has neither the finesse nor the imagination that filmmakers like John Ford and David Lean possessed to envision a widescreen world. I applaud the attempt, however, for at least it gives young audiences a taste of what they’ve been missing all these years watching films on increasingly smaller and smaller screens in relative isolation.
Tarantino’s great love for B genre films seems to have extended to his lack of attention to continuity. In one scene, O.B. grabs a bearskin off the wall, rolls himself in it, and throws down next to the fire to warm up from his exposure to the blizzard. He is never seen in this position again. In another, a character is shot, crawls a bit on the floor, and dies. He does the same thing a couple of shots later. The denizens of Minnie’s stake out zones for Union and Confederate sympathizers, respectively, and then repeatedly violate those zones. He also offers the symbolism of an enormous, snow-covered, grotesquely carved crucifix on the roadside, a genre fixture, but never refers to religion in any way again. Even the too good to be true “good people” he injects into the film seem religion-free. In addition, scenes are allowed to drag on and on. For example, we really didn’t need to see eight of the looped poles going into the ground to get the idea, and the repeated “gag” of having to nail the door shut to keep out the snow wore out its welcome very quickly.
The biggest problem for me is that the film really held no surprises, nor did the stakes feel important or personal in any way. I kept thinking about another film, Day of the Outlaw (1959), and how much deeper it went in surveying a similar story because its characters behaved like real people and it seemed rooted in its surroundings in a way all the bric-a-brac in Minnie’s and then some could never accomplish. The film is a flimsy fantasy that I found almost completely humorless, though I may be an exception in this regard, and lacking a proper ending. Its comment on race relations, particularly in one lurid fantasy Warren relates to Smithers, certainly gets at the hysterical fear of black men especially, but because it’s so hard to take Tarantino’s films seriously, any statement he might be making—if indeed he was trying to make a statement at all—will likely be lost. I have no problem with filmmakers who just want to give their audiences a good time, and many filmgoers have had a great time seeing The Hateful Eight. I just wish I had been one of them.
White Sun of the Desert has a stature with Russian moviegoers that can only be likened to the cultural currency The Godfather, Star Wars, or Gone with the Wind hold for western viewers. Lines of dialogue from the film have become everyday catch phrases. Statues have been erected to honour the lead character. Legend has it that to this day, Russian cosmonauts watch it as a ritual before going into space. Craters on Venus have been named after members of the gaggle of Muslim wives who feature in the film. Yet it’s a good bet most movie aficionados outside the limits of the old Soviet Union, even those with a taste for the exotic, haven’t heard of it. There’s nothing terribly unusual about this. Almost every national and regional film industry can boast this kind of big, native hit that, for whatever reason, just couldn’t be exported.
White Sun of the Desert wasn’t adopted as a lofty, arty darling of foreign critics, though some notable filmmakers, including Andrei Tarkovsky and Andrei Konchalovsky, were approached as prospective directors. Konchalovsky later described the screenplay by Valentin Yezhov and Rustam Ibragimbekov as a masterpiece, though it was largely rewritten by Motyl and others during filming. Meanwhile, the breed of movie fan that readily adopted spaghetti westerns and martial arts films around this time would surely have been bewildered if confronted by such an oddity, a work that extends the mood of The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly’s (1966) eerie, surrealist-tinged desert sequence into an entire feature. For a work of such renown and popular affection, even on such a localised scale, White Sun of the Desert defies expectations. Less than 90 minutes long, it’s not a grand and swaggering epic, intense action tale, or laugh-a-minute comedy, though it resembles all of these at various points, as well as a kind of chaste sex farce and portrait of existential absurdity essayed with an almost ambient, peculiarly Slavic brand of melancholic romanticism. If you can get onto the film’s specific wavelength, it reveals itself a rare treasure.
White Sun of the Desert is certainly full of familiar motifs of a good pulp yarn. A frontier setting. A charming and robust protagonist. A wicked villain. Damsels in distress. Helpmates to the hero who waver but reappear in time to save the day. And yet the way director Vladimir Motyl lays out his material is highly eccentric and peculiarly fashioned. White Sun of the Desert belongs to a popular but mostly bygone brand of Russian cinema, usually referred to as the “ostern” or sometimes as a “Red western” or “borscht western.” This was a genre readily comparable to the American western, crowd-pleasing, adventurous dramas set on the fringes of civilisation filled with action, horse riding and gunplay, but set in the wilds beyond the Urals and the fringes of the Caspian Sea, or amongst Cossack tribes. Osterns were usually set during the raucous and violent years of the Bolshevik revolution and subsequent civil war, and a consequential similarity of the western and ostern is the depiction of primal dramas unfolding in the context of upheaval and social flux, a shift in modes of life that will soon settle into a new civilisation. The traditions of the folk tale and folk song are also often invoked to describe Motyl’s work, and the tension between the immediacy of genre storytelling and the baleful meaning of a cultural relic is apparent in the film’s tone, which seems to be both merrily enacted and woozily remembered.
The early scenes of White Sun depict Red Army soldier Fyodor Ivanovich Sukhov (Anatoly Kuznetsov) wandering in the desert sands close to the Caspian seashore. Animated lines appear around him during the opening credits, blocked to trace out the geometry of the sand dunes, as if mocking the hero’s attempts to impose linear intentions on his entirely wayward fate. The lazily picked music on the soundtrack softly builds the mood of isolation, languor, and laconic attitude that defines the film. Sukhov has been away from home several years fighting for the revolution, but now he’s been mustered out, and is trudging his way home across the deserts of Central Asia. Sukhov passes the time by mentally composing letters to his wife, all of which begin with “Dear Katerina Matveyevna.” These mental missives are crammed with a mixture of pedantic and obfuscating detail, statements of po-faced patriotism, and workaday acceptance of the way great events mean a billion petty irritations, interruptions, frustrations, and dangers for him. Sukhov always envisions Katerina (Galina Luchai), in the midst of green and fertile fields for utmost contrast to his current surrounds, as an idyll of Russian homeyness, stout, stern, milky-skinned and rosy-cheeked.
Sukhov’s nature, as an easy-going, helpful-minded guy, and his reputation as a terrific soldier prove his own undoing, because life keeps throwing people who need or seek his aid in his path. In the middle of nowhere, Sukhov encounters a man buried up to his neck in the desert sand, as per local traditions in harsh punishment. Sukhov digs him out whilst noting that he’s already dug out two more like him, and the last one attacked and robbed him. His latest charity case, Sayid (Spartak Mishulin), was seeking revenge on his father’s murderer, the bandit Dzhavdet, but was instead caught by him and left to die. “I’ll have no peace as long as Dzhavdet is alive,” Sayid grumbles, and then, “Why did you dig me up?” “Sure, a dead man has no worries,” Sukhov retorts, “but it’s so boring.” The two men separate, but Sayid continues to shadow Sukhov, torn between resuming the hunt for his enemy and repaying Sukhov for his helpfulness. Soon, Sukhov is stopped by a unit of Soviet troops led by an officer named Rakhimov. The commander is eager to divest himself of a strange burden: nine wives of “Black” Abdullah (Kakhi Kavsadze), another, more formidable and active local bandit who also has pretences to being a guerilla warrior in the rebellion of the Basmachi. As the Soviets chased him, Abdullah was forced to abandon his harem because they were slowing him down: intending to execute them all to save them becoming other men’s wives, Abdullah shot two before the soldiers forced him to flee.
Sukhov is determined not to get caught up in any more adventures and won’t join the hunt for Abdullah. Rakhimov instead convinces him to take charge of the women and get them to a nearby coastal village, and assigns the very young soldier Petrukha (Nikolai Godovikov) to help. Sukhov leads the women, dressed in their utterly depersonalising, full-body burqas and only identifiable by height, across the sands to the coast. There they enter a tiny village distinguished by some oil tanks, a thatch of houses, and proximity to some ancient ruins that have been made into a museum (actually the old Silk Road city of Merv, a fascinating real-life location). Sukhov and Petrukha set up camp in the museum, but don’t know some of Abdullah’s men have remained behind. The bandits knock Petrukha out when he’s left behind with the women and ambush Sukhov whilst he’s bathing in the sea. Sukhov gives a display of why he’s famous and lasted so long: he snatches a gun from the hand of a bandit and shoots down two, whilst a third is lassoed by Sayid, who’s trailed his saviour. Sukhov realises that Abdullah is planning to return to the village, because a ship beached on the coast near the oil tanks is the only form of transport on hand that can get himself, his men, and his plunder away. The closest thing to authority in the town is the former Tsarist customs officer Pavel Vereschagin (Pavel Luspekaev), who used to battle the area’s copious bandits and smugglers, but now is an aging drunkard, mourning the son he lost in World War I with his wife Nastasia (Raisa Kurkina) and sitting on an arsenal of weapons that makes his house a matter of interest to both sides of the local conflict. When Sukhov sends Petrukha to find out if Vereschagin is still living in his house, Vereschagin literally drags the young soldier inside via an open window. Charmed by Petrukha, who reminds him of his own dead boy, Vereschagin sings songs for him until Sukhov turns up. Sukhov passes Vereschagin’s odd test of nerve when the old man responds to Sukhov’s request for a light for his cigar by throwing out a burning stick of dynamite; Sukhov lights his smoke and tosses the bomb further along without demur. Vereschagin is initially happy to join Sukhov in defending the ship and the women from Abdullah, but his wife begs him not to risk his life.
Like most seemingly simple, but vital things, White Sun of the Desert’s great popularity is surely bound up with the slippery and surprising density of its layering. The film swings between poles of drama and comedy with a spacey, sunstruck (or perhaps a vodka-glazed) head. The quiet, indolently catchy song Vereschagin sings to himself while plucking at a guitar and laying on his back with a bellyful of liquor, offers a fatalistic paean to the whims of “Your Honour Lady Luck.” The song by composer Isaak Schwarz and Bulat Okudzhava, which became a huge hit, is the only scoring, pervading many scenes like the crash of waves on the shoreline and the desert winds. When it was released in the United States, a critic dismissed the film as an escapist tale, and it is that. White Sun of the Desert is as light as a summer breeze, though dark and tragic moments punctuate the story, sustaining a truly unique blend of dogging nostalgia and idyllic optimism. Within its airy frame, White Sun of the Desert describes a sense of life as broad as a John Ford film; indeed Ford was one of Moytl’s singular influences, through the contrast of vast space and enclosed interpersonal drama in films like Stagecoach (1939) and 7 Women (1966), and perhaps the desolate situation of The Lost Patrol (1934), though that film’s feeling of nightmarish, assailed existential crisis is transmuted into blithe absurdity. Here, drama is elemental, the tone dreamlike, albeit mostly a daydream, the strange and jagged sense of locale and behaviour touched with just the faintest edge of surrealism as Motyl depicts as an array of boxes jutting out of the otherwise barren earth, a tiny space of civilisation wedged between zones of inhospitable elements, fought over by perverse emissaries of clashing societies. A light dusting of the otherworldly is apparent in the way Motyl films the actors treading the desert sand as if dissolving in and out of the earth, the way the nine faceless women strut in the sands, and the sight of Sukhov climbing the crest of a dune and being confronted with the endless blue of the sea.
Moments of slapstick comedy occasionally punctuate the more wry comedic texture, from a trio of aged Arabs having their caps blown off by an explosion to young Petrukha being told by an unseen voice to raise his hands and then being promptly grabbed by Vereschagin from out of the frame and hauled into a window above. Later, one of Abdullah’s villainous compadres, a White faction exile, is hurled bodily out of another of Vereschagin’s windows when he comes looking to steal some weapons: “His grenades are the wrong calibre,” the soldier tells a comrade after picking himself up by way of face-saving explanation. The Arabs have been sitting against a wall for so long that none of them can remember why, and one of them can’t be awakened by even the loudest blast. Far from the overpowering postures of Soviet Realism, Motyl surely found his audience’s heart with both the fondness and the lightly satiric attitude he turns on Sukhov and his sense of cause, as well as appealing through a story that evokes generations of Orientalist adventures.
Sukhov is undoubtedly an ideal Soviet hero, happily proletarian but blessed with good manners, down to earth, pure of heart, resourceful, and indefatigable. He has many of the qualities of a mythic hero in spite of his personal modesty, including a weapon with a suggestive backstory—his revolver is a personal gift from his commander—and his status as eternal wanderer, Odysseus with a Red Army badge. Sukhov also wields a terse sense of humour even at the most awkward moments: when a villain asks him if he wants to die or be tortured first and then die, Sukhov, ever a pragmatist, replies ever so coolly, “I’d like to be tortured.” Time is time, and even the slight delay Sukhov buys by annoying his captors through such glib gambits gives him a chance. When he springs into action, he blends speed and guile as well as innate survival skill, as when he guns down the bandits who bail him up with a show of agility and gunplay that would make a John Woo hero proud.
But Sukhov still needs help to win, because he is also a faintly hapless, occasionally flummoxed, very human figure who makes some costly mistakes. He’s reminiscent of the heroes of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), his closest Hollywood relatives of the time, and in some ways looks forward to characters like Indiana Jones and John McClane, rugged, exceptionally competent action heroes who nonetheless definitely feel pain and often look at the dangers facing them with bedraggled, ridiculous incredulity. Yet he’s far more average and lackadaisical than either of those guys. He’s more like somebody crossbred Casablanca’s Rick Blaine with Andy Griffith. Surely much of the film’s appeal to the hometown crowd lies in the crucial dialectic it offers, one of the generations and the concepts of Russia. Sukhov appeals to Vereschagin for aid, a touch that echoes another of Motyl’s models, High Noon (1952). The old Tsarist officer reclines detached from the world in his house, with its walls clad in mementos of his youth and the world of the Belle Époque. Vereschagin wants to go out like a man, but he’s stopped at first by his wife’s desperate appeals. Vereschagin’s immobilised distraction and Sukhov’s forthright ethic seem directly opposed but are obviously two sides of the same coin. The two men are united by the cool, stoical attitude they wield, casually batting aside the irritations of life and getting on with their own business. Both can also sink a shot of vodka with aplomb. The spirits represented by Vereschagin and Sukhov permeate the very fabric of the film – the tensions of old and new, the haunted being and the hopeful, commitment and carelessness. As Sukhov contends with the problem of his nine female charges, Motyl makes a joke with more depth than it seems to have at first, contemplating the problem of bringing new ideas to people who don’t necessarily see what’s so great about them, and very lightly basting the officious creeds spreading them.
White Sun of the Desert is indeed partly a film about clashing cultures and values, though the avatars of these systems seem to collide rather than interact. Early in the film Sukhov notes that “The East is a delicate matter” (one of the film’s most consequential, and popular, lines), and Sukhov is still as fallible as any in this context. Ignorant of any other lifestyle, the wives immediately decide that, having been abandoned by Abdullah, Sukhov is their new husband. Sukhov is a good Soviet soldier and tells the ladies they are now free according to the gospel of Bolshevik liberation. “These nine liberated women of the East are precious things, too!” he tells the museum curator, who doesn’t want anyone upsetting the exhibits. Sukhov is fazed when he walks in on the ladies whilst washing, and they all impulsively grab their skirts and lift them over their faces, preferring to bare their lovely midriffs to him rather than their visages before deciding that as their new husband, he has the right. Their faces do indeed have more power than their bodies (except for one who has a thicker moustache than Clark Gable), sending Sukhov’s mind reeling, all hot coals in comparison to Katerina’s stolid creaminess. Sukhov houses them in a room of the museum and hangs a banner from the ceiling that reads, “Down with prejudice — Women are human beings. too!” The notion that the male hero is more of a feminist than the women he’s aiding is grand wit, but Motyl also disassembles this precept as Sukhov chooses the youngest of the women, 15-year-old Gyulchatai (Tamara Fedotova), who is also the most animated and easily distracted member of the harem, to be his official interlocutor with the other wives.
Gyulchatai interprets this as being appointed favourite, which gives her status over the others, but also make her the target of blame when Sukhov shows no interest in them. They suggest Gyulchatai dance before him and inflame his passions, but she succeeds only in bewildering the warrior. Sukhov tries to explain that the women can now cast aside their veils and each take a husband. Gyulchatai, working through this proposition, retorts that this means she would have to do all the work for one man that the wives currently share between them. “That’s the way things are,” Sukhov replies, breezily confirming the limits of his own revolutionary outlook. Contrasting both Sukhov and Vereschagin is the adolescent romanticism of Petrukha, the boy soldier, who notices Gyulchatai’s unruly side in spite of her correctness. He finds opportunities to talk to her, urging her to “Show your sweet face!” in a certain amount of hope, as he’s fascinated initially by a walking bag. The influence of the dreaded Eastern decadence insinuates its way into Sukhov’s thoughts, and he eventually indulges a daydream whilst lazing in the heat of the sun on guard duty imagining Katerina Matveyevna joining him and his new bevy of females as he lounges in a potentate’s costume. He immediately pays the price for this lapse, as a small army sneaks under his nose.
Motyl uses the setting as an organic stage, as enclosed and acausal as the settings of Beckett’s dramas, the plains of Dali’s paintings, the Zone of Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979), and the people wandering through it as hardboiled avatars of their mutual, intensely insular, cultural sensibilities. Motyl expertly mines this situation for its simultaneous openness and treacherousness: the vistas are vast and seem wide open, and yet the smallest sand dune can hide something nasty lying in wait, a curve in the shape of reality that can swallow you. Something of Sergei Paradjanov’s anthropological and folkloric sensibility, which also often called back to the blank, two-dimensional display of early cinema and photography, permeates Motyl’s palette, whilst the way Motyl uses the natural elements even recalls the theatrical machinery of Georges Méliès. Although the necessary sparseness of Motyl’s shots couldn’t be more different to the baroquely crammed images of filmmakers like Sergei Eisenstein and Josef von Sternberg, he does nonetheless evoke them in the way his frames, even as they’re depicting moments of urgent action, retain a fragmented, pictographic quality, flowing by in momentary islets of vivid, oblique strangeness, from Sayid’s head suddenly revealed jutting from the sand like some lost Easter Island statue, to the frieze-like depictions of Katerina in her natural habitat. Motyl mimics Vereschagin’s collection of postcards, photographs, the squared-off display of such vintage keepsakes pinned to the walls of his house to evoke the cultural memory of a lost era. The viewer is forced to assume the same attitude as Sukhov, knowing something utterly odd might be just around the corner, and forced to take it as it comes.
Motyl, Belarussian by birth, had gotten into trouble with Soviet authorities with his previous film, Zhenya, Zhenechka, and ‘Katyusha’ (1967), for its “disrespectful” take on the Great Patriotic War, clearly identified with the displaced state of Sukhov and his pining for a place in the world. His setting and time frame here, as well as the delicacy of the humour he employed, allowed him to bring just the hint of a scallywag attitude to onerous official creeds whilst also earnestly celebrating his hero as an exemplar, and proved here at least that he understood his audience exactly. The film changes radically in emotional key if not in apparent style once Abdullah turns up, trailing a force including Sayid, who, after shooting down three of Abdullah’s men when they seemed to be attacking him, is convinced by the bandit to join his party for a better chance of avoiding being buried to his chin again. Whilst Sukhov snoozes with dreams of harem comfort, Abdullah and his force enter the museum, and Abdullah first sneaks into the women’s quarters and strangles Gyulchatai, and then uses her veil to surprise Petrukha and kill him with his own rifle’s bayonet. The key image of slaughtered youth, scanned in a high shot by Motyl’s camera affecting a godlike blend of dispassion and awareness, drives Vereschagin to rouse himself and help Sukhov in fighting off Abdullah. Abdullah is an immediately persuasive and eye-catching villain, as Motyl cast Kavsadze, a good-looking hulk of an actor who threatens to outweigh Sukhov not just in size but as a potent screen presence, one whose sadistic violence is just as offhand and unfussy as Sukhov’s heroism. Abdullah’s sense of entitled authority immediately manifests in his ugly killing of Gyulchatai and then asking his remaining wives why they haven’t saved him the trouble of killing them by doing it themselves in obedience to his will.
Fortunately, Sukhov manages to bail up Abdullah before he can kill anymore, holding a gun on him and forcing him to send his men off to prepare the ship for departure. This gives Sukhov time to spirit the women off via a secret, hidden tunnel out of the ruins shown to him by the museum curator. Abdullah avenges himself by shooting the curator dead. Sukhov and the wives are forced to take refuge in the only hiding place available, one of the large empty oil tanks on the shore, but the bandits quickly locate them there. Abdullah has his men pump oil from a rail tanker to pool around the hideout and prepares to casually roast them all alive within, but Sayid intervenes and blows up the tanker and some of Abdullah’s men with it. Meanwhile, Vereschagin enlists his wife to dispose of the arsenal, and then sneaks aboard the bandits’ ship and battles the villains aboard. He kills or throws them all overboard before taking command in a cheer-along display of grit and prowess, one made more affecting by the off-screen story of Luspekaev, a WWII veteran and experienced stage actor who acted in the film in spite of having both feet amputated because of war injuries; Luspekaev died not long after the film was completed. The bitter kicker here is that Vereschagin is unaware that Sukhov and Petrukha have booby-trapped the boat, and he inadvertently blows himself and the boat sky high in the moment of his triumph, disappearing in a plume of white water.
Inadvertent tragedy gives Sukhov the chance to elude and defeat his besiegers, climaxing in a memorable comeuppance for Abdullah that evokes the finale of White Heat (1949), as Sukhov guns Abdullah down on the oil tanker. The villain slides down the tank’s ladder, gripping onto rails, his death signed with fearsome, mythic display of his grip on life. Motyl winnows his drama down to a succession of finalising images of great power. When Sukhov plugs him, Abdullah’s fingers reflexively tighten on the trigger of his machine pistol, firing off shots one by one, his aggression suddenly impotent, possibly an even more directly phallic joke considering that the entire story has revolved around Abdullah’s sexual domain. Vereschagin’s wife walks the beach alone, approaching a solitary horse in the dusk as “Your Honour Lady Luck” returns to the soundtrack, soulfully underscoring the notion that in violent conflicts, each victory is another’s loss. The note repeats as Sukhov bids farewell to the wives but pauses when he reaches the missing space where Gyulchatai would have stood, the meaningful end to Motyl’s repeated tracking shock along the row, stricken through with a tragicomic awareness that the surface interchangeableness of the women was illusory, and a hole is left in the world precisely by Sukhov’s efforts to call them into individual consciousness. As for Sukhov himself, like many a legendary hero and western gunslinger, he disappears into the wastes he came from, sad but not disheartened. He’s heading for home once more, but of course in spirit, he’s still wandering out in the wilderness, where people will inevitably need his help again.
Young Fresno-born Sam Peckinpah spent a stint in the army in the waning days of WWII and was sent to China as part of a noncombat unit assigned to keep peace between the Chinese and Japanese soldiers after the surrender. As Peckinpah told it, peacekeeping became a gruesome spectacle of factional vengeance that left terrible impressions upon him, blossoming into the dark and dangerous melancholia that would fuel both his life problems and his art in later years. After mustering out, Peckinpah did what a lot of young, creative ex-servicemen did—he headed for Hollywood, where he subsisted for years as a sometime actor and TV stagehand. Peckinpah quickly gained a bad reputation for his spiky attitude, but in time became a reliable aide and protégé to Don Siegel, who eventually gave him the task of performing uncredited revisions on the script of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956).
That film’s success gave Peckinpah the courage to try writing for TV, and then, directing. He gained a reputation working multiple roles on “The Westerner,” whose star, Brian Keith, helped Peckinpah gain his break as feature director, on 1961’s The Deadly Companions, a minor, modest western that established Peckinpah’s rugged sense of the western landscape and aesthetic, a blend of the barbarous and the limpidly evocative. With his second film, Ride the High Country (1962), Peckinpah emerged as a powerful and individual talent with one eye for tradition, giving Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott an inspired testimonial, whilst also laying groundwork for dragging the ’50s “adult western” style into a new zone of harsh eccentricity. The weird and unpredictable blend of posturing macho and arch romantic, provocateur and sensitive artist, great filmmaker and self-destructive rebel, would define Peckinpah in the popular imagination until his death in 1984 and beyond.
Bankrolled by Columbia Studios to round out Charlton Heston’s contract, Major Dundee’s shoot was rocked by discord in the studio and unease with Peckinpah’s growing predilection for on-set hell-raising. Although he and Peckinpah quarrelled violently, Heston still offered to forego his own salary to appease the studio and ensure the film was completed to Peckinpah’s satisfaction. The studio kept the money, but the production was still halted before shooting was done, and a truncated rump of Peckinpah’s vision eventually was released. Peckinpah, embittered and almost blackballed by the industry, managed to rehabilitate his reputation with the telemovie Noon Wine (1968) before The Wild Bunch (1969), for a brief, crucial moment, saw the man’s best abilities coincide with the receptivity of the audience.
Today, Major Dundee is often dismissed as a warm-up for The Wild Bunch, especially because Peckinpah purposefully recycled elements in the latter film, determined to salvage the essence of his art from the ill-starred earlier work and put it over with an even more furious and unvarnished effect. Both films depict a band of quarrelsome Americans spilling over the Mexican border and being caught up in a local conflict that offers the chance for a nobler end than they ever counted on. Dundee, however, demands respect and reassessment as Peckinpah’s keystone work and a work of vital transition in American screen culture. Costar R. G. Armstrong called the film “Moby Dick on horseback,” an accurate description because of its portrait of a leader as half-colossus, half-madman whose pursuit of a deadly, almost omnipresent foe threatens to resolve only in the consummation of a romance with death. Even after a major reconstruction to try to repair it, Major Dundee is anything but an uncompromised or flawless success, but in some ways, that makes it all the more tantalising as a relic of a great director coming of age.
Where Peckinpah had laced references to his childhood into Ride the High Country, Major Dundee has many intimations of self-portraiture via Heston’s title character, a man of superlative gifts who seems to be driven to acts of risky defiance and self-debasement. The film’s opening seems to nod to Cy Endfield’s similar portrait of men on the edge between civilisations, Zulu (1964), with a voiceover reporting massacre and calumny. The time is the waning days of the Civil War; the place, rural New Mexico, where would-be titans can strut their stuff. Infamously ingenious and brutal Mescalero Apache chief Sierra Charriba (Michael Pate) has just wiped out a column of Union cavalry, leaving only two members of the company alive: Indian scout Riago (José Carlos Ruiz), whose disappearance and return make him the object of suspicion as a traitor, and young bugler Tim Ryan (Michael Anderson Jr.), who had been sent to fetch aid for his commander. The relief, led by Maj. Amos Dundee (Heston), arrives too late, finding the corpses of the force and settlers scattered around a blazing farmhouse. Dundee, has been placed in charge of a military garrison on the fringes of nation and psyche, with a prison crammed full of ornery Confederate prisoners his chief responsibility, as punishment for exceeding his orders at Gettysburg. Dundee sees a chance to reclaim his standing by hunting down Charriba, but lacks the manpower to wage a campaign and keep the prison well-guarded. He puts out a call for volunteers and reaps a collection of weathered frontiersmen, including one-armed tracker Samuel Potts (James Coburn), perma-pickled muleskinner Wiley (Slim Pickens), and fighting preacher man Rev. Dahlstrom (Armstrong). Still short of men, Dundee asks for volunteers from among the Confederates.
Dundee knows the only hope he has for gaining the peaceful cooperation of the rebels is to do exactly the last thing he wants—negotiate with their beloved commander Capt. Benjamin Tyreen (Richard Harris), an Irish immigrant with a relentless desire for status and advancement as a gentleman of rank. He was Dundee’s West Point classmate and best friend until Dundee participated in a court martial over a duel that got Tyreen kicked out of the army, only to find another chance as an eager rebel. Dundee tries to maintain a high-handed attitude over Tyreen during negotiations, reminding him that he and his men have two alternatives, hanging as punishment for a recent escape attempt or doing as he says, but Tyreen refuses, knowing that he has Dundee over a barrel. Dundee finally takes out his frustration by visiting Tyreen in his cell and socking him, a gesture Tyreen reciprocates so the two men can finally strike a bargain. Dundee knows that Tyreen takes his sense of honour so seriously his oath will bind him to serve until Charriba is killed or captured. Tyreen brings with him a motley outfit of Southerners, including redneck brothers O. W. and Arthur Hadley (compulsory Peckinpah character actors Warren Oates and L. Q. Jones). But Dundee’s army isn’t quite complete, not until Aesop (Brock Peters) requests that he and his unit of black soldiers who have been serving as guards and flunkies for years without any action, be given a chance to serve, too. Dundee leads this force of uneasy compatriots across the Rio Grande in pursuit of an enemy who seemingly wants Dundee to give chase.
Major Dundee’s scope is encompassing, a commentary on both the history of the western genre Peckinpah so loved, as well as the proper commencement of his deconstruction of it. It is also a veritable stab at writing a creation myth for modern America, commenting on the state of the union circa 1965 as much as 1865, replete with overtones not just of Melville and Shakespeare, but also Greek sagas—not for nothing is one character named Priam. As the social compacts and conventions that had sustained the healing of the union after the Civil War finally frayed in the years since Little Rock, popular cinema had struggled to find new ways to explore the changing face of American society. Peckinpah’s Melvillian references echo the way the great author portrayed the nation as a polyglot driven by a possibly insane struggle with ancient forces and susceptible to visionaries with suspect goals. Peckinpah is less fatalistic here in spite of his corrosive intentions, for Major Dundee is a tale of ironic triumph and unification, often evoking the sense of communal life and fascination for rites of passage that tied together John Ford’s films. Major Dundee is in part Peckinpah’s tribute to Ford, as a partial remake of Ford’s Rio Grande (1950), recasting John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara’s war-cleaved couple as Dundee and Tyreen’s broken comradeship, whilst Dundee evokes Henry Fonda’s ill-fated antihero from Fort Apache (1948). Columbia had actually wanted Ford to direct the project, but he was busy making his mea culpa, Cheyenne Autumn (1964).
For Peckinpah, then, it became a dialogue and argument with old masters. Ford had been the great cinematic mythologian for that declining social compact, and Peckinpah highlights the manifold schisms of class and race and the problems of international relations overtaking the national dialogue at the time. The foreign adventuring depicted is half careerist folly, half Quixotic crusade. Equally, Major Dundee fits into a wave of post-Lawrence of Arabia (1962) epic films studying flawed, neurotic would-be übermenschen, including Lord Jim (1965) and Khartoum (1966), also starring Heston, whose aura of the titanic he cleverly adapted and twisted as the taste of the time shifted from the simple heroism of his Moses: Heston plays up Dundee’s smug charisma and physical authority, striding rigidly and defiantly through a sea of infuriated Confederate prisoners, lounging with feet on table as he interviews men to join him on his ego crusade—the essence of swagger—all the better to watch him crumble in the face of impotence and self-doubt. Part and parcel of Major Dundee’s force lies in its male leads giving two of their best performances. Harris, in his first starring role in an American film after This Sporting Life (1963) made him famous (he learned he’d been nominated for an Oscar on set), delivers an expert alternation of gestures soft, batting his eyes with almost coquettish appeal at ladies who stumble into his path, and hard, as when he replies with the precision of a spitting cobra to an uppity Southron underling, “I’m not your uncle, you redneck peckerwood.”
Dundee and Tyreen are unruly Dioscuri for this neo-Iliad, symbolic of contrasts and engaged in a constant battle of wills made all the more fraught by the personal affection underlying their conflict and their intense similarity, a common thread of Peckinpah’s work. History is written in their names, the troubled dichotomy of Scot and Irish and their relationship to external power amplified by the new domain’s schism of Union and Confederate, loyalist and rebel. But neither man is so singular, each containing more than a little of the other, Tyreen primly correct in his chivalrous pretences, Dundee bullishly individual as the company man. It is very easy indeed to see the pair as Peckinpah’s projected self-concept, his awareness of his volatile and contradictory place in the movie industry and his society in general, as well as his anxiety over where that might eventually lead him. Tim Ryan could be young Peckinpah thrust into the wilds of China, about to be treated to all the great and terrifying experiences a youth could ask for. Around this triptych Peckinpah and his fellow screenwriters Harry Julian Fink and Oscar Saul create a Dickensian gallery of types. The most important is Jim Hutton’s Lt. Graham, another professional but inexperienced soldier seeming to lack all of the ornery specificity of Dundee and Tyreen, in love with artillery, his specific discipline, but initially inept at the ordinary soldierly business of mustering men. Soon after Dundee leads his men in the wilderness, Arthur Hadley tries to bait Aesop, sparking a fight between the two men that becomes the first test of the uneasy contract of the company. Dundee leaves it to Tyreen to intervene as he should, but Dahlstrom takes a hand first, defending Aesop and beating the crap out of Arthur: “Preacher, you sure kick up a lot of dust with your sermon!” one soldier complains as Arthur lands on him in a cloud of dirt. Tyreen then defuses the stand-off that seems imminent by praising Aesop and his men for their professional skill. Legitimacy is acknowledged, a barrier broken, a new paradigm instantly created.
Peckinpah’s love of odyssey narratives dictates that Major Dundee become a tale as much about the journey and the picaresque epiphanies that come on the way as it is about goals and climaxes, anticipating the vignettes and cultural purview of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1972) and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1973) as well as the cracked romanticism of Junior Bonner (1972). The expedition is soon brutally tempered when Charriba lures the major into a trap, sending an elderly member of his war party to entice the Americans with the chance of recapturing the children taken captive during the massacre. Dundee loses many men in the subsequent fight when Charriba’s stroke falls on them during a night river crossing. The company manages to fight their way out, but with their supplies lost. The only choice before Dundee is to head into a nearby village that’s garrisoned by the troops from the French army, in the midst of the Juarista rebellion.
Entering the village, Dundee and his men bear immediate witness to the brutality of the imperialist repression, hanged men dangling from ropes as warnings (according to an urban legend, Peckinpah had real dead bodies used for the scene), and happily use force to extricate the French from their garrison. Bloodless revolution segues into happy fiesta, as the villagers throw a party in celebration. The bedraggled men of Dundee’s force are tended by Teresa Santiago (Senta Berger), the Austrian-born wife of a local doctor who has been put to death for helping the rebels, and her protégé Linda (Begoña Palacios, Peckinpah’s future second wife). Teresa is archetype for many of the women who cross paths with Peckinpah’s men, as starkly individual and closed-off as them, tantalising in her open and giving sensuality, but also potentially frustrating to their machismo for her unwillingness to be defined entirely by one lover: Dundee, Tyreen, and Graham compete for her favour, whilst Linda, an energetic sprite, deflowers Ryan in the midst of an explosion of joy.
The village sequence is close to the best thing Peckinpah ever did, a dream of frontier chivalry and communal festivity, the unifying desperation for a sense of purpose, colour, and nobility to life rather than petty oppression and everyday tyrannies. As such, it counterpoints the notorious ballets of blood in The Wild Bunch, eros to its thanatos, whilst also clearly providing the blueprint for the later film’s sadder, more elegiac village visit; the village could well be the same, taking the later criminal band as the ghosts of the good fellows under Dundee, the degraded end of the dream. The sequence also represents Peckinpah’s most overt nod to Ford, reproducing one of Ford’s favourite gags of the young tenderfoot skewered in the butt by an apache arrow and tended with necessary roughness, leading into a sprawl of behavioural delight, from Dundee and Tyreen both plotting how to seduce Teresa only to be foiled by rubber-limbed, half-shickered Graham cutting in for a dance, and Ryan and Linda swapping a look of knowing intensity before ducking out. Linda chasing after Ryan to give him his hat in the midst of the morning’s hangovers and pausing for a farewell kiss certainly represents Peckinpah’s most tender, sentimental interlude.
Dundee has a good tactical reason for letting his men get wildly drunk and the French officers escape—to entice more French soldiers on a punitive mission and ambush them. This tactic gains Dundee’s forces supplies and arms and time to recover to return to dogging Charriba’s trail, but it also lays the seed for a potentially destructive rift in the group when the memory of the sensual delights of the village becomes too strong and O. W. absconds. O. W. is dragged back by a search party, accompanied by Teresa, who’s hiding out from French reprisals, and Dundee makes clear his intention to have O. W. shot as a deserter, sparking the smouldering rage of the Confederates. The straightforward hunt has devolved into some kind of existential quest, the point of which is lost deep in Dundee’s psyche and can’t be extracted except in crisis.
The lust for transcendence that drives Dundee beyond the bounds of safe and sane enterprise is, interestingly, a trait that links him with Charriba, whose predations represent not tribal interests but Charriba’s warlike ego, making him and Dundee less fighters for their distinct cultures and more like Sergio Leone’s eternal warriors in an appropriately primal landscape. It emerges early on that Charriba clearly wants to destroy Dundee to create a Little Bighornish legend for himself “to be sung around his tribe’s campfires for a thousand years,” and declares with cackling delight when he thinks he’s about to drop the fatal stroke, “Who will you send against me now?” But Dundee and company instead ambush and destroy Charriba in a deliberately anticlimactic battle, having suckered him in at last by turning his egotism against him. Ryan’s maturation encompasses internal struggle of a kind none of the others can share, in large part because the campaign against Charriba is more personal for him than anyone in spite of his tender years: his pain for the loss of his comrades and his desire for mindless revenge on the Apache scout Riago, whose loyalty is in doubt to everyone except Potts, become interior rhymes to the external conflicts between the other men. Riago’s innocence is grotesquely proven when he’s caught and killed by Charriba, but the chieftain is then himself gunned down by Ryan on the cusp of believed victory, marking both the perfect last of Ryan’s rites of manhood and also the ironic punchline of the great drama: Ryan’s feat is the sardonic undercutting of another man’s myth.
The landscape Peckinpah creates is brutal and littered with sights and sounds affixed with dreamlike intensity and totemistic import. A blood-smeared cloth tied to a cross made with a sapling and a sabre. A dead girl dressed in white lying riddled with arrows being picked up and carried away by dark-suited men. Flayed, tortured bodies dangling from ropes, another pinned to a tree in a frontier pieta. One-armed and bible-touting righteous warriors. Lakes and rivers of pellucid stillness contrasted with dangling corpses. Moonlit meetings between would-be lovers amidst stark ruins that stand like the gates between lives. Linda and Teresa each watching with sad pride as the scrappy heroes depart. Columns of dazzlingly coloured French dragoons carving the ruddy Mexican earth. Dundee pictured in the moment of his victory surrounded by the barbed branches of a thorny tree, reckoning the size of the felled Charriba with Ryan (“He doesn’t look so big now does he?” “He was big enough, son.”). Signs of human civilisation infiltrate the landscape, already burnt and blistered by time and elements, structures of bare brick like rotten teeth jutting from the earth. Peckinpah’s framings, via Sam Leavitt’s excellent photography, alternates surveys of a vast and impersonal land with tangled and thorny hives, Peckinpah’s urgent desire to get across the feel of the earth, dust, and heat as part of the texture of his film, becoming all the more palpable the farther he drives into the Mexican hinterlands, and the essential mystique of Peckinpah’s sense of this place is created.
Heston interestingly noted that he and Peckinpah’s quarrels were partly generated by their schismatic concept for the work: Heston wanted to make a film about the Civil War via the microcosmic drama, whilst Peckinpah was already wrestling with the interior struggle of humanism and nihilism that would later galvanise The Wild Bunch. This split accounts for the volatility of Major Dundee and its lack of narrative balance, but also gets to the heart of the film’s power, the dialogue of external and internal wars. Dark frontier logic emerges as Dundee asks why their Apache guides would betray their own kin and help the gringos, to which Potts replies, “Well why not? Everyone else seems to be doing it.” The execution of O. W. provides a crucial pivot in the psychic drama in the film, a bigger event than Charriba’s death as the limits of Dundee’s authority and Tyreen’s honour—and through them everything they stand for—are tested through the awful spectacle of a man begging for his life (an exceptional moment for the ever-excellent Oates): Tyreen actually does the dirty work of killing his subordinate, in part to diffuse the blame, but he promptly vows to kill Dundee once the mission is completed. Dundee begins to fray, taking time out for a sexual frolic with Teresa in the woods, straying beyond the limits of his command only to receive an arrow in the thigh from some of Charriba’s raiders, as close to a castration as cinema could get. Dundee is crippled and Tyreen, still fuming, pointedly asks, “Just what the hell do you think you’re doing, Amos?”
Dundee has to be taken into Durango, garrisoned by the French, to get medical attention and recover. Ensconced in a grimy rented room, Dundee rapidly descends from imperious leader to alcoholic wretch bedding his nursemaid, Melinche (Aurora Clavel). This sequence, and particularly the moment when Teresa comes to visit Dundee and finds him with Melinche, is the exposed nerve of Peckinpah’s work here, the feeling of a deep personal investment in Dundee’s cringing shame and debasement in the eyes of a woman he respects, the depiction of deep regret and the fear of being exposed as pathetic, febrile, and helpless, a moment of King Lear-like gravitas and utterly immediate emotion that seems all the more telling considering that Peckinpah was reported to have done more or less did the same thing during the shoot. After Teresa leaves abruptly, Dundee turns into a lonely, slovenly wanderer limping about the town, unnoticed by locals and French alike. The movement depicting Dundee’s disgrace in Durango was mostly cut and left as a ghost in the original theatrical cut, and the most crucial part of the film’s restoration a few years ago. Dundee is rescued unwillingly by Tyreen, who, for all his punitive bluster, enters the town to find him and drag him out whilst the rest of the company fight off the French: Dundee tries to fight Tyreen off before collapsing and begging him to leave him to wallow. But Tyreen does manage to drag him away and soon Dundee resurges, now, tellingly, equipped with the kind of wily circumspection and understanding of his enemy, who was in part himself, that gives him the key to destroying Charriba by making a run for the border and forcing his foe to give chase if he wants his great event.
That fight ends, and Dundee and Tyreen stare at each other in a loaded moment wondering if they can actually duel or not, but then the appearance of pursuing French cavalry makes it an unnecessary question. The Americans find themselves trapped, with French dragoons lined up on the far side of the Rio Grande, determined to punish the rascal Americans. Thus, Dundee has no choice but to lead his men into a final action. The concept of violence as omnipresent, orgiastic consummation of base impulse that would consume Peckinpah on The Wild Bunch and Straw Dogs (1971) isn’t quite nascent here, partly because Peckinpah’s use of Seven Samurai-inspired slow-motion action shots, which would be used to concussive effect on The Wild Bunch, was unceremoniously excised by the studio, although the ensuing fight is still notably bold in depicting blood spilling to an extent very few films had done before. The depiction of men who have learned too well that they have feet of clay making a tilt at regaining their honour by taking on a corrupt regime in an impossible battle is nonetheless as crucial here for Peckinpah as in his works to come. The battle is a whirlwind of brilliantly handled action that retains a hint of Ford’s jauntiness, complete with Tyreen getting himself mortally wounded by saving the company’s flag from the French commander in a gesture not of mere patriotism, but for faith in the fellowship the men have created, thus recreating their country in miniature before riding into the midst of the massed French to die a death at once glorious and ugly. What’s left of Dundee’s troop rides into the Texan sagebrush, with the fitting final confirmation that their return home has come on the cusp of the Civil War’s very end, Dundee, the captain of the ruined band who are now, once again, countrymen.
Hollywood has never been kind to failure, but sometimes time is.
The real “Johnson County War” was a skirmish between cattle graziers and settlers in 1890s Wyoming, and had long been a cornerstone of western folklore. In the early 1970s, this true story was suggested as the subject for a potentially punchy, economical Western movie. The property kicked around United Artists studios for nearly a decade, with trash champion Michael Winner intending to shoot it at one point. Michael Cimino, still a rising screenwriter, was hired to polish Winner’s screenplay and found epic potential within the tale, and began fashioning the project into his personal take on the mythology of the West. Once Cimino was elevated to the status of artist-titan by the Oscar-garlanded success with The Deer Hunter (1978), United Artists gave the director carte blanche and hoped he could revive the studio’s fortunes, which had only been interrupted by success with Rocky (1976). Cimino went to work with the same feverish and gruelling perfectionism that attended his last film, this time turning a big budget on a bygone era and troublesome subject. The shoot lumbered on, with rising costs and on-set mishaps exacerbated by Cimino’s heedless and exacting execution of his vision. Not since the heyday of Von Stroheim and Von Sternberg had Hollywood been visited by the spirit of such a relentless force yearning for perfection—it was almost as if Cimino was wilfully trying to write himself a legend of doomed artistry to equal theirs.
The stars that smiled on The Deer Hunter now conspired to destroy his follow-up. The ’70s, and the taste for shaded, introspective artistry in American film associated with that decade, were over. UA, left penniless by this large production, negotiated a takeover by MGM at the cost of essentially writing off their $40 million prestige film. After a few abortive screenings of the full-length cut, a severely edited version geared to attract action fans was dumped in theatres, but the audience was bewildered and mainstream critics were helpful in draping a shroud over the remnant’s corpse. The marriage of convenience between Hollywood and auteurism throughout the ’70s was annulled, with Cimino cast first as poster child and then as cautionary example, destined to wander the world with a corporate mark of Cain.
Politics may also have played a part in Cimino’s fate. The material of Heaven’s Gate was not far removed from traditional Hollywood fare; indeed the real events had inspired decades’ worth of oatsers, including Shane (1953). But Cimino, who had successfully plied his political viewpoint amidst odes to patriotic duty in The Deer Hunter, now revealed a more scabrous sense of American identity, turning this frontier tussle into a first round of an ongoing fight between big capital and labour, melting-pot democracy versus ruthless oligarchy, and outsider, underclass, ethnic struggle against WASP pseudo-aristocracy. Cimino was criticised for recasting the immigrants of Johnson County as a vivid, multilingual polyglot, recalling the Russian-American heroes of The Deer Hunter and their generally easy place in the modern social sprawl, with an eye to comprehending just how jarring and tense the early days of such a blend must have been. Just as Heaven’s Gate is visually a vast, violent, yet near-spiritual evocation of both American roots and the cinematic lexicon of the most expansive epic directors, the film’s historical thesis was concurrently harsh and negative. Some have questioned whether, as an unabashedly radical work, the film was fatally out of step with the mood of the oncoming Reagan era, and perhaps this contributed to its swift and merciless interment.
Anyway, all of that comprises the legend of Heaven’s Gate. When I first encountered Heaven’s Gate, the full-length cut residing forgotten on VHS in my local video store, I was bewildered, impressed, and finally smitten. Today, Heaven’s Gate is one of my favourite films in a way that has little to do with the way it was received and everything to do with what Cimino was trying to achieve. The stories of Cimino’s unstable profligacy may well be true and galling, but to behold Heaven’s Gate today is to see everything Cimino fought for up on screen, an artefact of cinematic craftsmanship with few equals and an artwork near-unique in the modern pantheon. Cimino’s talent for orchestrating both the grand and the intimate, proven on The Deer Hunter, was plied with even greater rigour and quiet intensity on Heaven’s Gate, a fluttering, humanistic romanticism carefully wrapped into the fabric of the film rather than spelt out in sententious terms. The film is replete with asides as pleasurable and personable as The Deer Hunter’s best moments, like antihero Nate Champion (Christopher Walken) blending anxiety and charm in showing off his frontier cabin’s new wallpaper—pages of newspaper plastered over the bare wood floors. Editing Heaven’s Gate to make it shorter was a fraught act, because in cutting seemingly simple things, the observational and rhythmic qualities of the film, the gestural and behavioural intricacies that define how the characters relate to each other, were lost. Early scenes depict Graduation Day for the Harvard class of 1872, nearly nonfunctional on a story level but vital in establishing the film’s mood and themes, of the shift of eras and the people caught up in them and the way the reality of mortality sneaks up on us.
The prologue is a portrait of young scions as angels bound to fall in the heady eruptions of Gilded Age America. Jim Averill (Kris Kristofferson) and Billy Irvine (John Hurt), college chums destined to find themselves on opposite sides of a violent struggle, are here still young and cheeky, their quirks and faults still charming as they celebrate coming of age in a time of peace and plenty. The ritualised rhetoric and celebration here contrast later, far more raucous and messy variations. The referenced spirit of Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons (1941) is confirmed by a quoted shot sweeping into the halls of the Establishment’s hub through wide doors, and the presence of Joseph Cotton as the university chaplain, who gives a windy speech full of patrician sentiment, handing the graduates the responsibility of intellectual and moral leadership over the nation. Billy’s riposte, as anointed class genius and man of letters, is to give a superficially disrespectful and satirical poetic discourse that actually contains a conservative message: “We disdain all intention of making a change, in what we consider, on the whole, well-arranged.” Oratorical dances segue into Strauss waltzes on the lawn, battles over garlands, and candlelight choruses regaling lady friends on high with school anthems, completing a vision of an already nostalgic moment of genteel perfection: “My god Billy, have you ever felt ready to die?” Jim asks his pal amidst the singers.
The past is another country: the film leaps to frontier Wyoming 20 years later, and finds Jim, having not died at the peak of romantic splendour in his youth, instead scrambling about on the floor of a first-class train compartment, inebriated and searching for his boots. Reminiscent of the eponymous hero of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), Jim is a warrior-poet without a war, his poetry squandered, haunted by the past and doomed to turn each woman he is drawn close to into an avatar for an image from lost youth. Still, having obeyed Horace Greeley and gone west, he has aged into a tough and boozy man trying to live up to peculiar ideals. Billy, who also styled himself a poet and perhaps even had hopes of dedicating himself to the art, has by this time reduced himself to a perpetually pickled yes-man to grotesque shows of moneyed power, having joined the Cattlemen’s Association, an oligarchy of businessmen angry at the influx of immigrants into grazing land. Jim’s return to Casper sees him quickly confronted by something ugly afoot, hinted by friendly Irish railway worker Cully (Richard Masur) and confirmed by the presence of dozens of loutish gunmen in town hired by the Association. They’re going to wage war on the immigrant farmers in Johnson County, a remote patch of frontier hard against the Rocky Mountains where Jim serves as sheriff.
When some of the gunmen assault an immigrant family, Jim intervenes, and then goes to a city club where the Association is meeting and its chairman, Frank Canton (Sam Waterston), is outlining the upcoming campaign. Jim extracts the truth from the drunk and shocked Billy and socks Canton in the mouth when he gets uppity before heading on to the county. On the way, he encounters another family—the father was gunned down on the road, and the mother is determined to keep leading her children to their new property and work it. But starvation is rife on the range: the Association is angry because the farmers, waiting to harvest their first crop, have been slaughtering their cattle for food or using them as currency. Prior to Jim’s arrival, Champion, himself an immigrant son who has become the chief enforcer for the Association, has gunned down a Slavic farmer who is in the middle of slaughtering a cow. When Jim reaches the county, he makes gifts to his friends—a Winchester rifle for bar owner and all-round entertainment promoter John L. Bridges (Jeff Bridges, who co-starred in Cimino’s debut Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, 1974) and a carriage for Ella Watson (Isabelle Huppert), his girlfriend and madam of the local brothel. Jim, aware and terrified of what is coming, tries to get Ella to leave, but she interprets this as his rejection of her, and so she accepts Nate’s offer of marriage.
As with The Deer Hunter, Cimino relays this tale via a series of lengthy, unified sequences, realised with painterly vistas and balletic camera movements. The mid-section describes the unfolding of Jim, Nate, and Ella’s romantic triangle, a quiet, almost unspoken crisis for the trio, and the roiling, lively community of Johnson County. There is purposeful contrast between the rude, plebeian energy of the colonising immigrants, for whom the success of the project of the West is a life-and-death proposition, and Jim’s distracted, dreamy sense of impotence in the face of forces beyond his control, partly indicted as patrician indulgence and partly celebrated as hard-won wisdom in the face of reality. In many ways, Heaven’s Gate feels like an act of remembrance, a la Sergio Leone’s similarly eccentric, mistreated epic Once Upon a Time in America (1984), as Cimino and Leone’s heroes are both defined by a sense of nagging nostalgia in spite of stripped illusions. Just as Jim is revealed as remembering his graduation as the scene shifts to 1890, so, too, does the epilogue, set in 1904, find Jim again reminiscing: the effects of experience and time on an individual are both described in and woven through the fabric of the film. Jim is indeed as much viewpoint as protagonist. Heaven’s Gate is often criticised on the level of characterisation, but Cimino communicates as much through visual signposts as dialogue, like the ever-present photo of Jim with his college girlfriend that hints both at the power of Jim’s nostalgia and also the destructive effect it’s having on his present, one cause of his inability to commit to Ella.
The triangular romance of Jim, Nate, and Ella is thus viewed not through sweepingly romantic postures associated with the epic in cinema, as with Rhett and Scarlett against the red sky in Gone with the Wind (1939) or Jack and Rose on the bow of the Titanic (1997), but through a series of textured interludes of interaction and discursive details. Ella, who has a hard and shrewd businesswoman under her flirty, flighty surface, makes romantic decisions with her head as well as heart: “Do you think a woman can’t love two men?” she prods Jim, whilst he gets drunk and calls her a dumb whore after learning she’s chosen Nate, who’s made her a better offer. Cimino sarcastically depicts frontier life as a place of flux where property is in contention, be it livestock, land, or personal affection, and sees no contradiction in these gestures. A central seriocomic sequence sees Ella asking Nate to carry a pickled Jim back to his room before he can return and get into bed with her, unfolding with a hazy, inebriated grace that reveals the strange, but real affections that tie the trio together and also what keeps them all at subtle loggerheads. Nate takes up Jim’s hat once he deposits him in his bed and places it on his own head, studies himself in the mirror and says with the all rueful admiration of a man gunning to replace the wounded titan, “I’ll say this for ya Jim—you’ve got class.”
Cimino counterpoints such carefully wrought depictions of the interpersonal with pageant-like explosions of communal action. The film seethes with a sense of life in the margins, as Cimino notes a populace fighting, gambling, labouring, fucking—at once impersonal and gruelling, embracing and cheerful. Social conflicts exist within the county’s populace, running the gamut from would-be bourgeois stalwarts to radical firebrands. Ella shows off her new carriage by charging into the midst of the town to the cheers of the rowdy men and the disapproval of the church congregation trying to celebrate the opening of their new place of worship. The wonderfully odd, Fellini-esque sequences when the Johnson County folk, following the lead of Ella’s fiddle-sawing employee John DeCory (David Mansfield), celebrate on new-fangled roller skates, reveals how the rudely compiled ethnicities in Johnson County have already fused into a quintessentially American populace, in their love of novelty and group optimism.
Cimino imbues this sequence with a faintly unreal, particularly dreamy quality, via peculiar scene grammar that contrives to make the crowd suddenly vanish, leaving Jim and Ella alone to dance in their private islet of romance. It’s also here Heaven’s Gate that most clearly contemplates the John Ford Western style. In that style, the travails of heroes and villains are only aspects of a much larger project, where reference is consistently made to rites of life and death, weddings, dances, births and funerals as shared by a community, but viewed now as if through the wrong end of a telescope—fantastic, slightly absurd, and over like it never was. Later, as the Association’s army nears, the citizenry stage a noisy, chaotic, yet nascent democratic mass meeting where Jim reads out the Association’s death list: mild businessman Eggleston (Brad Dourif) emerges as an angry and effective political voice, rousing the populace with his declaration that the Association represents people who “think poor people should have no say in the affairs of this country!” The town’s timid mayor Charlie Lezak (Paul Koslo) wants to hand over all the accused people on the list, only for the widow of one murdered ranger to blow his ear off with a badly aimed shot.
Nate coexists as both progeny of the class he’s called on to victimise and hard edge of the one he works for. Inevitably, perhaps, his cabin is well outside the town, situated in a bucolic meadow, distinct from all the communities he cannot join yet. There he keeps a small coterie of oddball coots (Geoffrey Lewis and Mickey Rourke) for friends. Nate’s reputation for willingly using brute force keeps him safe and wards off challenges, though he has his limits, revealed when he chooses to scare off a young immigrant about to slaughter a captured cow rather than shoot him. Nate is called off the fence once he gets Ella to commit to him, however, and after Jim makes clear what’s about to happen. When he gets steamed about one of the evil acts that heralds the Association army’s arrival in the county, Jim storms into their camp and shoots one of Canton’s fellows in the forehead as a declaration of his new intentions. Nate’s change of allegiances demands that Canton shut him down as a potentially fearsome rival, and so has the army bombard Nate’s cabin with a hail of bullets. Cimino’s take on the real events of the Johnson County War mostly follows his own whim, but here he recreates one of the most striking anecdotes of the incident, as Nate pens a farewell missive to Ella and Jim as his cabin burns down, before charging out to be gunned down in absurd overkill. Jim has already tried to convince the commander of a local cavalry outpost, Captain Minardi (Terry O’Quinn), to help keep peace. Minardi tells Jim he has his hands tied, and resists Jim’s moral pressure by suggesting Jim’s background saves him from having to make the kinds of grimly pragmatic decisions others are forced to, but gives him the Association’s “death list.” The seriocomic tone of the film’s middle third is severed abruptly as Cully sees a train race through Casper and halt just outside of town, bringing Canton, his pet soldier Major Walcott (Ronnie Hawkins), and the gunmen to the fringe of the frontier. Cully leaps onto a horse and rides out to warn Jim, but is caught sleeping by an advance guard and gunned down, the wide-open spaces of the Wyoming landscape (albeit actually in Montana) suddenly ranged with killers sweeping in waves across the grand landscape.
Cimino’s thesis holds that modern America owes it birth directly to ordinary people, to group effort and a shared vision for life, rather than to its individuals, no matter heroic and impressive they were. Some critics, perhaps saying more about their own politics than Cimino’s, labelled this the first Marxist Western. Bridges’ warehouse-cum-domicile, in which Jim keeps a single room, contains hundreds of immigrants, a little world of folk desperate for shelter amidst the great expanses of the West. Milos Forman’s Ragtime (1980) and Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York (2001), long-delayed but conceived around this time, tackled vitally similar themes of the forced evolution of America from a place run by a spiky western European enclave to heterogeneous society via seriously ugly birth pangs, with ethnic and class war abetted by the establishment. Depiction of the Association members treads close to melodrama in offering an array of fat cats with contempt for ordinary people, though there’s nothing greatly unusual in that. Waterston comes close to stealing the film with his imperiously hateful and arrogantly charismatic Canton, who casts himself as the embodiment of patrician right, playing the petty general, though Jim’s contempt for him (“You never were in my class Canton.”) hints that Canton is actually, like Nate, trying to leave behind humble roots by identifying with the forces of power and letting the centrifugal impetus that governs the nation sweep him to its pivot. Jim’s definition of aristocratic responsibility means protecting and sheltering his citizens against the baronial assumptions of the Association, but his and Billy’s gentlemanly, classically educated style looks increasingly irrelevant when compared to both the rapacious greed of Canton’s kind and the robust hunger of the immigrants. The aristocrats can no longer rule and mediate in this free-for-all modern world, this gilded America. Irvine, cheeky gadabout, becomes the emblem of befuddled privilege, incapable of separating himself in the way Jim has from the herd, even though the two men are both close in their overfondness for liquor and sense of waning and longing: Irvine’s fate is appropriately absurd, dying unnoticed in the riotous action, shot dead by Jim’s girlfriend whilst pining for Paris.
Heaven’s Gate was both an apotheosis and last stand for the gritty, eccentric, deromanticised style of Western film that emerged from the mid-1960s, often called the revisionist or “mud and blood” western. This brand was sustained by the western’s ongoing popularity, but doomed to help kill that popularity by assaulting the genre’s presumptions through bloody, anti-mythological takes on the underlying history and milieu. Kristofferson, who gives probably his best performance, had debuted as an actor playing Billy the Kid for Sam Peckinpah, recast by that director, who helped to found the movement, as avatar for the defeat of the wild outsider in a conformist society. For Cimino, he plays a man struggling to make a stand on a personal level, a struggle that coincides in semi-symmetry with the same struggle of the community he’s chosen as his home and lot. If Cimino’s intimate and inferring approach to his human level and radical historical viewpoint seem aimed to defile expectations of the style of moviemaking he’s engaged in, the visual expressiveness of Heaven’s Gate often looks back to a more classical form of moviemaking. Referring to the grandest vistas of John Ford and David Lean, George Stevens and Anthony Mann, Cimino’s West is a place of rolling golden grasslands, soaring, snow-capped peaks, country roads trod by columns of Soviet Realist peasants and dusty, thrumming frontier streets, an animate player in itself. But the way Cimino shoots landscape is ironic in a manner unfamiliar to those directors except perhaps Lean, as mountains and sky gaze down with implacable and illimitable beauty upon ugly human acts, and the diffused lighting and fuzzy-edged interior frames recall rather Robert Altman, the high sheriff of revisionism. Early on Cimino shoots Huppert bathing, totally and unself-consciously nude, in a clear mountain stream, and then settles by Kristofferson in a moment recalling Manet’s “Dejeuner sur l’herbe,” a vision of the West as place where complete abandonment of civilisation’s creeds is possible. This gives way to the tragedy of the liminal constantly unfolding within the embrace of the sublime, bloodied and mangled bodies constantly pictured lying amidst pristine beauty, creating an inherent tension that perceives the humans as infesting rather than claiming the land in a manner that recalls Terrence Malick and Werner Herzog.
The slow-screwing tension of the film begins to break loose when some of the Association’s hitmen lie in wait for Ella in the brothel: Jim, hailed to the rescue, infiltrates the building through a top-floor window, only to discover all of the prostitutes butchered. He dispatches the killers with swift and brutal aplomb, and is left to upbraid Ella tearfully for refusing to heed his advice, his act of care for her infused with his still-present anger and heartbreak. This sequence portrays Jim in a traditionally heroic role, but Cimino undercuts it by having him fall into a well of self-pity, abetted by Mayor Lezak, who sacks Jim when he makes it plain he won’t intervene to make the increasingly warlike Johnson County folks stand down. Jim is drunk and sleeping when Nate’s assassination sparks general insurrection. Rather, Ella comes into her own here, and in some ways emerges as the actual hero of the film, the character whose sense of agency is essential. Huppert, whose English was poor at the time, occasionally struggles with the rhythms of her dialogue and yet ultimately delivers a terrific performance, first seen greeting Jim with pie and nudity, a nature child who knows her value in this little world and doesn’t give much of a damn what anyone thinks of her. But Huppert cleverly reveals the wise and hardened soul under Ella’s coquettish surface, and the insults and assaults she receives only stiffen her resistance. She tries first to rescue Nate in a thunderous piece of action, then returns to the town and calls out the arguing townsfolk to battle. The stunningly filmed sequence that follows sees the madly careening force of the immigrants, riding to combat on horseback and carts, assault the Association and surround the would-be invaders, who rapidly fortify themselves with toppled wagons. Utter chaos prevails as Ella charges wildly around the enemy shooting randomly, Bridges tries to get her to take cover. Shop-keepers and plough jockeys turn paladins to pound their persecutors, their enemies shoot back, and the scene devolves into a wild melee filled with bullet holes, broken bones, kicking hooves, shattered wagons, and whistling bullets. When the whirlwind dies down, Billy and dozens of others are dead, and Canton takes off on horseback, vowing to bring help for his trapped goons.
Jim emerges from his cocoon after Ella reads him Nate’s farewell note and finally puts his education to good use, directing the county folk in building mobile barricades based on Roman methods—Wolcott recognises the source. The attackers slowly close in on the Association guns, hurling bundles of dynamite to smash apart the defences. Jim provides a bridge between the Old World and the New, imparting to the immigrants a sense not just of fight, but of war, of applied education. Cimino’s sense of detail overflows as he notes the carnage wrought by the determination of the citizens even as they win their fight, like one woman shooting badly wounded men and then herself. Finally, Cimino’s bitterest anti-cliché: Canton rides back in with Minardi and the cavalry, who “arrest” the gunmen, essentially rescuing what’s left of them from the wrath of the citizens. Jim and Bridges are left to survey their field of victory, covered with bodies and shattered war machines: triumph and desolate horror coexist in one of the most fascinatingly ambivalent climaxes in any film—heroic, grassroots resistance has its grim cost. Peace seems to have been the prize obtained by the sacrifice, both sides having fought each other to a point of nullity. Shortly after, Bridges collects luggage for Jim and Ella as they prepare to leave the county together. Canton and a small band of killer lie in wait for them, set on revenge: Jim kills Canton in the melee, but only after Bridges and Ella are killed. Jim is left weeping over Ella’s bloodied body, last victim of this ridiculous war, red bullet holes like roses blooming on her blinding white dress.
The tragic effect of this moment is almost operatic, but Cimino contours it into a subtler variety, as he moves forward again 15 years. There, he find Jim, older but looking younger with his beard shaved off, a telling vanity as he’s ensconced on a yacht with a lovely young mistress. The first couple of times I watched this scene, it struck me as the film’s lone major gaffe, and yet now its essentialness seems obvious, all the more so for its communication of the vital sentiment with scarcely any words. The final vision of Jim, even more sadly nostalgic, but now cut off from his past by the death of just about everyone dear to him and fallen prey to the gravity of identity, suggests personal tragedy amidst all the political and social turmoil and clash of idealistic and nihilistic gestures. Even Jim, native son, golden boy, a titan on the range, is just another fool of fortune. Much like Welles’ great antiheroes Charlie Kane and George Amberson, he’s doomed to wonder what he might have been if he hadn’t been so rich. Cimino could probably have sympathised all too well. He made a comeback five years later with Year of the Dragon (1985), a white-hot cop flick invested with ornery, hyped-up energy and the strange intensity of a self-portrait, before Cimino’s worst traits started to dominate in his last three films, the bawdiness and ferocity turned cynical. Cimino left Hollywood seemingly for good, ironically finding success again, this time as an author.
Before 1969, Dennis Hopper was one of many talented, young Method actors to drift west from the Actor’s Studio to Hollywood, if a flagrantly offbeat and arresting example of the breed. His blue eyes seemed to radiate an almost spiritual, romantic dissociation, as well as a potentially manic ferocity—Viking berserker and Celtic saint in one volatile package. At first he often played introverted characters, reciting dialogue with a halting, almost doleful style that could make each word sound like it was being pulled out of his mouth with pliers, or scraggly losers and reprobates, cannon fodder for he-men in many a western. Later he became famous for his jittery, showy rants and depictions of livewire souls. His pal James Dean had brought him into film work, and Hopper’s reputation for on-set insubordination almost ruined his career before it got going; after Dean’s death he was all but blackballed by the industry.
Indie filmmaker and long-time bohemian Curtis Harrington gave Hopper a lead role in the wonderful horror film Night Tide (1961), and his friend John Wayne eventually revived his acting career by insisting Henry Hathaway hire him for The Sons of Katie Elder (1965). Whilst keeping one foot planted in mainstream labours, Hopper was a driving force in the annexation of Hollywood’s hinterlands by the new bohemia. After he starred alongside friend Peter Fonda in a film written by another pal, Jack Nicholson, the psychedelic paean The Trip (1967) directed by Roger Corman, Hopper and Fonda developed their take on the zeitgeist. Fonda produced and Hopper directed the singularly successful film of and about the era, Easy Rider (1969). Low budget, rough and ready, a combination of Voltaire parable and satire with an essayistic exploration of alternative Americana, Easy Rider channelled diverse aspects of the European and American film styles to make a counterculture document with some credibility.
Easy Rider was a colossal success, making Hopper a cause célèbre and Hollywood’s official hippie. But Hopper all but invited being set up as public sacrifice and cautionary example. He feuded with Fonda over royalties, slipped in and out of a marriage to The Mamas & The Papas singer Michelle Phillips in two weeks, and let his indulgence in drugs go off the deep end. He was given $1 million by Universal to make his next film at a time when studios were throwing money at films about counterculture youth hoping some of it would stick. Hopper, however, couldn’t have been less interested in returning to that subject, and moved onto new, equally provocative territory. The result was an infamous debacle that once again sent Hopper into exile, branded an addict, nuisance, and professional madcap. He managed to turn this persona to his own ends when, against all predictions, he rehabilitated his career again in the 1980s. Hopper’s directorial legacy is scant, but, except for a largely dismissed final comedy Chasers (1994), it is also one of the strongest and most unique in American cinema.
Hopper had been kicking around the idea for The Last Movie since his experiences making a western at a foreign location in the mid ’60s, and he developed a script with Rebel Without a Cause (1955) scribe Stewart Stern. At first, he shot and edited togather a rudely expressive but essentially linear film. Legend has it that his pal the Mexican filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky then mocked his straitlaced structure, and encouraged him to attack the film like an Abstract Expressionist slashing at his own canvas. That anecdote sounds a touch arch, however, as The Last Movie was clearly intended from the start to expand on the form- and mind-bending elements of Easy Rider, while essentially telling fans of that film to fuck off.
Such a radical take was an inspired, if doomed, enterprise. The Last Movie is a weird, loping, visceral work, an ill-starred fate already written into its texture. The Last Movie feels deeply personal for Hopper, as it depicts the movie world in a manner so alienated and troubled, so concerned with the effects of cinema fantasy on real life, it was transmuted into a monument to the desecration of cinematic form. The opening immediately immerses the viewer in a mystic ceremony studded with strange portents with a context that will only be revealed via looping cinematic time. The conclusion seems carefully contrived to appear like funding ran out before the filmmakers quite finished making their film. And yet The Last Movie’s conceits feel far less jarring than they might have at the time, certainly not nearly so much after the likes of Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu’s and Christopher Nolan’s taxing experiments in film structuring, although Hopper’s work is deliberately more ragged than such later films, as it maintains an associative rather than merely rearranged visual logic. The Last Movie is a portrait of shambling wash-ups, existential angst, and the protean zones of culture, filled with some of Hopper’s most accomplished images and highly self-critical themes. Hopper works again with cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs, whose special visual tones on Easy Rider became the signature of the Hollywood New Wave, to fashion an artefact that alternates lyricism, immediacy, disorientation, and estrangement. Hopper doesn’t give himself an easy part to play either, embodying a troubled, even swinish character—a stuntman and fallen cowboy named Kansas.
Kansas is, at the outset, working on a western partly about Billy the Kid, being filmed in Peru by Samuel Fuller. Fuller appears as himself in the film’s most sublime and resonant in-joke, as Fuller had been shown the door by Hollywood by this time in much the same way Hopper had been and was about to be again. The film Fuller’s making seems to be a mixture of the kind of shambolic post-western Robert Altman was making in Canada at the same time, (McCabe and Mrs. Miller, 1971), with glimpses of mockingly awful vaudeville routines featuring gartered dancing girls, and Sam Peckinpah’s savagery, as a giant, comically brutal shoot-out sequence sees the two sides in a clannish range war exterminate each other, even gunning down the handsome deputy sheriff (Fonda) and his sweetheart. Early in the film, one of the stunt sequences of Fuller’s western is depicted, with another stuntman pulling off an impressively gruelling fall from a rooftop and through some scaffolding. Later, this scene is revealed as important in more than incidental fashion, as the stuntman who performed it died. Kansas stumbles through the early scenes dissociated, traumatised, and emotionally volatile. His troubled, scrambled inner world will dictate the outer reality depicted.
The spectacle of real death on the movie set gives impetus to a strange fantasia. At the very outset Kansas is glimpsed as a bloodied and shameful penitent amidst a crowd at a local religious festival, whilst an imperious, would-be Peruvian director wearing a U.S. Cavalry hat searches for a beauty to star in his “film.” This director-cum-warlord will claim and take over the abandoned sets of the Hollywood shoot, making these into a place of religious fervour for the locals. The district priest (Tomas Milian) has to perform his masses in the set’s fake church to reach his congregation. Hopper then loops the film back to a few weeks earlier, when the Hollywood crew was still working. Kansas hovers around the shoot, still dazed by death and irritating Fuller. The film crew successfully wraps up their production after depicting the death of Billy the Kid, which Fuller announces he wants done different and better than any previous version. At the wrap party, Kansas wanders through a tangled crowd of performers and revellers and finds amongst them various tableaux vivants unfolding before his eyes. Narrative alienation blends fascinatingly with the sense that Hopper is documenting his own dissociation from his apparent place as Hollywood’s king of hipsters, as he reduces the apparatus of stardom to cameo fodder: Kovacs’ gliding camera, surveying a world of cool film folk, with a lot of Hopper’s own friends and fellows dotting the crowd, engage in drop-of-a-hat sing-alongs, mini-happenings, and strange rituals.
A man is transformed into a woman by a group of masked faux-shamans in a glimpsed moment that seems to come right out of some Carlos Castenada-esque fever dream, and indeed, the influence of Latin American magic realism and spiritual writing traditions pervades The Last Movie as narratives of false life and false death segue hazily into abnormal rituals of real life and real death. Kansas retreats into the shadows and weeps, but tries to fend off solicitous interest from a friend. Hopper suggests an approach close to that of Easy Rider in early scenes where songs play like commentary on the soundtrack, but Hopper quickly fragments and then disposes of this refrain. He casts Kris Kristofferson and others as musically inclined crewmen on the film who play Greek chorus, and Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee” scores footage of Hopper in character as Kansas roving on horseback like the Marlboro Man, the ideal, self-reliant frontiersman, only to have Kansas accidentally crash Fuller’s set in the middle of filming, stirring a torrent of abuse from the director.
Kansas is soon called on to participate in stunts himself, glimpses of which are interpolated throughout the film. The stunts require him to take the place of the dead man in jarring and difficult movements, like being jerked off a horse by a tether or swinging in on a guy rope, causing alarm and concern in one local extra working on the film, recognisable as the man later directing the fake movie. Once the film shoot concludes and the company disbands to return home, Kansas decides to stay behind and live in the mountain town with his local girlfriend Maria (Stella Garcia) in a house he starts building above the town. Their union is deeply carnal, and when they have sex in a waterfall pool, it proves embarrassingly close to a popular path along which the priest escorts children.
Islets of quintessential hippie romanticism early in the film see the pair framed against beautiful mountain vistas in flowered fields and other such pastoral refrains. But Kansas and Maria are far from being dippy young lovers, as Maria is happy to have hooked up with a rich gringo, and Kansas regards her as useful appliance. Emerging from his depression high on the spirit and beauty of his new home, but detached from the poverty around it, Kansas thinks big, dreaming up schemes to create a ski resort on snow-clad peaks. Kansas’ only local pal, Neville Robey (Don Gordon), claims to have a lead on a potential gold mine, and wants to dig up an investor to help him extract it. Kansas becomes his partner as the film productions he was expecting to exploit in the now-established location don’t come. One afternoon in a café where they play chequers, Neville gets Kansas to help him flirt with a pair of women who enter, Mrs. Anderson (Julie Adams) and her daughter (Donna Baccala), the family of prominent American businessman Harry Anderson (Roy Engel). Kansas has the wherewithal to charm Mrs. Anderson, and manages to get them invited to dinner with the family, where Neville can lobby Mr. Anderson to fund their mine.
Here The Last Movie shifts into territory reminiscent of John Cassavetes’ studies in behaviour amongst the emotionally thwarted and morally bankrupt, as Hopper’s collective of exiled Americans get drunk, tell filthy jokes, flirt, and go out in search of a racy good time that will shock their stagnant nerves and fetid blood back into action. Neville drunkenly burbles sexy shockers like suggesting mother and daughter make out, whilst both Anderson and Maria carefully ignore Kansas’ increasingly overt moves on Mrs. Anderson and her all-too-eager appreciation of them. Hopper notes with a cold alacrity the mutuality of Anderson and Maria’s blind eyes, the former acquiescing for the sake of keeping his attractive wife happy and the latter for the sake of not rocking her fiscal boat as multiple forms of prostitution collide. The booze-sodden evening moves on to a local brothel, which Neville reckons is the town’s best entertainment venue, and they listen to a soaring-voiced folk warbler (Poupée Bocar) before retiring for more obscene delights as Kansas pays a couple of hookers to put on a sex act as floor show. Mrs. Anderson plainly wants to join the couple on the floor whilst lolling in autoerotic delight, framed between two pin-ups of a muscle man and a starved African child–the film’s bitterest, most direct portrait of first-world anomie in perfect symbiosis with exploitation. Kansas has to fend off the attentions of Maria’s former boyfriend/pimp who threatens him with a gun. Maria leaps up to intervene and rushes the man away, but Kansas is still drunkenly infuriated and he beats the hell out of her when she returns.
The sobered, chagrined Kansas tries to make it up to Maria, who demands a fur coat like Mrs. Anderson’s. Kansas goes to the Andersons to buy one, and Mrs Anderson, who confesses to her own sadomasochistic fantasies stirred by Kansas’ guilty confessions and the night’s pornography, agrees to give him her daughter’s. But she extracts her own price from Kansas, insisting he submit to her sadistic fantasies of abuse and control, making him kneel and receive slaps in the face. This movement of the film is so odd, mordant, and perversely fascinating that I would sing the whole’s praises even if the rest of it had been mere footage of Hopper pissing against a wall—which is just about what Hollywood and a lot of critics thought he did.
Colonialism is certainly a part-hidden target of the film as it regards the gravitational effect of American cultural apparatchiks and their infrastructure distorting the minds and lives of anyone with whom they come in contact. Money matters to Hopper’s characters, for, as in Easy Rider, a quixotic attempt to make money to buy “freedom” comes to the fore, swapping the previous film’s original sin drug deal for Kansas and Neville’s attempt to ascertain if the gold mine can really pay off for them. They head into the wilderness to check out the mine, in a story segue that explicitly references to Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948): in fact, in a scene close to the end of the film, which seems to be a non sequitur flashback to this journey, Kansas and Neville are depicted arguing comically about details from Sierra Madre, which might be Neville’s only actual source of knowledge about gold mining.
Earlier in the film, the priest alerted Kansas to a novel and disturbing phenomenon that seems to have gripped his parishioners, and led him to the fake film village to see them “shooting” their own version of the film with equipment made of out of wicker, complete with fistfights that result in real blood and bruises. Kansas tries to show them how it’s done in the trade, but the director complains that “isn’t real!” Exactly what the fake shoot is supposed to be Hopper leaves ambiguous, but he makes clear he feels guilty for his participation in the hypnotic, reality-bending force of the movies and correlates them with other forms of imperial power. Kansas requests absolution from the Priest for playing his part in this. This activity seems initially a simplistic piece of monkey-see-monkey-do on the behalf of the locals, but soon comes to look rather more like a determined, ritualistic subsuming of the power of the invaders, a Promethean project of stealing the movie gods’ fire and also a religious festival. The finale invokes two different forms of such ritualised theatre, as film production and passion play meet in perfect mirroring.
Satires on the movie industry are plentiful, but very few are as brutally logical, original, and funny as The Last Movie. The Cavalry-hatted director combines the archetype of the filmmaker as authoritarian visionary with the canard of the Mexican bandit as well as the military overlord. He handles his “cast” and “crew” with great collaborative zest, but when someone doesn’t stick with the programme he takes action. Kansas tries to flee from their clutches, busting out of the prison he’s locked in because he realises that it is of course not a real prison. The director, however, pulls out a very real pistol and starts shooting at him as he rides away, clipping Kansas in the shoulder. The injured cowboy, dizzy from blood loss and hysterical, tries to find Maria in the brothel, where he starts a fight with bouncers and gets himself thrown out. He limps through empty, debris-filled buildings in perhaps the film’s most surreal-feeling sequence, filled with jump cuts and oblique framings that fragment perception, as the structures become dreamlike traps where past, present, and future become liquid and Kansas’ cognisance splinters, glimpsed in agony in mirrors in the midst of stone-walled, half-finished, or half-demolished structures, stumbling amidst piled and ruined coffins and religious paraphernalia. He recovers, ministered to by the priest and the director and found by Maria, who nonetheless falls under the influence of the director and announces she’s off to participate in a beauty pageant designed to pick a star for the film. Kansas stumbles back into the midst of the “film” as he searches for Maria and is swept up in the culmination of the strange rite, with the priest now playing along with his flock in uniting the worship of movies and Christianity. Kansas is imprisoned again, and Maria tetchily mocks Kansas’ appeals for help, believing the director won’t go so far as to actually kill him.
During his first exile, Hopper fostered a serious interest in photography and found traction in the field. Whilst the formal beauty and experimental élan of Kovacs’ photography is readily apparent, and many scenes play out in a coherent enough manner, Hopper’s photographic experience had given him a highly tactile, expressive sense of film as a tool to be used or abused. The Last Movie plays out in a high state of flux that occasionally stabilises, reality and film deliberately fragmented and confused. Hopper offers some obvious pokes at familiar structuring, like having his “A film by Dennis Hopper” title card appear 10 minutes into the film, and then the actual film title another 10 minutes later, and “scene missing” cards inserted in a manner that anticipates the fascination of recent filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino and Andrew Bujalski with the film as an artefact. The Last Movie, as its title might well threaten, is a constant, boiling mass of cinematic style and antistyle, as Kovacs works in wild lensing effects and a jagged lexicon of film language. Godard’s Week-End (1967) seems to have been a specific influence, borrowing not just its name from that film’s baleful final title card, but much of Godard’s deliberately anarchic aesthetic. But whereas Godard emphasised theatricality and falseness in his mise-en-scene to mock the idea of verisimilitude, The Last Movie is more attentive to the immediate reality of its setting, capturing the weird atmosphere of its Peruvian setting with an often documentary immediacy: nature and place, if nothing else, still wield a transformative power over human dreams in Hopper’s vision.
Classically graceful tracking shots alternate with analytical, extended, meandering zoom shots, or handheld documentary-style shots with fish-eye lensing that create a mood of happenstance, overheated authenticity. One motif of the film lies in repeated, startlingly wide, long-angle panorama shots that seem to be trying to rupture the limitations of the frame and that often include someone sprawled dead or injured (or playing dead or injured) in the foreground. There seems to be an almost religious meaning behind this recurring shot of earth, sky, and fallen being in one vast arc of communion. Certainly there is such meaning in the recurring vision of a man stretched out either dead or being transformed, from the drag queen at the wrap party to the shots that conjoin Kansas and the soon-to-be-dead stuntman as both go through the rope stunt and finish up flat on their backs, and a later shot where an injured Kansas lies prone and agonised, time and space breaking up into barely liminal flashes. Christ-like postures are one of the signal clichés of male movie actors seeking to become the auteurs of their movies, whether directing or not, and Hopper certainly indulges that posture here, as Kansas fears he’s going to be the human sacrifice to set the seal on the movie-ritual. But the strangely beautiful refrain that represents the ultimate break-up of narrative in The Last Movie, showing Kansas running and falling as if shot but then getting up again. The resurrection that is so crucial to the Christ mythos is readily coherent in film where (nearly) every death is fake and resurrection immediate, and Kansas’ ritualised reengagement with the death that ended the “real” film restores the order.
Or does it? Hopper makes fun of the parable and his apparent irony, or rather reduces it to absurdist statement, offering up repeated takes of his “death,” each filmed in languorous slow motion. Hopper then lets the film trail off in shots as elusive as the early ones, noting bored-looking extras waiting for the star to enter the frame, and Hopper, Milian, and the “director” stumbling through abortive takes or halting, improvised comedy. A return to Kansas and Neville on their gold hunt calls back to the gently spacy humour of Easy Rider’s famous grass-and-firelight scene, before Hopper closes on one of his repeated shots, of a tree on fire in the midst of the film set—a shout-out to Cecil B. DeMille’s burning bush?—with an unidentified man hanging in the branches. The Last Movie is a supremely uneasy work, one that transmits both its filmmaker’s lack of faith in his art, but also his dynamic involvement with it. The Last Movie was dismissed and buried for a long time, and yet what’s striking is how much influence, or at least anticipation, it had. Francis Coppola revealed his affinity by borrowing the seamy nightlife venture for The Godfather Part II (1974) and then casting Hopper in the thematically, crucially similar Apocalypse Now (1979), whilst elements of the later cinema of Abbas Kiarostami, Claire Denis, Alex Cox, and some Latin American filmmakers are predicted with fascinating alacrity. Hopper himself finally returned from directorial exile via the work some regard as his best, the troubled-youth flick Out of the Blue (1980), which posited former easy rider as child-abusing drunk and progeny as apocalyptic punkette.
Few filmmakers more than 20 years into their careers can be said to have just come into their own—indeed, by that time, many have burned out or lapse into mere competence. Even fewer whose careers started in Hollywood’s classic studio era could have claimed such inspiration in the tumult of the mid 1960s, when audience and business shifts had left many familiar talents high and dry. Don Siegel defied the odds as he suddenly found himself a venerated hit-maker by the early ‘70s who eventually was elevated from B-movie craftsman to master and auteur. Having made the leap from Warner Bros’ in-house expert of montage cutting, Siegel directed terrific films from his debut film, The Verdict (1946), including The Big Steal (1949), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), The Line-Up (1958) and Hell Is for Heroes (1961), and his reputation amongst peers was strong—Ida Lupino, herself no slouch at directing, once confessed she hoped to be counted as a decent second-string Siegel. Siegel’s vertiginous visual sensibility, filled with alternations between godlike high angles and all-too-human, bruising closeness, a feel for both primal and urban landscapes as spaces that shape human action, a grip on both the studious grammar of classical filmmaking and expressive reflexes that could readily bend or break those rules armed him with tools that could absorb what he needed from New Wave filmmaking, ignore the rest, and still seem authoritative.
Siegel’s grouchy cynicism directed at the counterculture resulted in scabrous portraits in Coogan’s Bluff (1968) and Dirty Harry (1971), but then he could pivot and reveal a sheer delight in bratty anti-authoritarianism and rejection of communal rules—key to Two Mules for Sister Sara. His most consistent theme was more subtle, however, one of individuals at odds with their milieu, unable to comprehend the niceties of coexistence with radically different viewpoints and social doctrines that try to force acquiescence on his instinctually, rather than politically rebellious heroes. This is one reason that the theme of a lone wolf working within a larger system or cause was one of his favourites, an attitudinal linchpin that would have a profound influence, particularly on Quentin Tarantino.
He wrestled with modernity’s teeming, contradictory emotions in a way mainstream audiences could understand and coalesce without feeling like they were being preached at by a message movie. Siegel could offer a cop or a criminal empathy at any given moment. He could provoke liberals by transferring a frontier law ethos to modern cities, and then pivot to anatomise contemporary urges to agitation and shifting social mores in contexts like scifi with Body Snatchers, or historical, as in Hell Is for Heroes, with its proto-beatnik hero adrift in the war zone, or even further back with anxiety over emerging feminism in The Beguiled (1971) in a Civil War landscape. Two Mules for Sister Sara, like its immediate follow-up The Beguiled, bespeaks of Siegel’s inherent love of such paradox, prefiguring the next film’s dark, eerie take on sexual and social dislocation in a playful fashion that resembles The African Queen (1951) remade by Sam Peckinpah. Indeed, Peckinpah was Siegel’s first major protégé, whilst Sister Sara stars his second, Clint Eastwood.
Like Peckinpah, Siegel’s oeuvre seems intricately macho, but could embrace femininity and lyricism at unexpected moments. Again, like Peckinpah, he found an ideal thematic landscape in the open zones of culture between the U.S. and Mexico. But whereas for Peckinpah that landscape offered a schism between worlds that held the possibility of continued romantic freedom on the one hand and familiar but encroaching control on the other, for Siegel it was closer to Shakespeare’s forests, a zone of anarchy where his heroes could roam free and where familiar demarcations become porous, not a no-man’s-land but any-man’s-land. Siegel could also make fun of himself more convincingly. Sister Sara, written by Albert Maltz, was based on a story by Budd Boetticher, himself a major director who had hit a career doldrum by this time, is even more explicitly Shakespearean in its use of disguise and uncertain identity, as well as gender comedy to entertain and tease.
Antihero Hogan (Clint Eastwood) is a mercenary and a former soldier in his country’s Civil War—what side isn’t mentioned. He’s looking to make a quick fortune and buy perpetual personal independence by aiding a community in the same process, in this case the Mexican Juarista revolt against French imperialism in the 1860s. Hogan’s intentions are hampered when he comes across a nun about to be sexually assaulted in the borderland wilderness by three ruffians, whom Hogan kills in quick order with both direct and cunning means. The nun calls herself Sister Sara (Shirley MacLaine), and Hogan is forced to carry on as her protector when she reveals she must not be found by patrolling French dragoons because she, too, is aiding the revolution.
When she learns that Hogan has been hired to help destroy a French fortress in Chihuahua, Sister Sara reveals intimate knowledge of the place because her church was next door. She suggests a raid on the fortress when the garrison celebrates its traditional Bastille Day bacchanal. Sara proceeds to drive Hogan batty with a mixture of basic physical appeal that he cannot move upon, and her dedicated plying of her religious calling, such as insisting on proper burial and prayers for her assaulters, and a dozen other daily impositions. Hogan’s general credulity for Sara’s vocational steadfastness is thus sustained even when she reveals some strange knowledge, as when she reassures him that God will forgive him for putting his hands on her ass in a good cause. She soon reveals stranger habits, as when she absconds with one of Hogan’s half-smoked cigars to indulge a few furtive puffs with the relief of a showgirl between matinees, and a surprising tolerance, nay, thirst for strong liquor. She’s no nun, of course, and he’s no knight in shining armour, so the interplay of deception and ignoble intention between her and Eastwood, and the tongue-in-cheek approach to sex and religion, ambles with an off-kilter pep. Eastwood rarely played a proper romantic lead, and he doesn’t exactly play one here either, as Hogan is a sensually crude being who has no thought for settling down. The film draws much entertainment value from forcing one of his taciturn warriors to deal with a disturbing female form that is, at first, painfully off-limits, and then his increasingly perturbed reactions to Sara’s provocations.
It’s not very surprising when late in the film Sara is revealed to be a prostitute well known by certain members of the army she’s declared war on. Sara’s act, however, is more than mere camouflage and not exactly a play for false veneration. It is certainly a good-humoured mockery of the theoretical disparity of the classic madonna-whore figuration as it’s pitted against Hogan’s arch masculinity, her habit merely exacerbating Hogan’s confusion before femininity whilst also calling into question his—and the audience’s—understanding of it. Sara makes theatrical displays of playing the good Christian, blessing her buried attackers with water and infuriating Hogan with the waste. Yet Sister Sara intriguingly conflates what is usually perceived as two different kinds of tolerance, that of the woman who’s so familiar with life’s rough side that a near-rape is just another day at the office, and that of the committed religious idealist who forgives her enemies out of divine assurance, and suggests there’s no essential difference as both stem from a degree of character slightly beyond the more reactive male. Likewise, the independence of the prostitute is conflated with that of the nun, defined by their communal life in an overtly feminine space (to wit, the conflation of nunnery and bawdyhouse in Shakespearean humour) that also renders them autonomous in many ways. But Sara remains something distinct from Howard Hawks’ famous tough women because, unlike them, she reveals herself not as above the usual portrait of femininity surviving in a macho world, but readily hewing to both sides of stereotype and proving herself more than able in both.
Sister Sara represents a fascinating intersection point for several approaches to the western, although its setting and scope of action partly elide more exact definitions of the genre, almost a final point of correlation before the genre started its decline through the ’70s. In the late ‘60s, the genre had been schismatically redefined by the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone and then by the ferocity of Peckinpah, unified by their emphasis on tactile, visual realism and harsher violence than oatsers had known in the past, but separated on deeper levels by their ways of conceiving the genre’s heroes and social inferences. Leone’s grand, archetypal approach was reacting to the “adult western” of the ’50s, uninterested in its psychological and truthful reflexes, whilst Peckinpah accused the older genre of naiveté and aimed right for its sanctities. Boetticher had been, along with Anthony Mann, the adult western’s most persistent auteur, and Boetticher’s intimacy with his material was always a great strength. He was fascinated by the way individuals paint their own internal hopes or neuroses upon the neutral landscape. Boetticher wrote Sister Sara, whilst Siegel borrowed Leone’s composer Ennio Morricone to lend his film some of the weird, perfervid atmosphere of the Italian style. He also annexed aspects of Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969) and set about stitching together disparate influences with his own viewpoint in satirising the disparity between the individualist, macho hero and the woman who is in some ways tougher and more determined than him. To a certain extent, the film’s portrait of Hogan’s dizziness before Sara’s independence was reproduced on set as the practiced survivor MacLaine intimidated both Siegel and Eastwood, who finished up billed second for the last time until The Bridges of Madison County (1994), giving the finished film an amusing subtext.
Sara and Hogan’s voyage through the wilderness has a multiplicity of resonances, not just to thematically similar predecessors, like The African Queen, Black Narcissus (1947), and Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1958). There’s a playful take on Samuel Beckett in Sara and Hogan’s droll meandering through a blank and depopulated landscape, bickering half-romantically, half-irascibly. There’s a hint of Luis Buñuel in Siegel’s wry, schoolboy delight in profane conceits, where a whore is holy and holiness is whoring out to anyone on the side of the angels, as well as the general atmosphere of Mexico Buñuel perhaps grasped better than anyone else as an ideal stage for surrealist disparities. The film’s title points to a particularly Buñuel-esque joke: Sara’s mule has an injured foot, giving Hogan a chance to finally leave her behind in a small village, but Sara immediately kneels to pray before a roadside shrine, whereupon a farmer rides by with an another mule for which she’s able to arrange a swap. Morricone’s droll choral chants confirm divine intervention, though the result is an extremely uneven trade. Siegel borrowed Buñuel’s former cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa, and he aided in creating a film that exemplifies the visual pleasures of early ’70s cinema. Figueroa captures the sun-burnished, raw, earthy hues of the Mexican landscape, dotted with the vivid colours humans drape themselves in or discharge, be it sweat or blood, and even the porcelain tint of MacLaine’s naked back, all with a sense of pungent physicality, immediacy, and crucial beauty.
Of course, if you don’t want to think much about what a film means deep down, Sister Sara is, first and foremost, a rollicking entertainment built around Siegel and Boetticher’s cleverness and exactitude as storytellers and painters of circumstance and event. Early in the film, as Hogan helps Sara elude the French, he takes her into a ruined hacienda where he might stand a chance in a firelight shootout and kills a lurking rattlesnake. Hogan sets up an ambush, placing loaded guns in old loopholes, ready to move from one to the other to maintain rapid fire, whilst the hidden Sara dissuades a searching soldier by grabbing up the tail of the dead snake and shaking it to make the man think there’s a lurking serpent. The ploy works, and the soldiers depart. Later, when the two are bunked down for the night in a small copse, Hogan hears strange scuffling sounds in the night, so he hoists Sara into a tree, pours out some gunpowder, and lights it to catch a glimpse of the intruding presence like a camera flash, only to find a group of refugees from the war. Sara’s garb gives her rare abilities to cross barriers and move unmolested through social contexts, if not the wilderness. This advantage backfires when she tries to collect information in a garrison town, only to be waylaid by some officers looking for anyone who can give last rites to their dying commander. The commander proves to be a man Sara herself helped assassinate, and she has to silence him before he can shout out at her in rage. Fortunately, he dies right away, and Sara takes comfort in a long swig of Hogan’s whiskey once she returns.
The film’s centrepiece is a long, superbly constructed and sustained sequence in which Hogan is skewered by an arrow from a roving Indian band when he and Sara set out to blow up a troop train. Sara again successfully wields the power of her fake religiosity by warding off the Indians by holding her crucifix up in the hope some might recognise it, and then sets about obeying Hogan’s instructions for getting the arrow out of him. The shaft has pierced him through, and the point is jutting from his back, so the best way to extract the arrow is to bash it right through. Hogan gets drunk to dull the pain as he makes her meticulously prepare the arrow with a groove filled with gunpowder to be lit at the moment she strikes so that the burning powder will cauterize the wound even as it slides through his body. This excruciating piece of frontier doctoring works a treat, but it leaves Hogan too drunk and too crippled to prepare to blow the train. Instead he makes Sara plant dynamite under a trestle bridge (never mind that dynamite wasn’t patented until a year after the end of the Juarista War), necessitating a perilous climb for the woozy lady. Hogan, who can only shoot with his left hand, must try to detonate the explosive with a bullet. He muffs it repeatedly until Sara lets loose in a tirade of furious, salty insults and slaps, whereupon he finally manages to hit the dynamite and wreck the train in spectacular fashion. Their shared achievement in wounding the enemy proves to be partly self-defeating, as the French garrison in Chihuahua is put on the alert, so that the easy victory over a mob of drunkards Sara promised the Juaristas becomes instead an assault on a highly alert stronghold.
There’s a terrifically involved, logical and convincing layering of story. Siegel steps easily between comic and serious notes because they’re both allowed to flow with naturalness from the circumstances. Sara isn’t pretending to be a nun just because it’s funny, but because she’s genuinely afraid for her safety and it’s a practical, useful disguise, albeit one that creates problems as well as solutions. Frankly, Sister Sara makes a lot of contemporary genre filmmaking seem, by comparison, plastic and detached from reality, however much more fire and blood they might toss at the screen. Hogan and Sara eventually rejoin society as they make it to the encampment of a Juarista band led by Colonel Beltrán (Manolo Fábregas), another alpha male held in axial partnership with Hogan by Sara as they venture into town to check over their target and find the soldiers on the defensive, demanding a new plan. Siegel’s dynamic sense of staging turns a throwaway sequence like the Juaristas sneaking into town and ascending to the rooftops overlooking the fort into an epic moment of communal action in the offing.
Hogan travels back to the States to buy more dynamite, giving him time to heal, and when he returns, he is faced with Sara’s actual identity. Boetticher was quite mad at Siegel for making it too obvious that Sara wasn’t what she was supposed to be before the reveal, but it’s still a splendidly funny moment when Sara leads Hogan and the freedom fighters to the “church,” and the madame (Rosa Furman) greets Sara gleefully by grabbing her backside. When Hogan protests that her church is actually a cathouse, she replies, “Oh no, this is no cathouse. This is the best damn whorehouse in town.” Sara rattles off an airy explanation, wraps a red shawl about her head, steals a cigar, and bingo, she’s anything Hogan could ever need and maybe more than he can handle.
When an underground passage that offers a secret way into the fortress proves to be locked from above, the only way for the army to penetrate the fort is for Hogan to pose as a bounty hunter bringing the wanted Sara back for punishment. The fort’s commander, Gen. LeClaire (Alberto Morin), is a gentlemanly creep who pleasantly offers Sara a last indulgence of a snoot full of wine before being shoved before a firing squad still in her habit. Hogan’s quick draw sees the CO and his roomful of brass-buttoned officers blown to kingdom come in a blink, and red-blooded characters can finally get down to the proper business of fighting and fucking. The final battle scene was criticised by some, and it is at odds with the rest of the film to a certain degree, as Siegel visualises the ferocious battle as a murderous whirlwind that plays as Siegel’s riposte-cum-tribute to the climax of his former protégé’s The Wild Bunch. Forty-odd years later, though, it just seems like a damn great action climax—indeed, one of my favourites—in keeping with the determinedly gritty vicissitudes of its time. Hogan finally gets to prove his action chops, tossing dynamite like an arsenal of thunder and letting galloping horses drag him past the French guns so that he can let Beltrán and his renegades into the fort. Flames boil and limbs are severed as Siegel’s camerawork switches from rocketing tracking shots to handheld immersion in the midst of furious hand-to-hand melees.
Hogan reenters the brothel with the fort’s cashbox in a wheelbarrow and bashes his way into Sara’s room to find her in a bathtub: he climbs in fully clothed, explaining “I don’t have time!” when she comments he might at least take off his hat. The film’s last, great visual joke shows Hogan back on horseback and heading home, tetchily waving for his lady to catch up. Sister Sara is just as much his essential pain in the ass as before, dressed in all her finery as a woman of easy virtue, crossing the desert with her rough-hewn beau in dainty defiance of good sense.
By the 1960s, John Ford might have expected and deserved a time of general acclaim as an elder statesman and artistic-industrial titan in Hollywood. The most Oscar-laden director in the medium’s history, with nearly 50 years’ worth of popular hits behind him and a legacy that for many defined the very essence of an American director as well as a whole genre, the western, Ford should have been hailed as an old master and given carte blanche to indulge his autumnal vision. He was indeed on the cusp of gaining a new kind of acclaim, one he scarcely knew how to process or relate to, as a singular hero of the auterist critical school. Unfortunately, even Ford faced the fate of too many filmmakers working in a business with little memory, only ledgers—a career that ended not in the grandiosity of a rapturously received ninth symphony or rose-piled farewell performance, but with films of decreasing budget, patronised and dismissed by studios he helped build, as an industry in a swift decline engaged in desperate reorganisation.
Still, Ford was able to make his kind of film right up until the end—or at least he made damn sure by the time they were done they were his kind of film. If he had died after making the knockabout comedy Donovan’s Reef (1963), he would have stowed away his oeuvre with a gently rambunctious, humane fantasia about the joys of friendly fist fights and light premarital S&M, with a spirit of wryness and conciliation sneakily close to Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.” But his swan song was destined to be 7 Women, which saw release on the lower half of a double bill. Thus, he ended his career not with a crinkly wink, but a gob of tobacco-stained spit right in his audience’s eye.
When directors’ days shorten, their films tend to get longer. But Ford’s final feature film clocked in at barely 85 minutes, displaying signs of harsh editing and resembling the rudely functional completeness of a piece of Brutalist architecture. Despite its length, more dramatic tensions bubble under the surface of 7 Women than many much longer films begin to approach. Ford, a director who had always played the imperious tough guy in Hollywood, keeping his sensitive, well-read streak tucked away like an embarrassing birthmark, had long been fascinated with not merely the mythos of the frontier, be it geographical or psychological, but its sociological meaning, which, for better or worse, entailed the arrival of civilisation and stability in unruly and protean places. The act of faith in all of his mature films, even the most conscientiously dogged and questioning, like The Grapes of Wrath (1940) or Cheyenne Autumn (1962), assert that the better angels of human nature could win out over brute sectarianism and social prejudice eventually and find communal unity. In his more challenging works, particularly his last decade’s output, that unity might only be found on the level of individuals, as in The Searchers (1956), Sergeant Rutledge (1960), and Two Rode Together (1961). 7 Women offers no such clear hope. It’s closer in spirit to Samuel Beckett than Samuel Clemens,and contemplates the edge of a wilderness that cannot be tamed any further, tossing up barbarians and fanatics who destroy the sane between them.
The most obvious break with the rest of Ford’s oeuvre is that 7 Women is about women. Female characters were rarely focal points of Ford’s narratives, though his films were littered with strong and varied ones, sometimes taunting the males with independence, but more often representing the essence of civilisation overcoming their men as both overcame the landscape. 7 Women offers an almost entirely female cast left in the kind of frontier outpost where John Wayne, Henry Fonda. or Woody Strode would have stood in their defence. This outpost is a mission school and clinic situated somewhere in the wilds of northwestern China in the mid 1930s. The mission chief is Agatha Andrews (Margaret Leighton), the unquestioned authority, both material and moral, over a small coterie of aides far out of their psychic safety zones. Andrews’ aide is the sparrowlike Miss Argent (Mildred Dunnock), the image of a pinched and tremulously obeisant spinster. Kim (Hans William Lee) is the head of the staff of local men who help keep the mission operating.
Andrews’ two teachers are two relative newcomers, middle-aged Charles Pether (Eddie Albert) and very young Emma Clark (Sue Lyon). Pether has his wife Florrie (Betty Field) with him, and the part at first seem a rather pathetic, misplaced pair: Pether, having harboured a desire to be a preacher, is given to proselytising to his goggle-eyed, bewildered young Chinese pupils when he’s supposed to be teaching them the alphabet. Because Pether could only make enough money for the long-term support of his ailing mother, he’s only just married Florrie, his childhood sweetheart, pregnant though she’s the same age as her husband and perilously close to menopause. The perpetually worried and hair-trigger hysteric Florrie is the mission’s raw nerve and bellwether, listening for news of dread import, with the Mongolian warlord Tunga Khan known to be ravaging the frontier and rumoured to be committing atrocities. Andrews assures her charges that the mission isn’t in danger because she believes Tunga will not attack an American station.
The basis for 7 Women, interestingly, was the story “Chinese Finale” by Norah Lofts, who also provided the basis for the thematically very similar Hammer horror film The Witches, released the same year. Lofts’ fascination with independent women battling hostile forces, both internal and external, often encompassing the collapsing fringes of the declining colonial era, crossbreeds surprising neatly with Ford’s sensibility. A schism that commonly arises in Ford’s films between the genuinely committed and the destructively pompous is here given new context and taken to an extreme, as Andrews is quickly faced with as complete an opposite as she could expect. The mission has been without a doctor for some time, with the last two having pulled out at the last minute and Florrie increasingly worried about facing giving birth without medical care. Charles is sent to fetch the new arrival, but returns confusedly without anyone. Days later, the doctor arrives: Dr. D. R. Cartwright (Anne Bancroft) turns to the camera with a sleight of Ford’s hand that calls back to the similarly great introduction of the silhouetted Ringo Kid (John Wayne) in Stagecoach (1939). Similarly, just as Woody Strode’s Sergeant Rutledge was the new type of indomitable American hero, Cartwright is Ford’s type of woman, defined as creature of imperious action and touching the outer edges of androgyny with short curly hair, leather jacket, and boots.
Cartwright soon reveals herself more than ready, whether she means to or not, to shake up the mission. A drinker, smoker, hard-bitten professional, and probable atheist, she quickly upsets the niceties of the mission’s social life, arriving at the dinner table with a smoke in hand and making her unfamiliarity with saying grace readily known. Real conflict between Cartwright and Andrews combusts when Cartwright, after inspecting Florrie, tells both Pether and Andrews that she would be better off in a proper hospital rather than risking birth in the mission. Andrews explains to Cartwright that each of the mission workers is “a soldier” and that Florrie will have to take her chances. Cartwright explodes at this, accusing Andrews of punishing Florrie for the obvious fact that she and her husband had sex in the mission and calling Andrews a small-time dictator. Argent tries to mollify and chastise Cartwright for disturbing the peace. Soon, Cartwright is pitched into an unquestioned, if temporary, authority when she detects signs of typhoid in refugees streaming through the mission gates, and institutes a quarantine.
Just before Cartwright recognises the disease’s presence, the mission welcomed a group of refugees, including Miss Binns (Flora Robson), Mrs. Russell (Anna Lee), and Miss Ling (Jane Chang), three workers from a British-run mission that’s already been raided by Tunga Khan. Andrews quietly rejects their offers to lend a hand because they’re a different denomination and might further upset her little empire, but Binns has sufficient experience in nursing to aid and relieve Cartwright. The labour of dealing with the epidemic still falls most heavily on the doctor’s shoulders, whilst Pether works to exhaustion with the mission’s local workmen to burn infected clothing and bury the dead.
Although Ford certainly didn’t mean for 7 Women to be his last movie, its motifs connect to a vast swathe of his films with a summative work’s clarity and concision, but not in a manner that suggests any kind of peace being made. The isolated setting and the drama’s compressed, playlike structure analysing a gallery of besieged characters, inevitably recalls not just Ford’s westerns, but also The Lost Patrol (1934). As with that early adventure film, a less familiar setting allows Ford to reduce the enemy “other” to something close to abstract symbol, as opposed to his increasingly fraught and empathetic depiction of Native Americans. Ford’s famously strong patriotism, religious conviction, and interest in social niceties and hierarchies were often counterbalanced by a contemptuous attitude to false versions of those faiths—prissy, empty piety was usually portrayed as a potent, but individual ill in Ford’s earlier works like Stagecoach, like the embezzling bank manager declares “What’s good for the banks is good for the country” and the women who chase Claire Trevor out of town, or How Green Was My Valley (1941), where the good minister is tormented by self-righteous parishioners. Perhaps the Ford work 7 Women feels in most immediate dialogue with is Fort Apache (1948), concentrating on an isolated locale where the little rituals that hold the civil balance are threatened by the arrival of a new figure of power, and the nature of such power is analysed in successive postures, as an increasingly irrational commander is revealed as a straw dummy whilst a cooler subordinate’s moral pragmatism can’t save the day. The dialectic of the two character types helps interrogate the difference between authoritarianism and leadership, and on a deeper level, between existential reaction to changing circumstance and adherence to unyielding codes of humanism and fanaticism. Leighton and Bancroft are cast in the Henry Fonda and John Wayne roles, respectively, with the newcomer as the voice of reason rather than that of vainglory, who exposes the whole project as a kind of sham, if perhaps a necessary sham.
The underlying drama is given a peculiar, deeper piquancy by the half-stated competition between Cartwright and Andrews for influence over Emma. The competition and its stakes are radically different for each woman, however. Cartwright recognises Emma as a young, fresh personality who she thinks should get out of the mission life before it sucks her dry. Andrews is powerfully in love with her pretty blonde charge, an attraction made painfully clear in an early scene when she catches sight of Emma partly undressed and her face contorts with bottomless pain and longing. During the quarantine, Cartwright is awakened from a few snatched hours of sleep to treat Emma, who has fallen to the disease. A moment of exhausted communion between Cartwright and Andrews comes when both sit at the tree at the centre of the mission compound—literal and spiritual axis of the mission—where earlier Andrews had been able to briefly take hold of Emma’s hand. Andrews, in her daze and grief, speaks of burying her emotions in her work. But that’s not working anymore. The seven women of the title do not include Cartwright, but rather the missionary ladies from whom she stands apart. Yet, Cartwright is certainly the hero of the film, a distinction that is quite deliberate. Her affectations rupture every presumption about womanhood seemingly upheld by the missionaries, but more than that, a carefully laid system of assumptions about what constitutes cohesive social values and duty of care. When she gets drunk after her tending to the sick, she incurs icy recriminations around the teetotallers’ table, and alludes to the lousy career choices she faced as a doctor in the U.S. where she worked in poor urban hospitals and finally fled after a love affair with “the wrong guy.”
Ford’s gift for realising character types with Dickensian vividness in the briefest of cinematic shorthand is apparent through 7 Women, occasionally touching the edges of camp caricature, as with Florrie’s early, quick leaps to florid worry and Mrs. Russell’s vehement reaction to Cartwright’s bottle of whisky. The casting certainly makes use of the actors’ screen personas from prior roles: Lyons, who had found brief fame acting in Lolita (1962) and then appeared in Night of the Iguana (1964), might well have been justifiably tired of playing objects of obsession for middle-aged pervs, whilst Leighton specialised in playing unstable, repressed figures, and Albert replays aspects of his role in Robert Aldrich’s Attack! (1956). But Ford and his screenwriters Janet Green and John McCormick complicate the schema with a vividness that is just as swift and precise. Ford’s visual language is deftly functional, yet always telling, usually perceiving this motley collective in group shots that survey them in a manner reminiscent of classic Dutch art’s group portraits and social studies, luminous faces amidst dark surrounds rendered by cinematographer Joseph LaShelle’s muted palettes dominated by shades of brown and grey.
Close-ups are privileges and dominance of the frame in contention: Andrews, at first unquestionably at the forefront of the visuals, is forced to contend with Cartwright in squared-off, geometrically balanced shots that see the two women holding each side of repeated shots. Andrews is pushed into the background and then generally cleaved from the group as she retreats into herself. The expansiveness of Ford’s cinema at its height is nowhere to be found here. Gone are the wide-open landscapes and languorous, enfolding studies in binding social ritual, and even the comic relief of boisterous brawling for blowing off steam (a welcome excision perhaps), something that the mission’s inhabitants have, quite literally, forbidden themselves.
The world beyond the mission walls becomes not free space, but oppressive zone of nullity, whilst its interior is dominated by narrow rectilinear shots in the shadowy hallway and dining room, cramming in upon the characters, a moral and psychological pressure cooker that quickly begins to work. Much like with Fritz Lang’s later Hollywood films, a pinched budget and lower expectation steered Ford back to a minimalist, interiorised, semi-expressionistic quality like a reflexive return to the art of the early cinema both men understood well. A nightmarish quality does permeate many moments of 7 Women, often evoked in shots staring down the oppressive length of the mission’s central corridor, where Pether retreats in agony as Florrie, locked away from the rest of the mission to keep her and her child safe from disease, shouts out to him with shrill, peevish demands; you can almost feel the mutual sense of long-cheated love turned into grinding misery. Much later, Cartwright, draped in exotic finery that entails submission to an alien, personality-erasing force that turns her into a ghost of other ages, stalks the same space with a lantern, planning death and deliverance. The social structure of the mission survives the crisis of the epidemic but cannot withstand the portents of Tunga Khan’s coming, first ominously suggested by a distant infernal glow on the horizon as a town burns. Ignoring Andrews’ angry cries, government troops flee the area, stripping the mission of protection both actual and psychological.
Following his back-breaking and depleting service during the epidemic, the imminence of a new danger finally shocks Pether out of his nervous timidity as he decries his vain actions in dragging his wife with him to this place, and vaults him into a newfound zone of confident command. Realising the exposed position of the mission once the soldiers leave, Pether assumes a take-charge attitude, telling everyone to get ready to leave, and sets out with Kim in the mission’s single, old jalopy to find out what’s going on. Later, the sound of the car’s horn calls a watchman to open the mission gate, only to allow a band of horsemen to charge in and conquer the outpost, the horn now a detached relic of conquest.
Kim, brought back to the mission as a captive, recounts Pether’s heroic but tragically absurd death in his first act of selfless valor—trying to intervene in a rape. Tunga Khan’s men then kill Kim at Andrews’ feet, sparking her to erupt in rage and sorrow. Tunga Khan (Mike Mazurski) has the women locked up in a supply shed, intending to hold them for ransom. Miss Ling, an aristocratic Chinese woman, is singled out for humiliation and abuse. Of course, Florrie goes into labour in the shed, still beggared by her husband’s sudden, fatal display of bravery. The reduction of space to the airless and comfortless shed precipitates Andrews’ total collapse in desperate detachment even as the others work to help Florrie give birth. Mother and baby survive the ordeal, and even Tunga Khan and his men are delighted by the arrival.
The beauty of 7 Women lies largely in a contemplation of its characters as beings in flux, fitting a film that seems to be resituating Ford’s eternal frontier as a place of the psyche where new worlds are at stake. Ford allows each character a theatrical moment that reveals something crucial about them, but then watches as each displays different facets under intense pressure: Pether’s transformation and Andrews’ slow crack-up are the two most overt, but by film’s end, most of the characters are revealed as, or pushed to become, the opposites of what they seem at the outset. Even the pathetic and annoying Florrie gains a peculiar dignity in hard-won perspective and the calm that comes from contemplating truly difficult circumstances. Indeed, dignity is a true currency in 7 Women, valuable to those who have it, those who want it, and those who want to take it away from others. Early in the film Andrews tries to assert her influence over Emma by describing Cartwright as superficially exciting but spiritually “dead,” a proposition Emma instinctively rejects. Indeed, as the film continues, one watches the painful death of Andrews as a personality as she’s consumed by repression and loses all dignity in the name of retaining it. Tunga Khan’s main pleasure is to subjugate personalities with pride, first with Miss Ling, who is raped off-screen and glimpsed being forced to tend to Tunga Khan’s concubine (Irene Tsu) as a serving maid. Yet, when Cartwright asks her how she is, Ling replies with cool fortitude, “I’m alive.”
By the film’s standard, Ling is the first to win the ultimate victory of retaining her sense of self in the face of trial. Cartwright herself becomes the next object of Tunga Khan’s predatory interest as her displays of fierce will and powerful personality intrigue him more than the other women, even the pretty but colourless Emma: only Cartwright, who, in her fearsome independence seems both an emissary from a feminist future but also a more ancient, uncurbed personality, an Empress hiding in riding jodhpurs, can offer Tunga Khan the unique pleasure of both robust erotic excitement and the pleasure of its submission. This desire becomes a weapon Cartwright seizes even at the cost of momentary degradation, as she makes a deal with Tunga Khan to have sex with him in exchange for better treatment of the prisoners and provisions for the baby. It’s strangely appropriate that Ford’s long career of portraying hard-drinking, asocial, highly talented professionals is crystallised in a female figure who belittles even Howard Hawks’ tough women whilst strongly resembling them, because unlike them, Cartwright isn’t just functional in a masculine world, she is, as she says herself, “better!” She meets her sleazy captor before fucking him with a cool-eyed, smoke-spouting smile that levels mountains. There’s a definite, deliberate note of black humour in the way Ford portrays the Mongol brutes, signalled first by having the gall to cast Mazurski and Woody Strode (as Tunga Khan’s “lean” lieutenant) with a straight face as their leaders, and confirmed in humorous asides until a climactic moment of death when one drops dead with the suddenness of a Loony Tunes character after ingesting poison.
Like Lee Marvin’s eponymous thug in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), Tunga Khan and his men are on hand to embody primal masculinity as wild and juvenile proto-punks who delight in assaults on the trappings of civilisation, loping not out of the real steppes but from the recesses of modernity’s nightmares. There’s also a similarity to the kinds of crude, but gentle-souled giants Wallace Beery and Victor McLaglen played for Ford, stripped of their virtuous simplicity and reduced to beasts with appetites. They rant, smash, tear, rape, pillage, murder, and give boisterous stage laughs. Tunga Khan and his lieutenant are in the midst of a silent power struggle, a struggle that mirrors the one between the women but is played out in different fashion, signalled in a series of silent postures, as the lieutenant makes a play to impress Cartwright before Tunga Khan by engaging in a wrestling match. Tunga Khan immediately recognises the unspoken challenge and strips down to fight his aide himself, quickly and brutally cracking the man’s neck in combat, whilst Cartwright watches, smoking a cigarette with sardonic fascination. Rank prostitution for a good cause scarcely bothers Cartwright, who’s probably had one-night stands in Chicago as fetid and clumsy as Tunga Khan probably is, but Andrews, when she learns what’s happened, works herself up into a glaze-eyed tantrum, calling Cartwright the Whore of Babylon and other cute biblical phrases. Soon, Andrews has lost what little respect and patience the other women could show her: by the very end even Miss Argent snaps with livid anger, “I never want to hear another word from you as long as I live!”
7 Women stands up with a crucially similar film released the same year, Robert Wise’s The Sand Pebbles, as the first work put out by Hollywood that feels assuredly like a metaphor for America’s deepening involvement in Vietnam. It certainly comprehends with surprising self-criticality and grimness the potential problems of an age of global reach where do-gooding blends problematically with cultural colonisation, filtered through the (then) not-so-distant past: Ford, who felt compelled to defend the war later, seems to have offloaded all of his psychic discontent here. The feeling that something is about to crack up nastily haunts 7 Women, geopolitics and sexual politics and even individual identity itself entering a no-man’s-land where all will be forcibly redefined, as if modernity is a bellows stoking every precept to white hot. The finale vibrates with anxiety and darkness as Cartwright, at Emma’s prompting and faced with the probably death of Florrie’s baby if not freed immediately, agrees to sell herself to Tunga Khan as permanent chattel to secure the release of the other women. This works, and Cartwright appears to the other prisoners now wrapped in the clothes of Tunga Khan’s concubine in a bleak gag that finally sees Cartwright forced into the part of traditional, doll-like female, and the seven women are carted away from the mission, The broken Andrews remains, awed by the spectacle of sacrifice required and given, echoing the similar self-sacrifice that defines The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.
The missionaries’ last sight of Cartwright is beautiful and chilling to equal degree, the doctor standing in her Chinese garb holding a lantern, aglow in near-darkness. Ford saves his greatest touch for a finale as memorable in its way as that of The Searchers, as Cartwright stalks the empty halls of the mission, the audience already forewarned she’s going to try something deadly and forced to watch it play out. Mutually assured destruction is the nihilistic metaphor at the heart of Ford’s swan song. Cartwright gets one of the most blackly amusing and stirring kiss-off lines in film history as she cracks her cup against the Khan’s and toasts, “Here’s to ya, you bastard!” She waits until the Khan drops dead from his poisoned drink before swallowing her own. Ford fades to black as she leans back to be embraced by the dark.
Focusing on the debut feature work of famous, and infamous, figures of film
Debut feature films of: John Ford and Emin Alper, directors
By Marilyn Ferdinand
It isn’t every day that one can watch two films in one day—one from the early days of the motion picture industry and one hot off the presses—and see such a straight line of descent from the early to the new. Add to that “coincidence” the fact that both films represent the feature debuts of one legendary filmmaker and one possible legend in the making, and the experience is all the more powerful. Lucky was I! I had the rare privilege of seeing the first in what would be a long line of iconic Westerns by John Ford, and a more genre-mixed Western by one of the rising directors of Turkey’s emerging national cinema, Emin Alper. I had not realized the strong connection between these films when I made plans to see them, but the discovery was a highly illuminating one.
Straight Shooting was the first feature to emerge from the Cheyenne Harry short-film series Ford shot for Universal. The series’ star, Harry Carey, would continue to play kind-hearted outlaw Cheyenne Harry into the 1930s, though Ford’s working relationship with Carey would largely end by 1921. After getting a few shorts under his belt, Ford knew how to get what he wanted and delivered an action-packed Western centered on a range war, with homesteader Sweetwater Malone (George Berrell) standing fast against the threats of cattle rancher Thunder Flint (Duke Lee), who illegally stakes a claim on the creek they both share and threatens death to anyone who trespasses. Of course, Cheyenne Harry, who’d rather keep himself to himself, gets pulled into the fray.
A seemingly amoral rogue who finds himself pulled into the righteous side of a conflict, often with the enticement of a sweet and beautiful girl as partial incentive, is a stock situation that has been changed up and modified over the years, but never completely obliterated. With such a conventional through line, Ford insisted on injecting more realism with a strategy he would pursue his entire career—shooting on location. He chose Monument Valley (and is credited in some places with its discovery as a filming location), away from the artificial frontier of backlots and California ranches, to people with his ranchers, homesteaders, and outlaws. I can attest that the “hideout” for outlaw Black-Eye Pete (Milton Brown) and his gang—a valley beyond a steep rise guarded by lookouts on either side of the pass—looks very much like what a real gang would use.
Going from a short to a feature-length format may have set up a tendency I’ve seen in quite a few of Ford’s films to include a comic middle act that bears very little upon the main action of the film, and, in fact, could be popped out without any loss of continuity. With Straight Shooting, that middle act takes place in a saloon/rooming house where Harry goes to strike a deal with Flint to run the homesteaders off their land. After this bit of plot is slapped into place, a non sequitur involving the lily-livered sheriff surveilling Harry and Placer Fremont (Vester Pegg), one of Flint’s men, as they get drunk and pursue some burglars provides a bit of comic relief, though I was distressed to see Harry’s horse become so thoroughly spooked by the driving rain Ford engineered that it had to be removed after its opening appearance. In fact, horses and actors in danger during chases and descending the steep path to Pete’s hideout had me on the edge of my seat almost as much as the massing of the ranchers set to attack the homesteaders gathered at Malone’s cabin. One “dead” attacker had to “resurrect” to get out of the way of a horse on a path to trampling him. Although fascinating, such scenes are sobering reminders of how wild the early days of filmmaking actually were.
There’s no question in this fictional universe that there are good people and bad people. While Straight Shooting only goes so far as to indict Flint and his men through the cowardly act of shooting Malone’s son Ted (Ted Brooks) in the back, the film does seem to show a bias for people who settle down on the farm and start families. Malone’s daughter Joan (Molly Malone) switches her affection from her misguided beau Danny (Hoot Gibson) to Harry, and the final clinch inevitably comes after Harry weighs the pros and cons of giving up his crooked, carefree ways. While I haven’t seen the Cheyenne Harry films that follow this one, I reckon Harry slipped free of the marital noose to carry on his unofficial Lone Ranger duties.
The multi-award-winning film Beyond the Hill is a horse of a different color primarily in its insistence on withholding the blood-quickening violence from the audience and siding with the ranchers. The outlines of the conflict come slowly into view, as family patriarch Faik (Tamer Levent) welcomes his son Nusret (Reha Özcan) and grandsons Zafer (Berk Hakman) and Caner (Furkan Berk Kiran) back to the family homestead in a craggy corner of Turkey that quite resembles the Western frontier. Faik has 50 sheep grazing his pasturelands and a large stand of poplars, and Mehmet (Mehmet Ozgur), his wife Meryem (Banu Fotocan), and son Sulu (Sercan Gumus) are his hired hands. Faik declares that they will kill a goat to prepare a proper feast for his family, ignoring Mehmet’s suggestion that they wait a bit. Mehmet correctly susses that Faik means to kill the goat he took from a group of nomads that have been grazing their herd on Faik’s land.
The nomads are instantly recognizable to Turkish audiences as the Kurds with whom Turkey has been fighting a protracted war for decades, and former soldier Zafer is a mental casualty of that conflict. It is also apparent from their dress and customs that Mehmet and his family are Kurds, living under the thumb of Faik in substandard quarters due to a financial debt Mehmet owes that is never explicitly outlined. The political parallels of the story may be lost on a foreign audience, but the relative position of master and servant that allows Faik to bark orders at Meryem, Caner to threaten Sulu and his dog, and Nusret to get drunk and try to assault Meryem is universal.
Unlike in Straight Shooting, the nomads are never seen. Faik assumes they are massing to attack him after he kills several of their goats for trespassing on and “destroying” his pasture—never mind that he has 50 goats of his own that put stress on the land. Like the ranchers in Ford’s West, the nomads’ argument, as communicated to us through Faik, is that they have been grazing the land since the Ottoman Empire; Faik is the newcomer/homesteader who insists on the sanctity of private property and his right to defend it in any way he sees fit, as though history began when his family settled the land.
An interesting parallel between the two films is a character that is essentially a double-agent. Danny belongs to Flint’s gang, but is courting Joan and feeding intelligence to the Malones and Harry about Flint’s impending attacks. Sulu keeps a place of his own away from the Faik compound and is frequently the messenger who speak of thefts and attacks on Faik’s livestock. The morning after Nusret accosts Meryem—whether he completed the rape or she fended him off is never known—he rouses from the spot on the floor where he passed out and goes outside. A figure with a rifle takes aim, and we soon learn from Sulu that Nursret has been shot in the ankle. A parallel scene occurs in Straight Shooting right down to the exact camera angle, similar landscape, and object of attack—the son of the patriarch. In Beyond the Hill, however, the shooter is never revealed. Nonetheless, by the end of the film, the enemy Faik locates as an outside band of intruders may, in fact, be one of his own, someone filled with resentment who may be trying to escalate the disagreement to incite violence that will drive Faik off the land for good.
In both films, the primacy of a manly code that is enforced with guns, not laws, is front and center. The sheriff in Ford’s film is cowardly and ineffectual, and the Turkish police know very well what is going on but choose to accept Faik’s lies while refusing the goat meat, religiously and legally unclean for having been stolen, he offers them. Beyond the Hill goes further in fetishizing guns, as Caner can barely keep his hands off his grandfather’s rifles, and the sound of gunfire provides a dramatic forwarding of the plot. Zafer, plagued by hallucinations of his fallen comrades, offers a corrective to the macho entitlement of his grandfather while ridiculing his younger brother for being a sissy, showing that little that is learned about the atrocity of war is passed on to the next generation. The final image set to upbeat, heroic music, the only nondiagetic music in the film, shows Faik and company marching along a ridge to meet the enemy, the half-lame Nusret dragging behind. We want to laugh, just as we laugh when Harry is domesticated by Joan, but the certainty that history will repeat itself makes for a rueful close to this eastern Western.
I had a Top 10 best time at the movies last night as the invaluable Northwest Chicago Film Society treated film buffs to another rare morsel—Douglas Sirk’s Old West confection Take Me to Town—something this classic film program has done for 40 years. When it lost its home after the last of a series of bank owners sold the Portage Park bank building where the cinema was housed, young film buffs Julian Antos and Becca Hall struck a deal with the nearby Portage Theater to join their revival programming. When the NCFS had to move from its previous Saturday-night slot to Wednesday night, many of us were worried that audience numbers would dwindle and that the program would gasp its last. Happily, audiences have been enthusiastic, and NFCS will be back in September for another season.
Antos and Hall seem to be stuck on Sirk, inaugurating their new home with Written on the Wind (1956) and securing the very rare The First Legion (1951) at the previous venue. Hall explained that the 35mm archival print of Take Me to Town they secured from Universal is rarely screened because it was made with a transitional soundtrack that most projectors are not equipped to read. However, a simple change of a red LED bulb to a white bulb made the sound, if not perfect, quite acceptable, and the Technicolor print was visually vibrant. By showing Take Me to Town, Antos and Hall have championed yet another film in the Sirk canon that deserves to be better known.
Take Me to Town is a Western with music and dancing girls, cops and robbers, preachers and pious townspeople—the whole nine yards. It is not a musical, but rather another one of Sirk’s brilliant realizations of a milieu that seems familiar from a hundred different films, but that takes the time to be individual and confound our expectations with careful observations of how people really live and act.
The film opens on a train. A vendor is hawking apples, magazines, cigars, and other sundries as he walks the aisle of the two-car train. Isolated in one of the cars is a “fancy” woman—Mae Madison (Ann Sheridan)—sitting with two men. She asks the vendor for something to keep her cool, pulls a magazine out of his basket, and hands the vendor a quarter, though he says the stories are not likely to cool her off. She begs to differ, as she fans herself with her purchase. When Mae learns they are an hour from their destination, she announces she needs to use the facilities. Only then do we see that she is handcuffed to the man sitting next to her. The man sitting opposite her unlocks her cuff, locks his own wrist to the man, and Mae steps into the ladies room.
Mae breaks out the window and jumps to freedom. The man she was cuffed to, Newton Cole (Phillip Reed), is dragged out of his seat by the U.S. Marshall, Ed Daggett (Larry Gates), as he investigates the noise. Cole takes the opportunity to brain Daggett with a vase and grab the key to unlock the cuffs. He dumps the unconscious Daggett off the train. Mae makes her way to a train station where she buys a ticket north to the logging community of Timberline. She assumes the name Vermillion O’Toole and stars in the dance-hall show at the Elite Opera House, which is owned by her friend Rose (Lee Patrick).
In a neighboring town, folks aren’t too happy that the Elite Opera House exists. Most of the residents are pious and prudish, particularly Edna Stoffer (Phyllis Stanley), who has her eye on handsome widower Will Hall (Sterling Hayden). She offers to look after his three young sons, Corny (Lee Aaker), Petey (Harvey Grant), and Bucket (Dusty Henley), while he takes off for a few days’ work at a nearby logging camp. The adorable, blond boys don’t like her (“I hate her,” Bucket says, which, with “I like her (it),” is the only sentence he utters.) and decide to look for a more agreeable woman to be their new mother. The three boys ride together on one horse to the opera house, dismount with the help of a convenient tree stump, and are instantly smitten with Vermillion. They invite her to stay with them, and when both Cole and Daggett show up in town after having seen her picture in the Pictorial Gazette, she agrees. While cooling her heels away from Timberline, she and Will meet, fall in love, and confound the prejudices of the community by making their “housekeeping” relationship permanent.
With a plotline as old as the West, what makes this film so different from so many others? Without question, it’s the film’s honesty, sincerity, and willingness to engage with reality. In a film of the same era and ilk, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954), the lumberjacks swing their axes in time to the music and fall in love with the first women they see. In Take Me to Town, Sirk allows his actors to do real tree-felling work like putting their shoulders into cross-sawing, and he seamlessly inserts footage of tree-topping, which is as dangerous as it is awe-inspiring to watch. Will repeatedly rejects Edna, while declaring her a good woman nonetheless, and knows how to respect his own space when Vermillion must spend a night in his cabin. We also hear about Daggett’s determination to get Cole and Vermillion because he was nearly killed when he was thrown from the train—this isn’t a cartoon fall, where a character punches a 10-foot hole in the ground and crawls out of it. A final fight scene that occurs is uniquely staged, as Cole scrambles up a steep incline, with Daggett and Will chasing after him and holding onto vegetation to keep from sliding down. A steep drop into a pool of water fed by a waterfall looms in the background, but instead of ending the scene with Cole’s death, he merely rolls toward the edge and stops, knocked cold from the fall.
Will turns out to be a part-time preacher who is trying to build a church. He forces his congregation to live their ideals when he welcomes Vermillion to stay on and pushes her into community affairs. When a congregant openly challenges him on letting a woman of Vermillion’s type sit in their church—an open-air affair until funds can be raised to build a proper one—Will points out that they are outside where the church wall would have stood and belts him for his unchristian insolence. It’s also the first substantial clue we have that Will has fallen for Vermillion.
Vermillion herself is a little too good to be true, perhaps a sign of the repressed times in which the film came out. She’s been convicted of being an accessory to Cole’s illegal operations at his Denver dance hall, but she asserts she didn’t know what was going on—in other words, it’s o.k. with the Hays Code for her to go free. She clearly is a good-time girl, but she knows how to cook, sew, and clean house, and she falls instantly for Will’s three boys. In other words, she’s actually a good mother and homemaker trapped inside a vavoom body and eager to clean up her act and serve as the town’s schoolteacher, as her theme song “The Tale of Vermillion O’Toole” tells us she becomes.
However, this is Ann Sheridan we’re talking about. Sheridan is one of the most talented actresses to come from mid-century America, infusing clichéd scripts with nuance and showing a willingness to play against the grain of the story. She’s given exceptionally good dialogue in the smart, full script by Richard Morris, who rather specialized in good-time girls, with The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964) and Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967) to his credit. And she makes the most of it, treating the boys’ declaration that they are “looking for a woman” with a little surprise, but a lot of understanding and dignity. She’s a hard taskmaster to the townspeople as she rehearses them like the pro she is for a fundraising theatrical she has organized. When Edna quits, taking her piano with her, Vermillion is venomous to her. While we might understand Vermillion’s emotional outburst based on how she’s been high-hatted and put down by Edna, there’s an edge to Sheridan’s attack that makes it clear she’s got a strong streak of nasty in her that is pushing some good people too far. She’s also a sensualist who dances uninhibitedly and displays her sexual attraction to Will openly. Thus, Sheridan risks alienating our good will toward her character for the sake of a more truthful performance.
This is also Douglas Sirk we’re talking about. He was a religious man who explored faith in quite a few of his films. This film is no different, as Will’s congregation voices sincere and convincing belief that sin is real, and that Vermillion and the Elite Opera House are bringing it unwillingly into their lives. Their view is intolerant, and Will confronts them on it, but the debate is serious and not offered up for laughs the way other aspects of the film are. Hayden is a sexy, believable lumberjack, but he’s also a very convincing man of God, a departure from his more numerous tough-guy roles.
Sirk is also well known for racy innuendo in his famous melodramas, and he indulges the double entendres in the script with relish, allowing that Will likes Vermillion’s “meat pies,” a line put into little Corny’s mouth for a little extra kick of perversity. He ends the film happily, but leaves a question dangling in the air about whether the rather boring life of a preacher’s wife in a backwoods town will be enough for a worldly woman like Vermillion. As long as the sex with Will is good, I think it will be.
When we think of postwar malaise reflected in motion pictures, film noir is the style that usually springs to mind. As most students of the form know, noir transcends genre, inflecting not only crime films, but also Westerns, women’s pictures, scifi, and other staples. However, noir certainly wasn’t the only style reflecting a pessimistic outlook. Problem films and angry teens and young men were all the rage in the 50s, and Westerns, too, gave in to exhaustion. Ride the High Country (1962), directed by WWII vet Sam Peckinpah, certainly is the epitome of end-of-the-trail films, but Day of the Outlaw, a Poverty Row film made by Security Pictures, was about as bleak as a Western with a “happy” ending could get, and I tend to think that it might have been an influence on Peckinpah’s later effort.
Blaise Starrett (Robert Ryan) and his ranch foreman Dan (Nehemiah Persoff) are shown in the opening under the credits piloting their horses through deep snow to a small town in Wyoming territory. It’s unusual for them to come off the range during the winter, and Vic (Don Elson), the owner of the general store, wonders how they could have used up their supplies so quickly. Starrett, a mass of indignant belligerence, says he came in to settle a dispute as old as the West—a farmer, Hal Crane (Alan Marshal), intends to erect a barbed-wire fence to keep Starrett’s cattle out of his fields. Starrett sends Dan to buy some kerosene so he can set the wagon containing the barbed wire ablaze; he condemns Vic for ordering the fencing for Crane and for being seduced by the business the farmers bring him to support their interests over the ranchers.
Helen Crane (Tina Louise), having seen Starrett ride in, comes to appeal to him to leave her husband alone. She knows Blaise will kill Hal, who won’t back down from a fight even though he has never fired a gun. But she has more on her mind than that—she and Blaise became lovers when she and Hal first came to the territory, and Helen is bitter that Blaise rejected her when he could have had her for the asking. The drawn-out and fairly unnecessary scene comes to an end when Starrett gets up to look for Dan and Hal. A shootout in the local saloon is imminent, but a large and imposing man in uniform comes into the saloon just as guns are about to be drawn.
Jack Bruhn (Burl Ives), a retired Union officer, and his gang of outlaws are on the run from the U.S. Cavalry. They are wanted for stealing $40,000 in gold, and Bruhn disarms all the townsmen to prevent an attack. They intend to stay the night and ride out in the morning. Bruhn demands absolute discipline from his men, forbidding them from touching either a drop of whiskey or the four women in town, and has Starrett take him to Doc Langer (Dabbs Greer), the veterinarian, for some patching up. He took a bullet, and Langer, unskilled at performing surgery on humans, is sweating bullets as he works on the unanesthetized Bruhn. Although he extracts the bullet, he tells Starrett it went in deep, and it’s more than likely that Bruhn will die from internal bleeding. If that happens, the gang will be off their tether, free to rape and pillage to their hearts’ content. Starrett cooks up a scheme to lead the gang into the mountains where they will all die from exposure, a sacrifice of his own life he’s willing to make after realizing he was eager to shoot Crane down for no real reason.
Day of the Outlaw was shot on location near Mt. Bachelor in Oregon. A ski resort had been opened there in 1958, so it’s possible that De Toth thought they would be able to combine authenticity with comfort; however, snowstorms caused delays, and Ryan developed pneumonia that had him on bed rest for a week. In truth, Ryan looks pretty haggard throughout this film, and producer/screenwriter Philip Yordan has been quoted as saying, “Everyone was on the bum with that picture.” In this case, however, the cast’s discontent adds mightily to the sense of claustrophobia and helplessness that gives this film its gravity.
Ives’ Bruhn uses his commanding presence and the testimony of Shorty (Jack Woody), who served under him, as to his ruthlessness with those who disobey his orders to keep his gang in line. Tied to his honor as a former soldier and haunted by a massacre he led in Utah, Bruhn is an odd choice of leader for a bunch of thugs. Ives put a spin on his Big Daddy performance from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) that makes his fear-inspiring position believable, but it is his waning energy as his life drains away that creates the most effective tension in the picture. Ives even has a Brick in this film, a young man named Gene (David Nelson) who seems extremely out of place among the crazy, garden-variety, Western outlaws Bruhn leads. His basic decency and desire to protect Vic daughter’s Ernine (Venetia Stevenson), to whom he is attracted, has him continually bolstering Bruhn’s authority, and Bruhn protects him like a son.
In the scene that may have influenced the wedding reception in Ride the High Country, Bruhn grants his restless men’s request to bring the townswomen over to dance. The ensuing caricature of an evening social is truly grotesque. The camera spins as the women are dragged around the floor. Helen is spun so hard her hair comes undone and whips around her visage of abject disgust and fear; she eventually must be rescued from the gropes of her dance partner. The trek into the mountains not only lends a stark authenticity to the struggle for survival, but also seems to present some real dangers. The snow was very deep, and the horses had to be whipped through to break trail. The penultimate scene, in which one of the thugs has frozen to death overnight and the other has lost the use of his hands, is both gruesome and pathetic. The final shootout we always come to expect at the end of Westerns is given a genuinely tense and unique twist.
I love Robert Ryan as an actor, but I can’t say much for his performance here. He has the least interesting of the lead roles, and lacks the charisma and youth to be a believable lover for the voluptuous and much younger Tina Louise. Admittedly, the actor chosen to play her husband is no looker, but he has a certain backbone that comes through as more attractive than Ryan’s scrappiness. In general, the supporting actors were given good dialogue and execute it well, filling out this very cheap-looking film with a believable community under siege. With an A-list budget and some A-list actors, this film could have inspired some comparisons with elements of McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971). Its happy and redemptive ending, foreshadowed for at least one of its characters, mars the cold bleakness De Toth builds up admirably, but doesn’t entirely erase it. The West is hardly finished in Day of the Outlaw, but, like Bruhn, we know the end is near.
In the early 1960s, the Hollywood Western genre was beginning its long decline. The genre’s most iconic stars, like John Wayne, James Stewart, and Henry Fonda, aged, the directors who had fostered in its greatest years were themselves fading, the “adult” westerns of the ’50s had begun an antimythic trend that corroded the traditional mores of the horse opera, and television, with dozens of Western-themed shows on the schedule, was sapping the remnant vitality of the form. And yet, Westerns were still hugely popular worldwide, including in Europe, where, with the decline in American-produced fare, some producers wanted to get some of that sweet legal tender that oatsers could still generate. The late ’50s and early ’60s saw a smattering of attempts to make Westerns outside of the traditional American milieu, and a template was created when Hammer Studios honcho Michael Carreras had the bright idea of shooting the 1961 Anglo-Spanish coproduction Terrain Brutal (Savage Guns) in Almeria, Spain. After a couple more multinational follow-ups, the first Italian-produced Western, Duello nel Texas, debuted; the historical musclemen sagas or “peplum” movies that formed much of Italy’s genre cinema was running out of steam, and something else had to fill the void.
This experiment in international genre resuscitation might have finished up as an ignominious pop-kitsch footnote if not for one Sergio Leone, an experienced screenwriter and assistant director who had recently graduated to official directing credits with the 1961 peplum pic The Colossus of Rhodes and wanted to tackle the genre. Leone, the son of early film director Roberto Roberti (birth name Vincenzo Leone) and actress Edvige Valcarenghi, claimed great affinity with the West as a subject of private enthusiasm, and disliked the more psychological, moralistic variety of Western that had arisen in the late ’50s, of which the likes of The Fastest Gun in the West (1956) or The Hanging Tree (1959) might serve as good examples. Leone resolved to toss out the psychological and metaphoric weight and get down and dirty. He began looking for a star, first trying Henry Fonda and then others, like Charles Bronson, James Coburn, and even Duello nel Texas’ star Richard Harrison. He finally found a taker in Clint Eastwood, the slender, stone-faced young actor known for the TV series Rawhide, and soon produced a huge hit that defined the Spaghetti Western in the short term and had no small impact on cinema in general.
Leone battered together a script with the help of Víctor Andrés Catena and Jaime Comas Gil, and had English dialogue written by Mark Lowell, but the film was structured to lessen the reliance on dialogue, with actors in smaller roles mostly dubbed. Leone’s ideal of the Western translated into an Italian visual style became the priority, offering up ebullient widescreen compositions that reproduce lighting and colour effects and arrangement of elements that call to mind the finest effects of Renaissance painting. The difficulty in taking A Fistful of Dollars seriously in and of itself is the immediately obvious fact that Leone and his collaborators egregiously ripped off Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961), taking a cue from the successful Western adaptation of Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai (1954)— The Magnificent Seven (1960). Leone later tried to defend himself by claiming he’d taken as much inspiration from the classic Italian play Servant of Two Masters, something which film writer Christopher Frayling emphasises. But this seems like blather, considering A Fistful of Dollars follows Yojimbo practically scene for scene: the same subplots, characters, narrative gimmicks, and even similar shots. Kurosawa successfully sued for a share of the profits, but it’s arguably only fair that he was hoist by his own petard, considering the debt his film owed Dashiell Hammett and the fact that it was a tribute to the Western traditions of John Ford.
In many ways, however, the closeness of the template and its unofficial, on-the-sly status, makes for a revelatory creation. The contrast of Kurosawa’s vision and Leone’s, differing takes by two cinematic titans on a simple and wittily brutal genre tale, is one of the few opportunities the cinema has ever offered for such clear comparison of disparate creative impulses. Kurosawa’s film is cool, crisply etched, his camera usually standing far back, the framing as sharp and refined as the edge of Toshiro Mifune’s katana blade; Leone’s frames jostle with detail, colossal close-ups, and multi-hued lighting that work in a symphonic fashion. Another difference is temperamental. Kurosawa doesn’t introduce the subplot of a woman who’s been forced to become a concubine by evil men, separating her from her husband and son, until halfway through Yojimbo. Leone makes one of the first images of his more operatic film that of the enslaved woman’s son trying to sneak into the house where she’s kept, from which he’s chased by sleazy thugs, who then beat up his father when he tries to protect the lad. This occurs in the casually observant eyeline of Joe (Eastwood), the wandering, poncho-clad mercenary who arrives in the tiny Mexican town of San Miguel, and right from that moment, it’s certain he knows not to give a damn about what chaos he starts.
Two clans are competing for the lucrative border-smuggling trade in weapons and liquor for which San Miguel is an ideal operating base. The Baxter cadres, led by the nominal sheriff John Baxter (Wolfgang Lukschy), face off against the three Rojos brothers—Ramón (Gian Maria Volonté), Esteban (Sieghardt Rupp), and Don Miguel (Antonio Prieto)—and their hired guns. Joe is harassed by the Baxters’ heavies and advised by tavern owner Silvanito (José Calvo) to hurry away after explaining the calamity that’s engulfed the town. Joe, however, seems to see opportunity—exterminating four of the Baxters’ gunmen with his own phenomenally fast draw—and tries to sell his services, in turn, to both the Baxters and the Rojos. But neither are exactly comfortable outfits to work for: Baxter’s Lady Macbeth of a wife, Consuelo (Margarita Lozano), wants to have him killed off quickly, and the Rojos are driven along by Machiavellian bastard Ramón, who contrives a successful ambush of a federale unit to rob them of the gold they’re transporting. So Joe sets up a battle between the two sides by arranging two of the dead soldiers’ bodies in a graveyard and sells information to each band, making the Rojos think the corpses are still-living survivors of the massacre they’ll have to finish off, and then tipping the Baxters to the advantage they might have in capturing the soldiers alive.
This last flourish, the impudence toward propriety and a purely makeshift sense of existence where even the dead are props to be used in the mean business of staying alive, is pure, original Leone, one of the touches that helped define his style. Leone was making films about the Wild West, but his thinking always seemed even more ancient. At the very least, he tapped into something mostly latent in the genre that had always been tidied over by American Western filmmakers seeking a veneer of relevance to contemporary society. Leone saw that it was precisely the wildness, the often barely discernible patina of civilisation reduced and reveling in animalistic behaviours that was the greater part of the genre’s pleasure. Men are hairy, sweaty, dirty, horny, greedy, and often ruthless in his movies. Basic opposites are always functioning in Leone’s films, in spite of the refinement of the style: life, death, earth, sky, rich, poor, man, woman. Personalities are present, ethics hazily visible, certain codes certainly dominant, but defined only by direct and basic force. The reduction is signaled by the animated cut-outs that form the credit sequence, and this also introduces the new note of pop-art to the proceedings.
The simultaneously deepening tactile and moral realism in Leone’s films and the unrealism, the borderline-mythic touches and the distancing from historical context, is one of the great contradictions in cinema. Emblems are important. The Baxter house, a roughly carpentered, but still recognisable approximation of a classic Yankee manor, and the Rojos house, with its lustrous Spanish white and columns, present not merely the abodes of warring gangs, but also warring civilisations and the contrast of Old World elegance versus American solidity. Joe himself, with his regulation cowboy gear and swathing poncho, blends cultural tropes in a suggestive fashion. In between the buildings, the no-man’s-land of San Miguel’s main street, is the first of Leone’s bullrings for warrior confrontation, which Leone’s widescreen lens describes in patient intimacy, often using the terraces of the Rojo house to further force the lens of perspective. Joe finds helpmates in grouchy, but fascinated Silvanito and the local coffin maker, and his only true nemesis is soon identified in Ramón, the man who gleefully machine-gunned the federales, the only one canny and brutal enough to present a real challenge. Facades are important in Leone’s films (just look at how often the image of a man hidden behind a screen spying or aiming a gun at someone appears in his films), and so is the alternation of identities; Ramón kills the federales wearing U.S. uniforms. However, no one’s better at muddying the waters than Joe. In the absence of real things to stir up trouble about, Joe provides illusions, like those two dead Mexicans, to leaven his divide-and-exploit strategy. There’s always some bullshit, Leone constantly suggests, hiding a real motive.
This stage-managed graveyard battle gives Joe the chance to search for the stolen gold, but he ends up taking an accidental hostage, Marisol (Marianne Koch), mother of the boy, now Ramón’s squaw, whom the Baxters eagerly use as a trading piece to get back their own useless son Antonio (Bruno Carotenuto). The discovery of Marisol’s history motivates Joe to win her freedom even though he’ll endanger his own life, because he “knew someone like you once. There was no one there to help,” as he tells her and her family before driving them away. Finally, real feeling has intervened in proceedings as a true motive, but it’s almost fatal for Joe, who’s captured and relentlessly beaten by the Rojos and their thugs. He turns the tables by crushing two of his torturers by rolling a gigantic barrel of gunpowder down on them—a gleefully nasty comeuppance—and then covers his escape by setting that powder alight. He literally and figuratively kindles an eruption, because the outraged Rojos assault the Baxters’ house and massacre all the inhabitants.
Kurosawa treated the story as both amusingly and harshly Darwinian, one of a wolf contending mostly with insects that cannibalise each other in thrilling but essentially pathetic ways. Leone wrings a different, more imperative flavour out of the action, and though still humorous, his possesses a darker lustre. Consuela Baxter’s death—the black-clad matriarch shouting defiance and a primal curse at the Rojos before being shot down in a wreath of smoke bellowing from her house—is exultant in its grotesquery and melodramatic scale; indeed, the whole sequence sports a remarkably, infernal vividness. So, too, is the little opera of gestures and glances on display when Marisol is briefly reunited with her family in the street during the prisoner swap. Leone, in spite of the great ease with which people die and the contempt with which they’re often treated in his work, always makes something almost transcendent out of the moments before dying.
Joe, the first incarnation of the character dubbed “The Man with No Name” (that was essentially a United Artists marketing gimmick), is only guided by a moral compass based in personal empathy, and there’s not much of that. We don’t hold it against him he uses people he loathes to make some money: most of us do that. That he proves to be a proper good guy isn’t in question, but he is definitely one of those Leone protagonists who has “something to do with death”, who, even if they don’t realise it, in essence, bring apocalypse wherever they tread. Joe even poses as a knight-errant or a risen, vengeful angel. Still playing games of truth and illusion, letting off explosives so that he steps out of the smoke like a spook after, having survived torture and eluded the hunting Rojos, he recuperates and returns strapping wearing body armour culled from the iron of a boiler to fend off the rifle blasts he knows Ramón will loose at him. Joe finally confronts the Rojos when they turn their vicious attentions to Silvanito, and doesn’t leave the town until all his foes are decimated. The irony here is that Joe mythologises himself to scare his enemies into irrational decisions, just as Leone mythologises the proceedings with a self-conscious smoke-and-mirrors style.
A Fistful of Dollars is usually described as a warm-up for the grander calisthenics of Leone’s career, but in viewing it after a very long interlude, and for all Leone’s debts and still-developing talents, I recognized it as great filmmaking indeed. Perhaps its very lack of pretension makes it a better, tauter film than the awkward intermediary sequel For A Few Dollars More (1966). It’s a wonder that with all the production problems of working with actors and technicians from four countries, Leone still managed to craft such a strong drama; this is the film that proved Leone was born to be directing motion pictures.
Eastwood’s properly terse performance, of course, made him the international film star he still is, and much of his appeal as presented here is as much about the quiet, sly good-humour he lets through Joe’s otherwise taciturn and unremitting exterior. He looks on the world much like a science experiment he’s running, sometimes a bit wryly disconcerted at how the experiment is proceeding, at least until it turns real, and then…you better run, boy. A Fistful of Dollars also sports the first of Leone’s immortally styled gun duels, defined by the rapid, rhythmic cutting between expectant faces, humour, and macho swagger slowly fading at the realisation that someone’s about to die, and then the concussive simplicity of the moment when the gunfire actually comes, with four or five men at a time dropping dead on the spot in a single, encompassing shot. Life is never more amazingly intense for Leone as in the few moments before it ends. l
UPDATE: Terrific interview with Brian Meacham, the AMPAS scholar who discovered the New Zealand cache.
By now, most of the film world knows about the partnership between the New Zealand Film Archive and the National Film Preservation Foundation to repatriate and restore 75 American motion pictures that no longer survive in the United States. The news broke in the New York Times yesterday and has been all over the media, Twitter, and Facebook. Frankly, Farran (The Self-Styled Siren) and I were a bit miffed. We were told we should not make the announcement until this afternoon, and here comes someone to steal our thunder! But scoops are what newspapers are about, and this was a big one.
Sworn to secrecy out of deference to the New Zealand government, Farran, Greg Ferrara (who did our ads and banners), and I have known since last fall that the New Zealand archive was the next big project for the NFPF, but we had no idea what the nitrate experts would find as they examined the existing footage. The news is amazing! About 70% of the nitrate prints are virtually complete, and more than two-thirds have color tinting. Included is John Ford’s full-length feature Upstream (1927), a backstage romance involving an aspiring Shakespearean actor and the daring target girl from a knife-throwing act, and a trailer for the director’s lost feature Strong Boy (1929), starring Victor McLaglen. Maytime (1923), an early feature with Clara Bow, was found, though afflicted with the “bloom” that signals nitrate deterioration. NFPF got to this film just in time!
We promised the blogathoners a good film, and initially, we were to fund Moonlight Nights, a short comedy featuring child star Gloria Joy. But Annette Melville, the wonderful executive director of NFPF who has been so helpful to us, found a real treasure that helped double our money. The Sergeant is a very important short western that will be included on the Treasures V collection, thus receiving matching funds from the federal government. Here’s why it’s so unique.
The Sergeant is one of the earliest surviving narratives shot on location in Yosemite Valley. The one-reeler shows the magnificent terrain prior to the creation of the National Park Service, when U.S. Army cavalry troops kept order, and it is the military presence that provides the backdrop for the story.
The western was one of many made by the Selig Polyscope Company, the early motion picture company renowned for its action pictures. Based in Chicago, Selig sent director Francis Boggs west in 1908 to find authentic locations for westerns. Shooting films across the Southwest, Boggs made his way to Los Angeles, where he set up the city’s first movie studio. Boggs hired Hobart Bosworth, one of the first trained Shakespearean actors to crossover to the then-less-respected art of film; Bosworth appears to play the sergeant in this one-reeler, which he probably also directed.
Very little survives from Selig Polyscope, aside from Col. Selig’s papers in the Margaret Herrick Library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. After the murder of Boggs on the set in 1911, the company continued on with its popular Tom Mix westerns, the early serial The Adventures of Kathlyn, and animal pictures (the Selig menagerie became part of the Los Angeles Zoo). However, the company failed to make the transition to features and ended production in 1918.
This remarkable film—part western, part travelogue—survives through the single copy shared by the New Zealand Film Archive. The original nitrate distribution print was shrunken but complete. Thanks to our funding, the print was painstakingly copied to modern black-and-white safety negative film. This transfer was made from the negative at 16 frames per second and the tints added digitally to reproduce the colors on the original print.
For the exhibition print, color film will be cut in for the red- and amber-tinted intertitles so that the film can be enjoyed today as it was originally seen by audiences in 1910. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is supervising the preservation and will house the nitrate source material, preservation masters, and access copies so that they will remain available for years to come.
We also raised enough funds to restore The Better Man, a 1912 film produced by the Vitagraph Company of America. It’s another western in which a Mexican-American outlaw proves himself the better man. The stills look intriguing.
The newly recovered films will be preserved over the next three years and accessed through the five major American silent film archives: the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, George Eastman House, the Library of Congress, the Museum of Modern Art, and the UCLA Film & Television Archive, which are collaborating with the NFPF on this project. Copies of the complete films will also be publicly available in New Zealand and viewable on the NFPF web site.
We extend many thanks to Jamie Lean, Division Director, the New Zealand Film Archive/Ngā Kaitiaki O Ngā Taonga Whitiāhua, who said, “Hundreds of American motion pictures from the silent era exist in archives outside the United States. We hope that our example will encourage other international partners who have safeguarded ‘lost’ American films for decades to share their long-unseen treasures with the world community.”
Clips of The Sergeant are up on the NFPF website, and you can take a look at a list of some of the other films returning from their long hiatus here. You can also kick in some more money for the rest of the films that need preserving (not to mention shipping: Each reel has to be sent using precautions for hazardous materials!). As Gareth over at the Siren’s place said, “I’ve almost never had a sense of such concrete value coming from a donation.” Amen.
Kathryn Bigelow’s been saddled with one of those milestone Oscar wins that carries the whiff of cultural formaldehyde, but I find her victory inspiring and amusing in the same way Peter Jackson’s was: the ascension to mainstream laurels of a directorial talent rooted in fare beyond the pale. Indeed, the impact of The Hurt Locker was imbued not by any deep, inherent dramatic qualities in its fairly basic and dramatically familiar, if thankfully terse screenplay, but by Bigelow’s spare, yet intense vision, which first truly gained attention with her mighty reinvention of the vampire movie Near Dark. Truth be told, Near Dark is a far more nuanced, provocative, gripping, multileveled work than The Hurt Locker, but because it’s a horror film, nobody paid it that kind of attention. And yet each time I revisit Near Dark, its innate confidence and supple intelligence become more defined. I’m now convinced it’s one of the best American films of the ’80s.
Near Dark was also one of a small but well-remembered barrage of vampire movies in the mid ‘80s, including The Hunger (1983), Fright Night (1985), Vamp (1986), Once Bitten (1985), The Lost Boys (1987), and A Return to Salem’s Lot (1987), that subjected the classic mythology to their own modish, modernising bent. Near Dark has had possibly the deepest impact on subsequent works, including Joss Whedon’s popular Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV series and Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight franchise, both of which make use of Near Dark’s ideas for portraying a peripatetic, clannish demimonde of bloodsuckers. And yet it also sustains a mood in common with other films of its era, like John McTiernan’s Nomads and David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (both 1986), that peered beneath the prim surfaces of contemporary America and suggested parallels for both forgotten underclasses and latent animalistic drives and chaos in emissaries of darkness. Likewise, Bigelow’s stark, savage, eerie evocation of the West fuses disparate versions of American culture into an original and arresting whole.
A running theme of Bigelow’s work is one of an intrusive outsider within a group that has developed a family dynamic, a dynamic as much defined by fractures as by fellowship. In Near Dark, it’s Caleb Colton (Adrian Pasdar), a coltish cowboy-wannabe still trying out his act when he and some of his young friends spy pale, young, ice-cream-licking waif Mae (Jenny Wright). Caleb approaches her, and she seems, in her alternately distracted and eager fashion, to dig him in return. After a night of toey, curious flirtation, Jenny becomes panicked about making it home before sunrise, and when Caleb stops his truck and refuses to take her further without a kiss, she agrees, but bites him on the neck and runs away. Caleb, quickly becoming ill, tries to make it home as the sun seems to burn him, and is snatched up by a speeding Winnebago before his veterinarian father Loy (Tim Thomerson) and younger sister Sarah (Marcie Leeds) can come to his aid.
Caleb’s been snared by members of the clan of vampires Jenny has been a part of for five years: Jesse Hooker (Lance Henriksen), the leathery, hardened, pragmatic patriarch, mated to Diamondback (Jenette Goldstein), a feral-freaky former victim of Jesse’s who serves as mother figure to Mae; wild good ole boy Severen (Bill Paxton); and Homer (Joshua Miller), a vampirised child housing an embittered man’s psyche. The vampires usually kill their prey—in this case, Caleb—immediately, but Mae begs for his life and promises to see him properly inducted into their ways by teaching him how to kill and feed off humans. Caleb, at first uncomprehending and terrified, tries to return to his home by bus, but has to bail out when he is afflicted with dreadful sickness that is only cured by drinking blood out of a gash Mae makes in her arm. However, Caleb can’t countenance the necessary act of killing people to feed. Loy and Sarah, meanwhile, begin a relentless highway hunt for Caleb.
Other films had toyed with fusing aspects of classic Americana and Western mythology with the horror movie, with mostly embarrassing results (eg, Billy the Kid vs. Dracula, 1966), and with replacing the vampire genre’s traditional air of old-world decay and aristocratic glamour with other metaphorical impulses. Few succeeded like Bigelow did here. Her intelligence is proven throughout in the way she manages to conjure imagery that fuses multiple influences. In the same way that The Cramps’ recording of “Fever”—which plays throughout the film’s most infamous, iconic scene—takes a popular, playful song defined by slippery, deceptively subversive sensuality and invests it with an eerie, gothic vibe, so, too, does Bigelow rake over the sparse, desolate feel of the classic Western and do something new with it. The screenplay by Bigelow and Eric Red cunningly effects a psychic link between the Civil War, the Western tradition, the gangster movie, gothic horror, the counterculture, street culture, and the lost working class (“trailer trash”) left behind in Reaganite America, presenting them all as rooted in the landscape and the mood of alienation, otherness, and rebellion latent in the louder national identities.
These wandering vampires, living out of cars and motels, feed off the easily missed in a vast nocturnal Midwest of scantly lit, depopulated streets, bleak motels, diners, honkytonks, and bus stops full of drifting flotsam. Carnivorous callousness contrasts ironically with the care that manifests between people, both in the human world and in their world. A ticket seller won’t help out an obviously ill young man, and Caleb’s assumed to be a junkie by a plainclothes cop (Troy Evans). And yet a security guard giving Caleb a few bucks to pay his fare, and Jesse and Diamondback, both resembling hippie wash-ups, adopt the social refuse they come across. Yet that pair also embodies something far more primal and dangerous. They reign over an amusingly sick facsimile of a nuclear family governed by their own perverse family values, wolfish in their darkness and lean hunger. Jesse himself is actually a Confederate veteran (“We lost!”), still embodying the bushwhacker creed. Bigelow plays games with the usual codes of that family structure, with the young boy the most grotesque of the lot and Caleb reduced to a mooching deadbeat getting his sustenance directly from Mae’s veins. The carefully cast Wright seems both delicate and doe-like in some scenes, and a strong, powerful antelope in others, relating to Caleb as if he is the damsel in distress—which he is initially.
Near Dark’s crucial, classic scene depicts the clan invading an isolated bar (“Well I’ll be goddamned,” Severen declares: “Shit-kicker heaven!”), where Severen delights in terrifying, insulting, and slaughtering the patrons, defying and outdoing all the macho posturings of the clientele. Jesse cuts a waitress’s throat and drains her blood into a beer glass. Mae wipes blood coating her lips away as she marches up to a terrified young cowboy (James LeGros) and then asks him to dance, and Caleb gets a gutful from the shotgun-wielding barman (Thomas Wagner), which Severen avenges by slicing the barman’s throat with a few deft kicks of his cowboy spurs. The sequence’s woozy black humour, atmosphere of malefic menace and judicious flourishes of dazzling gore are spellbinding as the patrons, for all their air of seamy toughness, realise they’re contending with something completely unnatural. The vampires, however, fail in their nominal purpose, which is to impress Caleb with their strength and prerogative and create a clear ground for him to have his first meal of live blood. It’s a brilliant scene, all the more so for the fact that it succeeds in being both horrific, as opposed to merely gross-out, and compulsively entertaining, so charismatic is Paxton’s hammy, relished evil and the thrill of power and undercurrent of lethal misanthropy that unites the vampires. Caleb chases after the young man, who resembles himself, when he dashes out of the joint, but lets him go out of empathy for the terrified lad.
This proves a near-fatal mistake, however, as the incensed clan consider killing their unwanted charge. The young man leads the police to the hotel where the clan are shacked up, and the violent shoot-out that follows, with every bullet hole allowing in a deadly bolt of sunlight, sees Caleb save the day by fetching their van and crashing it though the room wall, giving them the chance to flee. This literally earns Caleb his spurs, as Severen gives him one of his. Layering the narrative are fascinating character and story flourishes that often tweak the familiar presentiments both of this type of narrative and the kinds of family and sexual dynamics it portrays. Loy’s protectiveness for Caleb and Sarah blurs the line between patriarchal and matriarchal care. Jesse and Diamondback’s recalling, like an old married couple, how they met (“And I just knew you were trouble,” Diamondback purrs), a relationship born in violence that has become uniquely loving. Mae and Caleb’s relationship is defined by alternations of dewy teenage love and amusing, unnerving fluctuations of power and need.
The image of Caleb drinking from Mae’s arm as lightning flashes and oil derricks pump and grind away behind them is one of the most memorable in the history of the horror film, blurring all divides between sex and sustenance, male and female, technical and supernatural, the modern and the primeval, a visual simile for the industrial, bodily, and emotional heart’s everlasting workings. The circular equation of blood equaling both family and life closes logically when Loy’s transfused blood proves to have the capacity to restore Caleb to humanity, a gift Caleb is then finally able to extend to Mae. Most uneasy and bizarre is Homer’s lot, as he insistently reminds his fellows: “Do you have any idea what it’s like to be a big man on the inside and have a small body on the outside?” Having vampirised Mae out of a desire for her that’s remained for him painfully unconsummated, Homer sets his sights on Sarah. Homer, instantly besotted by Sarah’s forthright attitude, is somehow forlornly innocent and creepily redolent of a paedophile all at once, the most thoroughgoing example of how Bigelow blurs dichotomous concepts into each other. Even Mae’s ice-cream eating at the outset was only a prop (food is inedible for vampires) to draw in just such a victim as Caleb.
Bigelow’s style, with her crisply photographed widescreen frames (courtesy of Adam Greenberg’s beautiful photography) and rhythmic editing, was and is definitely modern. And whilst in initial scenes, Pasdar’s and Wright’s performances feel touchy, even blowsy, nervous, and slightly unfocused, these acting traits are actually a Bigelow trademark—the offbeat affectations often expose the uneasy threat at the heart of her tales: Jeremy Renner’s The Hurt Locker performance is similar. That Paxton, Henriksen, and Goldstein had all been in James Cameron’s Aliens the year before lends a touch of stock company camaraderie to the project, and they’re all ruthlessly convincing. The feel for the dizzying spaciousness of the prairies, and the inverted, claustrophobic night that swallows that flat and featureless land is moody and precise. The motel shoot-out, technically excellent action filmmaking that undoubtedly presages Bigelow’s later move entirely into that mode, evokes a very similar scene in Bonnie and Clyde (1967). But Bigelow’s love of Western iconography is most often in evidence, as Caleb’s growth into manhood sees him finally saddling up and riding to the rescue like a good cowboy to face down Severen in a High Midnight climax on a deserted street.
It’s only here, really, that Bigelow loses her total grip on the proceedings, as Severen’s demise via a jack-knifing, exploding truck apes, but doesn’t match, a similar scene in her then-husband’s The Terminator, and Caleb’s strutting confrontation with the vampires seems a bit unlikely considering he knows what they’re capable of doing to his once-again-human ass. The subsequent rush of Caleb, Mae, and Sarah to escape the remaining clan sees one of those amusingly quick-rising suns that often afflict vampire films. Nonetheless, the finale recovers to offer a blindingly bizarre, exciting, yet poignant consummation. Homer, chasing after Sarah in desperation, catches fire in the rising sun and burns away to a cinder, and Jesse and Diamondback roast alive in their station wagon as Jesse glowers in defeated ire whilst she beams at the glory of going out with her man. In such moments, Near Dark staked an irretrievable place in the hearts and minds of movie fans. l
Director: Jerry Paris
Writers: Jerry Belson and Garry Marshall
By Marilyn Ferdinand
When I started writing this post two days ago, Henry Gibson was alive. Now he’s not. What started as an appreciation of a wildly silly movie is now tinged with sadness. But I know Gibson wouldn’t want us to dwell on what’s now missing, but rather on what he left behind for us to enjoy until we join him. So onward, corny comedy fans!
Evil Roy Slade is fall-down funny from start to finish. I know this empirically because I fell off the couch laughing and had trouble maintaining my balance all along the way. Ask the hubby. He was there. Ask Fluffy. She was so startled by my uncharacteristic guffaws that she hid in her house and chewed nervously on Mousey for half the movie.
Is it just me and the time into which I was born that makes me love this TV movie so much? Its creative team of Paris, Belson, and Marshall, TV veterans all, had the charmingly witty “The Dick Van Dyke Show” in common before they teamed to do this western outlaw spoof. Would younger viewers find a speech like “I ain’t giving up. I’ve worked hard. It took me years to work my way to the bottom,” funny? How about all the physical comedy? I’ve always been a sucker for a great pratfall. Well, I’m betting that there’s a lot of life in this old film yet, if the continued popularity of Blazing Saddles is any indication. In fact, I do declare that Evil Roy Slade is better than Blazing Saddles, even if (or because) it’s only black character is named Smith.
HAVOC is emblazoned over scenes of bank robberies and explosions as Evil Roy Slade (John Astin at his finest), rejected as an infant by Indians and wolves alike and forced to change his own diapers while raising himself in the desert, warms himself in the exquisite joy of his own evilness. His most frequent target to thieve is Western Express; Nelson “I AM Western Express” Stool (Mickey Rooney) is fed up with the cowardice (“What do you call a nephew who rode side-saddle till he was 24?”) of his nephew Clifford Stool (Henry Gibson) in failing to bring Slade to justice. But his efforts to recruit the greatest lawman in the West, Marshall Bing “Is there someone at the door?” Bell (Dick Shawn), have been fruitless.
At that moment, Slade and his gang are robbing another bank. As is Slade’s custom, he kisses the first available woman. Dissatisfied with the dusty taste of the woman’s ruby red lips—forgetting that he kissed her through his mask—he sees the lovely Betsy Potter (Pamela Austin) glancing demurely in his direction. He lowers his mask, plants a good one on her, and drags a pen attached to a desk to her so she can write her address on a stolen $5 bill.
At Betsy’s urging, Slade tries to go straight, but in the end, finds he is not done with “Sneakin’ – Lyin’ – Arrogance – Dirty – Evil.” Marshall Bell is finally induced with a picture of Betsy in her skivvies to come out of retirement, his jeweled guitar ready to gun Slade down in “E Sharp or B Flat.”
Paris and company keep the jokes, both verbal and visual, coming fast and furious. Evil Roy Slade sends up everything from singing cowboys to psychoanalysis with good-natured humor that never gets raunchy. Astin’s twinkling eyes and maniacal grin have never been in better form. Gibson does his innocent poet voice from “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In,” which can make any fan of that show burst out laughing in recognition. Rooney doesn’t really seem to know how to get laughs with his trusted bulldog Custer, resorting to wiping his mouth with a silk handkerchief; he really didn’t need anything more than his manic energy. Pamela Austin as the wide-eyed blonde worth cleaning up for is sweet, if generic; there’s one like her in every generation of films. Shawn never needs to do much of anything to be funny; a comedian more in control of his body we’ll never find. Pat Morita, as Bell’s Indian servant Turhan, affects an almost Scottish accent that I found wickedly ridiculous.
Rounding out the all-star cast are Milton Berle as Betsy’s uncle, who never expected Roy to use a shoe horn to intimidate customers at Berle’s shoe store; Edie Adams as Floozy, I mean Flossie, Roy’s girl until Betsy usurps her (“Who wants Flossie?”); and Dom DeLuise as psychiatrist Logan Delp, who tries to cure Roy of his anger by making him cry with reminders of Roy’s lonely youth and the cactus in his diaper. The scene where Delp gets Roy to drop all his weapons and walk forward (“Walk to me! Ohhh, Roy walk to me, you sniveling little coward! Walk!”) is like Clara’s walking scene from Heidi gone horribly wrong. Look for cameos of Ed Begley, Jr. and John Ritter at the start of their careers, and Garry Marshall’s sister Penny as a bank teller.
Here’s the opening of the film to give you a taste of an era of comedy that may be past but will never really go out of style. Stay to the end of the video for the immortal campfire song, “Stubby Index Finger,” and the very recent graduate to angel, Henry Gibson, who hums along. I imagine that he’s already asked for a Jew’s harp instead of the regular kind to while away eternity. Happy trails, Henry.
Sergio Leone’s colossal reputation amongst cineastes is, considered objectively, rather odd, considering that he was only credited with directing seven films, with three certifiable greats in that handful: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1967), Once Upon a Time in the West, and Once Upon a Time in America (1984) (debate the merits of 1972’s Duck, You Sucker amongst yourselves). The ironies stack up when considering that apart from his credited debut, The Colossus of Rhodes (1961), Leone, who could barely speak English, set all of his films in the United States. Most of them were essayed in a genre, the western, that was beginning to die out, and worse yet, defined a subgenre that generally was derided and considered absurd at the time they glutted the world’s fleapit movie theatres.
To actually watch a Leone film is to erase all concerns about his reputation; love his style or loathe it, it is unmistakeable. The vastness of his widescreen compositions clashing with ultra-close-ups of leathery faces and staring eyes, the spacious narratives and eccentrically shaped scenes, the slow-burn structures and bullfight-like climaxes, the taciturn heroes, tarty heroines, and incessantly zany Ennio Morricone scores, burnt themselves very quickly into the pop-cultural imagination, even if they actually took some time to be recognised as something rare and wonderful and not mere Euro-eccentricity and cheap imitation run amok. I first encountered Once Upon a Time in the West through a send-up of it on a children’s television program in the early 1980s in which, as in the film’s immortally weird opening, a swarthy gunman is harassed by a fly. The parody gunman kept trying to shoot the damn thing when it rested on his face, only to reappear later with new plasters over the missing pieces of his steadily decreasing physiognomy.
The real opening sustains nearly 10 minutes of silence, as three gunmen (Jack Elam, Woody Strode, and Frank Wolff) wait for a train, contending with pesky insects, dripping water and nerve-fraying ambient sounds, before the haunting refrain of a harmonica announces the arrival of the man known only by his instrument of choice. Within a blink, the three gunmen are dead. Long waits for rapid displays of violence are the key Leone trait, but usually they had Morricone’s swirling orchestrations to fill them out. this sequence dispenses with the music and proves that it’s the pure thrill of genius film construction that is so hypnotic.
Leone’s feel for mise-en-scène, conjuring a rough-hewn western landscape possessed of a deep, tactile reality, was something remarkable. Every frame in his films drip with sensuousness—you feel the heat, taste the dust, smell the sweat. Even Once Upon a Time in the West’s interiors, shot at the Cinecitta studio, look for all the world like structures battered together by frontier carpenters. Leone made Italian baroque and American grit mesh so easily one could hardly imagine how absurd the idea is on the face of it. The phrase “cultural appropriation” gets tossed around a lot, whilst the concept of cultural affinity never gets much airtime, but Leone seemed to find real affinity with American subjects. And yet he and Sam Peckinpah radically reshaped the western, to the point where they removed the supporting props from the western mythology,by substituting for its ironclad moral laws and essential innocence an altogether darker sensibility that was both more psychologically realistic and intrinsically brutal.
But where Peckinpah was fond of exploring the ambiguities of modern morality and character in a rugged setting, Leone’s fellow ’60s Italian director Vittorio Cotofavi called spaghetti westerns “neo-mythologism”—the reshaping of the western along the lines of Roman and Greek mythology, the mainstays of an Italian cinema had produced endless Hercules and Maciste films during the ’50s and ’60s.The western had largely been, in its classical form, endless variations on St. George and the Dragon, the traditional heroes idealised as defenders of social values in rough and rude realms. Leone’s own early work was in the Italian cinema’s mythological genres with pre-modern roots, and he carried something of their less easily defined morality over to the western. What that boiled down to was that Leone’s heroes were hard to distinguish from his villains, differentiated less by attitude or ethical codes than by motives and to whom, rather than why, they dealt out brute force. Of course, Leone’s films don’t exactly lack heroes or villains, but the distance between Clint Eastwood’s The Man with No Name or Charles Bronson’s Harmonica, and Alan Ladd’s Shane and Henry Fonda’s Wyatt Earp is obvious. Leone’s are always outside of society, and bound to codes more defined by loyalty and desire for revenge.
The very title of this film shows Leone’s hand. An epic, in strict poetic definition, is defined as a tale involving the founding of a nation, a precept Once Upon a Time certainly fulfills as its plot sees the encroaching railway sweep out the last of the macho titans, but not without its own distinct level of pseudo-Marxist criticality. Nearly unique amongst Leone’s films, it had input from other major creative forces, story cowriters Bernardo Bertolucci and Dario Argento, and in particular, the former’s politics and the latter’s fondness for female central characters inflected the film. Leone never did a straight love story, and a recurring gag of Once Upon a Time is that Harmonica continually engages in sexually charged situations with heroine Jill (Claudia Cardinale) whilst never actually engaging with her; only villain Frank (Henry Fonda) actually beds her.
Despite the often raw encounters between men and women that punctuate many of Peckinpah’s and Leone’s films, they were both perfervidly romantic directors, always inflecting their machismo with an ironically intense feel for the complexities and fleeting pleasures of femininity. Unlike Peckinpah, who was exploring his cynicism over the state of modern male-female relations, Leone presents overt, extraordinarily romantic qualities with Morricone’s soaring choruses, the charged close-ups and longing eyes of Cardinale here or the gauzy flashbacks that riddle For a Few Dollars More (1966) and Duck, You Sucker evoking lost loves and sorry betrayal, conceive romance as something lovely and utterly impossible, leading finally to the rudest of romantic shocks in Once Upon a Time in America. By all accounts Leone was initially reluctant to do a film with a female central character here, but you’d never know it, in light of the film’s rich conceptualisation of Jill, a plaything of the supermen about her, and yet utterly self-contained and dedicated to self-preservation through wiles and guile. Her transition from whore to empress, predicted by Jason Robard’s scruffily noble brigand Cheyenne when he suggests she reminds him of his mother (“the biggest whore and the finest lady”), entwined with the transformation from wilderness to civilisation, is the theme that ties the tale together. The men in the film either die or ride away to nothingness.
Famously, Leone cast Fonda as Frank, inverting the actor’s image as the pillar of decency, but the role recalls how well he played charged aggression in The Grapes of Wrath (1940) and destructive remoteness in Fort Apache (1948). Introduced committing mass murder, shooting a child in the face for the sake of saving the railway company of Morton (Gabrielle Ferzetti) a few thousand dollars, Frank threatens to unite the evils of modern capitalism and the classical strong man. He is kept in check finally by the vengeful progress of Harmonica, but also by his own weird ethics that remained tied to the ideals of the “ancient race,” as Harmonica calls their breed of super-warrior, explicating the mythological concept. Fonda’s restraint was always his hallmark, and though he clearly relishes the villainous role, tackling it with a virility he rarely got to display, he resists any temptation to go broad.
Like that opening sequence, other scenes in the film are like perfect units, virtual short films in themselves, especially the final confrontation of Harmonica and Frank, which is so precise in its staging, dialogue, and use of a flashback that it could stand entirely alone as a summary of the genre—the greatest gunfight of them all. Harmonica’s recollections of a younger Frank walking out of a desert haze recur throughout the film, until the final revelation of the cruelty that has set Harmonica in his relentless quest is revealed, in a crane shot that’s damn near miraculous in its composition and conception. Harmonica, tucking his instrument, the totem of his history and vengeance, between the dying Frank’s teeth, delivers the most pitiless and deserved of comeuppances. The whole film is littered with such brilliant little flourishes, from, say, the sound of waves that accompanies Morton’s fantasias of manifest destiny in studying a painting of the sea, and then his ignominious fate, expiring by a muddy pool, to Cheyenne trying to stay alive long enough to fight off Frank if Harmonica can’t defeat him, all while only seeming to shave and drink Jill’s coffee. And that, really, is why Leone is such a remarkable figure—he represents the filmmaker as virtual god in full command, playing out sequences entirely according to his own feel for cinematic cause and effect.
Which is not to ignore the dramatic qualities of the film. The sparse dialogue by Mickey Knox is often funny and memorable, and the acting from the key leads impeccable. The always wonderful Cardinale is as luscious as ever, and Bronson, who could be a good actor on the few occasions it was required of him, plays Harmonica with concise authority, his stout, stony physique and petrified glare suggesting some living piece of the landscape having torn itself free to mete out hard justice. But for me, Robards steals the film with his droll, droning performance as a warrior passing his prime: his final demand that Harmonica leave him because he doesn’t want Harmonica to see him die is Leone’s most affecting scene. Once Upon a Time in the West is still one of the highpoints of cinema. l
The Plainsman is bunkum. But it’s entertaining bunkum and one of Cecil B. DeMille’s best films. The Plainsman, fairly well-written, and punctuated by neat verbal byplay reflecting DeMille’s recently abandoned interest in racy screwball comedy after the failure of Madame Satan in 1930, is given special force by two grand performances, from Gary Cooper and Jean Arthur, as an incredibly romanticized Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane. It’s also a veritable Super Western, beating How the West Was Won (1962) to the punch by nearly 30 years in trying make a vast historical saga out of sprawling, disconnected events and gilded genre clichés. DeMille stretches truth and credibility to near-ridiculous lengths to provide a streamlined narrative leading from Abraham Lincoln’s (Frank McGlynn Sr.) plans for postwar America, outlined just before he goes to a performance at Ford’s Theatre, to Hickok’s being shot in the back in a card game. At least the movie is honest enough in its credits to admit to compressing events for the sake a dramatic narrative, whilst also being vague enough in its changes to disguise the timeline of events.
The oft-recycled, epic plot, follows the efforts of dastardly financiers with investments in repeating rifles who are unlikely to be paid back after the Civil War’s end deciding to sell them to Indians, hiring seedy trader John Lattimer (Charles Bickford) to do so. The Indians, unhappy at the large number of young men following the advice to “go West,” start agitating more aggressively than expected. Hickok, returning from war service, runs into old pal Buffalo Bill Cody (James Ellison), newly married to a dainty, peace-abiding Eastern miss (Helen Burgess) and fretting irritably over ex-flame Jane, who’s working as a stagecoach driver. They’re all soon embroiled in frontier skirmishes, and both Bills are sent off on disparate missions by General Custer (John Miljan) in an attempt to head off a war. But war comes anywhere. At one point, renegade Cheyenne chief Yellow Hair (Paul Harvey!), tortures his captive, Will Bill, to loosen Jane’s tongue about where Buffalo Bill is leading a relief column. Because she’s a girl, she spills the beans, and the two Bills end up holding off a massive assault on the train whilst Jane tries to alert Custer.
Needless to say, they get out of that scrape. When Hickok attempts to bring in Lattimer, he instead has to gunfight with three soldiers who are his partners, killing them all but suffering wounds himself. Custer, believing Hickok to be a murderer, wants him arrested and sends Cody after him. Both men soon find out that Custer and his men have been killed at the Little Bighorn with guns sold by Lattimer to Sitting Bull. Hickok tracks Lattimer down to Deadwood, takes out the nefarious villain, and decides to wait out Cody’s return with the cavalry to round up the rest of them. He plays a game poker with them, where he draws a hand of aces and eights.
It’s balderdash, of course, but not quite as big a load of it as I first assumed. Jane, prone to romancing, did claim to have worked as a scout for Custer at the frontier Fort Russell, but was all of 13 when the Civil War started, possibly lending a weird subtext to Hickok’s prewar affection for her. The two Bills were indeed acquainted, having met before the war when Hickok was 18 and Cody 12. But Hickok didn’t meet Jane until a couple of years before his death in 1876. Hickok’s assassin, mining roughneck Jack McCall (Porter Hall), is reinvented as a dapper, craven associate of Lattimer’s. The screenplay is, nonetheless, amusing and clever in how it weaves together vignettes in the legends of all four into a tight story that rockets along. Arthur’s wondrous Jane ought to be more famous than it is as a landmark screen heroine who, in one particularly delightful scene, strips off the sable dress she’s wearing to reveal britches, wields a Winchester, and rides off with rare zest to fetch Custer. The problem is she’s undercut by DeMille; he was fond of willful, rule-breaking heroines but always made sure they were taken down a peg for it, becoming overwrought and eventually either deliberately or inadvertently treacherous (see also Paulette Goddard in North West Mounted Police  and Reap the Wild Wind ; Delilah; Nefertiri). Jane is properly disgraced for being weak enough to spill the beans to Yellow Hair, but it does give Arthur a marvelous moment, when Jane lolls in pure, self-loathing despair.
DeMille was the most famously and proudly chauvinistic of filmmakers, yet also a man of curious contradictions—the devoutly religious, intensely patriotic patriarch whose sex-and-drug orgies were famous in Tinseltown, and with a biting cynicism about the expectations of the American public he went to such great effort to entertain. When they rejected Madame Satan and jazz-age raciness, he turned to religious subjects; when they rejected The Crusades (1934), he abandoned world history for a time, and did it always with a smirk. Despite his strictly conservative bent, sympathy for the oppressed and degraded is a theme in his work: he reassures us of Lattimer’s total villainy when he kicks a black porter in the head for dropping a crate of rifles.
Despite that, it’s not exactly PC in terms of its portrayal of Native American interests. Like many films of the period (They Died with Their Boots On ; She Wore A Yellow Ribbon , etc.), the blame for the Indian Wars is put more on irresponsible arms dealers, sharklike profiteers both individual and corporate, and renegade bigots of both races, clearing guilt away from government policies, callous military ventures, and endemic racism. As in They Died with Their Boots On, Custer is the perfect cavalier forced into a war and final destruction by forces beyond the ken of both him and the Indians, rather than the crazed, messianic butcher we’d be getting by the time of Little Big Man (1970). Far more so than John Ford’s films, which, even when portraying Native Americans at their most villainous, bestowed a certain dignity on them, DeMille is happy shopping out patronizing attitudes, for example, showing them behaving with childish fascination when Jane distracts a war party by interesting them in Mrs. Cody’s hat collection, and then moving to destructive tantrums and grotesque torture sessions. You can see variations on the same plot, each time tweaked a little further around the dial in meaning, through Rio Grande (1949) to Major Dundee (1965) and Ulzana’s Raid (1972). Whereas Ford found the theme of former enemies of the Civil War fighting together on the plains intriguing and volatile enough to generate several movies, for DeMille’s it’s a throwaway comedy touch, as if the war was an automatically healed wound in the great march of American history.
But The Plainsman feels like a generic textbook for other reasons. DeMille had the classical director’s understanding of how audiences respond to detailed flourishes of action, and Cooper, at his youthful best, is the catalyst. His Hickok is a study in rest and motion, situating himself in easy poses with an unassuming expression, tersely measured motions, and reactions until driven to action. He becomes a blur of brilliance—riding between two horses through a battle, picking off pursuers with a one-handed Winchester shot, spinning his pistols on his fingers and slipping them back in their holsters without taking his steely gaze off the men he’s challenging. Cooper’s Hickok is the perfect Western hero, and perhaps better than any other film, this one shows off Cooper, the lean, sexy, innately physical actor, supremely confident in controlling a scene. One throwaway gesture exemplifies Cooper’s style—trying to avoid discussing Jane’s betrayal with Cody, he ends with a slight move of his head, a momentary parting of his lips, as if to say something more, but then demurs, clamming up, ending the scene with an unspoken tension. It’s the sort of telling, barely noticeable flourish that affirms Cooper as both an intelligent actor and a fascinating star.
Cooper’s innate sense of subtlety is particularly cool when contrasted with DeMille’s complete disinterest in it. He pursued a kind of illustrative ideal to the point his final—and greatest—film, The Ten Commandments (1956), achieved a kind of perfection in its total, depthless stylization. The themes and characterizations in The Plainsman practically stand on a table and shout, and his schoolbook sense of pictorial history results in some hilariously museum-diorama scenes of Lincoln and Custer’s Last Stand. Yet DeMille warrants more respect as a filmmaker than he generally gets today. Like a relative handful of Hollywood directors of the time—Ford, Hawks, Walsh, Wellman, Dieterle, Capra—he had a recognizably individual style of framing shots, more vivid than the standard, dull, medium group shots of the average studio hand and usually handled with the care of a Victorian academic painter. He specialized in finely detailed and composed tableaux vivant, such as those of the battered soldiers hunkered down, but never let such fussiness spoil his sense of high action.
Moreover, though intended as thundering entertainment, The Plainsman is not stupid. It’s a film that actually manages to be about ethical growth. Hickok, so Buffalo Bill assures his wife pleasantly, has no rival as a “corpse-maker.” He’s the distillation of the violent West’s quick-draw wits and an angry misogynist. He even considers killing Cody when he comes to arrest him. But Hickok’s also decent man, who had taken Lincoln’s utterance about the need to bring order to the West to heart. Hickok eventually comes to the realization that a life of casual extermination is getting old, and begins learning to forgive Jane her failure of nerve and Jack McCall for their sins. The irony being, of course, that McCall will shoot him in the back for his newfound pacifism.
(Trivia note: A very young Anthony Quinn [above], in his fourth movie appearance, plays a Cheyenne warrior who tells Hickok and Cody about the Little Bighorn battle. He bluffed his way into the role by pretending to speak authentic Cheyenne, whilst speaking pure gibberish. Quinn would later marry DeMille’s daughter Katherine and continue a long association with him, directing a remake of his The Buccaneer in 1959. ) l
If I made films, I’d want to make ones just like Lemonade Joe. I’d want to see “Réalisé par Ferdy”—and isn’t it better to realize something than to direct it, as though you freed your film into the world the same way Michelangelo freed his sculptures from a hunk of marble instead of arranging it like a collage from scraps of old magazines—and then watch a screen filled with comic actors of the first order doing stock Western characters in styles ranging from slapstick silents and singing cowboys to Billy Wilder and Krazy Kat, with a dash of John Ford to keep things respectable.
Like any self-respecting European in the 1960s, Oldrich Lipský was keenly interested in all things American, particularly the American West. For Lipský, however, Westerns were fodder for humor and parody. Lemonade Joe, a short-story character that appeared in Czech magazine in the 1940s, surely must have made an impression on the adolescent Lipský. He worked with the author of those short stories, Jiří Brdečka, on the screenplay for the film. In true-blue American tradition, they start this film with a dedication:
“This film is dedicated to the rough diamond heroes of the Wild West who avenged wrongs and defended the Law.”
That dedication will be the last time the film plays this Western straight.
Doug Badman (Rudolf Deyl), owner of the Trigger-Whisky Saloon, runs the town Stetson City, Arizona, the setting for our story. We open on a highly spirited barroom fight moving to the incessant honky-tonk piano in the background. As bottles are broken over heads and tables thrown through windows, the bartenders nonchalantly wash their glasses and duck as though they know where the next swing is coming from. Doug sits with equal nonchalance at a table, watching his mad dog lackey Old Pistol (Josef Hlinomaz) take apart several cowpokes, drink some Trigger Whisky, and chew and swallow a good chunk of the rocks glass. The fighting goes into a lower gear when showgirl/call girl Tornado Lou (Kveta Fialová) comes out to sing “When the Smoke Thickens in the Bar,” one of the many songs in this horse opera that take their inspiration from a variety of sources, including Weimar cabaret.
Into this den of iniquity come Mr. Goodman (Bohus Záhorský ) and his virginal, blonde-haired daughter Winnifred (Olga Schoberová) bringing their message of temperance to the drunken masses. They get nowhere; in fact, Old Pistol eats Mr. Goodman’s violin. Just then, a wiry, blond-haired figure dressed in white, with a six-shooter strapped to each leg, walks through the door. He bellies up to the bar, where Winnifred and her father are standing uncomfortably surrounded by crazy varmints and orders lemonade. “We don’t stock lemonade,” says the bartender. “That’s all right. I always “carry my own supply.” He pulls out a bottle of Kolaloka lemonade and downs a long draft. “You’re Lemonade Joe,” someone shouts. In case there is any doubt, Joe demonstrates his skills by shooting Old Pistol’s belt loose. The vicious consumer of objects runs upstairs at double-speed with a tablecloth covering his drawers. Naturally, both Winnifred and Tornado Lou fall in love with Joe on the spot.
Just at that moment, the bank is being robbed. A gunfight in the streets ensues as the law-abiding citizens of Stetson City try to stop the bandits. Joe protects Winnifred behind a water tank; his horse, which has ducked for cover with them, gets a gentle stroke on the cheek as it lays its head in Joe’s lap. Suddenly, Joe goes into action, appearing in stop-action shots on rooftops, in doorways, on the street, confusing the robbers and allowing him to pick them off one by one without even aiming. When Joe proclaims that his surefire aim is a result of swearing off spirits for Kolaloka, the townspeople abandon the Trigger-Whisky Saloon in favor of the white-as-snow Kolaloka Saloon that opens in quick order. Doug Badman sits atop his piano in his now cobweb-covered saloon. He tells Old Pistol, “Business is bad, but I’m still stinking rich.”
Soon, another player comes to town, a slimy thief, murderer, and debaucher named Hogo Fogo (Milos Kopecký), who we’ve learned earlier is Doug Badman’s brother Horace because they each have a round birthmark on their left forearm. A master of disguise, Hogo Fogo tricks Joe into drinking spirits, which makes our hero collapse in a catatonic trance. He reestablishes the primacy of Trigger Whisky, as a fickle public return to Doug Badman’s saloon. Hogo Fogo goes after the winsome Winnifred, chasing her around the tombstone of her dead mother:
Hogo Fogo: Of course you’ll be mine. Here, on holy soil, my dove. Winnifred: You spider! Hogo Fogo: My little fawn! Winnifred: You reptile! Hogo Fogo: Enough zoology!
Further perils, shootouts, disguises, and general silliness ensue to a final, climactic confrontation between Hogo Fogo and Lemonade Joe in which Joe is pumped full of lead. Of course, the end of Joe is never the end of a legend—thanks to Kolaloka lemonade and very fortuitous family ties.
This film is Blazing Saddles, only way better. This movie trades in every corny joke around—for example, Stetson City’s sheriff handcuffs Hogo Fogo, only to find a false hand hanging from one of the cuffs and the villian’s real hand emerge with pistol blazing. The opening bar fight looks like a loving ripoff of a Keystone Kops routine—indeed, Czech film specialist Peter Hames believes this film owes something to a 1911 film called Arizona Bill. The film also uses full-screen tints, which were popular in silent films for signaling night, day, and ambient lighting. The violence is very cartoonish—Lipský was an in-demand writer and director of animated films—and indeed, the film contains small moments of animation mixed with live action. For example, when Hogo Fogo is trying to cheat a gambler at poker, his brother blows smoke rings that spell out what the patsy has in his hand. Even the famous cartoon company, Acme Tool, can be found in Stetson City.
Two moments are especially ingenious and, I think, unique in film. The first is an extreme close-up of the interior of a mouth showing a vibrating uvula as a musical note is struck. The camera slowly pulls back so that we can see it is Lemonade Joe bursting into song as he rides the range. The other is a ground-level shot showing Joe prepare for a gun duel, his boot-shod feet resounding against the dusty street. The camera shakes with every step. Another shot that seems prescient has Joe looking into the sky, seeing what looks like Tower Bridge superimposed on the sky (the original London Bridge moved to Arizona in 1971) and then Winnifred in need of rescue.
Lemonade Joe may be different from those films of the Czech New Wave directors who were working at the same time, but it shares with them an anarchic sensibility even as it spins the American West into the East of Europe. A great send-up of American capitalism that not-so-subtly skewers that great ambassador from the West, Coca-Cola, a Western family more fractious and loyal than the Ewings, and a script to die for make Lemonade Joe a naturally sweet delight.
Focusing on the debut feature work of famous, and infamous, figures of film
Director: Howard Hawks
Debut film of: Montgomery Clift, actor
By Roderick Heath
A young actor first appears on the screen in Red River, listening with a kind of wide-eyed, excited, but strictly measured attention. It’s Montgomery Clift, a wonder boy fresh from a Broadway splash, suddenly thrust into cowboy gear and standing between two other actors, John Wayne and Walter Brennan, constituting a trio of actors it’s almost impossible to find more diverse. Star-making debut performances, where a fresh talent arrives immediately and permanently in a leading role, like Clift here, or Marlon Brando in The Men, or Katharine Hepburn’s in A Bill of Divorcement, don’t come along so often these days. That’s largely because the kind of career momentum actors might build up on, say, the Broadway stage and transfer directly to the screen, or the careful grooming by an industry sponsor, is nonexistent now; almost every actor has done a spot of TV or film work in building a career. Even for Clift, there were some wrinkles in his swift promotion to screen stardom. Red River, his first feature starring role, was filmed in 1946, but held back from release for nearly two years. So the public at large first saw him in Fred Zinnemann’s 1948 film The Search.
Red River needs little introduction as one of the cinema’s great Westerns, a frontier myth easily described as a variation on Mutiny on the Bounty reset on the range. However, as was director Hawks’ way, the drama is essentially a study of the intricacies of human relationships and the essential ambiguity of morality as it meshes with character. In this way, the tyrannical captain of the great cattle drive, Thomas Dunston (John Wayne), is not a cardboard figure of sadistic power, but a haunted, embittered patriarch whose ever-greater efforts to hold onto his dream see it slip further and further away. It’s only saved by his adopted son, Matthew Garth (Clift), who risks his neck and a prickly kind of love with the older man to save it for all of them, their surrogate grandfather Groot Nadine (Walter Brennan), and the men who entrust them with their lives and livelihoods. Matthew and Dunston come into conflict when Matthew intervenes to save the lives of men Dunston wants to hang for trying to bail out on his great, desperate quest.
It’s hard not read subtext into Red River. Hawks’ films are generally typified as being about men doing manly things, idealizing masculine codes of behavior espousing stoic taciturnity and economy of emotion, virtually verboten in modern pop culture. Yet Hawks loved to explore ambiguities in such behavior. Men who had flunked the code, like Richard Barthelmess in Only Angels Have Wings, could yet live up to it; other men, who seem to exemplify it, end up flunking badly, like Dunston here. Then there is, of course, the famous Hawksian lady, here embodied with steely verve by Joanne Dru as Tess Millay, a dancer hooked up with a wagon train of gamblers and prostitutes heading to set up a proto-Vegas, and also by Fen (Coleen Gray), as the lady love Dunston loses early in the film.
The central clash of characters between Dunston and Matthew drives the entire film, though so much of its visual rhetoric seems merely to be about shifting cattle across the land. It’s vital because the question of the film is this: though this is man’s work, and the country a man’s country, what kind of man is the best at fulfilling this near-Homeric quest? A repetition in the narrative places Dunston and Matthew in their respective, divided positions. Both meet their true loves in wagon trains (which move east to west, whereas the cattle drive moves south to north). But Dunston walks away from the train, only to see it and his lady burn. Dunston thus turns his back on the steady march of civilization, and heads out into the wilderness without women or laws or religion or comfort to forge an empire in the Texas plains. His kind is needed to begin this great project, this American range. Matthew rides to the rescue of another wagon train that is under attack by Indians, and saves Tess in the process of rescuing the fruits of Dunston’s labor from himself. This is the crucial gap. Dunston is a destroyer, a quick draw pioneer who leaves behind civilization and womankind. Matthew’s kind is needed to complete the quest.
Hawks seems to have played on the fact that he cast a gay actor (or at least, acknowledging the fact he’s an awfully pretty one) in Matthew’s tangled relations with Dunston. Their relationship is mostly like that of a vengeful father who loves his son but wants him to grow up in the “right” way as his kind of authoritarian patriarch, independent and remote. And yet he casts Matthew, with his youth and beauty, as the closest thing to a woman in his life. He establishes these warring impulses, this sickly confusion of masculine and feminine qualities, by giving Matthew Fen’s wristband, not as a sexual surrogate, but as an emotional one. Nonetheless, Dunston ultimately casts Matthew in a feminine role and imbues him with a more complex identity fundamentally at odds with his own that he can’t stand when it makes itself apparent. The film makes a bold and valid point, that Dunston’s hyper-macho behavior, supposedly hard-headed and naturally effective, is, in fact, defined by hysteria, a wild, stunting refusal to regard human or natural concerns with acceptance.
Hawks seems to have been acutely aware of Clift’s new kind of energy. Replace him in the part with a more traditional male presence like Gregory Peck or Wayne himself 10 years earlier, and a lot of the film would instantly start seeming ridiculous. The film’s gay—or, more precisely, bi—subtext asserts itself when Matthew compares guns and shooting styles with Cherry Vallance (John Ireland), a more macho man but with a strikingly effeminate name, to Groot’s prediction that “that pair are certain to tangle some day.” Perhaps they do, but not in the fashion Groot means. Cherry becomes Matthew’s stalwart supporter, helping his coup against Dunston and later trying to intervene in their final clash; his being swatted aside almost casually by Dunston is reminiscent of wicked homophobic patriarch Patrick McGoohan hurling his son’s gay lover out the window in Braveheart.
But Cherry is also a transitory companion for Matthew. Cherry splits up the double act when he goes searching for womankind, and instead ends up digging up one for Matthew. Later, it’s Cherry whom Tess relies on to learn about the man who taunts and intrigues her. If Tess, the Hawksian woman, combines a dose of masculinity with her femininity and creates an ideal, so, too, does Matthew prove that a man with a large dash of the feminine is equally ideal. His concern for others, his willingness to explore the road less traveled, his breadth of emotional reach make him a better, braver leader of men than Dunston in the end, when what is required is not the man who smashes and shoots and digs.
Clift developed a core persona in his starring roles as a man of febrile intelligence, passive manners, ill-fitting emotional and social status, possessed of civility and a hazy type of ambition. Because of this persona, he is presumed to be weak by the he-men, but when he finally fights back, he proves to have an iron character. This broadly fits his characters here and in I Confess, From Here to Eternity, The Young Lions, and Raintree County. His acting style later became striking for his capacity to portray high emotion subtly, as if he’s slicing off pieces of his soul one by one and feeding them into his art, at its height in A Place in the Sun and Judgment at Nuremburg. This force of will strains to crack that beautiful face, and after it was marred in his car accident, he became even more volatile as a portrayer of neurotics, shivering wrecks, and hurting, conscientious men.
“No, no you won’t.”
In Red River, he maintains the same cool taciturnity as the rest of the cast, except in his wide, intrigued eyes, receptive as radar dishes, soaking up detail, registering alternately amused, appalled, incensed, and finally unblinking in facing up to Dunston’s wrath. When he responds to Dunston’s plan to hang three deserters, “No, no you won’t,” he reads the line without melodrama or scowling, but with a clear, simple diction, establishing that he has reached a point of basic refusal. Indeed, Clift’s performance is largely defined by its stillness, his becalmed face and naturalistic postures. He does not mould his body and face to the demands of the screen, like Wayne with his adamantine grace, or to highlight the individuality of his character, like twitchy, rubber-faced Brennan, but rather to express the inner stylings of Matthew’s mind. His performance wells from within, requiring us to intuit his thinking and feeling. Although he was preceded in Hollywood by John Garfield and William Holden, Clift was the first of the vanguard Method actors to alter the energy of the cinema screen. To some extent, though, Clift also updates the fundamental approach of Gary Cooper, who also used stillness and intuition in his acting.
The film builds to a finale that is controversial in its swing from thunderous tension to comic anticlimax, as Dunston, on the warpath, cuts down Cherry and proceeds to taunt Matthew, every inch the alpha male set on abusing the girly-man usurper. Matthew is happy to remain passive when there’s a chance of them actually killing each other in the course of Dunston’s hysteria. Dunston instead starts to beat him. Matthew puts up with this for a while, until, finally, he hits back, with such startling force Dunston pitches back goggle-eyed and wide-mouthed. They begin pummeling each other until Tess breaks up their brawl by firing a gun in the dirt between them, angrily calling for an end to the spectacle. Groot delights in Matthew’s finally proving his grit to Dunston, but Tess recognizes he’s been drawn into playing Dunston’s game; she subverts their hyped-up masculinity by forcing both men to bow before a strong woman, and realize their differences are fundamentally childish. In this regard, the climax is perfect.
A few years back, Billy Bob Thornton adapted Cormac McCarthy’s All The Pretty Horses for the screen. The film was mutilated from its original four-hour cut and entirely dismissed by critics and audiences. I liked it. It had a rugged poetry. I liked it much more than this film. No Country for Old Men has gained almost universal raves. C’est la vie. No Country for Old Men tells of Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin), a Vietnam veteran living in a trailer in West Texas with his young wife Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald). He’s out hunting one day when he discovers the aftermath of a drug deal gone bad. Bodies litter the landscape, one Mexican man with a hole in his gut groans for water, and Llewellyn finds $2 million in a suitcase. He takes the money, but in the middle of the night decides to go help the wounded man. When he gets there, the man is dead, and some of his accomplices arrive and chase Llewellyn, who barely escapes. He returns home, tells Carla to pack off to her mother’s house in Odessa, before proceeding south by himself to await his pursuers. He figures on mere human adversaries. What he gets instead is Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), a hulking, soulless psychopath who’s sort of lump of walking Dostoyevskian anxiety about what the world without god, dominated instead by chance and nature, will look like. Llewellyn and Anton match wits as the dead-eyed monster of existentialism pursues the stoic warrior of American ambition.
A Hitchcockian story in Peckinpah country, the film has been paced and constructed by the Coens as a thriller, but it’s not a thriller. Chigurh is, in essence, an Angel of Death, though he’s certifiably “real” in that he has a job, identity, even a disgruntled boss. A Dallas businessman (Stephen Root) who seems to be running the drug deals, has sent Chigurh out, and, realising he’s a loose cannon, assigns another operative, Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson), to intervene. Chigurh likes to subject random people to coin-toss choices that will determine whether he kills them or not. McCarthy’s thesis is that often crime has no motivation, that an anonymous, senseless type of evil infests modern life, and the representative of old-timey values, local sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), bemoans this process and proves impotent to hold off this dissolution into moral turpitude.
I could argue with McCarthy’s point, but we’ll take it at face value for the moment. McCarthy is an exceptionally cagey writer, who, like Hemingway, perceives humans more as phenomena of nature than as individuals. His style is well pitched to evoke the symbolism inherent in his tales. McCarthy, fundamentally, is a poet. The Coens, on the other hand, approach this material with a procedural eye. The sequences of Chigurh’s hunt are riveting cinema, but much ado about nothing; there’s a long sequence where Llewellyn hides the money and then extracts it, trying to beat the clock on Chigurh’s arrival that’s breathtaking filmmaking, but ridiculously clumsy activity. But the Coens find no poetic discourse in the material. They have been poetic, mostly in early films; the wind-driven hat of Miller’s Crossing (1990) and the big clock in The Hudsucker Proxy (1994) are some of the most affecting images in modern film. But the template for No Country is Fargo (1996), their last cool, blackly comic crime drama and their most overrated film. When they make serious films, they become watchmakers; the cogs are brilliant and shiny, but they do not sing. They include the usual absurdist epigrams and endless supply of caricatured American types to leaven the brutality, and elide convention by having the real climaxes occur off-screen. For example, Bell and Carla come across Llewellyn dead, brought down not by Chigurh but by some of the Mexican drug dealers, gunned down along with hapless bystanders in an El Paso motel.
Yeah, yeah, I get how wonderfully clever and unclichéd it is to set up a chase thriller and then throw it out the window. You know what? Go take a running jump, Joel, Ethan. No Country for Old Men is a hollow piece of work. The Coens cannot reveal much about their characters to make a statement about the tragedy of death carry weight. We have hints of motivation, but Llewellyn, Bell, and Anton are all robbed of a complex inner life that might make this drama build to tragedy. We’re supposed to be shocked and haunted by the epigrammatic finale where Anton fulfils a threat to Llewellyn, even though he’s dead, by tracking down and executing his wife, but she’s such a pasty character, there’s not much impact there either, even though the wonderful Macdonald does her best to imbue the part with a blowsy appeal. But my irritation with No Country began before it dynamited its own story. The story is thin, and after the central gun fight between Anton and Llewellyn, illogic begins to take a grip. The characters start acting in odd, even stupid ways, and all of the supporting characters were the usual Coen Bros cut-outs.
Anton’s evil is a cipher, a gimmick, an obvious way of summarizing a theme. Wells describes Anton as being driven by a kind of code, an honour system of death, which is as big a load of claptrap as I’ve ever heard. Anton’s actions are occasionally governed by some sort of philosophy of chance, but why he then shoots his own employers and decides to go after the money for himself is entirely opaque. Wait—he’s a self-serving renegade but also a kind of moral force? There seems to be a suggestion Chigurh is punishing the sinners of the world for their sins and the innocents for their blind innocence, and suggests he himself is only alive and in any one spot, performing any one action, through the constant turns of chance.
There’s a deep confusion in this philosophy. Is it about a fracturing, godless universe where all fate is cruel and inevitable, or is it about the notion that what goes around comes around? Either way, Chigurh’s such a blank, bleak creature that the audience laps up his evil appeal; he’s so precise, without caution, mercy, or similarity to any living human, that he’s an almost comforting villain. No scene in No Country is as tense and disquieting a contemplation of psychopathy as the central pas de deux of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, a film that demanded infinitely more complex assignations of sympathy.
Llewellyn, too, is an odd beast of a hero. His decision to take water to the dying man, late as it is, signals him as a man of conscience, and he defies Chigurh with Charles Bronson-esque pith, refusing—as Carla does later—to accept Chigurh’s predestination. There is a sense, not developed, that Llewellyn and Chigurh are two sides of the same coin, both skilled, ruthless, cunning, and determined. Llewellyn is casually dispatched, and Chigurh left to go his merry way. What a bust! Why doesn’t Anton kill Bell when Bell almost finds him in Moss’s motel room? Does Chigurh “respect” the lawman? Does this have something to do with the dream Bell recounts at the end, where he’s led through the darkness by a fire lit by an unseen figure—having been passed by the bad angel, a good angel promises a peaceful end for the righteous man? What is righteousness? Is Llewellyn’s taking of the money an act that damns him no matter what he does?
To be sure there’s a political element in all this. Llewellyn wants to save himself and his wife from a life of living in a trailer park after having been used and thrown away by his country; the drug deals are actually run by businessmen who use poor people and psychos to enforce their actions. Not exactly new themes, though. The car crash that almost claims Anton at the end seems to hint at some divine justice, but why leave him with a broken arm? Why was the scene there at all? Some kids are kind to Anton, and he’s kind to them back. Is he then an agent of karmic balance? Or just a bogeyman?
I can’t fault the cast or the technical aspects. Josh Brolin, The Goonies a long way behind him now, provides a sturdy Llewellyn, reminiscent of Kris Kristofferson in look and cadences, and Jones’ aging mug evokes a worn-out soul effortlessly. Bardem has gained the most plaudits as Chigurh, which is fair enough; his droll deliveries, physical command, and occasional vivid flourishes (his eyes grow wide and ecstatic in strangling a policeman) provide the film’s most hypnotic moments. But frankly, it’s a piddling role for Bardem, one of the finest actors alive, compared to his multilayered protagonists in films like Live Flesh (1997) and The Dancer Upstairs (2002). The filmmaking is imbued with the brother’s own laser-edge editing and brilliant photography by Roger Deakins. And the film, deeply flawed as it is once the visceral impact fades, represents a return to challenging form for the Coens after several anorexic comedies.
The trouble is, the Coens just can’t do dread. Bergman could do dread. David Lynch can do it. The Coens are comedians, not tragedians. Their approach to life and death on the cinema screen is capricious. No Country is almost a remake of Raising Arizona, played for thrills rather than laughs; Anton is the straight-faced equivalent of the Lone Rider of the Apocalypse, and about as believable. Unless they’re directly copying a model (like The Hudsucker Proxy imitates Capra), the Coens rarely built a truly compelling narrative. They used to make up for this with shows of energy and invention. They’re admirable in their attempts to always take the road less travelled, but I see few signs of them being capable of making a film that’s more than a generic deconstruction. Most of their films, for all the wit, are little more than ramshackle collusions of blackout sketches, improperly finished and lacking substance, with The Big Lebowski and O Brother, Where Art Thou? representing their most frustrating efforts.
Sam Peckinpah used to make movies like this as almost second nature, reinforcing his own harsh worldview with a vivid, gorged sense of life as it is lived and as it is given up. No Country reads like a combination of Straw Dogs and The Getaway with The Wild Bunch’s fuck-it-all philosophy. Compared with them, No Country is schematic and trite. It’s easy to accept the ending because it doesn’t require you to feel for anything of substance being destroyed. Llewellyn and Carla die off-screen and there’s no suffering, no deep fear or agony, no urgency. Late in the film, Bell converses with a wheelchair-bound ex-colleague, who delivers the film’s signature line: “You can’t stop what’s coming.” That would be death, of course. Yet the film has failed to supply the feeling to accompany the sentiment. Fate has been reduced to its message. Boiled right down: shit happens.