"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Sunchaser (Warner Bros, 1996)

The Titanic sinks again

I’m coming dangerously close, in these reviews of Western films, to reviewing non-Westerns. It is true that I do have a broad-church rather than a fundamentalist view of what a Western is and will cheerfully write about 'Westerns' set in modern times, other continents, and so on. But Sunchaser is at the very edge of acceptability and I won’t argue with you if you tell me it’s not a Western at all. In fact I'll probaby agree.

It tells of an upwardly-mobile and very shallow LA surgeon (Woody Harrelson, convincing) with an appalling wife (Alexandra Tydings). The doctor has, unwillingly, to treat a sixteen-year-old boy, imprisoned for various counts of first-degree murder, assault and armed robbery (Jon Seda, from Gladiator, also good although actually 26), who is terminally ill with stomach cancer. As may be imagined, they have very little in common but, as may be equally well imagined in such a film, they gradually learn mutual respect. Mucho male bonding and final hugs. Nothing homoerotic, though, don’t worry. Seda is half-Navajo and is convinced that a medicine man can save him with Indian magic. They set off (the doc at gunpoint) for Arizona. They meet Anne Bancroft, splendid as a totally bonkers PhD in a VW microbus, and various other colorful personages. They hijack some pretty cool cars.

The movie is directed by Michael Cimino. It was a miracle that any studio gave him work after the Titanic-esque Heaven’s Gate but they did. He doesn’t do a bad job, although the movie does skate over the dangerously thin ice which only barely covers sentimental treacle. The film grossed less than $30,000 domestically on a $31 million budget so it was true to Cimino’s form.

Once we get out into the Jerome AZ locations, the picture is visually very enjoyable with some beautiful if rather National Geographic photography (Douglas Milsome). There’s a fashionable Maurice Jarre score. The editing (Joe d’Augustine) could have been sharper.

The principal weakness of the film is all the woo-woo New Age Indian mumbo-jumbo crap, which is central to the plot.

Why is it a quasi-Western? Well, these two guys go off into the West to find their fate. They show courage and deal with pursuit and the challenge of nature.

Will that do?

No? Well, Harry Carey Jr. is in it as a cashier. Maybe that will convince you.

I’ve given it a two-revolver rating instead of the one it probably deserves because of the performance of la Bancroft.


Sunday, October 24, 2010

Last of the Dogmen (Carolco/Pathe, 1995)

A Movie with Zip

Isn’t it sad, and telling, that a film set in Montana has now to be shot in Mexico and Alberta. But such is (modern American) life and such is the the case of Last of the Dogmen.

As in many good Westerns, the wilderness plays a key part and in this movie the scenery is wild and beautiful. The basic idea is that ‘dog soldier’ escapees from the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre under Lone Wolf move north, and their descendants have survived undetected in an idyllic Cheyenne community in the “Oxbow Quadrilateral” in Montana. It’s a kind of Conan Doylish lost world. Tom Berenger discovers them and aided by his splendid mutt and a glamorous professor of Indian Archaeology, Barbara Hershey, treks off to a meeting of cultures. The film starts badly with slushy music by the LSO and an inappropriate helicopter shot but Tom soon leaves such modern imperfections behind and, ahorse and with pistol at his belt, crosses over the line into the wilderness and into the past. Into the Wild West, you might say.

The best actor is probably Zip, the dog, but the sheriff is played by Red of That 70s Show (Kurtwood Smith), who is excellent as a tough guy who blames his son-in-law Berenger for the death of his daughter. Berenger himself is also impressive as a tired, lonely man who finds a purpose in life. Hershey is OK although you kind of expect her to be wearing high heels and she is really too good to be true.

The Indians are clean and healthy and are led by Steve Reevis in the noble savage role. They look splendid in their war get-up but their village life appears a bit twee and neat. Cheyenneland.

Of course the first instinct of the ‘civilized’ white men on hearing there might be Indians in the wild is immediately to organize an armed posse to shoot them all. Or maybe, worse, herd them onto some ‘reservation’.

The movie was written and directed by Tab Murphy who had worked on a lot of Disney films and Batman but who apparently loves the great outdoors. He had done Gorillas in the Mist so was up on slightly sentimental wildlife pics, and the dog soldiers here are in fact portrayed rather as an endangered species only dangerous when threatened, a bit like gorillas, in fact.

Mr. Murphy must like Conan Doyle and have read The Final Problem because we have a MT version of the Reichenbach Falls.

The David Arnold music is big, rolling stuff, too sentimental to be good. But the film is well photographed by Karl Walter Lindenlaub and deserves a big screen.

All in all, Last of the Dogmen is a picturesque movie that has a tough Western hero who saves the day, and is worth a watch.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

A Big Hand for the Little Lady (Warner Bros, 1966)



Not so much a Western as a poker movie set in the nineteenth century, A Big Hand for the Little Lady is still a whole lot of fun.

We are in Laredo in 1895 and the five richest men of the territory are playing their annual big-stakes card game in the dining room of a cattlemen’s hotel. They are Jason Robards, Charles Bickford, Kevin McCarthy, John Qualen and Robert Middleton, and casting is a strong point of this movie: the actors are excellent.

Along comes a perfect family traveling out to take up a farm in San Antone. It’s Henry Fonda, on the poker wagon, with his prim wife Joanne Woodward and a little son, 9-year-old Jean-Michel Michenaud (who acts satisfactorily until the penultimate scene, when he is positively brilliant). While wifey is getting their wagon fixed, Fonda, ignoring all the protests of his young son, joins the game. At first he loses all their savings and then the cards are re-dealt and…

That’s as far as I will go with a summary of the plot, in case you haven’t seen the movie. Just let me add that it’s clever, amusing, quite tense and a terrific tale.

Afficher l'image d'origine

None of the acting is weak and we should mention especially Burgess Meredith as the doc and Paul Ford as CP Ballinger, the town banker, both clearly enjoying themselves and hugely entertaining to us. In fact, cast-wise, there isn’t a weak link.

Although the stupid strapline of the movie was “Join In The Thrills Of The Wildest Action In The West!”, this is not really a Western in any real sense. There’s no shooting or fighting. It’s almost all set indoors.

The French transposed the game to Dodge and called the film Gros Coup à Dodge City, heaven knows why, but the French are masters at dismally bad title translations (one thinks of the worst ever, True Grit translated as 100 Dollars Pour Un Shérif. I ask you.)

It’s written by one Sidney Carroll, whose only big movie this was (he did a lot of TV stuff) but he did an excellent job on the screenplay with clever plotting and some good lines. It was produced and directed by Fielder Cook, who specialized in TV remakes of Hollywood classics. Again, though, he did a good job in this.

The music, photography and editing are all top drawer.

The word to use, I think, is gusto. All the actors perform with gusto. The film has energy and if you think a 95-minute movie about a poker game would be static, you’d be wrong. It’s a greatly entertaining picture.



Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Distant Drums (Warner Bros, 1951)

A (= B)

In my rambling writings I have made no secret of the fact that I consider Gary Cooper to have been the finest Western hero of them all. I have also not hidden my opinion that Warner Westerns in the early 50s were often pretty dire.

Both propositions hold true in the case of Distant Drums.

Coop is superb. He always was, of course, even in a farrago like Vera Cruz or a middling boys’ Western like Springfield Rifle. He lifted them. He gave them quality. In a fine picture he was towering, mighty. Gregory Peck, Henry Fonda, John Wayne, they would have done a good job in High Noon but no one could have done it as well as Coop.

.In this conventional tale set in Florida in 1840, he is steely, powerful, convincing. He brings to a pretty dodgy script an authority you simply don’t get elsewhere. He is also very well supported by Arthur Hunnicutt as a scout in a coonskin cap (odd wear for the Everglades). The perfect foil.

The rest of the acting, though, is dire. Lithuanian Mari Aldon, in particular, is far too posh to be the "Georgia cracker" she is supposed to be. Warners probably put her in because she was flavor of the month and you had to have a starlet. But she’s hopeless. So too are the supporting males, Richard Webb as the US Navy lieutenant who narrates the tale and Robert Barrat as 'General Zachary'.

But the main trouble is the script. Warners rewrote it to death, so keen were they to have every known feature of a Western in the movie, manipulate the ending, introduce the lerve interest, have a couple of comic asides, and so on. The original screenplay was by Niven Busch so would have been alright if left alone.

The film’s in a now rather garish Technicolor and since we are in the Everglades, various colorful wildlife shots are cut in (with noticeably different film stock) so that we can marvel (or shudder) at the critters and creepy-crawlies. It reminded me a bit of The Americano in this way, when Glenn Ford was in Brazil and so we had to have snakes and pumas and so forth. You’d think National Geographic had produced it.

It's amazing to reflect that Raoul Walsh directed it. He must certainly have been on auto-pilot.

Two years later Budd Boetticher directed Rock Hudson in Seminole, with a similar story. But in that movie Rock (who was actually surprisingly good, though nowhere near in the Gary Cooper class) was sympathetic to the Seminoles. Here, the Seminoles are out-and-out bad guys and fully deserve to be shot down in great numbers. That’s Warners 1951 for you.

They paddle across the studio

One good thing is the Seminoles' costumes. They are not decked out as Apache look-alikes with breechclouts and red headbands, as most Hollywood Indians were, regardless of tribe. Someone went to a fair bit of trouble to get the look right and they are highly colorful. Nearly all those playing Seminoles were Seminoles. Larry Chance is their uncredited and unSeminole chief and isn’t bad but isn’t good either. The script doesn’t give him a, er, chance to be. This was his first movie. He later specialized in Indians in various B-pictures.

They all seem to have repeater rifles and pistols, which is odd for 1840.

The film poster, as you will see from the illustration, was probably the most hilariously stupid ever designed.

Many people thought Cooper was washed up after this dull and rather silly movie, and he himself was tempted to share that view. Of course High Noon the following year changed all that.

Very much a 1950s Warners A (= B) Western but Hunnicutt and, especially, Gary Cooper make it a must-see.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

3:10 to Yuma (Lionsgate, 2007)

50th anniversary remake

I’ve always liked the Glenn Ford/Van Heflin 3:10 to Yuma (Columbia, 1957) and I thoroughly enjoyed the remake 50 years on, 3:10 to Yuma (Lionsgate, 2007), a bigger, flashier picture that you really ought to see in a movie theater. Today, I watched them both again, one after the other, on DVD, to make a comparison.

This viewing was prompted by another article in this rather tiresome book I am reading, The Philosophy of the Western (see posts), although the particular essay using these two films as a basis for discussion was better than the others read so far. The argument is that both films are good examples of basic liberalism inspired by John Locke, but that the 1957 movie was redolent of cold war imagery and feelings while the newer one was more a capitalist story which emphasized property rights. Hmmm, maybe.

Big and flashy Western, very good

There are of course the fairly superficial differences you note right away: the 2007 movie is thirty minutes longer and in color, and it uses special effects not available to Columbia in the 50s. Whereas in 1957 there is a discreet fade-out when the bandit seduces the girl in the saloon, in 2007 we see her naked in bed as he sketches her. The language in 2007 would never have got anywhere near the 1950s censors and piss, shit and fuck are commonplace. The extra 30 mins of the new movie are used to pad out the plot (the original short story by Elmore Leonard is actually really quite sketchy and brief, and huge amounts have been added to both movies, but especially to the later film) and the whole thing is brasher and noisier fifty years on.

In 2007, the outlaws offer $200 to any townsman who guns down our hero; this allows there to be a huge final shoot-out against “thirty or forty guns” in the later film while the walk to the train was a more muted (and tense) affair in the original, with only the outlaws themselves doin' the shootin’. Characters have been added, notably Pinkerton man Byron McElroy (Peter Fonda), and the bumbling 50s drunk Alex Potter (Henry Jones) has been replaced by a would-be action hero Doc Potter (Alan Tudyk). More importantly, in 1957 the hero’s sons were two well-combed and well-behaved lads in a very minor part, while in 2007 the role of the elder son, William (the original rather biblical Matthew and Mark have become William and Mark), very well played by Logan Lerman, is vastly more important. In fact, he is central: the chief motivation for our hero’s courage is to shine in front of his son, which he does. The boy is also bolshier and more rebellious - much more like a 21st century teenager than a 1950s one.

Angry teenage son

But there are also great similarities between the two movies: both are based on the Leonard story and both use some of the very same lines and scenes from the original Halsted Welles screenplay. The saloon scene in Bisbee, for example, is almost word-for-word the same. The barmaid used to work for a blind Irishman in Leadville instead of Dodge, that’s all!

The story at the heart of it is identical: a solid farmer, desperate for money to save his ranch and support his family, agrees for $200 to escort a dangerous bandit to Contention to catch the afternoon train to Yuma Prison. In both pictures the hero is later freed from his obligations by his employers when it gets too dangerous but he goes ahead anyway on the Western principle of “a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do” - just that the price paid is higher in 2007 than it was in 1957, or in the original short story.

Van Heflin as the decent rancher and Glenn Ford as the charming scoundrel were truly fine in the film directed by Delmer Daves. Heflin had already made the decent farmer’s part his own, of course, in 1953 when he played the archetype of gritty settlers in Shane. Ford was always a superb Westerner, usually playing the good guy but equally excellent as the villain. Unlike Heflin, Ford was a natural in cowboy roles. He somehow looked the part, rode superbly and in his trademark jeans jacket was just convincing.

In the original film, two real Americans were used (Heflin was born and brought up in Oklahoma and while Ford was born in Canada he moved to California at the age of eight and was a naturalized US citizen), both known for Western roles. However, in the film directed by James Mangold, the casting people got a New Zealand-born naturalized Australian and a Brit. These actors did a marvelous job with the accents (full marks also to their dialogue coaches) and with the roles in general. Russell Crowe plays Ben Wade with more menace and less charm than Ford did. He seems more dangerous and snake-like. He is certainly more murderous. Christian Bale (he had been the posh schoolboy in Empire of the Sun) has more grit than Heflin and is better with a gun. He has also acquired a Civil War back-story, including a false foot.

Bale and Crowe, both excellent

The role of outlaw chief’s sidekick, Charlie Prince, has been greatly expanded in the newer movie. Richard Jaeckel, always a good baddie, did a solid job in ‘57 but Ben Foster is perfectly splendid fifty years on. It’s a juicy part, of course. He is truly nasty and although Wade claims to be bad all the way through (otherwise he wouldn’t last a minute leading that band of cut-throats), we know that he actually has a small spark of decency in him. But Charlie Prince, now, not a bit of it. He absolutely hates railroad men and posses, Pinkertons and lawmen and, well, pretty well everyone, really, and gut-shoots them whenever possible.

Evil Charlie

Visually, the earlier film is probably superior. The black and white photography by Charles Lawton is positively glowing. It’s shot with glaring sunlight that accentuates the dark shadows and interiors, rather like Floyd Crosby's work in High Noon, and of course the picture has a resemblance to the Gary Cooper classic as the hero, deserted, watches the clock tick towards the moment he must face the evil gunmen. The cinematography of the more recent film is by Phedon Papamichael and is good, certainly. The New Mexico locations (it was shot round Santa Fe) are enhanced by that lovely New Mexico light. The print I saw has a curious, almost yellowish wash to it. The Leonard story being set in Bisbee and Contention, the earlier film has perhaps the more authentic locations around Old Tucson, with the classic saguaros of the Arizona desert.

The later film is more of a railroad picture. Mr. Butterfield the stage line owner has become a railroad man; it’s the railroad trying to evict Dan Evans from his ranch; and there are various scenes of railroad construction. The railroad is, of course, as per the conventions, grasping and ruthless. Its staff are sadistic and racist, the idea being we don’t mind when they are shot down. By 2007 actual trains were big-budget affairs so a locomotive only makes a fairly perfunctory appearance, which is kind of a pity for a railroad movie.
As to the ending, I am not going to discuss that here in case you haven't seen either or both of the movies. Suffice it to say that they are different. I think I prefer the 2007 one, though the 1957 one was closer to the original story.
Bandit Ben Wade, 2007 style
The original story by Elmore Leonard appeared in Dime Western Magazine in 1953. It's only 15 pages and is, in that typically Leonard way, spare, stripped down and gritty. There is no farmer: a Bisbee deputy, Paul Scallen, brings the outlaw into Contention, to the Republic Hotel, and awaits the 3:10 train to Yuma. The outlaw is not Ben Wade but one Jim Kidd. Mr. Leonard got his revenge for the movie's name-change in 1972 when he wrote the John Sturges-directed picture Joe Kidd. Charlie Prince is the only significant other character mentioned. So even the 1957 film used the short story only as the bare bones for a far more complex plot. The 2007 movie inflates it even further. But that's OK.

2007's 3:10 to Yuma is a good, exciting, early 21st century Western, along the lines of Appaloosa or Open Range - that is, a straight, enjoyable, not very arty commercial picture which respects the conventions and which should be on any Western fan's list. The 1957 one was one of the greatest examples of the genre, probably Glenn Ford's and Delmer Daves's best work, and the new one isn't of that quality. But it's still a damn good film.


Saturday, October 16, 2010

Mommas, don't let your babies grow up to be philosophy book readers



Mind, this 'philosophy of the Western' thing can be taken too far. B Steve Caski, in another essay in the book The Philosophy of the Western (The University Press of Kentucky, 2010), wittily entitled Mommas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Pragmatists, argues that John Wayne Westerns are perfect examples of pragmatism as advanced by William James and John Dewey.
To accept this, you first have to believe that there is such a thing as ‘the John Wayne Western’. John Wayne was in many Westerns and perhaps more than many actors he put his personal stamp on them (though this is debatable in itself). Yes, he had a recognizable persona. Some of the later movies were Batjac productions, i.e. Wayne family affairs. But a Western is produced by a large team of people with varied input: writer or writers (sometimes from a novel by a different person), a director, designers and so on. Are The Searchers or True Grit or The Shootist ‘John Wayne Westerns’ more than they are ‘John Ford (or Henry Hathaway or Don Siegel) Westerns’ or Westerns with screenplays by x or y or z? Could they have been made with another lead actor? In fact The Cowboys, one of the two films (oddly) chosen by Dr. Caski to exemplify his theory, was first scheduled as a role for George C Scott. Wayne got it almost by accident. Could ‘John Wayne Westerns’ have equally been ‘Gregory Peck Westerns’? Yes. They would have been slightly different but not that different and the plot would have been the same, i.e. the philosophical challenges.
Then, secondly, you have to accept that Western heroes act in an especially pragmatic way, more than those in, say, war films or cop dramas. Dr. Caski says that Western heroes have to solve problems by gleaning all possible information and making the best decision on the basis of this. He says that in The Cowboys, deserted by his ranch hands, Wayne puzzles what to do and finally, at the suggestion of Slim Pickens, the barman, has recourse to a schoolroom of young boys to drive his cattle. This is true pragmatism at work.
Now sorry, but this won’t do. Any film whatsoever has to have some kind of plot, usually involving a dilemma of some kind that the lead actor has to face. Otherwise there would be no drama. Western hero Wayne’s choosing of the schoolboys is not especially pragmatic. In fact it’s a perfectly ordinary event with no foundation in any particular philosophy. You might just as well say that Humphrey Bogart has recourse to Jamesian pragmatism when deciding what to do in The Maltese Falcon. In fact, detectives have to do more information-gathering and sifting to decide their course of action than Western heroes, not less.
You can read anything into anything. You can say Westerns are perfect examples of this or that. You can pretend (and other essayists in the volume do) that Westerns are modeled on Socrates, Plato, Descartes, Locke, Rousseau, Kant and on and on. They aren’t, dude. Certainly not consciously and probably not even unconsciously. Some ‘creators’ of Westerns were aware of philosophical traditions. It is said, for example, that Tommy Lee Jones gave his actors on the set of The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada a copy of L’Etranger by Albert Camus to read. But that must have been a pretty rare event. It’s overblown and rather precious to argue that such-and-such a cowboy movie is a glowing example of the thought of some dead philosopher. The Philosophy of the Western is a book you soon lose patience with.

I say, old bean, have you seen
'The Cowboys'?
Yes, a perfect example of
pragmatism, what?

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

I need you, I don't need you


They go their own way

Thinking further about the philosophy of the Western (as one does) and further to Sunday's post, closely related to this idea of the "lone cowboy" is the notion of self-sufficiency.
Lone Western heroes are self-reliant critters. They go their own way and depend on no person. They cross the desert alone on a horse, cook and eat what they hunt, drink from streams and spurn towns and beds and hotels (though have been known to venture into saloons).
They swim against the tide, stand out alone for what is right and are always strong, morally and physically. They are teachers, not learners. They are always experienced in Western lore, even when young.

Douglas J Den Uyl, in an essay Civilization and its Discontents (Lexington, Ky, 2010), tells us that Aristotle was the philosopher who is usually connected with the idea of self-sufficiency (autarkeia) and he quotes the Nicomachean Ethics to prove it. Now I don't know when you last thumbed through the Nicomachean Ethics but I'm sure it was quite recently and I'm sure you agree. Virtue, said our pard Aristotle, is a matter of independence and self-sufficiency A person who is passive and prey to emotions or subject to authority can ony with difficulty be virtuous. Virtue is an active matter. It requires excellence in action, and that action must be in pursuit of a worthy end. Gregory Peck in Only The Valiant (Warner Bros, 1951), which I watched last night, is an Aristotelian virtuous man. He is courageous, active, able to stand alone and decide for others, able to ignore ignoble slurs, all with a noble aim of saving the fort. In fact he ends up in the arms of Barbara Payton but she isn't worthy of him because she jumped to enormous conclusions and assumed, without proof, that he was guilty of a base act. She doesn't deserve him. Gosh, a man as handsome and decent as Gregory Peck could have had any girl in the fort. (Except I've just remembered, she was the only girl in the fort).

Dr Den Uyl is a Spinoza-ist, in fact, and he goes on in the essay to explain that the 17th century Dutch-Portuguese-Jewish thinker had those cowboy heroes down pat. Ransom Stoddard seems to be the real hero of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (Paramount, 1962). He is courageous and knowledgeable and noble, and he fights to bring law and order to Shinbone and what will become the State. But, suggests Dr Den U, our pardner Baruch would have preferred Tom Doniphon. Why? Tom may be rather more louche. He is certainly less educated. But he is more self-sufficient, more proficient, wiser in the ways of the West. Stoddard gets the girl but loses in the independence stakes. In the final showdown, Stoddard depends on Doniphon. Doniphon is the self-reliant one.

Stoddard, of course, was played by James Stewart and Doniphon by John Wayne, and it reminds me of something Stewart said once about himself and Wayne. I quoted it in my review of The Man from Laramie (Columbia, 1955) in an earlier post: “Maybe what it is,” declared Stewart, “is that people identify with me, but dream of being John Wayne.” Stewart is more vulnerable, Wayne is more self-sufficient.
If I may paraphrase Leonard Cohen, you never once hear our Western heroes say I need you, I don't need you and all that jiving around.


Sunday, October 10, 2010

I'm so lonesome I could cry

The lonesome trail

The words lone, lonesome, alone, lonely or solitary often appear in Western film or book titles. The Lone Gun (United Artists, 1954); The Lone Hand (Universal, 1953); the fine, fine Lonely Are The Brave (Universal, 1962), the sense of whose title was totally lost in translation when the French called it Le Dernier des Braves; The Lonely Man (Paramount, 1957); The Lonesome Trail (Lippert, 1955); Lone Star (MGM, 1952 and the excellent Columbia, 1996 one, the titles of both of which refer to more than the Lone Star state); and The Lone Texan (Fox, 1959) are some examples. When Andy Warhol wanted to produce a pastiche Western about sex on an Arizona ranch, he called it Lonesome Cowboys. And of course The Lone Ranger galloped over the range for years in countless TV episodes and feature films.

And The Lone Ranger shows us, by the way, that you can still be a loner even if you have a sidekick. The Lone Ranger was no less alienated, masked and cut off from society for having Tonto around. Solitude is not only to be found in the Christian tradition of desert hermit but also in the Greek polis, as Socrates knew, pausing for hours on a friend's doorstep before going in to dine, pondering alone. Easy Rider’s alternative title was The Loners. Many of the cheaper serial Western heroes had their sidekicks, necessary as foils, often comic. And, as Lyle Lovett sang, “Tonto did the dirty work for free”. But those sidekicked were still lone rangers.

IMDb lists 56 films with the word “lone” in the title and no fewer than 260 with the word “lonely”. That shows us that the notion of the solitary hero is not limited to Westerns. There’s something about the whole nature of heroism that makes lone-ness a part of it.

Martin Scorsese says that the notion of alone-ness is essential to the whole thread of American fiction, from Moby Dick to Taxi Driver.

I would say not only to American fiction. The notion of American alone-ness also comes from the solitude of the Byronic hero. Childe Harold was described by Lord Macaulay as "a man proud, moody, cynical, with defiance on his brow, and misery in his heart, a scorner of his kind, implacable in revenge, yet capable of deep and strong affection". That sounds pretty much like a Western hero to me. And Byron's Corsair too:

Lone, wild, and strange, he stood alike exempt
From all affection and from all contempt

Westerns are particularly noted for the loner. A self-evident example is Will Kane in High Noon (United Artists, 1952), left alone to face Frank Miller and his varmints. Not that he wants to be alone: he does everything in his power to rustle up some deputies but they all turn away. Even his pacifist wife seems to forsake him. But a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do and all that and

If I'm a man
I must be brave
And I must face that deadly killer
Or lie a coward, a craven coward,
Or lie a coward in my grave.

A more classic example, perhaps is Shane (Paramount, 1953). Alan Ladd as Shane is a true loner, riding the West, coming out of nowhere, righting wrongs in a valley and then riding off into the sunset. This is what we mean by a solitary cowboy. He is the strong, silent type and so we can only guess at the reasons behind his loneliness. We infer it from his actions or occasional, oblique references. What lay at the bottom of Shane’s lonesome life? Was it lost happiness, a love gone wrong, a wife died? Was it some evil deed for which he is now trying to atone? We can only guess. And why does he ride off? It seems that he had been reaching out for belonging, admiring the decent Starrett, attracted to Marion, liking the boy Joey. Yet off he goes when the town has been cleaned up, bleeding, possibly dying, riding off to nowhere, alone. All the justification he gives is to young Joey: “A man has to be what he is, Joey. Can’t break the mold. I tried it and it didn’t work for me.”
The archetypal Western loner is probably Ethan Edwards in The Searchers (Warner Bros, 1956). He hardly even reaches out for belonging. He can’t. Perhaps he is inhibited by social mores, for his love for his sister-in-law is hinted at but he cannot succumb, any more than Shane can take Marian away from Starrett. But it’s more than that. Ethan is truly alienated. When he comes back from the war and its aftermath, he does not fit in. He is awkward and gauche. On his quest he is accompanied but is scornful of his fellows and distances himself from them. Even after he has devoted years and much of his life (and all the film) to finding his niece, or rather avenging her, once he has brought her back to civilization he cannot enter the homestead. We see him standing alone in the desert, framed by the doorway, in that characteristic Harry Carey pose with his left fist clutching his right elbow, almost autistic in his inability to relate.

Sometimes we are shown what causes the alienation. In The Outlaw Josey Wales (Warner Bros, 1976), Josey’s farm was burnt and his wife and child brutally slain. It drove him into a guerrilla band and eventually to a life as a loner on the run, refusing to surrender after Appomattox. He gathers about him a motley ‘family’ despite himself – an abused Indian girl, an old Cherokee chief, an old lady and her simple-minded granddaughter, a mangy redbone hound, and later a saloon girl and a broke-down gambler – but even these he eventually leaves.

The mysterious lone horseman (Clint again) in Pale Rider (Warner Bros, 1985), known in French as Le Cavalier Solitaire - which is true but once again misses the whole point - is alone for a different, almost mystic reason. He is some avenging angel, a gunman in a clerical collar riding a pale horse from Revelations, and he arrives, rights the wrongs with superhuman skill and rides off into the winter wilderness. Pale Rider is a mystic remake of Shane. Who is the stranger? Where has he come from? Where is he going? We don’t know and we don’t need to know. But even he reaches out for a passing relationship with Sarah Wheeler, and Sarah’s daughter Megan reaches out (to no avail) for him. The preacher is less vulnerable than Shane and rides off unwounded and less touched by love and family.

A common Western plot has a solitary man riding the West looking for revenge. Ride Lonesome is a classic example, and the title is pure Western movie, but Randolph Scott certainly wasn't the only one.

Sometimes the loner with the checkered past finds love and stays. Unlike Ethan, he comes in from the cold. Think of Hondo Lane, who in the end stays with Angie Lowe and her son Johnny as they ride off to California together, a family (Hondo, Warner Bros, 1953). Or Morg Hickman in The Tin Star (Paramount, 1957) where much the same happens. For these, the filmed story is the end of that lonesome trail. Jailbird gunman Ringo goes off to a ranch with the lonely saloon prostitute Dallas at the end of Stagecoach (United Artists,1939). But for most it doesn’t work out so well. Will in Will Penny (Paramount, 1968) is on the very verge of forming a family unit similar to Hondo’s or Morg’s, with a deserted wife and a young son he has grown attached to, but in the last resort he cannot do it and rides off to an old age of loneliness and despair. And guess what the French title is? Yup, Le Solitaire.

Even for the few members of The Magnificent Seven (United Artists, 1960) who don’t end up in a grave in a Mexican village it doesn’t end well. They are not a band of seven but seven lonely individuals on their way to a dusty death - with the exception of Chico, who is there to prove the rule.

Sometimes loners are alone for the very simple reason that they are on the run. They are fleeing some criminal action and must lie low, and that means alone. Jimmy Ringo in The Gunfighter (Fox, 1950) is essentially a tragic figure who desperately wants to settle down with his family but is doomed to fall to a punk kid’s gun. He will die truly alone. Many of the Jesse James and Billy the Kid movies show us an essentially lonely man doomed to a lonely death. The same happens in The Shootist (Paramount, 1978) to dying gunman JB Books.

The pale rider of the eponymous film is known only as “Preacher” and of course Clint made rather a thing of the man with no name. In lesser Westerns (the Italian ones) it became almost a trademark. Even when he got a name in the third volume of the trilogy, it was only ‘Blondie’. This namelessness underlines the solitariness and the solitude. Though Shane has a name, it is only half a name. In some films, such as the ghastly ‘comic’ junk My Name is Nobody (Universal, 1974) or the very fine psychedelic Western Dead Man (Miramax, 1996), the anonymity of the characters is played upon. “I’m traveling with Nobody,” says William Blake when asked if he is alone. Nobody is, of course, the name of the Indian he is with. Odysseus used that trick with the Cyclops so it ain't new.

Perhaps all heroes, from Ulysses on his Odyssey to the Arthurian knights on their quest, have been Western heroes coming in from nowhere, righting wrongs and ridin’ off into the sunset.

Philosophy teaches us the value of solitude and that “alone” does not always mean “lonely”. Usually, alone is what you choose to be, perhaps for good or even noble reasons, and lonely is a condition imposed upon you or one you are unhappy with. The cowboy word lone is kind of neutral and we do not know what is behind it. Montaigne’s “backshop” or Woolf’s “room of one’s own” are places where we might be wholly free and commune with ourselves “so privately that no outside relationship or communication may find a place there.” A cowboy would be at home there.

Maybe the lone cowboy owes more to the tradition of Stoicism. The Stoics thought that loneliness was in fact the better way to lead your life. Life has no real meaning anyway. The aim must be to live it free from disturbance. You are only a character in a play, not the playwright. If your part is to be short, well, it will be short. All you can do is play it well. This Stoic sense of detachment and the uselessness of fearing death fit the Western hero well. Will Lockhart (James Stewart) in The Man from Laramie (Columbia, 1955) illustrates this. He has a soldier’s and an avenging brother’s sense of duty and mission and will suffer anything to accomplish it. If death comes as a result, so be it. But he has to do it alone. He rejects the offer of work and belonging and gives up the girl at the end. Stoics can even operate in the comic domain: look at Destry Rides Again (Universal, 1939) or The Sheepman (MGM, 1958).

Or maybe (but here we are getting a bit hi-falutin’) lone cowboys have been reading Sartre. Existentialism teaches us that individuals are free to follow their own paths and live their lives passionately. To fulfil themselves, they must live authentically. Don’t just fall in with the crowd. Go your own way. Being socialised can be detrimental to our freedom and happiness. Hell is other people. What could be more Western?

But does that mean that all Western novelists, screenwriters, actors and directors were steeped in Montaigne or Camus? Probably not, pards. Still, all writers absorb such ideas, even unconsciously. The heyday of the existential writers was also the time when Western movies were at their height, after all.  I do know that Tommy Lee Jones gave the cast of The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada Albert Camus’s l’étranger to read. But I don't guess most directors of Westerns did that...

In any case, consciously or not, the whole of Western culture is founded on this notion of the lone hero. It has become a cliché, a commonplace. We don’t even notice it any more. Modern action films have carried the tradition on. Bruce Willis dying hard, alone in a skyscraper in 1988, is only doing what a man’s gotta do. Popular culture is suffused with the idea. Bob Dylan in ‘Brownsville Girl’ (Knocked Out Loaded, 1986) sang:
Well, there was this movie I seen one time
About a man riding ’cross the desert and it starred Gregory Peck
He was shot down by a hungry kid trying to make a name for himself
The townspeople wanted to crush that kid down and string him up by the neck
Well, the marshal, now he beat that kid to a bloody pulp
As the dying gunfighter lay in the sun and gasped for his last breath
“Turn him loose, let him go, let him say he outdrew me fair and square
I want him to feel what it’s like to every moment face his death”

Rather more poetically, Leonard Cohen sang, in ‘Love calls you by your name’ (Songs of Love and Hate,1971):

Shouldering your loneliness
Like a gun you will not learn to aim
You stumble into this movie house
Then you climb, you climb into the frame

All those sad gunfighters, those half-crazed mountain men, those decent marshals that none of the townsfolk would back up, those poor cowpokes on the far range, the men in single-minded pursuit of revenge, it may be from choice, it may be from loss or because they just can’t build human relationships, or it may be because they have to do what’s right and the spirit in them burns high and free. But they sure are lonesome.

As Hank lamented,

Hear that lonesome whippoorwill
He sounds too blue to fly
The midnight train is whining low
I'm so lonesome I could cry

I've never seen a night so long
When time goes crawling by
The moon just went behind a cloud
To hide its face and cry

Did you ever see a willow weep
Its leaves began to die?
That means he's lost the will to live
I'm so lonesome I could cry

The silence of a falling star
Lights up a purple sky
And as I wonder where you are
I'm so lonesome I could cry

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Rio Conchos (Fox, 1964) and 100 Rifles (Fox 1969)

Explosive fun

Rio Conchos:

100 Rifles:


I saw two Westerns this weekend which have quite a bit in common. They are Rio Conchos and 100 Rifles.
Rio Conchos was football star Jim Brown’s debut and by the time of 100 Rifles he was getting top billing, even above Burt Reynolds and Raquel Welch. Brown is sometimes called the greatest player in NFL history and his burly physique made directors have him remove his shirt whenever possible. This turned out to be quite often. To be brutally frank, he wasn’t much of an actor but if you needed a big black man in an action film (The Dirty Dozen, say) or indeed any of the many cheap blaxploitation movies of the 70s, Brown was your man.

Conchos was directed by Gordon Douglas, who churned out a lot of standard stuff but also occasionally came up with something interesting. Conchos is in the interesting class. Rifles was directed by Tom Gries, who also produced a lot of routine material but occasionally came up with a little gem – the excellent small Western Will Penny being the obvious example and probably his finest work.

Both Conchos and Rifles have a Hollywood post-spaghetti look and feel about them, from the Rio Conchos cynical hero Richard Boone ready to slaughter Indians at any opportunity to the trendy pink credit titles of 100 Rifles. And loads of gunshots and corpses.

Both plots centre around a shipment of repeater rifles that risks going to the Indians and being used to attack the Army. In the case of Rio Conchos, it is 1867 and the guns are destined for crazed Confederate officer Edmond O’Brien who wants to arm the Apaches with them and crush the bluecoats. In Rio Conchos we are in Mexico in maybe 1910 or ’11 and the sadistic ruler of the state of Sonora, General Verdugo (Argentine Fernando Lamas, who had provided the stock Mexican in countless movies for a quarter of a century by then; he is satisfactorily evil here with his twin pearl-handled .45 automatics) has to prevent the rifles going to the Yaqui Indians whom he is trying to exterminate.

Both movies have big, explosive endings. Both have something to recommend them, even if Rio Conchos was considered a pretty pulp Western at the time and The New York Times said of 100 Rifles, " 'This picture has a message: watch out.' So proclaim the ads for 100 Rifles. Wise moviegoers can do even better by ducking it altogether."

In both movies the Indians look like Apaches. Why did all movies have to show Indians in red headbands and long breechclouts holding Winchesters, regardless of their tribe? In Rio Conchos they are Apaches, so fair enough, but in 100 Rifles they are Yaquis. It is true, of course, that it was a really cool look so you can't blame the costume department. The Indian leaders were rarely real Indians, of course. Rodolfo Acosta, a Mexican character actor, is Bloodshirt in the first and Raquel Welch is the Yaqui leader in the second, so a certain amount of, er, suspension of credibility is required.

100 Rifles came out in the same year as The Wild Bunch. Is it a coincidence that both have stereotype German officers advising the wicked Mexican general and both generals ride about in a big open De Dion Bouton? Jim jumps over the automobile on his horse, Monte Walsh-style, to symbolize that cars aren’t properly Western and the horse is superior.

Both these movies are big, noisy and a lot of fun. Not art works, just Westerns. Rio Conchos ends in a wagon wreck with mucho fireworks. Rifles goes one better with that ultimate studio must-have, a train wreck. No expense spared. Cast of thousands. Hundreds, anyway.

In Rio Conchos, a slightly overweight Boone, the year after Have Gun, Will Travel finished, is ‘Lassiter’, a bit cheeky but hey. He was an excellent tough Westerner. In 100 Rifles, Burt Reynolds gives us all his usual good/bad guy charm. Boone and Reynolds in these movies are both bad men who rather reluctantly find themselves on the side of the angels. Burt gets Raquel to fight alongside but Richard has to put up with the rather odd-looking Wende Wagner (left, in the dreadful publicity still). But they both get Jim to help anyway. Those shoulders do come in handy.

Both movies are worth a look, pards.