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

Sunday, January 30, 2011

True Grit by Charles Portis (Simon & Schuster, 1968)

I call that bold talk for a one-eyed fat man!


The novel True Grit by Charles McColl Portis, born December 28, 1933 in El Dorado, Arkansas, came out in 1968 and was very rapidly made into a film by Paramount. Not surprisingly, for it is an outstanding book, one of the best Western novels ever written.

I have just re-read it because the Coen brothers have said that they made their recent film from the novel rather than as a remake of the 1969 movie, and I wanted to prepare for seeing the new film, which is not yet out in France. It will be showing at the Berlin Film Festival in February and then later on general release.

I was also curious to remind myself how close the screenplay of the 1969 film had been to the original novel, and I picked it up again too for the sheer pleasure of re-reading a marvelously enjoyable book after all these years.
Marguerite Roberts (1905 – 1989) adapted the novel in 1969 with consummate skill. (She also wrote, for Paramount, the script of Portis's first book, Norwood, the following year and the film brought together Glenn Campbell and Kim Darby once more - though without Wayne). It is really quite remarkable how close the 1969 film True Grit is to the book, and how skillfully Ms. Roberts took Mattie’s thoughts (for the book is told in the first person) and translated them into dialogue.

The plot, as you know, is a fairly straightforward Western chase/revenge one, set in Arkansas around 1878. It’s not that remarkable. What makes the book is firstly the sheer power of the characters, especially the two principals Mattie Ross and Reuben 'Rooster' Cogburn, and secondly the color and brio of the language.

Unlike the film, the book is narrated by an elderly one-armed spinster, owner of a bank and pillar of the local Presbyterian church. She recounts her adventure as a thirteen-year-old girl. Her character shines through in every line. The conversation recounted is shot through with that Victorian blend of formality and common usage with just sings with authenticity. It is also often extremely funny in a dry way. Most of the great lines are taken directly into the screenplay of the ’69 film and we laugh at and love them. They have a Mark Twain or Bret Harte twang.

Mattie is doubtless a tight-fisted, mean old lady but what she demonstrates she has (in spades) is spirit. She has, in fact, true grit, as much as Rooster does. One line invented for the film, and well invented, is when Mattie, prevented from using the ferry, plunges into the freezing river on her pony to swim across and Rooster remarks to LaBoeuf, “By God, she reminds me of me!”

Rooster is of course a great literary creation, a Dickensian figure of quite enormous stature. I have heard it said that John Wayne was awarded his only Oscar for this film as a recognition of a great career rather than for a remarkable performance in this particular film. What nonsense. In one of his best ever performances, Wayne was outstanding as Rooster and brought that wonderful character fully to life. In the book Rooster is in his early 40s and Wayne of course was over 60 but that's fine: Wayne stamps the part with his own persona. It is a great comic performance.

The sergeant of Texas Rangers LaBoeuf (pronounced, Mattie tells us, “la beef”) is a slightly grayer character in the book and, it must be said, a weak link in the film. 1960s Westerns seemed almost under an obligation to have a pop singer in the cast. As actors, they usually made good singers. At least Campbell was from Arkansas. But other players are strongly delineated and memorable: the outlaw Lucky Ned Pepper and his gang (even the bit parts are strong), Lawyer Daggett (what a stroke of genius to cast diminutive John Fiedler in 1969), and best of all Colonel Stonehill, the miserable stock trader whom Mattie bests at his own game. Even characters who do not appear but are only mentioned, such as Marshal Columbus Potter, seem to us alive and real. In later life, Mattie meets Cole Younger and Frank James. She captures them brilliantly in five lines.

The '69 film is so close to the book that there is little to criticize. Only the ending of the film departs significantly from the novel and, in the film, is certainly too sugary and out of character. The change of the fate of LaBoeuf is not easy to explain; what was gained by that in the film? I much prefer the ending of the book as far as Rooster is concerned and very much hope the Coen brothers have treated that as Portis did.

It’s not often that you get a five-star Western, one you adore, and find that the book it was based on is also a great novel. It happens (Little Big Man, Shane, others) but it’s rare. In the case of True Grit, the book and film are equals, at least judging by the 1969 movie. You have here a must-read and a must-see. And the great thing about them both is that you can re-read and re-see them and get almost as much entertainment out of them as you did the first time round.

You haven't read it? Get on to amazon at once!


Saturday, January 29, 2011

High Noon in Lincoln: violence on the Western frontier by Robert M Utley (University of New Mexico Press, 1987)

The Lincoln County War and Billy the Kid: the truth behind the fiction


The book

Robert M. Utley’s book High Noon in Lincoln: violence on the Western frontier (University of New Mexico Press, 1987) is an outstanding account of the so-called Lincoln County War. Authoritative, scholarly, balanced, it is probably the source for those interested in the shenanigans down there in late 1870s southern New Mexico.

What’s interesting about it?

The first and perhaps most interesting thing that comes out of reading it is how unattractive and unsympathetic all the participants were. There are no ‘heroes’ in the Lincoln County War. LG Murphy and his partners Dolan and Riley of ‘The House’ were ruthless exercisers of a stranglehold monopoly, but John Tunstall and ‘Mac’ McSween were no fighters for freedom wanting to liberate Lincoln from tyranny: they just wanted to replace The House’s tyranny with their own.

McSween’s wife Sue (left) comes across as perhaps the most attractive of the lot: she was courageous, feisty and strong, a very modern woman in a hard place at a hard time. Yet even she was murderous, unscrupulous and full of hatred.

So we have no one to love, no clear ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’.

That’s not what the films show

This represents a problem, of course, for dime novelists and Hollywood. It’s so much easier if you can have noble characters against wicked ones. Especially if the noble ones win.

Most fictional accounts have tended to side with the Tunstall-McSween clan and cast the Murphyites as the villains. As young Billy Bonney rode with Tunstall, he could be shown as a ‘social bandit’, fighting for right and avenging wrong. And the mythic ‘Billy the Kid’ of legend could grow into the great folk hero he was to become.

In reality, Bonney and his like (on both sides) were low assassins. And of the other characters in the play, Colonel Dudley (right) of Fort Stanton was a drunkard and man of of limited intellect. New Mexico’s Governor Axtell was a politician of dubious probity. His successor Lew Wallace was dilatory and gave priority to writing his famous novel Ben Hur. Local law officers like Sheriff Brady were partial and biased and Lincoln’s Judge Bristol timid and easily cowed. There is, honestly, no one with whom we would wish to identify.

Pecos rancher John Chisum was perhaps less odious than some of the others but he deliberately removed himself and took no direct part in the war, despite what the films show. The Seven Rivers stockmen like Hugh Beckwith who opposed him were nasty, violent rustlers and their cronies, like the Olinger brothers, brutal bullies.

Out-and-out bandits and outlaws who participated in the events, such as Jesse Evans, John Kinney and the appalling John Selman, were simply a criminal element cashing in on the conflict to serve their own ends of larceny and murder. They were low stock thieves. They would have held up banks and stage coaches had there been any. As it was, they stole whatever they could and did not scruple to kill people for plunder. Selman (the ‘lawman’ who eventually shot and killed John Wesley Hardin in El Paso) added arson, rape and torture to the crimes.

It’s not a pretty cast list, is it?

Tunstall in fact and fiction

he is often The Englishman John Tunstall (left) is usually, in films, shown as the high-minded, philanthropic one and Lawrence Murphy his evil rival. In fact Tunstall seems to have been an unpleasant person, racist (as of course so many were then), superior and unlikeable. Curiously, he is often shown (see, for example, The Left-Handed Gun) as an older man yet he was only 25 when he died, and even more curiously portrayed as a Scot. He is also shown as a Bible-reading pacifist who never carried a gun. In reality, these qualities should be attributed to his partner Alexander McSween (right). McSween disliked violence and only rarely used a firearm. Tunstall was agnostically-minded and went about heeled, being very ready to use a weapon when needed, while McSween had been, it was said anyway, a Presbyterian preacher. It was Tunstall’s determination to exploit the local population in the way that the declining Murphy had done which caused all the violence in the first place.

Utley shows us that the flames thus lit by Tunstall and his more or less reluctant partner McSween (the latter urged on by his steely wife) were vigorously fanned by three winds:

Fanning the flames

One was drink. Everyone seemed to use alcohol on the frontier, in very liberal quantities. Cheap whiskey made them reckless, aggressive and incompetent. Murphy, Dolan and Riley, especially, were often the worse for wear and Murphy eventually died of drink. The man upon whom one would normally have relied to maintain order, US Army commander at the nearby Fort Stanton Colonel Nathan Dudley, was a well-known alcoholic whose judgement was often seriously impaired.

The second reason the flames flared was that firearms were so ubiquitous. Every man had a revolver and a rifle and was more or less expert in its use. The Colt’s revolver thrust into the belt and Winchester repeating rifle in a saddle scabbard were especially popular and most men had both. Alcohol and firearms do not mix.

Thirdly, we have the strange ‘code’ that post-Civil War Texans developed and brought with them down the cattle trails and along the Pecos, infecting the West as a whole. This code of behavior required that any slight, real or imagined, do not go unpunished. Official law enforcement being so scanty, inefficient and untrustworthy, it was a man’s right and indeed his duty to avenge wrongs and ‘set things right’. It required courage (although slightly less courage was needed when a slighted individual was fueled on booze and had a Winchester rifle in his hand) but it was what ‘a man had to do’. This is the seemy underside of the noble 'a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do' philosophy of the West.

Put all these three together with the economic causes as men thirsted for money and power (both of which were highly prized then as now), add in notably deficient police forces and law courts, and you have a recipe for a range war.


Despite the fact that Tunstall and McSween’s men were called 'the Regulators', they were no vigilantes. Vigilantes usually come out when law and order has broken down and they represent themselves as extra-judicial forces. In Lincoln County both sides claimed to be lawmen and rode to serve legally-issued warrants. They were only using the law, of course, for their own ends but each side had its own tame lawmen and court officers and wore badges of one kind or another.

Classic conflict?

Other famous range wars were the origin of Hollywood’s love for sheepmen against cattlemen conflicts, as in Pleasant Valley, Arizona or those big ranchers against nesters, as in Colfax County. The Lincoln County War had little of that (except perhaps Beckwith and the Seven Rivers stockmen fighting John Chisum; but Chisum had sold out and was on his way to leaving). The Lincoln County War wasn’t like this.

The nearest comparison to Lincoln is the Johnson County War in Wyoming, so laughably badly depicted in Heaven’s Gate. In both, Englishmen were involved as protagonists; in both there was really no self-evident ‘good’ and ‘bad’ side; both sucked in criminals; both caused Presidential intervention and a state of insurrection to be declared and both nearly caused the imposition of martial law.

All these conflicts and others, including Lincoln, merged with family and clan feuds, in the post-War Texas style and all were complicated by corrupt politics and mismanagement.

Fact and fiction

So the next time we watch a film in which Billy the Kid (who, as just one of the many gunmen on one side, in reality played a reasonably important but certainly not crucial or leading role in the conflict) rides into town and shoots down Sheriff Brady in a face-to-face fight, or the next time we see pious, unarmed and unresisting Tunstall shot down by vicious gunmen, or McSween and his family Gatling-gunned to death as they lurch from his burning store, let’s just remember that none of this really happened.

But of course we don’t watch cowboy films to find out what really happened. Documentaries can do that, or Mr. Utley’s admirable book (which you definitely should read). We watch the movies for fun.


Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (Paramount, 1962)


A dangerous, not to say fatal exercise.

Directly after The Horse Soldiers in the list of 94 Westerns that John Wayne made (don't worry, we aren't going to review them all) comes his own personal pride and joy, The Alamo. We looked at it back in April.  Poor John. What a clunker. And he invested so much in it - not just thirteen million 1960 dollars but his heart and soul.
Two years later he was back in front of John Ford's cameras in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.
To confine a Western almost totally to sound set interiors and studio street scenes is a dangerous, not to say, fatal exercise. Westerns depend on action and scenery and movement. John Ford knew this, too. Yet The Man Who Killed Liberty Valance is a static, over-talky and rather tired film, Ford’s penultimate Western and one of his worst.
The themes of Liberty Valance were those that had always concerned the famous director: East versus West, the creation of law and order in a wild land, nostalgia for a bygone time of freedom. The film has something interesting to say on pacifism and courage and the freedom of the press. Much of the dialogue (James Warner Bellah and Willis Goldbeck from the Dorothy M Johnson short story) is well written and thoughtful. There is just too much of it.
James Stewart as Ransom Stoddard and John Wayne as Tom Doniphon were, by 1962, top stars, of course, and both put in powerful performances but both were a bit long in the tooth to portray the young Turks they are supposed to be. (James Stewart was known as the man who brought law and order to Bottleneck without a gun way back in 1939. Perhaps he was chosen to do the same thing for Shinbone in 1962?) Fortunately, the supporting acting is a veritable roll call of grand cowboy actors: led by Lee Marvin as Valance, splendidly bad, the cast also contains Edmond O’Brien (earlier of Denver and Rio Grande, later of The Wild Bunch) as Peabody, editor of The Shinbone Star, Andy Devine as the cowardly Marshal Link Appleyard of gargantuan appetite, Woody Strode as Wayne’s 48-year-old ‘boy’ (servant? Slave?) Pompey, Denver Pyle in spectacles as a townsman and Lee van Cleef and Strother Martin as heavies to back up Liberty. It’s a great list.
The photography was by William Clothier again and indeed there are fine shots of shadow and light but why did Ford choose in 1962 to film it in the studio and in black & white, the first of his films in monochrome since Rio Grande in 1950? Clothier had so little scope for artistry. Perhaps because it was mostly set at night, Ford wanted it dark and somber and he wanted to show that there was more to Westerns than Indians chasing stagecoaches across Monument Valley? Ford always loved black & white, of course. Or maybe simply that Paramount were cutting costs and John Ford Westerns weren’t the draw they once had been? The film was often shoved into double-bills as a makeweight. How sad.

.The whole look and feel of Liberty Valance is old-fashioned, from the monochrome to the Cyril Mockridge music and the almost William S Hart costumes. How The West Was Won came out the same year – what a difference! And big, colorful, commercial, action-packed vehicles like The Magnificent Seven were now the thing, or modern angst-dramas like The Misfits. Liberty Valance was stuck in the 1940s.

The triangle of manhood linking Valance, Stoddard and Doniphon is mirrored by that of tenderness between Stoddard, Doniphon and Hallie (Vera Miles). It’s well-constructed and crafted alright. Hallie, though, is tamed and civilized – Ranse teaches her to read and makes her a Senator’s wife – just as the West is tamed. Almost the last words are Hallie saying, “It was once a wilderness. Now it’s a garden.” But she loses her fire and the joie de vivre that Tom would have nurtured.
In the last resort, Stoddard has lived a lie. And for all his success and Doniphon's apparent failure (dying unknown and alone in a backwater), Stoddard is not half the man Doniphon was. And he knows it.

Fundamentally, it's a very sad story.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Rio Bravo (Warner Bros, 1959).


And she better like it….

You might think that once he'd done The Searchers, it was all downhill for John Wayne. But it wasn't. He had twenty years of Westerns to go yet and while many of them were commercial rather than critical successes, some were very good and two were outstanding, on a par with anything he ever did. I refer, of course, to True Grit (1969) and The Shootist (1976).

But today, the big box-office blast, Rio Bravo.

Three years on from The Searchers, this was a totally different Western. Wayne had entered his later years as a fixture of the Hollywood Wild West. Rio Bravo has no Fordian artistry about it. Though directed by Howard Hawks and co-starring Walter Brennan, it was no Red River either. It was a classic, commercial Western of straightforward design, and it had them waiting in lines all round the block to get in.
The Mexicans call the Rio Grande the Rio Bravo and John Ford’s Rio Grande was called Rio Bravo in many countries. This is not that. Hawks directed Wayne with the same story in El Dorado in 1966 and again as Rio Lobo in 1970. Is that all clear? I wouldn't want you to get confused.
Southern Texas (filmed in Arizona). Sheriff John T Chance has Claude Akins locked up in jail and has to keep him a week and fight off a whole gang till the US Marshal gets here. He has only “a drunk and a cripple” (Dean Martin and Brennan) to help him, that is until Ricky Nelson arrives. This was the late 50s and early 60s when no Western was complete without a pop singer. Nelson looks about 12 (he was 18) and has the tightest trousers ever seen on film. He can’t sing worth a damn compared to Dean Martin but they make a decent duo with ‘My rifle, pony and me’ (the tune was used in Red River), with Walter Brennan’s harmonica obligato. Luckily Wayne (“The Singing Cowboy”, remember?) didn’t have to join in.

Ward Bond was there to help (Hawks seems to have taken over the whole Ford stock company) but he soon gets shot. Angie Dickinson, as lady gambler who falls for Wayne, shows off her sensational figure, quite often.
Wayne is his usual leathery self, spinning his Winchester to cock it. I love his short jacket and calf-length pants and that hat has to be one of the best ever (Wayne had worn it since Stagecoach).
It’s a fun film, full of color and corn, and none the worse for that. It has a splendid final shoot out.

It’s juvenile, predictable and full of clichés but it’s a real Western with zip and pzazz and you have to love it. High Noon it ain’t but hey, who cares.

Actually, it was made, ten years after High Noon, as a kind of riposte. Wayne had disliked the Gary Cooper picture, in which the Marshal had thrown the sheriff's star in the dirt. It was unAmerican. Law 'n' order has got to be respected. In his version, the Sheriff obstinately retains his badge and wins out over the bad guys against all the odds, with the help of some townspeople, but essentially by his own bravado. Of course High Noon was one of the greatest examples of the Western genre, perhaps even the greatest, whereas Rio Bravo is just a fun way to fill a movie theater.
Quentin Tarantino said that if he started getting interested in a girl he would show her Rio Bravo. And she better like it…


Thursday, January 20, 2011

Rio Grande (Republic, 1950)

This post has been revised and updated. Please click here for the new one. Thanks.


Wednesday, January 19, 2011

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (RKO, 1949)

This post has been updated and revised.
Please click here for the new one.

Ford at his majestic best.


The second of John Ford’s late 1940s cavalry trilogy, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, was the only one made in color and it hugely benefits from that for we get that splendid Monument Valley scenery in all its oranges and pinks and ochres, photographed by Oscar-winning Winton C Hoch. In fact it was one of only three Westerns (four if you count Hud) ever to win an Academy Award for Cinematography. It is the color and the setting that give the film its epic quality.
She Wore a Yellow Ribbon went into production in October 1948, before the release of Ford’s remake of 3 Godfathers, shot in June of that year, and just after Red River was finally shown in theaters (it certainly was a prolific period for John Wayne Westerns). Naturally, the setting was Monument Valley, which had contributed so much to the earlier Fort Apache. Wayne later wrote, “We lived in a tent city [Wayne was slightly stretching the we there: he and Ford were the only ones to have private cabins] and at night we played cards. … Sometimes the Sons of the Pioneers were there, and they sang too. It was kind of captured companionship and we made the most of it. And most of it was delightful because it was different from the way we lived at home.” This nostalgic view was not, however, the way most of the cast and crew remembered the location shooting; it was pretty basic out there in the valley.

The Cheyenne are in revolt

This time John Wayne is crusty Captain Nathan Brittles, in his last week of service before retirement, who has to put down an uprising of allied Indian tribes.

The rest of the Ford stock company is there. Victor McLaglen repeats his act as Irish sergeant fond of a drop. John Agar returns as the young man who gets the girl (he got Shirley Temple, who was in fact his wife, in the first movie). Lt. Harry Carey Jr. is Agar's rival. We also have an outstanding Ben Johnson, one of the finest Western actors of them all, splendid as Sergeant Tyree, former Confederate captain. Like Brittles, all he has is a lost past. Francis Ford is the barman. George O’Brien and Paul Fix are there. Many of the cast were to reappear
Rio Grande.
McLaglen comic relief again
The female lead was Joanne Dru. Ms. Dru had made a stuttering start to her career in the early 1940s but had been chosen by Howard Hawks as the female lead (opposite Wayne) in Red River. She rather got typecast in Western roles from then on (she was in Ford’s Wagonmaster in 1950, Vengeance Valley in ’51, then many B Westerns, and in 1960 starred in Guestward Ho! on TV. Painful for a woman who hated horses. But she was good in Yellow Ribbon, and very beautiful.
Joanne Dru wore the yellow ribbon

The film is frequently sentimental and nostalgic, and Ford’s penchant for low humor is probably regrettable too but you can forgive the weaknesses for the undeniable strengths. And the sugariness is counterbalanced by the power and rawness of life on the frontier.

It’s a galloping, bugle-blowing, roustabout cavalry picture and Wayne’s performance is stunningly good. He is totally convincing as an elderly officer, twenty years older than his real age; the way he walks and looks and talks are just right. The business with the spectacles as he examines the inscription on the farewell watch could have been saccharine but it is in fact very moving. Wayne said that this was his favorite role ever. I think that what Wayne had, in spades, was an ability to suggest an essential nobility of character beneath rough Western manners. This ability suited the parts he played in Ford’s cavalry Westerns right down to the dusty ground.
Out in the valley
It is 1876. Remote Fort Starke. As he sits beside the grave of his departed wife, Brittles says, “We had sad news today, Mary. George Custer was killed with his entire command. Myles Keogh - you remember Myles?” There is a post-Custer rising of the tribes. The Indians have united and are on the warpath. Brittles is given one last assignment by post commander Major Allshard (O'Brien): he must escort an attractive single lady (Dru) and the slightly less attractive and rather hard-bitten commander's wife (Mildred Natwick) out of harm's way. That’s the basic plot. Of course, Indians are a threat, and equally inevitably, two young lieutenants (Agar and Carey) vie for the hand of la Dru, even though it is she who wears the eponymous ribbon, a sign that he has chosen a beloved among the soldiers. She flirts with both but eventually opts for her true love.
Duke and Dobe face danger together
There’s a subplot of a sutler (Harry Woods, with Paul Fix as henchman) selling rifles to the Indians. In Westerns that was a crime of such heinousness that it could never be forgiven. Selling your grandmother into slavery was a minor misdemeanor by comparison.

Like the other two cavalry pictures, Yellow Ribbon was based on a story by James Warner Bellah and a lot of the credit for the stories and excellent characterizations must go to him, although Ford and his screenplay writer Frank S Nugent did a lot of adding – and a lot of softening.

There is a dramatic thunderstorm – Ford insisted on keeping on shooting while the crew cringed from lightning strikes. Bosley Crowther, in The New York Times review, wrote, “
No one could make a troop of soldiers riding across the western plains look more exciting and romantic than this great director does. No one could get more emotion out of a thundering cavalry charge or an old soldier's farewell departure from the ranks of his comrades than he.”

And there is of course the lusty cavalry singing, chief among the tunes the title song.
In fact, though, Yellow Ribbon is actually quite a dark film, despite all the luminous color. Brittles is alone, his family all dead, and he relates to no one unless it be Sergeant Quincannon (McLaglen), but even that only because they share the pain of oncoming retirement and have nowhere to go except “the West”. Brittles is saved at the end by being brought back into the community but you feel it’s only out of pity, and was even rather a weak ending. I don’t think Ford could bear it, having Brittles ride off from Army life to nowhere.

Fort Apache and Rio Grande were classic ‘progressive’ Westerns about the future, making the frontier safe and bringing civilization to the Wild West. She Wore a Yellow Ribbon is about the past, and the future is black and pointless.

But it’s Ford at his majestic best.

On the set

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Fort Apache (RKO, 1948)

This post has been revised and updated. Please click here for the new version.
Thanks, Jeff.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Stagecoach (UA, 1939)

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Please be kind enough to click here for the new one.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Randy Rides Alone (Lone Star, 1934)


Well-constructed, professional and also fun


From time to time, like today, we'll come back to our John Wayne theme. After all, Wayne was the towering presence of the American Western movie for close to half a century.

We have already seen how he got his big break with Raoul Walsh (who gave him his screen name) when he starred in The Big Trail in 1930. 

But that movie was not the springboard to megastardom that Wayne must have hoped. All through the 1930s he played in black & white B movies for minor studios and did not emerge once more into the real limelight until John Ford needed a Ringo Kid for Claire Trevor to fall in love with in Stagecoach in 1939. After that, even then he returned to B movies in the War years but his name was made and he never looked back. Between 1948 and 1956 he was to star in four of the greatest Westerns ever made, three of them directed by Ford.

But the 1930s Westerns are not to be discounted. Yes, they are corny and old-fashioned by modern standards but some of them are well-constructed, professional and also fun.

Between 1933 and 1935 the Lone Star production company issued sixteen Westerns. They were lively and well-made, if formulaic matinee fodder. The series of 50-minute films continued at the gallop with Randy Rides Alone in 1934, directed by Harry L Fraser and with the usual suspects: Archie did the photography, Yakima the stunts and Gabby played a lead role..

There’s a great Archie Stout opening shot looking up at Wayne on his white horse as Wayne gazes down from the rocks at a wooden model of a saloon. The model allowed the low-budget studio to show us a hacienda-style building and later blow it up.

This artistic first view of our hero (he is Randy Bowers and works undercover for the Adams Express Company so he always rides alone) is slightly spoiled by speeded-up film as he rides down to the model. They often did that to get through unnecessary parts quickly or to suggest haste. It always looked silly.

When Randy enters the saloon, he finds a pianola churning out a merry tune but everyone inside dead as mutton. As he wonders what on earth has happened, two sinister eyes shine in the eye-holes cut into a portrait. Someone is watching! Then a dumb sheriff arrives (Earl Dwire the Great, who looks excellent with a proper handlebar mustache and tweed suit) and without a shred of evidence arrests Randy for the crime. Anyone could see that with a costume like that and a white horse as well, our hero must be innocent. But Sheriff Dwire throws him in jail.

It’s all due to the evil machinations of a clean-shaven Gabby Hayes, this time playing a man who cannot speak (Gabby?), known as Matt the Mute. Matt the Mute is really in disguise for he is none other than Marvin Black the badman and he can speak plenty, and boy, is he mean. Gabby’s chief henchman is Yakima Canutt. They have an excellent lair behind a waterfall. Probably they copied it from Chapter V of Riders of the Purple Sage. Johnny Guitar later copied it again. 

The plot then gets intricate (and actually quite clever). It’s wonderful really how well-constructed these B westerns were (this one by Lindsley Parsons). They had to establish the characters (forget character development - no time for that - but they did establish them) and tell an often quite complicated story all in under an hour. This movie, like all of the series, rattles along at a cracking pace.

There’s a great line when Marvin is furious at his incompetent gang; “And you call yourselves bad men!”

In the end our hero is proved innocent (I’m giving nothing away here) and gets the saloon-owner’s daughter (Alberta Vaughn this time).

So Randy rides off into the sunset – but not alone!

(Randy was immediately followed by The Star Packer).


Monday, January 10, 2011

Dead Man (Pandora/12 Gauge/BAC, 1995)


Occasionally plain odd.


Getting right away from Billy the Kid, who has occupied us for almost as long as he irritated Governor Lew Wallace, I want to talk about a Western that I saw again recently on DVD and which I believe to be truly great. It’s an odd Western, very unusual, but in positive ways that, for me, put it up there in the top ten ever.

It’s Dead Man.

A lot has been written about it but I thought I’d have my ten cents’ worth. .

What kind of Western is it?
Call this an alternative Western, a rock Western, a psychedelic or acid Western, call it what you want. It’s still a fine, fine film. I saw it on its debut in Florence, Italy and was bowled over by its quality, so much so that I sat through it again (without paying for a new ticket; will I burn in hell?)
What does it look like?

It’s in black & white. Director Jim Jarmusch said that it gave a 19th century feel to the movie and that color would have been too realistic for such a mystic tale; it also was a reference to the classic Westerns of the 1940s and 50s. Visually it is very fine. The black & white photography of the Arizona, Oregon and Washington locations by Robby Müller is luminous and stark, very good indeed. In the early stages of the story, when it deals with the vile and symbolically-named town of Machine and white ‘civilization’, it seems to play with German expressionist techniques and camera angles, while when we are in the bosom of nature and in the village of the earth-respecting Makah people, we have a none-too-Steadycam hand-held approach that reminds us of Italian neo-realism. Or is that too pretentious? Or is it just me? Anyway, visually, the film is a treat.
What does it sound like?
It is accompanied by a superb jangly guitar score by Neil Young which I bought on CD but then found that it wasn’t at all the same on its own; it needs the visual. As a film score (it was written for the movie) it is outstanding. It is very hard to write good Western scores. You can go down the stirring Elmer Bernstein route (dum dum de-dum) or the folksy Ry Coodery Long Riders road or take the poetic Leonard Cohen McCabe & Mrs. Miller trail. Probaboy best are modern orchestral variations on songs of the time, as in, say Escape from Fort Bravo or San Antone. None of them really convince though. A bold decision to use Neil Young rock guitar, however, works.

How good are the actors?
The film stars Johnny Depp as William Blake. Depp is an outstanding actor and it is marvelous how he changes from meek clerk into wanted killer, yet retaining his naïvety and innocence. When he is told by his Indian friend that it is time for him to return whence he came, he replies with serio-comic effect, “Do you mean Cleveland?”

Depp, in his low-crowned Tom Petty top hat and stubble, looks like a young Bob Dylan. (Actually two of the characters are named after members of The Heartbreakers). Jarmusch plays with the Hollywood tradition of whites playing Indians in ‘redface’ by having Depp, a quarter Cherokee, play the “stupid fucking white man.” Depp of course became the Indian part of the duo in The Lone Ranger in 2013, when he was Tonto.

Jarmusch also plays with the idea of William Blake the poet and indeed the Indian who befriends the “dead man” takes him for the poet. Blake’s poetry accompanies them on their journey.

The Indian friend is played by Gary Farmer. He is very far from the typical Indian of Westerns. But that is what is so great. He is atypical, an outsider, a person. Mr. Farmer, a Canadian, is a member of the Cayuga nation, part of the Iroquois Confederacy. He also leads a band (not the Heartbreakers but the Troublemakers) and founded a magazine, Aboriginal Voices. The films he has been in are interesting and often unusual. In Dead Man he plays a plump and mystical Blood/Blackfoot half-breed called Nobody, so there is of course the running gag (as old as Odysseus) of “my name is Nobody” in all its permutations. “Who are you traveling with?” “I’m with Nobody", Depp replies. It’s like that 1973 film My Name is Nobody, except not for morons.

Farmer reprised the role in 1999 in Jarmusch’s The Way of the Samurai.

He leads the duo; he is not the sidekick. That’s unusual on its own. Even when we have sympathetic portrayals of Indians, such as Chief Dan George in The Outlaw Josey Wales, it is still Josey who leads. Dan George is no Tonto but he’s still relegated to second fiddle. In this film it is Depp who follows blindly in his leader’s path and survives (as long as he does anyway for he is a dead man, remember) only because of him. Their journey is not only a physical one; Nobody accompanies the ‘dead man’ on a spiritual journey too. And indeed, only the Indians have any spiritual quality at all. All the white men are brutal, nature-hating polluters who create monstrous towns like Machine. Their world is one vast machine.

The support acting is excellent, notably Robert Mitchum in one of his last roles as the boss of the metal works in the hellish town of Machine who commissions killers to find and murder the slayer of his son; the paid assassins themselves, Lance Henriksen as the cannibal Cole Wilson (in earlier Westerns the Indians would have been the cannibals), Michael Wincott as the garrulous Conway Twill and Eugene Byrd as the psychopathic juvenile Johnny ‘The Kid’ Pickett; and Gabriel Byrne as the shot son of the factory owner is touchingly good in his short part.

Then we have Alfred Molina as the vile missionary store keeper; Iggy Pop (in a dress) and Billy Bob Thornton as the gay would-be rapists of Depp; even John Hurt is good, for once. Very high-class characterization – Mr. Jarmusch wrote it too.
What is unusual about it?

The movie fades out often, to black, and this adds a dream-like quality to it as Blake fades in and out of consciousness, especially towards the end at the Makah village in Washington. The Indians appear outlandish, exotic, like Eskimos or Hawaiians. Much of the film is without dialogue as Depp looks curiously at the weirdness to the sound of Young’s electric and acoustic guitars. We see odd snapshots as Blake does, a stranded sewing machine, a horse pissing, the head of a dead marshal in the equally dead fire, the sticks like the halo on an icon. The two marshals, by the way, are called Lee and Marvin. Why should not Mr. Jarmusch be allowed his jokes? The film is in fact often quite comic, in a dark way.

There is another interesting idea, that of the mirror. The film is symmetrical in many ways: early on Depp walks down the muddy main street of Machine; it is filthy and full of vice and violence. Men point pistols at him and would fire bullets into his body as soon as not. He is alive and they would kill him. Towards the end of the film he walks down another main street, this time the thoroughfare of the Makah village. This too is muddy and untidy but is populated by caring people who help him die with dignity. The Indians, especially Nobody, do not teach him the Indian way of life. They show him the Indian way of death. And such man-made artifacts as here are in this street are beautiful hand-carved totem poles; metal devices like the sewing-machine lie abandoned in the mud. He is dead and they help him 'live'.

Blake and Nobody are also twinned and have much in common. They meet their death at the same time. They are both outcasts and outlaws. They are both pursued by the hired killers.

Jarmusch said the Western is a genre open to metaphor and is constructed around fundamental themes such as punishment, redemption and tragedy. The movie starts with the classic Western metaphor of the railroad and we watch in tiny episodes as the West gets wilder as the train rolls endlessly on. I love that train journey.

There is a leitmotif of the skull. Bones and hides and especially skulls litter the film.

The whole film is in fact an excoriating critique of (white) American society. Wage-slaves toil under capitalist bosses, prostitutes service their clients in broad daylight, men are drunken, aggressive and needlessly violent. Blake asks the girl he is in bed with why she has a gun. “Because this is America,” she replies.
So it's good then?

This is an extremely good Western, unusual, post-revisionist, I’d say, very 1990s, horribly realistic (especially the shootings), occasionally plain odd but incredibly well acted, written and directed and with a great deal to say.

See? You really can say something original and new with a well-worn genre.

If you are Depp, Farmer and Jarmusch anyway.