Saturday, February 18, 2017

Welcome to Hell: High Plains Drifter (1973)

directed by Clint Eastwood
written by Ernest Tidyman
“High Plains Drifter isn’t what the West was all about. That isn’t the American people who settled this country.” – John Wayne in a letter to Eastwood.
Years later, Eastwood said this: “It’s just an allegory…a speculation on what happens when they go ahead and kill the sheriff and somebody comes back and calls the town’s conscience to bear. There’s always retribution for your deeds.”

 In the first fifteen minutes of High Plains Drifter, Clint Eastwood's unnamed rides into the lakeshore town of Lago and kills a trio of gunmen then rapes a woman who insults and smacks him (Marianna Hill). Instead of trying to arrest Clint, the town's sheriff tries to hire him. Later, when the woman tries to shoot Clint, someone suggests she only did it because she was mad he because "he didn't go back for more." Clint's no sort of hero, making this, it would seem, the model of a Revisionist Western.

Clint Eastwood as the high plains drifter
If you read the explanation of Revisionist Western on Wikipedia, though, it's really all rather vague. It states that, starting after WWII, directors and writers started questioning "the ideals and style of the traditional Western."  Among the pictures it grants the distinction of belonging to the sub-genre are Ride the High Country (1962), The Wild Bunch (1969), and Little Big Man (1970).The only thing that ties them together is a marked degree of cynicism. In the first film, a fairly traditional one, it's moderate, while in the other two, to call it severe is inadequate. 

The Western has always lent itself to critiquing American assumptions, I think the only thing that really makes the films most commonly called revisionist "revisionist," is the presence of more blood and sex than in older films. The same thing that happened to the rest of filmmaking happened to Westerns: the boundaries around those two matters were pushed and expanded until they broke. 

Marianna Hill and Eastwood
Sometimes, as with Little Big Man, it was a good thing, others, like in A Man Called Horse (1970), a little less so. The point is, I don't think Revisionist Western really means anything. That said, High Plains Drifter is plenty bloody and violent, and has that rape.

Take out that rape, though, and HPD could probably have been made at any time in the history of Westerns. Shortly after Clint's nameless rider comes to town, we learn, as seen through a nightmare he has, that Lago's marshall was whipped to death in the middle of the street. The same men looking to hire Clint were there and didn't lift a finger or say a word to stop the murder. Clearly, the wanderer is linked to the killing.

The Whipping

The men Clint killed in the opening scene were hired by the town to stop a trio of men (played by Geoffrey Lewis, Dan Vadis, and Anthony James) from wreaking havoc on Lago. The way the sheriff explains it, the good people of Lago caught them stealing and got them sent off to jail. Now, their sentences are up and everyone expects them to come back looking to get even. The viewer knows it's not that simple: the men with the whips were the three prisoners. Later we learn, the murder was commissioned by the people of Lago to cover up another crime.

Vadis, Lewis, and James

Clint signs on, but only after extracting concessions from the townspeople. First, anything he asks for, from any merchant, any citizen, he gets free of charge. Second, all the men of the town must join a defense force and practice every day. The "good" people of Lago, readily, if very unhappily, agree to his demands and immediately start paying a steep price.

The gun dealer and the tailor learn quickly that this deal applies to them as well as everyone else. When the sheriff and mayor needle the saloonkeeper when he balks over eating the price for a round of drinks for the whole bar crowd, Clint strips them their offices, as their own contributions. Increasingly, the drifter's demands become stranger and stranger.

Mordecai (Billy Curtis) becomes Mayor and Sheriff

HPD practically revels in its darkness. Most of Lago's citizens are corrupt and hypocritical. When Clint tells the pastor to take in the folks put out when the hotel's blown up, he does, but for only for a price. The only good people (all two of them) are powerless. The villains might as well be twirling their mustaches they're so despicable. By the end, Clint doesn't make anyone confront their sins, but instead, suffer and burn for them. The survivors are shell-shocked and few.

Production-wise, Eastwood drew on his experiences with Sergio Leone. His character, dressed in wide-brimmed hat and cigar stuck to his lip only needs a poncho to double for any of his three Man With No Name appearances. His dry, laconic line delivery is exactly the same. Like the towns in Leone's Westerns, Lago exists in isolation from the rest of the world, on the desert-surrounded shore of a bleak looking lake (Mono Lake in California - a high salt, alkaline lake). It could easily be a setting for a post-apocalyptic movie as much as a Western (and really, how far apart are those two genres, really, you know, except for the V8 interceptors instead of horses?). 

A drifter arrives at Lago
So what to make of this movie? If you don't know how Eastwood described it, how do you approach High Plains Drifter? Well, as a story of vengeance. Everybody who participated in or abetted the murder of the marshall pays. Even the first rape, which quickly mutates into a disturbing "she really wants" scene, serves to set up Hill's character for a later scene where it's clear she's a purely mercenary opportunist. The implication with the rape being she senses Clint's the strong horse worth grabbing hold of.

As a revenge story, it's brutal and effective. It's not so much you root for Clint - he remains coldly unknowable - but against the townspeople. We see what they did and know why, and that they don't have a drop of remorse. We want to see some sort of justice meted out for the dead marshall, and Clint's clearly the tool that's been chosen for retribution.

The thing I haven't mentioned is that High Plains Drifter isn't just a story of vengeance, but of supernatural vengeance. Clint, though, is no avenging angel, but an ambassador from below. For its inhabitants' crimes, Lago is turned into an outpost of Hell. The movie doesn't have any ghostly apparitions or spectral coyotes howling in the sagebrush, but gradually, the mystery of Clint's presence in Lago is revealed to have unearthly underpinnings.

This movie doesn't succeed because of its characters' depth, but on its powerful images and the elemental nature of its story. The landscape is harsh and barren, much like the townspeople's souls. These are people sunk in corruption. They they used three evil men to kill in order to protect their secrets. Now they are hoping to use someone even meaner to try and avoid their justifed fate. Unknowingly, they welcome the hand of judgment into their homes. 

Justice demands to be served. Lago must be purged - and it is.with fire, bullets, and a whip. As the final part of the films begins, when every surface of Lago has been transformed, the viewer is left without a doubt to the depth of terror the town and its people are about to be subjected to. 

Rating  - A: From the first time I saw High Plains Drifter, probably when I was twelve or thirteen, I was struck by Eastwood's stark vision of justice for the dead and punishment of the wicked. Lago painted red will never leave my brain. This is filmmaking as primitive mythmaking, and as such it is unforgettable.

I'm starting to think I shouldn't bother with the ratings, as I won't be reviewing movies I don't like (so no Silverado or High Noon). I'll probably keep them though. I have a tradition of revisiting old favorites and finding them disappointing (I'm thinking of John Ford's Cavalry Trilogy). I'm also hoping to hit a few films I still haven't seen yet (One-Eyed Jacks springs to mind)

High Plains Drifter's historical location

Like so many Westerns, the film's exact location is never made clear. It was filmed largely around Mono Lake, just east of the Sierra Nevadas

Rating System
A: Ace - Brilliant or groundbreaking; one of the best that no fan should miss.
B: Bravo - Good stuff, but less than perfection
C: Cowpoke - Routine oater, filler
D: Dismal - Sloppy or junky, but either way not worth the runtime

Next time: Ride Lonesome (1959), one of the Bud Boetticher/Randolph Scott movies. It co-stars a young Pernell Roberts and, in one of his first films, James Coburn. Spaghetti Western icon, Lee van Cleef is also on hand.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Serious Weirdness in the Wild West: Johnny Guitar (1954)

directed by Nicholas Ray
script by Ben Maddow
from a book by Roy Chanslor
"Down there I sell whiskey and cards. All you can buy up these stairs is a bullet in the head."
After watching a stagecoach get robbed and a passenger murdered, a stranger rides up to a lonely saloon in the Arizona countryside. That could be the beginning of your standard Western. In the case of Johnny Guitar, starring Joan Crawford, Sterling Hayden, and Mercedes McCambridge there is nothing anywhere near close to standard.

Most of the time, seeing Sterling Hayden (in real life he had captained a schooner from Gloucester to Tahiti and served in the OSS and shuttled guns to Tito and parachuted into Croatia) in the credits implies he going will be the star of a movie, and his rumbling voice and smoldering masculinity will be at the heart of the picture. Hell, the movie's even named for his guitar toting character. Not here. 

Instead, it's around Joan Crawford's steely, dehumanized ex-saloon girl, Vienna, and Mercedes McCambridge's bug-eyed Emma Small around whom Johnny Guitar spins. It is a bonkers allegory of the McCarthy days and tale of sublimated lust. Crawford and McCambridge dominated the story and every scene they're in, relegating everything else to background noise. Sterling Hayden as Johnny Guitar and Scott Brady as outlaw, the Dancin' Kid, more often than not, merely kibitz from the sidelines and snap at each other as they compete for Vienna's icy affections.

Joan Crawford striding
I first heard about Johnny Guitar when I read that its basic plot was lifted by Sergio Leone for his epic Western-to-end-all-Westerns, Once Upon a Time in the West. In both cases, a character has gambled everything they have to build a town where the railroad is expected to come through in the near future. Other than that both are color-saturated phantasmagorical takes on the genre, the two films are as different as chalk and cheese.

Vienna's casino exists on the apparent edge of nowhere, someplace "outside of town." She and her staff pass each day spinning the roulette wheel because she likes "to hear it spinning," waiting for the railroad's arrival.

Into her customer-less establishment rides Johnny Guitar summoned by Vienna for purposes unknown.
Barkeep: What's your pleasure?
Johnny G.: Whiskey. Where's the boss?
Barkeep: Who's asking?
Johnny G.: Name is Johnny...Guitar.
Barkeep: So?
Johnny G.: I have an appointment with Vienna.
Barkeep: Vienna's busy. You'll have to wait.
Only a few minutes later a posse barges its way into the casino, carrying a body. At the center of the gang is a small, short-haired woman dressed in green. She's Emma Small, and the dead man is her brother. She claims he was murdered by the Dancin' Kid and Vienna's hiding him. The hatred between Emma and Vienna (mirrored in real life between the two actresses) comes across like beams of fire being shot out of their eyes. It becomes clear quickly, there's more going on than just a hunt for justice or revenge.

Watching the scene, it's clear Emma is nearly as fired up over Vienna as by the Dancin' Kid. Even if you take the exchange just at face value, every line is ramped up way past eleven. The look on Vienna's face as she stares down at her enemies looks more appropriate for a horror movie than a Western. 

Meanwhile, Johnny pauses eating from some delicate blue and white china, takes in the weirdness and, like the audience, ponders what the heck is really going on.

A few minutes later, the Dancin' Kid arrives. His three man gang is played by Ernest Borgnine (a year away from winning an Academy Award for Marty), the great character actor Royal Dano, and a youthful Ben Cooper. It seems inevitable bloody death is about to be unleashed, but it doesn't come.

At this stage in the story, the marshall still holds some power. When the witness admits he can't identify who held up the stage and killed Emma's brother and the Kid and his crew provide a reasonable alibi, the marshall's able to send the posse on its way. Before he leaves though, Mayor McIvers tells Vienna he's just outlawed drinking and gambling outside the town limits. She's got twenty-four hours to close up shop or else. The violence has only been postponed. It will be delivered.

Vienna and the Dancin' Kid vs. the Posse
Johnny Guitar looks like no other Western I can think of. It might be the most art-directed one ever. The interior of Vienna's casino is so fake looking it can't be unintentional. We never see anything of the town besides the front and inside of the bank. The showdown takes place around a solitary house on top of a hill. It looks more like a stage production than one that was actually filmed on location in Sedona, Arizona. 

While the men are dressed in standard Western gear, both women are costumed in over-the-top getups. They don't look like ordinary people, but unworldly creatures fighting it out among mere mortals. You will never forget Crawford's first appearance in brown slacks, black shirt, and teal tie. Later, her yellow shirt practically throbs on the screen. Most women in Westerns are either frontier wives or saloon hall slatterns. Just from the look of her, you know Vienna is neither of those and will kick your ass if you run afoul of her. 

Her eyebrows exaggerated, crimson lipstick, and dressed in severe, mannish slacks and shirts, Vienna seems almost without gender for much of the movie. She looks to have unsexed herself like Lady MacBeth in order to achieve her aims.

Lady in White
Late in the film, while waiting for the posse to take her, Vienna dresses in a giant white dress. At the same time, Emma goes into the final showdown in her mourning dress. Why settle for white and black hats when you can have a whole dress?

Lady in Black
Crawford's reputation as an actress has suffered since her death in 1977. Instead of one of the greatest leading women in Hollywood history, between the lamentable Mommie, Dearest and her penchant for harshly-applied makeup, she's been turned into some drag icon, and it's a shame. 

Her performance in Johnny Guitar is fantastic. Despite the arch, often campy dialogue, she's a utterly believable and captivating as a woman possessed of implacable willpower fighting for a dream. At the same time, she's in love and has to struggle against letting her feelings for Johnny swamp her plans. The other actors are all good, too, but none have the power of Crawford. 

McCambridge is all bristling, viciousness and rage. Though straight, she had a reputation for playing butch characters, having won an Academy Award for such a role in All the King's Men (1949). Here, she's pushed to her limits and to the limit of the stereotype of the hyper-butch woman. The men of the town cower before her, bending to nearly every one of her demands. She burst of searing, black flames, generating waves of hatred that prove irresistible to the men of the town driving them to do things it's clear they have no real heart for. 

Emma Small and her pack of capons
Hayden is the model of tough guy cool. He never shouts or yells, and never threatens, but you know what kind of guy he really is. In this scene, he walks between the Dancin' Kid and the posse and just sort shuts them both down without a drop of obvious menace or a bit of fear.

Among the minor players, Ernest Borgnine as the thuggish Bart Lonergan and Ben Cooper as the lovestruck kid, Turkey, are splendid. John Carradine is fine as the sweet-natured Old Tom, another man hopelessly caught up in Vienna's orbit by unrequited love.

Johnny Guitar is so far afield from the standard Western, so much stranger than even the weirdest Spaghetti Westerns, that it's almost possible to not classify it as a Western at all. That's one of the great things about Westerns, which I pointed out in my introductory essay: Westerns can be anything, even an insane story of powerful men, jealous gunslingers, and compliant mobs.

Rating - A: There's nothing else like this in the annals of Western filmmaking. For first time viewers, throw out any expectations, and just sit back and watch a masterpiece of lunacy that's equally serious and high camp.

Johnny Guitar's Historical Location

It's never really clear where the film's set, but it was filmed in Sedona, Arizona. Here's a great article from Sedona Monthly about filming the movie.

Rating System
A: Ace - Brilliant or groundbreaking; one of the best that no fan should miss.
B: Bravo - Good stuff, but less than perfection
C: Cowpoke - Routine oater, filler
D: Dismal - Sloppy or junky, but either way not worth the runtime

Next time: Enter Clint Eastwood in the self-directed apocalyptic revenge Western, High Plains Drifter (1973).

Friday, January 27, 2017

A Father and Son Feud: Red River (1948)

For anyone doubtful of John Wayne's acting, Red River (1948) will disabuse you of that foolishness.
For anyone who isn't aware of the greatness of Montgomery Clift, this will set you on the right track. While dated at times and hampered by a sappy, slightly out-of-left-field end, this is one of the true Western classics.

Red River was directed by Howard Hawks. He was one of the most versatile directors in Hollywood. Among his numerous films prior to this one were the screwball comedy His Girl Friday (1940) and two Humphrey Bogart classics, To Have and Have Not (1944) and The Big Sleep (1946). In 1959, he made another one of the best Westerns, Rio Bravo, again starring John Wayne. 

The script is by Borden Chase (who wrote several of the important Jimmy Stewart/Anthony Mann Westerns) and Charles Schnee. It was adapted from an original story by Chase titled "Blazing Guns on the Chisholm Trail" published in the Saturday Evening Post in 1946.

John Wayne plays hard-headed cattleman, Thomas Dunson. He abandons a wagon train to start a cattle empire, leaving his best gal, Fen, to die in a Comanche raid. 

The conversation between Dunson and Fen suffers from the worst sort of Hollywood melodramatic overwriting and syrupy music. She wants to go south with him, but he insists it's no place for a woman. She doesn't care, telling him:

"Do I feel weak, Tom? I don't, do I? You'll need me. You'll need a woman. You need what a woman can give you"

Matters aren't helped that she's in full makeup and styled hair. It mars a scene that's already creaking under sentimental writing. Still, it sets up Dunson for the viewer as a man willing to sacrifice whatever it takes to fulfill his dream. Before the end, there are other grim prices he will pay as well.

After crossing the Red River into Texas, they wander south in search of good ranch land. The land on the Rio Grande Dunson later claims is owned by a Mexican grandee four hundred miles to south. To secure it, he guns down one of the grandee's men. Later we learn he killed several more men to hold his territory.

Montgomery Clift, fresh from Broadway, co-stars as Matt Garth. Sole survivor of the Indian raid, he's adopted by Dunson. Along with sidekick Groot (Walter Brennan in full-on wheezy mode), the pair establish one of the mightiest cattle empires in Texas, with over ten thousand head of cattle.

Groot, young Garth, and Dunson 
The film then jumps ahead fourteen years to 1865. The Civil War has left the South broke, without a dime to pay for Dunson's beef. His only option is to take them to a railhead and ship them back East. It's at this point the movie really kicks into gear.

Dunson puts together a team of cowboys, including gunslinger Cherry Valance (John Ireland), to drive his herd north to Sedalia, Missouri. After telling every man the trail will be brutal, he adds that any man who signs on must agree to finish the drive or forfeit all pay. All agree, unaware of just how miserable the conditions will really be and how hard a man Dunson is.

The trail is rough, and when Cherry tells the rest of the crew he heard about a new railhead in Abilene, Kansas, they're all excited. Abilene is closer and afford more places to water the cattle. Without any eyeball proof of the new railroad line, Dunson rejects the idea and keeps pushing on to Missouri.

Things start to fall apart as the trek gets deadlier. There are storms, short supplies, and a stampede. Dunson becomes more dictatorial and obsessed with completing the journey his way. Matt tries to settle things and act as the voice of reason, but it's clear he can't do this forever. Eventually, it leads to a split between the two, that seems only able to end in death.

A lot of John Wayne movies and roles suck. There's no way of putting it any better. He found an easy persona that he stuck to in way too many movies: the slightly arrogant and steady tone, the tilted-hip-swagger, and the no-nonsense attitude. Sometimes he mixed it up with a little humor, but a performance he delivered time and time again.

Even in his weakest films, though, he filled the screen with a towering presence. When gifted with the right role, he blazed with a deep brilliance.  At his best, he was as good as most of his contemporaries, and better than many. I hope to look at some of his other standout performances later (Stagecoach, The Searchers), but his Thomas Dunson is as good as any of those.

Thomas Dunson (Wayne)
When we first meet Dunson, he's a hard man, but he's good-natured. When the wagon train master tries to bully him into staying, Dunson makes it clear that won't be happening. He does it, though, with a smile and a reminder to the boss that he signed no contract. 

After the Comanche raid, the death of his girl and the loss of his small herd (also to the raiders), his hard edges emerge. It's then that he guns down the Mexican cowboy. Over the ensuing years we learn he's killed numerous other men who tried to take his land. Later, he's ready to bullwhip a man and gun down any standing across his path.

Wayne had a public image of the true-blue American hero, but he never had trouble messing with that image on the screen. This role and that of Ethan Edwards in The Searchers are some of his best work and both are damaged, nearly pathological men. There's an appealing raffishness to Dunson when he's introduced, but it's gone, replaced with a dead-eyed, affectless manner.

Matt Garth (Clift)
Montgomery Clift had a meteoric career that began burning up when, following a terrible car crash, lost himself to booze. Between 1948 and 1956, the year of his accident, he made eight movies and was nominated for Best Actor three times.

In 1945, after several notable Broadway roles, he went to Hollywood, and the very next year cast in Red River. Watching his ease and naturalness, it's easy to see how his role as Matt Garth made him a star. If Wayne is a dark, menacing figure, Clift practically glows with compassion and life.

Clift doesn't appear until twenty minutes into Red River electrifies the film in a way it isn't before.  Both Garth and Dunson are highly self-controlled, but Garth is a calming, reassuring man, whereas his adoptive father is a vortex of domination. At the movie's heart is the clash between the two once the cattle drive goes off the rails.

Garth is the voice of reason, striving to keep Dunson's worst instincts from destroying the expedition. When he proves unable to keep the peace, he is forced to make a terrible choice, driving the two men apart irrevocably.

The final part of Red River, introduces Tess Millay (Joanna Dru) as the wagon train she's part of come under Indian attack. After a meet-cute during the raid (she takes an arrow to the shoulder, then she smacks him, then she faints), she falls for him hard. So hard, that even after he flat leaves her, she still risks her life to thwart Dunson when he rides up a few days later gunning for Matt. 

Tess Millay (Dru) and Matt Garth
The movie climaxes in the inevitable showdown between Dunson and Garth. Dunson is all black rage and murder. Garth is ready, but unwilling, to kill his father. It's the moment the film's been building to from the beginning. And then it's ruined by a cop out of the first order. Diverging from the original story, it ends on an utterly false note of unbelievable reconciliation. Still, if I squint my eyes, I can see the proper ending of Red River

There's some serious weirdness to Red River. The obvious starting place is the relationship between Dunson and Garth. Dunson wants his adopted son to be as strong and commanding as himself, someone who will inherit everything from him one day and then make it even greater. After his split with Garth, Dunson offers Tess half of all his wealth to bear him  a son. His fury at Garth seems fueled by his loss of an heir as much as the loss of control of the cattle driver. 

Then there's the infamous "gun scene" between Clift and Ireland. Just watch it for yourself.

Watch the two gunslingers size each other (and guns) up. Here's how Valance introduces himself to Garth.
"That's a good-looking gun you were about to use back there. Can I see it? Maybe you'd like to see mine. Nice. Awful nice."
To call their conversation homoerotic in a film with only two speaking women roles would be a disservice to the word homoerotic. Sadly, Ireland fell afoul of Hawks during production and found himself written out of most of the picture.

Despite a flawed ending and sloppy, melodramatically written women, Red River is one of the best Westerns. It's a distinct turning point in the genre where it matured into something more than entertainments filled with cowboys, Indians, and villains in black hats. 

In Hawks' movie there aren't any white hats or black hats, but instead, gray ones. He gives us an exemplar of American frontier independence, but it becomes twisted and evil. The conflict between its two stars is rooted in their personalities and their actions flow from them as well. They are recognizable, adult characters.

This is an A Western. There were plenty of great movies before it (ex. Stagecoach, Destry Rides Again), but Red River represents a real step forward. Parts are dated, but this movie is one of the best classic Westerns to come out of the Hollywood system with actors. 

Red River's Historical Locations

Map showing approximate position of Dunson's ranch, Sedalia, and Abilene
According to IMDB, Red River was filmed mostly in Arizona. 

Rating System
A: Ace - Brilliant or groundbreaking;  one of the best that no fan should miss.
B: Bravo - Good stuff, but less than perfection
C: Cowpoke - Routine oater, filler
D: Dismal - Sloppy or junky, but either way not worth the runtime

Next time: The utterly nutso Johnny Guitar (1954) starring Joan Crawford at her most glowering.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Movie Mail Bag

With some Christmas $s, I decided to fix a few holes in my Western collection. Some of them I specifically plan to review (Johnny Guitar, The Shooting, High Plains Drifter - a list that should make it pretty obvious I'm partial to the odder films). Others, I'm not sure about. I known I'll review at least one of the Jimmy Stewart/Anthony Mann movies, but which one I'm not sure of yet. If memory serves me right, they're all pretty good - maybe as good as the Randolph Scott/Budd Boetticher collaborations. 

The five Stewart/Mann pictures were Winchester '73, The Man from Laramie, The Naked Spur (which I already have), The Far Country, and Bend of the River. Now I'll have 'em all. Oh, and Night Passage was supposed to be directed by Mann as well, but he dropped out because he didn't like the casting of Audie Murphy.

Keith West reminded me of Clint Eastwood's fairly psychotic, nearly Gothic, supernatural revenge Western (enough adjectives for you?), High Plains Drifter. Clint has never had trouble playing an ambiguous "hero," and his gunslinger in this one might be the most so. There are scenes of psychological and moral degradation that might make the most jaded viewer's skin crawl.

And the set includes Stewart's early pairing with Marlene Dietrich, Destry Rides Again

Finally, low-budget genius Monte Hellman's two Westerns. Both feature young, yet-unmannered Jack Nicholson, and Millie Perkins. Ride in the Whirlwind also has Harry Dean Stanton. The Shooting is one of Warren Oates' best performances. The latter film was described thus:
Imagine a Spaghetti Western written by Rod Serling, adapted from a Samuel Beckett play. Throw in the following: the great Warren Oates, an evil Jack Nicholson, a bitchy Millie Perkins, some hellish desert locales, and a truly bizarre ending -- a definite must-see.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Westerns - It's All About the Cowboys

Spurred on by Raphael Ordoñez's film noir reviews, I thought I might try my hand with some similar, but with Western movies. Unlike noir, which is bound together by an attitude and style, the only things a Western needs to qualify as such is to be set during a time of open frontiers (or while in the process of closing). Most Western films take place after the US Civil War, before the Great War, and west of the Mississippi River (and still with plenty of room for variants by locale and even time period). After that, all bets are off.

By which I mean, Westerns aren't bound by anything else. It really just comes down to cowboys (and Indians, lots of times). Roy Roger's singing cowboy flicks count just as much as Monte Hellman's low-budget revisionist ones. That's a little glib, but seriously, for me, boiled down to basics, Westerns are all about the cowboys.


From the earliest days of film making to today, there have been Westerns. Wikipedia says the first one is Edwin Porter's 12-minute long The Great Train Robbery. While not the industry behemoth they were in the forties and fifties, after a dearth of them in the eighties, they've made a substantial comeback.

There was a spate of Louis L'Amour tv-movies featuring Tom Selleck among others, and I can't speak for them, never having seen any, but that was pretty much it for that decade. Okay, so there was Silverado too, but I never liked that one, so I try my best to forget it.

Brad Pitt as the late Jesse James
Over the past few years there've been a fair number of good or at lest significant Westerns. While often described as revisionist, Andrew Domink's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Forward is a very good, almost reverent, invocation of many classic Westerns.  Quentin Tarantino's last two movies, Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight, were both Westerns, more revisionist than classic by all accounts, but still seemingly respectful (I haven't seen either one yet, but folks seem to like them). Those other genre-dabblers, the Cohen Brothers, were bold enough to revisit the Charles Portis novel, True Grit. S. Craig Zahler's 2015 Bone Tomahawk, one of the most unsettling horror movies I've ever watched, proves how far a movie can range from one of John Ford's epics and still without any doubt be called a Western. For genre fans, it's been a pretty grand time.


So, it's not just cowboys that make a Western a Western. There are a few other things to note that cut across much of the genre.  

The frontier setting, allows these films to strip away the complications of civilization, and let a man face off against high odds, be it other men or the elements. Even many of the lighter ones are about some lone hero facing off against a dastardly gang of rustlers or a criminally minded rancher looking to take over the whole county. The same itch for bravery and adventure scratched by swords & sorcery is satisfied by Westerns.

Many stories examine that point when civilization reaches the frontier. Sometimes it's an elegiac look at a lost time of freedom, others, a time when violence is supplanted by law and justice.

from Fort Apache (1948)
More than any other genre, Westerns are movies of the natural world. Sometimes it's just there, making even mundane scenes look beautiful. Whatever else you remember about John Ford's movies, you will never forget the shots of Monument Valley. Other times  it's integral to the film's atmosphere. Whether it's the Grand Tetons rising up in nearly every outdoor shot in Shane undescoring the precariousness of the farmers situation, or the barren Andalusian countryside in the Man With No Name trilogy depicting a landscape that seems to have been poisoned by corruption and cynicism.

from Shane (1953)
But the cowboy thing is important. To the casual watcher, it's the one consistent thing, linking John Wayne to Gene Autry to Clint Eastwood. There's the whole panoply of the cowboy: six-guns, Stetsons, horses, jingling stirrups, all those things.  The cowboy (or gunslinger), is one of the most iconic looks in the world. Some folks use it as an description of American over aggressiveness in foreign affairs, but most people see the cowboy as a model of independence and boldness.

I don't know when I saw my first Western. I was definitely very young and probably saw it with my dad, a bigger fan than even I am. All I know, is from an early age, my friends and I always had Colt pistol and holster sets. One year, I even got a rawhide vest, chaps, and cowboy hat for Christmas. I just thought the look was cool and I still do.


I love Westerns, whether traditional John Ford ones or bonkers Sergio Corbucci ones. I particularly love that all sorts of stories can qualify as a Western. It's the sort of genre that encompasses all sorts of genres. They can be epic like The Big Country (1958), romantic like Shane, or even horror like Bone Tomahawk. They're big enough for heroes, rogues, and villains to star as the protagonists - just look at The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966). Without having to be twisted out of shape, they can be transported to other frontiers and lawless zones - Quigley Down Under (1990) and Nick Cave's grimy The Proposition (2005) move the genre to Australia effortlessly.

Jack freakin' Elam
and James Garner in
Support Your Local Gunfighter
I've tried to think of my ten favorite Westerns and it turned out to be a fool's errand. I've seen and loved too many to have only ten.  Besides, it varies from day to day. I might be Peckinpah mood one month and a Leone or Ford another. Maybe I'm itching for more comic movies like Burt Kennedy's James Garner-starring Support Your Local Sheriff (1969) and Support Your Local Gunfighter (1971).

Jones and Duvall in
Lonesome Dove
I've been watching a lot of Westerns, so I figured I might as well write 'em up as well. It gives me an excuse to finally put on a couple of low budget Spaghetti Westerns I've picked up over the years, but never watched, and dig out Lonesome Dove (1989) (the greatest Western ever made).

Saddle up and ride along with me. I suspect a fair number of regulars hereabout have watched more than a few of the films I'll write about. Heck, I'm hoping there're some I've missed you can hip me to along the way.

I'll start out this coming week with Howard Hawks' Red River (1948), starring John Wayne in old man makeup and Montgomery Clift in one of his earliest roles. It's a searing journey into the heart of father-(adopted) son hatred marred by a sappy ending and blessed with this "What in the Wide, Wide, World of Sports?" moments, a weirdly homoerotic scene about guns.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Germanpalooza! Tveir: the Vikings

Having just finished Michael Crichton's ibn Fadlan/Beowulf mashup (with cannibal troglodytes!), Eaters of the Dead, followed with a rewatch its filmic adaptation, The 13th Warrior (perhaps the best heroic adventure movie), I'm in a Vikingy sort of mood.

The roots of the Germanic peoples were in southern Scandinavia (Denmark, Norway, and Sweden). A Bronze Age culture grew up in Denmark and southern Norway and Sweden. It's proposed that climatic changes started the migration of tribes out of the region out along the eastern coast of Germany and to the Vistual River. Over the next few centuries they began expanding southward and then westward, eventually running up against the might of Rome.

The Vikings were the descendants of those original Germanic tribes who remained in Scandinavia. Eventually they spread north into the rest of contemporary Scandinavia. Later, during the their ascendancy, roughly the late 8th through 11th centuries AD, they established kingdoms and trade networks up and down the rivers of Russia, the British Isles, Iceland, Greenland, and even, for a short while, North America.

Growing up with a Norwegian/Danish grandfather who grew up in Sweden, and a Swede-Finn grandmother who spent her teen years in Finland, I heard a lot about the Vikings. There wasn't a lot of detail in their stories and my gradma's stories tended to be more fairytales than history (she claimed she saw tomtegubbes on her farm), but they manage to fill me with pride in my tough, adventurous ancestors.

At some point, maybe when I saw The Vikings (a 1958 Technicolor extravangaza starring Tony Curtis and Kirk Douglas - and Ernest Borgnine), I realized my ancestors were sorta bastards. Like the ancient Greeks, they were as apt to act the pirate as merchant when encountering foreign ships. Worse, they raped and pillaged the British Isles, France, and anywhere else they could get their ships. Icelanders are 20-40% Celtic because of the large slave population held by the Vikings over the years. 

And still I'm fascinated by the people. They were brave and daring, sailors probably only exceeded in skill by the Polynesians. Their myths, the Northern Thing, are still my favorite 

Over the course of centuries, the Vikings were outclassed as thieves and conquerors by a host of other nations and peoples. The kingdoms they founded were all either destroyed, or their peoples subsumed into the larger populations they had conquered. Today, the Scandinavians are the most peaceful folks out there. 

Like in the last Germanpalooza! post, I've snagged some illustrations from various Osprey books.

 The Vendel culture in Sweden flourished between the period of migrations and the rise of the Vikings in the 8th century.

Generic Vikings killing and looting, 9th-10th cent. AD

Generic Vikings on a raid, 9th-10th cent. AD

 Generic Vikings on the beach, 9th-10th cent. AD

King Olaf Trygvason's last stand at the Battle of Svolder, Sept. 999 or 1000
 Generic Viking raid with dead monks and capture civilians
Eastern Vikings 10th-11th cent. AD - this is what the Northmen in The 13th Warrior should have looked like

Rus and Varangian Guards, 11th Cent. AD

Aside from the scarcity of game, the Norse settlers in Newfoundland did not get on well with the locals.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

The Russians Are Coming

   With all this talk about Russia the past few days, I'm thinking of stirring myself up and returning to James Billington's The Icon and the Axe: An Interpretative History of Russian Culture. I've been interested in Russian history and culture since taking a course in pre-Soviet and another in Soviet history with Prof. Cynthia Whittaker at Baruch back in the eighties (just as perestroika was announced).
   Kiev, followed by Novogorod, then Moscow, carved a nation out of wilderness that despite all the setbacks of the past twenty years, remains the largest country in the world. In the face of a daunting climate, devastation and subjugation by the Mongols, religious schisms, civil wars, and autocracy, the Russians have perservered, and even thrived. They also have a nice, dark sense of humor about their trials and tribulations.
   In more recent years, Russian Orthodoxy and its icons, saints, and hermits have intrigued me. Raised in a very Protestant tradition, and which I still hold to, there's something about the deep unworldliness of Russian Orthodox, at least in the abstract, that is striking and I'd like to get a better understanding of.
   So, to "celebrate", here's a host of cool Russian art depicting heroes, cities, and legends.

Rurik, Varangian founder of Kievan Rus - Statue commemorating his arrival in Novgorod

Kiev's great hero, Ilya Muromets
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Heroes Dobrynya Nikitich, Ilya Muromets, and Alyosha Popovich

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Novgorod Market by Apollinari Vasnetsov

Ancient Moscow by Apollinari Vasnetsov
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Ivan the Terrible Under the Walls of Kazan (1552) by Pyotr Korovin

Defense of the Troitse-Sergiyeva Lavra against the Poles in 1610 by Sergey Miloradovich