1970s, Action-Adventure, Horror/Eerie, Western

The White Buffalo (1977)

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Director: J. Lee Thompson
Screenwriter: Richard Sale

By Roderick Heath

Horror films and Westerns long seemed utterly irreconcilable genres. The Western engages official mythologies of nation, history, and society, where the Horror film tends to set them in happy disarray. Horror films court anarchic impulses and dwell in zones of psychological figuration, where Westerns roam large in the world and usually operate by rigid moral parameters. And yet the two genres wield some definite affinities. Both depend upon generating atmosphere as a tangible force, a sense of being at extremes beyond the reign of normality, at the mercy of a random and hostile universe, and often involve clashes of firmly demarcated good and evil enacted by supernormal characters. Horror elements creep through some apparently upright Westerns, including John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) and Sergeant Rutledge (1960), and Richard Mulligan’s The Stalking Moon (1969), particularly when dealing with the anxious threat of the Native American as the menacing Other surging out of the great western night. The rise of the Spaghetti Western injected Gothic imagery and a spirit sometimes verging on death worship, and entries like Django (1966) and The Great Silence (1968) have strong doses of savage violence and semi-surreal weirdness very close to Horror in nature. In the late 1950s a proper fusion of the two genres was born, dictated by commercial inspirations in combining two ever-popular styles for patrons of drive-ins and grindhouses.
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The results of this fusion were usually pretty lame if not outright ridiculous: Edward Dehn’s interesting but hesitant Curse of the Undead (1959) kicked off a run of gunfighter-versus-monster films, like William Beaudine’s Billy the Kid vs Dracula (1965) and Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter (1966). It wasn’t until the 1970s that some sort of fruitful union of the two began to appear, usually with Western imagery providing a kind of septic spiritual backdrop to Horror, on the likes of The Velvet Vampire (1971), The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), and Race with the Devil (1975). The ‘80s and ‘90s saw some vigorous attempts to fuse the forms, with the likes of Robert Harmon’s The Hitcher (1986), Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark (1987), Robert Rodriguez’s From Dusk ‘Til Dawn (1996), and John Carpenter’s Vampires (1998) all calling back to the classic stand-offs of the old school Western with their own wilful tweaks. Most of these films were set in contemporary times, placing them in deliberate tension with the aura of historical remoteness that once again links the Western and the Gothic Horror mould. Wayne Coe’s Grim Prairie Tales (1990) and Antonia Bird’s Ravenous (1999) tried more concertedly to find middle ground for the classic genre moulds. In recent years Horror Westerns have become relatively plentiful as trashy home viewing fodder, but Craig S. Zahler’s Bone Tomahawk (2015) gained real admiration as a rich and gruelling entry that truly understood where the overlap between the genres lies.
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But The White Buffalo is perhaps the strangest entry in this rarefied mode, and my favourite. Italian movie mogul Dino De Laurentiis was trying to carve out a place for himself in Hollywood in the mid-1970s, and after his interesting if garishly misjudged remake of King Kong (1976) looked to gain commercial traction with tactics well-thumbed in the Italian film industry in particular, by making some oddball cash-ins on recent successes, in this case Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Peter Benchley’s Jaws (1975). De Laurentiis produced two ambitious, eccentric derivations, The White Buffalo and Orca, the Killer Whale (1977). Orca was the rather more stridently trashy and weird of the two, marrying King Kong’s sympathy-for-the-beast trip to a sub-Herman Melville plotline and going far over the top in its man-versus-beast action. The White Buffalo, on the other hand, was based on a 1974 book by experienced screenwriter and novelist Richard Sale. Both films feature not just battles with marauding animals, but notably strong themes derived from fashionable concerns for ecology and pro-Native American sympathies. Both feature the Muscogee actor Will Sampson, who had gained a measure of stardom thanks to his part as Chief Bromden in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (1975).
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De Laurentiis hired Sale to adapt his own novel which was published before Benchley’s, and drew more meditatively on their common inspiration, Melville’s Moby-Dick. Sale was an arch professional, but he had evinced an interest in bizarrely spiritual adventure tales with his early novel Not Too Narrow…Not Too Deep, which was filmed under the title Strange Cargo (1940), depicting escaped convicts battling their evil impulses under the watchful eye of a Christlike stranger. The White Buffalo transferred Melville’s scenario to the Old West, and converted it into a metaphor for the clash of civilisations enacted on the western plains as well as the looming death worship underscoring much Old West mythology. Rather than going for any of the young tyros lighting up Hollywood at the time like Spielberg, De Laurentiis preferred hardy professionals to helm his Hollywood forays, often nabbing seasoned British directors, having employed John Guillermin to make King Kong and Michael Anderson on Orca. For The White Buffalo he hired J. Lee Thompson. That Thompson had just worked with the film’s star Charles Bronson on the nifty LA noir flick St. Ives (1976) probably helped. Thompson, like Sale and Bronson, was a weathered old salt of the sound stage. Orson Welles famously dissed him for that once, but Thompson probably took it in his stride, as he was one of those rigorous, skilful, no-bullshit talents who used to make film industries go ‘round.
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Thompson, who came from a theatrical family and made his start as a playwright, had served as a tail gunner during World War 2. He decamped from Britain to Hollywood after gaining international attention with exactingly crafted, vividly composed movies like Ice Cold In Alex (1958), Tiger Bay, and North West Frontier (both 1959), and soon gained a Best Picture Oscar nomination with The Guns of Navarone (1961). Thompson had a real knack for action-adventure films, often with stories involving small groups overloaded with bristling personalities travelling through dangerous and remote zones, expertly diagramming both group dynamics and faultlines of social perspective as well as his action sequences. But he took on just about every genre in his time, and revealed surprising ability at horror on Eye of the Devil (1967), a film that transmuted Thompson’s feel for colliding worldviews into a different zone, as did the cruel but memorable post-Holocaust melodrama Return From The Ashes (1965). Commercial stumbles in the late ‘60s with Mackenna’s Gold (1968) and The Chairman (1969) saw Thompson sink down the Hollywood totem pole. Thompson nonetheless continued to prove himself invaluable in bringing energetic camerawork and expert storytelling to an odd raft of films, including the last two Planet of the Apes films. Thompson fell into regular collaboration with Bronson until the late ‘80s when Thompson wrapped up his career ingloriously with films like Death Wish 4: The Crackdown (1987) and Kinjite: Forbidden Subjects (1989).
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The White Buffalo itself was a little too weird for critics and audiences in 1977 and not quite weird enough to gain a cult following. Nonetheless it represents an apotheosis for the ‘70s style of “mud and blood” Western, taking the genre’s new grittiness and outsider empathies up to the threshold of a hallucinatory terminus. It might be one of the offbeat Westerns ever made, but it’s also one of the last not afflicted with any hint of self-conscious nostalgia for the genre’s rapidly fading heyday, whilst also tackling some of the issues causing that wane head-on. Sale’s concept had some felicity, as the notion of a white, monstrous beast representing death is a common one in folklore: Erik Blomberg’s The White Reindeer (1953) had tackled a version found in Sami legend. Here Sale offers it unabashedly as cosmic invocation of the annihilating force unleashed by colonialism and race war, as well as the eternal, personal frontier of reckoning with fate. In a manner reminiscent of Cecil B. DeMille’s The Plainsman (1936), the narrative yokes together great figures of Western lore, in this case the gunfighter James Butler ‘Wild Bill’ Hickok (Bronson) and the great Sioux war chief Crazy Horse (Sampson), who both are predestined in their own way to chase down the eponymous animal.
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Hickok’s spur is a recurring dream in which he sees a snowy clearing in the woods, the monstrous animal stalking him in the moonlight with terrible purpose. So terrifying is the dream that Hickok often awakens firing off the pistols he sleeps with: he’s lucky not to kill anyone on the train taking him west when he does this, as the bunk above his is unoccupied. Hickok travels under the pseudonym of James Otis, as he’s not keen to advertise his identity on the frontier after a sojourn to New York, considering that so many people want to claim his scalp for the sake of specific grievance or the desire to make a name. The train conductor, Amos Bixby (Douglas Fowley), recognises him easily and reassures him that the last known albino buffalo was recently shot dead by hunters: such creatures, exceptionally rare, were a prized and valuable prey for hunters. But a white buffalo is certainly at large in the Black Hills of the Dakotas. Hunter and prospector Charlie Zane (Jack Warden) barely escapes a small avalanche the powerful beast sets off, and then it charges pell-mell into an Oglala Sioux camp, leaving gored warriors scattered and killing the small child of Crazy Horse and his wife Black Shawl (Linda Moon Redfearn). Stricken with grief, Crazy Horse is renamed Worm by his father, and told to placate his daughter’s spirit and regain his true name he must kill the buffalo and bring back its hide to wrap the child’s body in.
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When he arrives in Cheyenne by train, Hickok is soon forced to fight for his life when a local Cavalry commander, Captain Tom Custer (Ed Lauter), brother to the better known Colonel, arranges with some of his loutish underlings to ambush Hickok and kill him as payback for an old altercation that saw Hickok kill two of his men. A barman, Paddy Welsh (Bert Williams), who upbraids Custer for his self-serving memory and unsporting purpose, tosses guns to Hickok, allowing him to blow away the soldiers and forcing Custer to flee. Hickok quickly moves on towards the frontier, catching a stagecoach on to Fetterman along the Bozeman Trail, driven by Abel Pickney (the inevitable Slim Pickens) and also carrying Winifred Coxy (Stuart Whitman) and Cassie Ollinger (Cara Williams). Hickok threatens Coxy over using bad language before the lady, but when she releases a string of cuss words Hickok gives up and tries to sleep. The white buffalo itself is hardly the only threatening thing on the loose in the stormy night. When Hickok catches Coxy about to kill and rob him, he forces the cad out of the coach despite the man’s desperate appeals for mercy, and he’s quickly shot dead by Crazy Horse, who tracks the stage’s passage. Crazy Horse later tries to snipe at Hickok when Pickney pulls up beside a pair of dead gold miners left on the roadside. The war chief’s bullet misses Hickok and the gunman drives him off with a fusillade from his pistols.
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Thompson stages this sequence, the familiar Western situation of a stagecoach journey with some disreputable characters, with a nightmarish lilt, as the conveyance trundles laboriously along muddy roads in pouring rain with lightning flashing, half-seen menaces dashing through the shadows. Mortality is so discounted out in these leagues neither Hickok nor Pickney are terribly bothered when they have to load frozen corpses onto the stagecoach roof. Thompson picks out vivid images of cruel death, in the astounding sequence of the buffalo’s charge through the Sioux camp as the beast’s horns gouge out eyes and rip open bodies in gory flash cuts, and when Coxy lolls in the mud and rain, hands smeared in his own blood. Snowfall turns nightmare to fairy tale but death is just as arbitrary, as Hickok learns when he realises the unfortunate Cassie has been killed by Crazy Horse’s bullet meant for him. Arrival at Fetterman in the bleary, mud-strewn morning finds old coot Amos Briggs (John Carradine) burying two men who killed each-other in a fight, inspired seemingly by one swearing he’d seen the white buffalo. Hickok visits local madam and former flame “Poker” Jenny Schermerhorn (Kim Novak), who’s following the frontier with her special services. But Hickok takes his leave of her after another nightmare of the buffalo sees him blast away the fake white buffalo head she hangs on her bedroom wall.
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The White Buffalo carefully builds up mirroring aspects to Hickok and Crazy Horse, noting that both men are using pseudonyms in trying to avoid their worldly status whilst pursuing their private missions. Each deals out annihilation with casual ease although neither sees himself as an aggressor – Hickok blows away Custer’s soldiers trying to kill him just as Crazy Horse shoots men intruding on his land and fights off a rival tribe’s braves. Both are dogged by enemies from their own nominal nations as well as the foes they’ve unstintingly earned in the frontier wars between Europeans and natives, and the two finally move into wary mutual respect and friendliness when Hickok decides to help Crazy Horse fend out some of his Indian enemies. But they’re also propelled by very different urges. Hickok is pushed towards his confrontation with the beast by the call of his own dream-world communion with death, whilst Crazy Horse has a far more personal motivation, driven to avenge his daughter in the same way he’s obliged to protect his ancestral homelands from the invading whites. Hickok has a dose of syphilis slowly corroding away his body and mind and can’t take bright light, and the pair of vintage dark glasses he perpetually wears are reminiscent of those worn by Vincent Price in Roger Corman’s Poe adaptation The Tomb of Ligeia (1964). Hickock is unsure at first whether the prophecy he seeks to fulfil is real or just a product of his decaying wits. He fends off Jenny’s amorous advances although, as she comments, “I probably dosed you myself.”
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Thompson and Bronson’s collaboration seemed to be fuelled by a strong suggestion of mutual recognition, a sense transmuted into the film and Hickok and Crazy Horse’s screen amity. Bronson praised Thompson’s to-the-point style and economy on set, something a coal miner’s son made good like the former Charles Buchinsky appreciated. Beyond that, both men seemed to share an understanding as talented guys who nonetheless found themselves increasingly reconciled to servicing an ever-narrowing notion of what they were good for, and continuing to work for the sake of sheer professional cussedness. Bronson had become a big star in the 1970s playing variations on the terse-talking, stone-faced, death-dealing persona he’d perfected in Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), including in huge hits like Death Wish (1974), but sometimes he tried to stretch his persona and occasionally reminded moviegoers he had a latent romantic streak and a talent for dry comedy on movies like St. Ives and the wonderful From Noon ‘Til Three (1976). Bronson’s Hickok probes Bronson’s screen persona as a dealer of death and picks up the same notion of the Western hero who finds he’s live long enough to become a victim of his own legend as in From Noon ‘Til Three. Hickok has just returned from performing on the New York stage with Buffalo Bill Cody, serving up that mythology to audiences. Now Hickok tries to outrun his one real talent, as a killer, returning to a territory where the myth is still being played out and the costs on the intimate, human level still flagrant.
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Identity is a performance in The White Buffalo, but the typecasting also runs deep. Novak’s Poker Jenny affectionately calls Hickok “Cat-Eyes” for the mesmerising beauty she once saw in his killer gaze, most ironically, when he was in the heat of battle rather than love. Sale seems to have taken some licence from the encrusting of folklore that built up around Hickok in particular, like the fact that he supposedly had odd premonitions, like fearing Deadwood would be the last town he would visit – the new settlement is mentioned fleetingly by Zane – and of course the totemic meaning of his legendary last hand of aces and eights Hickok would hold before being shot in the back. So, here Hickok is a protagonist drawn on to his great duel by prophetic dreams and blessed with an intimate relationship with the great beyond. Aspects of The White Buffalo anticipate Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man (1996) in conjuring a spiritual western, where adventure out into the wilderness becomes an allegory for confronting mortality. Both films regard with horrified fascination the great mountains of bones built up by buffalo hunters, engaged in wiping out the food source for the unpliable plains nations, and consider the American West as a vast amphitheatre of annihilation. Charlie Zane reports to Hickok seeing the white buffalo standing off the other Custer and his 7th Cavalry soldiers at a river crossing, bringing the touch of imminent demise to them too.
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“You know what I hate more than anything else in this world?” Hickok asks Zane as he contemplates the inevitable journey out into the mountains to court his destiny: “Even more than dying? Being afraid.” Mastery of death, the honed talent for dealing it out, is in Western mythology necessary for life, for civilisation and order to take hold; that’s the essence of the genre. But it’s also, equally, a fact that must be put to bed as soon as its end is accomplished, the corollary to the myth enacted in many a movie like Shane (1953) and The Searchers. “It was like you were fighting Armageddon with Satan himself,” Jenny declares after Hickok’s riddled her bedroom walls with bullets following one of his dreams, and though the fight with the real buffalo appears to only be a confrontation with a wild animal, its seems to have just such a spiritual import. The demonic bull awaiting Hickok and Crazy Horse becomes a mystical task only two great death-dealers can take on, the task of putting down the rampaging incarnation of death, in order to give some sort of peace to the anguished spirit of the place and allow the possibility of eventual peace. Hickok seems to unconsciously sense this as he ruefully considers the chance of developing a real rapport with Crazy Horse, although a ticking time bomb threatens to wreck their amity: Hickok is considered a callous and committed enemy for shooting dead one of their chiefs, a man who was called The Peacemaker. Before he properly encounters Crazy Horse, Hickok survives another attempt to shut his eyes, this time at the hands of the hulking “Whistling Jack” Kileen (Clint Walker), out for vengeance because one of the soldiers Hickok shot down in Cheyenne was his son.
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Hickok meets up with Zane, an old comrade, in a memorably bustling, grimy tavern for miners called the Frozen Dog, a place where men line up to sleep with the couple of frazzled prostitutes on hand and otherwise get drunk and gamble; it’s the standard frontier dive as rendered by Breughel or Bosch, one even Peckinpah and Altman might have turned their noses up at. Zane helps Hickok blow away several of Kileen’s gun-toting friends, and the two head out into the mountains, trying to keep a step ahead of further reprisals as well as track their quarry. Hickok falls in with the ornery Zane, who has a glass eye and a general contempt for Indians, one that Hickok protests he shares, and yet he soon proves to be surprisingly proficient in the courtesies of Native American negotiations as he deals with Crazy Horse. The war chief pays back Hickok for his help by saving him from Kileen when he ambushes Hickok and keeps him pinned down, riddling Kileen and his confederate with arrows after sneaking up on them by pretending to be a wolf. Knowing the white buffalo is close after it gores one of their tethered horses, the hunters settle down to wait out a snowstorm and hammer out their fractious philosophies around the campfire.
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The White Buffalo has an odd rhythm at first, almost tripping over its own feet in rushing through early scenes and utilising some patched-on narration by Fowley to fill in the gaps, probably the result of studio tampering to get the film down to its current runtime of just over an hour and a half (Thompson and Bronson’s follow-up Caboblanco, 1980, would be more seriously wrecked by this). But rather than being gutted, this only seems to have compressed the film’s essence, managing to evoke a sense of the Wild West that is, in its way, as epic and disorientating as something like Apocalypse Now (1979), with which it bears kinship as a trek towards the edge of human experience enacted as a physical journey, a succession of vignettes illustrating a zone of life where history and morality are in a state of flux. Thompson’s highly mobile, often lunging camera, mediated by DP Paul Lohmann, heightens the feeling of being constantly dragged on by a current through a flooded cave. Sale’s brand of frontier lingo with its blend of archaic grammar and salty directness is constantly in evidence (one favourite line, from Carradine, in explaining the cause of death for two corpses he’s burying: “This one with the moccasins allowed as how this one was a fork-tonged lying asshole.”)
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One aspect that ties The White Buffalo together with great authority is John Barry’s superb score, evoking in the opening dream sequence a sense of foreboding, a mood that pervades the entire film; indeed, it’s one of the great Horror movie scores. Discordant strings hint at the presence of numinous influences and lurking fear, whilst deep, sonorous brass signifies the force of the buffalo and what it represents. One of the film’s greatest moments comes when Thompson stages a breathtaking long-range zoom shot that pulls back as Hickok dashes down a snow-clad slope in pursuit of his foe, revealing the small and hapless human amidst a vast mountain landscape under roiling storm clouds, Barry’s music surging with grand, sepulchral menace. The cathedral of nature is a place where Crazy Horse’s mode of spiritual understanding reigns, and communing with the wind and sky and the stone bulwarks means negotiating the dreams dark and light of the universe, and the path of the white buffalo leads Hickok into Kileen’s trap. There was some irony in Thompson finding his niche in action films given that his wartime experiences had left him a considered pacifist. But that tension surely informed the particular strength of much of his work in the adventure film mould, as he thrived on depicting microcosms where characters come into conflict because of violent schisms in their most stubborn faiths.
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Situations like the cross-country train trip in the midst of a religious war in North West Frontier and the problems of using expedience against great evil versus personal feeling in The Guns of Navarone were ideal for Thompson, although he could also wield it in a setting like Eye of the Devil, where adherence to a pagan faith clashes with traditional religion and modernity but unsettles both with fervent promise. Here this manifests in the uneasy endeavour by Hickok and Crazy Horse to understand each-other’s perspectives is one of the most interesting and meaty attempts in any Western to depict such a negotiation. Hickok ripostes to the Sioux chief’s claims that they were given their territory by divine providence that his people won in conquest over neighbouring tribes, and that the white man is only doing the same thing. Crazy Horse counters in turn that at least they did it honourably. “That’s a thing called progress.” Hickok states, to Crazy Horse’s sharp retort: “It’s a thing called greed.” Finally Hickok tries to tell Crazy Horse, to Charlie’s delight and Hickok’s rueful warning, that no matter what kind of stand he makes, sooner or later the whites will swamp his nation with sheer numbers and terrible weaponry. Crazy Horse declares his intention to die trying, but he and Hickok nonetheless make a pact of brotherhood and not to fight each-other in the future, much to Charlie’s disgust. Nonetheless Crazy Horse has no intention of leaving the white buffalo to them, and he sneaks out in pursuit of the beast. But all three men are destined to converge on a landscape Hickok recognises in shock from his dream, and declares, “If this is the night I was born for then so be it.”
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The buffalo itself is seen fairly early in the film as it rampages through the Sioux camp, but lurks for much of the time glimpsed in fragmented close-ups of a balefully glaring eye and curling maw. The animal was cleverly realised in animatronic form by Carlo Rambaldi, who would gain repute a few years later for creating the title character of Spielberg’s E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982); it’s a little marvel of pre-CGI monster making. Thompson offers astonishing images of the buffalo charging through underbrush, barrelling out of the night and careening by the hunters: Hickok seems to have a perfect shot at the beast but realises too late his trigger’s become caked with ice, and almost finishes up skewered on its horns. The hunt builds to the grand moment reminiscent of John Huston’s film of Melville, when Crazy Horse manages to spring onto its back and stabs its hump furiously with a handful of arrows, red blood caking white fur, until it throws him and bounds away. The hunt proves a real battle but also one invested with a ritual quality, hinted at through Hickok’s premonitions and the way the buffalo behaves, sneaking up on its foes as if just as determined to wipe them out as they are it. Finally a few quick-draw shots from Hickok manage to bring the buffalo down just before it crashes into him and Crazy Horse.
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The White Buffalo was widely criticised upon release for not spelling out what the symbolic thesis is here, but to me, that’s precisely what makes it so intriguing, as the underlying drama is constantly suggested and delineated without needing to be overtly stated. D.H. Lawrence’s diagnosis of the death dream at the heart of the frontier warrior legend finds a suggested purpose as great gunfighter and war chief perform their allotted metaphysical task, enacting blood rite and spiritual cleansing. Hickok defends Crazy Horse’s right to take the hide nonetheless to an outraged Zane. The coot stomps off after accidentally letting slip Hickok’s real name to Crazy Horse, who declares with sad solemnity to the gunfighter that although they’re now brothers in spirit they can’t ever meet again without being obliged to enact their roles as avatars of their societies, “and we will both solve the great mystery.” The film fades out to fake tintype images of the two men, noting the similarity of their ages and the fact both would soon be murdered. As the film would have it, they succeeded in reining in the dominion of the death dream, but at the cost of offering themselves up as sacrifices to the violent gods they were committed to worshipping without understanding why. The White Buffalo stands as a unique achievement for both the Western and the Horror film in the way it manages to outdo the likes of Sergio Leone and Mario Bava on one crucial level, by leading both back genres to the same inception point in primal mythology, the battles of culture heroes with the monstrosities born of perverted natural order, given a new and coherent shape in terms of history.

The White Buffalo can be viewed here.

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1970s, Action-Adventure, Auteurs, Blaxploitation, Crime/Detective, Thriller, Western

Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)

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Director/Screenwriter: John Carpenter

By Roderick Heath

In the dark alleys of a modern cityscape, war is brewing. Heavily armed gang members stalk the dark, only to be spotlighted and coldly massacred by policemen, the bringers of death rendered dehumanised figures as the camera elides their faces and concentrates instead on their hands and weapons. In the following hours, the warlords of the gang, a peculiar multiracial confederacy known as Street Thunder, perform a blutbruderschaft rite, pooling their red blood in a bowl. They head out into a blandly shabby suburbia looking for any event, any victim, that will serve as a spark for a snowballing confrontation with authority, and give an excuse for an all-consuming mission of destruction. We’re where The Spook That Sat By The Door (1973) left off, the ghettos armed and battling the official death squads. This time, though, the institutional black man isn’t quite so outmatched. Late afternoon of the following day sees newly promoted police lieutenant Ethan Bishop (Austin Stoker) of the Highway Patrol assigned to take command at Precinct 5, Division 13, a police station in his own one-time home suburb of Anderson, a notoriously wretched area of Los Angeles.
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The station is closing down, a hollowed-out shell of institutional function with faintly wistful Art Deco curlicues that hint at the ambitions of a different age, left out in the urban wilderness as the tides of civilisation retreat a few blocks. In the station, Bishop encounters the station’s curt departing Captain (James Jeter), and his crew for the shift: weary desk clerk Chaney (Henry Brandon), and office stalwarts Leigh (Laurie Zimmer) and Julie (Nancy Loomis). None of them are happy about holding the fort for the night, least of all Bishop, whose grimaces give away his frustration at being handed such a chickenshit assignment for his first job as a lieutenant. Two intersecting parties will decide the course of the day and night. A father, Lawson (Martin West), and his young daughter Kathy (Kim Richards) drive into Anderson to pluck his elderly mother from her home in the decaying neighbourhood to come and live with them.
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A busload of prisoners, including a killer headed for Death Row, Napoleon Wilson (Darwin Joston), is put in the charge of Strayker (Charles Cyphers) to be taken to a state prison. Wilson is an enigma to the lawmen, fending off questions about his motives in some mysterious killings and seemingly ready to proceed to death row with stoic composure. But he’s sure to pay back his abusive jailer (John J. Fox) by contriving to trip him with his chains before boarding the bus. One of the passengers for the big house is sick, obliging Strayker to find a safe harbour long enough to fetch a doctor, so he chooses the Division 13 station to stop at. A hell of a time to make a stop. The warlords of Street Thunder, one white (Frank Doubleday), one Chicano (Gilbert De la Pena), one Oriental (Al Nakauchi), and one black (James Johnson), gather with arms to seek out the right stage for a clarion killing, a ritual that seeks its single, perfect sacrifice.
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Much like his hero Bishop, John Carpenter was a man trying to get somewhere when he made Assault on Precinct 13, one feeling the pinch of frustration. This was to be his second released feature, and his first truly professional effort, following the theatrical release of Dark Star (1974), the film he and fellow film students at UCLA including Dan O’Bannon had pieced together for a pittance. One of its makers later laughingly described the result as the best student movie ever made and the worst theatrical release. Afraid he might never get a shot at directing again Carpenter had set to work busily writing scripts, some of which were produced, including as Irvin Kershner’s Eyes of Laura Mars (1978). Carpenter was particularly eager to make a Western, like many young filmmakers of the generation pejoratively labelled the Movie Brats, but that genre was entering its long twilight. So Carpenter had the bright idea of making one in a contemporary setting, boiled down to vistas of sun-baked tar and ruddy orange sunsets over a concrete wasteland descending into grainy dark. This wasn’t entirely a new idea. Don Siegel had purveyed the same notion with a straight-arrow import for 1971’s Dirty Harry. Martin Scorsese was thinking the same way about his release of the same year, Taxi Driver (1976), but where his approach was neurotic and interiorised, Carpenter attempted to keep the ritualised form intact and render the modern concerns more implicit.
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Assault on Precinct 13 signalled Carptner’s real arrival as a director of force on the low-budget film scene, although its report would be largely drowned out by the colossal success of his follow-up, Halloween, two years later. Assault on Precinct 13 is however certainly one of Carpenter’s best films, perhaps even the best in a pound-for-pound sense. Not that Carpenter was subtle at this stage of his career about drawing on the influence of films he loved. Much like he’d do with Mario Bava and Dario Argento on Halloween, here he transposed Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo (1959) into a modern setting, and mixed in a little of Night of the Living Dead (1968), which some Hitchcock and Sergio Leone references thrown in. Wilson drops quotes from Once Upon A Time in the West (1968) with a teacher who told him he was “something to do with death” and promise to explain what he’s about at the moment of dying. Cicatriz himself is the desk clerk. Bishop’s anecdote about a fateful childhood attempt to scare him straight was borrowed from a story Hitchcock liked to tell about himself. He names his heroine after Leigh Brackett, screenwriter of Rio Bravo and a slew of great films. He cast Stoker as Bishop in emulation of George Romero’s similar ploy, although where Romero had anticipated the nascent Blaxploitation genre, Carpenter was riding the tail end of the wave, contemplating the harsh scene of the post-Civil Rights and liberationist high.
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Carpenter’s attuning of his framing to environment is the stuff of film school classes throughout, from Bishop’s early drive through the streets of Anderson, a zone of horizontals where cars cruise straight flat as trains and there seems to be nowhere to hide from the baking midday sun, the buildings looming as taciturn and isolate as John Ford’s Monument Valley outcrops. Later, when the warlords cruise the same streets, the great, fat, lengthy silencer on a machine gun slides out of the car window and extends right across the widescreen frame, mimicking the horizon. This manages to be at once one of Carpenter’s most menacing shots and one of his most blackly humorous, the threat of militarised death immediately looming over anyone in range note with deadpan calm. Whilst the latter part of the film unfolds like a familiar war movie, this section clearly anticipates the gamesmanship of Halloween: the doped-up warlords are as alien and implacable as Michael Myers and arbitrary in their predations, but also armed with a very specific ideal, a faith that bringing terror and bloodshed to the world will shock it into some new state of awareness. So they drive around the blocks searching for the right moving target. The tense, cagey ice cream man (Peter Bruni) who’s plainly spent a lifetime bringing tinny, jaunty charm and sweets to kids around this neighbourhood even as he knows damn well what sicknesses its adults are cultivating, is wary enough to finger his revolver whenever he sees the warlords’ car drive by.
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Carpenter serves up his central, definitive shock early on. As her daddy tries to use a pay phone to get directions, Kathy walks up the parked ice cream van to make an order. The driver anxiously waits until the warlords’ car is out of sight, before serving her. But the warlords have doubled back, and the white warlord toys with shooting the ice cream man, inserting the barrel of a pistol into his mouth but seeming disappointed by his petrified lack of resistance. Ah, but here comes Kathy doubling back to swap her regular vanilla for vanilla twist; in a moment the white ice cream and golden locks are smeared with brilliant red, and goodnight Kathy. Even in the ruder climes of mid-’70s exploitation film, what balls it took to pull that off. Halloween’s famous punch-line to its opening scene, revealing Michael Myers as a child utterly given over to icy slaughter, and his grown self’s disinterest in killing kids, could well be Carpenter’s fiendish idea of payback as well as a mea culpa to all the shocked grindhouse patrons. Lawson doesn’t know what’s happened, as all the gang’s guns have silencers, until he returns to see his daughter dead and the drier expiring on the tar. The driver manages to tell Lawson about his gun in the van, so Lawson takes the gun and jumps in his car, pursuing the warlords through the streets. Forcing the warlords to pull over, Lawson’s focused rage proves an edge deadlier than the white warlord’s drugged-up berserker disinterest: Lawson guns down the warlord, and flees his comrades in stark terror.
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The closest safe harbour is, of course, Bishop’s new command. Lawson makes it to the station and collapses, gasping out vague explanations before folding up in a catatonic ball. Chaney ventures outside to see what he was running from, only to collapse on the lawn, assumed at first to be a pratfall, only for Bishop to venture out after him and very quickly retreat under a hail of bullets. The siege has begun. Carpenter’s poles of civilisation are blocs of anonymous drones dedicated to conflict, and the rest of the poor bastards caught between them, and he throws into its titular besieged outpost a cubic set of archetypes at war with a relentless, faceless enemy representing unleashed chaos: Cool Outlaw, Tough Woman, Flailing Patriarch, Aspiring Black Man. Street Thunder actualise a boogeyman of common imagining, the underclasses of the urban landscape uniting into a powerful and marauding force: lucky for the world their project is tinged with drug-induced nihilism. The white warlord’s cold, implacable face is a layer of whitewash away from Michael Myers’ incarnation of primal dread. The zombie-like implacability of the gang members also anticipates Carpenter’s radical-edged reconstruction of Hawks’ Thing from another world as a metamorphic gestalt in his 1982 remake, gathering everything into itself. Ripe for a multitude of interpretations, from a commentary on the anonymous quality of poverty and social exclusion to the state of modernity threatening old school hard-won individuality such as Carpenter’s heroes wield.
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Whilst mashing together his own favourite films, Carpenter is also rapidly developing his own private mythos. His uneasy feelings about authority, mediated by making the lawman another form of outsider, his instinctual fascination for the outlaw, complicated an apparent, blithe lack of compunction about working against all civilised rules. Wilson is the blueprint for Escape from New York’s (1981) Snake Plissken and Ghosts of Mars (2001) Desolation Williams, the superlative hard-ass maverick, outside the law, “out of time and out of luck.” Bishop is trying real hard to be the shepherd, but his annoyed grimaces and barely constrained irritation give away his rueful realisation his promotion hasn’t yet rescued him from patronising: “That sure got around fast,” he comments when the departing Captain lets slip he knows it’s Bishop’s first day out with his new insignia. “Black?” Leigh asks him, meaning coffee, but she’s answered with his immortal quip, “For over thirty years.” A couple of years earlier Stoker had appeared in Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973) where he played the voice of intelligent and conscientious humanity speaking up for itself in the face of disenfranchising; here he’s the guy tolerating every slight for the sake of a project started when, in his own description, he walked out of Anderson by his own volition. Thomas Wolfe was right; you can’t go home again, as Bishop finds the locals are now packing high velocity weapons.
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Strayker and his menagerie arrive, only to find the station seeming to be quickly going to the dogs as the phones cut out, so Strayker contemptuously decides to move on, only to be cut down along with his underlings by the gang’s bullets. Wilson finishes up trapped under one of his dead prisoner pals and need Bishop to come haul him out. Only Wilson and Wells (Tony Burton) are left from the bus, bundled into holding cells and left to stew whilst Bishop and the two office workers try to work out what the hell’s happening. Sniper bullets start punching through the windows, shattering the glass, only the sound of breaking glass to announce the fusillade, all racket of gunfire perversely lacking, only George Washington’s youthful fetish for the sweet song of the whizzing bullet itself. This is a flourish Carpenter wields with particular cunning, threat without source, deadliness without catharsis, locked in a nightmare zone where the familiar rules of life (and movies) are suspended. Then come the invaders, dark figures in the windows, incarnations of blank threat. Guns are few, ammunition low. The heaviest weapon on hand is a pump-action shotgun the Captain was seen locking up in a chest earlier with import in castrating Bishop.
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The two women almost see to be in a uniform of their own, long skirts, wool sweaters, although character is soon divergent: Leigh is hardy and taciturn, Julie fretful and brittle, soon suggesting they haul Lawson out to please the besiegers and desperately hoping they’re gone when the bullets cease. No, they come breaking in the back door as Leigh goes to check on the two prisoners, a bullet tearing a groove in her upper arm. Leigh stays cool and waits until the gun-wielding thug gets close, then socks him in the face with the cell keys before a kick to the balls. And that’s how the modern action heroine was born, kids. Wilson helps her defeat the next goon, and Bishop manages to pass him the shotgun in time to blast away a few more suckers. Wilson’s eye gleam with ferocious glee as he comprehends the chance gifted him, but immediately unleashes on the next gang members to attack: they’re no friend to him or Wells. It took Seijun Suzuki to make a film called Pistol Opera, but Carpenter made it first, as he turns the central sequence of gunplay, as Bishop, Leigh, Wells, and Wilson battle off their persecutors, into a mischievous piece of near-musical sonic orchestration, the tempo of gunfire speeding up and gaining rhythm.
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Zimmer made only a handful of films before she quit acting, supposedly ill-at-ease in her performances, despite Carpenter’s encouragement. It was a real loss, as her excellence here as the ever-so-cool yet subtly sensitive Leigh readily matches Stoker’s poise and Joston’s squirrely charisma, the water light of extreme world-weariness and fried emotional reflexes in her eyes even as she boots bad guys in the bollocks and swaps charged glances with Wilson as she lights his cigarette. Leigh and Wilson seem magnetically attracted from first glance, a cosmic joke played on them both. Leigh’s coup comes as she talks the antsy Wells out of a planned dash for freedom, taunting him with the certainty of his death as he holds a gun on her, only to realise his gun’s not actually loaded. Julie is already dead, killed without anyone to notice during the furious battle. Wells has a plan – “It’s called ‘Save-Ass’” Soon after Leigh talks him out of it it’s proposed someone try to sneak out of the building via a drainpipe linked to the basement, get to a parked car, and race off to the nearest phone box. “What’s the difference between this and what I was gonna do ten minutes ago?” Wells demands. He and Wilson go head to head in a loaded game of potato to see who’ll be it. Wells expects to lose. He does. Out he goes, and manages to escape the drain and hotwire the car without flaw. He races up the road and halts before the phone box. But one of the gang members has been waiting on the back seat for such a ploy; he sits up and shoots Wells through the head.
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Wells and Julie are the designated victims of course, the ones just little less stoic, a little lacking in sangfroid, although their frailty is of course perfectly human. Part of the specific power of Assault on Precinct 13 lies in the way it meets all criteria for a hard-charging pulp movie but retains a sense of mortality and its meaning for all its characters (save the gang members, but fuck those guys anyway), from Kathy to Julie to Wells, as Bishop and his pick-up posse fight nominally to protect Lawson. There’s real power in the repeated gesture of jackets being draped over the dead Kathy and Julie, pathetic victims of forces brewed on a great scale. Early in the film Kathy proposes to her father they ask directions from a cop because her teacher told her the police are there to help, only to be told by her father that her teacher’s “never taken any big steps outside the sixth grade.” The film’s opening evokes ruthless brutality in the name of state security, but by the end it’s allowed a tacit faith in the ideal of the civic guardian, so long as that guardian is an actual representative of the community he’s policing. Bishop is post-Blaxploitation hero, a man seeking to redefine institutions according to his identity rather than the other way round, whilst still contending with all the compromise, frustration, and occasional terror that comes with such a struggle. Leigh is the Hawksian one-of-the-boys ladies dragged out into the glare of the Women’s Lib sun, hardy, self-sufficient, mature, able to take care of herself as much as anyone in this situation can. By contrast the gang members engage in an act of nihilistic intent, a death-dream invocation.
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Meantime Carpenter records the bristling, protoplasmic mass of the new social landscape in his widescreen frames within the tight, rectilinear assurances of the station architecture, and his own frames, characters huddling together, breaking apart, forming and reforming their alliances. Present straits aren’t so different from the schoolyard, confirmed during Wilson and Wells’ potato bout. Childhood tends to haunt the characters, from Bishop’s recollections of being scared straight to Wilson’s opposite experience of preordained fate: everyone’s the product of something that puts them on a path, and Carpenter’s ultimate, humanist idea is that everyone retains an aspect of the heroic in them, despite the opinion of Bishop’s commander that “there aren’t any heroes anymore,” often suppressed and sometimes honed by circumstance. Assault on Precinct 13 is a way station in Carpenter’s slyly evolving variety of social mindfulness in genre cinema, coming just after Dark Star, which sent up the Domino Theory and the idea of the nuclear deterrent, the Domino Theory, and the technocratic subservience of modern life in general, and long before Escape from L.A. ’s (1997) raw disgust and final push-the-button nihilism. It would be easy to dismiss Street Thunder as a conveniently literalised version of urban angst, except that Carpenter pointedly removes sectarian meaning from their looming vision by making them multiracial, the warlords each designated by specific, cliché modes of dress – the white warlord and his black singlet, the Chicano with his Che-like garb – and their weapons of choice. Urban warfare is a blend of state-of-the-art weaponry and down-and-dirty tribal warfare, cars becoming rolling barricades.
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Two cops spend the night circling around the precinct in disorientation, sent out to chase down the peals of gunfire reported by houses near the station but cannot find. Telephone men have vanished. A black hole might as well have opened in this corner of the city. There’s a great if casual joke in the plight of the cops who can’t find anything wrong in the middle of a warzone, one that Carpenter would parse again in his work, like in The Fog (1981) where the need to keep the news going out is an urgent theme in the midst of a corrupt and oblivious community, and They Live (1988) where the act of actually penetrating a web of distraction to perceive truth is turned into an overtly political act, and the difficulty of piecing together coherent narrative in the face of crisis in Ghosts of Mars. The evocation of paranoid isolation would prove a Carpenter specialty in his early films, where he’d turn his straitened budgets and productions to his advantage in creating precisely described pockets of reality. The absurdist approach to this in Dark Star, where his shaggy astronauts were forced to wander the universe, gave way here to a tighter, less meditative but no less anxious sense of characters dangling on the end of life’s long rope.
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One of my favourite moments in the film comes when Lawson tries to alert the police in a phone booth out in some wasteground after gunning down the white warlord, only to see his fellows marching out of the dark: the confrontation seems to be taking place at the end of the universe, the last survivors of humankind battling for the one bloc of light left. One indelible aspect of the film’s texture is Carpenter’s electronic music score, performed on a bank of early synthesisers with the film’s art director Tommy Lee Wallace, who would become one of Carpenter’s regular collaborators (another, Debra Hill, helped out as an uncredited editor). Carpenter took a lot of licence from Lalo Schifrin’s score for Dirty Harry, but he finished up creating something original enough that it had a deep impact not just on Carpenter’s own film style, but on the emerging forms of electronic music and hip hop. Electronic drones declare the presence and attack of the gang members, thudding drum beats with a woozy groove sustain suspense, synthesiser strains wail in the dark like police sirens and make a repetitive cracking sound like a burst tyre flapping against asphalt. Plaintive declarations from an electric piano evoke Bishop’s survey of his old neighbourhood at sunset and recurs as characters survey the dead and face the fallout of a night of carnage.
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Carpenter finally lands his most definite nod to Hawks as he appropriates Rio Bravo’s famous blood-in-the-glass scene: the two cops pull over in frustration only to hear what might be rain on the roof, only for one to get out and realise the rain is actually dripping blood, trickling down from the dead body of a murdered telephone repairman, hanging with arms splayed a grotesque wind chime. Meanwhile Bishop, Wilson, and Leigh have their backs to the wall, literally. They retreat into the station’s basement for their last hope of standing off a mass charge along with their catatonic charge Lawson. Bishop banks all on his marksmanship, planning a Viking funeral for the gang members by igniting some acetylene tanks whilst the trio shelter behind a broken sign that reads, hilariously, SUPPOR YOUR LOC POLIC. The traditional last gallant ending for siege dramas is raised as Leigh suggests she keep the last two bullets in her gun for herself and Wilson; “Save ‘em for the first two assholes who come through that vent,” Wilson instructs. “There are two things a man should never run from,” he comments, the first being a wounded man and the unspoken second acknowledged only in the long gaze held between him and Leigh.
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The final charge of the gang members sees Bishop rising to the status of classic American hero, Hawkeye, the deadly shot and frontier tamer, uniting two hitherto barely related varieties of American iconography. “Can’t argue with a confident man,” Wilson notes repeatedly and with increasing sarcasm as his shots go wild, but at last one hits and the hallway explodes in boiling flame. The cavalry arrive at last, a squadron of police cars screeching to a halt outside, cops pouring into the desolated station and coming across the three combatants still ready to fight on with any weapon at hand, only for the smoke to slowly clear and reveal nominal allies rather than more foes, our heroes slowly easing out of their defensive postures. Carpenter gives them their moments to walk out of the movie like from a stage, Leigh alone and integral, needing no theatrics of injury despite being battle-wounded. She’s followed by Wilson and Bishop together: “You’re pretty fancy Wilson,” the cop grants. “I have my moments,” Wilson replies, and out they march That’s Carpenter’s notion of Elysium – cop and criminal, black guy and white, grinning at each-other and walking out of hell. He’d stick them both back in there for The Thing and They Live. The urban Nibelungenlied is over, but every myth is told and retold, each time a little differently.

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1950s, Action-Adventure, Auteurs, Western

The Searchers (1956)

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Director: John Ford
Screenwriter: Frank Nugent

By Roderick Heath

John Ford was hardly lacking in fame and acclaim when he released The Searchers. He’d already captured four Oscars as Best Director, proof he stood for his peers as the most admired of American filmmaking talents. Given how rarely Westerns were given such awards and serious critical interest, Ford seemed to be looking for almost the opposite of acclaim. He was chasing something more elusive, something lodged fast and discomforting, like a thorn under skin or a shard of niggling shrapnel. Ford returned from World War II without quite a few of his cherished illusions, but also nursing some ambitions he set about making realities. He moved to gain a level of independence from the Hollywood studio system by setting himself up as a producer-director for his own Argosy Pictures outfit. Keeping up that kind of freedom was to prove a tall order in the following years, but Ford began to come into his own in terms of how we think of him now, as the man who declared bluntly later in life after a career of diverse movies, “I make Westerns.” That was the genre he had found early success in with The Iron Horse (1926) but scarcely returned to during the 1930s, until Stagecoach (1939), a film that not only provided Ford with a big hit and suddenly earned new critical interest and respect for the genre, but gave a boost to its leading man John Wayne.
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Wayne had been lingering in cheap oatsers since his initial breakthrough The Big Trail (1930) had proved a box office disappointment. During the war Wayne’s star had only grown brighter, leaving him poised to become Hollywood’s biggest draw, but he found himself in conflict with his former pal and mentor Ford, as he’d failed to make good on his promises to join up, leading to tensions on the set of They Were Expendable (1945), Ford’s first civilian film in several years. Ford made good on his desire to make Westerns with My Darling Clementine (1946), starring Henry Fonda and evoking the romanticised version of the OK Corral shootout he claimed to have heard from Wyatt Earp’s own lips decades before. The past seemed to be on Ford’s mind too, as he directed Wayne to mimic his old leading man Harry Carey Snr in some places. Despite their personal differences, Ford and Wayne soon proved the kind of teaming that makes for movie legend in the following few years as Wayne became the sturdy frame Ford hung his Cavalry trilogy – Fort Apache (1948), She Wore A Yellow Ribbon (1949), Rio Grande (1950) – upon. Ford was trying to reprocess the generational experience of the war into terms that could be contained and mediated through the Westerns and tragicomic dramas he liked. His films from this period are filled with sundered but reunited families, bands of soldierly brothers, gatherings of old former comrades, old enemies finding common cause, all trying to get on with nation-building enterprises.
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Native Americans had been provided as cosmic foils in Stagecoach, but whilst they were still often the enemies in the Cavalry trilogy, their situation was no longer so one-dimensional: in Fort Apache they’re provoked by arrogance, treachery, and double-dealing into warfare, in She Wore A Yellow Ribbon they’re neighbours to be disarmed rather than battled, and in Rio Grande a cruel renegade is hunted and surgically taken down. Wayne made one more Western in this phase, Wagon Master (1950), without Wayne, and then took a break from the genre. Ford’s Irish fantasia The Quiet Man (1953) proved his biggest hit to date and gained him his fourth Oscar. But skirmishes with Fonda during the making of Mister Roberts (1955) proved a troubling rupture. Fonda resisted Ford’s desire to follow his usual instinct and scuff up the property, for Fonda wanted to retain the essentially noble spirit of the source play. Frustration eventually, so the legend goes, saw Ford punch his leading man and retreat into a drinking binge that brought on serious illness. To recover, after some forays into TV directing, he looked back to the Western again to find some project that could expiate the poisonous, near-fatal experience. He found the project in a novel by Alan LeMay, who usually wrote scripts for Ford’s rival, and occasional nemesis, Cecil B. DeMille. The Searchers was well-received and successful upon release, but by this time movie and TV screens were so busy with Westerns it was hard to stand out. Only a few years later as Ford became one of the select rank of heralded auteurs in studio cinema, and as young movie lovers grew up and became critics and directors, would it start gaining the reputation it has now as a pinnacle of popular cinema.
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There’s a telling and fascinating conjunction in Ford swinging from a disaster like the Mister Roberts shoot into making his greatest film, and it becomes clearer in concentrating more closely upon the troubled soul of the subsequent film. The Searchers is a study in finding grace in the face of cruelty and hate in large part because it’s coming from a bleak and stymied place. Only cinema, that pool of light between black, rigid fields, offers relief. Small wonder the film starts and ends like it famously does, perfect black broken open and then resealed. The opening, which sees Ethan Edwards (Wayne) returning to family after years away at war, poses the film as the last of Ford’s homecoming-from-war movies. The setting is Texas, 1868, although the location is Monument Valley. Usually Ford’s returning veterans have the benefit of fellowship; Ethan is solitary, embittered, giving away his awards and regalia to kids and negotiating the many psychic eggshells spread about the domicile of his brother Aaron Edwards’ (Walter Coy) frontier homestead. Here also lives Aaron’s wife Martha (Dorothy Jordan) and their three children, Lucy (Pippa Scott), Ben (Robert Lyden), and Debbie (Lana Wood), as well as the adopted and raised family member, Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter), a lanky lad with Cherokee heritage (“At least that’s what they tell me”).
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In Ford’s earlier Westerns the wandering men of fortune were usually helping out the people who wanted to put down roots. Here the gulf is muted but unbridgeable, despite Ethan’s seeming desire to reintegrate himself at last, or at least to the extent he’s prepared to be, which isn’t much. He has mysterious wealth in a bag of fresh-minted dollars and still considers himself to be a under oath to the defeated Confederate States. Lucy is the first bobby-soxer, trying to snatch her moments with her beau, Brad Jorgensen (Harry Carey, Jr.). Judging by the way she folds Ethan’s coat and swaps a charged look with him, Martha might well have been his lover before Ethan left to fight. Ethan, Martin, and Brad are quickly pressed into helping a posse led by local minister and lawman Rev. Capt. Samuel Johnson Clayton (Ward Bond), after some cattle are stolen away, presumably by a roving Native American band. But when they find the cattle dead, Ethan realises the purpose was to lure away defenders from the ranches, for a “murder raid” of punitive action against settlers.
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By the time Ethan and Martin return, they find the Edwards homestead ablaze, Lucy and Debbie missing, and the other three killed. Clayton’s posse continues after the Indian band, who prove to be a tribe of Comanche under the glowering leadership of Chief Scar or Cicatriz (Henry Brandon). After barely escaping an ambush by their quarries, the posse breaks up and heads home, leaving only Ethan, Martin, and Brad to keep up the pursuit. When Ethan finds Lucy’s dead body, discarded by the Comanche, Brad gets killed riding into their camp in a mad charge, and the other two lose track of the tribe in snow, forcing them to break off the pursuit. After being briefly taken in by Brad’s parents (John Qualen and Olive Carey) and sister Laurie (Vera Miles), who carries a torch for Martin, Ethan and Martin set out again to locate the band after receiving a possible clue to their whereabouts. Martin becomes increasingly worried that Ethan doesn’t intend to rescue Debbie anymore, but plans to kill her in case she’s been “living with a buck.” After several years on the trail, thanks to a Mexican trader, Figueroa (Antonio Moreno), Ethan and Martin finally gain access to Scar’s camp and find him not only aware of who they are, but all too happy to taunt them with the scalps of their murdered family members on his spear, and the sight of a now-grown Debbie (Natalie Wood) become one of his wives.
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The set-up here – the ragged warrior and the settled family, the pining matriarchs and hero-worshipping boy – is reminiscent of Shane (1953). Ford might well have internalised that hit, that most aesthetically purified and self-consciously mythic of Westerns, trying to decide if it meant anything to him or not, and proceeds from the realisation that George Stevens wanted his fabled concept just a little too unspoilt. Shane lived and died for the sake of letting civilisation getting on with its follies, stirring its contradictions but not despoiling them. No blonde seraphim to stir hearts and take the rap here. Ford speeds through that work in miniature and comes out the other side to leave desolation and terror where the little house in the prairie stood. Ethan is no-one’s idea of a white knight. But the actual aesthetic antagonist to be wrestled with here is My Darling Clementine and the Cavalry trilogy, their perfection as a summary of Ford’s concept of the west revisited, tested, and finally endorsed again, but only after the deepest agonistes. Martin is the family’s adopted son, regarded with squint suspicion by Ethan when he sits down to eat at the dinner table: “Fella could mistake you for a half-breed.” Ethan’s jagged, reactionary-racist sensibility is already fully on display. So too is his humane streak, as he rescued Martin as a child from the wreckage of a massacre. Martin and Ethan’s relationship compels the film even as they seem to barely tolerate each-other’s company and even at points seem to be mortal enemies, as Ethan explicitly denies Martin any kind of familial status to him early on, but also becomes almost a caricature of the hard-bitten, tough-love paterfamilias.
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The Searchers’ DNA is scattered today throughout the length and breadth of contemporary cinema, from the dreamlike transpositions of the Star Wars films to the grimy, pensive immediacy of Taxi Driver (1976) and all their descendants in turn. The greater part of The Searchers’ power and vitality wells precisely from contradiction. It’s a film where the hero is also its villain, where the American landscape is both worshipped and regarded as suspicious and duplicitous. The narrative itself rests upon contradiction, as the characters tread the length and breadth of the American heartland and yet find their reckoning mere miles from where the hunt started. It’s no cutely liberal take on the Western like Delmer Daves’ Broken Arrow (1953), but that’s precisely what allows it to dig into the dark side of the American enterprise, capturing the marauding mindset of men like Ethan and Scar, who both operate out of motives of vengeance and tribal identity. Perhaps that’s why Ford socked Fonda over Mister Roberts and then turned around to make this: a little voice in the back of Ford’s mind insisting the only way you could grapple with what infuriates you was not to play wise elder but to swallow the hot coal.
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Ethan is reminiscent of Jesse James as a veteran whose post-war crime spree seems to him at least have been a mere extension of the conflict, as it’s hinted Ethan might have been supporting himself in a similar way. “You match a lot of descriptions,” Clayton notes when Ethan won’t take his deputising oath because “it wouldn’t be legal.” Later, he guns down the duplicitous Futterman (Peter Mamakos), a trader who sells Ethan and Martin a clue for gold but who then tries to kill them to get more, and his helpmates with cool thoroughness, so much so that later he and Martin are suspected of murder. Ethan and Scar are the frontier death-dream incarnate. There’s a tonal reflex reminiscent of horror cinema in some of The Searchers, particularly the creepy moment when Scar’s shadow falls upon the child Debbie in the graveyard where her grandparents are buried and soon too will be the rest of her family, and the rhyming scene at the climax as he looms over Debbie and Martin. The bookending doorway shots feel more than a little inspired by Hugo Fregonese’s Apache Drums (1951), a film which transmitted its producer Val Lewton’s psychological and folkloric sensibility into the Western, and perhaps Ford absorbed a little of that sensibility along with the technique. The struggle for domain that takes place in the course of the movie is physical but also subsists on this atavistic level, fought on the level of symbols and totems, to which in a way Debbie is reduced often throughout.
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Scar’s spear loaded with scalps, including those of the Edwards clan and Martin’s mother, is held out as a triumphant standard, in the grip of Debbie, another captured prize. Ethan removes any dividing line between himself and his enemy as he stoops to claiming Scar’s scalp. But the laws of tribalism negate the need for moral discernment. What I do to you is righteous and what you do to me is savagery. Ford’s celebration of space throughout, the grandiose forms and climes of the Monument Valley locations and all their primeval strength, is constantly contradicted and complicated. Ethan is all too aware the posse’s been drawn out just far enough to stop them fending off the murder raid; the vastness becomes a trap under such circumstances. Scar’s tribe are able to remain ever so tauntingly ahead of Ethan and Martin. The open area around the Edwards homestead harbours enemies advancing unseen and nightmarish. The bluffs of Monument Valley are a canvas to describe the tension: they stand grand and worshipful but also dominate and dwarf Ford’s characters as the posse rides out to chase down. Ford constantly captures his actors with the rock forms behind or looming over them, trying to cage their elastic physicality, their volatility, their challenge to nature.
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Stagecoach was a legend that skirted Monument Valley but found its stage in the open ground; The Searchers inhabits vertiginous zones where the moral danger seems mapped out in canyons and caves. Scar’s tribe exploit the folds of land to surround the posse, riding along parallel ridges, whilst the posse use a river as a defence. Ethan and Martin wander a continent but the first time they attain their goal they’re chased inside a cave that seems like a zone of moral nullity, a cave that looms again at the end as Ethan hunts down Debbie with apparent murderous intent. This oppressive use of the landscape is particularly apparent in a uniquely vicious scene in which the posse, still in the early stage of its pursuit, come across the body of a dead brave, actors and rock forms constantly caught in dialogue. Spiritual violence is stirred: Brad picks up a rock and pummels the corpse, but Ethan has a more exacting sense of justice, shooting out the body’s eyes so that the dead man’s spirit must roam the afterlife in blind desolation.
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Ford’s frontier homes and outposts have low, slightly oppressive ceilings (one of many lessons Orson Welles took from Ford: in cinema, the sets don’t just frame drama but generate it), and his camera framings obey the rectilinear demarcations of the architecture as much as his exterior framings respond to the jagged upthrust of the land. Here cotillions form and rituals of marriage and justice unfold, obeying their own social architecture, cordons far more unyielding than any cavalry column into which Ethan and Martin crash upon their second return home. Years of fruitless wandering, is reported via a letter Martin writes to Laurie, a missive she’s obliged to read out to her parents and to the letter’s deliverer, the guitar-picking, haw-hawing local flash Charlie McCory (Ken Curtis). A great chunk of narrative and time is ingeniously compressed this way, whilst making other points, as Charlie presents a romantic threat to Martin whilst Laurie’s increasing exasperation with her peripatetic beau boils over at the news that Martin picked himself up a wife. Accidentally, of course, as Martin thought he was trying to trade for a blanket but found he’d purchased a squaw instead, a woman he dubs “Look” (Beulah Archuletta) and whose presence, helpful as she tries to be, he can’t stand. When he and Ethan got the idea of asking her about Scar, she became fearful and left them, and they later found her dead in an Indian village, attacked and left in carnage by a Cavalry patrol, leaving the perplexing question as to whether Look was merely trying to get away or was trying to help Martin.
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The Searchers is as much a film about generation conflict as Rebel Without A Cause (1955), which Wood had starred in the year before, and its many followers. One reason, perhaps, why so many young men watched the film and found in its something like their cinematic bible, over and beyond its imagistic and storytelling force. Home, the locus of simplicity and order, is shattered early in the film, and tensions were already brewing; gruff pseudo-father and maturing pseudo-son are then obliged to chase the ghost of common meaning. So easy to see the conflict between Ethan and Martin as the uncomprehending gap between a generation of fathers who had been off to war to defend a settled world and sons who wanted to renew it, and the bewilderment and sullen anxiety of the young in the face of their elders’ mysterious prejudices and unreasoning demarcations. Despite his many protestations to disinterest in Martin’s lot, Ethan acts like his father – one of the great bits of movie business comes in the cantina scene in which Ethan keeps foiling Martin’s attempts to get a drink of liquor even as the conversation involves something else entirely. It’s a moment that’s just as revealing and even more cunningly parsed as the more famous scene with Martha folding Ethan’s coat: bonds of family, of love, of instinctive connection take place on a level that’s near-subliminal. Moreover, this sort of thing illustrates exactly what a filmmaker like Ford can conjure, and any great filmmaker, over and above even the layers of Frank Nugent’s already tight-wound script.
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Martin seems exempt from the ranks of tribalism as such identities are melded in his frame as well as nullified by his youthful openness. Ethan and Martin represent a dichotomy of experience commonly seen in Ford’s films but usually safely contained by social constructs like the military, the youth learning about the world and passing through baptisms of fire, and the older, hardened, life-scarred man. Look to one of Ford’s early films like Seas Beneath (1931), where the young man has his first erotic experience with a senorita and the older man is the stalwart captain shepherding all through the curtain of fire. Here the rhythms are off-kilter, the figurations twisted. The captain is a landlubber Ahab chasing after a girl who may or may not be his daughter from a transgressive romance, and the young man, played by Hunter with his stark blue eyes and passion play physique as a beautiful gelding, never gets time to get it on with Laurie or the flamenco dancer making eyes at him in the frontier cantina. Sexual transgression lurks behind so much of The Searchers, in the barely-coded anxiety over miscegenation and sexual slavery, but its tenor is rather one of neurotic severance from the erotic. The ascending order of racist neurosis is invoked, driving Confederate holdout Ethan crazy, and Scar’s motives are calculated as revenge by precisely triggering them, for the chieftain who’s lost two sons to the encroaching white man knows well what hurts his foe. The resulting sense of obsession builds relentlessly to specific moments of baleful paroxysm, as in Martin placing himself between Ethan and Debbie as he moves to gun her down, and the final battle. The film repeats the generational conflict in miniature towards the end with a level of in-joke humour. Ethan and Clayton find themselves confronted by green, young, sabre-waving Lieutenant Greenhill, envoy of his Cavalry commanding father, breezing in to alert the elders to Scar’s presence with callow energy, and played by Wayne’s son Patrick.
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The margins of the central drama are filled out by such a gallery of oddballs and frontier grotesques, covering a range of types and cultural entities, filled out by ingenious detail and performances. Clayton is a leader both spiritual and temporal, embodiment of all social authority in the sparse precincts of the frontier and perfect contrast to Ethan’s individualist indomitability. Yet he’s anything but abstract in his bristling, bustling vigour, tying his top hat to his crown with a handkerchief and vowing to get himself “unsurrounded” and barking at Greenhill to “Watch out for that knife” only to cop it in the backside in the midst of battle. Crackpot Mose Harper (Hank Worden) longs for a rocking chair and makes fun of the Comanche by mimicking their war cries, tolerated and patronised by all who know him, which proves to be a great survival talent, as he gives Scar the slip and alerts the heroes to the tribe’s return. Brandon, a character actor who bobbed about Hollywood for decades and who had bigger parts than this but none more famous, makes a tremendous impression although Scar remains for the most part an antagonist over the horizon. His appearances early in the film galvanise the characters aura of threat and dark, scowling, brutal charisma, from looming over young Debbie as he comes across her attempting to flee the homestead to putting on his chieftain’s bonnet and sporting the medal Ethan gave to Debbie about his neck. When he and Ethan finally meet, the doppelgangers stand almost touching in their fearsome mutual challenge, whilst refusing to break the rules of the chivalrous game of hospitality.
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The Searchers also undoubtedly contains Wayne’s best performance, lacking the slightly calculated feel to some of his other major turns like the aging Nathan Brittles in She Wore A Yellow Ribbon and ornery Rooster Cogburn in True Grit (1969). His Ethan Edwards simply is – his smouldering aggression, his patronising assurance, his surly turns of phrase (“That’ll be the day”) and grit-toothed ferocity and private moments with eyes deep pools of sorrow and regret and flashes of lunatic rage. For a man of undoubted, bullish presence and martial skill, Ethan is trapped in states of impotence throughout much of the film, reduced to finding and burying the mangled remnants of his family. Wayne’s performing intuition grasped gesture as the essence of film acting, the sort of considered motions generations of kids have mimicked in trying to grasp the essence of screen cool. The badass spectacle of whipping out his Winchester from its holster before riding in to the burning homestead. The spins of his revolver as he shoots out the dead Comanche’s eyes. More than that, though, here Wayne uses such gestural precision to describe Ethan’s frustrated power, finally blatant in the seething fury in his eyes as he barks at Clayton for spoiling a shot at Scar and finally near-lunacy as he shoots down buffalo in his desire to starve the Comanches, becoming in his unreasoning wrath and sense of punitive mission the embodiment of the dark side of the Western conquest, and his schoolyard posturing before Scar when finally they men meet.
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Ford, like Raoul Walsh and Howard Hawks, had always made complex Westerns, although there was certainly a general accuracy to the notion the genre was becoming more meditative in its historical considerations. Although his political allegiances were becoming more conservative, Ford was becoming more direct and questioning about who could be considered American and what the country could mean to them were becoming more pointed. He would soon construct creation myths for African-Americans (Sergeant Rutledge, 1960) and finally Native Americans (Cheyenne Autumn) in terms of his traditional Western form, on the way towards the cosmic crack-up of his last film 7 Women (1966). The sequence here where Ethan and Martin encounter the massacred tribe and the Cavalry who did it evokes his Cavalry trilogy through music cues and images but there’s no sense of heroic necessity: Martin is bewildered by their motives. This is the west being bludgeoned into passivity and coherence rather than coolly policed. The ruined, lunatic women the soldiers gather, inspected by Ethan and Martin in hope Debbie is amongst their number, are the by-products of civilisations crashing together. “It’s hard to believe they’re white,” one of the Cavalry officers comments, but notably, the women are all in a crazed state after being rescued, whilst Debbie, when they finally encounter her, remains entirely lucid and intelligent enough not just to simply remember her old life but to try and save Ethan and Martin from imminent attack. Ethan repays the favour by advancing to shoot her down, with Martin thrusting himself between them. Fortunately, Scar and his braves interrupt the moment of truth.
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Ford stands today as one of the definitive classicists in film technique, but to watch The Searchers is to experience an unusual approach to storytelling and cinematic structure. To see Ford utilise the mid-‘50s widescreen colour format is to see a born cinematic eye unleashed upon a natural habitat, exploiting space from actors’ faces looming in close to features in the peering distance. Ford’s DP Winton C. Hoch isn’t exactly one of the celebrated cinematographers of his time, and yet few films are better shot than The Searchers. Hoch imbues Ford’s precisely-composed tableaux with life through jostling, precisely inscribed detail even in the midst of colossal landscape shots. Ford and Hoch work in hints of Expressionist texture into interior and dialogue scenes, hinting at the repressed and the fetid in even the most seemingly easygoing interludes, and capturing the intensity of existence out in these tiny abodes and hamlets through the decor in a homestead. The Searchers is a big movie, and yet big moments are almost thrown away, like the final confrontation between Martin and Scar. Exposition scenes double as character revelations, jokes distract from momentous discoveries and urgent truths. Nothing in The Searchers is ever just one thing, one reason Ford was able to knock over such an epic tale in less than two hours. Perhaps the most notable example of this discursiveness comes in the action climax, as the long-nursed thirst for revenge against Scar comes as fast as reflex, in perfect contrast to the ceremonial death-dealing in Sergio Leone’s Westerns. Few directors could resist the bloodthirsty spectacle of moments like Ethan’s discovery of Lucy’s body and Brad’s subsequent ride to a quick death, but Ford elides both, describing the first by Ethan’s harassed and snarling behaviour afterwards, and marking out the events of the latter purely by sound.
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The hint of Expressionist influence in the film is hardly surprising. Ford had gained a great deal of early acclaim and admiration for his skill in fusing that heady Germanic style with Hollywood exigencies in movies like The Informer (1935) and The Grapes of Wrath (1940). Like many directors who had started working in the silent era now confronted by the blazing colour and stretched screen of ’50s film culture, he seemed to be thinking back to those days wistfully in shots like one filmed in silence and silhouette, in which Martin is lowered down a cliff face as he goes to pluck Debbie from the midst of Scar’s camp. One of the best shots in the film – in cinema in general – comes when Debbie appears on the sand dune behind Martin and Ethan as they bicker outside Scar’s camp, unnoticed for a long time as she approaches. The perfect economy of Ford’s framing allows the epic, even the miraculous, to suddenly transform the drama, as if the land itself has finally unleashed its captive. Ford’s love of alternations in tone between high drama and slapstick humour has long been one of his peccadilloes that can vex contemporary viewers. But it’s also essential to his cinema, where sobriety and clowning are indivisible as part of the texture of life, expressions of the unruly energy released by common humanity, mimicking and to a certain extent offsetting more genuinely chaotic instincts. This aspect of Ford’s art had been purveyed with careful, contrapuntal rhythm in his Cavalry trilogy, but here comes in a series of violent swerves and headlong crashes. Certainly the “comic relief” of Martin’s irritation with Look never sits well, particularly as he shoves her rolling down a slope when she tries to sleep by his side: it’s supposed to play as rambunctious in a brotherly manner, echoing Laurie’s exasperated assaults on Martin, but just comes across as mean and bullying.
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The awkwardness is also a by-product of the film’s hysterical, blue-balled intensity, an aesthetic reflex on Ford’s part in registering the need to relieve its perpetually gathering psychic thunderclouds. Better moments of comedy include Ethan tossing a glass full of rotgut tequila on a fire to save Martin from unthinkingly drinking it, and the full-on physical comedy of Martin’s fistfight with Charlie, upon returning him to find him about to marry Laurie, another moment that converts the larger tension of the drama into an absurd islet, as the two young men battle over their lady. Ford’s unique blend of precision and elision in staging reaches its height in the finale, as Clayton’s posse join Greenhill, Ethan, and Martin in a raid on Scar’s encampment. Ford’s dashing tracking shots move with the charging horses through the camp offer the deliverance of unfettered movement after the tight and stifled precursor, but also with haphazard speed and reckless force: Ethan riding in it to chase down his foe casually knocks over a fleeing Comanche woman. Nobody’s standing around duelling or going down in noble last stands.
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Martin sneaks into Scar’s tent to locate Debbie: the sound of the great war chief cocking his rifle is matched to a mere shot of his legs in the tent flaps. Martin spins, lets loose with his revolver. By the time Ethan arrives, he finds only the oblivious corpse of his foe, felled by the kid. The famous upshot, one of those moments that can make ancient cynics get misty, one that tormented even Jean-Luc Godard with its mysterious impact: Ethan chases down a fleeing, fearful Debbie, only to snatch her up like he might have as a child, cradle her in her arms, and softly suggest, “Let’s go home, Debbie.” Some of the power of this lies in surprise, but also in its subterranean logic. Scar, his mirror, his task, his animus, is dead. Ethan’s concerted rage is spent, and all that’s left is an ageing man clutching the last thing he might call kin in the world. It’s easy to hate Ethan Edwards so often throughout The Searchers, but then you love him, much as Debbie runs in terror from him only to curl up against his chest, like a father who has lapses of inchoate and unknowable darkness at night but returns like the sun in the morning.
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Ford’s 1961 follow-up Two Rode Together would deal explicitly with the problem elided here, as the protagonists of that film would become obliged to help the woman they rescue from living with an Indian tribe overcome stigmatisation as someone beyond the pale, socially and sexually speaking. Ford obsessively examined a schism in his own mindset that was also a schism in his concept of America, albeit one that could also manifest in his portraits of Ireland and Wales and anywhere else. The need to belong to a community, an ordered way of life, a hierarchy, striking sparks against an opposing truth, the desire for freedom, for essential being, for standing beyond the power of the corrupt and the hypocritical, those ignoble foils that always come with society. Younger Ford had happily sent Ringo and Dallas off to be “saved from the blessings of Civilisation” at the end of Stagecoach.
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Older Ford envisions the possibility of a future free of racial neurosis and violent instinct, and knows it’s right, but also knows very well it means the end of something else he cherishes, that great stage upon which his dreams live and die. When the door closes on Ethan, much as it found him, it closes not just upon the character and his embodiment of the Western hero cut off from the settling world, but upon an entire concept of the genre, perhaps even the genre itself. Everything else was just waiting for Sam Peckinpah to come and shoot it full of holes. Ford’s overreaching artistic desire, to create mythic-styled narratives about becoming and finding, here admits at last a failure, a point where some things cannot be contained, reconciled, kneaded into the great American project. History rolls on, leaving its ruins, its dead, its forgotten, heroes and villains all churned together in the dust.

Standard
1970s, Action-Adventure, Western

Jeremiah Johnson (1972)

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Director: Sydney Pollack
Screenwriters: Edward Anhalt, John Milius (uncredited: David Rayfiel)

By Roderick Heath

John Jeremiah Garrison “Liver-Eating” Johnson was one of those authentic characters of the American West’s history who nonetheless occupies a blurred zone between fact and legend. Born in 1824, Johnson became one of the strange breed of wandering trappers and traders called mountain men in Western mythology, after he deserted from the US army during the Mexican-American War. In later years he served during the Civil War, worked in various law enforcement jobs around Montana, and died in Santa Monica, California in 1900, a month after finally entering a retirement home for veterans. In between these reasonably verifiable incidents in his life, Johnson survived by hook and crook, trying his hand in dozens of professions and money-spinning endeavours, becoming the subject of campfire tales and popular legend along the way. The defining event of his life, and his myth, was a twenty-five-year-long blood feud with the Native American Crow nation, sparked when some of their warriors supposedly killed his wife, a woman of the Flathead nation. Johnson supposedly defeated untold numbers of their braves and committed the purposefully blasphemous act according to Crow belief of eating the livers of his felled foes, before eventually making peace with the tribe.
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In the late 1960s Western films began to change radically. After years of being annexed by Italians and over-plied on television, its great stars aging or dead, and many of its fundamental assumptions held in dubiety by the rising new zeitgeist, the genre seemed ready to slide into pompously moribund irrelevance. For a while, however, a fresh, eccentric, wilfully heretical breed of Western film suddenly appeared on the scene, armed with a revisionist outlook and shot through with countercultural questionings of both the historic and current states of America whilst often trying to call back to the cultural roots of the genre with greater authenticity. Sydney Pollack’s take on Johnson’s life isn’t as celebrated today as Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969) or Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1972), but it stands with them as an exemplar of the breed. If Pollack’s adherence to an ethic of chic entertainment eventually made him entirely too safe and tony later in his career, his first decade’s work in particular remains startlingly strong for the way he managed to blend this ethic with the verve of genuinely rich and inventive cinema, achieving rhapsodic intensity in his best work.
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Pollack’s work with actor Robert Redford eventually defined much of both men’s careers, and began with Jeremiah Johnson, with Redford playing a role far out of his familiar character zone and yet echoing through his career to his solo role in 2013’s All Is Lost, where he played a similar self-exiled wanderer who has given up the world of men but finds that self-reliance entails facing great existential terror. Pollack’s film was made in uneasy collaboration with the spikiest of the young talents in New Hollywood, John Milius. A more peculiar collision of talents is hard to imagine. Milius, the self-appointed wild man of the Movie Brats, had steeped himself in frontier and outlaw mythology, and as he kicked off his directing career with Dillinger (1973) he also gained attention writing Jeremiah Johnson for Pollack and The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (1973) for John Huston. Milius was hired by Warner Bros. to try and wrangle a workable script out of Raymond W. Thorp and Robert Bunker’s biography of Johnson, Crow Killer, and accomplished the feat by working in material from Vardis Fisher’s novel Mountain Man. Milius’ love of rambling narratives that move in obedience to the happenstance rhythm of folklore might have seemed a tad too eccentric at first glance and Pollack fired him, hiring the experienced Edward Anhalt in his place during production, only to then be obliged to rehire Milius because only he could handle the stylised, old-timer idiom of the dialogue.
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Jeremiah Johnson became a passion project for Pollack and Redford, who both eventually mortgaged their houses to help get it made, and some of it was shot on Redford’s Utah property. They were rewarded when it became the first Western ever in competition at the Cannes Festival, and became a big, surprise hit. Jeremiah Johnson extended a theme Pollack explored repeatedly as he depicted various periods in history and portrayed deeply alienated individuals at odds with official mythologies in each. Such characters ranged from the pathetically marooned protagonists of Castle Keep and They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (both 1969) and the radicals of The Way We Were (1973), the conscientious spy hero of Three Days of the Condor (1975), the rebellious rodeo man of The Electric Horseman (1979), and the cross-dressing wannabe of Tootsie (1982). Even Pollack’s Oscar-winner Out of Africa (1985) to a certain extent offered a gender-flipped take on Jeremiah Johnson as it portrays Karen Blixen’s introduction to a land that serves as cradle for personal transformation.
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It says as much for the mood of 1972 as much as Pollack’s efficiency in erecting the essentials of the story that it takes little to explain why Johnson wants to leave behind civilisation and the company of human beings for a solitary existence relying on his own muscle and wit (and it might well explain why it feels a tad appealing now, too). A quick glance at Johnson’s faded military trousers, a store sign that invites white men only as customers, and a general sense of disgust with civilisation is quite easy to grasp. Johnson steps off a boat and takes only what he needs to survive up into the Rocky Mountains, “the marrow of the Earth” as one character calls them. Johnson is hardy but inexperienced in fending for himself, and his early travails confirm his lack of bushcraft, his fires doused by snow, his attempts to fish by hand ending in humiliation as he’s watched by a silent, grim-faced Crow warrior on horseback, a man he will later know by the name Paints-His-Shirt-Red (Joaquín Martinez): so pathetic a figure does Johnson cut that the great warrior decides he’s not threat and rides on. Johnson knows his life in the mountains depends on the forbearance of the local native populaces, so he makes a gift of hides he’s collected to Paints-His-Shirt-Red. He obtains a longed-for article, a .50 calibre Hawken rifle, when he comes across the frozen body of a predecessor named Hatchet Jack, who, with legs broken in a struggle with a bear, took the time to pen a will explaining the story and bequeathing the weapon to whoever finds it.
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Johnson soon encounters the prickly, long-experienced mountain man ‘Bear-Claw’ Lapp (Will Geer), who specialises in hunting grizzly bears for their hides, and chews out Johnson upon their first meeting for scaring away one of his quarries with his blundering ways. Bear-Claw gives Johnson a rude introduction to his own sense of humour as well as the vicissitudes of grizzly hunting as he deliberately lets one chase him into his cabin and leaves it to Johnson to deal with the critter. Johnson nonetheless sticks with Bear-Claw for a time as the old-timer schools him in survival in the mountains. After he takes his leave, Johnson encounters a tragic scene: a frontier cabin with two children left dead and scalped by some Blackfoot marauders, leaving their mother (Allyn Ann McLerie, in a brief but extraordinary performance) a distraught, unhinged wreck. When she threatens the interloping Johnson with a rifle, he manages to placate her (“Woman, I am your friend.”) and helps bury for the dead children, prompting a cruel miniature lampoon of John Ford as mother and man sing a ragged version of “Shall We Gather at the River” over the graves: the “civilising” march, which Ford so often used that hymn to denote as having arrived in the frontier, here has outpaced itself in the ugliest way possible. Johnson finds she has a third child, a young boy who can’t or won’t speak, and the woman thrusts the lad upon him with a vague assignment to get him away so she can maintain her mournful vigil. Johnson takes the boy in hand, naming him Caleb.
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Johnson’s picaresque encounters see him, in a fashion anticipatory of Steven Spielberg’s fascination for pick-up families, piece together the rudiments of a quasi-normal life, forging odd and spiky friendships with men like Bear-Claw and shaven-pated nut-job trapper Del Gue (Stefan Gieresch), performing neighbourly acts for the crazy lady (his using a boot sole as an improvised hinge for the cabin door is one of the film’s marvels of throwaway detail), before finally gaining a son in the form of Caleb and then a wife and setting up a home. Johnson’s first encounter with Gue is a surreal moment as he and Caleb find him buried up to his neck in sand, victim of robbery and misuse by the same band of marauding Blackfoot warriors that killed Caleb’s siblings. Johnson digs Gue out and agrees to help him take back his stolen articles when they locate the sleeping band, but Gue starts a fight with them, forcing Johnson to help until all their foes are dead. A band of Flathead braves comes upon them and Gue transfers his collected scalps onto Johnson’s horse in fear they might want to repay the favour, but instead Johnson finds himself celebrated for the feat of slaying the wanton band. When he accidentally commits a faux pas by gifting the scalps to the head of the Flathead tribe, Two-Tongues Lebeaux (Richard Angarola), a gift that’s hard to match, Gue warns they’re at risk of being killed, until Lebeaux gets the great idea of marrying Johnson to his daughter Swan.
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“I see I missed another war down there,” Bear-Claw notes as he sees Johnson’s military trousers, offering the promise of blissful indifference to the drop-out who can make a go of it in the mountains. Later, Johnson has to ask whether or not the war he fled is over yet. Jeremiah Johnson contemplates this corner of the American landscape as a place of terrible but rarely entirely arbitrary violence. People kill for many reasons in the course of the film, for the cause of survival, defence of territory, for revenge and points of honour and even an eccentric spiritual cause; but it’s a deeply personal kind of violence all the way, rather than the anonymous clash of civilisations and abstract forces of history, which is one reason why, for all the woe he suffers and exacts, Johnson still prefers this way of life to any other. The narrative describes a great concentric circle that moves in accord with Johnson’s peripatetic ways, early scenes meeting their mirror later in the film, those early episodes gaining new meaning and import, as Johnson returns to places and reencounters people he met along the way, and experiences things he previously only glimpsed as an onlooker in his attempt to remove himself from the flow of history and society. The mountain man gives way to the settler; the land of the Crows becomes the Department of Colorado. The land gives unto Johnson unexpected bounties and burdens and then takes them away again with the same curt beneficence.
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Jeremiah Johnson bears distinct traces of the odd and volatile blend of creative sensibilities involve in its making – Milius’ ornery admiration for outsized figures at war with the world, Redford’s quiet, mindful observation and regard for setting, Pollack’s romanticism – and yet it never feels divided against itself. The film mediates ideas and images Pollack had parsed already in his films as well anticipating works to come. His interest in characters trying urgently to find a place for themselves in the world, and finding they can step in and out of roles with surreal mutability, echoes the gritty social drama of This Property Is Condemned (1966) and They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? as well as the multiverse fantasia of Castle Keep, whilst The Electric Horseman would transplant the drama to a contemporary setting. Pollack’s suggestions of time and being in a state of flux as human nature wars with itself explored in Castle Keep recur here too, particularly in the sense of time in a gyre, of events repeating over and over according to cycles of nature and human perversity. The eagle embodying some spiritual force that haunted the soldiers of Castle Keep returns here to appeal to Johnson and warn him as it wings high above, seen vanishing in the mountain peaks where Johnson will soon face a consequential test.
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Since Ford’s Rio Grande (1950), with its band of troubadour choruses, and particularly High Noon (1952) with its faux-folk ballad theme song explaining the film’s essence, many a Western had aspired to entwining musical and cinematic narrative. This idea had a particular appeal in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s in the wake of a folk music boom, and many of the Western films around this time aspired to the state of achieving a cinematic texture closely akin to such music, a moody, low-key, ambling place that immerses completely in a way of feeling and seeing. McCabe and Mrs. Miller, with its soundtrack of carefully inserted Leonard Cohen hits and Bob Dylan’s score for Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973) came close, but Jeremiah Johnson matched them with a specially crafted soundtrack that entwines deeply with the onscreen images and presaging motifs, like “the day that you tarry is the day that you lose” for a hero whose dedication to movement lends him the aspect of a holy fool. Purportedly because it was a cheaper option than hiring a name composer, actors Tim McIntire and John Rubinstein successfully sold Pollack on using their score with interpolated songs, charting Johnson’s life passage playing over images of his physical journeying in low, sonorous phrases. All this leads to the totemic final sung line, “And some folks say he’s up there still,’” as Johnson passes through a metaphysical veil to become the spirit of the land itself.
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The song scoring is particularly vital as otherwise Jeremiah Johnson could be one of the quietest mainstream films ever made, with long passages with scarcely any dialogue spoken or with untranslated Native American speech, and Pollack depending almost entirely on the rhythm of the editing and behaviour to hold the screen: he referred to it as his silent film. The audience learns the arts of mountain survival alongside Johnson. Pollack’s developing instincts as filmmaker for a mass audience nonetheless emerge in touches like the bear scene, where he offers an effect faintly reminiscent of Looney Tunes cartoons by simply watching the cabin from outside with the tumult within registering on the soundtrack. The cinematography by Duke Callaghan always considers the characters in relationship with their environment, the great cathedral domes of the mountains crusted in snow beckoning with promises of the sublime, the snow-packed alpine forests and grey, gritty scrublands. All have a specific meaning in terms of the human drama as well as foraging, as Johnson’s yearnings for escape aim always towards the high peaks but demand hunting for subsistence down where the animals lurk, and finally when Johnson drifts into something like wedded bliss he builds a cabin down on the flatlands. When he finally does venture into the highest stretches of the mountains, Johnson finds himself doomed to disturb a taboo, because communing with the sky is a pleasure reserved for eagles and spirits.
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Johnson finds unexpected accord with others who share the land with him even though they’re all seemingly defined by the same distaste for company; even the mad woman and her husband seem to have been driven out to the middle of nowhere (which is always someone else’s somewhere) in obedience to impulse that has no name. The likes of Bear-Claw, who admits that he’s never been able to adapt to a domestic situation and remains bewildered by the thought (“I never could find no tracks in a woman’s heart.”) and the shambolic Del Gue are weirdos suited for the wilds, whilst Johnson is still young and retains the reflexes of a romantic hero, much as he tries to bury it under a taciturn surface. The gentle humour, close to a romantic comedy, of Johnson’s unwilling marriage and setting up home with Swan and Caleb, sees Johnson gobsmacked by erotic contact (“Lord!”) and contending with forces he’s not too happy with, like religion, as Swan comes from a Christianised tribe who insists on saying grace. Johnson’s occasional slips into absurd boastfulness with Bear-Claw and then his serendipitous wife and son (“Great hunter!…Fine figure of a man!…That is all you need to know.”) betray his intense unease with company and also the constantly noted tension between his pretences to haughty self-reliance and the knockabout way he achieves it.
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The longing for a Zen-like deliverance from the bawling pressure of American life Pollack would return to repeatedly comes closest to being realised in Jeremiah Johnson, but also terminates in the fractious violence that results when ways of life collide. There’s an echo of this in a pivotals scene in The Yakuza (1974) in which Richard Jordan’s young gunman meditates upon his Japanese lover’s tea making skills moments before a gang of hoodlums breaks down the door. Johnson’s journey can be seen as a logical end-point for the countercultural idyll of going back to nature, and as a wistful conservative fantasy for the days of self-reliance. Pollack depicts the process of Johnson, Swan, and Caleb fusing together into a family and constructing a life for themselves with a dash of cosiness that might seem a bit too Little House on the Prairie at points, although it’s a cosiness that eventually turns out to have a ruthless price. Pollack’s sense of rhythmic visual storytelling and feel for detail certainly never desert him. Life together sees Johnson absorbing Swan’s language to the point where they can converse, the couple clearly genuinely in love, and Johnson taking pride in Caleb learning the arts of trapping and other vicissitudes of frontier life.
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Casting Redford as Johnson had a counterintuitive quality, particularly considering Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood had been considered for the role before him. Redford’s screen persona was usually considered anything but hard-bitten, with his golden boy looks and urbane, upright, but slightly cagey aura, and the period brogue sounds odd coming out of his mouth at first. But his presence soon proves vital, as he imbues Johnson with an everyman quality. He’s no giant frontier warrior who seems fittingly born to the wilds, but an ordinary guy who slowly but surely grows into the role he’s chosen, and there’s an almost shocking sense of revelation when he finally shaves for Swan and Redford’s handsome mug is revealed again. Wry deflations continue, as Johnson does the unthinkable and shaves off his beard to save Swan from being scratched by it, only to find she doesn’t recognise him, and their domestic bliss is frustrated by annoyances like scarce game and Swan’s unimpressive cooking skills. Nonetheless Johnson finds tranquillity in a life that seems to be the opposite of what he wanted, enacting, after a fashion, a version of the real Johnson’s life that doubles as a parable for the unexpected way life tends to accumulate around us.
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Johnson’s reverie is shattered when a cavalry unit arrives outside his cabin, and for a long moment he stares in bewilderment at the commander, Lt. Mulvey (Jack Colvin), and a reverend, Lindquist (Paul Benedict), before laughing and explaining to them he hasn’t heard so much English spoken to him in a long time. The soldiers have sought him out because he knows the land and can guide them to a party of settlers lost and probably snowbound up in a high mountain pass, and Johnson agrees to help. A unique diptych is offered for Johnson’s perusal: Mulvey, with his dedication to service and sense of necessity (“You say you have to hunt – I have to try.”) represents the best of civilisation and Lindquist, with his casual racism and self-righteous disdain for Johnson’s sensibilities and anything outside the purview of God and empire, embodies the worst. Crisis arrives when Johnson finds the path he’s leading the unit on leads through a Crow burial ground. Johnson becomes afraid of what offending the Crow might entail, Lindquist advocates bullishly moving through, and Lindquist feels bound to do what will fulfil his orders. Johnson reluctantly acquiesces, presaging a strikingly tense and eerie sequence as the horse soldiers proceed in deathly quiet across a somnolent, snowclad land amidst vaulted skeletons grinning at the sky, the feeling of deadly violation and broken covenants all but palpable.
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Johnson succeeds in guiding the soldiers to the lost party, but panics at some subliminal cue as he returns through the burial ground and speeds home. Pollack stages one of his greatest sequences here as he portrays Johnson’s dash along the last few metres to his cabin with a hand-held camera shot, breaking upon a scene of carnage as Swan and Caleb both lie dead and scalped. Johnson remains sitting for a night and a day in silent meditation before his horse wandering around outside rouses him. Johnson tenderly places Swan and Caleb together on a bed and sets the cabin afire, watching it burn down as their pyre before setting out after the Crow war party responsible. When he finds them encamped, Johnson strides into their camp, taking them by surprise through his sheer audacity, and a whirlwind of violence is unleashed as Johnson shoots two and smites others. Johnson only comes out of his berserker state when the last one stands off against him and starts singing his death song, and Johnson lets him flee. Something like justice, blended in with primal revenge, but Johnson soon learns the cost is a vendetta as the Crow send out warriors one by one to take him on, dogging his days and nights.
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Jeremiah Johnson reveals itself as, in part, the tragedy of a man who gains exactly what he wanted at first even as life gave him other possibilities. A late scene sees Johnson reunited with Bear-Claw and the two men struggling to work out what month it is. But it’s also a tale that uses Johnson’s life as a parable for mastery over self, the necessity life sometimes presents of picking up from square one again and making sense of it according to a private compass, and the narrative undercuts the idea anyone can live a life separate from humanity, as Johnson’s initial status as onlooker at the crazy woman’s calamity gives way to his own. The land itself is bounty, arena, church, and trap for all the characters: Johnson’s late encounter with Del Gue sees him deliver an ecstatic, poetic paean to the glory of the Rockies, a land worth all suffering to experience and dwell in, in the film’s most Milius-esque moment. The film’s gyre-like structure sees Johnson encountering his comrades in solitude and returning to the crazy woman’s shack, where he finds a shrine set up to him by the Crow and a new family led by a quaky patriarch named Qualen (Matt Clark), representing the clumsy, clueless, yet unstoppable tide of colonisation: they might be doomed to like their predecessors end up strewn around like gory confetti, but there will be more, and more.
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The slaying of Swan and Caleb was a remarkably dark and risky twist even by the brusque standards of early ‘70s cinema, however demanded by the nominal historical record and leavened by proto-Death Wish (1974) satisfaction in Johnson’s swift retribution, reflecting the way the film sprung from, and spoke to, a specific anxiety of its era about roles of masculinity and fear of social breakdown. But eye-for-an-eye morality quickly descends into a self-perpetuating bloodbath, albeit one that both Johnson and his Crow enemies feel represents a deeper challenge. White man and indigenous man are doomed to ruthlessly battle, but there’s a sense of unity in opposites that points the way to the film’s last frame. It’s not the cheeriest of portraits of the old west, but it’s certainly greatly superior to the laboured, audience-flattering parables of Dances With Wolves (1990) and its ilk in suggesting a tentative understanding between Native American and European emerging from ruthless struggle for domain. The film’s last segment is often criticised, but I feel it’s perhaps the best thing Pollack ever did, as he depicts Johnson’s transformation from man to myth in a dazzling montage, Johnson battling various adversaries. Such contention is glimpsed in a string of Pollack and Callaghan’s most technically masterful shots, as Johnson is glimpsed atop a great boulder, a lens flare grazing across the screen as his opponent is felled and tumbled down a rock, somehow encapsulating all the epic flavour of folklore into one frame.
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The montage ends with Johnson swatted off his horse by an ambusher’s bullet, and another amazing shot results as Johnson plays possum, lying in wait for his enemy with one eye wide and waiting as the warrior pads cautiously up to his fallen form. Johnson refuses to be ousted from his chosen home and the Native Americans pay tribute to Johnson in the form of the shrine, which each warrior going out to meet him adds to, for Johnson learns he’s become a great ennobling enemy to the Crow and a fabled figure to the settlers. Although their duels apparently have little to do on the surface with the war of civilisations unfolding on the American landscape, still they become spiritual avatars for that clash, locked in a perpetual death brawl that ends not in triumph but in exhausted, wary, mutual respect. Johnson sees Paints-His-Shirt-Red salute him from a distance, and Johnson, after a long moment of contemplation, returns the salute with a smile: Pollack freezes the frame and fades out, using only that song lyric as a capstone. It’s one of the most understated movie endings ever, but also an enormously moving one, as it condenses a sense of struggle becoming accord, chaos birthing understanding, hatred yielding to brotherhood, the crude and terrible business of life touched with a breath of the eternal.

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1970s, Auteurs, Western

McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971)

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Director: Robert Altman

By Roderick Heath

Robert Altman’s vision of the American frontier is a dream welling out the sea, given raw form upon a shore that is sometimes mud, sometimes ice. His hero breezes into town a vague and ambiguous apparition and dissolves back into the landscape as his life blood leaks out. The aesthetic is at once near-mystical in its evocation of the past and also a tragicomedy in a key of shambling diminuendo, fever dream, opium fancy, reverie in an on old tintype. Yet it’s rooted in a thoroughly physical, tactile sense of being – mud, snow, gold, booze, bodily fluids, history written in such matter, the stuff people ingest and exude. John McCabe (Warren Beatty) rides out of the woods, sizes up the situation as he lights a cigar, and takes his leisurely time making his way into the saloon of Sheehan (Rene Auberjonois), watched by a ragtag collective of miners who make up the population of this small frontier colony somewhere near the Pacific Northwest coast, a town that will become known as Presbyterian Church for its most beloved structure, and yet which grows out of history’s muckiest compost heap.
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The miners are intrigued and anxious, wondering if the stranger brings trouble or excitement. McCabe seems to be merely a professional gambler, setting himself up in Sheehan’s tavern and swiftly contending with the owner’s pretences to businesslike authority, listening to his idea of a deal and turning it down, before getting down to business. But Sheehan has heard rumours, rumours he gleefully repeats, that this guy McCabe is nicknamed Pudgy who used to be a gunfighter and shot a man named Bill Roundtree with a derringer. A thousand westerns kick off with the same situation, of course. The stranger with a past breezes into town, hoping to leave that past behind and remake himself as just another man on the make in a land full of them. Where Altman’s specific touch manifests is in his approach to the cliché. McCabe is an oddball, a guy who talks to himself, cracks crude jokes, charms and wheels and deals entirely by the seat of his pants. He’s smart enough to see in this collection of shacks on a hillside, with a stream of wealth being hewn out of the ground steady enough to support an entrepreneur’s readiness to service men with things to spend that wealth on.
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Altman identifies with McCabe and fears for him as an independent impresario and as a kind of showman. The key to his popularity and success as a gambler is not mere skill with cards but the convivial and entertaining aura he weaves about him, drawing people to his table, eager to win and lose in his company. His reflexive mastery of his business is casually hinted as he makes sure where the back door to Sheehan’s saloon is before setting up his game. But McCabe seems to be tired of drifting and the tenuousness of his trade and has got himself a case of genuine, certified, 100-proof, all-American ambition. McCabe’s idea, as far as it goes, is to start meeting the needs of these men who labour far away from community and women with the things they most want and which Sheehan isn’t already providing them with, that is, everything that isn’t overpriced hooch and a filthy bunk for the night. So he travels back down to the nearest developed town, Bearpaw, and buys a trio of prostitutes, and sets them up in tents, each denoted by a sign: 2-for-1 Lil (Jackie Crossland), Pinto Kate (Elizabeth Murphy), and Almighty Alma (Carey Lee McKenzie). But the difficulties in running such an operation are soon made perplexingly clear to him as the mousy and silent Alma, for whatever reason, starts bellowing and trying to stab one of her clients with his own Bowie knife. What he needs in turn comes into town shortly after, riding on a laboriously trundling steam tractor: Mrs Constance Miller (Julie Christie).
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Amidst the many gems rough and polished scattered throughout Altman’s career, McCabe & Mrs. Miller has slowly resolved from the fog of initial bemusement to be regarded as perhaps his greatest achievement. Altman’s phase as a major film artist of untrammelled regard and liberty stretched from the compromised but fascinating Countdown (1968), gained traction with the huge hit MASH (1970) and reached a highpoint of acclaim with Nashville (1975), with many oddities and gems in between, to the end of the 1970s. Altman’s career crashed against the shoals of a changed audience mood, an increasingly lockstep film industry, and his own restless artistry. He spent the following decade or so in a critical and financial wilderness, before a resurgence of patchy brilliance in the 1990s. Altman’s rude reassessment of American social and historical mores and mythology was frequently leveraged through determined assaults on film genre frameworks, and McCabe & Mrs. Miller fits squarely both into Altman’s private genre of satirically inverted twists on familiar storytelling modes and received wisdoms, and into the run of darker, probing, guilty revisionist portraits of the Old West and American history that sprang up in the late ‘60s and extended into the following decade.
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The very making of McCabe & Mrs. Miller evokes the rare and rich window in the history of the movie business it exemplifies as an artwork, some of the hottest talents in Hollywood collaborating on this strange, shaggy, never-never excursion, stranded on a muddy hillside outsider Vancouver. A collective of draft-fleeing Americans helping build the sets in the backgrounds of shots. Altman, still a recent escapee from the treadmill of week-in-week-out TV work, a director who had scored an unexpected blockbuster hit a year earlier now determined to push his credit as far as it would reach and beyond, and work out just what his new-found style was good for. A pair of tabloid-bait movie star lovers at the centre giving career-best performances, the classy Oscar-winner playing the iron-plated whore and her mogul-star boyfriend playing a half-smart tinhorn, lost purely in art as a way of life, playing people who are linked personally and professionally and yet remained fatefully alienated.
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Altman himself called McCabe & Mrs. Miller, an adaptation of writer Edmund Naughton’s 1959 novel, an “anti-western,” a description that seems both acute and yet also something of a miscue in terms of what the film actually does. On a narrative level, it’s actually a perfect western, essaying basic themes and conflicts that run like a seam of ore through the genre canon: the arrival of the white man’s industry in the wilderness, the founding of civic life and enterprise and slow achievement of order and community, and the battle of the lone maverick against the forces of bullying power. The finale, which sees the people of Presbyterian Church band together to save the structure that gives it its name and which embodies a yearned-for status and promise whilst ignoring the travails of the man to whom the community owes much of its existence, has a tragic irony that takes up where John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) left off, whilst the characters and aspects of the story evoke the people presented in Stagecoach (1939) who are obliged to keep a good distance ahead of the encroachment of mature civilisation because their habits, knowledge, and trades are inimical to the pretences of that civilisation.
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McCabe & Mrs. Miller’s disassembly of the traditional template is more one of tone and conceptual counterpoint than of plot. The western had been transformed greatly in the previous decade, chiefly by the influence of Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah, and their more authentic concept of the Old West as a place that ran on the exploitation of raw, easily accessed elements, both natural and human, in a manner the older, straight-laced westerns could never portray. But Altman went further in completely dismantling their mythologies of macho potency and freedom. Altman’s method of shooting the film as the set for the town was steadily built up around the ears of cast and crew, and his focus on Presbyterian Church as a community, mediated the happenstance fellowship of MASH’s jerry-built hospital and the panoramic studies of communities in his signature works like Nashville or Short Cuts (1993). But McCabe & Mrs Miller’s dreamlike mood, the sensation of an experience half-remembered, makes it less a precursor to his panoplies than to the dreamy, interiorised worlds Altman would venture into for his less popular but more personal works like That Cold Day in the Park (1969), Images (1972) and 3 Women (1977). Narrative drifts along on the soundtrack’s Leonard Cohen songs like the snow flitters on the wind.
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The audience has seen Miller before McCabe, in the background as he negotiates with a Bearpaw pimp, moving about with a taciturn determination to close herself off, but apparently overhearing enough to see an angle. The way Miller wolfs down her food on McCabe’s dime suggests that she hasn’t been doing that well, and she like him needs that very specific tide pool formed by history, the wide-open town ready for her peculiar arts, to truly prosper. But Miller is snappier, cannier, faster-paced as an entrepreneur than McCabe. Perhaps that’s because her looks are a transportable ore that needs no mining or refinement, holding value so long as she keeps following the frontier, but also leave her perpetually patronised. McCabe has to charm, to pause and weave a space about himself to be effective; Miller must barge through. Miller presages a later development in capitalist development than McCabe, who profits initially through the pastimes men pursue without women; Miller lays down a template to create a hub where one part of business creates another, by building a bathhouse men want to use to wash and get ready to then venture on to a “proper sporting house with clean linen.” Miller fends off McCabe’s stammering protests of business knowledge with an impressive display of hard-won acumen, how to deal with such bottom-line-affecting problems as lesbianism and outbreaks of religiosity and venereal disease. The Harrison Shaughnessy Mining Company arrives as the next stage, impersonal and all-consuming. It doesn’t need allure or skill.
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Altman’s vision in Countdown of the first moon landings as a collection of metal husks and littered dead bodies gave his own, sarcastically desolate rough draft for a future of space colonisation, prefiguring his very similar concept of the historical version. Human ventures are flimsy, ridiculous tilts at eternity and usually result in disaster, but civilisation still accumulates. The populace, entirely white and male at first, is men who dance by the camera in their own little eccentric spaces – the bartender (Wayne Grace) who wants to experience new adventures in moustaches and his foil, the grouchy miner Smalley (John Schuck), McCabe’s bespectacled foreman who makes excuses and parrots his boss – and make their living for the sake of having something to spend on what McCabe and Miller offer them, and they’re boyishly happy to be enfolded by the bawdy embrace of the whorehouse. As the town grows, its makeup becomes more diverse and sophisticated. A dapper and gentlemanly black barber, Sumner Washington and his wife (Rodney Gage and Lili Francks) arrive, whilst the new selection of prostitutes Miller brings in just behind them are a cross-section of ethnicities from the various immigrant communities flooding into America – Scots, Irish, German, Chinese. It’s Altman’s seditious take on the way such cross-sections were employed in classic Hollywood westerns and war movies: the melting pot where everyone’s the son of a whore.
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Miller’s bawdy-house provides a locus of free-floating sexual abandon reminiscent of the camp in MASH, although there’s no us-and-them divide between besetting proceedings. There are no voices of onerous religion or authority, although there’s also no order. Terrible crimes occur but go unpunished because they’re just part of the texture of life out here. Altman unspools absurd schoolboy theorising about the anatomy of Chinese women over footage of the newly-arrived whores gleefully bathing, a collection of Renoir nudes in all their fleshy, raucous joie-de-vivre – or is it Courbet’s origin of the world, turned sideways? Good authority is found wanting: “A guy like Amos Linville isn’t gonna spend vice dollars just to find out something that isn’t true.” Either way, the Chinese prostitute costs $1.50, whilst Mrs Miller can be had for 5.00, but there’s no damn way John McCabe can be taken for a measly $5,500. McCabe is chagrined when part of his business vastly outperforms another, the whorehouse a machine for making money that dwarfs whiskey-selling, the realm he controls. Miller is breezy in her indifference to any familiar moral or social structure or mode of rhetoric. McCabe’s habits of muttering to himself return, Miller his bete-noir and beauty, true love and bitch queen, fending him and making him cough up his five bucks for the night but possibly adoring this weird lug. McCabe is swiftly infatuated with Miller but also identifies her with the forces of a world he can scarcely comprehend: “I’ve got poetry in me,” he declares in one of his monologue rants, “You’re freezin’ my soul.” His leitmotif is “money and pain.”
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McCabe’s attempt to regain the upper hand when two representatives of Harrison Shaughnessy come to make him an offer sets him onto a path towards a lethal confrontation, anticipated in the joke he tells the two emissaries, Sears (Michael Murphy) and Hollander (Antony Holland), about a frog eaten by an eagle who then pleads not to be defecated out at a great height. McCabe’s pride as a successful entrepreneur, a big fish in a small pond, is truly worth more than money to him, and even when Miller has told him the danger he’s courting, he still can’t bring himself to accept an offer. He assumes business is a process of negotiation, but it’s actually a monologue of power and need. A food chain of hype is evinced throughout: at first McCabe easily outwits Sheehan’s deal-making and has other men repeating his words in awe, where later McCabe will be the one who can’t make deals and finishes up parroting a fancy Lawyer’s (William Devane) folderol about taking over big monopolies and trusts. McCabe’s fate is sealed by his own posturing, but also by pure chance: Holland is peeved he’s been sent out on such an errand and can’t be bothered hanging around for more negotiating. There’s a quality of ruthless wit in Christie’s performance, in the way her Miller’s hard glaze of disappointment and dread after listening to McCabe’s first explanation of his encounter with the emissaries gives way to an expression of indulgent adoration when he returns, a shift enabled more by a big dose of opium smoke than his hopeful tidings.
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Young mail-order bride Ida (Shelley Duvall) arrives in town along with Miller to be wed to the much older Bart Coyle (Burt Remson), only for Bart to get himself killed trying to defend her honour against someone who takes her for another whore. So Ida goes to Miller to become a prostitute, to Miller’s assurance she’s only performing the same job for better pay. These shifting roles and places on the pecking order amplify the basic conceit of That Cold Day in the Park, where the predatory young man finds himself finally prey to an insane woman, and would echo on through Altman’s prime phase, his fascination with people who find their identities and memories mutable, often influenced by hierarchies of power and ability, a constant fact of life in the rambunctious republic, prone to suddenly and surreally inverting. Where Images and 3 Women would toy with this idea in terms of gender and lifestyle and The Long Goodbye in terms of friendship and the roles of sucker and wiseguy, McCabe & Mrs. Miller does is explicitly in romantic and capitalistic terms. How many lovers has Miller lost to their own egotism and miscalculation? “I should’ve known,” she mutters ruefully when she listens to McCabe’s spiel after rejecting Sears and Holland’s offer. No wonder she prefers drifting off in ball of opium smoke, where glittering baubles hide worlds within worlds and the present can’t hurt you because it already feels like a very distant past.
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Altman’s feel for identity’s mutability tied in with his fascination for theatricality itself, the act of playing roles, an interest naturally bound up with his love for letting his cast weave their own roles in settings that collapsed the boundaries between movie set and living organism. Altman would go on to transform Buffalo Bill Cody into a more famous and exalted version of McCabe in Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or; Sitting Bull’s History Lesson (1976), struggling to massage the chaos of history and its living avatars into the neat demarcations of legend and showmanship, his façade of jaunty success becoming a terrible rictus grin. Later Altman would step through the looking glass in The Player (1992) to consider things from the point of view of the big shot who nonetheless commits to the same game of identities, destroying the artist and appropriating his life. At least McCabe never faces that kind of indignity or dishonesty; although Altman pitches his eventual decision to battle Harrison Shaughnessy’s gunmen somewhere in the no-man’s-land between earnestness and lampoon because of McCabe’s sheepish self-recrimination in misjudging his position, he does nonetheless put up an awfully good fight. That McCabe proves ultimately to be a stranger, more ambiguous figure than he seems is both a surprise but also entirely in keeping with this theme; no-one plays the same part all the time in life, unless they have no actual identity.
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Vilmos Zsigmond’s groundbreaking photography helped define the look of other westerns for the following decade and beyond, using film rendered slightly foggy before shooting, giving images a ghostly feel as if the film texture itself is having trouble remembering the images and people placed on it. There are flashes of the kind of lyrical, pictorial beauty prized in the look of films from its time, coming in the same way they tend to come at us in life, as brief glimpses that suddenly compel. They’re brief and mixed in with muddy interiors loaned faint honeyed warmth from the lamps and film grain fuzz threatens to swallow up the good-looking stars, where the saloon denizens loom like characters in one of Goya’s black room paintings. Everything seems a shifting, shapeless dramatic landscape coalescing like the snow in the finale: the adamantine stature of the framings of Ford and Howard Hawks and their brethren have given way to a camera that drifts and idles eventually finds its tiny focal points.
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These moments of elucidating precision abruptly glint in the morass, like the camera movement that zeroes in on Miller’s grim and pensive expression amongst the singing mourners at Bart’s funeral as McCabe goes to talk to a menacing-looking stranger on a horse who rides in when they’re expecting trouble from Harrison Shaughnessy. This shot lays bare the whole of Miller and McCabe’s relationship, the veneer of stoic distance and the quietly gnawing mutual awareness, one that’s been quietly knitting together in a series of shambling interludes in which McCabe tries to make courtly advances on Miller only to be shut out or hindered or displaced by a john. This shot also contextualises the finale’s very last cut between McCabe and Miller in their mutually prostrate states, still linked and still distinct. Habits and peculiarities are glimpsed, McCabe’s breakfast of a raw egg in liquor, Miller’s delight in reading. Panoramas suddenly resolve, describing character and power relations, as when Sheehan is glimpsed reclining with a prostitute, smeared in cream in bawdy indulgence, on one side of a frame with the antiseptic duo of Sears and Holland in the other, signalling an alliance in aims that nonetheless presage entirely different ends.
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Altman’s use of three Cohen songs from his debut album is one of those touches that divides viewers, given Cohen’s morose lyrics and insistent, scuttling melodies can grate or mesmerise depending on your receptivity. But it’s hard to deny they fit the film as not merely written for it but in it. They lend the images coherence and unity in knitting an evocative emotional context under which Altman’s vignettes can play out requiring no further context. The film almost becomes a musical in this regard, making it weird kin to an equally anarchic version of the west, if purveyed in a very different style, in Joshua Logan’s Paint Your Wagon (1969). The Cohen songs’ melancholic romanticism accords with this landscape where relationships are defined by transience and no hint of rigid moralism has yet descended, where people drift in and out of each-other’s arms and lives, where the wind carries with it the faint ring of chimes mindful of a lost time of happiness. Stephen Foster’s standard “Beautiful Dreamer” is heard repeatedly, its gently sauntering melody redolent of bygone charm, and the title could certainly be said to describe Altman’s people. But he’s not quite that sentimental: he offers the song more as the mode in the period through which his characters understand themselves, their lingering courtly pretences and romanticism, even the most degraded prostitute or labourer.
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Even the hints of religious imagery and abstracted spirituality in Cohen’s songs accords well with the aspect parodying religious myth (carried over from MASH’s Buñuel-derived Da Vinci spoof) as McCabe becomes a cold-climate Christ figure, sacrificed to communal selective blindness and the religion of business. The church that gives the town its name seems irrelevant to its daily needs, needs fulfilled instead by McCabe and Miller, but this is brutally inverted as McCabe finds his shotgun appropriated by the church’s self-appointed guardian, who orders McCabe out of the church with cold and punitive purpose as he tries to hide their whilst eluding the assassins. Only then the pastor is blown apart by a gunman, mistaken for his quarry, and the church catches fire from spilt, ignited lantern oil, a disaster that brings out the townsfolk to save the building whilst McCabe and his enemies continue to battle unnoticed.
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Altman’s sociological bent extends to a delight in the paraphernalia in a past that’s not simply historic but becoming something else, as Presbyterian Church moves with blink-or-miss-it speed out of medieval landscape into the dawn of modernity. Altman was chasing Peckinpah in this, as his old west encountered the day of motor cars and machine guns in The Wild Bunch (1969), but Altman goes for less urgent markers, quainter and clunkier devices. Music is made on fiddles and flutes but also now from mechanical proto-jukeboxes, the brothel clients and the ladies dancing to the tinkling strains of a gleeful novelty, horses are displaced by the laborious but steady and relentless chug of steam locomotion. Michael Cimino, in Heaven’s Gate (1980), and Martin Scorsese with Gangs of New York (2002), would take up Altman’s attempts to encompass the idea of a country becoming. At the same time Altman plays an extended game with the western’s argot of mythologising and immortalisation in rumour that would also provide seeds for the likes of Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven (1992), as McCabe is wrapped in mystique from his first vision. He’s the man with the past, the man who shot so and so, the gunfighter and card sharp, except he seems increasingly unlikely to worthy of it, before the very end seems to confirm it was all true, at least in some dimension.
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The second half of the film resolves into a slightly more conventional narrative form and offers a variation on a hallowed western movie plot, as McCabe encounters the emissaries of Harrison Shaughnessy and then must cope with the company’s hired guns. Butler (Millais), Kid (Manfred Schulz), and Breed (Jace Van Der Veen), are three cast-iron killers who intimidate the locals whilst awaiting their moment, whilst McCabe gears up to take them on after realising there’s no way to buy them off or gain the law’s aid. Altman’s history isn’t written in ritualised square-offs and chain-lightning gunfights but in shots in the back and battles of wits, hidden weapons and concealed positions, in outmatched heroes and villains who like to gun down hapless strangers. Altman offers his take on the infamous scene in George Stevens’ Shane (1953) where Jack Palance’s thug guns down Elisha Cook’s farmer. Here the affable, horny cowboy (Keith Carradine) McCabe initially mistook for a goon but who’s been happily rogering all the girls in Miller’s brothel is accosted by the Kid, at first bullied and then wheedled into showing his gun, a gesture the Kid uses as an excuse to shoot him down. Altman’s cold dissection of Stevens’ model swaps black-clad menace who gives his foe a slight chance for a baby-faced psychopath who could also be a schoolyard bully, the lowest form of life in Altman’s book who also happens to be everywhere, who gives none at all.
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Butler on the other hand is a gentlemanly British raconteur who likes to regale people who tactics for killing off unwanted Chinese labourers, who whose own hard edge is made patently clear to McCabe as he makes a show of being affably interested in what he has to say before assuring him there’s no more deals to be made. Sheehan hands him ammunition to taunt McCabe by getting him to pretend to be a friend of a friend of Bill Roundtree. The subsequent scene of McCabe’s visit to Devane’s Lawyer in Bearpaw provides a spot of modishly satirical pot-shot at pompous mouthpieces who emit high-flown rhetoric that conceals a multitude of offences, and helps close the circle on McCabe’s displacement as rhetorical kingpin, but it also feels tonally at odds with the greater part of Altman’s achievement, a hangover of Altman’s momentary stardom as a hipster wag worked out in MASH and Brewster McCloud (1970). Sometimes when watching McCabe & Mrs. Miller I tend to wish that Altman had minimised what plot there is even more, and left a movie that exists entirely in a key of running-watercolour images and the nudging strains of Cohen’s songs.
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Then again, the nagging pull of the film’s dreamy, instantly nostalgic texture is part of Altman’s trap, a movie that unfolds via the blissed-out textures of Miller’s drug fancies but which unfolds in an altogether crueller world, the one McCabe eventually leaves her in to try and live and die in. The climactic scenes see McCabe playing an elaborate game of hide and seek with the gunmen, trying to use his knowledge of the town to his advantage in eluding and ambushing his enemies. His tactics work, but not quite well enough: he cops a bullet in the side from the Kid, who just won’t die quite fast enough when McCabe puts a hole in his back, and then Breed, but takes another bullet from Butler. These scenes ironically see Altman exercise directorial muscles developed orchestrating the action scenes on the TV war series Combat where he learned the art of action filmmaking inside out. He doesn’t merely wring pyrotechnics or suspense from the scene, but a sense of near-cosmic absurdity from McCabe’s evasions and exclusion, his interminable solitude, the near-comedic quality of life and death that’s also brutal and terrible, a precise weighing up of the cost of McCabe’s efforts to stay alive and defend his paltry piece of turf, accrued in men crawling off into the snow to die.
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The shoot-out strongly recalls Ford’s take on the OK Corral in My Darling Clementine (1946) – without music, only the sound of the whistling wind and the incidental clamour of background action, the moments of truth brief and fateful and final. Where in Ford the edge of competence imbued by the life of the gun was their strength and the struggle was stand-up, Altman sees the same wit that gives his small businesspeople their edge in life as just as vital: McCabe is a shrewd little bastard who nearly makes it, but the odds were always against him. Altman’s last sleight of hand comes when Butler brings down McCabe, only to cop a derringer bullet in the forehead as he stoops over his conquered foe. Everything Sheehan said about McCabe suddenly seems true, in a way that elucidates Altman’s overall point about the old west, his version of Ford’s “print the legend” dictum. The details are correct, the shape of the myth perhaps accurate, but the real story, as ever, evades all cordoning. Altman’s love for McCabe as a slightly pathetic but beautiful dreamer doesn’t make him flinch from sacrificing him. But it does stir perhaps the most profound emotion to be found in any of his movies, in the final image of his snow-caked body being wrapped in ice, intercut with Miller escaping into her dream world, each glad perhaps to swap oblivion for reality, for reality is never real enough.

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1960s, Action-Adventure, Historical, War, Western

The Alamo (1960)

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Director/Actor: John Wayne

By Roderick Heath

For fifty years, the standing set erected for John Wayne’s debut film as director, The Alamo, was a tourist draw outside San Antonio until decay, changing owners and times closed it. Wayne’s paean to patriotic example had a longer life for many as a literal monument than as a movie, which long ago faded into cinematic background radiation, the sort of movie that makes for a Saturday afternoon perennial on television without garnering much interest or respect, to the extent where the original negative is in dire need of restoration. For Wayne, The Alamo had been a labour of love and great expense, one he went into deep personal debt to realise on the scale he desired, and which would, in spite of initial box office success and Oscar nominations, take over a decade to finally recoup costs, and he was consistently irked for the rest of his life when anyone spoke of it as a flop. Wayne’s hopes for the film were both artistically ambitious and bound up deeply with his image of the stalwart all-American hero, both in the public eye and in his own self-estimation, and his desire to try and translate that heft into something lasting, to have an impact as a star on life beyond the movie theatre.

By the time Wayne got his own production off the ground, a craze for all things related to the Alamo and Davy Crockett had swelled and waned in the previous few years thanks to the popularity of the Disney TV series starring Fess Parker, later edited into a movie, with its naggingly catchy theme song. Wayne however had been hoping to make a film about the event since the mid-1940s. He first tried to make such a film at Republic Pictures, the studio well-known for its cheap horse operas and serials for kids. Wayne had been Republic’s biggest asset for many years, but he cut ties with the studio after executives flinched at the proposed cost for his pet project. The script written for it was eventually produced as The Last Command (1955) with Sterling Hayden to capitalise on the Crockett craze, and Wayne retained several aspects of that version for his own, to be reiterated on a much grander scale. Much more recently John Lee Hancock’s more historically exacting and dramatically shaded take from 2004 was a calamitous box office failure. If Wayne was a little late to the Americana party by 1960, epic movies were all the rage at least, as studios were competing with big-scale productions to maintain their edge over television, and The Alamo was at least well-timed to join those ranks. Wayne wanted to avoid starring in his own project, hoping initially to play Sam Houston, but supposedly found himself obliged to play Crockett to leverage financing. Nonetheless, it’s hard to ignore just how well the part as written was moulded to fit its star and provide a vehicle of self-revelation as well as personal statement.

Directors like John Ford, Howard Hawks, Allan Dwan, Raoul Walsh, and Cecil B. DeMille had all helped to forge Wayne’s screen persona and then mine it for dramatic riches, but Wayne’s stature had developed over three decades in all sorts of movies. Discovered for Walsh’s The Big Trail (1930) as a lanky ingénue and seemingly set for the big time, Wayne had been forced after that film’s failure to slog his way up a harder route to stardom through dozens of low-budget westerns and war films in the 1930s and ‘40s. Some of his on-screen appeal seemed sourced in that apprenticeship, arriving as the biggest star of the age not through mercurial success but through dogged application and hard-won gravitas. Wayne long styled himself as a leading proponent of conservative, pro-Cold War politics and voice of fierce anti-Communism in Hollywood, a topic he had tackled in self-produced starring vehicles like Big Jim McLain (1952) and Blood Alley (1955). Wayne had made his first directing foray filling in for William Wellman on the latter film. Everything about his screen persona suited this self-appointed role, his great frame and aura of indulgent but unswerving authority that could seem alternately reassuring and incredibly pompous. Jean-Luc Godard famously commented on the jarring dichotomy of reactions Wayne could stir in him, forced to cry at the end of The Searchers (1956) for his capacity to portray the ferocity and emotional neediness of igneous masculinity even whilst conscious of hating the man’s politics. Eventually, Wayne’s second effort as director, The Green Berets (1968), a would-be epic depicting the Vietnam War, was all but laughed off the screen for attempting to portray a pro-intervention argument in the guise of a painfully clichéd and slipshod production.

When he eventually came to direct himself, Wayne remained deeply under the sway of the masters he had worked with. Most inevitably Ford was the filmmaker he owed most to and remains linked inextricably with, locked in a frieze in quarrelling productivity – high-strung Ford with his unstable blend of flinty machismo and sensitivity, Wayne with his hearty but ponderous persona niggled at by personal anxieties like his failure to fight in World War 2, a moment for which he might well have been overcompensating for the rest of his days, a weak point for aggravated liberals to take aim at. By some accounts Ford did actually turn up to the set and try to throw his weight around, shooting some second unit footage Wayne quietly discarded. What an Oedipal moment it must have been. The Battle of the Alamo in Wayne’s eyes became not merely a colourful and dramatically representative vignette from American history, but a paradigm for the entire national enterprise, particularly in the face of Cold War’s tests of moral and military muscle and the threatened change of zeitgeist looming in the 1960 Presidential election. Wayne had been vocal during the campaign in his faith in Richard Nixon and contempt for John F. Kennedy, whom he wrote off as a phony rich kid, and hoped the film might count in Nixon’s favour. He inserted a moment in the movie in which some characters regret not voting for Crockett’s return to Congress because the “other fellow gave him four bits.”

Wayne’s version of history commences well after the start of the Texian revolt against Mexico and the dictatorship of Generalissimo Antonio de Santa Anna (Ruben Padilla). Houston (Richard Boone), the appointed commander of the fledgling Texan army still being assembled and outfitted even as Santa Anna leads a strong professional army north to stamp out rebellion, appoints prickly Southern gentleman and exile Lt. Col. William B. Travis (Laurence Harvey) to take command of a ruined mission chapel turned semi-fortified military post called the Alamo located just outside San Antonio, or Béxar as it was more usually called at the time, and work in partnership with Jim Bowie (Richard Widmark), a former adventurer turned would-be landowning gentleman. Travis and Bowie clash constantly as completely diverse temperaments with radically different notions of war. Bowie favours a frontier guerilla approach. Travis insists on traditional military disciplines in his hopes of holding out against potential siege long enough to let Houston complete assembling his army and to gain relief from a nearby force at Goliad. Their fractious joint command is soon enlarged by a new force of volunteers under former Congressman and frontier war hero Crockett. Crockett, having lured his friends and followers from the Tennessee backwoods to come to Texas nominally for the cause of hunting and partying, convinces them to lend their muscle to the coming fight with Santa Anna’s army.

The Alamo’s failings as history are both readily catalogued and sometimes knotty. Some commentators have noted that scarcely any scene in it can be called verifiable. Some distortions are relatively minor, like the portrayal of the climactic battle as taking place in solid daylight rather than in very early dawn for the sake of visual clarity. Others are crammed into that very thin nook between documented fact and heroic fantasy, like portraying Bowie as going down fighting and bedridden from battle wounds rather than disease at the battle’s climax. Other aspects Wayne chose to emphasise or excise or whitewash were both fairly typical still at the time but also go some way to explaining why it’s still rather hard to talk about aspects of American history honestly today. Wayne never goes into the causes behind the Texian revolt or the Mexican reaction, preferring instead to offer it simply as a grand clash between free living and authoritarianism, an idea he constantly, and effectively, reiterates on an essential visual level in the contrast between his wildly attired, rowdily communal yet defiantly individual rebels, and the perfectly drilled and depersonalised Mexican army. Of course, history is never that simple. The Texian revolt was undoubtedly sparked by unfair and repressive moves made by Santa Anna as the head of a newly authoritarian government, but one irritant that helped bring down tough measures on the American population in Texas had been the refusal by many to abide Mexico’s antislavery laws.

One telling aspect of The Alamo lies in Wayne’s affection and admiration for Mexico, perhaps even his tendency to idealise the resilient pith and courtly values of the national character he saw subsisting there, retaining the lustre of certain classical, old-world tenets somewhat lost to the America Wayne otherwise celebrated so enthusiastically. Ford and Hawks were rarely above tossing in a little hackneyed stereotyping with comic relief Mexican characters, but Wayne avoids them completely, even refusing to portray Santa Anna as any kind of creep or fiend (something Hancock’s version, for all its greater adherence to the historical record, felt the need to indulge). Two of Wayne’s three wives were Mexican, and The Alamo noticeably treads close to portraying this aspect of himself as Crockett engages in chivalrous attentions towards a local lady, Graciela ‘Flaca’ de Lopez y Vejar (Linda Cristal). Crockett follows Bowie as gringo interloper who finds himself seduced by the local climes and senoritas: one scene depicts the two men reclining in the evening, Crockett listening as Bowie tries to grasp the essence of the Latino way of life and its appeal to him.

Shortly after his arrival in Béxar, Crockett encounters an American businessman, Emil Sande (Wesley Lau), who is trying to leverage a forced marriage to a local propertied lady amidst the lawless chaos of the revolt, and is also hoarding ammunition from the rebels. Crockett appoints himself watchdog to Flaca’s interests, fending off Sande not through aggressive display but comic irritation. Sande still sends out a gang of thugs to pound him the street, bringing Bowie and others to the rescue in a street brawl. Soon after, Flaca alerts them to Sande’s stockpiles, and they set out to steal it. Sande stands in for a less reputable side of the interloping American influence, crass, exploitative, and relentlessly patronising to the local mores and people. Obliged to depict a drama that involves throwing off the yoke of Mexican rule, Wayne mediated the tension by bending over backwards not only to avoid any old partisan quarrels, but to offer up unbridled praise for the gutsiness of the Mexican soldiers and the Tejano members of the revolt, like Juan Seguin (Joseph Calleia), whom Travis is ashamed to treat brusquely in the name of maintaining calm amongst his soldiers after Seguin brings bad news. “‘S’funny, I was proud of ‘em,” one of Crockett’s backwoodsmen comments after one ill-fated attack by the Mexican soldiers. Wayne gives the Generalissimo the last, memorable gesture of the film to him as he doffs his hat in salute to the ragged, tiny band of survivors leaving the captured fort.

Wayne initially portrays Crockett as a kind of feudal lord riding out of prairies at the head of his band of merry men. One vignette offered to illustrate Crockett’s unflinching potency as such reproduces a scene out of DeMille’s The Crusades (1936) in which the hero-king and an uppity subject slug each-other in a test of manhood, one the leader must and does triumph in to retain status as top dog. Early scenes depicting Crockett’s Tennessean cohort emphasise their rowdy, hard-drinking, hard-living good ol’ boys in a manner reminiscent of Ford’s love for similarly boisterous gangs. Wayne indulges a broad and corny brand of Americana, perhaps best inhabited by Chill Wills as Crockett’s pal Beekeeper, who performs a musical number and seems as much like an emcee at a hootenanny as an actor in the film. The Alamo’s screenwriter, James Edward Grant, had been writing Wayne vehicles since the early 1940s, including The Sands of Iwo Jima (1949), which had gained him his first Oscar nomination. Grant’s ready mastery of the familiar dialogue and plot patterns of the star’s vehicles undoubtedly felt reassuring to Wayne. But it also explains why a little too much of the film is given over to familiar horse opera motifs – fisticuffs and a cattle stampede and displays of unruly masculine energy – and not enough into meaningful portrayals of some of the authentic players in the actual historical drama at hand. Like Sue Dickinson (Joan O’Brien), Travis’ cousin and wife to his second-in-command Almeron (Ken Curtis), who was one of the few survivors of the siege: although vital to the final images, she’s scarcely glimpsed until half-way through the film.

With Wayne’s Crockett serving as heavy centre of moral gravitas and the chances for thematic conflict and ambivalence stymied by his determined messaging, the drama has to be chiefly driven by character tension. That comes in the schism between Harvey’s snooty, determined, astringent Travis and Widmark’s truculent, defiant, anti-authoritarian Bowie. The conflict between the pair becomes so heated at one point the two men arrange to fight a duel once their duty to the revolt is dispensed with. Crockett plays mediator, getting Bowie too drunk at one point to act on a threat to withdraw his men, and Bowie and Travis reach a tentative peace when Travis apologises to Bowie after grilling him about receiving a message from outside that proves to have been news reporting the death of Bowie’s wife. The Alamo posits the three men as a troika of American types, Travis the old-world inheritance, Bowie the free but ornery man of the frontier, and Crockett as an ironic union of the two, the more complete version. The totally different acting traditions the three men belong to informs their clashes. Widmark’s trademark edge of rasp-tongued, urban cynicism, which he sustained even as he made a leap from playing villains to heroes, makes Bowie a galvanising presence, particularly when his hard crust shatters when he loses his wife, segueing from quivering rage (“Travis, you might die tonight.”) to desperate exposure before Crockett. This scene is carefully mindful of the fear of machismo in being found wanting and friendship being defined in such circumstances by who you can trust to be around at such a moment. It’s an aspect to the film that feels true to Wayne’s sensibility, as it’s the sort of moment he was a past-master at capturing in his performances.

Most actors who become directors usually prioritise performance in all its nuances, but The Alamo contradicts this tendency to a certain extent. The dramatic tone is generally that bright, declarative style common in Hollywood filmmaking then rapidly giving way to a new Method acting-influenced realism. Although superficially resembling Ford’s gift for depicting humans in bristling, Hogarthian masses as well as isolated and monumental in the landscape, Wayne doesn’t have his touch for staging comedy or finding truth in that old-fashioned acting style. That’s not to say the film’s empty on that level. Harvey, who had just gained significant attention thanks to Room at the Top (1959), seems awkward at first as he puts on a notably bad Southern accent in his early scenes. Once he wisely softens the accent, he emerges as one of the film’s strongest aspects, anticipating his characterisation of Raymond Shaw in The Manchurian Candidate (1962) in playing an unpleasant yet upright American blue-blood, admirable in his willingness to play total insufferableness and eventually unearth curious decency in such a phlegmatic character. Harvey’s gift for treading such a line helps earn real impact for a couple of the film’s best vignettes. The first comes when Travis unflinchingly directs infantry volleys on charging enemy soldiers to protect returning raiders, gaining Crockett and Bowie’s grudging admiration. The second comes in the finale, when he gets a suitably iconic death scene, battling Mexican soldiers spilling over his defences with drawn sabre, providing an unexpected jolt of swashbuckling action until he’s shot in the gut: Travis, grinning with a rueful look of perverse victory, breaks his sword over his knee before collapsing dead, the embodiment of the cavalier ideal falling before the age of regimentation and firepower.

The laborious aspect of The Alamo lies is a penchant for declarative speechifying in highlighting Wayne’s desired messages. Early in the film, as Travis comes to see him and appeal to him to lend his support to the rebellion, Wayne-as-Crockett readily offers up his personal credos: “Republic – I like the sound of the word.” More often, he drafts lantern-jawed character actor John Dierkes, playing everyman warrior Jocko Robertson, into delivering several significant soliloquies whilst staring into the middle-distance in a vaguely prophetic manner, including a paean to duty as a man of common responsibility to his blind wife Nell (Veda Ann Borg), and later a statement of religious belief (“I can never find a way to argue down you that don’t believe…but I believe in the lord God Almighty”). Nell unleashes a tirade on Travis in insisting her husband has to stand with the defenders in spite of his obligations precisely because he seems so beaten down. Some of this stuff does get wearisome. To be fair, Wayne and Grant go to reasonable lengths to make a film about political insurrection and communal action that tries to portray individuals thinking through and responding to such circumstances. Characters communicating, attempting to summarise complex and ethereal sensations and ideas, is a constant motif throughout.

Wayne tries as a result to imbue the Alamo defenders with a chorus-like quality as they fumble their way through such reactions, as in the scene in which they meditate on the bravery of their foes, and in the contemplation of what death entails that provokes Jocko’s statement of faith. Wayne wants to portray democratic thought and action taking root like the great green tree he has Crockett and Flaca admire during a sojourn together. Such a symbol recalls the great oak in Tolstoy’s War and Peace that invites the meditative eye and heart of its protagonists. Trouble with this aspect of the film is, what we get is less Socratic dialogue than more speechifying that’s spread across multiple characters. As is so often the case, Wayne and Grant fare better when they try to dramatize certain social ideas through the actions of their characters, like Sande and Flaca, who represent the ugly and refined sides of their respective societies. The problem with Crockett’s romancing with Flaca is that it’s necessarily abortive: Wayne’s square idealism chokes off any possibility of transgressive passion between the two although Cristal looks extremely inviting as she leans against a shady bower with bosom trembling in suppressed excitement, only to be hurriedly and literally bundled out of Béxar and the film before the real business of manly men killing each-other gets going.

The only slave portrayed in the film is aged Jethro (Jester Hairston), whom everybody treats deferentially as common paterfamilias, and Wayne depicts him as the kind of man whose voice stirs respect from everyone: his rebuke aimed at Travis (“Colonel sir — you’re wrong.”) is intended to carry all the more moral weight because it’s coming from a man usually obliged to keep quiet. Bowie frees him and Jethro decides to stand manfully with the garrison, and dies hurling himself in front of bayonets aimed at Bowie. Jethro, like Flaca, embodies Wayne’s idealistic hope that individuals transcend the failings of their societies. But Jethro’s part in the tale draws out a problem with this approach. Wayne tries to validate Jethro as a being who makes his own votes of loyalty and duty once free to, and thus in a way he, like Jocko, represents the Alamo cause at its purest. Wayne seems to have been earnest in his insistence expressed in Blood Alley and The Alamo that non-Caucasian populaces be taken seriously in their search for dignity and liberty, but it was also complicated by his awkward framing of the issue, enshrining paternalist clichés. He lets the slaver off the hook and sticks Jethro with an unswervingly loyal arc, as if slavery was only a temporary misunderstanding between gentlemen.

In spite of its nominal political agitprop, The Alamo feels most urgent as an attempt by Wayne to describe himself and his uneasy if purposeful relationship with his screen persona, and reconcile it with his private imperatives. Travis notes after listening to Crockett’s early speech to him that he’s not exactly what he appears. Wayne would tell Michael Caine a few years later that the secret to his acting success was talking slowly and little, and it’s hard not to read personal meaning into Wayne’s portrayal of the frontier hero as a covertly intelligent and articulate gentleman who can shift personas according to his company but finds himself all too often caricatured as a hick with cracker-barrel ideas. Arthur Hunnicutt had played Crockett as a canny rustic in The Last Command; to Wayne he’s a man who inhabits a role to please less well-educated but worthy fellows, for the sake of influencing them. He doesn’t don his coonskin cap until half-way through the film, assumed as a sort of costume, stepping into the role he was born and fated to play. Crockett lures his men into joining the Rebellion by having Flaca write out a letter in Spanish which he then has her read to them, a letter supposedly from Santa Anna warning them to clear out lest they be violently chastised, a threat that sets his companions to foaming anger and eagerness to resist. Crockett then warns them that the letter is a fake, designed to illustrate the nature of the enemy and essence of the fight to his men, but he’s already succeeded in rousing their blood to such a degree that they don’t care: it’s enough that his representation of the matter depicted the essence in a way they could understand. Wayne tries here to articulate a statement of faith in his own ability to persuade through art, drawing attention to the very device he’s trying to leverage in becoming a filmmaker.

Wayne shows a surprising confidence and muscular ability in the film’s visuals, created in concert with DP William H. Clothier. Ford’s influence is clearest in the way Wayne arranges actors in vistas and frames them in sweeping diagonals, spurning ostentatious viewpoints even when surveying the advancing Mexican army. There’s a lovely little visual etude early in the film when two of Crockett’s followers, young mascot Smitty (Frankie Avalon) and old Parson (Hank Worden), happen upon Béxar and signal for the rest to come to them, and the Tennessean party advances into view like a tide, titans thrusting their way out of the ground to enact a legend. He returns several times to a shot of the Alamo’s battered old façade framed and silhouetted against dawn skies with wisps of cloud lit like gold in river sand, a shot that sees the Alamo enterprise as perched at the cusp of advent but also charged with the lamenting quality of a dawn vigil for the fallen.

The way Wayne offers a constant flow of shots that look as precisely crafted in arrangement of actors and set and colour elements as Victorian art is more individual, as he chases a certain adamantine grandeur more reminiscent of DeMille than Ford. The tendency of widescreen movies of this ilk from the time to be overlit and shot in flat, rectilinear perspectives works for Wayne in this regard, as it’s precisely that frieze-like quality he chases in his arrangements of actors and elements. At least one shot is directly modelled on such a painting, as Wayne painstakingly recreates John Singer Sargent’s “El Jaleo” in the sight of a flamenco dancer performing for Santa Anna’s soldiers whilst the Alamo defenders make a night foray. This shot summarises Wayne’s oddly affecting blend of tony pretence and artistic yearning, evoking a classic tradition of American art and Latin culture as viewed through that prism. The then-massive $12 million price tag attached to the film, which would take so long to recoup, at least seems to have all ended up on screen: The Alamo is one of those grandiose pieces of epic filmmaking so common in the era that compelled purely by dint of the enormous human labour placed before the camera, in the scale of the sets and milling armies of extras.

The Alamo stands in the shadow of two superior epics depicting besiegement from the same period, Cy Endfield’s Zulu (1964) and Nicholas Ray’s 55 Days at Peking (1963): Endfield’s movie would prove an equally grand yet more convincingly terse and stoic celebration of the warrior ethic, whilst Ray’s was a more fervent and fretful kiss goodbye to the age of cavaliers and uneasy hello to the modern world’s complexities. The 1950s had seen the advent of what was often called the “adult western” filled with mature themes in analysing frontier social values and individual characters. The Alamo both fulfils that style as it delves into the violently contrasting heroes, but also feels in part like a repudiation of it – there’s none of the anxious probing of The Searchers or The Naked Spur (1953) or The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1963) to it; indeed, the latter film could well have been Ford’s commentary on his star’s mythmaking hyperbole. But The Alamo also feels like it might have influenced some films still to come on. Where many ‘50s westerns looked rather clean-cut, Wayne’s emphasis on his motley Tennesseans and their attire and the protean cultural blending of the frontier suggests the harsher, woollier textures of ‘60s and ‘70s genre movies. Touches like arming Bowie with a large multi-barrelled gun have a quality of historical piquancy that anticipates Sergio Leone’s fine feel for such ephemera. Sam Peckinpah would mimic aspects of Wayne’s film in offering up a crew of jostling grotesques who seem to have stepped out of myth who venture into Mexican territory on a death trip, with Major Dundee (1965), if in serving a radically different vision.

Certainly, for all the lumpiness of what leads up to it, Wayne’s staging of the climactic battle is a brilliant episode of cinema spectacle, as the Mexican army pours over the battlements and the defending heroes all die in precisely illustrated vignettes. These culminate in Crockett’s demise, where he manages to retain sufficient strength after receiving a lance in the chest to hurl a torch into the magazine and detonate it, literally going out with a bang. Wayne sees the patriotic gore suddenly stymied as the tide of Mexican warriors discover Sue Dickinson and two children – one white, one black, an embryo for modern America – cowering under a blanket, the whole enterprise of slaughter and ferocity of duty brought to a grim and trembling pause by a lingering ghost of chivalry. Wayne offers the sight of them riding out of the captured fort in silent dignity to Santa Anna’s salute as a moment of understanding and apotheosis, point the way forward to an amicable future. It’s also, of course, worth mentioning Dimitri Tiomkin’s great score, particularly his composition “The Green Leaves of Summer,” which pervades the film’s official rectitude with a counterpoint of wistful and transitory evocations. The Alamo certainly isn’t the eclipsing masterwork or powerful totem of republican (and Republican) faith Wayne might have hoped. It’s too patent, too broad and familiar in its specifics, too verbose and dubiously reassuring in its annexation of history. And yet some of its flaws are also wound in with its pleasures, for it’s also an entertaining, outsized relic of a brand of moviemaking rendered in a style now seemingly long gone. The final frustration of The Alamo is that it encompasses many moments where Wayne betrays the touch of an artist, and not a frustrated politician.

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1930s, Epic, Western

The Big Trail (1930)

Director: Raoul Walsh

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By Roderick Heath

One of the first true epics of sound cinema, The Big Trail left a deep and permanent imprint on movie history without a lot of people knowing about it. The late 1920s saw the cinema forcibly redefined by the advent of sound, a ruction for audiences, filmmakers, and theatre owners alike. True colour film processes would arrive soon after, but most filmmakers shied away from any further innovation until television forced them to fight for an audience. When they did, they would turn to the widescreen format, which had been introduced unsuccessfully in the 1920s. In France, Abel Gance’s Napoleon (1927) had demonstrated the artistic potency of the format, and three years later, The Big Trail came at the leading edge of another, brief campaign to promote the format in American filmmaking.

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A mammoth undertaking by the Fox Film Corporation, The Big Trail was shot, incredibly, in six different versions simultaneously: editions in four alternate languages, a standard 35mm format version, and another in an experimental 70mm widescreen process called Grandeur. The exhausting labour and cost involved in this reflected the cumbersome demands of the era’s technology, and came on top of a colossal, already difficult location shoot that trailed nearly 2,000 miles across five states. Fox may have hoped to maximise the film’s box office potential by making so many versions, but instead The Big Trail became a sad failure, as most exhibitors refused to take up the widescreen format and the regular-sized print couldn’t make enough money to cover the huge expense during the straits of the early Depression.

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The Big Trail languished in relative obscurity for a long time as a result, whilst the similar, but far creakier Cimarron would capture the Best Picture Oscar a year later. Director Raoul Walsh took a blow to his career and wouldn’t get to helm another film of such a scale for some time. The new male star he had discovered for the project would languish in small roles and B westerns for nearly a decade. That young man, a former college footballer and bit-part player, was recommended to Walsh by mutual friend John Ford, who liked the actor’s cocky walk. He came on The Big Trail’s set named Marion Morrison, but thanks to Walsh and a cadre of studio executives, continued his career under the name they chose for him—John Wayne.

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Walsh himself had been a rough-and-tumble cowboy actor in the pioneering days of Hollywood and dabbled in directing even before he appeared in D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915), including work on the legendary docudrama The Life of General Villa (1913), starring the great bandit-revolutionary as himself. Walsh evolved into one of the most sublimely rigorous and no-nonsense of classical Hollywood filmmakers. With The Big Trail, he matched Lewis Milestone’s work on All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) in freeing early sound film from its stagy reflexes to discover the world at large. For Walsh, this discovery resulted in a relative crudeness, with dialogue recorded out in the open and sometimes muffled by a general clamour, but also fascinatingly rich and with a lively naturalism quite different to the smoother, but more artificial textures that would become the norm.

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As a film, The Big Trail shows its age in places, but its general vigour and expanse is still breathtaking. As a depiction of the travails of early pioneers, it still dwarfs many amongst generations of imitations. The plot is merely sufficient to lend the film a through-line that sustains the panoramic study in a human tide on the move. Wayne plays frontiersman Breck Coleman, a product of life in the western expanses, one who credits his knowledge of hunting and exploring to the Native American tribes he grew up amongst. Coleman knows the land and can clear a path across the country for a huge wagon train forming at a trading post in Missouri, intending to be the first such large expedition to go across the country to claim farm land in Washington state. At first, Coleman is uninterested in joining the expedition because he’s on the hunt for the killers of his friend, Ben Griswold; someone tried to make the crime look like an Indian raid, but Breck looked closer and found signs revealing the true culprits, including the stub of a burnt-out cigar. Whilst he tells another old friend, Zeke (Tully Marshall) about this, Red Flack (Tyrone Power Sr.), the man hired to lead a cattle team ahead of the wagons and blaze the Oregon Trail, overhears him and is clearly rattled. Breck finds he leaves behind the same brand of cigar in his wake. Walsh employs a brief flashback to illustrate the processes of Breck’s deduction, revealing his discovery of Griswold’s last camp site in the wilderness and his comprehension of a masked crime. As he probes further, Breck discovers a large quantity of pelts probably stolen off Griswold were sold to the trading post by a man named Lopez (Charles Stevens), who happens to be a friend and employee of Flack.

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Breck agrees to scout for the wagon train so he can stick close to this suspect pair and see if he can dig up more evidence and bring them to whatever kind of justice the moment provides. Meanwhile, he accidentally antagonises some of his prospective charges. He mistakes proper Southern belle Ruth Cameron (Marguerite Churchill) for another girl he knows and plants a kiss on her, only to realise his mistake as she stomps off in an offended huff. Ruth is the daughter of a greatly respected Southern elder, but she’s set on building a new life with her brother Dave (David Rollins) and younger sister. She has a self-appointed guardian and would-be suitor of traditionally gallant credentials, Bill Thorpe (Ian Keith), who claims to be a plantation owner looking for adventure and tries repeatedly to talk Ruth into marrying him. He exchanges pithy words with Breck, as the young man tries to apologise to Ruth—except that Thorpe is actually a gambler who can’t stay at the trading post lest he be hung and can’t go back lest he be shot thanks to excessive displays of his prodigious skills with firearms. But he’s friends with Flack, and he joins the wagon train with an eye to netting Ruth and taking out Breck as a favour to his pal. Breck tries to do his job whilst avoiding Thorpe’s various attempts to kill him, barely surviving one ambush in which his horse is killed. Meanwhile, Breck negotiates safe passage through Cheyenne territory with their chief, Black Elk (John Big Tree), but danger waits as other native nations join in a coalition to block their path through the Rocky Mountains.

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The basic storyline is familiar genre melodrama and mostly serves to give a little sinew to what is otherwise a survey of frontier experience, a depiction of a communal event that strays legitimately into the true definition of epic as an account of the social flux and great undertaking that creates a nation. Walsh records this with such elaborate detail and rhythmic intensity that he creates a virtually pantheistic work of art. Although there’s a brief patch of speechifying towards the end, when Breck underlines the overall meaning of the event, Walsh is for the most part happy to let his images speak—visions of prairie schooners rocking along in clouds of dust under the rays of the setting sun, his characters traversing rivers and mountains and forests. The unusual, laborious shoot meant that The Big Trail comes close in nature to one of Robert Flaherty’s staged documentaries simply by the unavoidable authenticity of much on screen, the peculiar thrill of such moments as the wagons being lowered with improvised cranes down a cliff face and trying to negotiate a swollen river. The vast number of extras look unusually like the kind of people they’re portraying. Walsh delights in zeroing in on sights like strong, muscular woman chopping down trees and lashing along their oxen amongst the broad diorama of human activity, this moving city in the wilderness, all achieved without recourse to tricks like back projection.

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The admiration for the pluck of ordinary men and women is typical of Walsh, who stayed in the Hollywood game as a jack-of-all-trades but made his clearest mark in Warner Bros. plebeian melodramas, like They Drive By Night (1940) and Manpower (1941), and films with sociological breadth, like The Bowery (1933) and The Roaring Twenties (1939), the latter a particularly potent influence on subsequent waves of filmmakers from Orson Welles to Martin Scorsese. Walsh could handle any genre, but found real focus in gangster and war films. Where his great rivals in the classic cadre of macho auteurs Ford, DeMille, and Hawks, tended towards mythologising in their different ways, Walsh, like William Wellman, retained something of a reportorial attitude, comprehending the shifts from the plucky energy of the ’30s to a despair over the illusions of the American dream (The Roaring Twenties), the defeat of individualism (High Sierra, 1941), the neurotic birth of the atomic age (White Heat, 1949), and overtures of fascist power and resistance in the burgeoning Cold War (The Naked and the Dead, 1958). The Big Trail, meanwhile, feels like a preparatory sketch for those canonical Western epics, Hawks’ Red River (1948) and Ford’s The Searchers (1956), whilst How the West Was Won (1963) is a partial remake. Like Red River, The Big Trail watches an intimate drama play out in the midst of a massive undertaking, and neither can resolve until the end of the trail is reached. Like The Searchers, the quest to write a form of justice and human meaning upon an impassive and voraciously expansive landscape and the need for safe harbours and human connection remain in constant tension.

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The drama in The Big Trail is much more elemental than what Walsh usually offered, but it’s rewarding to look closely at Thorpe and Flack, a divergent pair of characters united by the fact they’re both nefarious criminals, forming with Lopez a kind of shadow society within the greater enterprise. Thorpe is a fake gentleman, slick and charismatic, precursor to John Carradine’s similar, if more ambiguous character in Stagecoach (1939) but also a type for whom Walsh might later have offered far more sympathy as the man who can’t submit to a society bent on ironing out wrinkles like him, dogged by his impulses towards nobility rather than merely using that attitude as a disguise. Indeed, by the time of White Heat, Walsh would reveal the processes of empathy completely inverted: the psychotic, desperate Cody Jarrett had become the hero and the man quietly shadowing him to bring him to justice the villain. Keith has lean charisma in the role of Thorpe, and he would later become a favourite actor of DeMille’s. Flack is a monstrous brute who nonetheless has great reserves of native cunning and authority, and reportedly provided the direct inspiration for Popeye’s Bluto. Power, a former matinee idol as his then-teenage son would become, looked gnarled and terrible by this time. With bushy beard, snaggy, rotten teeth, and belly-deep, broken-bottle voice, he creates an unsubtle, but galvanising villain, like some kind of prehistoric monster born aberrantly in human form. Both Thorpe and Flack represent fading varieties of authority, the raw force of the barbarian king and the deceptively lethal self-interest of the pseudo-aristocrat who wants to be taken for a slave-owning oligarch, men who tellingly “lead” the expedition but don’t actually do much for it.

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Interestingly, Walsh would later combine the Thorpe and Flack characters to create his unstable antiheroes who waver between nobility and base violence, particularly White Heat’s Cody Jarrett and The Naked and the Dead’s Sgt. Croft, who, like Flack, is an ancient kind of he-man who leads his team on an epic mission but with more Melvillian overtones per Norman Mailer’s source novel. Meanwhile Walsh pulls apart the presumptions of a film he starred in, The Birth of a Nation; note that Ruth is, like the central family of that film, a Cameron, but is running away from her legacy following the telling death of the old patriarch and the loss of property and standing. Thorpe mentions that there “isn’t a home in all the South that wouldn’t be happy to take in the daughter of Colonel Cameron” (notably, much later Walsh would take on the legacy of slavery more pointedly in A Band of Angels, 1957). By contrast, Breck is the egalitarian son of the frontier who doesn’t fear a fight. but also easily negotiates with the Indians he understands and with whom he shares a worldview. Meanwhile, Ruth’s brother Dave takes the place of another character Walsh was fond of, the fresh-faced neophyte anxious to take his place amongst men. Walsh also plays with his camera and storytelling methods: the flashback to Breck’s discovery of Griswold’s camp counts as an unusual touch for the time, whilst Walsh’s way of shooting the fleet of prairie schooners, including a shot from inside one wagon as it negotiates the land, surely influenced Ford’s work on Stagecoach.

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The photography by Lucien Andriot and Arthur Edeson is remarkably alive to physical texture—the grains of wood in the fixtures of the wagons seem almost alive—whilst hinting at some larger spirit in their visuals, found in rays of sunlight gushing through clouds over the convoy, and the bone-chilling final hunt sequence in the forest at the extremes of mortality. Walsh’s grasp on orchestrating massive action and hordes of extras and the precision of his flow of vignettes, suggests what he learnt from Griffith, as well as the relentless logic of his horizontal compositions. But even as he contends with some hokey comedy and the simplicity of the story, Walsh has left the Victorian sentiments of Griffith far behind: here there are only strong and hardy people contending with the land. The soundtrack captures a constant clamour of juddering wheels and rattling pots and lowing cattle, the ambient din of the wagon train, with enriching authenticity, the kind of effect that would later be commonplace, but here still has a quality of discovery. The final sequences, filmed in the midst of California’s awe-inspiring redwoods, sees the wagon train climb down from soaring white mountains to verdant valley floors fringed by the great trees, underlining a feeling of having passed into some mythical realm where gigantism is a norm and everything is touched with a dusting of mythology. Critic Fred Camper tellingly saw The Big Trail it as an epic where the place of the individual human was displaced by nature at the heart of the film, and this often feels quite true, laying seeds for the ways later generations of filmmakers like Werner Herzog, Terrence Malick, and Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu would attempt a similar sensitisation to environment as character.

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Walsh might also have been taking a few ideas from the trickle of Soviet Realist films in the way he plays down individuals in favour of observing group action with an intensive eye for their way of life. Interpolated title cards reinforce the heroic bluster in the film’s take on the colonising event, but for much of its length, The Big Trail actually takes a droll, even laid-back approach to the human level. Breck and Ruth’s thorny romance is played mostly for light comedy as Ruth remains superficially cold to Breck’s ardent attempts to romance her. Ruth obeys a programmed cultural loyalty that sees her gravitating to Thorpe in spite of all warning signs, whilst even the Comanche who come along for the ride can recognise their budding relationship, labelling her “Coleman’s Squaw” to her extreme aggravation. Some of the humour verges on silly, particularly as Zeke’s drinking buddy, Windy Bill (Russ Powell), ruffles Thorpe’s savour faire as he tries to romance Ruth by making animal noises. El Brendel contributes his patented comic Swede act for some gags that were probably hoary at the time, contending with his rather perturbingly large, forceful mother-in-law and at one point, sitting in a mud puddle only to explain the mud’s so deep he’s actually still on top of his horse. The sight of Zeke and Windy drunk as lords as they set out on the great expedition does a lot to dent the grandiosity with a sense of human scruffiness. Ruth decides to leave the wagon train with Thorpe after feeling humiliated by the jokes of the pioneers and Indians, and Thorpe decides to try to complete his job for Flack by taking a chance to gun down Breck before departing.

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Lucky for Breck that Zeke keeps an eye out for him and plugs Thorpe as he’s taking aim at Breck’s back. This sparks a brief travail for Breck as Ruth, misinterpreting what Dave reports of the event, accuses Breck of murder, an accusation Flask tries to take advantage of. Fortunately, Zeke intervening to set the record straight and an Indian attack head off trouble for Flack. The settlers circle their wagons and battle off the massed attackers. Breck still can’t prosecute his vengeance against Flask and Lopez, not until they make a move as the convoy nears its destination and the necessity of stopping him before he can bring in outside authorities grows urgent. It’s truly fascinating to see Wayne here at the very start of his career, easily commanding the screen as a leading man in spite of his youth and tenderfoot status. Gary Cooper was initially commissioned to play Breck, and it’s easy to see at this time why Wayne would be taken as a substitute, just as tall but still fairly rangy, dashingly handsome in a way hard to associate with his older, craggier visage. It’s clear from the first moment what a different screen persona he wields compared to Cooper’s cagey intensity, with his hearty laughter and easy stride and yawing line deliveries. Cooper often played characters adapted to a rugged life in a cautious and thoughtful way, whereas Wayne just seems to belong in this world, body and soul. There’s still something boyish to Wayne here, his looks rather foxy and his voice ringing a little higher, accentuated by the old Vitaphone sound recording, that’s particularly appealing. Some of the half-suppressed playfulness filmmakers like Ford and Henry Hathaway could get out of Wayne later is evident here, particularly in the scene when he accidentally kisses Churchill’s Ruth with a young masher’s energy.

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Churchill is less engaging, though she handles well the crucial moments when she finally gives up trying to hold in her feelings for Breck and begs him not to go after Flack and Lopez, and she has a certain pithy tilt of chin and flash of eye that repeatedly demonstrates that under the remnant façade of the prim Southern belle, Ruth is a hardy, worthy lady. Walsh was particularly great when it came to vivid action finales for his films, pushing push them to perfect visual and thematic nexus images—the church steps at the end of The Roaring Twenties, the battle on the electrical wires in Manpower, the exploding gas tank in White Heat—and The Big Trail builds to a spellbinding vignette high in a snowy forest where Lopez collapses and freezes to death whilst Flack forges on, only for Breck to catch up with him with the two men oblivious to each other on either side of a colossal, toppled redwood stem. Snow billows, light shafts, the flash of Breck’s knife blade, a gunshot, and death, Flack’s huge body collapsing by the fallen tree, another titan of an age about to meet civilisation’s at once revolutionary and withering touch. When Breck and Ruth are reunited, Walsh returns to the midst of the colossal redwoods, like organ pipes for a colossal cathedral of nature, climaxing in a final shot tilting up along another giant redwood, this one growing and titanic, to the sun far above. The images here haunted me for months after first watching the film, as if Walsh had captured the essence of a time and place that never quite existed, the fantastic world every dreamer reaches for. The Big Trail might not have found the stature it deserved in its time, but it testifies to the great power the medium could wield even as its very nature changed.

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