1970s, Action-Adventure, Russian cinema, Western

White Sun of the Desert (1970)

Beloe Solntse Pustyni

WhiteSunOfTheDesert01
.
Director: Vladimir Motyl

The Days of High Adventure: A Journey through Adventure Film

By Roderick Heath

White Sun of the Desert has a stature with Russian moviegoers that can only be likened to the cultural currency The Godfather, Star Wars, or Gone with the Wind hold for western viewers. Lines of dialogue from the film have become everyday catch phrases. Statues have been erected to honour the lead character. Legend has it that to this day, Russian cosmonauts watch it as a ritual before going into space. Craters on Venus have been named after members of the gaggle of Muslim wives who feature in the film. Yet it’s a good bet most movie aficionados outside the limits of the old Soviet Union, even those with a taste for the exotic, haven’t heard of it. There’s nothing terribly unusual about this. Almost every national and regional film industry can boast this kind of big, native hit that, for whatever reason, just couldn’t be exported.
.
WhiteSunOfTheDesert02
.
White Sun of the Desert wasn’t adopted as a lofty, arty darling of foreign critics, though some notable filmmakers, including Andrei Tarkovsky and Andrei Konchalovsky, were approached as prospective directors. Konchalovsky later described the screenplay by Valentin Yezhov and Rustam Ibragimbekov as a masterpiece, though it was largely rewritten by Motyl and others during filming. Meanwhile, the breed of movie fan that readily adopted spaghetti westerns and martial arts films around this time would surely have been bewildered if confronted by such an oddity, a work that extends the mood of The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly’s (1966) eerie, surrealist-tinged desert sequence into an entire feature. For a work of such renown and popular affection, even on such a localised scale, White Sun of the Desert defies expectations. Less than 90 minutes long, it’s not a grand and swaggering epic, intense action tale, or laugh-a-minute comedy, though it resembles all of these at various points, as well as a kind of chaste sex farce and portrait of existential absurdity essayed with an almost ambient, peculiarly Slavic brand of melancholic romanticism. If you can get onto the film’s specific wavelength, it reveals itself a rare treasure.
.
WhiteSunOfTheDesert03
.
White Sun of the Desert is certainly full of familiar motifs of a good pulp yarn. A frontier setting. A charming and robust protagonist. A wicked villain. Damsels in distress. Helpmates to the hero who waver but reappear in time to save the day. And yet the way director Vladimir Motyl lays out his material is highly eccentric and peculiarly fashioned. White Sun of the Desert belongs to a popular but mostly bygone brand of Russian cinema, usually referred to as the “ostern” or sometimes as a “Red western” or “borscht western.” This was a genre readily comparable to the American western, crowd-pleasing, adventurous dramas set on the fringes of civilisation filled with action, horse riding and gunplay, but set in the wilds beyond the Urals and the fringes of the Caspian Sea, or amongst Cossack tribes. Osterns were usually set during the raucous and violent years of the Bolshevik revolution and subsequent civil war, and a consequential similarity of the western and ostern is the depiction of primal dramas unfolding in the context of upheaval and social flux, a shift in modes of life that will soon settle into a new civilisation. The traditions of the folk tale and folk song are also often invoked to describe Motyl’s work, and the tension between the immediacy of genre storytelling and the baleful meaning of a cultural relic is apparent in the film’s tone, which seems to be both merrily enacted and woozily remembered.
.
WhiteSunOfTheDesert04
.
The early scenes of White Sun depict Red Army soldier Fyodor Ivanovich Sukhov (Anatoly Kuznetsov) wandering in the desert sands close to the Caspian seashore. Animated lines appear around him during the opening credits, blocked to trace out the geometry of the sand dunes, as if mocking the hero’s attempts to impose linear intentions on his entirely wayward fate. The lazily picked music on the soundtrack softly builds the mood of isolation, languor, and laconic attitude that defines the film. Sukhov has been away from home several years fighting for the revolution, but now he’s been mustered out, and is trudging his way home across the deserts of Central Asia. Sukhov passes the time by mentally composing letters to his wife, all of which begin with “Dear Katerina Matveyevna.” These mental missives are crammed with a mixture of pedantic and obfuscating detail, statements of po-faced patriotism, and workaday acceptance of the way great events mean a billion petty irritations, interruptions, frustrations, and dangers for him. Sukhov always envisions Katerina (Galina Luchai), in the midst of green and fertile fields for utmost contrast to his current surrounds, as an idyll of Russian homeyness, stout, stern, milky-skinned and rosy-cheeked.
.
WhiteSunOfTheDesert05
.
Sukhov’s nature, as an easy-going, helpful-minded guy, and his reputation as a terrific soldier prove his own undoing, because life keeps throwing people who need or seek his aid in his path. In the middle of nowhere, Sukhov encounters a man buried up to his neck in the desert sand, as per local traditions in harsh punishment. Sukhov digs him out whilst noting that he’s already dug out two more like him, and the last one attacked and robbed him. His latest charity case, Sayid (Spartak Mishulin), was seeking revenge on his father’s murderer, the bandit Dzhavdet, but was instead caught by him and left to die. “I’ll have no peace as long as Dzhavdet is alive,” Sayid grumbles, and then, “Why did you dig me up?” “Sure, a dead man has no worries,” Sukhov retorts, “but it’s so boring.” The two men separate, but Sayid continues to shadow Sukhov, torn between resuming the hunt for his enemy and repaying Sukhov for his helpfulness. Soon, Sukhov is stopped by a unit of Soviet troops led by an officer named Rakhimov. The commander is eager to divest himself of a strange burden: nine wives of “Black” Abdullah (Kakhi Kavsadze), another, more formidable and active local bandit who also has pretences to being a guerilla warrior in the rebellion of the Basmachi. As the Soviets chased him, Abdullah was forced to abandon his harem because they were slowing him down: intending to execute them all to save them becoming other men’s wives, Abdullah shot two before the soldiers forced him to flee.
.
WhiteSunOfTheDesert06
.
Sukhov is determined not to get caught up in any more adventures and won’t join the hunt for Abdullah. Rakhimov instead convinces him to take charge of the women and get them to a nearby coastal village, and assigns the very young soldier Petrukha (Nikolai Godovikov) to help. Sukhov leads the women, dressed in their utterly depersonalising, full-body burqas and only identifiable by height, across the sands to the coast. There they enter a tiny village distinguished by some oil tanks, a thatch of houses, and proximity to some ancient ruins that have been made into a museum (actually the old Silk Road city of Merv, a fascinating real-life location). Sukhov and Petrukha set up camp in the museum, but don’t know some of Abdullah’s men have remained behind. The bandits knock Petrukha out when he’s left behind with the women and ambush Sukhov whilst he’s bathing in the sea. Sukhov gives a display of why he’s famous and lasted so long: he snatches a gun from the hand of a bandit and shoots down two, whilst a third is lassoed by Sayid, who’s trailed his saviour. Sukhov realises that Abdullah is planning to return to the village, because a ship beached on the coast near the oil tanks is the only form of transport on hand that can get himself, his men, and his plunder away. The closest thing to authority in the town is the former Tsarist customs officer Pavel Vereschagin (Pavel Luspekaev), who used to battle the area’s copious bandits and smugglers, but now is an aging drunkard, mourning the son he lost in World War I with his wife Nastasia (Raisa Kurkina) and sitting on an arsenal of weapons that makes his house a matter of interest to both sides of the local conflict. When Sukhov sends Petrukha to find out if Vereschagin is still living in his house, Vereschagin literally drags the young soldier inside via an open window. Charmed by Petrukha, who reminds him of his own dead boy, Vereschagin sings songs for him until Sukhov turns up. Sukhov passes Vereschagin’s odd test of nerve when the old man responds to Sukhov’s request for a light for his cigar by throwing out a burning stick of dynamite; Sukhov lights his smoke and tosses the bomb further along without demur. Vereschagin is initially happy to join Sukhov in defending the ship and the women from Abdullah, but his wife begs him not to risk his life.
.
WhiteSunOfTheDesert07
.
Like most seemingly simple, but vital things, White Sun of the Desert’s great popularity is surely bound up with the slippery and surprising density of its layering. The film swings between poles of drama and comedy with a spacey, sunstruck (or perhaps a vodka-glazed) head. The quiet, indolently catchy song Vereschagin sings to himself while plucking at a guitar and laying on his back with a bellyful of liquor, offers a fatalistic paean to the whims of “Your Honour Lady Luck.” The song by composer Isaak Schwarz and Bulat Okudzhava, which became a huge hit, is the only scoring, pervading many scenes like the crash of waves on the shoreline and the desert winds. When it was released in the United States, a critic dismissed the film as an escapist tale, and it is that. White Sun of the Desert is as light as a summer breeze, though dark and tragic moments punctuate the story, sustaining a truly unique blend of dogging nostalgia and idyllic optimism. Within its airy frame, White Sun of the Desert describes a sense of life as broad as a John Ford film; indeed Ford was one of Moytl’s singular influences, through the contrast of vast space and enclosed interpersonal drama in films like Stagecoach (1939) and 7 Women (1966), and perhaps the desolate situation of The Lost Patrol (1934), though that film’s feeling of nightmarish, assailed existential crisis is transmuted into blithe absurdity. Here, drama is elemental, the tone dreamlike, albeit mostly a daydream, the strange and jagged sense of locale and behaviour touched with just the faintest edge of surrealism as Motyl depicts as an array of boxes jutting out of the otherwise barren earth, a tiny space of civilisation wedged between zones of inhospitable elements, fought over by perverse emissaries of clashing societies. A light dusting of the otherworldly is apparent in the way Motyl films the actors treading the desert sand as if dissolving in and out of the earth, the way the nine faceless women strut in the sands, and the sight of Sukhov climbing the crest of a dune and being confronted with the endless blue of the sea.
.
WhiteSunOfTheDesert08
.
Moments of slapstick comedy occasionally punctuate the more wry comedic texture, from a trio of aged Arabs having their caps blown off by an explosion to young Petrukha being told by an unseen voice to raise his hands and then being promptly grabbed by Vereschagin from out of the frame and hauled into a window above. Later, one of Abdullah’s villainous compadres, a White faction exile, is hurled bodily out of another of Vereschagin’s windows when he comes looking to steal some weapons: “His grenades are the wrong calibre,” the soldier tells a comrade after picking himself up by way of face-saving explanation. The Arabs have been sitting against a wall for so long that none of them can remember why, and one of them can’t be awakened by even the loudest blast. Far from the overpowering postures of Soviet Realism, Motyl surely found his audience’s heart with both the fondness and the lightly satiric attitude he turns on Sukhov and his sense of cause, as well as appealing through a story that evokes generations of Orientalist adventures.
.
WhiteSunOfTheDesert09
.
Sukhov is undoubtedly an ideal Soviet hero, happily proletarian but blessed with good manners, down to earth, pure of heart, resourceful, and indefatigable. He has many of the qualities of a mythic hero in spite of his personal modesty, including a weapon with a suggestive backstory—his revolver is a personal gift from his commander—and his status as eternal wanderer, Odysseus with a Red Army badge. Sukhov also wields a terse sense of humour even at the most awkward moments: when a villain asks him if he wants to die or be tortured first and then die, Sukhov, ever a pragmatist, replies ever so coolly, “I’d like to be tortured.” Time is time, and even the slight delay Sukhov buys by annoying his captors through such glib gambits gives him a chance. When he springs into action, he blends speed and guile as well as innate survival skill, as when he guns down the bandits who bail him up with a show of agility and gunplay that would make a John Woo hero proud.
.
WhiteSunOfTheDesert010
.
But Sukhov still needs help to win, because he is also a faintly hapless, occasionally flummoxed, very human figure who makes some costly mistakes. It’s hard to find a likeness for Sukhov in western cinema. He’s reminiscent of the heroes of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), as a protagonist who’d like to take things easy but finds life keeps pushing him into dangerous and demanding situations. He’s laconic and quick with a dry quip and people instantly sense his potential to dominate a situation, like Casablanca‘s (1942) Rick Blaine, but he lacks wounded mystique. A breed of hero he resembles lay more in future Hollywood films than in the past, in dudes like Indiana Jones and John McClane — rugged, exceptionally competent swashbucklers who nonetheless definitely feel pain and often look at the dangers facing them with a bedraggled, self-aware sense of incredulity before the ridiculous. But he’s far more laid-back than any of these guys, instead approaching people and problems forthrightly and with decent good-humour, as if Andy Griffith had decided to become an action star. Surely much of the film’s appeal to the home-town crowd lies in the crucial dialectic it offers, one of the generations and the concepts of Russia. Sukhov appeals to Vereschagin for aid, a touch that echoes another of Motyl’s models, High Noon (1952). The old Tsarist officer reclines detached from the world in his house, with its walls clad in mementos of his youth and the world of the Belle Époque. Vereschagin wants to go out like a man, but he’s stopped at first by his wife’s desperate appeals. Vereschagin’s immobilised distraction and Sukhov’s forthright ethic seem directly opposed but are obviously two sides of the same coin. The two men are united by the cool, stoical attitude they wield, casually batting aside the irritations of life and getting on with their own business. Both can also sink a shot of vodka with aplomb. The spirits represented by Vereschagin and Sukhov permeate the very fabric of the film – the tensions of old and new, the haunted being and the hopeful, commitment and carelessness. As Sukhov contends with the problem of his nine female charges, Motyl makes a joke with more depth than it seems to have at first, contemplating the problem of bringing new ideas to people who don’t necessarily see what’s so great about them, and very lightly basting the officious creeds spreading them.
.
WhiteSunOfTheDesert011
.
White Sun of the Desert is indeed partly a film about clashing cultures and values, though the avatars of these systems tend to collide rather more often than interact. Early in the film Sukhov notes that “The East is a delicate matter” (one of the film’s most consequential and oft-quoted lines), and Sukhov is still as fallible as any in this context. Ignorant of any other lifestyle, the wives immediately decide that, having been abandoned by Abdullah, Sukhov is their new husband. Sukhov is a good Soviet soldier and tells the ladies they are now free according to the gospel of Bolshevik liberation. “These nine liberated women of the East are precious things, too!” he tells the museum curator, who doesn’t want anyone upsetting the exhibits. Sukhov is fazed when he walks in on the ladies whilst washing, and they all impulsively grab their skirts and lift them over their faces, preferring to bare their lovely midriffs to him rather than their visages before deciding that as their new husband, he has the right. Their faces do indeed have more power than their bodies (even one who has a thicker moustache than Clark Gable), sending Sukhov’s mind reeling, all hot coals in comparison to Katerina’s stolid creaminess. Sukhov houses them in a room of the museum and hangs a banner from the ceiling that reads, “Down with prejudice — Women are human beings. too!” The notion that the male hero is more of a feminist than the women he’s aiding is grand wit, but Motyl also disassembles this precept as Sukhov chooses the youngest of the women, 15-year-old Gyulchatai (Tamara Fedotova), who is also the most animated and easily distracted member of the harem, to be his official interlocutor with the other wives.
.
WhiteSunOfTheDesert012
.
Gyulchatai interprets this as being appointed favourite, which gives her status over the others, but also make her the target of blame when Sukhov shows no interest in them. They suggest Gyulchatai dance before him and inflame his passions, but she succeeds only in bewildering the warrior. Sukhov tries to explain that the women can now cast aside their veils and each take a husband. Gyulchatai, working through this proposition, retorts that this means she would have to do all the work for one man that the wives currently share between them. “That’s the way things are,” Sukhov replies, breezily confirming the limits of his own revolutionary outlook. Contrasting both Sukhov and Vereschagin is the adolescent romanticism of Petrukha, the boy soldier, who notices Gyulchatai’s unruly side in spite of her correctness. He finds opportunities to talk to her, urging her to “Show your sweet face!” in a certain amount of hope, as he’s fascinated initially by a walking bag. The influence of the dreaded Eastern decadence insinuates its way into Sukhov’s thoughts, and he eventually indulges a daydream whilst lazing in the heat of the sun on guard duty imagining Katerina Matveyevna joining him and his new bevy of females as he lounges in a potentate’s costume. He immediately pays the price for this lapse, as a small army sneaks under his nose.
.
WhiteSunOfTheDesert013
.
Motyl uses the setting as an organic stage, as enclosed and acausal as the settings of Beckett’s dramas, the plains of Dali’s paintings, the Zone of Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979), and the people wandering through it as hardboiled avatars of their mutual, intensely insular, cultural sensibilities. Motyl expertly mines this situation for its simultaneous openness and treacherousness: the vistas are vast and seem wide open, and yet the smallest sand dune can hide something nasty lying in wait, a curve in the shape of reality that can swallow you. Something of Sergei Paradjanov’s anthropological and folkloric sensibility, which also often called back to the blank, two-dimensional display of early cinema and photography, permeates Motyl’s palette, whilst the way Motyl uses the natural elements even recalls the theatrical machinery of Georges Méliès. Although the necessary sparseness of Motyl’s shots couldn’t be more different to the baroquely crammed images of filmmakers like Sergei Eisenstein and Josef von Sternberg, he does nonetheless evoke them in the way his frames, even as they’re depicting moments of urgent action, retain a fragmented, pictographic quality, flowing by in momentary islets of vivid, oblique strangeness, from Sayid’s head suddenly revealed jutting from the sand like some lost Easter Island statue, to the frieze-like depictions of Katerina in her natural habitat. Motyl mimics Vereschagin’s collection of postcards, photographs, the squared-off display of such vintage keepsakes pinned to the walls of his house to evoke the cultural memory of a lost era. The viewer is forced to assume the same attitude as Sukhov, knowing something utterly odd might be just around the corner, and forced to take it as it comes.
.
WhiteSunOfTheDesert014
.
Motyl, Belarussian by birth, had gotten into trouble with Soviet authorities with his previous film, Zhenya, Zhenechka, and ‘Katyusha’ (1967), for its “disrespectful” take on the Great Patriotic War, clearly identified with the displaced state of Sukhov and his pining for a place in the world. His setting and time frame here, as well as the delicacy of the humour he employed, allowed him to bring just the hint of a scallywag attitude to onerous official creeds whilst also earnestly celebrating his hero as an exemplar, and proved here at least that he understood his audience exactly. The film changes radically in emotional key if not in apparent style once Abdullah turns up, trailing a force including Sayid, who, after shooting down three of Abdullah’s men when they seemed to be attacking him, is convinced by the bandit to join his party for a better chance of avoiding being buried to his chin again. Whilst Sukhov snoozes with dreams of harem comfort, Abdullah and his force enter the museum, and Abdullah first sneaks into the women’s quarters and strangles Gyulchatai, and then uses her veil to surprise Petrukha and kill him with his own rifle’s bayonet. The key image of slaughtered youth, scanned in a high shot by Motyl’s camera affecting a godlike blend of dispassion and awareness, drives Vereschagin to rouse himself and help Sukhov in fighting off Abdullah. Abdullah is an immediately persuasive and eye-catching villain, as Motyl cast Kavsadze, a good-looking hulk of an actor who threatens to outweigh Sukhov not just in size but as a potent screen presence, one whose sadistic violence is just as offhand and unfussy as Sukhov’s heroism. Abdullah’s sense of entitled authority immediately manifests in his ugly killing of Gyulchatai and then asking his remaining wives why they haven’t saved him the trouble of killing them by doing it themselves in obedience to his will.
.
WhiteSunOfTheDesert015
.
Fortunately, Sukhov manages to bail up Abdullah before he can kill anymore, holding a gun on him and forcing him to send his men off to prepare the ship for departure. This gives Sukhov time to spirit the women off via a secret, hidden tunnel out of the ruins shown to him by the museum curator. Abdullah avenges himself by shooting the curator dead. Sukhov and the wives are forced to take refuge in the only hiding place available, one of the large empty oil tanks on the shore, but the bandits quickly locate them there. Abdullah has his men pump oil from a rail tanker to pool around the hideout and prepares to casually roast them all alive within, but Sayid intervenes and blows up the tanker and some of Abdullah’s men with it. Meanwhile, Vereschagin enlists his wife to dispose of the arsenal, and then sneaks aboard the bandits’ ship and battles the crew. He kills or throws them all overboard before taking command in a cheer-along display of grit and prowess, one made more affecting by the off-screen story of Luspekaev, a WWII veteran and experienced stage actor who acted in the film in spite of having both feet amputated because of war injuries; he died not long after the film was completed. The bitter kicker here is that Vereschagin is unaware that Sukhov and Petrukha have booby-trapped the boat, and he inadvertently blows himself and the boat sky high in the moment of his triumph, disappearing in a plume of white water.
.
WhiteSunOfTheDesert016
.
Inadvertent tragedy gives Sukhov the chance to elude and defeat his besiegers, climaxing in a memorable comeuppance for Abdullah that evokes the finale of White Heat (1949), as Sukhov guns Abdullah down on the oil tanker. The villain slides down the tank’s ladder, gripping onto rails, his death signed with fearsome, mythic display of his grip on life. Motyl winnows his drama down to a succession of finalising images of great power. When Sukhov plugs him, Abdullah’s fingers reflexively tighten on the trigger of his machine pistol, firing off shots one by one, his aggression suddenly impotent, possibly an even more directly phallic joke considering that the entire story has revolved around Abdullah’s sexual domain. Vereschagin’s wife walks the beach alone, approaching a solitary horse in the dusk as “Your Honour Lady Luck” returns to the soundtrack, soulfully underscoring the notion that in violent conflicts, each victory is another’s loss. The note repeats as Sukhov bids farewell to the wives but pauses when he reaches the missing space where Gyulchatai would have stood, the meaningful end to Motyl’s repeated tracking shock along the row, stricken through with a tragicomic awareness that the surface interchangeableness of the women was illusory, and a hole is left in the world precisely by Sukhov’s efforts to call them into individual consciousness. As for Sukhov himself, like many a legendary hero and western gunslinger, he disappears into the wastes he came from, sad but not disheartened. He’s heading for home once more, but of course in spirit, he’s still wandering out in the wilderness, where people will inevitably need his help again.

Standard
1960s, Western

Major Dundee (1965)

.
MajorDundee01
.
Director/Coscreenwriter: Sam Peckinpah

The Days of High Adventure: A Journey through Adventure Film

By Roderick Heath

Young Fresno-born Sam Peckinpah spent a stint in the army in the waning days of WWII and was sent to China as part of a noncombat unit assigned to keep peace between the Chinese and Japanese soldiers after the surrender. As Peckinpah told it, this job became a gruesome spectacle of factional vengeance that left terrible impressions upon him, blossoming into the dark and dangerous melancholia that would fuel both his life problems and his art in later years. After mustering out, Peckinpah did what a lot of young, creative ex-servicemen did—he headed for Hollywood, where he subsisted for years as a sometime actor and TV stagehand. Peckinpah quickly gained a bad reputation for his spiky attitude, but in time became a reliable aide and protégé to Don Siegel, who eventually gave him the task of performing uncredited revisions on the script of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956).
.
MAJOR DUNDEE
.
That film’s success gave Peckinpah the courage to try writing for TV, and then, directing. He gained a reputation working multiple roles on the show The Westerner, whose star, Brian Keith, helped Peckinpah gain his break as feature director, on 1961’s The Deadly Companions. A minor, modest but interesting western, The Deadly Companions established Peckinpah’s rugged sense of the western landscape and aesthetic, a blend of the barbarous and the limpidly evocative. With his second film, Ride the High Country (1962), Peckinpah emerged as a powerful and individual talent with one eye for tradition, giving Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott an inspired testimonial, whilst also laying groundwork for dragging the ’50s “adult western” style into a new zone of harsh eccentricity. The weird and unpredictable blend of posturing macho and arch romantic, provocateur and sensitive artist, great filmmaker and self-destructive rebel, would define Peckinpah in the popular imagination until his death in 1984 and beyond.
.
MajorDundee03
.
Bankrolled by Columbia Studios to round out Charlton Heston’s contract, Major Dundee’s shoot was rocked by discord in the studio and unease with Peckinpah’s growing predilection for on-set hell-raising. Although he and Peckinpah quarrelled violently, Heston still offered to forego his own salary to appease the studio and ensure the film was completed to Peckinpah’s satisfaction. The studio kept the money, but the production was still halted before shooting was done, and a truncated rump of Peckinpah’s vision eventually was released. Peckinpah, embittered and almost blackballed by the industry, managed to rehabilitate his reputation with the telemovie Noon Wine (1968) before The Wild Bunch (1969), for a brief, crucial moment, saw the man’s best abilities coincide with the receptivity of the audience.
.
MajorDundee04
.
Today, Major Dundee is often dismissed as a warm-up for The Wild Bunch, especially because Peckinpah purposefully recycled elements in the latter film, determined to salvage the essence of his art from the ill-starred earlier work and put it over with an even more furious and unvarnished effect. Both films depict a band of quarrelsome Americans spilling over the Mexican border and being caught up in a local conflict that offers the chance for a nobler end than they ever counted on. Dundee, however, demands respect and reassessment as Peckinpah’s keystone work and a work of vital transition in American screen culture. Costar R. G. Armstrong called the film “Moby Dick on horseback,” an accurate description because of its portrait of a leader as half-colossus, half-madman whose pursuit of a deadly, almost omnipresent foe threatens to resolve only in the consummation of a romance with death. Even after a major reconstruction to try to repair it, Major Dundee is anything but an uncompromised or flawless success, but in some ways, that makes it all the more tantalising as a relic of a great director coming of age.
.
MajorDundee05
.
Where Peckinpah had laced references to his childhood into Ride the High Country, Major Dundee has many intimations of self-portraiture via Heston’s title character, a man of superlative gifts who seems to be driven to acts of risky defiance and self-debasement. The film’s opening seems to nod to Cy Endfield’s similar portrait of men on the edge between civilisations, Zulu (1964), with a voiceover reporting massacre and calumny. The time is the waning days of the Civil War; the place, rural New Mexico, where would-be titans can strut their stuff. Infamously ingenious and brutal Mescalero Apache chief Sierra Charriba (Michael Pate) has just wiped out a column of Union cavalry, leaving only two members of the company alive: Indian scout Riago (José Carlos Ruiz), whose disappearance and return make him the object of suspicion as a traitor, and young bugler Tim Ryan (Michael Anderson Jr.), who had been sent to fetch aid for his commander. The relief, led by Maj. Amos Dundee (Heston), arrives too late, finding the corpses of the force and settlers scattered around a blazing farmhouse. Dundee, has been placed in charge of a military garrison on the fringes of nation and psyche, with a prison crammed full of ornery Confederate prisoners his chief responsibility, as punishment for exceeding his orders at Gettysburg. Dundee sees a chance to reclaim his standing by hunting down Charriba, but lacks the manpower to wage a campaign and keep the prison well-guarded. He puts out a call for volunteers and reaps a collection of weathered frontiersmen, including one-armed tracker Samuel Potts (James Coburn), perma-pickled muleskinner Wiley (Slim Pickens), and fighting preacher man Rev. Dahlstrom (Armstrong). Still short of men, Dundee asks for volunteers from among the Confederates.
.
MajorDundee06
.
Dundee knows the only hope he has for gaining the peaceful cooperation of the rebels is to do exactly the last thing he wants—negotiate with their beloved commander Capt. Benjamin Tyreen (Richard Harris), an Irish immigrant with a relentless desire for status and advancement as a gentleman of rank. He was Dundee’s West Point classmate and best friend until Dundee participated in a court martial over a duel that got Tyreen kicked out of the army, only to find another chance as an eager rebel. Dundee tries to maintain a high-handed attitude over Tyreen during negotiations, reminding him that he and his men have two alternatives, hanging as punishment for a recent escape attempt or doing as he says, but Tyreen refuses, knowing that he has Dundee over a barrel. Dundee finally takes out his frustration by visiting Tyreen in his cell and socking him, a gesture Tyreen reciprocates so the two men can finally strike a bargain. Dundee knows that Tyreen takes his sense of honour so seriously his oath will bind him to serve until Charriba is killed or captured. Tyreen brings with him a motley outfit of Southerners, including redneck brothers O. W. and Arthur Hadley (compulsory Peckinpah character actors Warren Oates and L. Q. Jones). But Dundee’s army isn’t quite complete, not until Aesop (Brock Peters) requests that he and his unit of black soldiers who have been serving as guards and flunkies for years without any action, be given a chance to serve, too. Dundee leads this force of uneasy compatriots across the Rio Grande in pursuit of an enemy who seemingly wants Dundee to give chase.
.
MajorDundee07
.
Major Dundee’s scope encompasses a commentary on the history of the western genre Peckinpah so loved, as well as the proper commencement of his deconstruction of it. It is also a veritable stab at writing a creation myth for modern America, commenting on the state of the union circa 1965 as much as 1865, replete with overtones not just of Melville and Shakespeare, but also Greek sagas—not for nothing is one character named Priam. As the social compacts and conventions that had sustained the healing of the union after the Civil War finally frayed in the years since Little Rock, popular cinema had struggled to find new ways to explore the changing face of American society. Peckinpah’s Melvillian references echo the way the great author portrayed the nation as a polyglot driven by a possibly insane struggle with ancient forces and susceptible to visionaries with suspect goals. Peckinpah is less fatalistic here in spite of his corrosive intentions, for Major Dundee is a tale of ironic triumph and unification, often evoking the sense of communal life and fascination for rites of passage that tied together John Ford’s films. Major Dundee is in part Peckinpah’s tribute to Ford, as a partial remake of Ford’s Rio Grande (1950), recasting John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara’s war-cleaved couple as Dundee and Tyreen’s broken comradeship, whilst Dundee evokes Henry Fonda’s ill-fated antihero from Fort Apache (1948). Columbia had actually wanted Ford to direct the project, but he was busy making his mea culpa, Cheyenne Autumn (1964).
.
MajorDundee008
.
For Peckinpah, then, it became a dialogue and argument with old masters. Ford had been the great cinematic mythologian for that declining social compact, and Peckinpah highlights the manifold schisms of class and race and the problems of international relations overtaking the national dialogue at the time. The foreign adventuring depicted is half careerist folly, half Quixotic crusade. Equally, Major Dundee fits into a wave of post-Lawrence of Arabia (1962) epic films studying flawed, neurotic would-be übermenschen, including Lord Jim (1965) and Khartoum (1966), also starring Heston, whose aura of the titanic he cleverly adapted and twisted as the taste of the time shifted from the simple heroism of his Moses: Heston plays up Dundee’s smug charisma and physical authority, striding rigidly and defiantly through a sea of infuriated Confederate prisoners, lounging with feet on table as he interviews men to join him on his ego crusade—the essence of swagger—all the better to watch him crumble in the face of impotence and self-doubt. Part and parcel of Major Dundee’s force lies in its male leads giving two of their best performances. Harris, in his first starring role in an American film after This Sporting Life (1963) made him famous (he learned he’d been nominated for an Oscar on set), delivers an expert alternation of gestures soft, batting his eyes with almost coquettish appeal at ladies who stumble into his path, and hard, as when he replies with the precision of a spitting cobra to an uppity Southron underling, “I’m not your uncle, you redneck peckerwood.”
.
MajorDundee009
.
Dundee and Tyreen are unruly Dioscuri for this neo-Iliad, symbolic of contrasts and engaged in a constant battle of wills made all the more fraught by the personal affection underlying their conflict and their intense similarity, a common thread of Peckinpah’s work. History is written in their names, the troubled dichotomy of Scot and Irish and their relationship to external power amplified by the new domain’s schism of Union and Confederate, loyalist and rebel. But neither man is so singular, each containing more than a little of the other, Tyreen primly correct in his chivalrous pretences, Dundee bullishly individual as the company man. It is very easy indeed to see the pair as Peckinpah’s projected self-concept, his awareness of his volatile and contradictory place in the movie industry and his society in general, as well as his anxiety over where that might eventually lead him. Tim Ryan could be young Peckinpah thrust into the wilds of China, about to be treated to all the great and terrifying experiences a youth could ask for. Around this triptych Peckinpah and his fellow screenwriters Harry Julian Fink and Oscar Saul create a Dickensian gallery of types. The most important is Jim Hutton’s Lt. Graham, another professional but inexperienced soldier seeming to lack all of the ornery specificity of Dundee and Tyreen, in love with artillery, his specific discipline, but initially inept at the ordinary soldierly business of mustering men. Soon after Dundee leads his men in the wilderness, Arthur Hadley tries to bait Aesop, sparking a fight between the two men that becomes the first test of the uneasy contract of the company. Dundee leaves it to Tyreen to intervene as he should, but Dahlstrom takes a hand first, defending Aesop and beating the crap out of Arthur: “Preacher, you sure kick up a lot of dust with your sermon!” one soldier complains as Arthur lands on him in a cloud of dirt. Tyreen then defuses the stand-off that seems imminent by praising Aesop and his men for their professional skill. Legitimacy is acknowledged, a barrier broken, a new paradigm instantly created.
.
MajorDundee010
.
Peckinpah’s love of odyssey narratives dictates that Major Dundee become a tale as much about the journey and the picaresque epiphanies that come on the way as it is about goals and climaxes, anticipating the vignettes and cultural purview of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1972) and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1973) as well as the cracked romanticism of Junior Bonner (1972). The expedition is soon brutally tempered when Charriba lures the major into a trap, sending an elderly member of his war party to entice the Americans with the chance of recapturing the children taken captive during the massacre. Dundee loses many men in the subsequent fight when Charriba’s stroke falls on them during a night river crossing. The company manages to fight their way out, but with their supplies lost. The only choice before Dundee is to head into a nearby village that’s garrisoned by the troops from the French army, in the midst of the Juarista rebellion.
.
MajorDundee011
.
Entering the village, Dundee and his men bear immediate witness to the brutality of the imperialist repression, hanged men dangling from ropes as warnings (according to an urban legend, Peckinpah had real dead bodies used for the scene), and happily use force to extricate the French from their garrison. Bloodless revolution segues into happy fiesta, as the villagers throw a party in celebration. The bedraggled men of Dundee’s force are tended by Teresa Santiago (Senta Berger), the Austrian-born wife of a local doctor who has been put to death for helping the rebels, and her protégé Linda (Begoña Palacios, Peckinpah’s future second wife). Teresa is archetype for many of the women who cross paths with Peckinpah’s men, as starkly individual and closed-off as them, tantalising in her open and giving sensuality, but also potentially frustrating to their machismo for her unwillingness to be defined entirely by one lover: Dundee, Tyreen, and Graham compete for her favour, whilst Linda, an energetic sprite, deflowers Ryan in the midst of an explosion of joy.
.
MajorDundee012
.
The village sequence is close to the best thing Peckinpah ever did, a dream of frontier chivalry and communal festivity, the unifying desperation for a sense of purpose, colour, and nobility to life rather than petty oppression and everyday tyrannies. As such, it counterpoints the notorious ballets of blood in The Wild Bunch, eros to its thanatos, whilst also clearly providing the blueprint for the later film’s sadder, more elegiac village visit; the village could well be the same, taking the later criminal band as the ghosts of the good fellows under Dundee, the degraded end of the dream. The sequence also represents Peckinpah’s most overt nod to Ford, reproducing one of Ford’s favourite gags of the young tenderfoot skewered in the butt by an apache arrow and tended with necessary roughness, leading into a sprawl of behavioural delight, from Dundee and Tyreen both plotting how to seduce Teresa only to be foiled by rubber-limbed, half-shickered Graham cutting in for a dance, and Ryan and Linda swapping a look of knowing intensity before ducking out. Linda chasing after Ryan to give him his hat in the midst of the morning’s hangovers and pausing for a farewell kiss certainly represents Peckinpah’s most tender, sentimental interlude.
.
MajorDundee013
.
Dundee has a good tactical reason for letting his men get wildly drunk and the French officers escape—to entice more French soldiers on a punitive mission and ambush them. This tactic gains Dundee’s forces supplies and arms and time to recover to return to dogging Charriba’s trail, but it also lays the seed for a potentially destructive rift in the group when the memory of the sensual delights of the village becomes too strong and O. W. absconds. O. W. is dragged back by a search party, accompanied by Teresa, who’s hiding out from French reprisals, and Dundee makes clear his intention to have O. W. shot as a deserter, sparking the smouldering rage of the Confederates. The straightforward hunt has devolved into some kind of existential quest, the point of which is lost deep in Dundee’s psyche and can’t be extracted except in crisis.
.
MajorDundee014
.
The lust for transcendence that drives Dundee beyond the bounds of safe and sane enterprise is, interestingly, a trait that links him with Charriba, whose predations represent not tribal interests but Charriba’s warlike ego, making him and Dundee less fighters for their distinct cultures and more like Sergio Leone’s eternal warriors in an appropriately primal landscape. It emerges early on that Charriba clearly wants to destroy Dundee to create a Little Bighornish legend for himself “to be sung around his tribe’s campfires for a thousand years,” and declares with cackling delight when he thinks he’s about to drop the fatal stroke, “Who will you send against me now?” But Dundee and company instead ambush and destroy Charriba in a deliberately anticlimactic battle, having suckered him in at last by turning his egotism against him. Ryan’s maturation encompasses internal struggle of a kind none of the others can share, in large part because the campaign against Charriba is more personal for him than anyone in spite of his tender years: his pain for the loss of his comrades and his desire for mindless revenge on the Apache scout Riago, whose loyalty is in doubt to everyone except Potts, become interior rhymes to the external conflicts between the other men. Riago’s innocence is grotesquely proven when he’s caught and killed by Charriba, but the chieftain is then himself gunned down by Ryan on the cusp of believed victory, marking both the perfect last of Ryan’s rites of manhood and also the ironic punchline of the great drama: Ryan’s feat is the sardonic undercutting of another man’s myth.
.
MajorDundee015
.
The landscape Peckinpah creates is brutal and littered with sights and sounds affixed with dreamlike intensity and totemistic import. A blood-smeared cloth tied to a cross made with a sapling and a sabre. A dead girl dressed in white lying riddled with arrows being picked up and carried away by dark-suited men. Flayed, tortured bodies dangling from ropes, another pinned to a tree in a frontier pieta. One-armed and bible-touting righteous warriors. Lakes and rivers of pellucid stillness contrasted with dangling corpses. Moonlit meetings between would-be lovers amidst stark ruins that stand like the gates between lives. Linda and Teresa each watching with sad pride as the scrappy heroes depart. Columns of dazzlingly coloured French dragoons carving the ruddy Mexican earth. Dundee pictured in the moment of his victory surrounded by the barbed branches of a thorny tree, reckoning the size of the felled Charriba with Ryan (“He doesn’t look so big now does he?” “He was big enough, son.”). Signs of human civilisation infiltrate the landscape, already burnt and blistered by time and elements, structures of bare brick like rotten teeth jutting from the earth. Peckinpah’s framings, via Sam Leavitt’s excellent photography, alternates surveys of a vast and impersonal land with tangled and thorny hives, Peckinpah’s urgent desire to get across the feel of the earth, dust, and heat as part of the texture of his film, becoming all the more palpable the farther he drives into the Mexican hinterlands, and the essential mystique of Peckinpah’s sense of this place is created.
.
MajorDundee016
.
Heston interestingly noted that he and Peckinpah’s quarrels were partly generated by their schismatic concept for the work: Heston wanted to make a film about the Civil War via the microcosmic drama, whilst Peckinpah was already wrestling with the interior struggle of humanism and nihilism that would later galvanise The Wild Bunch. This split accounts for the volatility of Major Dundee and its lack of narrative balance, but also gets to the heart of the film’s power, the dialogue of external and internal wars. Dark frontier logic emerges as Dundee asks why their Apache guides would betray their own kin and help the gringos, to which Potts replies, “Well why not? Everyone else seems to be doing it.” The execution of O. W. provides a crucial pivot in the psychic drama in the film, a bigger event than Charriba’s death as the limits of Dundee’s authority and Tyreen’s honour—and through them everything they stand for—are tested through the awful spectacle of a man begging for his life (an exceptional moment for the ever-excellent Oates). Tyreen actually does the dirty work of killing his subordinate, in part to diffuse the blame, but he promptly vows to kill Dundee once the mission is completed. Dundee begins to fray, taking time out for a sexual frolic with Teresa in the woods, straying beyond the limits of his command only to receive an arrow in the thigh from some of Charriba’s raiders, as close to a castration as cinema could get. Dundee is crippled and Tyreen, still fuming, pointedly asks, “Just what the hell do you think you’re doing, Amos?”
.
MajorDundee017
.
Dundee has to be taken into Durango, garrisoned by the French, to get medical attention and recover. Ensconced in a grimy rented room, Dundee rapidly descends from imperious leader to alcoholic wretch bedding his nursemaid, Melinche (Aurora Clavel). This sequence, and particularly the moment when Teresa comes to visit Dundee and finds him with Melinche, is the exposed nerve of Peckinpah’s work here, the feeling of a deep personal investment in Dundee’s cringing shame and debasement in the eyes of a woman he respects. The depiction of deep regret and the fear of being exposed as pathetic, febrile, and helpless, is a moment of King Lear-like gravitas and utterly immediate emotion, all the more telling considering that Peckinpah was reported to have done more or less did the same thing during the shoot. After Teresa leaves abruptly, Dundee turns into a lonely, slovenly wanderer limping about the town, unnoticed by locals and French alike. The movement depicting Dundee’s disgrace in Durango was mostly cut and left as a ghost in the original theatrical cut, and stands as the most crucial acheivement of the restoration. Dundee is rescued unwillingly by Tyreen, who, for all his punitive bluster, enters the town to find him and drag him out whilst the rest of the company fight off the French: Dundee tries to fight Tyreen off before collapsing and begging him to leave him to wallow. But Tyreen does manage to drag him away and soon Dundee resurges, now, tellingly, equipped with the kind of wily circumspection and understanding of his enemy, who was in part himself, that gives him the key to destroying Charriba by making a run for the border and forcing his foe to give chase if he wants his great event.
.
MajorDundee018
.
That fight ends, and Dundee and Tyreen stare at each other in a loaded moment wondering if they can actually duel or not, but then the appearance of pursuing French cavalry makes it an unnecessary question. The Americans find themselves trapped, with French dragoons lined up on the far side of the Rio Grande, determined to punish the rascal Americans. Thus, Dundee has no choice but to lead his men into a final action. The concept of violence as omnipresent, orgiastic consummation of base impulse that would consume Peckinpah on The Wild Bunch and Straw Dogs (1971) isn’t quite nascent here, partly because Peckinpah’s use of Seven Samurai-inspired slow-motion action shots, which would be used to concussive effect on The Wild Bunch, was unceremoniously excised by the studio, although the ensuing fight is still notably bold in depicting blood spilling to an extent very few films had done before. The depiction of men who have learned too well that they have feet of clay making a tilt at regaining their honour by taking on a corrupt regime in an impossible battle is nonetheless as crucial here for Peckinpah as in his works to come. The battle is a whirlwind of brilliantly handled action that retains a hint of Ford’s jauntiness, complete with Tyreen getting himself mortally wounded by saving the company’s flag from the French commander in a gesture not of mere patriotism, but for faith in the fellowship the men have created, thus recreating their country in miniature before riding into the midst of the massed French to die a death at once glorious and ugly. What’s left of Dundee’s troop rides into the Texan sagebrush, with the fitting final confirmation that their return home has come on the cusp of the Civil War’s very end, Dundee, the captain of the ruined band who are now, once again, countrymen.

Standard
1980s, Epic, Western

Heaven’s Gate (1980)

.
HeavensGate01
.
Director/Coscreenwriter: Michael Cimino

By Roderick Heath

Hollywood has never been kind to failure, but sometimes time is.

The real “Johnson County War” was a skirmish between cattle graziers and settlers in 1890s Wyoming, and had long been a cornerstone of western folklore. In the early 1970s, this true story was suggested as the subject for a potentially punchy, economical Western movie. The property kicked around United Artists studios for nearly a decade, with trash champion Michael Winner intending to shoot it at one point. Michael Cimino, still a rising screenwriter, was hired to polish Winner’s screenplay and found epic potential within the tale, and began fashioning the project into his personal take on the mythology of the West. Once Cimino was elevated to the status of major film artist by the Oscar-garlanded success with The Deer Hunter (1978), United Artists gave the director carte blanche and hoped he could revive the studio’s fortunes, which had only been interrupted by success with Rocky (1976). Cimino went to work with the same feverish and gruelling perfectionism that attended his last film, this time turning a big budget on a bygone era and troublesome subject. The shoot lumbered on, with rising costs and on-set mishaps exacerbated by Cimino’s heedless and exacting execution of his vision. Not since the heyday of Erich von Stroheim and Josef von Sternberg had Hollywood been visited by the spirit of such a relentless force yearning for greatness—it was almost as if Cimino was wilfully trying to write himself a legend of doomed artistry to equal theirs.
.
HeavensGate02
.
The stars that smiled on The Deer Hunter now conspired to destroy his follow-up. The ’70s, and the taste for shaded, introspective artistry in American film associated with that decade, were over. UA, left penniless by this large production, negotiated a takeover by MGM at the cost of essentially writing off their $40 million prestige film. After a few abortive screenings of the full-length cut, a severely edited version geared to attract action fans was dumped in theatres, but the audience was bewildered and mainstream critics were helpful in draping a shroud over the remnant’s corpse. The marriage of convenience between Hollywood and auteurism throughout the ’70s was annulled, with Cimino cast first as poster child and then as cautionary example, destined to wander the world with a corporate mark of Cain.
.
HeavensGate03
.
Politics may also have played a part in Cimino’s fate. The material of Heaven’s Gate was not far removed from traditional Hollywood fare; indeed the real events had inspired decades’ worth of oatsers, including Shane (1953). But Cimino, who had successfully plied his political viewpoint amidst odes to patriotic duty in The Deer Hunter, now revealed a more scabrous sense of American identity, turning this frontier tussle into a first round of an ongoing fight between big capital and labour, melting-pot democracy versus ruthless oligarchy, and outsider, underclass, ethnic struggle against WASP pseudo-aristocracy. Cimino was criticised for recasting the immigrants of Johnson County as a vivid, multilingual polyglot, recalling the Russian-American heroes of The Deer Hunter and their generally easy place in the modern social sprawl, with an eye to comprehending just how jarring and tense the early days of such a blend must have been. Just as Heaven’s Gate is visually a vast, violent, yet near-spiritual evocation of both American roots and the cinematic lexicon of the most expansive epic directors, the film’s historical thesis was concurrently harsh and negative. Some have questioned whether, as an unabashedly radical work, the film was fatally out of step with the mood of the oncoming Reagan era, and perhaps this contributed to its swift and merciless interment.
.
HeavensGate04
.
Anyway, all of that comprises the legend of Heaven’s Gate. When I first encountered Heaven’s Gate, the full-length cut residing forgotten on VHS in my local video store, I was bewildered, impressed, and finally smitten. Today, Heaven’s Gate is one of my favourite films in a way that has little to do with the way it was received and everything to do with what Cimino was trying to achieve. The stories of Cimino’s unstable profligacy may well be true and galling, but to behold Heaven’s Gate today is to see everything Cimino fought for up on screen, an artefact of cinematic craftsmanship with few equals and an artwork near-unique in the modern pantheon. Cimino’s talent for orchestrating both the grand and the intimate, proven on The Deer Hunter, was plied with even greater rigour and quiet intensity on Heaven’s Gate, a fluttering, humanistic romanticism carefully wrapped into the fabric of the film rather than spelt out in sententious terms. The film is replete with asides as pleasurable and personable as The Deer Hunter’s best moments, like antihero Nate Champion (Christopher Walken) blending anxiety and charm in showing off his frontier cabin’s new wallpaper—pages of newspaper plastered over the bare wood floors. Editing Heaven’s Gate to make it shorter was a fraught act, because in cutting seemingly simple things, the observational and rhythmic qualities of the film, the gestural and behavioural intricacies that define how the characters relate to each other, were lost. Early scenes depict Graduation Day for the Harvard class of 1872, nearly nonfunctional on a story level but vital in establishing the film’s mood and themes, of the shift of eras and the people caught up in them and the way the reality of mortality sneaks up on us.
.
HeavensGate05
.
The prologue is a portrait of young scions as angels bound to fall in the heady eruptions of Gilded Age America. Jim Averill (Kris Kristofferson) and Billy Irvine (John Hurt), college chums destined to find themselves on opposite sides of a violent struggle, are here still young and cheeky, their quirks and faults still charming as they celebrate coming of age in a time of peace and plenty. The ritualised rhetoric and celebration here contrast later, far more raucous and messy variations. The referenced spirit of Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) is confirmed by a quoted shot sweeping into the halls of the Establishment’s hub through wide doors, and the presence of Joseph Cotton as the university chaplain, who gives a windy speech full of patrician sentiment, handing the graduates the responsibility of intellectual and moral leadership over the nation. Billy’s riposte, as anointed class genius and man of letters, is to give a superficially disrespectful and satirical poetic discourse that actually contains a conservative message: “We disdain all intention of making a change, in what we consider, on the whole, well-arranged.” Oratorical dances segue into Strauss waltzes on the lawn, battles over garlands, and candlelight choruses regaling lady friends on high with school anthems, completing a vision of an already nostalgic moment of genteel perfection: “My god Billy, have you ever felt ready to die?” Jim asks his pal amidst the singers.
.
HeavensGate06
.
The past is another country: the film leaps to frontier Wyoming 20 years later, and finds Jim, having not died at the peak of romantic splendour in his youth, instead scrambling about on the floor of a first-class train compartment, inebriated and searching for his boots. Reminiscent of the eponymous hero of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), Jim is a warrior-poet without a war, his poetry squandered, haunted by the past and doomed to turn each woman he is drawn close to into an avatar for an image from lost youth. Still, having obeyed Horace Greeley and gone west, he has aged into a tough and boozy man trying to live up to peculiar ideals. Billy, who also styled himself a poet and perhaps even had hopes of dedicating himself to the art, has by this time reduced himself to a perpetually pickled yes-man to grotesque shows of moneyed power, having joined the Cattlemen’s Association, an oligarchy of businessmen angry at the influx of immigrants into grazing land. Jim’s return to Casper sees him quickly confronted by something ugly afoot, hinted by friendly Irish railway worker Cully (Richard Masur) and confirmed by the presence of dozens of loutish gunmen in town hired by the Association. They’re going to wage war on the immigrant farmers in Johnson County, a remote patch of frontier hard against the Rocky Mountains where Jim serves as sheriff.
.
HeavensGate07
.
When some of the gunmen assault an immigrant family, Jim intervenes, and then goes to a city club where the Association is meeting and its chairman, Frank Canton (Sam Waterston), is outlining the upcoming campaign. Jim extracts the truth from the drunk and shocked Billy and socks Canton in the mouth when he gets uppity before heading on to the county. On the way, he encounters another family—the father was gunned down on the road, and the mother is determined to keep leading her children to their new property and work it. But starvation is rife on the range: the Association is angry because the farmers, waiting to harvest their first crop, have been slaughtering their cattle for food or using them as currency. Prior to Jim’s arrival, Champion, himself an immigrant son who has become the chief enforcer for the Association, has gunned down a Slavic farmer who is in the middle of slaughtering a cow. When Jim reaches the county, he makes gifts to his friends—a Winchester rifle for bar owner and all-round entertainment promoter John L. Bridges (Jeff Bridges, who co-starred in Cimino’s debut Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, 1974) and a carriage for Ella Watson (Isabelle Huppert), his girlfriend and madam of the local brothel. Jim, aware and terrified of what is coming, tries to get Ella to leave, but she interprets this as his rejection of her, and so she accepts Nate’s offer of marriage.
.
HeavensGate08
.
As with The Deer Hunter, Cimino relays this tale via a series of lengthy, unified sequences, realised with painterly vistas and balletic camera movements. The mid-section describes the unfolding of Jim, Nate, and Ella’s romantic triangle, a quiet, almost unspoken crisis for the trio, and the roiling, lively community of Johnson County. There is purposeful contrast between the rude, plebeian energy of the colonising immigrants, for whom the success of the project of the West is a life-and-death proposition, and Jim’s distracted, dreamy sense of impotence in the face of forces beyond his control, partly indicted as patrician indulgence and partly celebrated as hard-won wisdom in the face of reality. In many ways, Heaven’s Gate feels like an act of remembrance, a la Sergio Leone’s similarly eccentric, mistreated epic Once Upon a Time in America (1984), as Cimino and Leone’s heroes are both defined by a sense of nagging nostalgia in spite of stripped illusions. Just as Jim is revealed as remembering his graduation as the scene shifts to 1890, so, too, does the epilogue, set in 1904, find Jim again reminiscing: the effects of experience and time on an individual are both described in and woven through the fabric of the film. Jim is indeed as much viewpoint as protagonist. Heaven’s Gate is often criticised on the level of characterisation, but Cimino communicates as much through visual signposts as dialogue, like the ever-present photo of Jim with his college girlfriend that hints both at the power of Jim’s nostalgia and also the destructive effect it’s having on his present, one cause of his inability to commit to Ella.
.
HeavensGate09
.
The triangular romance of Jim, Nate, and Ella is thus viewed not through sweepingly romantic postures associated with the epic in cinema, as with Rhett and Scarlett against the red sky in Gone with the Wind (1939) or Jack and Rose on the bow of the Titanic (1997), but through a series of textured interludes of interaction and discursive details. Ella, who has a hard and shrewd businesswoman under her flirty, flighty surface, makes romantic decisions with her head as well as heart: “Do you think a woman can’t love two men?” she prods Jim, whilst he gets drunk and calls her a dumb whore after learning she’s chosen Nate, who’s made her a better offer. Cimino sarcastically depicts frontier life as a place of flux where property is in contention, be it livestock, land, or personal affection, and sees no contradiction in these gestures. A central seriocomic sequence sees Ella asking Nate to carry a pickled Jim back to his room before he can return and get into bed with her, unfolding with a hazy, inebriated grace that reveals the strange, but real affections that tie the trio together and also what keeps them all at subtle loggerheads. Nate takes up Jim’s hat once he deposits him in his bed and places it on his own head, studies himself in the mirror and says with the all rueful admiration of a man gunning to replace the wounded titan, “I’ll say this for ya Jim—you’ve got class.”
.
HeavensGate10
.
Cimino counterpoints such carefully wrought depictions of the interpersonal with pageant-like explosions of communal action. The film seethes with a sense of life in the margins, as Cimino notes a populace fighting, gambling, labouring, fucking—at once impersonal and gruelling, embracing and cheerful. Social conflicts exist within the county’s populace, running the gamut from would-be bourgeois stalwarts to radical firebrands. Ella shows off her new carriage by charging into the midst of the town to the cheers of the rowdy men and the disapproval of the church congregation trying to celebrate the opening of their new place of worship. The wonderfully odd, Fellini-esque sequences when the Johnson County folk, following the lead of Ella’s fiddle-sawing employee John DeCory (David Mansfield), celebrate on new-fangled roller skates, reveals how the rudely compiled ethnicities in Johnson County have already fused into a quintessentially American populace, in their love of novelty and group optimism.
.
HeavensGate11
.
Cimino imbues this sequence with a faintly unreal, particularly dreamy quality, via peculiar scene grammar that contrives to make the crowd suddenly vanish, leaving Jim and Ella alone to dance in their private islet of romance. It’s also here Heaven’s Gate that most clearly contemplates the John Ford Western style. In that style, the travails of heroes and villains are only aspects of a much larger project, where reference is consistently made to rites of life and death, weddings, dances, births and funerals as shared by a community, but viewed now as if through the wrong end of a telescope—fantastic, slightly absurd, and over like it never was. Later, as the Association’s army nears, the citizenry stage a noisy, chaotic, yet nascent democratic mass meeting where Jim reads out the Association’s death list: mild businessman Eggleston (Brad Dourif) emerges as an angry and effective political voice, rousing the populace with his declaration that the Association represents people who “think poor people should have no say in the affairs of this country!” The town’s timid mayor Charlie Lezak (Paul Koslo) wants to hand over all the accused people on the list, only for the widow of one murdered ranger to blow his ear off with a badly aimed shot.
.
HeavensGate12
.
Nate coexists as both progeny of the class he’s called on to victimise and hard edge of the one he works for. Inevitably, perhaps, his cabin is well outside the town, situated in a bucolic meadow, distinct from all the communities he cannot join yet. There he keeps a small coterie of oddball coots (Geoffrey Lewis and Mickey Rourke) for friends. Nate’s reputation for willingly using brute force keeps him safe and wards off challenges, though he has his limits, revealed when he chooses to scare off a young immigrant about to slaughter a captured cow rather than shoot him. Nate is called off the fence once he gets Ella to commit to him, however, and after Jim makes clear what’s about to happen. When he gets steamed about one of the evil acts that heralds the Association army’s arrival in the county, Jim storms into their camp and shoots one of Canton’s fellows in the forehead as a declaration of his new intentions. Nate’s change of allegiances demands that Canton shut him down as a potentially fearsome rival, and so has the army bombard Nate’s cabin with a hail of bullets. Cimino’s take on the real events of the Johnson County War mostly follows his own whim, but here he recreates one of the most striking anecdotes of the incident, as Nate pens a farewell missive to Ella and Jim as his cabin burns down, before charging out to be gunned down in absurd overkill. Jim has already tried to convince the commander of a local cavalry outpost, Captain Minardi (Terry O’Quinn), to help keep peace. Minardi tells Jim he has his hands tied, and resists Jim’s moral pressure by suggesting Jim’s background saves him from having to make the kinds of grimly pragmatic decisions others are forced to, but gives him the Association’s “death list.” The seriocomic tone of the film’s middle third is severed abruptly as Cully sees a train race through Casper and halt just outside of town, bringing Canton, his pet soldier Major Walcott (Ronnie Hawkins), and the gunmen to the fringe of the frontier. Cully leaps onto a horse and rides out to warn Jim, but is caught sleeping by an advance guard and gunned down, the wide-open spaces of the Wyoming landscape (albeit actually in Montana) suddenly ranged with killers sweeping in waves across the grand landscape.
.
HeavensGate13
.
Cimino’s thesis holds that modern America owes it birth directly to ordinary people, to group effort and a shared vision for life, rather than to its individuals, no matter heroic and impressive they were. Some critics, perhaps saying more about their own politics than Cimino’s, labelled this the first Marxist Western. Bridges’ warehouse-cum-domicile, in which Jim keeps a single room, contains hundreds of immigrants, a little world of folk desperate for shelter amidst the great expanses of the West. Milos Forman’s Ragtime (1980) and Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York (2001), long-delayed but conceived around this time, tackled vitally similar themes of the forced evolution of America from a place run by a spiky western European enclave to heterogeneous society via seriously ugly birth pangs, with ethnic and class war abetted by the establishment. Depiction of the Association members treads close to melodrama in offering an array of fat cats with contempt for ordinary people, though there’s nothing greatly unusual in that. Waterston comes close to stealing the film with his imperiously hateful and arrogantly charismatic Canton, who casts himself as the embodiment of patrician right, playing the petty general, though Jim’s contempt for him (“You never were in my class Canton.”) hints that Canton is actually, like Nate, trying to leave behind humble roots by identifying with the forces of power and letting the centrifugal impetus that governs the nation sweep him to its pivot. Jim’s definition of aristocratic responsibility means protecting and sheltering his citizens against the baronial assumptions of the Association, but his and Billy’s gentlemanly, classically educated style looks increasingly irrelevant when compared to both the rapacious greed of Canton’s kind and the robust hunger of the immigrants. The aristocrats can no longer rule and mediate in this free-for-all modern world, this gilded America. Irvine, cheeky gadabout, becomes the emblem of befuddled privilege, incapable of separating himself in the way Jim has from the herd, even though the two men are both close in their overfondness for liquor and sense of waning and longing: Irvine’s fate is appropriately absurd, dying unnoticed in the riotous action, shot dead by Jim’s girlfriend whilst pining for Paris.
.
HeavensGate14
.
Heaven’s Gate was both an apotheosis and last stand for the gritty, eccentric, deromanticised style of Western film that emerged from the mid-1960s, often called the revisionist or “mud and blood” western. This brand was sustained by the western’s ongoing popularity, but doomed to help kill that popularity by assaulting the genre’s presumptions through bloody, anti-mythological takes on the underlying history and milieu. Kristofferson, who gives probably his best performance, had debuted as an actor playing Billy the Kid for Sam Peckinpah, recast by that director, who helped to found the movement, as avatar for the defeat of the wild outsider in a conformist society. For Cimino, he plays a man struggling to make a stand on a personal level, a struggle that coincides in semi-symmetry with the same struggle of the community he’s chosen as his home and lot.
.
HeavensGate15
.
If Cimino’s intimate and inferring approach to his human level and radical historical viewpoint seem aimed to defile expectations of the style of moviemaking he’s engaged in, the visual expressiveness of Heaven’s Gate often looks back to a more classical form of moviemaking. Referring to the grandest vistas of John Ford and David Lean, George Stevens and Anthony Mann, Cimino’s West is a place of rolling golden grasslands, soaring, snow-capped peaks, country roads trod by columns of Soviet Realist peasants and dusty, thrumming frontier streets, an animate player in itself. But the way Cimino shoots landscape is ironic in a manner unfamiliar to those directors except perhaps Lean, as mountains and sky gaze down with implacable and illimitable beauty upon ugly human acts, and the diffused lighting and fuzzy-edged interior frames recall rather Robert Altman, the high sheriff of revisionism. Early on Cimino shoots Huppert bathing, totally and unself-consciously nude, in a clear mountain stream, and then settles by Kristofferson in a moment recalling Manet’s “Dejeuner sur l’herbe,” a vision of the West as place where complete abandonment of civilisation’s creeds is possible. This gives way to the tragedy of the liminal constantly unfolding within the embrace of the sublime, bloodied and mangled bodies constantly pictured lying amidst pristine beauty, creating an inherent tension that perceives the humans as infesting rather than claiming the land in a manner that recalls Terrence Malick and Werner Herzog.
.
HeavensGate16
.
The slow-screwing tension of the film begins to break loose when some of the Association’s hitmen lie in wait for Ella in the brothel: Jim, hailed to the rescue, infiltrates the building through a top-floor window, only to discover all of the prostitutes butchered. He dispatches the killers with swift and brutal aplomb, and is left to upbraid Ella tearfully for refusing to heed his advice, his act of care for her infused with his still-present anger and heartbreak. This sequence portrays Jim in a traditionally heroic role, but Cimino undercuts it by having him fall into a well of self-pity, abetted by Mayor Lezak, who sacks Jim when he makes it plain he won’t intervene to make the increasingly warlike Johnson County folks stand down. Jim is drunk and sleeping when Nate’s assassination sparks general insurrection. Rather, Ella comes into her own here, and in some ways emerges as the actual hero of the film, the character whose sense of agency is essential.
.
HeavensGate17
.
Huppert, whose English was poor at the time, occasionally struggles with the rhythms of her dialogue and yet ultimately delivers a terrific performance, first seen greeting Jim with pie and nudity, a nature child who knows her value in this little world and doesn’t give much of a damn what anyone thinks of her. But Huppert cleverly reveals the wise and hardened soul under Ella’s coquettish surface, and the insults and assaults she receives only stiffen her resistance. She tries first to rescue Nate in a thunderous piece of action, then returns to the town and calls out the arguing townsfolk to battle. The stunningly filmed sequence that follows sees the madly careening force of the immigrants, riding to combat on horseback and carts, assault the Association and surround the would-be invaders, who rapidly fortify themselves with toppled wagons. Utter chaos prevails as Ella charges wildly around the enemy shooting randomly, Bridges tries to get her to take cover. Shop-keepers and plough jockeys turn paladins to pound their persecutors, their enemies shoot back, and the scene devolves into a wild melee filled with bullet holes, broken bones, kicking hooves, shattered wagons, and whistling bullets. When the whirlwind dies down, Billy and dozens of others are dead, and Canton takes off on horseback, vowing to bring help for his trapped goons.
.
HeavensGate18
.
Jim emerges from his cocoon after Ella reads him Nate’s farewell note and finally puts his education to good use, directing the county folk in building mobile barricades based on Roman methods—Wolcott recognises the source. The attackers slowly close in on the Association guns, hurling bundles of dynamite to smash apart the defences. Jim provides a bridge between the Old World and the New, imparting to the immigrants a sense not just of fight, but of war, of applied education. Cimino’s sense of detail overflows as he notes the carnage wrought by the determination of the citizens even as they win their fight, like one woman shooting badly wounded men and then herself.
.
HeavensGate19
.
Finally, Cimino’s bitterest anti-cliché: Canton rides back in with Minardi and the cavalry, who “arrest” the gunmen, essentially rescuing what’s left of them from the wrath of the citizens. Jim and Bridges are left to survey their field of victory, covered with bodies and shattered war machines: triumph and desolate horror coexist in one of the most fascinatingly ambivalent climaxes in any film—heroic, grassroots resistance has its grim cost. Peace seems to have been the prize obtained by the sacrifice, both sides having fought each other to a point of nullity. Shortly after, Bridges collects luggage for Jim and Ella as they prepare to leave the county together. Canton and a small band of killer lie in wait for them, set on revenge: Jim kills Canton in the melee, but only after Bridges and Ella are killed. Jim is left weeping over Ella’s bloodied body, last victim of this ridiculous war, red bullet holes like roses blooming on her blinding white dress.
.
HeavensGate20
.
The tragic effect of this moment is almost operatic, but Cimino contours it into a subtler variety, as he moves forward again 15 years. There, he find Jim, older but looking younger with his beard shaved off, a telling vanity as he’s ensconced on a yacht with a lovely young mistress. The first couple of times I watched this scene, it struck me as the film’s lone major gaffe, and yet now its essentialness seems obvious, all the more so for its communication of the vital sentiment with scarcely any words. The final vision of Jim, even more sadly nostalgic, but now cut off from his past by the death of just about everyone dear to him and fallen prey to the gravity of identity, suggests personal tragedy amidst all the political and social turmoil and clash of idealistic and nihilistic gestures. Even Jim, native son, golden boy, a titan on the range, is just another fool of fortune. Much like Welles’ great antiheroes Charlie Kane and George Amberson, he’s doomed to wonder what he might have been if he hadn’t been so rich. Cimino could probably have sympathised all too well. He made a comeback five years later with Year of the Dragon (1985), a white-hot cop flick invested with ornery, hyped-up energy and the strange intensity of a self-portrait, before Cimino’s worst traits started to dominate in his last three films, the bawdiness and ferocity turned cynical. Cimino left Hollywood seemingly for good, ironically finding success again, this time as an author.

Standard
1970s, Experimental, Western

The Last Movie (1971)

.
TheLastMovie01
.
Director: Dennis Hopper

By Roderick Heath

Before 1969, Dennis Hopper was one of many talented, young Method actors to drift west from the Actor’s Studio to Hollywood, if a flagrantly offbeat and arresting example of the breed. His blue eyes seemed to radiate an almost spiritual, romantic dissociation, as well as a potentially manic ferocity—Viking berserker and Celtic saint in one volatile package. At first he often played introverted characters, reciting dialogue with a halting, almost doleful style that could make each word sound like it was being pulled out of his mouth with pliers, or scraggly losers and reprobates, cannon fodder for he-men in many a western. Later he became famous for his jittery, showy rants and depictions of livewire souls. His pal James Dean had brought him into film work, and Hopper’s reputation for on-set insubordination almost ruined his career before it got going; after Dean’s death he was all but blackballed by the industry.
.
TheLastMovie02
.
Indie filmmaker and long-time bohemian Curtis Harrington gave Hopper a lead role in the wonderful horror film Night Tide (1961), and his friend John Wayne eventually revived his acting career by insisting Henry Hathaway hire him for The Sons of Katie Elder (1965). Whilst keeping one foot planted in mainstream labours, Hopper was a driving force in the annexation of Hollywood’s hinterlands by the new bohemia. After he starred alongside friend Peter Fonda in a film written by another pal, Jack Nicholson, the psychedelic paean The Trip (1967) directed by Roger Corman, Hopper and Fonda developed their take on the zeitgeist. Fonda produced and Hopper directed the singularly successful film of and about the era, Easy Rider (1969). Low budget, rough and ready, a combination of Voltaire parable and satire with an essayistic exploration of alternative Americana, Easy Rider channelled diverse aspects of the European and American film styles to make a counterculture document with some credibility.
.
TheLastMovie03
.
Easy Rider was a colossal success, making Hopper a cause célèbre and Hollywood’s official hippie. But Hopper all but invited being set up as public sacrifice and cautionary example. He feuded with Fonda over royalties, slipped in and out of a marriage to The Mamas & The Papas singer Michelle Phillips in two weeks, and let his indulgence in drugs go off the deep end. He was given $1 million by Universal to make his next film at a time when studios were throwing money at films about counterculture youth hoping some of it would stick. Hopper, however, couldn’t have been less interested in returning to that subject, and moved onto new, equally provocative territory. The result was an infamous debacle that once again sent Hopper into exile, branded an addict, nuisance, and professional madcap. He managed to turn this persona to his own ends when, against all predictions, he rehabilitated his career again in the 1980s. Hopper’s directorial legacy is scant, but, except for a largely dismissed final comedy Chasers (1994), it is also one of the strongest and most unique in American cinema.
.
TheLastMovie04
.
Hopper had been kicking around the idea for The Last Movie since his experiences making a western at a foreign location in the mid ’60s, and he developed a script with Rebel Without a Cause (1955) scribe Stewart Stern. At first, he shot and edited togather a rudely expressive but essentially linear film. Legend has it that his pal the Mexican filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky then mocked his straitlaced structure, and encouraged him to attack the film like an Abstract Expressionist slashing at his own canvas. That anecdote sounds a touch arch, however, as The Last Movie was clearly intended from the start to expand on the form- and mind-bending elements of Easy Rider, while essentially telling fans of that film to fuck off.
.
TheLastMovie05
.
Such a radical take was an inspired, if doomed, enterprise. The Last Movie is a weird, loping, visceral work, an ill-starred fate already written into its texture. The Last Movie feels deeply personal for Hopper, as it depicts the movie world in a manner so alienated and troubled, so concerned with the effects of cinema fantasy on real life, it was transmuted into a monument to the desecration of cinematic form. The opening immediately immerses the viewer in a mystic ceremony studded with strange portents with a context that will only be revealed via looping cinematic time. The conclusion seems carefully contrived to appear like funding ran out before the filmmakers quite finished making their film. And yet The Last Movie’s conceits feel far less jarring than they might have at the time, certainly not nearly so much after the likes of Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu’s and Christopher Nolan’s taxing experiments in film structuring, although Hopper’s work is deliberately more ragged than such later films, as it maintains an associative rather than merely rearranged visual logic. The Last Movie is a portrait of shambling wash-ups, existential angst, and the protean zones of culture, filled with some of Hopper’s most accomplished images and highly self-critical themes. Hopper works again with cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs, whose special visual tones on Easy Rider became the signature of the Hollywood New Wave, to fashion an artefact that alternates lyricism, immediacy, disorientation, and estrangement. Hopper doesn’t give himself an easy part to play either, embodying a troubled, even swinish character—a stuntman and fallen cowboy named Kansas.
.
TheLastMovie06
.
Kansas is, at the outset, working on a western partly about Billy the Kid, being filmed in Peru by Samuel Fuller. Fuller appears as himself in the film’s most sublime and resonant in-joke, as Fuller had been shown the door by Hollywood by this time in much the same way Hopper had been and was about to be again. The film Fuller’s making seems to be a mixture of the kind of shambolic post-western Robert Altman was making in Canada at the same time, (McCabe and Mrs. Miller, 1971), with glimpses of mockingly awful vaudeville routines featuring gartered dancing girls, and Sam Peckinpah’s savagery, as a giant, comically brutal shoot-out sequence sees the two sides in a clannish range war exterminate each other, even gunning down the handsome deputy sheriff (Fonda) and his sweetheart. Early in the film, one of the stunt sequences of Fuller’s western is depicted, with another stuntman pulling off an impressively gruelling fall from a rooftop and through some scaffolding. Later, this scene is revealed as important in more than incidental fashion, as the stuntman who performed it died. Kansas stumbles through the early scenes dissociated, traumatised, and emotionally volatile. His troubled, scrambled inner world will dictate the outer reality depicted.
.
TheLastMovie07
.
The spectacle of real death on the movie set gives impetus to a strange fantasia. At the very outset Kansas is glimpsed as a bloodied and shameful penitent amidst a crowd at a local religious festival, whilst an imperious, would-be Peruvian director wearing a U.S. Cavalry hat searches for a beauty to star in his “film.” This director-cum-warlord will claim and take over the abandoned sets of the Hollywood shoot, making these into a place of religious fervour for the locals. The district priest (Tomas Milian) has to perform his masses in the set’s fake church to reach his congregation. Hopper then loops the film back to a few weeks earlier, when the Hollywood crew was still working. Kansas hovers around the shoot, still dazed by death and irritating Fuller. The film crew successfully wraps up their production after depicting the death of Billy the Kid, which Fuller announces he wants done different and better than any previous version. At the wrap party, Kansas wanders through a tangled crowd of performers and revellers and finds amongst them various tableaux vivants unfolding before his eyes. Narrative alienation blends fascinatingly with the sense that Hopper is documenting his own dissociation from his apparent place as Hollywood’s king of hipsters, as he reduces the apparatus of stardom to cameo fodder: Kovacs’ gliding camera, surveying a world of cool film folk, with a lot of Hopper’s own friends and fellows dotting the crowd, engage in drop-of-a-hat sing-alongs, mini-happenings, and strange rituals.
.
TheLastMovie08
.
A man is transformed into a woman by a group of masked faux-shamans in a glimpsed moment that seems to come right out of some Carlos Castenada-esque fever dream, and indeed, the influence of Latin American magic realism and spiritual writing traditions pervades The Last Movie as narratives of false life and false death segue hazily into abnormal rituals of real life and real death. Kansas retreats into the shadows and weeps, but tries to fend off solicitous interest from a friend. Hopper suggests an approach close to that of Easy Rider in early scenes where songs play like commentary on the soundtrack, but Hopper quickly fragments and then disposes of this refrain. He casts Kris Kristofferson and others as musically inclined crewmen on the film who play Greek chorus, and Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee” scores footage of Hopper in character as Kansas roving on horseback like the Marlboro Man, the ideal, self-reliant frontiersman, only to have Kansas accidentally crash Fuller’s set in the middle of filming, stirring a torrent of abuse from the director.
.
TheLastMovie09
.
Kansas is soon called on to participate in stunts himself, glimpses of which are interpolated throughout the film. The stunts require him to take the place of the dead man in jarring and difficult movements, like being jerked off a horse by a tether or swinging in on a guy rope, causing alarm and concern in one local extra working on the film, recognisable as the man later directing the fake movie. Once the film shoot concludes and the company disbands to return home, Kansas decides to stay behind and live in the mountain town with his local girlfriend Maria (Stella Garcia) in a house he starts building above the town. Their union is deeply carnal, and when they have sex in a waterfall pool, it proves embarrassingly close to a popular path along which the priest escorts children.
.
TheLastMovie10
.
Islets of quintessential hippie romanticism early in the film see the pair framed against beautiful mountain vistas in flowered fields and other such pastoral refrains. But Kansas and Maria are far from being dippy young lovers, as Maria is happy to have hooked up with a rich gringo, and Kansas regards her as useful appliance. Emerging from his depression high on the spirit and beauty of his new home, but detached from the poverty around it, Kansas thinks big, dreaming up schemes to create a ski resort on snow-clad peaks. Kansas’ only local pal, Neville Robey (Don Gordon), claims to have a lead on a potential gold mine, and wants to dig up an investor to help him extract it. Kansas becomes his partner as the film productions he was expecting to exploit in the now-established location don’t come. One afternoon in a café where they play chequers, Neville gets Kansas to help him flirt with a pair of women who enter, Mrs. Anderson (Julie Adams) and her daughter (Donna Baccala), the family of prominent American businessman Harry Anderson (Roy Engel). Kansas has the wherewithal to charm Mrs. Anderson, and manages to get them invited to dinner with the family, where Neville can lobby Mr. Anderson to fund their mine.
.
TheLastMovie11
.
Here The Last Movie shifts into territory reminiscent of John Cassavetes’ studies in behaviour amongst the emotionally thwarted and morally bankrupt, as Hopper’s collective of exiled Americans get drunk, tell filthy jokes, flirt, and go out in search of a racy good time that will shock their stagnant nerves and fetid blood back into action. Neville drunkenly burbles sexy shockers like suggesting mother and daughter make out, whilst both Anderson and Maria carefully ignore Kansas’ increasingly overt moves on Mrs. Anderson and her all-too-eager appreciation of them. Hopper notes with a cold alacrity the mutuality of Anderson and Maria’s blind eyes, the former acquiescing for the sake of keeping his attractive wife happy and the latter for the sake of not rocking her fiscal boat as multiple forms of prostitution collide. The booze-sodden evening moves on to a local brothel, which Neville reckons is the town’s best entertainment venue, and they listen to a soaring-voiced folk warbler (Poupée Bocar) before retiring for more obscene delights as Kansas pays a couple of hookers to put on a sex act as floor show. Mrs. Anderson plainly wants to join the couple on the floor whilst lolling in autoerotic delight, framed between two pin-ups of a muscle man and a starved African child–the film’s bitterest, most direct portrait of first-world anomie in perfect symbiosis with exploitation. Kansas has to fend off the attentions of Maria’s former boyfriend/pimp who threatens him with a gun. Maria leaps up to intervene and rushes the man away, but Kansas is still drunkenly infuriated and he beats the hell out of her when she returns.
.
TheLastMovie12
.
The sobered, chagrined Kansas tries to make it up to Maria, who demands a fur coat like Mrs. Anderson’s. Kansas goes to the Andersons to buy one, and Mrs Anderson, who confesses to her own sadomasochistic fantasies stirred by Kansas’ guilty confessions and the night’s pornography, agrees to give him her daughter’s. But she extracts her own price from Kansas, insisting he submit to her sadistic fantasies of abuse and control, making him kneel and receive slaps in the face. This movement of the film is so odd, mordant, and perversely fascinating that I would sing the whole’s praises even if the rest of it had been mere footage of Hopper pissing against a wall—which is just about what Hollywood and a lot of critics thought he did.
.
TheLastMovie13
.
Colonialism is certainly a part-hidden target of the film as it regards the gravitational effect of American cultural apparatchiks and their infrastructure distorting the minds and lives of anyone with whom they come in contact. Money matters to Hopper’s characters, for, as in Easy Rider, a quixotic attempt to make money to buy “freedom” comes to the fore, swapping the previous film’s original sin drug deal for Kansas and Neville’s attempt to ascertain if the gold mine can really pay off for them. They head into the wilderness to check out the mine, in a story segue that explicitly references to The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948): in fact, in a scene close to the end of the film, which seems to be a non sequitur flashback to this journey, Kansas and Neville are depicted arguing comically about details from Sierra Madre, which might be Neville’s only actual source of knowledge about gold mining.
.
TheLastMovie14
.
Earlier in the film, the priest alerted Kansas to a novel and disturbing phenomenon that seems to have gripped his parishioners, and led him to the fake film village to see them “shooting” their own version of the film with equipment made of out of wicker, complete with fistfights that result in real blood and bruises. Kansas tries to show them how it’s done in the trade, but the director complains that “isn’t real!” Exactly what the fake shoot is supposed to be Hopper leaves ambiguous, but he makes clear he feels guilty for his participation in the hypnotic, reality-bending force of the movies and correlates them with other forms of imperial power. Kansas requests absolution from the Priest for playing his part in this. This activity seems initially a simplistic piece of monkey-see-monkey-do on the behalf of the locals, but soon comes to look rather more like a determined, ritualistic subsuming of the power of the invaders, a Promethean project of stealing the movie gods’ fire and also a religious festival. The finale invokes two different forms of such ritualised theatre, as film production and passion play meet in perfect mirroring.
.
TheLastMovie15
.
Satires on the movie industry are plentiful, but very few are as brutally logical, original, and funny as The Last Movie. The Cavalry-hatted director combines the archetype of the filmmaker as authoritarian visionary with the canard of the Mexican bandit as well as the military overlord. He handles his “cast” and “crew” with great collaborative zest, but when someone doesn’t stick with the programme he takes action. Kansas tries to flee from their clutches, busting out of the prison he’s locked in because he realises that it is of course not a real prison. The director, however, pulls out a very real pistol and starts shooting at him as he rides away, clipping Kansas in the shoulder. The injured cowboy, dizzy from blood loss and hysterical, tries to find Maria in the brothel, where he starts a fight with bouncers and gets himself thrown out. He limps through empty, debris-filled buildings in perhaps the film’s most surreal-feeling sequence, filled with jump cuts and oblique framings that fragment perception, as the structures become dreamlike traps where past, present, and future become liquid and Kansas’ cognisance splinters, glimpsed in agony in mirrors in the midst of stone-walled, half-finished, or half-demolished structures, stumbling amidst piled and ruined coffins and religious paraphernalia. He recovers, ministered to by the priest and the director and found by Maria, who nonetheless falls under the influence of the director and announces she’s off to participate in a beauty pageant designed to pick a star for the film. Kansas stumbles back into the midst of the “film” as he searches for Maria and is swept up in the culmination of the strange rite, with the priest now playing along with his flock in uniting the worship of movies and Christianity. Kansas is imprisoned again, and Maria tetchily mocks Kansas’ appeals for help, believing the director won’t go so far as to actually kill him.
.
TheLastMovie16
.
During his first exile, Hopper fostered a serious interest in photography and found traction in the field. Whilst the formal beauty and experimental élan of Kovacs’ photography is readily apparent, and many scenes play out in a coherent enough manner, Hopper’s photographic experience had given him a highly tactile, expressive sense of film as a tool to be used or abused. The Last Movie plays out in a high state of flux that occasionally stabilises, reality and film deliberately fragmented and confused. Hopper offers some obvious pokes at familiar structuring, like having his “A film by Dennis Hopper” title card appear 10 minutes into the film, and then the actual film title another 10 minutes later, and “scene missing” cards inserted in a manner that anticipates the fascination of recent filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino and Andrew Bujalski with the film as an artefact. The Last Movie, as its title might well threaten, is a constant, boiling mass of cinematic style and antistyle, as Kovacs works in wild lensing effects and a jagged lexicon of film language. Godard’s Week-End (1967) seems to have been a specific influence, borrowing not just its name from that film’s baleful final title card, but much of Godard’s deliberately anarchic aesthetic. But whereas Godard emphasised theatricality and falseness in his mise-en-scene to mock the idea of verisimilitude, The Last Movie is more attentive to the immediate reality of its setting, capturing the weird atmosphere of its Peruvian setting with an often documentary immediacy: nature and place, if nothing else, still wield a transformative power over human dreams in Hopper’s vision.
.
TheLastMovie17
.
Classically graceful tracking shots alternate with analytical, extended, meandering zoom shots, or handheld documentary-style shots with fish-eye lensing that create a mood of happenstance, overheated authenticity. One motif of the film lies in repeated, startlingly wide, long-angle panorama shots that seem to be trying to rupture the limitations of the frame and that often include someone sprawled dead or injured (or playing dead or injured) in the foreground. There seems to be an almost religious meaning behind this recurring shot of earth, sky, and fallen being in one vast arc of communion. Certainly there is such meaning in the recurring vision of a man stretched out either dead or being transformed, from the drag queen at the wrap party to the shots that conjoin Kansas and the soon-to-be-dead stuntman as both go through the rope stunt and finish up flat on their backs, and a later shot where an injured Kansas lies prone and agonised, time and space breaking up into barely liminal flashes. Christ-like postures are one of the signal clichés of male movie actors seeking to become the auteurs of their movies, whether directing or not, and Hopper certainly indulges that posture here, as Kansas fears he’s going to be the human sacrifice to set the seal on the movie-ritual. But the strangely beautiful refrain that represents the ultimate break-up of narrative in The Last Movie, showing Kansas running and falling as if shot but then getting up again. The resurrection that is so crucial to the Christ mythos is readily coherent in film where (nearly) every death is fake and resurrection immediate, and Kansas’ ritualised reengagement with the death that ended the “real” film restores the order.
.
TheLastMovie18
.
Or does it? Hopper makes fun of the parable and his apparent irony, or rather reduces it to absurdist statement, offering up repeated takes of his “death,” each filmed in languorous slow motion. Hopper then lets the film trail off in shots as elusive as the early ones, noting bored-looking extras waiting for the star to enter the frame, and Hopper, Milian, and the “director” stumbling through abortive takes or halting, improvised comedy. A return to Kansas and Neville on their gold hunt calls back to the gently spacy humour of Easy Rider’s famous grass-and-firelight scene, before Hopper closes on one of his repeated shots, of a tree on fire in the midst of the film set with an unidentified man hanging in the branches. The Last Movie is a supremely uneasy work, one that transmits both its filmmaker’s lack of faith in his art, but also his dynamic involvement with it. The Last Movie was dismissed and buried for a long time, and yet what’s striking is how much influence, or at least anticipation, it had. Francis Coppola revealed his affinity by borrowing the seamy nightlife venture for The Godfather Part II (1974) and then casting Hopper in the thematically, crucially similar Apocalypse Now (1979), whilst elements of the later cinema of Abbas Kiarostami, Claire Denis, Alex Cox, and some Latin American filmmakers are predicted with fascinating alacrity. Hopper himself finally returned from directorial exile via the work some regard as his best, the troubled-youth flick Out of the Blue (1980), which posited former easy rider as child-abusing drunk and progeny as apocalyptic punkette.

Standard
1970s, Action-Adventure, Western

Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970)

.
2MulesSisterSara001
.
Director: Don Siegel

The Days of High Adventure: A Journey through Adventure Film

By Roderick Heath

Few filmmakers more than 20 years into their careers can be said to have just come into their own—indeed, by that time, many have burned out or lapse into mere competence. Even fewer whose careers started in Hollywood’s classic studio era could have claimed such inspiration in the tumult of the mid 1960s, when audience and business shifts had left many familiar talents high and dry. Don Siegel defied the odds as he suddenly found himself a venerated hit-maker by the early ‘70s who eventually was elevated from B-movie craftsman to master and auteur. Having made the leap from Warner Bros’ in-house expert of montage cutting, Siegel directed terrific films from his debut film, The Verdict (1946), including The Big Steal (1949), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), The Line-Up (1958) and Hell Is for Heroes (1961), and his reputation amongst peers was strong—Ida Lupino, herself no slouch at directing, once confessed she hoped to be counted as a decent second-string Siegel. Siegel’s vertiginous visual sensibility, filled with alternations between godlike high angles and all-too-human, bruising closeness, a feel for both primal and urban landscapes as spaces that shape human action, a grip on both the studious grammar of classical filmmaking and expressive reflexes that could readily bend or break those rules armed him with tools that could absorb what he needed from New Wave filmmaking, ignore the rest, and still seem authoritative.
.
2MulesSisterSara002
.
Siegel’s grouchy cynicism directed at the counterculture resulted in scabrous portraits in Coogan’s Bluff (1968) and Dirty Harry (1971), but then he could pivot and reveal a sheer delight in bratty anti-authoritarianism and rejection of communal rules—key to Two Mules for Sister Sara. His most consistent theme was more subtle, however, one of individuals at odds with their milieu, unable to comprehend the niceties of coexistence with radically different viewpoints and social doctrines that try to force acquiescence on his instinctually, rather than politically rebellious heroes. This is one reason that the theme of a lone wolf working within a larger system or cause was one of his favourites, an attitudinal linchpin that would have a profound influence.
.
2MulesSisterSara003
.
He wrestled with modernity’s teeming, contradictory emotions in a way mainstream audiences could understand and coalesce without feeling like they were being preached at by a message movie. Siegel could offer a cop or a criminal empathy at any given moment. He could provoke liberals by transferring a frontier law ethos to modern cities, and then pivot to anatomise contemporary urges to agitation and shifting social mores in contexts like scifi with Body Snatchers, or historical, as in Hell Is for Heroes, with its proto-beatnik hero adrift in the war zone, or even further back with anxiety over emerging feminism in The Beguiled (1971) in a Civil War landscape. Two Mules for Sister Sara, like its immediate follow-up The Beguiled, bespeaks of Siegel’s inherent love of such paradox, prefiguring the next film’s dark, eerie take on sexual and social dislocation in a playful fashion that resembles The African Queen (1951) remade by Sam Peckinpah. Indeed, Peckinpah was Siegel’s first major protégé, whilst Sister Sara stars his second, Clint Eastwood.
.
2MulesSisterSara004
.
Like Peckinpah, Siegel’s oeuvre seems intricately macho, but could embrace femininity and lyricism at unexpected moments. Again, like Peckinpah, he found an ideal thematic landscape in the open zones of culture between the U.S. and Mexico. But whereas for Peckinpah that landscape offered a schism between worlds that held the possibility of continued romantic freedom on the one hand and familiar but encroaching control on the other, for Siegel it was closer to Shakespeare’s forests, a zone of anarchy where his heroes could roam free and where familiar demarcations become porous, not a no-man’s-land but any-man’s-land. Siegel could also make fun of himself more convincingly. Sister Sara, written by Albert Maltz, was based on a story by Budd Boetticher, himself a major director who had hit a career doldrum by this time, is even more explicitly Shakespearean in its use of disguise and uncertain identity, as well as gender comedy to entertain and tease.
.
2MulesSisterSara005
.
Antihero Hogan (Clint Eastwood) is a mercenary and a former soldier in his country’s Civil War—what side isn’t mentioned. He’s looking to make a quick fortune and buy perpetual personal independence by aiding a community in the same process, in this case the Mexican Juarista revolt against French imperialism in the 1860s. Hogan’s intentions are hampered when he comes across a nun about to be sexually assaulted in the borderland wilderness by three ruffians, whom Hogan kills in quick order with both direct and cunning means. The nun calls herself Sister Sara (Shirley MacLaine), and Hogan is forced to carry on as her protector when she reveals she must not be found by patrolling French dragoons because she, too, is aiding the revolution.
.
2MulesSisterSara006
.
When she learns that Hogan has been hired to help destroy a French fortress in Chihuahua, Sister Sara reveals intimate knowledge of the place because her church was next door. She suggests a raid on the fortress when the garrison celebrates its traditional Bastille Day bacchanal. Sara proceeds to drive Hogan batty with a mixture of basic physical appeal that he cannot move upon, and her dedicated plying of her religious calling, such as insisting on proper burial and prayers for her assaulters, and a dozen other daily impositions. Hogan’s general credulity for Sara’s vocational steadfastness is thus sustained even when she reveals some strange knowledge, as when she reassures him that God will forgive him for putting his hands on her ass in a good cause. She soon reveals stranger habits, as when she absconds with one of Hogan’s half-smoked cigars to indulge a few furtive puffs with the relief of a showgirl between matinees, and a surprising tolerance, nay, thirst for strong liquor. She’s no nun, of course, and he’s no knight in shining armour, so the interplay of deception and ignoble intention between her and Eastwood, and the tongue-in-cheek approach to sex and religion, ambles with an off-kilter pep. Eastwood rarely played a proper romantic lead, and he doesn’t exactly play one here either, as Hogan is a sensually crude being who has no thought for settling down. The film draws much entertainment value from forcing one of his taciturn warriors to deal with a disturbing female form that is, at first, painfully off-limits, and then his increasingly perturbed reactions to Sara’s provocations.
.
2MulesSisterSara007
.
It’s not very surprising when late in the film Sara is revealed to be a prostitute well known by certain members of the army she’s declared war on. Sara’s act, however, is more than mere camouflage and not exactly a play for false veneration. It is certainly a good-humoured mockery of the theoretical disparity of the classic madonna-whore figuration as it’s pitted against Hogan’s arch masculinity, her habit merely exacerbating Hogan’s confusion before femininity whilst also calling into question his—and the audience’s—understanding of it. Sara makes theatrical displays of playing the good Christian, blessing her buried attackers with water and infuriating Hogan with the waste. Yet Sister Sara intriguingly conflates what is usually perceived as two different kinds of tolerance, that of the woman who’s so familiar with life’s rough side that a near-rape is just another day at the office, and that of the committed religious idealist who forgives her enemies out of divine assurance, and suggests there’s no essential difference as both stem from a degree of character slightly beyond the more reactive male. Likewise, the independence of the prostitute is conflated with that of the nun, defined by their communal life in an overtly feminine space (to wit, the conflation of nunnery and bawdyhouse in Shakespearean humour) that also renders them autonomous in many ways. But Sara remains something distinct from Howard Hawks’ famous tough women because, unlike them, she reveals herself not as above the usual portrait of femininity surviving in a macho world, but readily hewing to both sides of stereotype and proving herself more than able in both.
.
2MulesSisterSara008
.
Sister Sara represents a fascinating intersection point for several approaches to the western, although its setting and scope of action partly elide more exact definitions of the genre, almost a final point of correlation before the genre started its decline through the ’70s. In the late ‘60s, the genre had been schismatically redefined by the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone and then by the ferocity of Peckinpah, unified by their emphasis on tactile, visual realism and harsher violence than oatsers had known in the past, but separated on deeper levels by their ways of conceiving the genre’s heroes and social inferences. Leone’s grand, archetypal approach was reacting to the “adult western” of the ’50s, uninterested in its psychological and truthful reflexes, whilst Peckinpah accused the older genre of naiveté and aimed right for its sanctities. Boetticher had been, along with Anthony Mann, the adult western’s most persistent auteur, and Boetticher’s intimacy with his material was always a great strength. He was fascinated by the way individuals paint their own internal hopes or neuroses upon the neutral landscape. Boetticher wrote Sister Sara, whilst Siegel borrowed Leone’s composer Ennio Morricone to lend his film some of the weird, perfervid atmosphere of the Italian style. He also annexed aspects of Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969) and set about stitching together disparate influences with his own viewpoint in satirising the disparity between the individualist, macho hero and the woman who is in some ways tougher and more determined than him. To a certain extent, the film’s portrait of Hogan’s dizziness before Sara’s independence was reproduced on set as the practiced survivor MacLaine intimidated both Siegel and Eastwood, who finished up billed second for the last time until The Bridges of Madison County (1994), giving the finished film an amusing subtext.
.
2MulesSisterSara009
.
Sara and Hogan’s voyage through the wilderness has a multiplicity of resonances, not just to thematically similar predecessors, like The African Queen, Black Narcissus (1947), and Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1958). There’s a playful take on Samuel Beckett in Sara and Hogan’s droll meandering through a blank and depopulated landscape, bickering half-romantically, half-irascibly. There’s a hint of Luis Buñuel in Siegel’s wry, schoolboy delight in profane conceits, where a whore is holy and holiness is whoring out to anyone on the side of the angels, as well as the general atmosphere of Mexico Buñuel perhaps grasped better than anyone else as an ideal stage for surrealist disparities. The film’s title points to a particularly Buñuel-esque joke: Sara’s mule has an injured foot, giving Hogan a chance to finally leave her behind in a small village, but Sara immediately kneels to pray before a roadside shrine, whereupon a farmer rides by with an another mule for which she’s able to arrange a swap. Morricone’s droll choral chants confirm divine intervention, though the result is an extremely uneven trade. Siegel borrowed Buñuel’s former cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa, and he aided in creating a film that exemplifies the visual pleasures of early ’70s cinema. Figueroa captures the sun-burnished, raw, earthy hues of the Mexican landscape, dotted with the vivid colours humans drape themselves in or discharge, be it sweat or blood, and even the porcelain tint of MacLaine’s naked back, all with a sense of pungent physicality, immediacy, and crucial beauty.
.
2MulesSisterSara010
.
Of course, if you don’t want to think much about what a film means deep down, Sister Sara is, first and foremost, a rollicking entertainment built around Siegel and Boetticher’s cleverness and exactitude as storytellers and painters of circumstance and event. Early in the film, as Hogan helps Sara elude the French, he takes her into a ruined hacienda where he might stand a chance in a firelight shootout and kills a lurking rattlesnake. Hogan sets up an ambush, placing loaded guns in old loopholes, ready to move from one to the other to maintain rapid fire, whilst the hidden Sara dissuades a searching soldier by grabbing up the tail of the dead snake and shaking it to make the man think there’s a lurking serpent. The ploy works, and the soldiers depart. Later, when the two are bunked down for the night in a small copse, Hogan hears strange scuffling sounds in the night, so he hoists Sara into a tree, pours out some gunpowder, and lights it to catch a glimpse of the intruding presence like a camera flash, only to find a group of refugees from the war. Sara’s garb gives her rare abilities to cross barriers and move unmolested through social contexts, if not the wilderness. This advantage backfires when she tries to collect information in a garrison town, only to be waylaid by some officers looking for anyone who can give last rites to their dying commander. The commander proves to be a man Sara herself helped assassinate, and she has to silence him before he can shout out at her in rage. Fortunately, he dies right away, and Sara takes comfort in a long swig of Hogan’s whiskey once she returns.
.
2MulesSisterSara011
.
The film’s centrepiece is a long, superbly constructed and sustained sequence in which Hogan is skewered by an arrow from a roving Indian band when he and Sara set out to blow up a troop train. Sara again successfully wields the power of her fake religiosity by warding off the Indians by holding her crucifix up in the hope some might recognise it, and then sets about obeying Hogan’s instructions for getting the arrow out of him. The shaft has pierced him through, and the point is jutting from his back, so the best way to extract the arrow is to bash it right through. Hogan gets drunk to dull the pain as he makes her meticulously prepare the arrow with a groove filled with gunpowder to be lit at the moment she strikes so that the burning powder will cauterize the wound even as it slides through his body. This excruciating piece of frontier doctoring works a treat, but it leaves Hogan too drunk and too crippled to prepare to blow the train. Instead he makes Sara plant dynamite under a trestle bridge (never mind that dynamite wasn’t patented until a year after the end of the Juarista War), necessitating a perilous climb for the woozy lady. Hogan, who can only shoot with his left hand, must try to detonate the explosive with a bullet. He muffs it repeatedly until Sara lets loose in a tirade of furious, salty insults and slaps, whereupon he finally manages to hit the dynamite and wreck the train in spectacular fashion. Their shared achievement in wounding the enemy proves to be partly self-defeating, as the French garrison in Chihuahua is put on the alert, so that the easy victory over a mob of drunkards Sara promised the Juaristas becomes instead an assault on a highly alert stronghold.
.
2MulesSisterSara0112
.
There’s a terrifically involved, logical and convincing layering of story. Siegel steps easily between comic and serious notes because they’re both allowed to flow with naturalness from the circumstances. Sara isn’t pretending to be a nun just because it’s funny, but because she’s genuinely afraid for her safety and it’s a practical, useful disguise, albeit one that creates problems as well as solutions. Frankly, Sister Sara makes a lot of contemporary genre filmmaking seem, by comparison, plastic and detached from reality, however much more fire and blood they might toss at the screen. Hogan and Sara eventually rejoin society as they make it to the encampment of a Juarista band led by Colonel Beltrán (Manolo Fábregas), another alpha male held in axial partnership with Hogan by Sara as they venture into town to check over their target and find the soldiers on the defensive, demanding a new plan. Siegel’s dynamic sense of staging turns a throwaway sequence like the Juaristas sneaking into town and ascending to the rooftops overlooking the fort into an epic moment of communal action in the offing.
.
2MulesSisterSara013
.
Hogan travels back to the States to buy more dynamite, giving him time to heal, and when he returns, he is faced with Sara’s actual identity. Boetticher was quite mad at Siegel for making it too obvious that Sara wasn’t what she was supposed to be before the reveal, but it’s still a splendidly funny moment when Sara leads Hogan and the freedom fighters to the “church,” and the madame (Rosa Furman) greets Sara gleefully by grabbing her backside. When Hogan protests that her church is actually a cathouse, she replies, “Oh no, this is no cathouse. This is the best damn whorehouse in town.” Sara rattles off an airy explanation, wraps a red shawl about her head, steals a cigar, and bingo, she’s anything Hogan could ever need and maybe more than he can handle.
.
2MulesSisterSara014
.
When an underground passage that offers a secret way into the fortress proves to be locked from above, the only way for the army to penetrate the fort is for Hogan to pose as a bounty hunter bringing the wanted Sara back for punishment. The fort’s commander, Gen. LeClaire (Alberto Morin), is a gentlemanly creep who pleasantly offers Sara a last indulgence of a snoot full of wine before being shoved before a firing squad still in her habit. Hogan’s quick draw sees the CO and his roomful of brass-buttoned officers blown to kingdom come in a blink, and red-blooded characters can finally get down to the proper business of fighting and fucking. The final battle scene was criticised by some, and it is at odds with the rest of the film to a certain degree, as Siegel visualises the ferocious battle as a murderous whirlwind that plays as Siegel’s riposte-cum-tribute to the climax of his former protégé’s The Wild Bunch. Forty-odd years later, though, it just seems like a damn great action climax—indeed, one of my favourites—in keeping with the determinedly gritty vicissitudes of its time. Hogan finally gets to prove his action chops, tossing dynamite like an arsenal of thunder and letting galloping horses drag him past the French guns so that he can let Beltrán and his renegades into the fort. Flames boil and limbs are severed as Siegel’s camerawork switches from rocketing tracking shots to handheld immersion in the midst of furious hand-to-hand melees.
.
2MulesSisterSara015
.
Hogan reenters the brothel with the fort’s cashbox in a wheelbarrow and bashes his way into Sara’s room to find her in a bathtub: he climbs in fully clothed, explaining “I don’t have time!” when she comments he might at least take off his hat. The film’s last, great visual joke shows Hogan back on horseback and heading home, tetchily waving for his lady to catch up. Sister Sara is just as much his essential pain in the ass as before, dressed in all her finery as a woman of easy virtue, crossing the desert with her rough-hewn beau in dainty defiance of good sense.

Standard
1960s, Blogathon, Western

7 Women (1966)

.
7Women01
.
Director: John Ford

This post is part of The John Ford Blogathon hosted by Krell Laboratories.

By Roderick Heath

By the 1960s, John Ford might have expected and deserved a time of general acclaim as an elder statesman and artistic-industrial titan in Hollywood. The most Oscar-laden director in the medium’s history, with nearly 50 years’ worth of popular hits behind him and a legacy that for many defined the very essence of an American director as well as a whole genre, the western, Ford should have been hailed as an old master and given carte blanche to indulge his autumnal vision. He was indeed on the cusp of gaining a new kind of acclaim, one he scarcely knew how to process or relate to, as a singular hero of the auterist critical school. Unfortunately, even Ford faced the fate of too many filmmakers working in a business with little memory, only ledgers—a career that ended not in the grandiosity of a rapturously received ninth symphony or rose-piled farewell performance, but with films of decreasing budget, patronised and dismissed by studios he helped build, as an industry in a swift decline engaged in desperate reorganisation.
.
7Women02
.
Still, Ford was able to make his kind of film right up until the end—or at least he made damn sure by the time they were done they were his kind of film. If he had died after making the knockabout comedy Donovan’s Reef (1963), he would have stowed away his oeuvre with a gently rambunctious, humane fantasia about the joys of friendly fist fights and light premarital S&M, with a spirit of wryness and conciliation sneakily close to Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.” But his swan song was destined to be 7 Women, which saw release on the lower half of a double bill. Thus, he ended his career not with a crinkly wink, but a gob of tobacco-stained spit right in his audience’s eye.
.
7Women03
.
When directors’ days shorten, their films tend to get longer. But Ford’s final feature film clocked in at barely 85 minutes, displaying signs of harsh editing and resembling the rudely functional completeness of a piece of Brutalist architecture. Despite its length, more dramatic tensions bubble under the surface of 7 Women than many much longer films begin to approach. Ford, a director who had always played the imperious tough guy in Hollywood, keeping his sensitive, well-read streak tucked away like an embarrassing birthmark, had long been fascinated with not merely the mythos of the frontier, be it geographical or psychological, but its sociological meaning, which, for better or worse, entailed the arrival of civilisation and stability in unruly and protean places. The act of faith in all of his mature films, even the most conscientiously dogged and questioning, like The Grapes of Wrath (1940) or Cheyenne Autumn (1962), assert that the better angels of human nature could win out over brute sectarianism and social prejudice eventually and find communal unity. In his more challenging works, particularly his last decade’s output, that unity might only be found on the level of individuals, as in The Searchers (1956), Sergeant Rutledge (1960), and Two Rode Together (1961). 7 Women offers no such clear hope. It’s closer in spirit to Samuel Beckett than Samuel Clemens,and contemplates the edge of a wilderness that cannot be tamed any further, tossing up barbarians and fanatics who destroy the sane between them.
.
7Women04
.
The most obvious break with the rest of Ford’s oeuvre is that 7 Women is about women. Female characters were rarely focal points of Ford’s narratives, though his films were littered with strong and varied ones, sometimes taunting the males with independence, but more often representing the essence of civilisation overcoming their men as both overcame the landscape. 7 Women offers an almost entirely female cast left in the kind of frontier outpost where John Wayne, Henry Fonda. or Woody Strode would have stood in their defence. This outpost is a mission school and clinic situated somewhere in the wilds of northwestern China in the mid 1930s. The mission chief is Agatha Andrews (Margaret Leighton), the unquestioned authority, both material and moral, over a small coterie of aides far out of their psychic safety zones. Andrews’ aide is the sparrowlike Miss Argent (Mildred Dunnock), the image of a pinched and tremulously obeisant spinster. Kim (Hans William Lee) is the head of the staff of local men who help keep the mission operating.
.
7Women05
.
Andrews’ two teachers are two relative newcomers, middle-aged Charles Pether (Eddie Albert) and very young Emma Clark (Sue Lyon). Pether has his wife Florrie (Betty Field) with him, and the part at first seem a rather pathetic, misplaced pair: Pether, having harboured a desire to be a preacher, is given to proselytising to his goggle-eyed, bewildered young Chinese pupils when he’s supposed to be teaching them the alphabet. Because Pether could only make enough money for the long-term support of his ailing mother, he’s only just married Florrie, his childhood sweetheart, pregnant though she’s the same age as her husband and perilously close to menopause. The perpetually worried and hair-trigger hysteric Florrie is the mission’s raw nerve and bellwether, listening for news of dread import, with the Mongolian warlord Tunga Khan known to be ravaging the frontier and rumoured to be committing atrocities. Andrews assures her charges that the mission isn’t in danger because she believes Tunga will not attack an American station.
.
7Women06
.
The basis for 7 Women, interestingly, was the story “Chinese Finale” by Norah Lofts, who also provided the basis for the thematically very similar Hammer horror film The Witches, released the same year. Lofts’ fascination with independent women battling hostile forces, both internal and external, often encompassing the collapsing fringes of the declining colonial era, crossbreeds surprising neatly with Ford’s sensibility. A schism that commonly arises in Ford’s films between the genuinely committed and the destructively pompous is here given new context and taken to an extreme, as Andrews is quickly faced with as complete an opposite as she could expect. The mission has been without a doctor for some time, with the last two having pulled out at the last minute and Florrie increasingly worried about facing giving birth without medical care. Charles is sent to fetch the new arrival, but returns confusedly without anyone. Days later, the doctor arrives: Dr. D. R. Cartwright (Anne Bancroft) turns to the camera with a sleight of Ford’s hand that calls back to the similarly great introduction of the silhouetted Ringo Kid (John Wayne) in Stagecoach (1939). Similarly, just as Woody Strode’s Sergeant Rutledge was the new type of indomitable American hero, Cartwright is Ford’s type of woman, defined as creature of imperious action and touching the outer edges of androgyny with short curly hair, leather jacket, and boots.
.
7Women07
.
Cartwright soon reveals herself more than ready, whether she means to or not, to shake up the mission. A drinker, smoker, hard-bitten professional, and probable atheist, she quickly upsets the niceties of the mission’s social life, arriving at the dinner table with a smoke in hand and making her unfamiliarity with saying grace readily known. Real conflict between Cartwright and Andrews combusts when Cartwright, after inspecting Florrie, tells both Pether and Andrews that she would be better off in a proper hospital rather than risking birth in the mission. Andrews explains to Cartwright that each of the mission workers is “a soldier” and that Florrie will have to take her chances. Cartwright explodes at this, accusing Andrews of punishing Florrie for the obvious fact that she and her husband had sex in the mission and calling Andrews a small-time dictator. Argent tries to mollify and chastise Cartwright for disturbing the peace. Soon, Cartwright is pitched into an unquestioned, if temporary, authority when she detects signs of typhoid in refugees streaming through the mission gates, and institutes a quarantine.
.
7Women08
.
Just before Cartwright recognises the disease’s presence, the mission welcomed a group of refugees, including Miss Binns (Flora Robson), Mrs. Russell (Anna Lee), and Miss Ling (Jane Chang), three workers from a British-run mission that’s already been raided by Tunga Khan. Andrews quietly rejects their offers to lend a hand because they’re a different denomination and might further upset her little empire, but Binns has sufficient experience in nursing to aid and relieve Cartwright. The labour of dealing with the epidemic still falls most heavily on the doctor’s shoulders, whilst Pether works to exhaustion with the mission’s local workmen to burn infected clothing and bury the dead.
.
7Women09
.
Although Ford certainly didn’t mean for 7 Women to be his last movie, its motifs connect to a vast swathe of his films with a summative work’s clarity and concision, but not in a manner that suggests any kind of peace being made. The isolated setting and the drama’s compressed, playlike structure analysing a gallery of besieged characters, inevitably recalls not just Ford’s westerns, but also The Lost Patrol (1934). As with that early adventure film, a less familiar setting allows Ford to reduce the enemy “other” to something close to abstract symbol, as opposed to his increasingly fraught and empathetic depiction of Native Americans. Ford’s famously strong patriotism, religious conviction, and interest in social niceties and hierarchies were often counterbalanced by a contemptuous attitude to false versions of those faiths—prissy, empty piety was usually portrayed as a potent, but individual ill in Ford’s earlier works like Stagecoach, like the embezzling bank manager declares “What’s good for the banks is good for the country” and the women who chase Claire Trevor out of town, or How Green Was My Valley (1941), where the good minister is tormented by self-righteous parishioners. Perhaps the Ford work 7 Women feels in most immediate dialogue with is Fort Apache (1948), concentrating on an isolated locale where the little rituals that hold the civil balance are threatened by the arrival of a new figure of power, and the nature of such power is analysed in successive postures, as an increasingly irrational commander is revealed as a straw dummy whilst a cooler subordinate’s moral pragmatism can’t save the day. The dialectic of the two character types helps interrogate the difference between authoritarianism and leadership, and on a deeper level, between existential reaction to changing circumstance and adherence to unyielding codes of humanism and fanaticism. Leighton and Bancroft are cast in the Henry Fonda and John Wayne roles, respectively, with the newcomer as the voice of reason rather than that of vainglory, who exposes the whole project as a kind of sham, if perhaps a necessary sham.
.
7Women10
.
The underlying drama is given a peculiar, deeper piquancy by the half-stated competition between Cartwright and Andrews for influence over Emma. The competition and its stakes are radically different for each woman, however. Cartwright recognises Emma as a young, fresh personality who she thinks should get out of the mission life before it sucks her dry. Andrews is powerfully in love with her pretty blonde charge, an attraction made painfully clear in an early scene when she catches sight of Emma partly undressed and her face contorts with bottomless pain and longing. During the quarantine, Cartwright is awakened from a few snatched hours of sleep to treat Emma, who has fallen to the disease. A moment of exhausted communion between Cartwright and Andrews comes when both sit at the tree at the centre of the mission compound—literal and spiritual axis of the mission—where earlier Andrews had been able to briefly take hold of Emma’s hand. Andrews, in her daze and grief, speaks of burying her emotions in her work. But that’s not working anymore. The seven women of the title do not include Cartwright, but rather the missionary ladies from whom she stands apart. Yet, Cartwright is certainly the hero of the film, a distinction that is quite deliberate. Her affectations rupture every presumption about womanhood seemingly upheld by the missionaries, but more than that, a carefully laid system of assumptions about what constitutes cohesive social values and duty of care. When she gets drunk after her tending to the sick, she incurs icy recriminations around the teetotallers’ table, and alludes to the lousy career choices she faced as a doctor in the U.S. where she worked in poor urban hospitals and finally fled after a love affair with “the wrong guy.”
.
7Women11
.
Ford’s gift for realising character types with Dickensian vividness in the briefest of cinematic shorthand is apparent through 7 Women, occasionally touching the edges of camp caricature, as with Florrie’s early, quick leaps to florid worry and Mrs. Russell’s vehement reaction to Cartwright’s bottle of whisky. The casting certainly makes use of the actors’ screen personas from prior roles: Lyons, who had found brief fame acting in Lolita (1962) and then appeared in Night of the Iguana (1964), might well have been justifiably tired of playing objects of obsession for middle-aged pervs, whilst Leighton specialised in playing unstable, repressed figures, and Albert replays aspects of his role in Robert Aldrich’s Attack! (1956). But Ford and his screenwriters Janet Green and John McCormick complicate the schema with a vividness that is just as swift and precise. Ford’s visual language is deftly functional, yet always telling, usually perceiving this motley collective in group shots that survey them in a manner reminiscent of classic Dutch art’s group portraits and social studies, luminous faces amidst dark surrounds rendered by cinematographer Joseph LaShelle’s muted palettes dominated by shades of brown and grey.
.
7Women12
.
Close-ups are privileges and dominance of the frame in contention: Andrews, at first unquestionably at the forefront of the visuals, is forced to contend with Cartwright in squared-off, geometrically balanced shots that see the two women holding each side of repeated shots. Andrews is pushed into the background and then generally cleaved from the group as she retreats into herself. The expansiveness of Ford’s cinema at its height is nowhere to be found here. Gone are the wide-open landscapes and languorous, enfolding studies in binding social ritual, and even the comic relief of boisterous brawling for blowing off steam (a welcome excision perhaps), something that the mission’s inhabitants have, quite literally, forbidden themselves.
.
7Women13
.
The world beyond the mission walls becomes not free space, but oppressive zone of nullity, whilst its interior is dominated by narrow rectilinear shots in the shadowy hallway and dining room, cramming in upon the characters, a moral and psychological pressure cooker that quickly begins to work. Much like with Fritz Lang’s later Hollywood films, a pinched budget and lower expectation steered Ford back to a minimalist, interiorised, semi-expressionistic quality like a reflexive return to the art of the early cinema both men understood well. A nightmarish quality does permeate many moments of 7 Women, often evoked in shots staring down the oppressive length of the mission’s central corridor, where Pether retreats in agony as Florrie, locked away from the rest of the mission to keep her and her child safe from disease, shouts out to him with shrill, peevish demands; you can almost feel the mutual sense of long-cheated love turned into grinding misery. Much later, Cartwright, draped in exotic finery that entails submission to an alien, personality-erasing force that turns her into a ghost of other ages, stalks the same space with a lantern, planning death and deliverance. The social structure of the mission survives the crisis of the epidemic but cannot withstand the portents of Tunga Khan’s coming, first ominously suggested by a distant infernal glow on the horizon as a town burns. Ignoring Andrews’ angry cries, government troops flee the area, stripping the mission of protection both actual and psychological.
.
7Women14
.
Following his back-breaking and depleting service during the epidemic, the imminence of a new danger finally shocks Pether out of his nervous timidity as he decries his vain actions in dragging his wife with him to this place, and vaults him into a newfound zone of confident command. Realising the exposed position of the mission once the soldiers leave, Pether assumes a take-charge attitude, telling everyone to get ready to leave, and sets out with Kim in the mission’s single, old jalopy to find out what’s going on. Later, the sound of the car’s horn calls a watchman to open the mission gate, only to allow a band of horsemen to charge in and conquer the outpost, the horn now a detached relic of conquest.
.
7Women15
.
Kim, brought back to the mission as a captive, recounts Pether’s heroic but tragically absurd death in his first act of selfless valor—trying to intervene in a rape. Tunga Khan’s men then kill Kim at Andrews’ feet, sparking her to erupt in rage and sorrow. Tunga Khan (Mike Mazurski) has the women locked up in a supply shed, intending to hold them for ransom. Miss Ling, an aristocratic Chinese woman, is singled out for humiliation and abuse. Of course, Florrie goes into labour in the shed, still beggared by her husband’s sudden, fatal display of bravery. The reduction of space to the airless and comfortless shed precipitates Andrews’ total collapse in desperate detachment even as the others work to help Florrie give birth. Mother and baby survive the ordeal, and even Tunga Khan and his men are delighted by the arrival.
.
7Women16
.
The beauty of 7 Women lies largely in a contemplation of its characters as beings in flux, fitting a film that seems to be resituating Ford’s eternal frontier as a place of the psyche where new worlds are at stake. Ford allows each character a theatrical moment that reveals something crucial about them, but then watches as each displays different facets under intense pressure: Pether’s transformation and Andrews’ slow crack-up are the two most overt, but by film’s end, most of the characters are revealed as, or pushed to become, the opposites of what they seem at the outset. Even the pathetic and annoying Florrie gains a peculiar dignity in hard-won perspective and the calm that comes from contemplating truly difficult circumstances. Indeed, dignity is a true currency in 7 Women, valuable to those who have it, those who want it, and those who want to take it away from others. Early in the film Andrews tries to assert her influence over Emma by describing Cartwright as superficially exciting but spiritually “dead,” a proposition Emma instinctively rejects. Indeed, as the film continues, one watches the painful death of Andrews as a personality as she’s consumed by repression and loses all dignity in the name of retaining it. Tunga Khan’s main pleasure is to subjugate personalities with pride, first with Miss Ling, who is raped off-screen and glimpsed being forced to tend to Tunga Khan’s concubine (Irene Tsu) as a serving maid. Yet, when Cartwright asks her how she is, Ling replies with cool fortitude, “I’m alive.”
.
7Women17
.
By the film’s standard, Ling is the first to win the ultimate victory of retaining her sense of self in the face of trial. Cartwright herself becomes the next object of Tunga Khan’s predatory interest as her displays of fierce will and powerful personality intrigue him more than the other women, even the pretty but colourless Emma: only Cartwright, who, in her fearsome independence seems both an emissary from a feminist future but also a more ancient, uncurbed personality, an Empress hiding in riding jodhpurs, can offer Tunga Khan the unique pleasure of both robust erotic excitement and the pleasure of its submission. This desire becomes a weapon Cartwright seizes even at the cost of momentary degradation, as she makes a deal with Tunga Khan to have sex with him in exchange for better treatment of the prisoners and provisions for the baby. It’s strangely appropriate that Ford’s long career of portraying hard-drinking, asocial, highly talented professionals is crystallised in a female figure who belittles even Howard Hawks’ tough women whilst strongly resembling them, because unlike them, Cartwright isn’t just functional in a masculine world, she is, as she says herself, “better!” She meets her sleazy captor before fucking him with a cool-eyed, smoke-spouting smile that levels mountains. There’s a definite, deliberate note of black humour in the way Ford portrays the Mongol brutes, signalled first by having the gall to cast Mazurski and Woody Strode (as Tunga Khan’s “lean” lieutenant) with a straight face as their leaders, and confirmed in humorous asides until a climactic moment of death when one drops dead with the suddenness of a Loony Tunes character after ingesting poison.
.
7Women18
.
Like Lee Marvin’s eponymous thug in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), Tunga Khan and his men are on hand to embody primal masculinity as wild and juvenile proto-punks who delight in assaults on the trappings of civilisation, loping not out of the real steppes but from the recesses of modernity’s nightmares. There’s also a similarity to the kinds of crude, but gentle-souled giants Wallace Beery and Victor McLaglen played for Ford, stripped of their virtuous simplicity and reduced to beasts with appetites. They rant, smash, tear, rape, pillage, murder, and give boisterous stage laughs. Tunga Khan and his lieutenant are in the midst of a silent power struggle, a struggle that mirrors the one between the women but is played out in different fashion, signalled in a series of silent postures, as the lieutenant makes a play to impress Cartwright before Tunga Khan by engaging in a wrestling match. Tunga Khan immediately recognises the unspoken challenge and strips down to fight his aide himself, quickly and brutally cracking the man’s neck in combat, whilst Cartwright watches, smoking a cigarette with sardonic fascination. Rank prostitution for a good cause scarcely bothers Cartwright, who’s probably had one-night stands in Chicago as fetid and clumsy as Tunga Khan probably is, but Andrews, when she learns what’s happened, works herself up into a glaze-eyed tantrum, calling Cartwright the Whore of Babylon and other cute biblical phrases. Soon, Andrews has lost what little respect and patience the other women could show her: by the very end even Miss Argent snaps with livid anger, “I never want to hear another word from you as long as I live!”
.
7Women19
.
7 Women stands up with a crucially similar film released the same year, Robert Wise’s The Sand Pebbles, as the first work put out by Hollywood that feels assuredly like a metaphor for America’s deepening involvement in Vietnam. It certainly comprehends with surprising self-criticality and grimness the potential problems of an age of global reach where do-gooding blends problematically with cultural colonisation, filtered through the (then) not-so-distant past: Ford, who felt compelled to defend the war later, seems to have offloaded all of his psychic discontent here. The feeling that something is about to crack up nastily haunts 7 Women, geopolitics and sexual politics and even individual identity itself entering a no-man’s-land where all will be forcibly redefined, as if modernity is a bellows stoking every precept to white hot. The finale vibrates with anxiety and darkness as Cartwright, at Emma’s prompting and faced with the probably death of Florrie’s baby if not freed immediately, agrees to sell herself to Tunga Khan as permanent chattel to secure the release of the other women. This works, and Cartwright appears to the other prisoners now wrapped in the clothes of Tunga Khan’s concubine in a bleak gag that finally sees Cartwright forced into the part of traditional, doll-like female, and the seven women are carted away from the mission, The broken Andrews remains, awed by the spectacle of sacrifice required and given, echoing the similar self-sacrifice that defines The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.
.
7Women20
.
The missionaries’ last sight of Cartwright is beautiful and chilling to equal degree, the doctor standing in her Chinese garb holding a lantern, aglow in near-darkness. Ford saves his greatest touch for a finale as memorable in its way as that of The Searchers, as Cartwright stalks the empty halls of the mission, the audience already forewarned she’s going to try something deadly and forced to watch it play out. Mutually assured destruction is the nihilistic metaphor at the heart of Ford’s swan song. Cartwright gets one of the most blackly amusing and stirring kiss-off lines in film history as she cracks her cup against the Khan’s and toasts, “Here’s to ya, you bastard!” She waits until the Khan drops dead from his poisoned drink before swallowing her own. Ford fades to black as she leans back to be embraced by the dark.

Standard
1960s, Italian cinema, Western

A Fistful of Dollars (1964)

Per un pugno di dollari

FistfulDollars01

Director: Sergio Leone

By Roderick Heath

In the early 1960s, the Hollywood Western genre was beginning its long decline. The genre’s most iconic stars, like John Wayne, James Stewart, and Henry Fonda, aged, the directors who had fostered in its greatest years were themselves fading, the “adult” westerns of the ’50s had begun an antimythic trend that corroded the traditional mores of the horse opera, and television, with dozens of Western-themed shows on the schedule, was sapping the remnant vitality of the form. And yet, Westerns were still hugely popular worldwide, including in Europe, where, with the decline in American-produced fare, some producers wanted to get some of that sweet legal tender that oatsers could still generate. The late ’50s and early ’60s saw a smattering of attempts to make Westerns outside of the traditional American milieu, and a template was defined when Hammer Studios honcho Michael Carreras had the bright idea of shooting the 1961 Anglo-Spanish coproduction Terrain Brutal (Savage Guns) in Almeria, Spain. After a couple more multinational follow-ups, the first Italian-produced Western, Duello nel Texas, debuted; the historical musclemen sagas or “peplum” movies that formed much of Italy’s genre cinema was running out of steam, and something else had to fill the void.

FistfulDollars02

This experiment in international genre resuscitation might have finished up as an ignominious pop-kitsch footnote if not for one Sergio Leone, an experienced screenwriter and assistant director who had recently graduated to official directing credits with the 1961 peplum pic The Colossus of Rhodes and wanted to tackle the genre. Leone, the son of early film director Roberto Roberti (birth name Vincenzo Leone) and actress Edvige Valcarenghi, claimed great affinity with the West as a subject of private enthusiasm, and disliked the more psychological, moralistic variety of Western that had arisen in the late ’50s, of which the likes of The Fastest Gun in the West (1956) or The Hanging Tree (1959) might serve as good examples. Leone resolved to toss out the psychological and metaphoric weight and get down and dirty. He began looking for a star, first trying Henry Fonda and then others, like Charles Bronson, James Coburn, and even Duello nel Texas’ star Richard Harrison. He finally found a taker in Clint Eastwood, the slender, stone-faced young actor known for the TV series Rawhide, and soon produced a huge hit that defined the Spaghetti Western in the short term and had no small impact on cinema in general.

FistfulDollars03

Leone battered together a script with the help of Víctor Andrés Catena and Jaime Comas Gil, and had English dialogue written by Mark Lowell, but the film was structured to lessen the reliance on dialogue, with actors in smaller roles mostly dubbed. Leone’s ideal of the Western translated into an Italian visual style became the priority, offering up ebullient widescreen compositions that reproduce lighting and colour effects and arrangement of elements that call to mind the finest effects of Renaissance painting. The difficulty in taking A Fistful of Dollars seriously in and of itself is the immediately obvious fact that Leone and his collaborators egregiously ripped off Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961), taking a cue from the successful Western adaptation of Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954) — The Magnificent Seven (1960). Leone later tried to defend himself by claiming he’d taken as much inspiration from the classic Italian play Servant of Two Masters, something which film writer Christopher Frayling emphasises. But this seems like blather, considering A Fistful of Dollars follows Yojimbo practically scene for scene: the same subplots, characters, narrative gimmicks, and even similar shots. Kurosawa successfully sued for a share of the profits, but it’s arguably only fair that he was hoist by his own petard, considering the debt his film owed Dashiell Hammett and the fact that it was a tribute to the Western traditions of John Ford.

FistfulDollars04

In many ways, however, the closeness of the template and its unofficial, on-the-sly status, makes for a revelatory creation. The contrast of Kurosawa’s vision and Leone’s, differing takes by two cinematic titans on a simple and wittily brutal genre tale, is one of the few opportunities the cinema has ever offered for such clear comparison of disparate creative impulses. Kurosawa’s film is cool, crisply etched, his camera usually standing far back, the framing as sharp and refined as the edge of Toshiro Mifune’s katana blade; Leone’s frames jostle with detail, colossal close-ups, and multi-hued lighting that work in a symphonic fashion. Another difference is temperamental. Kurosawa doesn’t introduce the subplot of a woman who’s been forced to become a concubine by evil men, separating her from her husband and son, until halfway through Yojimbo. Leone makes one of the first images of his more operatic film that of the enslaved woman’s son trying to sneak into the house where she’s kept, from which he’s chased by sleazy thugs, who then beat up his father when he tries to protect the lad. This occurs in the casually observant eyeline of Joe (Eastwood), the wandering, poncho-clad mercenary who arrives in the tiny Mexican town of San Miguel, and right from that moment, it’s certain he knows not to give a damn about what chaos he starts.

FistfulDollars05

Two clans are competing for the lucrative border-smuggling trade in weapons and liquor for which San Miguel is an ideal operating base. The Baxter cadres, led by the nominal sheriff John Baxter (Wolfgang Lukschy), face off against the three Rojos brothers—Ramón (Gian Maria Volonté), Esteban (Sieghardt Rupp), and Don Miguel (Antonio Prieto)—and their hired guns. Joe is harassed by the Baxters’ heavies and advised by tavern owner Silvanito (José Calvo) to hurry away after explaining the calamity that’s engulfed the town. Joe, however, seems to see opportunity—exterminating four of the Baxters’ gunmen with his own phenomenally fast draw—and tries to sell his services, in turn, to both the Baxters and the Rojos. But neither are exactly comfortable outfits to work for: Baxter’s Lady Macbeth of a wife, Consuelo (Margarita Lozano), wants to have him killed off quickly, and the Rojos are driven along by Machiavellian bastard Ramón, who contrives a successful ambush of a federale unit to rob them of the gold they’re transporting. So Joe sets up a battle between the two sides by arranging two of the dead soldiers’ bodies in a graveyard and sells information to each band, making the Rojos think the corpses are still-living survivors of the massacre they’ll have to finish off, and then tipping the Baxters to the advantage they might have in capturing the soldiers alive.

FistfulDollars06

This last flourish, the impudence toward propriety and a purely makeshift sense of existence where even the dead are props to be used in the mean business of staying alive, is pure, original Leone, one of the touches that helped define his style. Leone was making films about the Wild West, but his thinking always seemed even more ancient. At the very least, he tapped into something mostly latent in the genre that had always been tidied over by American Western filmmakers seeking a veneer of relevance to contemporary society. Leone saw that it was precisely the wildness, the often barely discernible patina of civilisation reduced and reveling in animalistic behaviours that was the greater part of the genre’s pleasure. Men are hairy, sweaty, dirty, horny, greedy, and often ruthless in his movies. Basic opposites are always functioning in Leone’s films, in spite of the refinement of the style: life, death, earth, sky, rich, poor, man, woman. Personalities are present, ethics hazily visible, certain codes certainly dominant, but defined only by direct and basic force. The reduction is signaled by the animated cut-outs that form the credit sequence, and this also introduces the new note of pop-art to the proceedings.

FistfulDollars07

The simultaneously deepening tactile and moral realism in Leone’s films and the unrealism, the borderline-mythic touches and the distancing from historical context, is one of the great contradictions in cinema. Emblems are important. The Baxter house, a roughly carpentered, but still recognisable approximation of a classic Yankee manor, and the Rojos house, with its lustrous Spanish white and columns, present not merely the abodes of warring gangs, but also warring civilisations and the contrast of Old World elegance versus American solidity. Joe himself, with his regulation cowboy gear and swathing poncho, blends cultural tropes in a suggestive fashion. In between the buildings, the no-man’s-land of San Miguel’s main street, is the first of Leone’s bullrings for warrior confrontation, which Leone’s widescreen lens describes in patient intimacy, often using the terraces of the Rojo house to further force the lens of perspective. Joe finds helpmates in grouchy, but fascinated Silvanito and the local coffin maker, and his only true nemesis is soon identified in Ramón, the man who gleefully machine-gunned the federales, the only one canny and brutal enough to present a real challenge. Facades are important in Leone’s films (just look at how often the image of a man hidden behind a screen spying or aiming a gun at someone appears in his films), and so is the alternation of identities; Ramón kills the federales wearing U.S. uniforms. However, no one’s better at muddying the waters than Joe. In the absence of real things to stir up trouble about, Joe provides illusions, like those two dead Mexicans, to leaven his divide-and-exploit strategy. There’s always some bullshit, Leone constantly suggests, hiding a real motive.

FistfulDollars08

This stage-managed graveyard battle gives Joe the chance to search for the stolen gold, but he ends up taking an accidental hostage, Marisol (Marianne Koch), mother of the boy, now Ramón’s squaw, whom the Baxters eagerly use as a trading piece to get back their own useless son Antonio (Bruno Carotenuto). The discovery of Marisol’s history motivates Joe to win her freedom even though he’ll endanger his own life, because he “knew someone like you once. There was no one there to help,” as he tells her and her family before driving them away. Finally, real feeling has intervened in proceedings as a true motive, but it’s almost fatal for Joe, who’s captured and relentlessly beaten by the Rojos and their thugs. He turns the tables by crushing two of his torturers by rolling a gigantic barrel of gunpowder down on them—a gleefully nasty comeuppance—and then covers his escape by setting that powder alight. He literally and figuratively kindles an eruption, because the outraged Rojos assault the Baxters’ house and massacre all the inhabitants.

FistfulDollars09

Kurosawa treated the story as both amusingly and harshly Darwinian, one of a wolf contending mostly with insects that cannibalise each other in thrilling but essentially pathetic ways. Leone wrings a different, more imperative flavour out of the action, and though still humorous, his possesses a darker lustre. Consuela Baxter’s death—the black-clad matriarch shouting defiance and a primal curse at the Rojos before being shot down in a wreath of smoke bellowing from her house—is exultant in its grotesquery and melodramatic scale; indeed, the whole sequence sports a remarkably, infernal vividness. So, too, is the little opera of gestures and glances on display when Marisol is briefly reunited with her family in the street during the prisoner swap. Leone, in spite of the great ease with which people die and the contempt with which they’re often treated in his work, always makes something almost transcendent out of the moments before dying.

FistfulDollars10

Joe, the first incarnation of the character dubbed “The Man with No Name” (that was essentially a United Artists marketing gimmick), is only guided by a moral compass based in personal empathy, and there’s not much of that. We don’t hold it against him he uses people he loathes to make some money: most of us do that. That he proves to be a proper good guy isn’t in question, but he is definitely one of those Leone protagonists who has “something to do with death”, who, even if they don’t realise it, in essence, bring apocalypse wherever they tread. Joe even poses as a knight-errant or a risen, vengeful angel. Still playing games of truth and illusion, letting off explosives so that he steps out of the smoke like a spook after, having survived torture and eluded the hunting Rojos, he recuperates and returns strapping wearing body armour culled from the iron of a boiler to fend off the rifle blasts he knows Ramón will loose at him.

FistfulDollars11

Joe finally confronts the Rojos when they turn their vicious attentions to Silvanito, and doesn’t leave the town until all his foes are decimated. The irony here is that Joe mythologises himself to scare his enemies into irrational decisions, just as Leone mythologises the proceedings with a self-conscious smoke-and-mirrors style. A Fistful of Dollars is usually described as a warm-up for the grander calisthenics of Leone’s career, but in viewing it after a very long interlude, and for all Leone’s debts and still-developing talents, I recognized it as great filmmaking indeed. Perhaps its very lack of pretension makes it a better, tauter film than the awkward intermediary sequel For A Few Dollars More (1966). It’s a wonder that with all the production problems of working with actors and technicians from four countries, Leone still managed to craft such a strong drama; this is the film that proved Leone was born to be directing motion pictures.

FistfulDollars12

Eastwood’s properly terse performance, of course, made him the international film star he still is, and much of his appeal as presented here is as much about the quiet, sly good-humour he lets through Joe’s otherwise taciturn and unremitting exterior. He looks on the world much like a science experiment he’s running, sometimes a bit wryly disconcerted at how the experiment is proceeding, at least until it turns real, and then…you better run, boy. A Fistful of Dollars also sports the first of Leone’s immortally styled gun duels, defined by the rapid, rhythmic cutting between expectant faces, humour, and macho swagger slowly fading at the realisation that someone’s about to die, and then the concussive simplicity of the moment when the gunfire actually comes, with four or five men at a time dropping dead on the spot in a single, encompassing shot. Life is never more amazingly intense for Leone as in the few moments before it ends.

Standard