3:10 To Yuma
The Western is showing signs of regained life, and no picture is a better example of the renascent genre than 3:10 to Yuma. Inspired by an Elmore Leonard story and originally filmed in 1957 with Glenn Ford and Van Heflin, the remake sports compelling performances by its leads, Russell Crowe and Christian Bale.
The notorious murderer and robber Ben Wade (Crowe) is captured, and struggling farmer Dan Evans (Bale) accepts an offer of $200 to join a motley posse and pack the criminal onto a train to the state prison at Yuma. During an arduous, violent journey, the group is menaced by renegade Indians, rogue lawmen, and Wade’s gang, and the charismatic, deadly Wade presents a threat all by himself.Continue Reading
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
The massive hit from 1969, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, is often cited as a "Western that people love, who usually don’t like Westerns." But it also often makes "all-time most overrated" lists, especially from folks who do like Westerns. That contradiction may be because the film is completely carried by the charisma of its two superstars, Paul Newman and Robert Redford. Also it's closer in spirit to a light comedy or even the "outlaw reexamination" genre started by Bonnie and Clyde than the landmark Westerns of its era that Sam Peckinpah and Sergio Leone were directing at the same time. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is an incredibly simple tale, and regardless of its place on the Western checklist it’s perfect entertainment.
The script seems to have very little dialogue and often the same lines are repeated, "You keep thinking, Butch," which is ironic since the script by William Goldman (Marathon Man, All The President’s Men) has been hailed for its perfect three-act structure (pre-film school era Goldman wrote a number of books about screenwriting and the business which also helped elevate his status as a quintessential writer). Act One is an introduction to Butch (Newman) and Sundance (Redford), two charming but frustrated bank robbers who are now hitting trains. Butch is the brains and Sundance the gunman. They also share a woman, schoolteacher Etta Place (the mumbly Katharine Ross of The Graduate), Sundance is her lover, while Butch flirts but is more the big brother. Act Two is one long chase as a hardcore posse follows Butch and Sundance over miles of picturesque Western plains (shot by the legendary cameraman Conrad L. Hall), ending famously with the two jumping off a cliff into a raging river. Act Three has the heroes and Etta traveling to Bolivia where they work as muscle for a paymaster (Strother Martin) and culture clashes impede their bank robbing career, finally ending with a shoot out with the Bolivian army.Continue Reading
Dances with Wolves
It’s easy to be cynical about Dances with Wolves. Some might call it a three hour goody-goody vanity project for director and star Kevin Costne. Some may laugh at his blown-dry '80s mullet. For most, its worst crime was beating Goodfellas for the Oscar for Best Picture back in 1990. It’s no Goodfellas, but don’t blame Costner; blame the stupid Oscar voters and take Dances with Wolves for what it is. For the less cynical it’s hard not to be totally engrossed, even mesmerized, and eventually heartbroken by the film. Dances with Wolves was beautifully shot by cinematographer Dean Semler, who earlier shot the amazing The Road Warrior (1981) and would later shoot the stunning Apocalypto (2006). The film uses its South Dakota/Wyoming landscapes beautifully to elicit the loneliness of the frontier and the self-reliance of Native American culture.
I’m not sure if there ever was a “Western” before that so strongly presented such a powerful Native American point of view. After decades of offensive Indian stereotypes and John Wayne, by the late '60s attitudes were changing and the Western was evolving. Even John Ford tried a sympathetic approach to the plight of the Indians with Cheyenne Autumn (1964). There was Paul Newman’s half-breed gunslinger, Hombre (1967). Richard Harris was a Brit who took over a tribe in A Man Called Horse (1970). Dustin Hoffman brought a pro-Indian satire to the genre as Little Big Man (1970). Sergio Leone had a lot to say with Duck, You Sucker (1971). Ulzana's Raid (1972) went out of its way to showcase the brutality of the white man, and Clint Eastwood had an interesting fresh take on old stereotypes with The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976). Since that golden age of “revisionist Westerns,” Jim Jarmusch got all post-moderny (or something) with his Dead Man (1995). Now, generally, the Indian is no longer automatically the bad guy or a monster. But what really makes Dances with Wolves notable is, though it stars a white man and the Indians are supporting characters, the film still manages to bridge cultural divides as well, if not better than any of its predecessors.Continue Reading
Duel in the Sun
They don’t really make ‘em like this any more. Dubbed “Lust in the Dust” by clever people of the time Duel in the Sun is a ferociously overheated western with a bad romance novel plot blown up to the scale of grand opera. The combination of terrible acting, epic scope, its goofy depiction of a lustily violent romance, and Technicolor so rich and strange it makes Texas look like Mars all work to achieve a rare kind of purity that the film exudes. Hollywood still produces expensive flops but rarely something this original and insane. It was truly the Showgirls of its day. We have star producer David O. Selznick to thank for this fantastic folly.
Selznick needed to top his previous success with Gone With the Wind. He was also determined to make his questionably talented mistress Jennifer Jones a big star. Selznick’s meddling with Duel in the Sun is legendary. He ran through directors (including Selznick himself and the inimitable Josef von Sternberg who, one would assume, would have been a perfect match for such gilded fakery), fought with his composer, Dimitri Tiomkin, and spent so much money and overstuffed his movie with so much talent – Gregory Peck, Joseph Cotten, Lionel Barrymore, Lillian Gish, Walter Huston, Herbert Marshall – that the results were going to be interesting no matter what.Continue Reading
High Plains Drifter
Oh, the seventies, the best decade for movies ever! So often I see a film from that period and think, "they would never allow that to happen in a movie today." Case in point: High Plains Drifter. The year, 1973. This was a big movie for Universal, a big budget film. It was directed by and starred Clint Eastwood, who at that time was the biggest megastar in the world. Clint was playing the "hero" of the picture. Now you won't see this from a megastar in a movie today: in the first ten minutes or so he goes and rapes a woman, brutally in the light of day, while the people of the town ignore her plea for help (in Clint's defense, later in the film she comes back for more).
That's not the only naughty shenanigan Clint gets into. Clint's stranger, the new man in an unusually picturesque seaside Western town, is hired by the town's business class to protect their property from some revenge-seeking tough guys who recently got out of jail (those same business owners once employed them and when they got out of control, framed them and sent them to jail). And now Clint is the town's new protector and he seems to be hell-bent on his own kind of revenge against the town, in the form of humiliation. He takes advantage of his open tab to spend, he appoints the town little person as town sheriff and then, in preparation for the returning outlaws, he makes the town paint itself red (even the church is forced into being covered in paint).Continue Reading
"The mountain's got its own ways." --Jeremiah Johnson
Among those who are big fans of the Western genre, I find myself having to defend this delightful movie. Aside from the repetition in the soundtrack, I couldn't come up with a single complaint. It is known and kept in high regard for its breathtaking cinematography (Duke Callaghan [Conan the Barbarian]) and for the fact that it was shot entirely on the mountains of Utah. We find Jeremiah Johnson (Robert Redford), a man fresh from a war, and set on avoiding the coming Mexican War, who also wants to make a clean break from society. He decides to learn how to become a trapper, hunting various types of game in order to survive and trading furs with local tribes. His quest was both to define himself and to break free of social constraints, and yet he discovers that every land has a law. These rules are breakable, but not excusable merely by ignorance. Soon he finds out that the mountain and its tribes intend to put him in his place.Continue Reading
A lot of directors who worked with Joan Crawford probably thought they had tapped into whatever unique strain of neurosis made her “La Joan” in order to get the best performance out of her in their films. She had always played a version of herself throughout her career, whether as a jazz crazy flapper in her silent films, a shop girl looking to marry up in her 1930s films, and in the double-crossed dame roles she took on in the hardboiled noirs of the 1940s. By the fifties, the Joker-esque lipstick started to appear, looking all the more frightening in Technicolor, and her eyebrows reached new levels of ferocity. I think of this as her middle-aged gender bending period. It seems to me that a lot of middle-aged American women start to look kind of androgynous after awhile out of what I always assumed was a weary resignation to having to keep up the scopophilic charade but Joan’s particular version of androgyny seemed more trenchant than that. It was kind of accidentally subversive. Or what the hell do I know? She may have been totally onboard as a proto-transgender performance artist. Maybe she was the first Ziggy Stardust and we weren’t hip enough to catch on. Well, whatever was going on no director found the resolute queerness of Joan’s 1950s persona quite like Nicholas Ray did with his weird western Johnny Guitar.
Joan had plenty of experience playing ball busters and vamps, but she had never played a character quite like Vienna, the saloon owner whom everyone in town seems to want gone. Vienna wears high-waisted black pants and boots, a bolo tie, and a holstered gun. She employs a staff of men who seem weary of having such a powerful female boss. All day they spin the roulette wheel in her club, even though there are no gamblers, and they serve drinks at her bar even though there are no drinkers. A former flame of Vienna’s named Johnny Guitar (played by Sterling Hayden) is ostensibly hired to strum some tunes for her clientele. But there's never anyone there, except for the nefarious bank-robbing gang that hangs out at Vienna’s including members with names like The Dancin’ Kid and a guy named Turkey. So yes we have Vienna, Johnny Guitar, the Dancin’ Kid, and Turkey--just for starters.Continue Reading
My Darling Clementine
It’s sometimes hard to write or discuss what made John Ford one of the greatest cinematic artists. He avoided deeper analysis of his films, refused intellectualizing characters and in interviews, not only dodged questions, but made the interviewer feel like a fool for even trying. He famously stood up at a Director’s Guild of America meeting and only introduced himself as “My name's John Ford. I make Westerns,” underplaying his Oscars and Hollywood status. But decades later, reflecting on his work means seeing the master approach art with the humble nature of a craftsman, creating distinct and immense visions that could be described now as “Fordian.”
And without a single iota of hyperbole or exaggeration, My Darling Clementine isn’t only one of the (many) great films by John Ford, but one of the preeminent masterpieces of art of the post-war era. After the war, Westerns seemed to lose their jingoistic American values and abandon the portraits of brave handsome men and the women they love. Stagecoach, directed by John Ford only seven years earlier, is an ensemble film with clear antagonists, a hero who’s the classic “good bad man” trope and a tremendous amount of fun on top of everything, a film which sees endless enthusiasm and optimism for the growing country. My Darling Clementine is far more complicated, with characters who should be villains proving they have a sense of pride and dignity, and societal problems attached to class and love and complex ideas of civilization. Still, Ford hasn’t reached quite the cynical edge and distrust in the world that The Searchers has, but it certainly has that foreboding sense of darkness after America’s victory overseas.Continue Reading
Once Upon A Time In The West
Sergio Leone's giant mega-Spaghetti Western is the ultimate Spaghetti Western. It may be the greatest Western of all time, period (it's at least up there with Shane and The Wild Bunch) and it’s one of my favorite films of all time. Like a novel, we are introduced very carefully to four separate characters, their motives and links to each other slowly come together. Like an opera, Ennio Morricone's masterful score gives each character their own theme. Once Upon A Time In The West is such a unique and fascinating film, it's no wonder that its influence can be seen in so many films after it, including the works of directors Quentin Tarantino, John Woo, Clint Eastwood, and Robert Rodriguez.
The Spaghetti Western is a term which refers to a genre of Westerns generally starting in the 1960s which were produced by Italians (but often shot in Spain). They usually had another Euro co-financier (usually Spain) and they would use an international cast (usually Italians and Spaniards and maybe an American) to sell the film in different countries. The '70s would also see the rise of sub-genres such as Spaghetti Gangster and Spaghetti Zombie flicks. A number of Spaghetti Western directors had an impact like Enzo Barboni (They Call Me Trinity), Sergio Sollima (The Big Gundown), Gianfranco Parolini (the Sabata trilogy), and Sergio Corbucci (Django). But the big dog, the Orson Welles of the genre, was Sergio Leone. He hit it big with his "Dollars trilogy" (Fistful Of Dollars, For A Few Dollars More, and The Good, The Bad And The Ugly). Beside Leone himself the trilogy also made international stars out of the score's revolutionary composer, Morricone, and its star, Clint Eastwood, then only known as a hack American TV actor.Continue Reading
The Big Trail
On the eve of the Depression, studio and theater owner William Fox decided that something new was needed in film exhibition. So he created Fox Grandeur – the first 70mm widescreen projection system. The process used to sometimes mind-boggling effect in The Big Trail, Raoul Walsh’s early sound Western.
The feature supplied the first starring role for the unbelievably young John Wayne, who plays Breck Coleman, a scout who signs on to lead a wagon train of settlers from Missouri to the Pacific Northwest. Along the trail, he romances a comely pilgrim (Marguerite Churchill), is menaced by a trio of deadly baddies (Tyrone Power, Sr., Charles Stevens, and Ian Keith), and faces perils ranging from a tribe of hostile Indians to the raging elements.Continue Reading