The Wild Bunch
As the western genre in America became more and more watered down by television, Sam Peckinpah singlehandedly turned the western on its head; his The Wild Bunch shocked 1969 audiences with its almost apocalyptic, misogynistic, and violent vision of a dying era. By today’s standards The Wild Bunch is still a nihilistic masterpiece. The action and graphic carnage on screen are still staggering and utterly exciting. And along with Battleship Potemkin, Psycho, and Bonnie and Clyde, it’s still one of the gold standards for incredible cutting-edge editing of violence and death. The film is bookended by two of the best pieces of choreographed mayhem ever put to screen where the Bunch engage in shootouts so violent and intense that the film got an X rating then and even got an NC-17 rating when it was re-released in the ‘90s (both ratings were negotiated down by the studios). The editing and mix of film speeds, including slow motion, have been ripped off and become a standard in operatic action scenes since—just check out all of John Woo’s best (Hong Kong) films; they’re direct grandchildren of The Wild Bunch.
The legend of director Sam Peckinpah has taken on mythical proportions; he was a man out of time, a hard drinkin’ visionary with a death wish. One fact is definitely true: he was an ex-TV western director trying to find a place in features. His Ride the High Country was considered a little gem while the financial disaster and critical drubbing of Major Dundee almost ended his film career (a half-century later, it’s now deservingly considered an outstanding film). With Waylon Green (director of crazy killer insect cult flick The Hellstrom Chronicle), Peckinpah wrote the perfect vehicle to truly strut his romantically ugly version of the end of the Old West.
Duck, You Sucker (AKA A Fistful of Dynamite)
If Once Upon a Time in the West was Sergio Leone’s North by Northwest or Rear Window, then Duck, You Sucker (AKA A Fistful of Dynamite) was his Vertigo. It was a misunderstood film in its day; fans were startled by the director breaking from his formula and actually trying to say something. But like Hitchcock, what he had to say also didn’t satisfy what audiences wanted to hear, and the pace didn’t give them the thrills they were used to. With Duck, You Sucker, Leone was working on a potentially bigger canvas than Once Upon a Time in the West. Working with his biggest budget yet meant that Leone did have to concede his casting choices to the studio. Rod Steiger and James Coburn were hardly Leone’s first choices to play the leads, but United Artists considered both big stars while Jason Robards wasn’t bankable enough and Clint Eastwood was no longer available.
Throughout Leone’s Eastwood “Man with No Name” trilogy, each film was made back-to-back-to-back (A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad & the Ugly) and each got more progressively ambitious in both scope and ambition as their popularity grew. Finally, the director peaked with his follow-up, Once Upon a Time in the West, an accumulation of all the ideas he had been building towards and both the ultimate post-modern western and one of the true film masterpieces of the 1960s. He finally took a break (three years) before returning to the screen with the eccentric Duck, You Sucker (afterwards he would take an even longer break, not being a credited director for 11 years). In some territories the film was titled Once Upon a time in the Revolution or A Fistful of Dynamite but it would not fully fit with his first four flicks (we all tend to ignore his unrecognizable debut The Colossus Of Rhodes in ’61). Everything about this new film felt slightly tweaked. Its tones moved from comic to dramatic to sentimental to tragic to cartoony much less gracefully than in his past work. The setting moved south to Mexico and the period moved up a couple decades. Where Once Upon a Time in the West had a deliberate pace, the strands perfectly came together and justified their speed, while at almost 160 minutes Duck, You Sucker sometimes just feels long and, worse, indulgent. But luckily that indulgence and the hint of a director slightly lost in his creation proves to be both fascinating and entertaining. And just as westerns had been reinvented in the ‘60s, the ‘70s saw another seismic shift where movies as diverse as Duck, You Sucker, El Topo, The Missouri Breaks, and, finally, Heaven’s Gate would help to kill the genre for a generation.
John Ford may have brought the Western out of the B-movie jungle and into the respected leagues (Stagecoach, My Darling Clementine, The Searchers, etc.), but George Stevens took the workman’s template and made it beautiful. With his masterpiece, Shane—maybe the greatest American Western of all time—he infused the genre with even more mythology than it already relied on. Shane is the film that influenced the Western Revisionists and Postmodernists more than any other; Sergio Leone and his Italian friends in the Spaghetti Western scene were all obsessed with Shane and it shows in their work. If the plot of Shane sounds familiar that’s because it’s been recycled dozens of times in everything from Westerns (Pale Rider) to post-apocalyptic junk (Steel Dawn). Shane may have more to say about the Hollywood myth and romanticism of violence, and more poetically, than any film before or since.
Based on the novel Shane by Jack Schaefer, the film is seen through the eyes of a young farm boy, Joey Starrett (Brandon De Wilde), in the settled territory of Wyoming. Life’s a struggle for his proud but modest parents, Joe (Van Heflin) and Marian (Jean Arthur). Besides the usual struggles against nature in the tough terrain, the area is owned by the ruthless baron, Rufus Ryker (Emile Meyer), who is trying to force the Starretts and the other local homesteaders off their land. When a drifter named Shane (Alan Ladd) shows up on horseback, the Starretts take him on as a ranch hand and he gets involved in the conflict between the wholesomely innocent homesteaders and the greedy Ryker and his posse of hired goons.
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
"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. Their presence is not needed at first. Poor Jeremiah is a terrible shot and can hardly get a fire going in the harsh winter. He stumbles upon an eccentric, old, white man by the name of Bear Claw (Will Geer), the nickname coming from his hobby of hunting and skinning grizzly bears and the necklace of their claws that he wears. He teaches Jeremiah skills that a good trapper needs and warns him about the tribes and their rules until Jeremiah can go off on his own. However, his every move is tracked by two tribes: the friendly Franco-dominated Blackfoot, who speak French and are Christian; and the Crow—a ruthless and well-hidden tribe who've kept a close eye on him since he arrived. Their territory is the land on which he eventually settles. He keeps to himself, communicating with them only in times of trade and thus gaining their respect. Others were not as lucky...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
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 Proposition is story of a lawman (Winstone) down under that gives a career killer (Pearce) the chance to save his little brother from the gallows if he can find his older brother (Huston) and execute him.
Written by musician Nick Cave of Bad Seeds fame, the script is brutal, authentic and filled with fantastic period dialogue. Every character is brilliantly realized - no true heroes or absolute villains - just multi-dimensional people wrapped up in a tragic place. Cave and Warren Ellis provide the film’s score with is a glorious mixture between primal sounds of the native culture, mixed with contemporary instruments.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
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