[Originally published in Movietone News 52, October 1976]
It isn’t too likely that a U.S. Senator would arrange the mass murder of several bands of Confederate renegades after their postwar surrender; less likely still that he would himself be present at the grisly deed; and least likely of all that the ex-Confederate officer charged with rounding up and bringing in the guerrillas would, upon watching the massacre, have no more to say than “Dammit, Senator, you told me those men would be decently treated!” There are only two ways to take an outrageously implausible story and turn it into the Winning of the West; and if you don’t have the audacity of a Sergio Leone you might just get by with the humble, trusting naïveté of Clint Eastwood. Eastwood has demonstrated, over the past few years, a steadily decreasing tendency to imitate his mentors (most notably Siegel and Leone) as he continues to develop a style of his own. Not surprisingly, it reminds me of the directorial style of another western legend who got behind the camera, John Wayne, in its penchant for relying on explicit, often moralistic dialogue, on larger-than-life heroes and villains (often viewed from low angles), and on the instant, positive expressiveness of a powerful screen presence (Eastwood’s own) more than acting versatility or directorial imagination.
Kelly Reichert’s Meek’s Cutoff (Oscilloscope) opens without preamble. We are given a place and a year —”Oregon, 1845,” stitched into a piece of homespun embroidery—and then dropped in the high desert to observe three frontier families ford a river. They wordlessly, almost morosely, march across, then take the opportunity to fill canteens, wash and check the wagons before setting off again. These pilgrims in the desert are a long way from the Promised Land and their buckskin guide of a Moses, Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood, looking like a road show Buffalo Bill), talks a good story of frontier adventure but it’s clear to the three families of the tiny wagon train that his shortcut to the Willamette Valley has them lost in the desert.
Michelle Williams stars as Emily, the young wife of Soloman (Will Patton), an older man looking to start again in the new land, and while she is duly deferential in public, in private they share a healthy honesty in communication you suspect is absent in the other tents. One wife (Shirley Henderson) is pregnant and exhausted — they walk beside the wagons, not in them — and another (Zoe Kazan) on the verge of hysteria. But quietly. Always quietly.
This is the quietest American film I’ve heard in years. Apart from the tall tales spun by Meek, the dialogue is hushed and the audience strains to hear the discussions of the men debating their options. Much like the wives, who are left out of the discussions and stand apart, patiently picking up what they can. The soundtrack is creaking wagons, the wind through plains, the sounds of setting and breaking camp. Until The Indian, a lone figure shadowing them on their journey, is first spotted. He brings the music with him but it’s a lonely, alienated soundscape, mood rather than melody. Meek assumes he’s a threat, but not due to any native intelligence on his part. Forget the mountain man as frontier seer and survivalist savant. Meek can’t place the man’s tribe or language any more than he can find their trail. Emily’s defiant stand to protect The Indian (that’s his name, as far as any of the settlers are concerned; there’s certainly no communication between them) is as much practical as humanistic. If Meek can’t find water, then maybe this desert dweller can. If only out of self-preservation, as he’s tied—quite literally—to their fortunes.
[Originally published in Movietone News 53, January 1977]
Clint Eastwood’s latest movie covers a lot of territory and glimpses a large enough cross-section of Western character types, Leone-ish villains, and just plain folks to fill an album of rare and intriguing daguerreotypes. People getting mixed up with and along with one another travel through raw frontier country, seemingly dissociated in their respective enterprises—running away from fascistic Yankee vigilantes, looking for new suckers to buy patent medicine, following a dream of a milk-and-honey land (described in a loving son’s letters) and ending up in a boom town gone bad, repaying the debt of a life saved with unflagging allegiance to the “outlaw” who saved it—but their variety and amicably contrary professions and predilections are among the film’s most likable features. As Josey Wales (Eastwood) moves from that richly colored, deep-wooded Missouri hills country to arid parts west beneath skies brushed a thin blue, where an abundance of rocky places accommodate the likes of bandits, Comanche, and the frontier flotsam of dying boom towns, one begins to feel that the landscapes of the movie are as various as Eastwood’s veritable throng of characters. The progression from East to West, from the cypress-dripping South of Siegel’s and Eastwood’s The Beguiledto starker outcroppings of men and stone that characterize a contemporary Western like Aldrich’s Ulzana’s Raidseems as natural as the accumulation of humankind that marks Wales’ journey.
[Originally published in Movietone News 53, January 1977]
Don Siegel, a man with an impressive history of making competent, toughminded, fast-moving films, admits that he’s trying to alter his “image” as an action director. In his most recent film, The Shootist, we can feel the tug between action and reflection, violence and elegy, present and past—opposing qualities that find a meeting ground in Siegel’s view of what itself is a contradictory environment of change and anachronism. This is turn-of-the-century Carson City, Nevada, outfitted with harbingers of the future such as trolleys on tracks and horseless carriages, but also retaining iconographic refuges of the Old West like the spacious Metropole Saloon. Scanning the borders of heroism, time, and fate within this world, Siegel’s style ranges from the intimate and discreet to the epic, the legendary and mythic mode of end-of-an-era Westerns—divergent strains of perspective (and TheShootistis very much a movie about various perspectives, mixing the larger context of legend with the intimacy of self-knowledge) that can unexpectedly coalesce within a single shot. Towards the end of the movie, when J.B. Books (John Wayne)—an aging gunman dying of cancer—prepares to go out to the Metropole to meet with three adversaries he’s treating to a showdown, there is something about John Wayne’s gestures and Siegel’s eye-level and respectfully unobtrusive camera that is both epically cumulative and heartwrenchingly personal. Very slowly and selfconsciously, Books places his guns just so in his belt, takes his hat from the peg on the wall and arranges it on his head, and checks his watch so as not to be late to this last appointment. (Books has opted to go down in a blaze of gunfire rather than succumb to the cancer attacking him relentlessly from the rear.) It is a painfully intimate moment, one which we feel almost indiscreet in witnessing. Nothing very important is happening—nothing more important than all the accoutrements of a man’s life getting arranged, put in order for his passing.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Take out the word “Chainsaw” and it could be the title of a Western. And what do you know? It is.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre takes place over one day, from sunrise after a night of grave desecrations to sunrise after a night of unspeakable murderous horror. Sunset comes not at the end of the film but at its center.
The east-to-west movement of the sun has stood, as long as there has been poetry, for two eternal kinds of motion: the adventurous drive toward discovery and new frontier, pulling what passes for civilization from central Asia to Europe, from Europe to America, and from America’s East to her beckoning West; and also the inevitable progress of every being, human or otherwise, toward that undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler ever returns. Unlike the sun, we do not rise again with each new day.
Between the emphatic shots of sun (and later, moon) that punctuate The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the film relies on shots that never allow us to lose sight of the unobstructed rural Texas landscape. But these are not the widescreen landscapes, the cloud-studded bright sky blues and warm golds of sun-kissed grain so familiar from the cinematized western mythos. Instead they are the bleached browns of desiccation, the pale greens of decay.
Great film making, they say, is supposed to be invisible. It takes repeated viewings to root out—and become increasingly touched by and attached to—those special moments that make a film come together in a way that delivers aesthetic frisson and confirms cinematic greatness. But every once in a while such a moment announces itself on a very first viewing of the film, drawing shivers, even a tear, as if you’d seen the movie a dozen times before and were visiting an old friend, not encountering a new one for the first time. Such a moment, combining narrative and stylistic power, evokes both emotion and the satisfaction of knowing that, as a viewer, you are in the best, most competent of cinematic hands. It places you simultaneously outside and within the film: it shows you how films, at their very best, are made to work, while at the same time making you feel inescapably a part of the world the film creates.
Such a moment occurs a little under a third of the way into the Coen Brothers’ True Grit, and is, for me, the best moment—and, as it turns out, minute—I spent in a movie theatre in 2010. Actually, True Grit offers several such moments; but this one stands out for the way it strikes you with its sheer beauty and rightness, combining artistry, craftsmanship, talent, vision, and an almost other-worldly grace.
The moment I am referring to is a modest little montage of Mattie Ross preparing to join Rooster Cogburn for “a great adventure”—a journey into the uncharted Choctaw territory in a search for the coward who killed her father, and for some kind of justice. Of course, it is not a “great adventure” to Cogburn. After Mattie stands up to him, giving him a little righteous hell for having disappointed her, Cogburn relents and agrees to undertake the journey and to allow Mattie to join in. “Meet me here at seven in the morning and we will begin our coon hunt,” he says, ironically reprising Mattie’s own invocation of having gone camping with her father as evidence of her ability to handle the wilderness. Cogburn had earlier objected to the comparison: “This ain’t no coon hunt!” To which Mattie emphatically responds, “It is the same idea as a coon hunt,” and she ought to know, since it is, after all, her idea—and she turns out to be right in so many different ways.
The remarkable montage sequence that follows neither begins nor ends sharply; Carter Burwell’s music begins before the Cogburn scene ends, builds throughout the montage, and then bridges us right back to the very place we began less than a minute ago: Cogburn’s shabby apartment in the back of Lee’s store. The previous scene began and ended with Cogburn in his fruit-crate bed, and the following sequence begins with a sleeping figure in the same bed.
Now a word about that music. What should have won the Oscar for the year’s best score was not only not even nominated but was actually disqualified from consideration. The reason had something to do with the score’s having been built on three or four traditional gospel tunes, and therefore containing too much “pre-existing material” to be considered an “original score.” As if a film score composer were nothing but a tunesmith whose job is to invent melodies. Burwell’s score is a towering achievement, building those humble down-home spirituals into such ecstasies of orchestral texture, pacing, repetition and variation, matching music to image, evoking deepest emotion and most breath-taking grandeur. That, not song-writing, is what film score composers do. And as much as any other aspect of the film—which also masterfully showcases the designers’, directors’, cinematographer’s, and editors’ art—Burwell’s magnificent score not only makes the film what it is, but lives in the mind and heart so as to make both score and film unforgettable.
[Written for a November 14, 1972 showing of the film in a University of Washington Office of Lectures & Concerts Film Series on Howard Hawks. Reprinted in an all-Westerns issue of the film journal The Velvet Light Trap.]
I can remember my reaction to Rio Bravo upon its initial release in 1959. I liked it, I guess, but I was rather distressed by several factors: everything happened in this Southwestern town, John Wayne spent entirely too much time coming out on the wrong end of conversations with Angie Dickinson, and everybody talked all the time. Somewhere along the line I had been given to understand that Westerns ought to be full of chases and display a great deal of scenery, that love interest was usually imposed obligatorily on action scenarios, and that any movie in which the actors gabbed all the time was not a movie but a photographed play. Besides, these people all talked so oddly; and because they sounded odd, I decided they were technically inept performers. And oh yes, Ricky Nelson — Dean Martin didn’t bother me, but it was simply axiomatic that anyone associated with so many insipid televideo memories as Nelson could only pull a movie down, as for instance in obliging this Howard Hawks fellow to throw in a song interlude just to get his money’s worth and to please “the fans.” (Who were “the fans” who imposed all these strictures anyway? — no one I knew, but they were always Platonically ideal to have lurking in the background as an excuse for one’s peeves.)
Actually I wasn’t guilty of quite all the foregoing stupidities, but I harbored enough of them to make me (or my teenage alter ego) bear the additional symbolic burden of those other exclusionist theories I’ve run across subsequently. I’m forRio Bravo today, to put it mildly, and if I had to select just one film to demonstrate what Howard Hawks is all about, it would vie at the top of the list with Only Angels Have Wings. Both pictures embody the essential Hawksian rhythms of danger and security; clearly exemplify the strong bonds of respect and reliance that sustain the small society of professionals contained within the larger and scarcely seen society of undistinguished, uncommitted workaday types; suggest why love is as dangerous and as necessary to personal wholeness as flying or gunfighting; file lucid and affectionate briefs for good, personal, ritualistic humor and the healthier forms of craziness; and relate language, speech, and reason to action more definitively than any other films in the canon. If Only Angels Have Wings is the foremost masterwork of the director’s early period, Rio Bravo is that of the later, even more genial years.
John Ford’s classic western is a landmark of the genre for so many reasons: mature, classically constructed and superbly directed, it made a star of John Wayne, revitalized the western genre and introduced Ford to the breathtaking landscape of Monument Valley, which would become the mythic backdrop of his west. It was once nicknamed Grand Hotel on wheels but Ford’s mix of high culture, working folk and disreputable characters tossed together under the threat of Apache attack is much more egalitarian and, for all of the melodramatic potential of the personal stories that collide, human than the famous, glossy MGM melodrama. A cross-section of the high and low of the new America setting the westâ€”from a haughty southern socialite (Louise Platt) out to reunite with her cavalry officer husband to a “dance hall girl” (Claire Trevor) driven out of town by the new, judgmental forces of morality, from an Eastern whisky drummer (the appropriately named Donald Meek) to a lovable souse of a country doctor (Thomas Mitchell) who serves as the wry commentator of the changing social fabric of the westâ€”board the stage to Lordsburg as an Apache uprising brews on the plains.
John Wayne’s Ringo Kid is the last of the passengers to be introduced but his entrance is a gift to this young actor, fresh out of his apprenticeship as a B-movie cowboy hero and handpicked for the role by the mentoring director. As the stage comes upon a lone figure on the trail, the camera rushes in to a close-up of this young cowboy, escaped from prison and hauling his saddle behind him (his horse died in the escape), and reveals a soon-to-be-star completely at ease in the desert and on the screen, waving down the audience as he waves down the coach. It’s not that Wayne is a great actor, but Ford presents him as a magnificent screen presence and Wayne communicates a sense of justice and integrity in every piece of dialogue and movement.
This was written in 1990 for a film series called “Myth of the West” at the Henry Art Gallery in Seattle. As a program note, it’s a brief introduction to Ride the High Country; its references to Peckinpah beginning to fade from film history are even keener now that it’s been over a quarter-century since his death. – Robert Horton
John Ford made something like 125 films in his fifty-year career in Hollywood, and in that time he created a cohesive, wholecloth world, especially in films of the American West. Sam Peckinpah worked in feature films from The Deadly Companions (1961) to The Osterman Weekend (1983); a dozen or so films, as well as television beginning in the late 1950sâ€”a little over twenty years of work. Yet Peckinpah’s legacy is as rich as any modern director’s, and as unmistakable; you always know when you’re watching a Peckinpah movie. And Peckinpah did his most important work in the Western.
But it may be more appropriate to say that Peckinpah made end-of-the-Westerns. His Western films are poised at the moment of death, the passing of one life, one era, to another (maybe that’s why he used slow-motion to show his characters getting killedâ€”he was saving, examining that final moment). The Wild Bunch (1969) is one long last gasp; the American West is disappearing, to the extent that the outlaw heroes must go to Mexico, where they find a brief glimpse of Eden. Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973) is explicitly constructed as an American folk ballad (Kris Kristofferson and Bob Dylan are among the actors), the stanzas of which describe two old friends who used to live a wild, wide-open life. Now, one of them has joined the side of the law, and has betrayed the other for the sake of employment and civilization. In The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970), the hero, a man who has a waterhole in the middle of nowhere, is killed byâ€¦ a motorcar.
[Originally published in Movietone News 60-61, February 1979]
Sam Peckinpah visited Seattle for several days in July, 1978, under the joint auspices of the Seattle Film Society and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. On the evening of July 19he appeared at the Seattle Concert Theatre to talk with an audience that had just seen, and warmly responded to, his comedy-western The Ballad of Cable Hogue. The following is a slightly edited transcript (from a tape made by Ray Pierre) of that dialogue. For fluency of reading we have kept the [Laughter] notations to a minimum, but the fact is that laughter punctuated the discussion with considerable frequency. -Ed.
[Questions, in italics, were mostly from members of the audience. Richard T. Jameson was moderator.]
Cable Hogue, even though Cable died at the end, was a very upbeat film, which is different from all the other [Peckinpah] films that I’ve seen. Was there a reason that in 1970 or ’69 you made a movie that does not—to me, at any rate—fit very easily with all the rest of your work?
I think it fits very well. I should mention one thing that seems to confuse people: I’ve made three, or maybe I could say four, films that were my own projects; the rest I have done because that was the job that was offered. I don’t really pick and choose. On Cable, Warren [Oates] had given me the property to read, I liked it, I bought it on time, I tried to get together with Van Heflin to make for around $700,000, could not do it. And Ken Hyman was the president of Warner Brothers at that time, loved The Wild Bunch, and I conned him into tying Cable Hogue into it because I wanted to make the film. And that’s it.
I have a question about The Wild Bunch. The first print that was shown in Seattle lasted about seven days. Then it was changed, another print was substituted. Some things were cut, deleted, mainly to conform with some criticisms that Time had about the movie. Who was responsible for the cuts?
Well, Time magazine was not responsible. It was … I was cutting Cable at the time. I got a call from [producer Phil] Feldman; he said they wanted to try it out in one theater—a shorter version. I said “Fine—in one theater.” Next thing I knew, it had been cut to pieces all over the country. So you can thank Mr. Feldman for doing it. And a man named Weintraub, who also was very active at Warner Brothers at the time.
[Originally published in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]
There are undeniable similarities betweenButch and Sundance: The Early Daysand Richard Lesterâ€™s reworking of popular mythology, Robin and Marian. The earlier film, written by William (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) Goldmanâ€™s brother James, contained several seemingly deliberate takeoffs on Butch and Sundance in the dialogue, misadventures, characterization and relationship of Robin and Little John. In Butch and Sundance: The Early Dayswe encounter the same kind of buddy-comedy once again, with the two young men (Tom Berenger, William Katt) consistently rejecting heterosexual love in favor of their own interdependence. The departure from Butch Cassidyâ€™s two little sons is much harder for Butch than the farewell to his wife (Jill Eikenberry); and there is a scene in which Butch and Sundanceâ€”not Butch and Maryâ€”are treated as the boysâ€™ parents.Butch and Sundance: The Early Days also shares with Robin and Marianan emphasis (generally uncharacteristic of Lester) on landscape to delineate character. Lester and LÃ¡szlÃ³ KovÃ¡cs create the filmâ€™s best moments out of such memorable phenomena as the sand-palace mesas among which Butch first proposes partnership to the Kid (then walks from one edge of a mesa to the other, and asks, silhouetted in longshot, â€œHow do I get outta here?â€); the snowdrifts among which the Butch-Sundance relationship becomes cemented in a tradeoff of heroic sacrifices, and behind which they gradually disappear in a visual denial of the heroic stature they sought to achieve by bringing diphtheria serum into an infected area; or the floodwaters that make a creek out of the main street of Butchâ€™s hometown, where Sundance faces the trauma of killing his first human being.
[Originally published in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]
Horse comes over the horizon and slants down into the golden valley, right there I figure Sydney Pollack auteur time, whoa up. I mean, if Sydney Pollack can be an auteur, it isnâ€™t worth being one. But he wants it, oh, he can taste it. He cranes, he tracks, he dissolves. (They shoot auteurs, donâ€™t they?) All right, enough funninâ€™, letâ€™s fess up and concede that after enough films get made and enough thematic and syntactical evidence piles up, there gets to be somebody there you can recognize, and thatâ€™s Sydney Pollack. The guy has a style. Whether that style has much to do with style in the richest, most analytical and mystical senses of the word is another question. But a style he has: slick, thin; getting to be rather touching in its naÃ¯ve pretentiousness; suited to keeping movies moving, and hence giving his films a leg up when it comes down to the competitive question of which movie should I go to, which film in the local triple or sextuple shopping-mall cinema is likeliest to keep me entertained. Entertained, goddam it, not edified, no matter how much the entertainer may strive to be taken for an edifier as well. The Electric Horseman entertains better than almost anything else thatâ€™s twinkled onto the scene this Christmas season. The key factors in thisâ€”gorgeous, adorable, intelligent, watchably changeable, iconically constant factorsâ€”are a couple of stars who would have been stars even when the Hollywood firmament was filled with them. REDFORD : FONDA : ELECTRIC say the ads. Believe them. And this time believe Sydney Pollack, too.
[Originally published in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]
The title of Alan J Pakula’s latest film echoes the old stock melodrama line “Along comes Jones” and that’s no accident. Here we have a tough-but-tender cowgirl working her dead father’s ranch with only a lovable grizzled old coot for a ranchhand; a somber villain moving through his dark house like Dracula in his castle, hatching designs on the heroine’s land as well as her body; a land-grabbing industrialist conspiring with the local banker to turn rangeland into oil wells; a tall, quiet wrangler winning the girl’s heart and saving her land to boot; singing cowboys, fireside heart-to-hearts, a crisis with hero and heroine trapped by villain in a burning building, a climactic shootout, and boy-gets-girl. From the tentative cynicism of The Parallax View and All the President’s Men, Pakula hasreturned with a vengeance to the romantic melodrama of his earlier films, all characterized by essentially corny ideas handled in an utterly uncorny manner. Kluteand Comes a Horsemanare but two special cases of the same basic plot overlay: tough professional man saves woman from villainy and from herself, winning her heart in the process. And The Sterile Cuckoo, Love and Pain and the Whole Damn Thing, Klute, andComes a Horsemanmay all be seen as variations on the theme of simple, direct man dealing with complex, independent woman.
Martin Pawley has barged into Charlie McCorry’s wedding to Martin’s childhood sweetheart Laurie Jorgenson, and the two have waded into a typically Fordian brawl—momentary comic relief from the darker concerns of most of The Searchers. Suddenly, Charlie interrupts the fistfight: “Somebody’s fiddle!” he cautions, picking up an overlooked musical instrument and handing it hastily out of harm’s way before Martin lands the next blow. It’s not the only, but probably the most audacious, announcement of the almost-sacred importance of music to this world and this film.
We’ve known it from the outset. In barely two minutes of film time, before the first word of the filmis spoken, four pieces of music are thrown at us, each one dramatically distinct and loaded with information.
First, we hear what analysts have dubbed the “Comanches” theme, a powerful, full-voiced fanfare that evokes the traditional “Indian” music convention of the western film score, and startles us by supplanting the production company logo music that we’d normally expect in a studio film made in 1956.
After this short attention-getter, which firmly establishes the notion that this film will have something to do with Indians, we hear an acoustic guitar introduction and a sung ballad (written by Stan Jones and sung by The Sons of the Pioneers), the “title tune” of a film that came from an era in which it was common for a movie to have its own originally-composed theme song. Because this song has words, we need no prior experience of film or cultural heritage to grasp what it conveys, and add it to the “Indian” motif we heard first:
What makes a man to wander?
What makes a man to roam?
What makes a man leave bed and board
And turn his back on home?
[Originally published in Movietone News 66-67, March 1981]
There are so many bad signs on Tom Horngoing in, and so many holes to overleap while watching it, the marvel is that it lingers in the mind as a rather ingratiating picture. Right away one distrusts a movie with a director-for-hire from TV and a superstar for executive producer, especially when that superstar has been having a tetchy time of it, professionally and personally, the last few years. The cowriting credit for Tom McGuane both arouses hopeful interest (funky Montana flavor) and prepares one to expect another exercise in slewfooted, brokenbacked narrative (on the evidence of 92 in the Shade, The Missouri Breaks and – oh, let’s give him the delightful Rancho Deluxe). It is hard to guess which way Tom Hornis going to jump next, and the uncertainty is not attributable to spunky, uncontainable vitality: McQueen & co. just appear to have changed their minds from one act to the next, as to just what sort of movie they wanted Tom Hornto be and, for that matter, what sort of movie- or Western-hero they wanted Tom Horn to be.