Tag Archives: cinema

Pale Rider

31 Jan

Spoiler alert:- if you haven’t seen the following films; Pale Rider, High Plains Drifter, The Outlaw Josey Wales, High Noon, Shane or Rio Bravo, but you plan to and you don’t want to have any plot details revealed, then maybe you should stop reading now.

I don’t normally write about films I don’t like, but I’m willing to make an exception for Pale Rider.

I should also mention that I have a great respect for Clint Eastwood as a filmmaker (I don’t care to comment on his politics) and the following remarks should be read with that in mind.

Maybe Pale Rider should have worked, since it’s an example of Clint Eastwood revisiting an idea that he had used successfully before.

The origins of High Plains Drifter (as I think Clint Eastwood has said himself) lie with High Noon. High Plains Drifter starts off from considering what would have happened to the town of Hadleyville if Will Kane (Gary Cooper) had been killed by Frank Miller and his gang.

Needless to say there’s more to High Plains Drifter than that, and it can also be read as a ghost story where the drifter (Clint Eastwood) may be the ghost of Jim Duncan, the murdered sheriff of Lago. (Or possibly he’s a man who’s haunted and driven by Duncan’s ghost, it’s hard to say and to a degree this enigmatic quality is part of what makes the film so effective).

Pale Rider, on the other hand is pretty obviously a reworking of Shane. And maybe this is where the problems start because while High Noon is a complex, brilliant and highly intelligent film, that’s not a moment too long, Shane, in my opinion, is a pretty lightweight children’s novel that was adapted into an overblown, overlong, pretentious sagging mess of a film.

In fairness I should add that it’s also a film that is loved and revered by an enormous number of people whose opinion is every bit as valid as mine and it’s also worth mentioning that even I enjoyed watching Jack Palance, clearly having a whale of a time, playing the wicked gunslinger. In fact I would have found the film much more tolerable if he’d had a lot more screen time, but regrettably that’s just not the way the story was written. (Maybe an idea for another film, anyone?)

Having said that, starting from what I consider to be vastly overrated source material needn’t have been a fatal weakness. Sometimes you can create something really interesting as a response to source material that you really don’t like. For example Rio Bravo was very much John Wayne’s reaction to High Noon – a film he described as ‘un-American’ and essentially it’s his retelling of a broadly similar story in his own way, reflecting his own values and perceptions. (Personally, I think High Noon is the better film, but both are undeniably classic examples of the genre). But then again, maybe Clint Eastwood doesn’t dislike Shane as much as I do and he’s trying to emulate it, rather than reacting against it.

So in Pale Rider Clint Eastwood is revisiting a method of working that had worked form him before. Pale Rider is also similar to High Plains Drifter in having an enigmatic central character (played by Clint Eastwood himself) who may, or may not, be the ghost of a righteous man who was murdered.

The film starts with thugs riding into the camp of a group of eco-friendly(?) gold miners where they cause mayhem and shoot a small dog. The small dog belongs to Megan (wikipedia puts her age at 14, I had the vague impression that she might have been a little older than that, but I’m a poor judge of ages and I suspect that Sydney Penny, who played Megan, probably was a bit older than 14).

Megan goes off by herself to bury her little dog and prays over the grave. As I recall her prayer is not altogether Christian in some respects and her prayer seems to act as an invocation that summons the eponymous pale rider out of the haze. (And this recalls the appearance of the Drifter in High Plains Drifter).

Megan’s, would be stepfather, Hull Barret (played by the excellent Michael Moriarty) heads off into town for supplies, against the advice of all and sundry and is set upon by a gang of thugs, basically more of the same thugs who rode into the miner’s camp. He is then rescued by an enigmatic stranger (Clint Eastwood) whom he invites home for supper.

So far so good.

But then Clint Eastwood seems to start making a series of mistakes that turn a promising start into what seems to me to be a self-indulgent vanity project.

I think most of the mistakes revolve around the character of Megan. She is clearly a young girl who is hovering somewhere on the verge of sexual awakening and maybe this was dangerous territory for a man at the stage of life that Eastwood had reached when he made this film.

The first problem with Megan is that she’s under written and under developed.

From a promising beginning, where she seems to conjure the mysterious drifter, out of the ether, she then lapses into being a silly little girl who falls in love, or at least becomes infatuated, with Eastwood’s character. (Henceforth referred to as The Preacher). There is even a somewhat toe-curling scene where Megan offers The Preacher her favours (and is turned down in manly fashion). This rejection seems to prompt Megan to make the absolutely bizarre decision to visit the mining camp owned by Coy Lahood. (The truly hissable villain who not only employs the thugs who have been harassing the miners, but who is also an eco-rapist using hydraulic mining methods that are shown to be incredibly destructive and are also apparently about to be outlawed).

The camp is being run by Lahood’s son, Josh (played by the late, and sadly missed, Christopher Penn). Josh is initially hospitable and shows Megan around the camp. He is also closer to Megan’s age than The Preacher and, one suspects, the underlying reason for Megan’s visit. The implication seems to be that, having had her advances rejected by The Preacher, she is now throwing herself at Josh. (Honestly, outside of the fantasies of middle aged men; do teenage girls really behave like this?).

In any case, Josh soon shows his true (and rather despicable) colours by attempting to rape Megan amidst a cheering mob of Lahood employees. Megan is rescued by Club, (Richard Kiel) another Lahood employee, but one whose mother clearly taught him better. A shot of The Preacher looking on approvingly indicates that he would have intervened (probably with a rifle shot) had Club not done so.

In the meantime Lahood Snr hires the sinister Sheriff Stockburn (John Russell) and his posse of equally sinister deputies. (Billy Drago in particular makes a superbly sinister deputy). Stockburn’s reaction to a verbal description of The Preacher indicates that the two men have a history although Stockburn indicates that The Preacher is already dead. (As he may well be – it’s that sort of film).

From here on in we should be back on reasonably solid ground. The sinister sheriff and his sinister deputies will seek to kill The Preacher and drive the eco-friendly miners off their claims and they will, in turn, be duly despatched in various ways by The Preacher.

Unfortunately, Clint Eastwood makes another mistake at this point. One of the themes of the film has been the somewhat troubled relationship between Hull Barret and Megan’s mother, Sarah Wheeler (played by the truly excellent Carrie Snodgrass). Barret has been nothing but nice and kind and gentle towards Sarah and he has been protective and nurturing towards Megan (and not even a tiny bit sleazy, his intentions towards both women are entirely honourable and appropriate). Unfortunately Sarah has been abandoned by Megan’s father and she feels unable to commit to Hull and accept his offer of marriage due to her consequent inability to trust men.

For some reason, Sarah then has a sexual encounter with The Preacher and we are expected to believe that this, somehow, facilitates Sarah’s relationship with Barret. (As opposed to undermining it and possibly even destroying it completely, which seems much more likely to me).

Other than sheer vanity on the part of Clint Eastwood, or possibly pandering to what he assumes his fans expect of the characters he plays, I don’t see why the plot should take this turn.

Much like Megan’s infatuation with The Preacher and her subsequent visit to Lahood’s mining camp it seems to be driven by male fantasy and not by any plausible motivation on the part of the women concerned. And this is particularly curious in a Clint Eastwood film given that, generally speaking, he has a pretty good record when it comes to the female characters who appear in his films. He has even been described as the most successful feminist filmmaker in Hollywood.

All in all, I think that somewhere inside the self indulgent mess that is Pale Rider, there’s a much better film trying to get out.

So what would have made Pale Rider a better film?

Well, the first thing that could, and should, have been done would have been to give Megan a little more complexity. Not to mention a little bit of common sense.

It seems to me that having conjured The Preacher out of the ether, Megan’s attitude towards him should have been a little more ambivalent than simple-minded adolescent infatuation.

She might well have been fascinated by him, but wouldn’t she have been the least bit unsettled, and possibly even afraid of him? Shouldn’t she have been the least bit disturbed at what she had managed (albeit inadvertently) to do?

Her visit to the Lahood camp also seems like clumsy story telling. She has to know that the camp is full of people who are far from friendly neighbours and while she might not anticipate the attempted rape, surely anyone with any common sense would have expected some kind for trouble from the visit. Is she supposed to be stupid, reckless or just self-destructive? (I won’t even bother with the possibility that she’s somehow inviting rape. It would have a parallel with one of the more disturbing scenes in High Plains Drifter, but there’s a difference between an adult woman of uncertain sexual mores behaving in a provocative manner and a pubescent girl doing the same).

So it seems to me as though this scene is about placing Megan in jeopardy and in giving Josh an opportunity to demonstrate that he’s really not a very nice man. The first purpose seems to me to be redundant and the second could surely have been managed rather better.

I also think the sexual encounter between Sarah and The Preacher could also have been dropped. It seems to come out of nowhere, to serve no real purpose and to be altogether implausible.

I also think that Hull Barret is much too passive as a character.

He’s presented as being nice, reliable, decent, altogether tedious and ultimately ineffectual. I think if he had been shown to have a bit more moral authority, preferably expressed in a non-violent way, the film would have been more balanced and there would have been a greater degree of moral complexity.

In short there would have been the possibility of suggesting that there are ways of being a good man other than simply killing bad men.

As it is, however, the suggestion seems to be that good men who don’t kill are boring (and sexually unattractive) and that the only way to be truly heroic (and get laid) is to kill someone. (Even Barret ends up shooting Lahood Snr in order to prevent him from shooting The Preacher in the back. The fact that The Preacher has clearly already survived being shot in the back, given all the scars revealed when he takes his shirt off to have a wash, suggests that Barret’s gesture is an unnecessary precaution, although I suppose a welcome act of generosity nonetheless).

So there it is.

In my opinion Pale Rider is one of Clint Eastwood’s failures. He does have them from time to time. And I think the reason it’s a failure is because in this film Clint Eastwood does not follow his usual practice of allowing his female character to be fully developed and have credible motivations and because he builds his own character up at the expense of other characters.

If you want an example of where Eastwood gets it right see The Outlaw Jose Wales where Laura Lee (Sondra Locke) may be strange and certainly falls in love with Wales, but is at least an interesting character. As is Little Moonlight (Geraldine Keams) and Grandma Sarah (Paula Trueman).

In addition to this Clint Eastwood consistently gives most of the best lines to Lone Watie (Chief Dan George who delivers those lines with understated aplomb), while Fletcher (John Vernon) plays a key role as observer and commentator (almost like a one-man Greek chorus). This is Clint Eastwood at his best and most generous and it’s one of his best films.

And you’ll see similar characteristics from him in what may be an even better film, Unforgiven.

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Like a Detective Story – But With a Lot More Helicopters

9 Nov

Saigon… shit.

The first line spoken in Apocalypse Now.

Of course the film starts with the sound of the fan set into ceiling of Captain Willard’s hotel room (or is it a helicopter) then the images of yellow smoke, palm trees and a napalm strike all played out over ‘The End’, by The Doors.

(It has been said so many times before, but while the Vietnam War was such an incredible disaster, not only for the US, but even more for most of South East Asia, the sound track really was outstanding).

Captain Willard goes on to muse that ‘everyone gets everything he wants. I wanted a mission, and for my sins, they gave me one. Brought it up to me like room service. It was a real choice mission, and when it was over I never wanted another.’

When I mentioned to someone, some years ago, that I had always felt that Apocalypse Now was a lot like a detective story I was laughed at and never really got the chance to explain or develop my idea.

(This seems to happen to me quite a lot. It’s frustrating. It’s one reason for starting a blog, however, because now I get to develop my ideas without being interrupted).

So anyway, I still think of Apocalypse Now as a kind of detective story, and more specifically I think it’s a lot like the kind of ‘hardboiled’ detective story that was often adapted into film noire in the 1940s and 50s. (Even if it does have a lot more helicopters than say The Big Sleep).

On the face of it this might seem like an odd idea given that classic film noire were shot in black and white, very often in highly claustrophobic settings and usually lit with the intention of creating deep and unsettling shadows around the main characters.

Clearly none of this applies to Apocalypse Now.

The look of the film as about as far removed from classic film noire as you can get. To illustrate this point, Willard says of one of the other character (Mr Clean of the South Bronx shithole) that ‘the light and the space of Vietnam really put the zap on his head’. And between them Francis Ford Coppola and Vittorio Storaro (his cinematographer) capture that light and space beautifully. It really is a remarkably beautiful film to look at.

Having said that, many of the later scenes are dominated by shadow and darkness, and it seems to me that the firefight at the Do Lung bridge acts as a transitional scene, both in the look of the film and in Willard (and the viewer’s) perception of the war.

I wouldn’t be the first person to point out that this scene portrays a confrontation between light and darkness. (Which could have been nothing more than a clichéd metaphor for the conflict between good and evil, but in this case, the conflict seems much more elemental and amoral than that). But I think it goes beyond just the look of the film.

Up until the scenes at Do Lung the war has seemed to be efficient on a tactical level but lacking in strategic purpose. (Kilgore’s assault on the Vietnamese village is supremely effective, but his purpose seems to be as much about securing a beach to surf on as following the orders he apparently never received to help Willard on his mission). At Do Lung the war lacks even the tactical coherence Kilgore can offer.

This point is brought home to Willard when he asks one man who’s in charge only to be asked ‘ain’t you?’. The point is reinforced by Roach, (a disturbing, almost shamanic, figure who effortlessly drops a 20mm grenade on a VC soldier apparently by pure intuition) who, when asked if he knows who’s in charge, just says, ‘yeah’, and then goes about his (possibly drug fuelled) business.

From this point on it becomes clear that this war isn’t just misguided and brutal, (most wars are) it’s downright insane.

From this point on we move through dense fog towards Willard’s confrontation with Colonel Kurtz.

These scenes are pretty much dominated by shadow. (To a degree this was forced on Coppola because Marlon Brando he put on an enormous amount of weight and was apparently so self conscious about it that he insisted on being shot entirely in shadow – call it a happy accident, or maybe just making a virtue of a necessity).

So you could say that Martin Sheen’s scenes with Marlon Brando are the only ones that are truly reminiscent of the visual style of film noire, but I think there’s more to it than the use of shadow as a visual metaphor.

I suppose it starts for me with the voice over. Not an obligatory feature of detective stories, or even film noire. You don’t find it at all in such classic film noire such as The Maltese Falcon or The Big Sleep. But it was common enough in film noire nonetheless and it also refers back to the first person narrative that was such a common feature of the pulp fiction that was so often the source material for film noire.

There is also an element of enquiry in Willard’s mission. His orders are to ‘terminate’ Col. Kurtz’ command and the instruction to pick up information along the way is almost an aside, but that isn’t quite the way the mission actually plays out.

In essence Willard, and the audience through his eyes, is learning about the war and about Kurtz. He’s gathering evidence, almost inadvertently, but the physical journey towards Kurtz in the patrol boat is matched by Willard’s progress towards understanding the man he’s been sent to kill.

What’s unusual for a detective story, and it’s definitely not what the Army wants, is that, however reluctantly, Willard is gathering evidence that turns out to be for Kurtz’ defence, not his prosecution.

And as in any decent detective story, there’s even a crime. Kurtz is accused of murder, the reason given for his execution, although it’s a charge that, as Willard notes, makes about as much sense as handing out speeding tickets at the Indy 500.

This brings me to another feature of Apocalypse Now that I find reminiscent of film noire, and more generally the ‘hardboiled’ school of detective fiction, which is the fact that Willard the (sort of) detective can’t trust his (sort of) client, the army. (By this I mean, not the ordinary soldiers, but the ‘four star clowns’ as Willard calls them, who’ve sent him on his mission.

These people give Willard some information, but not enough for him to fully understand what he’s doing and what information they do give him seems to undermine the case they’ve made for wanting Kurtz dead.

This leaves Willard is in the dark, metaphorically if not literally, the imagery actually gets darker as Willard learns more. This tells you something about the nature of what Willard is learning, but is also indicates that as Willard gains in understanding he loses whatever certainty he started out with.

And in Willard himself we even have just the kind of flawed central character that we’d expect to find in film noire. Most detectives of the ‘hardboiled’ school were distinctly compromised as champions of truth and justice. (Raymond Chandler’s Marlowe is a bit of an exception here, he was a knight in a slightly threadbare suit, rather than shining armour, but a chivalrous figure nonetheless).

When we first see Willard he is alone, drunk and naked in his hotel room and one of the first things he tells us about himself is that, on his return to the United States after his first tour of duty he hardly said a word to his wife until he said ‘yes’ to a divorce.

He’s not exactly the clean cut, all-American hero type, then. For most of the film he’s a passive figure, observing as he’s ferried up the river, passing judgement, but seldom acting. When he does take the initiative, however, it is shocking. He seems to instinctively understand Kurtz’ views on ‘clarity’.

“…what is often called ruthless – what may in many circumstances be only clarity, seeing clearly what there is to be done and doing it, directly, quickly, awake, looking at it.”

Or as Willard puts it, “It’s a way we had over here for living with ourselves. We cut ‘em in half with a machine gun and give ‘em a Band-Aid. It was a lie. And the more I saw them, the more I hated lies.”

This is the opposite of the dreamlike state that so many of the characters in Apocalypse Now seem to inhabit, from Kilgore and his beach party to the USO sending Playboy models into a war zone, to the ‘timid lying morality’ that Kurtz claims to be beyond. The same ‘morality’ that is behind Willard’s orders to kill Kurtz.

So Apocalypse Now is a bit like a detective story. And it does have a lot of helicopters. More than you find in most detective stories anyway. And like the best of the ‘hardboiled’ detective stories, the ones that adapted so easily into film noire, it is about truth and evil, but not good and evil, because there’s precious little ‘good’ to be found in these stories.

So Apocalypse Now is a bit like a detective story. And it does have a lot of helicopters, more than you find in most detective stories anyway.

And like the best of the ‘hardboiled’ detective stories, the ones that adapted so easily into film noire, it is about truth and evil, but not good and evil, because there’s precious little ‘good’ to be found in these stories.

Get Off Your Horse and What?

15 Apr

It’s just as well I’m not very interested in being fashionable.

If I was, I’d never be able to admit that I like watching Westerns.

It’s okay to like some Westerns, of course.

You can like Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, because, well… it was made by Clint Eastwood and somehow anything Clint Eastwood does is cool.

For a while, it was also okay to like Dances With Wolves. (Although personally I found it to be pretentious and tedious. And all that PC talk about how wonderful it was to see Native American actors being cast to play Native American roles blithely ignored the fact that both John Ford and Sam Peckinpah routinely cast Native American actors long before anyone had even heard of Kevin Costner).

But in general it’s not really okay to like Westerns.

It’s also virtually impossible to make Westerns and I really don’t expect to see anyone else giving the genre another go any time soon.

I suppose it’s all down to a bit of an image problem.

There seems to be a perception that Westerns are necessarily racist, sexist and that they generally falsify history and glorify right-wing political ideas.

So if that’s what you think, then you’re not alone, since it seems to have become accepted wisdom over the years, although I suspect that most of the people who do think along those lines probably haven’t seen too many Westerns.

So if that really is what you think, then maybe you should try watching a couple of Westerns and find out whether or not that accepted wisdom has any truth in it.

Of course there are some Westerns I wouldn’t recommend.

In spite of a stellar cast and some amazing directing talent (or possibly because of it) How the West Was Won really irritates me.

Mostly what I dislike about it is it’s consistent dishonesty. It pretty much airbrushes non-whites out of American history. (You could argue that many Westerns do, but this particular film pretends to be a sweeping account of the history of the West, so it has less of an excuse than other films that don’t have the same pretensions). It’s also a film that suffers from the presence of Debbie Reynolds (I know, she was terribly sweet in Singing in the Rain, but aside from that I find her deeply irritating. Especially when she sings).

I also loathe Shane.

I read the book (under duress) at school, and I thought it was pretty much okay for a children’s book. Not wonderful, you understand, but fairly short and a fast, undemanding read.

How someone managed to turn it into the bloated, ponderous pile of stodge that is the film version, I do not know.

I suppose some idiot decided that this was a ‘classic’ and concluded that it had to be treated accordingly. This, I assume, is why the damn’ thing has all the vivacity and pace of a tortoise on haloperidol.

Even Jack Palance, (on magnificently wicked form as the nasty gunslinger), can’t save it.

Of course anyone with cinephile pretensions will probably know and love films like, The Magnificent Seven, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Stagecoach or High Noon. With a little luck they might even know about The Wild Bunch or Ulzana’s Raid.

But I’d like to make a pitch for a couple of less well-known films.

You see many of the best Westerns, in my opinion, are low-budget, unpretentious little films that get on with the business of telling their story without a whole load of extraneous twaddle.

To give you an example; Last Train from Gun Hill was made in 1959 and stars Kirk Douglas as a Marshall looking for the men who raped and murdered his wife, while Anthony Quinn plays the rancher who’s son is one of the culprits. (Both actors were in their prime, at this point, but not yet the mega stars they later became).

Essentially what you have here is the irresistible force (Douglas) meeting the immovable object (Quinn) while Carolyn Jones (Morticia from the TV version of The Addams Family) slinks between them with a truly feline poise as Quinn’s ex-girlfriend.

(She’s his ex because he beat her up and put her in hospital and she’s really not the kind of woman to take that kind of thing. Westerns quite often feature strong and intelligent female characters. Not balloon-chested, gun-toting amazons you understand, but credible human characters).

Carolyn Jones’ role in this film is particularly interesting, because she not only plays a key role in the mechanics of moving the plot along, but she’s also important in challenging other characters.

Kirk Douglas’ character is driven by vengeance, while Anthony Quinn’s is driven by his need to protect his son. Unfortunately, the son is a weakling who’s trying to live up to the warped image of manhood provided by his overbearing father. (Even here there’s a degree of complexity, there are hints that the son really doesn’t want to be the kind of man that he thinks his father wants him to be and that, left to his own devices, he might have been a gentler and more civilised person).

To one extent or another, then, all of these men need a reality check and it’s Carolyn Jones’ character who goes some way towards providing it.

Hopefully I’ve caught your interest, and if you want to know how the story ends, then watch the film. It shouldn’t be too hard to track down.

Like so many of my favourite Westerns Last Train from Gun Hill was never meant to be a classic film. It was a relatively low-budget film that just rolled off the studio production line.

What makes it special is the cast and an intelligent script.

(One of the joys of this kind of film is that no one was paying too much attention to them at the time and every now and then it allowed someone to try something a bit different or a bit contentious. The kind of thing they couldn’t do in a higher profile production).

If you want something even more obscure, you can try a film called No Name On The Bullet. This film would have a small place in film history anyway, because it was Audie Murphy’s last film.

(Audie Murphy was the most decorated American soldier of WWII who was picked up by Hollywood, and turned out to be a pretty useful actor.

His range may have been a bit limited, but he had a real screen presence. Somehow, even after a pretty harsh life before the war and his impressive record during the war, he managed to retain a youthful, even baby-faced, appearance that contrasted with a certain steely eyed harshness that showed through from time to time. Actually if you check out his biography, you’ll find that he was a pretty impressive human being who showed a remarkable amount of courage and integrity, not only during the war, but also in battling depression and working for other veterans who were suffering from mental health problems. He’s also credited with bringing an unusually large dose of authenticity to the film adaptation of his life story To Hell and Back).

No Name on The Bullet is set towards the end of the Western period at a time when people have settled down and built their churches, schoolhouses and law courts. This is a period when you just can no longer just go around shooting people and riding off into the sunset with no questions asked.

Audie Murphy plays a notorious killer for hire who has adapted to the changing circumstances by manipulating his intended victims into starting a gunfight so that he can shoot them with impunity.

He is an intelligent and articulate character. He is also clearly ruthless and cynical, but there is also a certain honesty about him. This honesty contrasts with the ‘respectable’ townsfolk who all know that he has been hired by one of their number in order to kill one of them. What had seemed to be such a nice little town actually turns out to be a hotbed of conspiracy and hypocrisy.

What drives the plot, and produces much of the tension, is the guilt-driven paranoia that besets almost everyone in the town as they turn on each other while the gunslinger simply sits back and watches until he’s ready to strike.

Interested?

I’m not saying it’s classic cinema, but it’s an interesting little film and it was made for grown-ups. (As opposed to so many contemporary blockbusters, which can be fun and certainly have their place, but are not really made for someone who wants something to think about).

Westerns are easy to mock. (Mel Brooks did it brilliantly in Blazing Saddles) and I don’t suppose it’s really possible to make them any more. They’re often associated with deeply unfashionable ideas about masculinity and a mythology about American history that has been shown to have little bearing on the truth. So any Western that gets made these days will have to be at the very least a ‘revisionist’, that may well be no closer to the truth than the mythology it seeks to replace, but will probably be a lot less fun as well.

In truth a lot of Hollywood Westerns really were unfair and patronising (if nothing worse) towards various minorities. All too often native Americans are treated as savages (albeit sometimes ‘noble savages’), while African-Americans were generally either totally absent or reduced to providing comic relief.

Similarly Mexicans were often portrayed as childlike characters or comic book villains.

(If you’re not sure what I mean, try watching The Magnificent Seven back to back with Fistful of Dollars or For a Few Dollars More. Much though I love The Magnificent Seven, Sergio Leone’s Mexicans, mostly played by Spanish Gypsies, are much more serious, not to mention scary, characters than any of the Mexicans you’ll find in the mainstream Hollywood films of the time).

Having acknowledged that, I think it’s still true to say that the Western allowed film makers to explore ideas and themes in a setting that allowed them to strip away everything but the bare essentials.

The classic example would be High Noon.

What other genre would allow you to examine questions of integrity, courage, pacifism and loyalty with such trenchant clarity?

At this point I’d like to include a short comment about Randolph Scott.

For many years I thought of Randolph Scott as a bit of a joke. Then I watched a couple of his films and I changed my mind.

He was a tall man with a rugged sort of face. Not every film he appeared in was a Western (60 out of the more than 100 films he made), but he will always be associated with Westerns more than any other kind of film.

When he rode into a film you knew that he would be the kind of man who knew how to do things. He would know how to ride, and shoot guns (that’s pretty standard in a screen cowboy), but he’d also know how to make and fix things, how to look after sick horses, find water in a desert and all sorts of other useful, practical things.

Generally speaking he would be honest and self-reliant and he would always be courteous and respectful to women.

He could be ruthless at times, and sometimes he was driven and obsessive, but he could be gentle too. He was taciturn and often a loner, but he would be intelligent and articulate when he wanted to be. (Actually his screen persona reminds me a little of Homer’s Odysseus, even if Odysseus is a lot more inclined to lie. The fact that Odysseus is a king is irrelevant, he’s not a very rich king and his influence, like Randolph Scott’s came from his personal qualities, not his social status).

In other words, Randolph Scott, like Gary Cooper, knew how to play a good and decent man without making him insipid or preachy.

(This is a rare talent. Think how many of the ‘heroes’ in contemporary films are not just flawed but virtually pathological. It seems that many film makers, knowing that it’s easier to create a charismatic villain than an interesting hero, now want to present us with ‘heroes’ who are essentially just villains who happen to be a bit less villainous than their antagonists. I don’t think this has anything to do with realism or reflecting moral complexity, I think it’s just lazy).

You could say that Randolph Scott embodied the mythology of the West in his screen performances.

That the mythology didn’t have much to do with the reality of the Old West, but so what?

If you want history then read a history book. (And I do read quite a lot of history, I’d recommend it to anyone).

Fiction isn’t the truth and it was never meant to be.

Fiction is a lie that tells a different kind of truth.

But the truth isn’t always bleak. It doesn’t have to batter us down into nasty, mean, crabbed little lives. Sometimes we can do a little better than that.

And I don’t mean that we should all aspire to shoot ‘the bad guy’.

After all, you can seldom do much good in the world by killing people, but the point to High Noon isn’t that Will Kane shoots Frank Miller. It’s the fact that he stands up for the truth in spite of being alone and afraid. (And at times Gary Cooper shows you just how scared Kane really is and just how tempted he is to get on his horse and ride out). Most of the townspeople want to pretend that Frank Miller isn’t all that bad, or that if they leave him alone he’ll behave himself.

(A few are more honest and they simply want Miller back because they made good money when he was running things and to hell with the rule of law. At least some know that Miller will be a disaster for the town but they just want to leave him to it as long as they can get clear before things really kick off). 

High Noon is often seen as an allegory for Carl Foreman’s own predicament during the McCarthy witch hunts, but I don’t think you need to know anything about Senator Joe McCarthy, Communism or Blacklists to understand or appreciate the film.

I think that all you really need to do is watch it.

The Duke

31 Jan

When John Wayne died on the 11th of June 1979 I was struck by the fact that one of the guys I was at school with was in tears off and on all day.

I suppose that might not seem all that odd. People get very attached to pop stars and film stars and so forth and people these days seem to be moved to tears on a pretty regular basis on reality TV shows and what have you. (There seems to be a consensus in some quarters that this is a good thing, because it’s supposedly healthier than bottling things up, but I must confess that I’m not convinced).

So we had this guy aged about 16 who was attending the same, not exactly genteel secondary school that I went to. I won’t claim that our school was the toughest school in the world, compared with some of the tales one comes across from High schools in inner city America (Which sound more like maximum security prisons to me at times) our school wasn’t all that tough, but it had its share of aspiring hard cases, and in any case, back in the seventies in West Central Scotland bursting into tears was permissible for girls but most emphatically not acceptable in boys (Or men).

But the odd thing is that this particular lad, who in the ordinary course of events could have expected no mercy, was largely left in peace and even offered the odd halting and embarrassed word of comfort.

Why?

Because we all knew how he felt and there were more than a few of us who, behind our juvenile tough guy personas were pretty close to tears ourselves.

This is all a bit odd, I suppose, and very hard to explain to anyone who’s grown up over the past couple of decades.

When people think about John Wayne now, and I’m not even sure anyone does these days, they probably think about his politics (which have been described as neo-fascist), his support for the war in Vietnam, the mythology surrounding his non service in World War Two and then maybe sneer a bit at a couple of his less brilliant performances.

(John Wayne’s cameo in The Greatest Story Ever Told  is admittedly risible, but then again, any film that casts Max von Sydow as Jesus Christ is asking for trouble. I should add that Max von Sydow seems to be a very nice chap and his talent as an actor is quite rightly revered, but he’s over six feet tall, with blue eyes and blonde hair. We don’t have a description of what Jesus Christ looked like, but given the time and place of his birth, I think if he had been a tall, blue-eyed, blonde then we certainly would have).

Then again there’s the whole thing about him not serving in the military during WWII. Well, during his lifetime it was always said that he was medically unfit for service due to a back injury. This was crap, he did have a back injury which put paid to his sporting career, but it wouldn’t have kept him out of military service.

So then there was the suggestion after his death that he had somehow ‘dodged’ the draft. Also crap. John Wayne was given a deferment due to his age (34) and his family status as a father.

It’s perfectly true that others, notably John Ford, James Stewart and Dashiell Hammett (who served in both World Wars and was ironically jailed by the McCarthyites for ‘unAmerican activities’) all pulled strings, wangled and generally went to great lengths to sign up.

John Wayne did not go to the same great lengths, but he certainly did not break the law or otherwise abuse the regulations in order to avoid military service. As a matter of fact when his draft status was later revised, he did nothing to prevent it and it was actually pressure from the studio (including the threat of litigation), that kept him out of the war.

So their’s a lot to say about John Wayne that isn’t exactly positive and there’s also a certain amount you can poke fun at if that’s your inclination.

Having said that, he probably still holds some kind of record for the number of films he made (about 200) and for his success as a box office draw.

There are also a few facts that seem to undermine the image some people seem to have had about him as some monolithic, macho fossil.

For example, when he was making Red River, he worked with Montgomery Clift, and actor of truly awesome talent and potential, but who even by then was a heroin user (if not actually an addict), who was gay and who was also a totally different kind of actor from John Wayne and the generation of actors he’d always worked with. You’d expect The Duke to be pretty dismissive, maybe even downright hostile. He was nothing of the sort. Apparently he recognised and respected Montgomery Clift’s talent and had a great deal of time for him.

He was also perfectly happy to admit that there were about 100 of his films that he didn’t like much.

He had a three-year affair with Marlene Dietrich. (Whatever her faults, she was a strong, intelligent woman, and in her prime she could pretty much have taken her pick of men, and apparently a good few women, in or out of Hollywood. It was said that even James Stewart, one of the most monogamous of men, was still besotted with Marlene Dietrich years after making Destry Rides Again). 

Since I’m addressing a few myths about John Wayne, it’s worth mentioning that his nickname ‘The Duke’ was actually a tag given to him in childhood in his home town and had nothing to do with any role he played as an actor or any supposed aristocratic connections he might have had.

It seems that in those days, the  young Marion Morrison, as he was then called, was inseparable from his huge Airedale terrier, who was called Duke, and since he disliked being called by his real name, the local Fire Chief  took to calling him ‘Little Duke’ and the name just seemed to stick.

So maybe John Wayne was a nice guy after all.

Or maybe there was at least a bit more to him than you may have been led to believe.

Or then again, maybe not. I don’t really know and I’m really not sure I care.

What I care about are the films he made. The good ones anyway.

So if you want to see what I mean (and avoid the 100 odd films that even The Duke didn’t like), then I can offer a few suggestions.

First a rule of thumb. Avoid anything he made before Stagecoach. Some of those films might be okay, but a lot of them, including the ‘singing cowboy’ films are truly dreadful.

In addition to this, and even more importantly, avoid anything he ever did for RKO while Howard Hughes was in charge. As I’ve suggested, John Wayne’s own politics were pretty far to the right and Howard Hughes made him look like a socialist (Incidently, even before he became a total recluse, Howard Hughes seems to have been pathological to some extent.If you ever have the misfortune to watch one of the films he had a hand in you’ll find a disturbing preoccupation with sadistic violence and torture).

It also has to be said that at the height of his popularity John Wayne could be an infuriatingly lazy actor and he practically sleepwalks through quite a few of his films, so you need to pick out the films he made with a really strong director like John Ford, Howard Hawks or Raoul Walsh, (and don’t bother with anything John Wayne ever directed himself, his talents really didn’t lie in that direction).

So let me offer a few suggestions:-

Stagecoach (obviously)

Red River

The Searchers (Probably John Wayne’s finest and most complex performance)

Rio Bravo

Eldorado (The only time Robert Mitchum ever looked small was when he was standing next to John Wayne. As a matter of fact, whenever I see this film I always feel a bit sorry for John Wayne’s horse. He just looks too big for the poor thing).

Rio Lobo (Actually this one’s not that good, but it makes up the third in a trio with Rio Bravo and Eldorado which are both much better)

The War Wagon (Not a classic, but the by-play between John Wayne and Kirk Douglas makes it worth a look. You also get to see Howard Keel playing a Native American, which isn’t exactly politically correct these days, but I’m always happy to see Howard Keel).

True Grit (As a matter of fact, this isn’t really a favourite of mine. I felt obliged to include it since it’s the film that won John Wayne his oscar, but I always feel it’s unbalanced. John Wayne is too big and his performance is too much. I think Kim Derby and John Campbell are fine, since they’re only really there as supporting players. The real problem is Robert Duvall playing Lucky Ned Pepper. Normally I have a lot of time for Robert Duvall, but his performance was too subtle and too nuanced to stand a chance opposite John Wayne. They really should have cast someone who worked on the same scale as The Duke, ideally Richard Boone.He would have been perfect for the role).

The Shootist (This is a hard film to watch. John Wayne was dying when he made it. He needed a stunt man just to fall on the floor for him. I happen to think that anyone who’s inclined to sneer at John Wayne should watch this film at least once. It would probably shut them up. Some of the scenes between John Wayne and Lauren Bacall are almost unwatchable. John Wayne obviously knows he’s dying, just like the character he’s playing, and you can see it in his eyes. Whatever else you might want to say about John Wayne as an actor, a public figure, a cultural icon or just as a man, it took real guts to put that on the screen).