Even as we speak we are in the midst of Day #7 of Turner Classic Movies month long salute to the Hollywood western (see yesterday’s post here). Every Tuesday and Wednesday in July Turner Classic Movies will be showing westerns the entire day, for a total of 100 movies in all. Here is tomorrow’s line-up. The times below are all Eastern Standard Time, and beware that I always include spoilers.
6am: Quantrill’s Raiders (1958)
The umpteenth telling (and spelling) of the deeds of these marauding Confederate villains. Hollywood needs to do a job of work to make heroes out of this bunch, and for some reason, they have, countless times! Readers of this blog may known star Steve Cochran (a real life cow puncher) best from his role as club owner “Steve” in the Groucho solo film Copacabana).
7:30am: Billy the Kid (1941)
Good-looking non-entity Robert Taylor plays a character half his age, but I guess it’s better than calling the picture “Billy, the Middle-Aged Man”. Clad all in black, riding a black horse, Billy is hired by a ruthless cattle baron to help him take over the territory, principally by running a decent fellow rancher out of business. His childhood friend (Brian Donlevy) works for the good guy. Eventually, Billy goes to work for the good guy, too. When his Mexican sidekick and then his decent boss are murdered, Billy goes after vigilante justice. Donlevy has to stop him, shooting him fatally in the process (his name is not Pat Garret though for some reason).
9:30am: Annie Get Your Gun (1950)
As much as I love Betty Hutton (which is a considerable lot), it’s hard not to hold some kind of inward grudge against her for playing a role that once belonged to Ethel Merman (star of the Broadway production) and then to Judy Garland (who suffered a nervous breakdown shortly after filming began). Still, she makes a better Annie Oakley than she did a Texas Guinan. She’s especially funny in the early scenes as a dirty, barefoot hillbilly girl. This (as we all know) is a musical, so holding it up to scholarly standards as a biography would be even more preposterous than usual. It succeeds brilliantly as entertainment. Also in the cast are Howard Keel as Oakley’s rival/husband Frank Butler, Louis Calhern as Buffalo Bill, Edward Arnold (as his rival Pawnee Bill), Keenan Wynn as the manager of the wild west show, and J. Carroll Naish as Sitting Bull.
1:30pm: Santa Fe Trail (1940)
Less a western than a “mid-western” for most of the film. A most revealing movie, about Bloody Kansas for the most part largely taking the pro-slavery side. The hero is J.E.B. Stuart (Errol Flynn), the villain is John Brown (Raymond Massey)! To be fair, as presented, it’s the apolitical U.S. army vs. insurrectionists. Stuart’s circle of buddies and colleagues is half composed of future Confederate leaders and half future Union leaders. His buddy is George Armstrong Custer, played by Ronald Reagan with nary a hint of long hair, mustache or pointy beard. The love interest is Olivia de Havilland, and Van Helfin plays a former West Point colleague who has joined John Brown. The movie is often gorgeous to look at. Massey, with his crazy eyes and Biblical beard IS John Brown. Other than that, despite its important historical subject matter, it’s pretty routine adventure: a series of skirmishes. And it really does manage to seem not-so-subtly pro-South, putting halos over Jeff Davis and Robert E. Lee, making John Brown a simple villain, and presenting blacks as goggle-eyed darkies who would be just as happy remaining slaves. The title is rather misleading but technically justified. Apparently Fort Leavenworth was the last outpost before Santa Fe and the wilderness beyond. The railway stopped at Leavenworth. After that, the Santa Fe trail was the main way west. Three quarters of the film happens in that vicinity, but the rest happens at Harper’s Ferry!
3:30pm: They Died with Their Boots On (1941)
A preposterous concoction purportedly telling the life of George Custer but taking so many liberties as to be nearly completely fictional. The script is pretty awful, though Raoul Walsh’s direction is terrific. Errol Flynn plays Custer, but of course he plays him as Errol Flynn. He hits his marks, he says his lines, and he looks good. The script misinterprets Custer from every angle, making him a guy who loves to drink and fight, but simultaneously has all the military virtues and is full of honor. Custer was indeed brave, and did win several Civil War battles, but he was also vain, a publicity seeker and a careerist. The movie tweaks the vanity, but makes him out to be the opposite as far as the other foibles go. (In the end, as we know, his arrogance and self-delusion resulted in the blunders that resulted in the death of himself and his troops, dividing the troops and refusing extra men and weapons).
In real life, while Custer curried favor with many officers, the movies boils them all down to one: General Winfield Scott (Sydney Greenstreet) whom in reality was only in charge of the Union army during its early months. Olivia de Haviland plays Custer’s wife (and the romantic subplot bogs the movie’s progress down – its nearly two and a half hours in the unfolding). Gene Lockhart plays her disapproving father. Arthur Kennedy plays the fictitious villain, a guy who miraculously pops up to bedevil Custer at every stage of his career—hilariously so. Custer arranges to get his revenge by forcing Kennedy to die with him at Little Big Horn. (In the film, Custer knows he will die at Little Big Horn, but he is being “sacrificed by the army and war profiteers”. In real life, as we said, Custer rather foolishly thought he could easily whip the Indians.) Crazy Horse is played by Anthony Quinn – all the Indians that the real-life Custer had to deal with are boiled down to him. (in the movie Custer treats Crazy Horse with respect but heartily approves of his own mission of “clearing the plains of Indians”. It’s hard to watch that aspect now, a bit horrifying. It’s genocide).
And though Little Big Horn is on the grassy plains of Montana, the location looks arid and rocky, like Arizona. Bad history but a well-made film.
6:00pm: The Left Handed Gun (1958)
Arthur Penn’s directorial debut, shot with all the gloomy seriousness of late 50s black and white. Paul Newman plays a very “methody” (i.e. Strasbergian) Billy the Kid. He’s sort of a moody misunderstood youth — Hamlet with more resolve. Having been in some trouble in Texas (shot some guys for insulting his mother!) he takes up with a cow punching outfit outside Lincoln, New Mexico. His boss becomes a father figure. Doesn’t believe in guns, teaches him how to read. The surrogate father is assassinated by a quartet of crooks in the pay of a rival beef baron, one of whom is the sheriff. Billy makes it a point of hunting them down for revenge. Doing so takes him deeper and deeper into trouble. After killing a couple of them he goes into hiding for awhile, where he gets to become friends with Pat Garrett (John Dehner). At some point he violates a general amnesty by killing another of the guys, getting back into trouble. Then he alienates Garrett by killing the last one on his wedding day (and also despoiling the bride). Garrett becomes sheriff just to pursue him. Billy decides to go completely bad. In the end, he allows Garrett to shoot him just to end it all.
8:00pm: The Shooting (1967)
Directed by this Monte Hellman, the Roger Corman of westerns (although it must be said that Roger Corman was almost the Roger Corman of westerns). In this one Warren Oates and Will Hutchins are two men hired by a woman (Millie Perkins, best known for playing Anne Frank) to go cross country on a manhunt. They are joined by Jack Nicholson as a gunslinger. They have an ordeal across the desert. Nicholson and Millie Perkins kill the other two. Hellman also made Ride the Whirlwind, and later films with Oates like Two Lane Blacktop and Cockfight. It’s been an interesting revelation to see his films. You see what a budget means to a western: a larger cast, sets, etc. The only special feature the Hellman films have are the locations. The casts are very small and there is very little by way of sets. Like I say, an interesting film.
9:30pm: Little Big Man (1970)
Like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid this is one I thought highly of in my youth but has sunk a little in my estimation since. I first saw Arthur Penn’s Little Big Man as a child, and watched it many times thereafter. Looking at it now I realize there is a certain odd inconsistency of tone to the movie. It keeps shifting back and forth between a picaresque satire with slapstick elements to genuine tragedy. As a kid that didn’t bother me but now I am able to look at it with some clarity. In and of themselves, the scenes where the Indians are massacred are completely moving and alarming, shot with a cruel fidelity, benefiting from Dustin Hoffman’s terrific acting. Likewise, the intimate scenes with Hoffman and his adopted Indian grandfather (Chief Dan George) are touching and real, sometimes sad, if occasionally gently humorous. These scenes clearly seem influenced by the book “Black Elk Speaks”.
But one is in a quandary as to how to fit it into the rest of the film, which is a silly tall-tale about a guy who appears to have been everywhere and done everything connected with the legends of the Old West. Hoffman’s Jack Crabbe is rescued from a Crow Indian massacre and raised by the Cheyenne. When his tribe is attacked by soldiers he rather cravenly reveals himself as white and is brought to live with a preacher and his hot, oversexed wife (Faye Dunaway). Disillusioned, he takes up with a snake oil salesman (a somewhat miscast Martin Balsam) who progressively keeps losing body parts. Meeting his sister he becomes a gunfighter, and comes to know Wild Bill Hickok. At various points he is a muleskinner for Custer, who is played by Richard Mulligan (Soap) for broad comedy as a vain, delusional madman. At a certain point Crabbe runs a store with a Swedish wife. Between these interludes he keeps going back to the Cheyenne. There is even broad comedy with some of the Indian segments—a gay Indian, and a rival brave who goes insane with the many inadvertent insults Little Big Man commits against him. He also amasses four wives — screwing three of them in a row as the fourth bears his child. Even Custer’s Last Stand is played for broad, slapstick comedy. (Yet the shooting of Hickok, whom we’ve only spent about two minutes of screentime with, is played for unearned pathos).
Is Little Big Man a tragedy about the destruction of the Indians? A comedy about American myth-making? It can’t be both but it tries to, as though Penn had intercut two different movies together.
12 midnight: McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971)
One of my favorite movies. I first saw Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller when I was about twenty and I went into raptures over it. It doesn’t feel like a movie, it feels like a window into the past. As he always does, Altman increases the apparent verisimilitude by an order of magnitude. There is an aura of melancholy over the whole thing, aided by the sepia-tinted cinematography and the Leonard Cohen songs that really, REALLY appeal to my aesthetic sensibilities. Altman built a whole town to film the movie in–it’s not just a bunch of facades on a street like in a traditional Hollywood studio western. We get right in the middle of frontier existence: we see the food on the tin plate, we hear the omnipresent fiddler tune his fiddle, or a chicken cluck in the background. We see the mess that characterizes the way most people live (as opposed to the spare, idealistic cleanliness of a Hollywood set).
Another interesting aspect is that it’s one of the very few westerns set in the Pacific Northwest. Instead of it being dry all the time, it’s constantly raining or snowing, with the constant sound of moaning wind over the soundtrack, reinforcing the feeling of solitude and melancholy.
The film begins like Shane: a man rides up alone on a horse. McCabe (Warren Beatty), in his fur coat and derby, makes a huge impression on the tiny (almost nonexistent) town of Presbyterian Church. He is a bullshitter and not too bright, but since everyone else in town is fairly dim, no one notices. Most of the town is composed of members of the Altman stock company from M*A*S*H: Rene Auberjunois as Sheehan, who owns the saloon, John Schuck, Bert Remsen, Corey Fischer. (Michael Murphy steps in as well a little later). They are impressed with McCabe and falsely ascribe to him a “rep” as someone who has killed a man in a gunfight. McCabe is vague on the subject. It seems to serve his purpose to have that reputation so he doesn’t clarify anything. Being an enterprising man, he goes to the nearest large town and buys three prostitutes to bring back to Presbyterian Church, hiring the local men to build the whorehouse. The three whores are bottom-of-the-barrel: one is rather fat, one is toothless, and one is a terrified child (as she demonstrates when she stabs one of her customers).
Onto the scene comes Mrs. Miller (Julie Christie), and her stable of high class ladies of the evening. She proposes to go into business with McCabe. She is about ten times smarter than him (and they both know it) and quickly secures his acquiescence despite his reservations. The town and the whorehouse begin to thrive. The relationship between Mrs Miller and McCabe is ambiguous. It is mutually rewarding. Something like love seems to be brewing (particularly on his part, for her) but the fact that she charges him $5 for his visits keeps it at a business level. How real is it? Also, we learn that Mrs. Miller smokes opium. At those moments when she is nice to him, she is high. Again, how real?
Then Michael Murphy and another man , representing a mining interest come into town to buy McCabe out. He is drunk, cocky and stupid, and insults them, holding out for more money. Mrs. Miller warns him that the company is ruthless, they hire gunmen to kill people who are in their way. They come back to McCabe with a higher offer. He continues to be stupid. They give up on him and call in a gun man. We see another side of McCabe when a mysterious stranger (Keith Carradine) rides into town. McCabe goes out to meet him, fairly courageously, and looking like he’s been in a gunfight before. But is it one of his bluffs? It is moot for the moment; the kid is only a cowboy looking for female company. When the three gunmen (including an enormous Englishman and a kid of about fourteen) do come into town, we see that McCabe is frightened — he’s got nothing. He tries to negotiate, but that is not what they are there for. He goes to town and consults a lawyer (William Devane) who is more full shit than McCabe is, promising to try the mining company in the court of public opinion. He tells McCabe he won’t even need marshals, because the company “won’t be able to do a thing.” McCabe returns to town and Mrs Miller quickly disabuses him of the notion. She knows he is going to be killed.
We see what the gunmen are all about when the 14 year old kid kills the Keith Carradine character in cold blood just for the sport of it as a sort of warm-up to the big event. The climax of the film is the real meat of the picture. A western shoot-out with almost no dialogue, we suddenly realize that themes and relationships Altman has been carefully building throughout the picture were there for a reason. The chickens are coming home to roost. McCabe hasn’t got a friend in this town. He never made one. He has built a business here. He has customers. With some, such as Sheehan he has been downright insulting most of the time. When he needs help, he doesn’t ask anyone to back him up, and no one does. Furthermore, oddly, rather than seek comfort by being in plain view in front of everyone, he skulks about the fringes, he actually SEEKS to deal with these men on his own, like some sort of cornered animal, which he doesn’t HAVE to be. This is individualism to a fatal fault.
Interestingly, the other isolated individual in the town is the apparently insane preacher. The preacher takes McCabe’s rifle from him when he leaves it in the church, braying that it’s a “House of God”, but ironically cocking it to shoot McCabe as he tries to take it from him. Almost immediately, one of the bad guys shoots the preacher’s arm off. Unfortunately, the other arm is holding a lantern and the church begins to burn. And here Altman clearly shows us his message. Though they continue to squabble, the rest of the town comes together as a community, banding together in a bucket brigade to put out the fire. That is civilization. That is how a community acts. McCabe has built something, but what he built was hollow by comparison, a house of cards. There is no mechanism in the town for keeping peace.
While the community works on the problem at hand, McCabe is on his own, running from place to place, taking on the bad guys on his own. He kills all three of the bad guys but is fatally wounded in the process. He dies ignominiously on his own in the snow, no differently from an animal. Meanwhile, Altman’s other point: Mrs. McCabe is in Chinatown, smoking her opium, tuning out the pain. (“Money and pain, money and pain” has been McCabe’s refrain throughout the picture). We end on a shot of her, stoned, examining a beautiful vase: clearly some kind of comment on American consumerism and self-indulgence. She is artificially contenting herself while someone with whom she has had a close relationship is in the worst trouble of his life. Neither McCabe nor Mrs. Miller represent an appealing alternative to the rapacious mining company. Our only hope is in that bucket brigade.
2:15am: Heaven’s Gate (1980)
Film director Michael Cimino passed away yesterday at the age of 77, but as is well known for all intents and purposes we lost him 36 years ago. That was when he (fresh off the career high of 1978’s The Deer Hunter) released Heaven’s Gate, perhaps the most maligned (and most unjustly maligned) film in history.
There ought to be a law against reviewing films on the basis of their balance sheets. After years of knowing only its reputation (even Cimino’s obituaries are tainted by the words “financial disaster” — who cares?), when you finally watch this film, to me it seems a near-masterpiece. I’ll concede that the there are many shots and even scenes that might not be injured by (might even benefit from) the discipline of the scissors. On the other hand, it’s one of the most beautiful movies I’ve ever seen. Practically every shot is breathtaking. When confronted with the task, I could see the difficulty of cutting it. Anyway, dismissing this movie as a “bomb” because of how it did at the box office without weighing its actual merits as a movie is shallow and stupid in the extreme. It’s a great movie. If you don’t have patience for movies like this, go back to kindergarten.
In addition to being gorgeously photographed, it’s thought-provoking. It concern a little-known U.S. atrocity, the Johnson County War, in which (according to this film) the U.S. Cattlemen’s Association, with the full sign-off of the Wyoming Governor and the President of the United States, hired a small army of thugs (backed up by the National Guard) to summarily execute a list of 125 supposed “cattle thieves and anarchists”, essentially wiping out a whole town of immigrant farmers. The farmers fight back, in a bloody horrific shooting battle in which dozens of men and women are slaughtered. (The film differs widely from the history of what actually happened but it is a more compelling story for doing so).
The film begins with an elaborate prologue depicting the Harvard graduation ceremony of 1870, where we meet Kris Kristofferson and John Hurt as young men, and Joseph Cotten (in one of hi last performances) gives a graduation speech. I love this way of getting us into it; too few westerns show where those who went west initially CAME FROM, and so they lack a certain context. Here, we have it.
Both Kristofferson and Hurt head west, and meet up 20 years later in Wyoming. Kristofferson actually becomes a sheriff, protecting people against the thugs of the Cattlemen’s Association. Hurt is in the Cattlemen’s Association, and though he is initially appalled at the “List of 125” (the Association’s hit list), he drinks his reservations away. He is weak, and a bit of a philosophical buffoon. In the end, he even winds up accompanying the thugs as they shoot the farmers, watching fascinatedly. How many like him enabled the Nazis?
That would be enough for any film, tracing the divergent paths of these two men. But Hurt’s story actually gets lost and somewhat swallowed up. The bulk of the film is a love triangle. Kristofferson vs. Christopher Walken as one of the Association’s thugs vie for the affections of a Swedish madam (Isabelle Huppert). Her choices are admirably ambiguous in that 1970s way. In the old Hollywood, Kristofferson would be the good guy, Walken the bad guy. Here those edges are softened and blurred. The former never says much to her, never opens up, never gives her any assurances of a future together, and a typical compliment is “I like you because you don’t think too much.”
Walken is a local. He is an “Enforcer” because he needs the job. People consider him a traitor for persecuting his own people for money. But as he reminds us, Kristofferson inherited his own money; he has the luxury of being moral. It is Walken who asks the girl to marry him, who makes touching gestures of trying to “domesticate”, and in the end turns against the Association, a move that proves suicidal, thus heroic. And it is Kristofferson who sits on the List of 125, quits being a sheriff, and waits entirely too long to help the people defend themselves, thus enabling a massacre. In an epilogue he is on his yacht, looking disaffected and full of ennui. Is he/ was he a hero?
Lots of other great people in the cast: Jeff Bridges as a bartender, Brad Dourif as a class agitator of some sort, Mickey Rourke as one of Walken’s men, and lots of other familiar character actors. Michael Christensen of Big Apple Circus is even in it!
What especially galls me about the Heaven’s Gate debacle is what MIGHT have been. Go to his Wiki biography and look at the section called “Unrealized Projects”. How much better would the world have been in these films had gotten made instead of the half a dozen schlocky pieces of junk which were all he was entrusted with post-1980? Why on earth does it work that way? He had been responsible for hits before — don’t producers want hits instead of guaranteed failures?
So anyway…I believe this caps the month of 100 westerns. Saving the best for last, eh?