Tag Archive: western

“Doc” Holliday (Val Kilmer)

“I’m your huckleberry.”

Tombstone (1993)

The Searchers (1956)

John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter, Ward Bond, Vera Miles, Natalie Wood

Directed by John Ford

Screenplay by Frank S. Nugent, based on the book by Alan Brown le May

Chosen as the American Film Institute’s selection for greatest western by their spurious and subjective “100 Years…” series, The Searchers has certainly ingrained itself on our collective conscious in a variety of ways.

In it, John Wayne puts up one of his most interesting and well-acted roles, typifying himself as the tough, rugged loner type that his other movies have alluded to.  And his long-time friend and collaborator John Ford reaches his apex of film cinematography, pushing the panoramic lenses of his cameras to their limits on nearly every scene, while Technicolor and innovative VistaVision – a high-resolution widescreen variant on CinemaScope – made his unique, classic vision more beautiful and powerful than ever.  David Lean even used the wide-open, surreal vistas of Monument Valley as an inspiration for his Lawrence of Arabia (1962), which is the greatest example of masterful cinematography since.

It also features perhaps the most distinct and original cinematographic doorway shot since Citizen Kane (1941), that features a few times in the beginning, but is most direct and affecting in the very ending, and is key to why the ending of The Searchers is continually touted as one of the best endings of any film.

But there are several other components to this film that are more subtle in their approach that help create as indelible an image.  The plot is straightforward.  Mysterious Confederate veteran Ethan returns to his brother’s house after three years of what we are led to believe was lawlessness.  Barely a day goes by before Ethan and the rest of the volunteer Texas Ranger locals are led out into the plains in a ruse while hostile Comanche Indians burn the home and murder Ethan’s family.  The youngest girl, Debbie, is taken by the warriors, and Ethan seeks revenge, toting along his brother’s adopted son Martin on the search.

But there is darkness inherent in the film, and in Wayne’s character of Ethan particularly, that is powerful and unsettling.  The Indian populace of Ford’s Western genre were never cheerful creatures, but never have they been more menacing.  The preparation the Edwards family takes, knowing a Comanche attack looms, is claustrophobic in its terror.  In the aftermath, when Ethan comes upon the devastation, and while searching for Martha goes into the smokehouse and hangs his head at a horrific image of her fate only he can see, the film reaches darkness unprecedented for the time and genre.  The film does not shy away or glamorize death; it instead shows the desperate see-saw of survival for mid-19th century Texas settlers, the isolation and unsympathetic landscape, and the fear and loss that drives proud men to become sinister conduits of rage and racism.

Ethan’s hatred for the Comanche, by either some deep, long-brewing resentment or directly from what they did to his family, is obvious and unapologetic.  He shoots wildly at a herd of buffalo simply because, “They won’t feed any Comanches this winter!” He shoots the eyes out of a buried warrior he finds so that, in their belief, the brave will wonder the shadow lands blind for eternity.  When finding out that Debbie isn’t dead, but has been living with Comanches for years, Ethan’s first instinct is to shoot her rather than accept that she’s been living with Indian braves.  Even his pronunciation of “Comanche” – leaving off the “e” in Anglicization – is purposeful, as is his likening them to animals by calling Comanche warriors “bucks”.  And Martin’s character, who in backstory is revealed to have been rescued by Ethan as an infant, captured by Comanches that had killed his parents, becomes a target for Ethan’s hatred.

This characterization establishes a realism and humanism that makes the unfolding story and its outcome even more potent.  In more subtle approaches, this storyline becomes even more intriguing upon closer inspection of some scenes.

Despite not having one word of dialogue concerning this, there is a sense from some sequences of extended visual drama that Ethan is in love with his brother’s wife Martha.  Prolonged looks and lingering camera shots on Ethan’s face when she is in the same room encourage this opinion and lend the most obvious reason for his character’s viciousness and hatred following her death.

But perhaps the most captivating thought is that Debbie, who, played by Natalie Wood and perhaps the most immaculate and beautiful Western squaw in film history, is in fact the lovechild of Ethan and Martha, explaining his anger at her new identity and then his subsequent change in heart in the film’s heartwarming ending.

These are just a few of intriguing facets in The Searchers’ rich story, headlined by one of the meatiest roles bestowed to Wayne by Ford in their 12-film collaborative history.  In addition are the themes of bigotry and racism that other films, even in Ford’s own history, would have shied away from.  As an aside, the director also includes commentary on the responsibilities of the white man for the Comanche hostility, the most negative since Fort Apache (1948).  A harmless squaw is found dead in a camp torched by a brigade of U.S. Cavalrymen, prompting Martin to wonder, “What’d the soldiers have to kill her for?”  And the film’s obvious antagonist, Scar of the Nawyecka band of Comanches, is given some uncharacteristic understanding for the genre when he explains that his two sons were killed by whites, prompting his own yearning for revenge that mirrors Ethan’s.

And to the much-discussed final scene, where everyone goes inside save for Ethan, who for a second looks longingly at the doorway before he turns and saunters off of the porch as the door shuts.  Ethan only becomes a character of heroic element late in the film.  Before that he was a man driven by rage, pride and hatred searching for his niece as well as his own lost humanity.  Whether he found it or not in the film’s two hours can be discussed; but in the ending it’s made evident his kind is not welcome or needed in a family.  He returned to Texas alone, and most likely he’ll leave it alone as he continues to search for something only he can find.

Images courtesy of themoviedb.org, twi-ny.com and wn.com, respectively.

Henry Fonda, Dana Andrews, Marc Lawrence, Frank Conroy

Directed by William A. Wellman

Written by Lamar Trotti, adapted from the novel by Walter Van Tilburg Clark

There is no film genre as American as the Western, and no member of our country’s rich history as iconic as the cowboy. John Ford and John Wayne teamed up throughout the years to bring the two together, using the unforgettable vistas of Monument Valley as their backdrop.

During the same period, known as the Golden Age of the Western Film (1939-1950), big studio names like Michael Curtiz (Dodge City, which along with Ford’s Stagecoach made the Western a legitimate film genre in 1939 ) and Howard Hawks (1948’s Red River) made their marks on the genre. In later years it would go through Italian director Sergio Leone’s “spaghetti Western” phase as well as several periods of revisionism, from the bloody nihilism of Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969) to the cultural sensitivity and anti-expansionism of Dances with Wolves (1990).

But well back in the proclaimed Golden Age, somewhere in the wastes of celluloid’s myriad sprawling sepia panoramas is a hidden gem of the genre that came out to virtually no box-office in Spring of 1943: The Ox-Bow Incident.

In plain words it concerns the wrongful lynching of three men by a posse of town vigilantes, accused of the crime of murder from mere hearsay But more than that, it’s a parable unlike any Western before or since; an all-too-realistic look into a world that wasn’t all stagecoach chasing and saloon brawls, but a vicious, lawless and racist world, and a moral indictment of the reprehensible lynchings of black Americans the film alludes to – which by the mid-Forties weren’t too hard to remember for most Americans.

Henry Fonda, iconic in his own right, plays the main cowboy, who along with a buddy came into the town of Bridger’s Wells looking for a drink, but instead gets caught up in a frenzied hunt for the murderer(s) of a local rancher.

With the sheriff out of town, the growing posse is told to wait until he comes back, but the deputy sheriff – eager for a break from the boredom – illegally deputizes every posse member and they set off under the leadership of “Major” Tetley, who loves the excuse to wear his old Confederate uniform, and additionally plans to make his son into a man by showing him a good hanging.

As the posse descends on the Ox-Bow Valley, three cowpokes who happen to be camping out in the wrong place at the wrong time are violently roused from sleep and made to start talking. A few slip-ups in their stories here, a piece of supposed evidence there, and the trio begin to dig their own figurative graves. By morning, the majority of the posse proceed with the heinous crime, despite the efforts of Fonda – who, besides maybe James Stewart, could be a more believable voice of good? – to stop it.

For its day, The Ox-Bow Incident is a brutal movie. One of the accused trio is a senile old man, perpetually confused and bewildered as the terrible scene happens around him. When the noose is moments from his neck, he moans “I don’t want to die.” Dana Andrews, who is the main speaker of the trio, has the best performance of the movie. At times both tearful and righteous in his innocence, his acceptance in realizing that his appeals are useless, that nothing he can say will prove himself innocent, is heartbreaking, as is his anger when he finds out that someone read the letter – his last on earth- that he wrote for his wife.

And by the film’s end, when the sheriff returns and confronts the posse with the truth, the palpable grief and despair reaches out of the screen. While Fonda’s reading of Dana Andrews’ letter in the final scene is a bit heavy-handed – would you waste room on a your last letter writing about the world’s ills? – the meaning of the film is clear well before that.

It’s a study of different, conflicting characters, each demonstrating how easy it is to be swept up in mob mentality. Some people want to be in charge of a large group, some because they’re just bored, and others, unthinkably in this case, simply because they want to have a good time. Those who are the voice of reason or justice – in this film interchangeable – are all-too-quickly drowned out among these contrasting voices, or are perhaps too afraid to speak out against the majority.

To have a meaningful, thought-provoking essay on the evils of murderous disorder that’s also a Western is too good to pass up. Add to that the film’s uncharacteristic and powerful moral message, whose chief spokesman is one of the most beloved actors of his age, and unhheralded The Ox-Bow Incident clearly deserves a place among its peers.

Images courtesy of moviemail-online.co.uk and dvdbeaver.com, respectively.

The Proposition (2005)

Guy Pearce, Ray Winstone, Danny Huston, Emily Watson

Directed by John Hillcoat

Written by Nick Cave

Not since Dead Man ten years earlier can any film in the Western vein be said to be as gritty, visceral and amoral as John Hillcoat’s The Proposition. Its success at attaining period realism – in design, art and writing – is spot on, and its drama startling and entertaining, if not completely compelling.

Guy Pearce plays Charlie Burns who, along with his young brother Mikey, is caught in a raid by police captain Stanley (Ray Winstone). Stanley gives Burns an offer: kill his older brother Arthur, wanted for the horrific and wanton murder of a local family, and he and Mikey can go free. If he refuses, Stanley will see to it that Mikey hangs on Christmas Day.

This is the deal behind the film’s title, and from here on the viewer embarks on a bloody sweep through the Australian of the 1880s, filled with poetry-spewing bounty hunters, spear-throwing Aborginals, and homicidal Irishmen. We follow Charlie as he meets up with his brother’s gang, and we follow Stanley, crushed underneath the weight of his statement: “this land will be civilized”. From its beginning to its inevitably violent conclusion, The Proposition takes no prisoners and offers no quarter, remaining in every way as lawless and uncompromising as its setting.

No character looks good, with the only make-up in the film reserved for gore-effects and the face-powder of Mrs. Stanley (Emily Watson), really the only female part in the movie. They are all denizens of one of the worst places on earth at the time – the Australian outback – and they look the part. Guy Pearce, whose claim to fame came from being a model, is haggard, emaciated and covered in grime the entire movie. His face is lined and tired-looking, and his ribs protrude out of skin like the bones of a carcass. Making a habit of ingesting opiate powder for the film’s duration, Ray Winstone’s brow is lined with sweat, his face constantly wet and ruddy, and he wheezes at every exertion.

But as far as its realism goes, the little, easily overlooked details tell you all you need to know about the director’s vision and the lengths gone to in order to remain true. A small bloody scratch appears and remains on Emily Watson’s forehead after a shotgun retort blasts open the door to the dining room; the crazed, homicidal character Samuel Stoat washes his blood-stained body, then puts a clean shirt on despite the long blood smear on his chest that he missed; the same character hastily wipes off his hands on his dirty shirt before handling the earrings that Captain Stanley got his wife for Christmas. These are the meaty bits to a good feast of a movie, the tiny details that indicate to a demanding viewer just how much the makers cared.

The Proposition was greeted by U.S. Critics with much aplomb, but keep in mind that the excitement coming from mainstream critics about revisionist Westerns is about as predictable nowadays as an explosion in a Michael Bay movie. When Unforgiven (1992) came out it was “the best Western by anybody in 20 years”, and when 3:10 to Yuma (2006) was remade it was “the best Western since ‘Unforgiven’”, and so on. Where The Proposition makes its mark isn’t in its plot, which is very simple, or its characters – there is no one to really “root” for -, or its meaning – try to find one that isn’t bleak – but inherently the greatness is in its LACK of those three cinematic mainstays.

For this and its violence it has oft and recklessly been compared to Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969), one of film’s greatest and most original Westerns, but it’s more comparable to Peckinpah’s less thought-provoking Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973). While neither film particularly glorifies the amoral violence of the times, where both lawmen and criminals did awful deeds under the Western sun, there is no restraint on the carnage that their efforts at realism dictate. There is also no attempt, subtle or heavy-handed, at reconciling the moral and the immoral. No character is decent, no man any less deserving of the film’s bloody violence than the other. These characters are ruled by selfishness, loathing, bloodlust, racism and greed. Even Guy Pearce’s actions at film’s end are less about doing the right thing and more about finally putting an end to a fraternal hatred.

The Proposition is beautiful in its violence, and purposefully murky in its message. It doesn’t try to commentate on prejudice – whether it’s racism towards Aboriginals or a continuance of the age-old Anglo-Irish feud – but merely shows a director’s vision of the times, and should be taken as such.

Images courtesy of allmoviephoto.com and guardian.co.uk.com, respectively.