The latest ‘Matinee Classic’ at HOME in Manchester is the 1976 Western The Missouri Breaks. It has been programmed as part of a mini-season of offbeat Westerns to accompany the release of Slow West, the new film by John Maclean shot in New Zealand and Scotland and starring Michael Fassbender.
The ‘Missouri Breaks’ are the clefts in the landscape gouged out by the Missouri river in Montana close to the Canadian border. In the late 1880s this is the setting for a ‘twilight Western’ featuring Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson and directed by Arthur Penn. The film was both a commercial and critical flop in 1976 – partly because of the hype which surrounded the casting of two of the period’s major stars, each of whom earned a hefty fee and a cut of the gross once box office passed $10 million. Researching it now I see that Western film scholars such as Ed Buscombe and Phil Hardy rated the film highly and watching it again, nearly 40 years after I first saw it, I can see why.
The Missouri Breaks is both a ‘twilight film’ because the 1970s was the last decade of regular Western production and because its setting is the twilight of the ‘real’ Western frontier. The films of this period are all revisionist of the early certainties of the genre – more realist, more violent, more reflexive, more questioning. In this particular case the narrative also veers towards comedy, while maintaining the violence and sense of loss for the passing of an era. The overall ‘feel’ of the film comes from the novelist Thomas McGuane who wrote three screenplays in the 1970s as well as adapting one of his own novels and directing it himself. McGuane grew up in Michigan but moved to Montana in 1968 and his three Western screenplays all feature the same three characters locked in a deadly game – a rancher, a rustler and a detective or ‘regulator’. I loved Rancho Deluxe (1975) at the time with Jeff Bridges and Sam Waterston as the rustlers and Slim Pickens as the detective but was less taken by the biopic/drama Tom Horn (1980) with Steve McQueen as the regulator. The Missouri Breaks is arguably a more complex character study than either of those two films. Nicholson is the leader of a group of horse thieves and Brando (with a wandering accent) is Robert E. Lee Clayton, a notorious regulator brought in by rancher Braxton (John McLiam).
The film’s central theme is often seen in the twilight Western – the closing of the frontier and the pretensions of the cattle barons before Eastern capital comes in to take over. Montana was one of the last territories to be formally constituted as a state in 1889 when the ‘basic legal structure’ of the territory became more organised. Up until that point the newly powerful cattle barons like Braxton were able to dispense summary ‘justice’ (at least in the mythology of the Western). The Missouri Breaks thus begins with a hanging/lynching of a rustler carried out by Braxton’s men as a public event with picnicking women and children – some of them ‘sporting women’ according to the dialogue. Braxton justifies his action – an execution without trial – on the basis of the high percentage loss of cattle to rustling. He sits in his library surrounded by his works of ‘English literature’ like a country gentleman. Yet the northern trans-continental railway had already seen the final spike hammered in by President Grant in Montana in 1883. A train robbery features later in the film. The railway would both increase the efficiency of cattle transportation and bring in more aspects of East Coast culture. Braxton is already at the start of the film a ‘doomed man’ in terms of his business empire and his de facto judicial authority. This is the theme that is expanded in Heaven’s Gate (1980) perhaps the film that most clearly signalled the ‘end of the Western’ for Hollywood.
But The Missouri Breaks is arguably more interested in the personal stories of Braxton, his daughter, the horse thieves and the regulator. One of the elements in many twilight Westerns is the presence of two, usually male, characters who embody in some way the Western hero, the cowboy figure. It seems obvious to identify the film’s two stars as playing these characters from the twilight Western (though Harry Dean Stanton’s character is perhaps closer to the generic character). The point of these two characters is that they will have some kind of relationship and that through this they will define themselves in some way in relation to the ‘end of the West’. A classic example of this is in Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973) in which Garrett has accepted his fate and sided with the cattle interests whereas Billy feels that he has to remain an outlaw. In The Missouri Breaks, Brando’s character is so attached to his ‘job’ as a regulator that eventually he will pursue the rustlers even though Braxton attempts to end his contract. By contrast, Nicholson’s character, Tom Logan, shows every sign of adaptability in developing new relationships and new interests. The regulator will soon be replaced not just by local sheriffs and courts but also by private agencies like the Pinkertons (Logan warns that robbing trains will bring in the Pinkertons, employed by the railroad). Another clue to this historical change is the sequence in which the horse thieves cross the border into Canada – and are pursued by the North West Mounted Police, in some ways a more ‘modern’ law enforcement agency than what was in operation in Montana.
For me the most enjoyable part of the film involves the romance between Logan and the rancher’s daughter, Jane, played by Kathleen Lloyd (mysteriously this was her first and last major cinema appearance). I think she is very good here and she seems to be a modern woman in many ways – resisting her father, taking something of a lead in seducing Nicholson (in a couple of enjoyably complex sequences) and ending the narrative confident and assertive. She quotes Samuel Johnson and utters the immortal line for a twilight Western: “Let’s just talk about the Wild West and how to get the hell out of it”. Jane is a recognisable McGuane woman, a character handled with skill by Arthur Penn. For me this is a good match between script and direction. I’m also impressed by Michael Butler’s cinematography (who had begun his career with Don Siegel’s Charley Varrick in 1973 and who had also lensed McGuane’s own 92 in the Shade, 1975). John Williams turns in a score that also worked for me. In fact, all the production credits are top notch. This is a production well worth re-visiting.