I missed this on release so I was pleased to catch a showing by my local film club in Keighley’s Picture House. I love Westerns and this is a good one. It is another of the current crop of ‘international’ productions and it did seem odd to see ‘Luc Besson’ in the credits as producer for his Europa company. The French connection helped the film to get a place in the Cannes Palme d’Or line-up in 2014 but it doesn’t seem to have gone down too well in the US. This is a surprise since Tommy Lee Jones is a major figure in American cinema and his previous (modern) Western directorial credit for The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005) was very well received.
The Homesman has a good pedigree, being an adaptation of a novel by Glendon Swarthout whose other great Western novel was adapted as The Shootist (1976) with Don Siegel directing John Wayne for his last film. This new film is an ‘early Western’ – set in the 1850s before the Civil War and involves a perilous journey through the Nebraska ‘territory’ and across the Missouri River into the state of Iowa. It falls to a ‘spinster farmer’ (she’s all of 31!) to transport three women who have become mentally ill (because of the deprivations of the settler’s life) to possible recovery in the East. It is a daunting prospect so Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) hires (‘dragoons’?) a drifter played by Tommy Lee Jones to help her. In a way this is a miniature Wagon Master (US 1950) in reverse and because of its female leadership it’s also connected to Meek’s Cutoff (US 2010).
Jones certainly took a lot on to make the film, co-writing the script, directing and co-starring. He comes out of the production very well. The relative failure of the film with audiences seems to hinge specifically on a shocking turn/twist in the narrative about two-thirds through. I too found this shocking but I think there were enough narrative cues – revealed story data if you like – to make this event credible. Apart from this the narrative up to this point was harrowing and perhaps too ‘real’ for mainstream audiences. The ending of the film is also not conventional and may fail to satisfy some audiences. Surprisingly there are some anachronisms in the production design and the script suggesting that Jones was more interested in the look of the film than historical accuracy, But then, when you have a cinematographer as gifted as Rodrigo Prieto (responsible for Brokeback Mountain‘s wonderful landscapes) it’s tempting to just let him rip. The film does indeed look very good and the whole cast is excellent. I must pick out Hilary Swank – she would have got my vote for an Oscar ahead of Julianne Moore – and in the supporting cast the Danish actress Sonja Richter produces the most dramatic representation of anguish in her portrayal of one of the three women.
This is a ‘revisionist Western’ (cf the recent ‘traditional’ Western, The Salvation). The revision here is concerned with the ‘myth’ of the West and modes of representation. Jones makes a number of aesthetic choices which on the one hand appear highly stylised and at one point almost surreal, but which at the same time refer to aspects of the ‘real’ West not explored in many Hollywood Westerns. So, for instance, the journey across Nebraska was actually shot in North-East New Mexico on a plain that is in effect a continuation of similar landscapes over the border with Nebraska. But this real location is made mysterious in the snow and wind – when Mary Bee loses her way on horseback and appears to be circling the same spot. The terrain is so featureless that it becomes almost an abstract space and the experience of passing through it is dreamlike. Later on a solitary building appears on the plain, almost like an oasis. It is a kind of show house for speculators hoping to ‘open up’ and exploit the potential of the territory. During the final sequence the action switches across the river and there is a palpable sense of shock that a town could be so ‘civilised’ and behaviour so decorous. The Missouri River literally becomes the ‘frontier’ between the ‘garden civilisation of the East and the ‘desert’ of the West.
The film has only recently appeared on DVD in the UK and my advice is not to miss it. This is a serious and ‘grown-up’ Western – a new approach to a fine tradition. But it isn’t what was once called a “shoot-em-up”. Most of all it’s a Western in which women are not required to be only the schoolmarm or the bar girl. You’ll have to decide whether representing the strong character of the lone female farmer and the mental illness of farmers’ wives is progressive or not.
Following the release of the Harry Belafonte ‘bio-documentary’ Sing Your Song in UK cinemas, I decided to look at some of the Belafonte movies available on DVD. In all the coverage of the new documentary relatively little has been said about Belafonte’s film work – which though not extensive was important in the development of African-American cinema, not least because the actor-singer produced his own films at a time when few African-Americans had any direct power in the industry. Belafonte’s second independent production company, Belafonte Enterprises, made the film in conjunction with Columbia. Belafonte took the second lead, but the star and director of the film was Sidney Poitier (who took over from the first director, Joseph Sargent). Ruby Dee, often paired with Poitier as an actor and with Belafonte as an activist, was billed third. The script was by the distinguished TV writer Ernest Kinoy who had written another Sidney Poitier script, Brother John, a year earlier and who would go on to contribute scripts to the TV serial Roots (1977) and its sequel in 1979. The music for the film was composed by Benny Carter, the great jazz band leader, and includes contributions from Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee.
Buck and the Preacher belongs to the cycle of ‘revisionist Westerns’ in the early 1970s when the counter culture and the anti-war movement in the US managed to find an outlet in the New Hollywood. This was the period of Soldier Blue (1970) and Ulzana’s Raid (1972), but the most popular Western of the 1970s was Mel Brooks’ comedy Blazing Saddles (1974). What links these three very different films is a debunking of the mythology of the West and a reappraisal of the representation of characters who would later be known as ‘African-Americans’ and ‘Native Americans’. This same period also saw the commercial success of a range of ‘Blaxploitation’ films, led by urban crime thrillers like Shaft (1971) and this development also included Blaxploitation Westerns, especially the cycle of films starring Fred Williamson – The Legend of Nigger Charley (1972), its sequel The Soul of Nigger Charley (1973) and Boss Nigger (Black Bounty Hunter, 1974). The creation of Black ‘super-heroes’ in different settings attracted audiences (partly because of the provocative titles which created controversy) but didn’t really engage with the Western myths or the conventions of the genre as such. In his magisterial BFI Companion to the Western (1971), editor Ed Buscombe argues that Buck and the Preacher did precisely that – and that makes it an important film both for African-American cinema and the Western.
The narrative focuses on an aspect of American history largely neglected by Hollywood – the attempt by freed slaves from the South, after the Civil War ended, to head West on wagon trains, seeking new lands. Poitier plays ‘Buck’, an ex Union Cavalry sergeant, who sets himself up as a wagonmaster who will pilot wagon trains through hostile territory. He makes a deal with the local Native American chief to allow the wagon trains an unhindered passage, but he also has to battle a band of ex-Confederate soldiers. These men have been hired by plantation-owners in the South to drive the freed slaves back into low-paid employment in the cottonfields and their tactics are vicious and uncompromising. Ruby Dee plays Buck’s wife and Belafonte plays a con-man preacher who clashes with Buck but eventually forms an uneasy alliance with him to fight the ex-Confederates.
The history of African-American cinema is usually presented via three distinct phases in Hollywood and then a question mark about what is happening today. In the first phase early American cinema and Hollywood in the silent era drew upon a range of Black stereotypes that had been developed in the nineteenth century. Donald Bogle’s ‘Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films’ revised in 1992 has the main title of Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks. These five types defined the roles offered to Black actors in mainstream Hollywood (although initially, following the practices of minstrelsy, white actors ‘blacked up’ for some roles). In the 1930s Black entrepreneurs struggled to offer an alternative to this Hollywood condescension but they did manage to produce low-budget independent Black films exploring popular genres – including Black Westerns such as the ‘Western Musical’ Harlem on the Prairie (1937) and the much earlier The Bull-Dogger (1922).
Hollywood eventually reacted to the potential of the Black popular audience with the gradual development of mainstream films with Black themes – and predominantly Black casting – by the late 1940s and early 1950s when Poitier and Belafonte were young actors seeking work. This was the second phase of African-American cinema with films that were presented as ‘liberal’ dramas attempting to deal with some elements of social realism. However, the old stereotypes remained in place. Sidney Poitier was the 1950s ‘good Negro’, essentially a ‘Tom’ derived from the character in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Ruby Dee was the ‘good Negro wife’ and Harry Belafonte was seen as the ‘beautiful, sexy young man’ – the ‘Buck’ (which he resisted strongly and which no doubt was one of the reasons why he focused more on his musical career). The third phase was associated with the Blaxploitation cycle which critiqued the old stereotypes and the most immediate signal of change was evident in the casting of Poitier, quite literally, as ‘Buck’ with Ruby Dee still his wife, but now supporting him in actions which under the conventions of the Western represent resistance to the dominant ideology. Meanwhile, Belafonte is cast as the ‘Preacher’, a con-man role which featured in several of the earlier Black Westerns of the 1930s/40s.
Buck and the Preacher is partly a comedy and that may be both why the film was a relative commercial success, but also why it hasn’t perhaps been given the status it deserves. As Ed Buscombe points out, the script is intelligent and knowing in its play with the conventions and the performances are very enjoyable. Poitier doesn’t just play the ‘Buck’, he overplays the role, sporting two mini-howitzers rather than conventional six-guns. There is an exhilaration in the way in which all three leads become ‘Western heroes’ and Bogle tells us that Black audiences cheered at the sight of the three heroes racing their horses across the screen pursued by a sheriff’s posse – I won’t spoil the narrative by revealing why they are on the run. The smiles are more wry in the key scene when Buck negotiates with the Native American chief who responds to the argument that Black and Red men have both suffered at the hands of the Whites by pointing out that Buck had served in the Union Army. This again feels like a commentary on Poitier’s previous roles in Hollywood – as well as, perhaps, a comment on the way in which Black soldiers had become a crucial element in the US Army in Vietnam.
I highly recommend the film as an enjoyable Western and a film that at least lifts a corner of the carpet under which the African-American experience of the ‘Old West’ has been carefully swept by Hollywood. You can download my notes on Harry Belafonte and Hollywood here: BelafonteNotes
I’m intrigued by the success of Brokeback Mountain. In fact, it has to some extent restored my faith in audiences. Several of the people I have discussed the film with are not fans of the Western and were surprised when I suggested that Ang Lee’s triumph was to so skilfully make use of the conventions of the Western genre – and specifically those of what some have termed the ‘Twilight Western’. This term can be used to describe either Westerns set in the dying days of the ‘Old West’ (i.e. 1890-1910) or in the post-1945 period when the Western lifestyle began to feel more and more out of tune with contemporary America. In the main, Twilight Westerns have been produced by Hollywood (and independents) since the late 1960s, although earlier examples include The Lusty Men (Nicholas Ray 1952) and Ride the High Country (Sam Peckinpah, 1962).
I’ve been running an evening class with the title ‘Looking Over Brokeback Mountain‘ at the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television in Bradford for the last few weeks. So far we’ve watched The Last Picture Show (dir. Peter Bogdanovich, 1971) and extracts from a range of films including Red River (Howard Hawks, 1948) Johnny Guitar (Nick Ray, 1953), Hud (Martin Ritt, 1962), Junior Bonner (Peckinpah, 1972), Desert Hearts (Donna Deitch, 1985) and The Ballad of Little Jo (Maggie Greenwald, 1993).
We’ve discussed gender in the Western in both the traditional ‘mythologised West’ and the more realist ‘Twilight West’ and this week we look at a little-seen Twilight Western, Stephen Frears’ 1998 film, The Hi-Lo Country. I wonder how it will look in 2006 after the success of Brokeback? Billy Crudup and Woody Harrelson play the two young men, but this time they fall out over Patricia Arquette.
The course has also prompted me to read Annie Proulx’s short story collection and I’ve enjoyed all the stories so far – I’m saving up the Brokeback story for the last week of the course.