This is one of the films I screened in 2006 as part of an Evening Class on ‘Looking Back Over Brokeback Mountain’. These were the notes from the screening.
The Hi-Lo Country has a fascinating production background that makes it an interesting case study as a ‘Twilight Western’. The film did not do very much business on its initial release and has never (to my knowledge) been released on DVD in the UK, so I haven’t had a chance to watch it again. My suspicion is that at the time of its release, Westerns were so out of favour that it was virtually ignored.
At the centre of the production of the film is the marriage between the well-known UK director of controversial social dramas, Stephen Frears, (still perhaps best known internationally for My Beautiful Laundrette (UK 1985), but perhaps in Hollywood for the success of Dangerous Liaisons (1988)) and some classic Western material. Frears might seem an odd choice of director for such a quintessentially American genre, but Westerns are so universally known that there have been several made by UK directors to put alongside the much better known Italian and German Westerns of the 1960s. Frears was also responsible for an earlier film produced by the Martin Scorsese-Barbara De Fina partnership with a distinctive ‘Hollywood genre’ feel. This was The Grifters (US 1990), a gritty ‘neo noir’ film based on a Jim Thompson novel and featuring powerful performances from John Cusack, Annette Bening and Angelica Huston. On the evidence of this film, Frears looked a strong bet.
The other partners in this enterprise were Working Title, the most successful UK production company of the last thirty years. In 1999 they were part of Polygram Filmed Entertainment which was attempting to become a major studio from a European base. Unfortunately, PFE was sold to Universal at around the time The Hi-Lo Country was released in the UK in July 1999. It probably got lost in the upheaval (being released at the same time as Working Title’s big summer film, Notting Hill). There was also some German tax money in The Hi-Lo Country and the German title of the film for TV release has a title which translates as “In the land of the last of the cowboys”.
As well as Frears, some of the other creative talents in the production were also British-based. Cinematographer Oliver Stapleton had worked consistently with Frears since My Beautiful Laundrette and editor Masahiro Hirakubo is probably best known for his long working relationship with Danny Boyle (e.g. on Trainspotting (UK 1996)). What kind of image of the Western landscape and the feel and ‘tone’ of the Western milieu would they conjure up? The material they were working with could not be more ‘authentic’. Max Evans’ novel was a property that Sam Peckinpah had reportedly been attempting to put into production for several years before his death in 1984 and the script which was offered to Frears was written by Walon Green, whose earlier story, adapted by Green himself, with Peckinpah, became The Wild Bunch (US 1969).
It isn’t difficult to see what might have interested Peckinpah in the story. The two central characters are close male friends who return to cattle country after service in the Second World War. They would like to get back to traditional cowboy ranch work, but discover that the local ranchers are being bought out by a much bigger player, Jim Ed Love. Will they stand and fight – will we get the familiar generic narrative of one man who stays ‘traditional’ and one who flirts with modernity? Well, what do you think?
There is violence of course, and country music and dances and rodeo imagery. This is a proper Western. But it is also a melodrama with a strong female character, played by Patricia Arquette, who is pursued in different ways by the two central characters. There is also a second female lead – an early Hollywood role for Penélope Cruz as Josepha, bringing the ‘over the border’ image of Mexico into play in a more subtle way, perhaps.
For many in the audience, the film stands or falls (given that most commentators praise the overall look and feel of the film) on the performances of Billy Crudup and Woody Harrelson. As Westerns became less popular and as iconic Western stars became too old for the leads, producers found it difficult to cast believable cowboy types in Western movies in the late 1990s. In Brokeback Mountain, Heath Ledger’s performance is remarkable in this respect – absolutely believable, as if he had appeared in dozens of Western movies (whereas Jake Gyllenhaal’s is more questionable).
Billy Crudup’s is the more restrained performance. He has an interesting face with ‘chiselled features’ transformed successfully for his appearance as a 17th century female impersonator in the British film Stage Beauty (UK 2004). If Crudup is an ‘actorly’ star, seeking out intriguing roles, Woody Harrelson is a more extravert star, seeking more explosive roles. For some his performance in The Hi-Lo Country is ‘over the top’. Certainly he does not portray a likeable character (he’s not like McQueen in Junior Bonner). We will have to decide if his performance helps to ‘de-romanticise’ a cowboy character, who in some of the other films we have looked at always seems to have a ‘good side’ to balance the stubborness and boorishness (perhaps with the exception of Paul Newman in Hud?).
If you wish to follow up the narrative questions in The Hi-Lo Country, another worthwhile Western that is currently available on DVD is Comes a Horseman (US 1978), directed by Alan J. Pakula, in which the two ranchers, under threat in Montana in the late 1940s, are played by Jane Fonda and James Caan (an ex-soldier). They are resisting the pressure of Jason Robards as the major landowner and the activities of oil prospectors.
Our discussion of The Hi-Lo Country will focus on whether it works as a Twilight Western and how it looks now in the light of the success of Brokeback Mountain. Do we think that Frears is able to deal with Western culture from his outsider perspective as successfully as that other outsider Ang Lee? It’s difficult now to think about the film without the success of Brokeback Mountain and the perhaps now raised expectation of interest in gender identity in the Western. Here are a couple of extracts from contemporary reviews:
While the story’s setup would have us expect a reflective elegy for a dying breed, the movie instead straddles turf that might be better described as ‘Western noir’. Sexual tension and deceit overtake the cowboys-on-the-increasingly-mechanised-range elements, and before you know it we’re cherchezing the femme.
(Marjorie Baumgarten, The Austin Chronicle, January 1999)
If the threads of the story ultimately slip from his grasp, in its best moments the movie feels like an epic hybrid of Red River and The Last Picture Show.
. . . Ms. Arquette certainly looks right for the role of the slatternly married siren who tells Pete that since meeting Big Boy for the first time in her life she isn’t bored. But for all the sultry glances she casts, Ms. Arquette fails to convey her character’s fiery animal magnetism. Even when she’s in Big Boy’s arms, Ms. Arquette’s Mona is more dumb cow than molten lava. And her absence of erotic energy leaves a blank space in the movie.
. . . For all its deficiencies and misplaced emphases, The Hi-Lo Country still offers plenty of action and color. The movie is drenched in austere Southwestern atmosphere. You feel the harshness of the land and feel how physically grueling, dangerous and at the mercy of the elements a cowboy’s life really is. The Hi-Lo Country is finally an elegy to a vanishing breed epitomised by Mr. Harrelson’s electrifying and scary wild man. He is a creature who is really and truly at home on the range.
(Stephen Holden, New York Times, December 1998)
A good deal of The Hi-Lo Country is taken up with Big Boy and Pete displaying a wide range of quintessentially masculine behavior, from brawling and drinking to letting hand-rolled cigarettes settle in the corners of their mouths and pulling up chairs for high-stakes poker games. Men are men in this movie, make no mistake about that.
. . . Though Harrelson and Crudup get the job done, it says something that in this most macho of films the two female leads make the biggest on-screen impression. Arquette as Mona feels completely authentic in a familiar role, and it’s Cruz’s Josepha who sums up the thrust of this self-involved drama in three well-chosen words: “Stupid, horny cowboys”.
(Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times)
These are representative of many other similar reviews.
Here’s a YouTube trailer comprising a scene where the boys first meet Jim Ed Love (Sam Elliott):
These notes were originally written for an Evening Class in 2006 devised around the then topical reactions to the success of Brokeback Mountain in UK cinemas. The course began with a screening of The Last Picture Show (1971). I’m particularly interested in the idea of the ‘Twilight Western’ so this blog has a tag that links to several posts on specific films.
History and myth
The Hollywood Western focuses primarily on the ‘opening up’ of the American frontier which followed the end of the Civil War in 1865. There were several different kinds of Western narratives, partly dictated by location and the various forms of economic endeavour. There are the ‘exploration’ tales of the wagon trains, the engagements with and exploitation of Native Americans (and the narrative of colonialist expansion), the ‘settlement’ of the plains and the high sierra, the ‘mountain’ Westerns with railroads across the Rockies and gold-mining, the cowboy/cattle driving tales and finally the closing of the frontier in the South and West. New Mexico and Arizona were the last territories to be made states of the Union in 1912.
The cattle business in Northern Texas as shown in Red River was eventually pushed West and in the 1880s the so-called Lincoln County War broke out in New Mexico territory between a group led by the cattle baron John Chisum and another group of local capitalists who controlled the trade in the territory. The fighting, which involved William Bonney (aka Billy the Kid) and Pat Garrett provided the basis for many ‘late Western’ stories.
The ‘West’ began to be captured in various media – in paintings, poetry and song, ‘dime novels’ and journalism, as well as circus entertainment – almost as it happened and the first ‘Westerns’ in the cinema appeared early in the 20th century. What was presented in these stories was not the ‘real, historical’ West, but a mythological West in which the ‘frontier spirit’ was to be celebrated:
. . . in spite of environment, and in spite of custom, each frontier did indeed furnish a new field of opportunity, a gate of escape from the bondage of the past; and freshness, and confidence, and the scorn of older society, impatience of its restraints and its ideas, and indifference to its lessons, have accompanied the frontier. (from Frederick Jackson Turner, The Frontier in American History, 1920 – first papers discussed 1893 and quoted by Calder (1974))
The early cinema Westerns, with notable exceptions, were relatively straightforward adventures and melodramas (which in the 1930s was a term for ‘action pictures’). The genre came of age in the late 1930s and 1940s, most notably via the work of John Ford and the creation of stars such as John Wayne, who appeared to embody the masculine values of independence of thought and surety of action. As early as the 1950s it is possible to see changes in the Western – not least because the genre became so familiar that it could be used to explore a wide range of contemporary concerns and still keep within the confines of the familiar.
The Twilight Western
The ‘modern’ or ‘contemporary Western’ is a film set ‘now’ in the those parts of America which were the locations for the historical and mythical ‘West’. It is also concerned with at least some aspects of ‘cowboy culture’. It’s hard to put a date on the first ‘contemporary Western’ but by the late 1940s Roy Rogers had become just about the most well known entertainer in America as a ‘singing cowboy’ in a host of B Westerns and his TV series (started 1951) was set in the contemporary West. Roy Rogers was the ultimate ‘good cowboy with the white hat’, but the contemporary Westerns in the cinema were different. They focused on the problems of the cowboy and Western culture as they became increasingly ‘out of touch’ with what was happening in urban America. This is well described in Ron Grundmann’s review of Brokeback Mountain:
Clearly in evidence is [Larry] McMurtry’s stature as the dean of twilight Westerns – a realist, demystifying subgenre that produced such classics as The Lusty Men (1952), The Misfits (1961) and Hud (1963) and depicts the West as an orphaned, beat down territory passed over by the great societies heralded by Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson.
McMurtry’s novels – most notably Horsemen Pass By (the basis for Hud), The Last Picture Show . . . , and Lonesome Dove (made into a popular TV miniseries in 1989) – have stamped their indelible mark on the twilight Western. The author understands how to expound the genre’s latent capitalist critique, which he unrelentingly harnesses also to Proulx’s story: the erotic rhythm of Ennis and Jack’s cowboy romance, we realise, echoes the kind of transience and mobility that lastingly constituted frontier life as the archetype of American social formations straight into industrial capitalism. Only that, once modernisation had steamrolled across many regions, this mobility designated little more than the meandering paths of the rural lower class’s disaffected wanderings; or else, it transmogrified into the nasty, dust-blown rinks of small time rodeo- traveling circuses of the West, a potter’s field of itinerant ex-cowboys. (Grundmann, 2006)
Hud (dir Martin Ritt, 1963)
‘Hud’ (Paul Newman), is the second son of ageing rancher (Melvin Douglas) somewhere in Texas. The two men live with Lorne, Hud’s nephew and a housekeeper (Patricia Neal). Hud is wild and wants to leave the ranch. He is constantly drinking, sleeping with married women in the local town and brawling. His behaviour disgusts his father and fascinates his nephew. Crisis comes when a foot and mouth outbreak hits the ranch.
Everybody talks about Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West as being a parable for the commercialisation and subsequent collapse of the West, but as amazing a piece of work as that movie is, I don’t think it cuts that deep; Hud, on the other hand, wrote the book on the subject – it understands generationalism, if you will: that torches are more often extinguished than passed. (Bill Chambers, filmfreakcentral.net/dvdreviews/longhotsummer.htm – this 2003 review is not currently available)
The reference above to Sergio Leone also points us to the change in traditional Westerns that took place in the 1960s. Increasingly, they began to focus on the ‘closing years’ of the 19th century or ‘the End of the West’. The themes of these films were the same as those of the ‘contemporary Western’ – the closing of the frontier, the ‘industrialisation’ and ‘urbanisation’ of the ‘open range’. They also focused on the imperialism/colonialism inherent in the subjugation of Native Americans (and provided metaphors for the American action in Vietnam after 1965). A further factor was the real ‘twilight’ in the careers of ageing Western stars such as John Wayne (e.g. The Shootist, 1976) and Randolph Scott (e.g. Ride the High Country, 1962).
Both the contemporary Western and the ‘End of the West’ traditional Western have been classified as ‘Twilight Westerns’ and perhaps the most well-known director associated with the sub-genre is Sam Peckinpah who produced at least four ‘End of the West’ films (Ride the High Country, The Wild Bunch (1969), The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970) and Pat Garrettt and Billy the Kid (1973)) and four films that are either firmly ‘twilight’ contemporary Westerns (Junior Bonner (1972)) or closely associated (The Getaway (1972), Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974) and Convoy (1978)).
Junior Bonner (Sam Peckinpah, 1972)
Steve McQueen is ‘Junior’ Bonner, an ‘over the hill’ rodeo cowboy who returns to his hometown of Prescott, Arizona. He discovers that his father is in hospital and that his brother, a realtor, has bulldozed his father’s home to clear land for a mobile home development. Junior has to face his own failure and listen to his father’s plans to emigrate to Australia and become a sheep farmer. All this takes place on Prescott’s ‘Frontier Day’ with a parade and rodeo.
Many of Peckinpah’s films (and many Twilight Westerns generally) feature two male characters, both ‘cowboys’. The ‘hero’ is typically the character who still holds to the cowboy culture – the code of honour. The other character bows to the oncoming surge of ‘modernity’ (usually reluctantly). Often there is the prospect of ‘escape’ over the border into Mexico where the code still operates, but this means a ‘betrayal’ of sorts. In some of these films there is a generational difference with the older character representing the past and the younger the future.
Ed Buscombe (2006) ‘Man to Man’, Sight & Sound, Jan
Jenni Calder (1974) There Must be a Lone Ranger: The Myth and Reality of the American Wild West, London: Hamish Hamilton
Roy Grundmann (2006) Review of Brokeback Mountain in Cineaste, Vol XXX1, No 2
Roy Stafford 18/5/06
Currently streaming on MUBI, Lonely Are the Brave is one of the Westerns I’ve always wanted to watch because of its reputation as a form of contemporary Western. I have also been intrigued by a short piece by Colin McArthur in the Media Education Journal No. 58 (Winter 2015/16), analysing the opening of the film in terms of mise en scène and the seemingly obvious use of binary oppositions to introduce its narrative. McArthur’s aim was to discuss issues related to the development of structuralist ideas in film studies in the early 1970s, but I’m not going to pursue that argument here. Instead I want to discuss the film in terms of various issues about genre in the 1960s and specifically the Western. Before I forget though, the opening titles tell us this is a ‘contemporary Western’, simply by the typography and graphic design.
Lonely Are the Brave is a ‘Twilight Western’ – a film which deals with the death of the culture and mythology associated with the Western ‘frontier’ in American history. Kirk Douglas plays Jack Burns, introduced to us as a cowboy resting on a hillside with his horse Whisky. He looks up and sees the vapour trails of military jets across the sky. This is one of the oppositions ‘over-emphasised’ in the opening scene. When he rises and re-mounts, Jack discovers a wire fence and beyond it the outskirts of a town in New Mexico. He cuts the wire and symbolically moves from the open range into the modern world. He’s come to find Paul (Michael Kane), a friend who shares his ideas about individual freedoms. But when he meets Paul’s wife Gerri (Gena Rowlands in an early film role after several years in TV) he discovers is serving time in gaol for helping Mexican migrants. Jack decides to pick several fights and land himself in the same gaol and break out with his friend. But here comes the important ‘Twilight’ convention. While Jack cannot settle down to conventional 1960s suburban life, his friend has a wife and child he wishes to return to and he refuses to leave his cell. Jack breaks out anyway and sets off South to the Mexican border, but with several police and military forces chasing him, the odds on his survival are long.
Kirk Douglas is as good as you expect him to be in a role for which he seems well suited. The film looks good in black and white 2.35:1 thanks to Philip Lathrop who came late to the full cinematographer role but who had worked on the TV series Rawhide in the late 1950s. Lathrop is able to represent the Sandia Mountains and other New Mexico locations as beautiful but dangerous open country where a resourceful man (and his horse) might be able to escape the law. The score is by Jerry Goldsmith, another TV Westerns series graduate. It is recognisably his work with a military march motif but it becomes a little overpowering for me when Jack and his horse Whisky are attempting to climb a mountain. The supporting cast includes Walter Matthau as the sheriff who must pursue Jack. Matthau was yet to make the move to lead roles but his later star persona is already in place here – the grouchy figure with a sardonic wit and a weary despair about the intelligence of his men. George Kennedy takes a familiar role as a heavy – in this case a violent police officer who takes pleasure in attacking Jack.
The script is by Dalton Trumbo, the best-known of the ‘Hollywood 10’ black-listed after the HUAC hearings. Trumbo was now able to take credit for his work, especially after the success of Spartacus in 1960 when support from Kirk Douglas was crucial. The director of Lonely Are the Brave was David Miller, an experienced studio director who would work again on Trumbo’s script Executive Action (1973) a thriller about the John F. Kennedy assassination, described on IMdB as ‘speculative agitprop’.
It’s not difficult to see what attracted Douglas and Trumbo to the story of Jack Burns which Douglas discovered in a novel by Edward Abbey, The Brave Cowboy (1956). Douglas bought the rights and produced the film himself. He then blamed the distributor, Universal, for releasing the film wide without promotion as a genre Western. Douglas believed it should have been ‘platformed’ first (though I doubt he used that term) and treated like an art film. He had a point at the time, but it isn’t really an art film, but instead an interesting genre hybrid.
Abbey was an unusual writer who had won a Fulbright scholarship at Edinburgh University. He was an anarchist and early environmentalist with a range of interests which eventually led him towards ‘direct action’ and he became a celebrity figure for the activist environmentalist groups. The original novel includes important narrative elements that are there in the film but perhaps not as prominently as in the novels. I use the plural because Jack as a character appears to be in other novels by Abbey. It’s worth considering the intertextual aspects of Lonely Are the Brave. I’ve quoted the twilight Western and there are a couple of sequences when the film, consciously or not, seems to quote John Ford’s The Searchers (1956). Both feature Jack with Gerri. How do they feel about each other? Is there a repressed attraction? When Jack first arrives at his friend’s house, Gerri offers to wash his shirt and when he returns after breaking out of prison she offers him the clean shirt. Unlike the Ford film, the dialogue in Lonely Are the Brave spells out everything. In The Searchers (and in Brokeback Mountain) we have two characters who can’t speak about their love. It’s all in looks and gestures. But when Jack rides away from Gerri’s house we are offered the classic Fordian shot in reverse. We see Jack slowly disappearing into the the open country, just as we saw John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards riding towards the isolated ranch house where Martha is watching his progress.
There are other possible genre links as well. The image of a modern criminal being hunted down in remote places dates back to at least High Sierra (1941) and the deserts and mountains of the South West and the journey to Mexico (in itself another element of the twilight Western) recalls films like Ida Lupino’s The Hitch-hiker (1953). Abbey’s books reveal his concerns about the ways in which the open country of the South West has been used for various forms of development, including building military air bases. This appears in the film as a battle between Jack, hiding in the rocks and the helicopter attempting to find him. I was reminded of my childhood viewing of the TV series Whirlybirds (Desilu 1957-60) in which the helicopter pilots were the good guys. This film posits the possibility that they might be if not the ‘bad guys’ at least the over-confident and ‘gung-ho’ guys who might end up in Vietnam. This last thought also makes me think of the way that the cowboy loner has been translated into the lone survivalist in films like the first Rambo film, First Blood (1982).
When I looked at two of my Western reference books I discovered that both Phil Hardy in his Enyclopedia of the Western and Julian Petley with his contribution to the BFI Companion to the Western find Lonely Are the Brave to be too self conscious and ponderous in spelling out its ideas rather than letting the audience discover themes for themselves. This marks a significant difference to The Last Picture Show in my previous post which is another twilight Western that doesn’t need to explain anything. However, on IMdB, Lonely Are the Brave has a high score of 7.6 and a reputation to match. I agree broadly with the critics about the dialogue. Jack has a long speech in which he explains to Gerri what it means to be a loner. But I can forgive the film that speech because the struggle of man and horse up the mountain is thrilling. There must have been a wrangler who worked hard but I did wonder about how some shots were achieved without putting the horse at risk. I’m not sure I can be equally forgiving about the film’s ending which is signalled so clearly in the first 10 minutes. Even so, the film is certainly worth a watch if you have MUBI in the UK.
In 2006 I ran an evening class looking at the films that influenced Brokeback Mountain – or in some way helped to inform how Ang Lee’s ‘Western romance’ might be read by audiences. One of these films was The Last Picture Show and the following notes have been re-worked for this blog. I’m particularly interested in the concept of the ‘Twilight Western‘ but I was prompted to post this now as the idea of ‘left behind communities’ seems so important in UK and US politics at the moment. See also my previous post on Inland Sea.
It is often argued that the brief period between the collapse of the old Hollywood studio system in the late 1960s and the re-birth of commercial Hollywood with Jaws and Star Wars in the mid 1970s was the best of all times in terms of the quality of the films produced. In 1971 The Last Picture Show, competing against A Clockwork Orange, The French Connection, McCabe and Mrs Miller and Klute amongst others, was nominated for 8 Academy Awards, winning two for Supporting Actors, Ben Johnson and Cloris Leachman. Perhaps because of its Oscars, I saw the film in March 1972 on release in the UK at the most prestigious art cinema in London, the Curzon.
Forty-four years later, The Last Picture Show stands up very well and it isn’t surprising that Ang Lee took it as his most important starting point for the tone and ‘feel’ of Brokeback Mountain, an adaptation co-scripted by Larry McMurtry, arguably the most prominent writer in portraying rural Texas. McMurtry writes about the West – in history and in contemporary life. As one reviewer has put it:
No other author has so thoroughly and delightfully debunked the ill-advised romanticism of the American West. McMurtry’s immense talent punctures the cowboy mythology with such finesse that the reader never feels the prick; we just joyfully go along for the ride of a lifetime. (Jami Edwards on http://bookreporter.com)
The Last Picture Show is a melodrama involving a small group of characters with close personal relationships who are all involved in the changing world of a small Texan town. The time is the early 1950s and the decline of the ‘old ways’ of the town is represented by the threatened closure of the local cinema. The Last Picture Show followed an earlier novel, Horseman Pass By, filmed as Hud with Paul Newman in 1963. Searching for a location for the 1950s Texas depicted in The Last Picture Show, director Peter Bogdanovich eventually turned to McMurtry’s home town of Archer City – a journey that Ang Lee also took some thirty plus years later. Bogdanovich in 1971 was a film critic turned filmmaker with minimal experience but plenty of chutzpah. He asked Orson Welles for advice on shooting the film and decided on black and white in order to be able to shoot scenes with great depth of field and characters close to the camera dominating the frame (as in Welles’ Magnificent Ambersons, another film about the past). Robert Surtees seemingly provides exactly what Bogdanovich was looking for.
Bogdanovich had interviewed both Howard Hawks and John Ford. This partly explains the choice of Hawks’ Red River (1948) as the last film to be shown in the picture house and the long struggle to get Ben Johnson to play the role of ‘Sam the Lion’. Johnson, a real cowboy and rodeo rider, made his name as part of John Ford’s Western ensemble in films like Wagonmaster (1950) (a poster for the film is seen in the cinema lobby in The Last Picture Show) and then worked for Sam Peckinpah. For Western fans, Johnson is an iconic figure. Bogdanovich reportedly told Johnson that he would win an Oscar in the role and he did.
The Last Picture Show has a remarkable cast. The young characters are each played by stars in the making in 1971. Jeff Bridges, the son of action star Lloyd Bridges, went on to become one of the major ‘character stars’ in Hollywood Cinema. Timothy Bottoms had a strong early career in the 1970s, but Cybill Shepherd, a ‘supermodel’ in 1970 when Bogdanovich saw her on the cover of a magazine, began an affair with the director which proved disastrous for both herself and Bogdanovich. The real strength of the film is in the supporting cast. Alongside Johnson are three women with reputations mostly forged in television – Eileen Brennan, Cloris Leachman and Ellen Burstyn – and Clu Gulager, another television actor with a memorable performance alongside Lee Marvin in Don Siegel’s The Killers (1964).
Bogdanovich made several other decisions about staging the story. Perhaps most important was the precise dating of the events, covering a period from November 1951 to a year later in 1952 (or from the start of one football season through to the start of the next). The music playing on the radios in the film is authentic for the period (especially Hank Williams, who was the major force in country music at the time).
The timing enables Bogdanovich to send Duane (Bridges) off to Korea and to date precisely the period when the community in a small Texas town began to turn away from the cinema and towards the television set. The film draws on a number of genre repertoires, in particular the ‘youth picture’/‘coming of age’ story of the three young leads, the melodrama of small town life and, crucially, the ‘twilight Western’ – the ‘end of the West’ story.
The three genres come together through the relationships that Sonny (Tim Bottoms) has with Duane, Sam, Jacy (Cybill Shepherd) and Ruth (‘the Coach’s wife’ played by Cloris Leachman.) Sonny and Duane are the future, the heirs to Sam’s legacy. They represent the dual figure at the centre of many of the stories about the end of the West: two men, one resigned to the soul-destroying work of modern capitalist America, the other trapped in a way of life that is clearly dying and which offers no viable future. These two characters have a strong bond of friendship, one that will be tested to destruction in the narrative.
Sam represents the honourable past of the Western philosophy. He runs the last three ‘social facilities’ in town, the café, the pool hall and the cinema. These provide the possibility of a ‘community’ and refer back to the ‘civilising’ of the West in classic Westerns such as My Darling Clementine – as distinct from the anti-community ethos of television. Sam recognises that Sonny is his heir. He is, in some ways, Sonny’s surrogate father (Sonny’s real father is glimpsed briefly in the Christmas scene).
Duane is the cowboy who adapts to work as an oil rigger and then as a marine, off to Korea. Jacy is the girl who comes between the two central characters, but she too has choices to make. She doesn’t listen to her mother or take much notice of the other older women in the community, all of whom have tales to tell and warnings to give. Jacy doesn’t know what her role in small town Texas might be and her experiments with men don’t fill us with hope for the future. Another Bogdanovich decision, to show Sonny in the cinema watching a young Elizabeth Taylor in Father of the Bride (1950), is perhaps a reference to films like Giant (1956) and the disruption that a woman with the presence of Shepherd/Taylor could cause in a small Texas community. Sonny is with Charlene when Duane and Jacy arrive and the difference between the promise of Jacy and the reality of Charlene is underlined when Sonny reacts to being told that he and Charlene have been ‘going steady’ for a year with a weary “Seems like a lot longer”.
Anarene, Texas is presented as a dying town with a population of disappointed people. The central characters are all single or in relationships which are not functional. We learn little about the family background of Sonny or Duane and Billy (Sam Bottoms) is presented as an archetypal character, found in any small town. In one sense, the narrative involves an older generation ‘passing on’ its own disappointments to a younger generation, but there is still a suggestion that something was there in the past (Sam’s references to his time with Jacy’s mother). It isn’t there now and change must take place. At the end of the film, the heavy symbolism sees harmless Billy killed by a truck full of cattle – literally killed by the mechanised West which has replaced the romantic nostalgia of Sam and the cowboy pictures he showed in the Royal Cinema.
The Last Picture Show might seem at first glance like an unlikely model for Brokeback Mountain, but dig deeper and the links between the films begins to emerge. Aesthetically one is mostly enclosed in a windswept town and the other presents characters in a magnificent landscape, but in both the camera is used to bring the characters into the foreground in close-up, so that we enter a character study but recognise the importance of the environment in the background. In both films, we get a strong sense of a conservative community with individuals desperate to find a happiness that seems to evade them and we get a running commentary from the country music soundtrack. The Last Picture Show is more of a melodrama in its interrelationships within the community, but its two young men look forward to Jack and Ennis in the later film (and back to the heroes of ‘end of the West’ films such as Randolph Scott and Joel McRea in Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country). Ang Lee, without the detailed knowledge of the West, wanted a model for how to achieve an effortless authenticity for characters and setting and he found it in The Last Picture Show.
McMurtry wrote two further novels about the characters of The Last Picture Show, Texasville (1987) and Duane’s Depressed (1999). His biggest successes were the novel Tears of Endearment (1975) – later a successful film melodrama – and the long historical novel Lonesome Dove (1985) which became the basis for one of the most successful mini-series in US television history.
After The Last Picture Show, Peter Bogdanovich had two further hits with What’s Up Doc? (1972) and Paper Moon (1973) before a series of disasters, starting with Cybill Shepherd as Daisy Miller (1974). He also directed the film of Texasville (1990) which sees the younger cast members of The Last Picture Show some thirty years later. The film was not a success. Randy Quaid as Lester Marlow provides the link between both films and Brokeback Mountain, in which he plays the agent who hires Jack and Ennis.
A detailed description of The Last Picture Show with explanations for the numerous references to American popular culture can be found on Tim Dirks’ ‘Greatest Films’ website at http://www.filmsite.org/lastp.html.