Category: the Western

The Sisters Brothers (Les frères Sisters, France-Belgium-Spain-Romania-US 2018)

The Sisters Brothers has been declared to have ‘bombed’ in the US because box office takings have been only a fraction of what might have been spent by American independent distributor Annapurna on screening rights. The box office results have been better in Europe. But I suspect in a few years time the film will start to receive a lot more interest from cinephiles. I like and admire Jacques Audiard’s work and that admiration is carried over to this his first English language film. But Audiard is not the only auteur involved. John C. Reilly bought the rights to the novel by Patrick DeWitt close to its publication date in 2011 and he is credited as one of the producers. The adaptation was by Audiard and Thomas Bidegain who collaborated with Audiard on his previous three films and who directed John C. Reilly in Les cowboys (France 2015).

The ‘Sisters Brothers’ are Eli (John C. Reilly) and Charlie (Joaquin Phoenix), a pair of hired guns who work as assassins for ‘The Commodore’ (Rutger Hauer) in Oregon Territory in 1851. This is the time of the Gold Rush in California and finds were made near Jacksonville in Oregon Territory. The Brothers are given the task of finding and assassinating Hermann Warm (Riz Ahmed) who is being followed by a detective also employed by The Commodore, John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal). The two brothers are quite different. Charlie is the younger, but he acts as the leader and is much more aggressive. Eli is more philosophical and reflective – although he still kills efficiently when he needs to. The journey they take south towards California and what happens when they find Morris and Warm gives the narrative plenty of time to fill out the characters.

The brothers cut each others’ hair.

My feeling about the film, which I very much enjoyed, is that it resembles several other ‘literary’ Westerns such as The Missouri Breaks (US 1976) from the novel by Thomas McGuane or, more recently, The Homesman (France-US 2014) from the novel by Glendon Swarthout. Both these films were also relatively big-budget films that flopped and both had ‘name’ directors and stars, Arthur Penn with Jack Nicholson and Marlon Brando for the first and Tommy Lee Jones as both director and star (with Hilary Swank) in the second. The Homesman is also an ‘international production set in the same time period as The Sisters Brothers.

The Sisters Brothers

Morris treads carefully in the new towns thrown up quickly

There is a featured review of The Sisters Brothers by Nick Pinkerton in Sight and Sound (May 2019) in which he refers to the film as having an unusual setting in the pre-Civil War era. The review makes some interesting points but I think that Pinkerton hasn’t seen enough Westerns – there are enough pre-1861 Westerns to form a separate classification and the pre-war period includes both the Gold Rush and the migrations via wagon trains to Oregon before the coming of the transcontinental railroads. The opening up of Oregon was remarkably fast-paced over the first few decades of the 19th century, moving from a territory of fur trappers and the Hudson’s Bay company through British and American claims to sovereignty and the subsequent formation of the ‘Oregon Territory’ in 1848 south of the 49th Parallel and admission as a new state of the Union in 1859. There were periods of lawlessness as jurisdictions changed and the pace of development is neatly represented by the surprise for both the educated Morris and Eli when they find themselves both brushing their teeth with toothbrushes and tooth powder. But this is a very male early Oregon community. Women are usually bar girls. Wives and mothers are not very visible.

The Sisters Brothers

Eli looks after his horse – one of several interesting details of travel in the narrative

One of the criticisms of the film is the dialogue which includes some modern speech which seems anachronistic. But it also includes some literary language, especially when Morris is writing his diary. Eli too uses some formal language which Charlie derides, but the most articulate character is Warm, who has big plans, first for gold extraction and then for a new utopian society he wants to set up in Texas. There was a real attempt by democratic socialists from France, Belgium and Switzerland to set up a community known as ‘La Réunion’ in Dallas County in 1855 based on the ideas of Charles Fourier. (Fourier called the building in which a small community might live a phalanstère.) The American writer Henry David Thoreau is also mentioned in the script, although as Pinkerton points out Thoreau’s best known work, Walden, was not published until 1854. However, he had published earlier papers and the script suggests that Warm is not just formally educated like Morris, but also much more aware of new ideas. I did notice the language ‘mix’ and I’m still not quite sure how to read it – but I don’t see it as a ‘mistake’.

Against this minutiae of American life, the film offers us the landscapes of Spain and Romania, because this is very much a European production from Why Not Productions in France as the lead company. It includes scenes shot in Almería in Andalusia (like all the classic European Westerns) as well as mountain scenes in Navarre and Aragon and other landscapes and studio sets in Romania. There is a tradition of pitting history against myth in European Westerns and this film continues that process. This doesn’t make The Sisters Brothers a ‘realist film’, but it does suggest an intelligence ‘playing’ with Western conventions and historical discourses. The problem is that audience expectations are perhaps for clearer narrative drives and for a rousing climax and resolution (see this typical US review). I’m not in the spoilers game, but there is a relatively downbeat ending. There are at least three big shootouts but the emphasis is on the characters. I’m not sure that the balance between ‘action’ and ‘talk’ is actually that different from the majority of Western films. It’s more a case of what the ‘talk’ is about. I found the talk very interesting and enjoyable and I’d be happy to watch the film again.

Herrmann Warm (Riz Ahmed) and John Morris (Jake Gyllenaal)

The casting of Riz Ahmed, a fine actor, worked for me. I was reminded of another very good and unusual Western, The Ballad of Little Jo (1993) written and directed by Maggie Greenwald. Set in roughly the same mid-19th century period and again in a mining camp, the central character, a woman trying to ‘pass’ as a man, meets an Englishman played by Ian McKellan sporting his own ‘real’ Lancashire accent. The film also features the Chinese migrant community. Another British connection is to Michael Winterbottom’s wonderful Thomas Hardy adaptation (of The Mayor of Casterbridge) The Claim (UK-Canada 2000). Again associated with the ‘mining Western’ this is set slightly later in the 1860s when the railroad is coming, but the ‘back story’ is the 1849 Gold Rush. This film too has its migrant characters. I think I need to watch both these other films again! Riz Ahmed’s character is, I think, meant to be a European migrant and his character’s name suggests German/Belgian/Dutch? (But his middle name ‘Kermit’ seems to be American- and possibly anachronistic).

We watched the film on the big screen in Pictureville at the Museum in Bradford. I thought Alexandre Desplat’s score worked well and Benoît Debie’s cinematography is equally impressive. All the performances are good but it’s clear that John C. Reilly is the most invested in the project he started. Nick didn’t like the film and perhaps he’ll add a comment as to why not. I’ve really enjoyed researching the film and if you like Westerns I’d say this is a ‘must see’ – unless the issues I’ve described above are ones you know will be a problem for you. The trailer below doesn’t give out as many spoilers as the usual Hollywood trailer, but I don’t remember anything like the song in it appearing in the film.

Lust for Gold (US 1949)

This odd film offered Ida Lupino a lead role that paid the bills as she was preparing projects for her new production company now that her Warner Bros. contract work was completed. Her new husband Collier Young was a producer at Columbia and according to Lupino’s biographer William Donati she hoped that by choosing a Columbia script she would at least see Collier on a regular basis. However, Lust for Gold was a location shoot in Arizona for much of the time. Lust for Gold, as the title baldly suggests, is a story about a real life mystery – a ‘lost gold mine’ on Superstition Mountain in Arizona – and the people who will go to any lengths to find it. In fact, this is arguably the most often quoted ‘lost treasure’ story in the Americas with many references in American popular culture and the development of what is now a mythical story based on ‘real’ events.

Julie (Ida Lupino) meets a cleaned up Jakob Walz (Glenn Ford)

The script embraces the mythological/real basis of the ‘Lost Dutchman’s Mine’ by setting the story in the present and revealing the original events as a Western narrative via a prolonged flashback. In the present, ‘Barry Storm’ (the pen name of the writer of a 1945 book about the myth) travels to the mountain, claiming he is a descendant of the original ‘Dutchman’, the German migrant Jakob Walz. Storm is involved in a shooting on the mountain and encounters the local sheriff and his men. With what the sheriff tells him and further research in newspaper archives of the 1880s and talking to elderly locals he pieces together a possible scenario – which leads into the flashback with Glenn Ford, Columbia’s go-to leading man for this kind of film. He plays Walz who finds the original mine and then hits town where Ida Lupino is Julia Thomas, from a German family in Milwaukee and who runs a small bakery shop. Julia is married to the spineless Pete (Gig Young) but she sees an opportunity to seduce Jakob and find the gold for herself. It’s a risky business as the whole town knows about the find. What follows is a classic Western melodrama which ends in disaster and takes us back to the present where Barry Storm becomes involved in a typical Hollywood ‘resolution’ that maintains the integrity of the ‘lost gold’.

Julie and her husband (Gig Young) on Superstition Mountain

I need to admit that at times this is very serviceable entertainment. At other times it threatened to lose my interest. The film was originally intended to be directed by the highly experienced director George Marshall but when he was not available it was passed to S. Sylvan Simon who was arguably better known for comedies. It turned out to be Simon’s last film as director as he died suddenly aged just 41 a couple of years later. Ida Lupino gives a committed performance as usual and the other leads are fine. Glenn Ford with beard and unruly hair certainly looks different and his character is vicious, even by the standards of later Westerns. Several of the minor players are of interest, including Jay Silverheels as a sheriff’s deputy in the contemporary-set scenes. For children of my generation he was ‘Tonto’ in The Lone Ranger series on TV and, as the sheriff, Paul Ford is fondly remembered as the commanding officer trying to keep Sgt. Bilko in check in the Bilko/Phil Silvers TV series in the 1950s.

Ford and Lupino with (I presume) director S. Sylvan Simon

For Ida Lupino this was one of the films she worked on with Archie Stout as cinematographer. Stout, like other crew members was impressed by the way Ida stayed out on location in the blazing sun in order to see how the production functioned rather than heading back to town as soon as her scenes were completed. Stout would become one of her own loyal crew members happy to tell anyone who asked that Ida Lupino knew more about angles and lighting than most of the directors he worked with. Certainly, the experience on Lust for Gold must have been very useful when The Filmakers were shooting on location in similar terrain for The Hitch-Hiker in 1953.

Canyon Passage (US 1946)

The oddly-titled Canyon Passage is currently available online via MUBI UK. I chose to watch it, intrigued by a Technicolor Western from 1946. I’d never heard of the title before but with Jacques Tourneur at the helm and a starry cast it looked like a good bet. It was indeed entertaining and also intriguing in  suggesting inspirations for later films. The title is odd because ‘canyon’ makes me think of the dry South West and this story is set in the much wetter North West, specifically inland from Portland, Oregon in the 1850s. (‘Canyon’, Wikipedia tells me, simply means a ravine or gorge and could be in the Rockies.) It’s still an odd title though since it says very little about the film’s narrative.

Andy Devine and Dana Andrews in Canyon Passage

Logan (Dana Andrews) is a store-owner and muleteer who services the mining settlements in the interior. His aim is to control the passage of people and goods in the region. However, he appears to be caught up in two love triangles. The most important of the two involves Lucy (Susan Hayward) and Logan’s close friend George Camrose (Brian Donlevy) who is a gold agent with an unfortunate gambling addiction. With Lucy likely to marry George, Logan is encouraged to court a young visiting English woman (Patricia Roc) – but she’s also attracted to Logan’s employee, Vane. This might be enough plot for a romance, but Canyon Passage also features a rogue character, ‘Honey’ Bragg (a very aggressive Ward Bond) who targets Logan. Though the settlement of Jacksonville appears well-established, it is still subject to attacks by the local Native Americans who are enraged by some of the actions of the settlers. The cast list also includes three other names familiar to me. The singer Hoagy Carmichael wanders through many scenes in Jacksonville, commenting on events with an appropriate song and making crucial plot interventions. Lloyd Bridges plays the unofficial leader of the local miners and Andy Devine is a settler who has established a staging post – a stopping place on Logan’s trading route. He is also hosting the English woman.

Brian Donlevy as George . . .

. . . and Susan Hayward as Lucy (from dvdbeaver.com)

Hoagy Carmichael (left) and Andy Devine (right) at a town celebration)

Tourneur manages to pack an enormous amount of plot into 91 minutes. He does this deftly and makes use of superb location footage of the Cascades and his cinematographer, the veteran Edward Cronjager often uses long shots to frame groups rather than close-ups to feature the stars. The complex plot points at different moments to distinct sub-genres of the Western. Canyon Passage is a ‘frontier Western’ located before the Civil War when the frontier is still being contested by Native Americans. It’s a ‘settlement Western’ with time spent on the building of the settlement and an extensive ‘raising’ of a new homestead sequence in which the whole community builds a house for a couple about to be married. It’s also a ‘mining Western’/’mountain Western’ focusing on the potential stories of gold prospecting, saloon bars and gambling. Most of all, this is a narrative in which friendships are tested and harsh decisions related to community and survival have to be made. Overall, it seems to me that this is impressive story-telling.

Logan (Dana Andrews) and Lucy (Susan Hayward) en route to San Francisco with a string of mules

A homestead is attacked

The settlement of Jacksonville

Canyon Passage was adapted from a novel by Ernest Haycox originally serialised in The Saturday Evening Post in 1945. Haycox was an extremely prolific and popular writer who was born in Portland. He wrote both short stories and novels and two different serial novels appeared in The Saturday Evening Post and Collier’s at the same time in 1943. Haycox has been credited in helping to raise the status of Western stories and two of his stories were adapted for John Ford’s Stagecoach and Cecil B De Mille’s Union Pacific (both 1939). Canyon Passage was a Walter Wanger production with a large budget of $2.6 million. Wanger was a major figure in Studio Hollywood becoming a leading producer, sometimes independent but also working under contract at various studios. Susan Hayward was the star he contracted and she would become an award-winning actor in Wanger’s later ‘social issue’ films. Canyon Passage was made at Universal, one of the two ‘mini-majors’ not well-known for larger budgets or for Technicolor at this point. The studio had a long-term relationship with the Rank Organisation in the UK (Rank was actually a bigger studio than Universal in 1946 and had owned a 25% stake in the company since 1936). This explains why Patricia Roc is ‘introduced’ in Canyon Passage as part of a deal to bring US stars to the UK. Roc would have had some US recognition because of the furore surrounding The Wicked Lady (1945) which was ‘unrated’ for US distribution. Her part in Canyon Passage is relatively small and she looks out of place (which is reasonable as the character is meant to be English) – largely ‘ornamental’ and no match for Susan Hayward’s vivacity. As a Rank loanee she joined Margaret Lockwood and later Phyllis Calvert who also made trips to Hollywood.

A publicity still of Patricia Roc for Canyon Passage (from Silver Sirens)

Dana Andrews was reaching the high point of his stardom in 1946 (the year of Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives – which also featured Hoagy Carmichael). His status had been established by Preminger’s Laura in 1944. I hadn’t thought of Andrews as a Western star but in fact he had several supporting roles in Westerns in the early 1940s. In Canyon Passage he is a strong, confident figure who exudes authority and strength of character and his relationship with Donlevy’s character is believable.

Canyon Passage was by all accounts a successful and popular picture, although the high production budget meant it wasn’t particularly profitable. What struck me most was how much it made me think of later films. I wonder if it influenced Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs Miller (1971)? The use of the setting, the songs that seem to comment on the narrative and the English woman – a far more successful import in the form of Julie Christie. I was also intrigued when I realised that ‘Logan’ is also the name of the Sterling Hayden character in Johnny Guitar (1954) and that ‘McIver’ is the name of a miner who is murdered in Canyon Passage and turns up again as the name of Ward Bond’s blustering character in Johnny Guitar. Several commentators have suggested that perhaps Peter Weir was familiar with the house-raising scene when he made Witness (1982). These scenes are impressive and the log cabins and stone fireplaces made me think of Ford’s The Searchers (1956) as well as his earlier Drums Along the Mohawk (1939). The presence of Andy Devine and Ward Bond also invokes Ford.

I enjoyed Canyon Passage and it confirmed for me the skills and artistic vision of Jacques Tourneur. This was his first Western and first film in colour. A year later he made Out of the Past, often cited as the peak of film noir and one of my favourite films. The clip below from the film’s premiere in Portland gives a flavour of the Hollywood publicity machine in 1946.

A Blu-ray of the film was released in the UK (Region B) by the Scottish company Panamint in 2016:

GFF18 #16: Sweet Country (Australia 2017)

Sam (Hamilton Morris) knows the desert . . .

I did see this film in Glasgow, but as it was released officially in the UK on March 9th, I decided to wait to see what kind of reception it got on its opening weekend. That has proved to be an interesting experience. Sweet Country was screened at Cineworld on Renfrew Street on a large screen which benefited this magnificent film – if you get the opportunity, see it on the largest screen you can. Unfortunately, you will struggle to find a local multiplex showing the film over the next few weeks. Despite the good job Thunderbird Releasing has done in promoting the film it is mainly showing at arthouse cinemas in major cities (and we don’t have screenings in Bradford – just two shows in Leeds). Check for your nearest screening here: http://showtimes.sweetcountryfilm.co.uk

Sweet Country is that rare but increasingly important beast – an Indigenous film from Australia. It is presented in a form that is instantly accessible to audiences outside Australia as a ‘Western’ set in the Northern Territory during the late 1920s. The narrative is based on a true story and it explores the racism of Australia’s colonial past (and as such comments on the racial tensions of the present and possible future of Australia). Writer-director-cinematographer Warwick Thornton came to prominence on the international stage with short films and then with Samson and Delilah (Australia 2009) which won the Camera d’Or at Cannes. I was knocked sideways when I saw that film on DVD a few years later. Samson and Delilah uses local non-professional actors for its teenage lead characters and was shot on location in the Alice Springs area. Before I saw that film I had come across Warwick Thornton’s camerawork in a more mainstream Indigenous film The Sapphires (Australia 2012) by Thornton’s mate Wayne Blair. This hugely enjoyable (and moving) film about an Aboriginal girl group performing for US Armed Forces in Vietnam in the 1960s deserved a much bigger audience than it found in the UK.

Fred (Sam Neill) takes Sam’s niece Lucy to town – to keep her out of harm’s way

The narrative of Sweet Country is in one sense quite simple, but Warwick Thornton’s treatment, in terms of sound and image and narrative structure, turns into a rich and complex film that will repay many re-viewings. (The film eschews non-diegetic music and relies on the natural sounds of the environment.) The basic premise is that the establishment of cattle stations in the Alice Springs area has produced an unbalanced and dangerous local community with white men outnumbering white women and the local Indigenous people forced to work almost as indentured labour on their own land. In 1929 an embittered war veteran Harry March takes over a ranch and seeks to ‘borrow’ some Indigenous workers for a couple of days. Fred Smith (Sam Neill), a local rancher who sees himself as a religious man reluctantly agrees to ask his worker Sam to go to the March place along with his wife and niece for a few days. Sam is wary of March and when the drunken white man comes after the Indigenous family with a gun, Sam kills him in self-defence. Having killed a white man, Sam and Lizzie must go on the run in the bush. A posse led by Sergeant Fletcher (Bryan Brown) sets out to track them. The outcome of the search and its aftermath is shocking. I’ve purposefully left out a lot of detail and not allowed any real spoilers but these are the main sections of the narrative. Thornton uses both flashbacks and flashforwards in presenting his narrative.

Lizzie finds water . . .

Helped by his local knowledge, Thornton’s presentation of landscapes including rocky outcrops, ravines, scrub and desert is stunning. The brief outline above refers to familiar elements from American Westerns. Australian development in the Northern territory was slower and only the presence of a travelling film show featuring The Ned Kelly Story (1906) signifies the twentieth century. The Western comparison is, I feel, a two-edged sword for Warwick Thornton who has promoted his film using the ‘Western’ tag. It makes the story more familiar and more accessible to audiences outside Australia (and perhaps to contemporary Australian audiences), but it also risks critics and reviewers treating the film as simply an ‘exotic’ form of a familiar genre rather than a historical Indigenous film exploring the racism and oppression of colonial exploitation. I fear that this has happened to a certain extent in some of the UK critical writing on the film. Some of the better coverage of the film comes in Sight and Sound, April 2018 with ‘Red Earth’, an essay by Trevor Johnston plus a review by Jason Anderson. Also in the same issue is a Tony Rayns DVD Review of the film Goldstone by Ivan Sen. As Rayns notes: ” . . . it’s blackfella directors like Ivan Sen and Warwick Thornton who are making the running in current Oz cinema”. I would endorse that view. Ivan Sen’s new film is another ‘frontier Western’ (in Queensland) following on from his previous film Mystery Road (2013) featuring an Indigenous police officer Jay Swan (Aaron Pedersen). None of the reviewers I read this weekend mentioned The Tracker (Australia 2002), the film made by the partnership of director Rolf de Heer and veteran Indigenous actor David Gulpilil. The pair made two more films, Ten Canoes (2006) and Charlie’s Country (2013) about Indigenous characters across history. The films by Thornton, Sen and those in which Gulpilil had considerable creative input sit alongside films like Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002) – which though directed by a white Australian has Indigenous children at its centre and a memoir by an Indigenous woman as its source material (and is therefore another historical film based on a true story). Together these films present a significant Indigenous Australian cinema. (I should also note that Little White Lies is a UK publication that has a committed review of the film and references ‘10 essential Indigenous Australian films‘.)

Dergeant Fletcher (Bryan Brown) is responsible for finding Sam

Although Sweet Country and The Tracker are not the same narrative they do share several significant features. Both are set in the 1920s and both involve a posse attempting to apprehend an Indigenous man accused of murder of a white person. In both cases the posse includes a white man who is fanatical and openly racist, another who is experienced but not so ‘hot-blooded’ and a younger police officer who is more constrained by rules and ethics. Equally both groups of Europeans are outwitted by the Indigenous fugitive who knows how to live off the land and navigate the terrain. Important too is the fact that the chase moves across land occupied by other Indigenous groups – Aboriginal Australians are not one amorphous mass simply recognisable as ‘Other’ by white society. Instead they are different groups of people with different languages and different cultures. The significant difference in The Tracker is that an Indigenous man is ’employed’ as a tracker to lead the posse to the fugitive with all the moral dilemmas that entails (and he’s played by the film’s lead actor David Gulpilil). In Sweet Country there is also an Indigenous tracker, Archie, another stockman. But Archie is a relatively minor character in the narrative. Another minor character is a mixed race boy Philomac whose status is not clearly defined. However, Philomac is involved in the major incident at the beginning of the film and his ‘in between’ position carries meaning. The whole final section of Sweet Country is loaded with meanings. It poses a number of questions including whether the establishment of a church or the intervention of the justice system will have an impact on the racism expressed in the white community. British audiences should feel implicated in these questions because although Australia became an independent nation in 1901, the influence of British colonialism was still being felt in the 1920s. Researching this post I discovered that between 1927 and 1931, when the events in the narrative were meant to take place, the Northern Territory was in a kind of limbo while new arrangements for its governance were being discussed. I’m not sure if this is significant. Wayne Thornton expresses some of these concerns in the Press Notes.

Sweet Country is a western. A period western set in Central Australia. It has all the elements of the genre – the frontier, confiscation of land, subordination and conquest of a people and epic sweeping landscapes.

The world of Sweet Country has been newly established by the British Crown through the forceful taking of Indigenous lands. Yet these are lands which had and still possess a deep and complex web of ancient Indigenous laws, customs and life.

Sweet Country is set on a frontier outpost in 1929, where different cultural worlds collide, in an epic and beautiful desert landscape. It is a place where Indigenous, and non-Indigenous people push against each other like tectonic plates. It is a clash of cultures, ideologies and spirits that still continues today from when the colonisers first arrived in Australia.

My aim has been to use the accessibility of the western genre for audiences to enter the story and be drawn into this world and so experience the issues faced by an occupied people. (Warwick Thornton)

I think that reference to ‘an occupied people’ is very telling. Sweet Country should make non-Indigenous audiences think differently about how they have previously viewed Australian films.

 

Philomac (played by twins Tremayne and Trevon Doolan), the mixed race boy at the centre of the initial incident

I’m looking forward to seeing the film again at some point and I’m sure I’ll see things I missed the first time round. I’m encouraged by the Australian box office which after seven weeks has held up very well taking nearly US$1.4 million so far. The UK first weekend (plus previews) is £29,000 from 26 sites (the equivalent of US$40,200). The film opens in the US on Friday 16 March. Part of its box office appeal lies in the presence of Sam Neill and Bryan Brown, two audience favourites in Australia. The Indigenous characters Sam and Lizzie are played by Hamilton Morris and Natassia Gorey-Furber. Morris has one previous credit but Gorey-Furber was making a first appearance. The film was written by Steven McGregor and David Trainter. McGregor is an experienced hand having written and/or directed several TV dramas and films. David Trainter is an Indigenous sound recordist who worked on Samson and Delilah. It was from his grandfather’s knowledge of the historical incidents that the story was developed.

The Australian trailer: (WARNING it shows more of the story than set out above):

The Rider (US 2017)

Brady Jandreau as Brady Blackburn, rodeo rider and horse trainer, recovering from injury

This was the only new film that I saw at the Leeds Film Festival and it goes immediately into my shortlist for films of the year. I selected it solely on the basis of its cinematographer Joshua James Richardson, who had previously shot God Own’s Country (UK 2017), one of my other candidates for best of the year so far. I’m so glad that the cinematography led me to The Rider.

Writer-director Chloé Zhao was born in China, went to ‘high school’ in London and university in the US where she now lives. Her first feature Songs My Brothers Taught Me appeared in 2015, playing in the Director’s Fortnight at Cannes. It tells the story of a sibling relationship in a Sioux family on the Pine Ridge ‘Reservation’ in South Dakota. The Rider is set on the same reservation, but this film went a step further, picking up the Art Cinema Award after also playing in Cannes.

I went into the film knowing little apart from the cinematography connection and the fact that a rodeo competition was involved. I didn’t really twig the Native American background at first. I’ll admit that the first few minutes were hard-going, but I soon tuned into the film and was engrossed from then on. This is a narrative fiction feature, but it is based on the lives of real people who play characters much like themselves, so it also has distinct elements of documentary. The trio of Jandreau family members play the three members of the Blackburn family. Brady is the older of Tim’s children and he has a younger sister, Lilly. The film opens with Brady getting up in the night to remove the dressing on his head and to ease out the staples that hold it in place. We can see immediately that he has suffered a terrible wound and that his skull has been seriously gashed, requiring staples to hold it together. Brady is not going to be riding ‘bucking broncos’ or bulls for quite a while.

Brady Jandreau and Chloé Zhao by the camera

What makes the film so effective for me are three factors. The cinematography is marvellous and the three actors are equally wonderful. But I’m also intrigued by the coming together of different narrative modes which is so well handled by the director. There is a sense of a ‘realist family melodrama’ developed around the three family members. Lilly has what I take to be a mild form of autism (the Press Pack calls it ‘Aspergers’). The dialogue suggests that she is 14 but I’d assumed she was older. Her autism doesn’t prevent her working around the home and she is a loving companion for Brady while father Tim tries to maintain some form of income, even if it requires selling assets. The film is also a documentary drama about the life of a horse trainer/rodeo performer, with Brady soon returning to demonstrate how he can calm a wild horse and train it to accept a rider. I enjoyed these sequences very much, but I think the film finally won me over completely when I realised that it is also a Western (and the combination of Western + melodrama is an absolute winner for me).

Brady can train and ride a wild horse

One of my all-time favourite films is Sam Peckinpah’s Junior Bonner (US 1972), in my book Peckinpah’s best film – a family melodrama built around the rodeo circuit with Robert Preston and Ida Lupino as Steve McQueen’s estranged parents and Joe Don Baker as his entrepreneurial younger brother. The Western melodrama is often built around the father-son relationship. The female character(s) are usually the calm centres around whom the males thrash about trying to resolve macho power struggles. The rodeo life is hard and unforgiving. If you survive those few seconds on a bull or a wild horse, you can be a hero. But you can just as easily be crushed by the weight of the animal, gored by a horn or trampled on. Brady loves his sister and his horses – and his dad. But he needs to make sense of his upbringing which has stressed the manly virtues of being tough. Getting back on the horse in his current predicament of being too physically vulnerable to ride competitively is very tough. At one point he goes to visit a friend and former champ who is still a young man, but who now lives in a care home because he is so severely disabled by his injuries. But what else can Brady do that will restore his self-confidence?

What is so refreshing in the film is the sense of community. When Brady needs to get a job, he meets an employment agent who knew his late mother from her high school days (and Brady visits his mother’s grave on a rise, just like a character in a Ford Western). The narrative doesn’t focus on the Native American community as such. Feeding the gambling machines in the bar does seem to be an issue but it isn’t pushed too much. Mostly, this is a small community where people seem to get on. At one point a couple of kids approach Brady when he is working in the local supermarket. For a moment I feared they were going to photograph him in order to humiliate him, but instead they just want a selfie with a celebrity. The filmed helped me to forget Trump for a moment and restored some sense of hope for working people in the US.

Landscape in the ‘magic hour’

One of the attractions for audiences of Westerns has always been the landscapes and Richardson shoots these beautifully in ‘Scope at what is often termed the ‘magic hour’. I must have watched hundreds of Westerns but I don’t think I’ve ever thought about the actual physical movement of either horse or rider in an abstract sense before. By this, I mean that because the Western narrative drive is so strong and I’ve never ridden a horse, I’ve never thought before about the beauty of cowboy and horse together. In Richardson’s images under Zhao’s direction, I could see the horse’s muscles working and appreciate the riding skills.

The film has been bought by Sony Classics. The last Sony Classics film that I enjoyed, Maudie, got a fairly restricted release in the UK and deserved much more, so, please, UK exhibitors and Sony, get this onto as many screens as possible. There is a press release on the site of one of my favourite distributors, Mongrel Media in Canada.

Here’s a clip from the film of Brady with Apollo:

Wind River (US 2017)

Grahame Greene and Elizabeth Olsen

I think I must be in the prime target audience for Wind River. It certainly ‘works’ for me but I’m a little wary of certain aspects of the narrative – so, a good film to write about? The film’s pedigree is good as written and directed by Taylor Sheridan, whose earlier writing on Sicario (2015) and Hell or High Water (2016) was certainly appreciated in these parts. It also has a strong cast, music by Nick Cave and a snowy landscape (Utah masquerading as Wyoming). It also has antecedents. The idea of a murder investigation on Native American lands was explored in Thunderheart (US 1992), directed by Michael Apted and including in its cast Graham Greene (Canadian First Nations actor) who repeats his role as a tribal police officer in this new film. Jurisdiction on land designated for Native American tribes is a complex business and that becomes one aspect of this story alongside the familiar issue of indigenous peoples and how they suffer through poor education, lack of employment opportunities and loss of cultural identity. A third element that features strongly is the potential ecological/environmental damage to the land via oil exploration and wildlife issues.

The narrative sees an 18 year-old young woman dying as she runs barefoot through the snow on a winter’s night. The explanation of how cold bursts the blood vessels in the lungs and causes the victim to drown in their own freezing blood is a lesson I won’t forget. But what has caused her to do such a thing? She’s found by Cory Lambert, a wildlife ranger played by Jeremy Renner. The local tribal police chief who is, coincidentally, Cory’s father-in-law, does not have the manpower or authority to conduct a murder investigation, so the FBI, who have jurisdiction on tribal lands via the Department for Indian Affairs, is called in. When she arrives, agent Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) from Fort Lauderdale via Las Vegas is certainly unprepared for what she is expected to do.

What follows seems like a carefully calculated attempt to cover the bases and confront the issues. The choice of Agent Banner by the FBI seems not to be thought through – not because she’s a woman, but because she’s relatively young, doesn’t know this kind of territory and its culture and is poorly equipped for outdoor work in freezing temperatures. But the decision does open up several narrative opportunities. She can easily offend people, not through malice but through lack of specific experience and knowledge and she needs to rely on the help of wildlife ranger Lambert. Lambert knows the territory, the snow hazards and the people – and he’s closely connected to the victim’s family. He married into the community and his backstory is skilfully woven into the narrative. But he is a white man whose status still raises questions. Against that, one of the most affecting scenes sees Lambert and the dead girl’s father Martin (played by Gil Birmingham from Hell or High Water) in one of those almost silent intimate male relationships found in the best Westerns.

Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) with Martin (Gil Birmingham) who has invented his own warpaint since he’s forgotten the old ways?

I was struck by how much the narrative reminded me of Indigenous Australian films and I’m sure there are Canadian narratives that cover similar issues. The policing of these communities is problematic. I don’t want to spoil the narrative, but I did find the long final sequence (or rather the penultimate sequence) slightly disappointing in the way the murder mystery was ‘solved’. All the performances by the leads were good, though the heavily typed secondary characters were just too predictable in their behaviour. Andy Willis at HOME in Manchester told me he thought Renner’s role was Nietzschian with its emphasis on survival and the kill or be killed philosophy. I can see this and I was also concerned by the presumably legal killings of predators that Lambert is required to carry out as a ranger. (Wolves are being re-introduced in many parts of Europe but Lambert is sent out to dispatch the wolves on Wind River reservation for killing a steer.) The narrative also seemed to suggest connections (direct or metaphorical) between the animal predators that Lambert shoots and the humans who pose a threat to Agent Banner. I’m still trying to figure out what worries me about this but I guess it’s that everyone in the territory seems to have guns (and often high-powered automatic rifles) and the assumption that a wildlife ranger (or a police officer) can use a gun with so little obvious regulation or restraint. Having said that, the UK government sanctions killing badgers when scientific opinion says it achieves nothing.

Is it a Western? I think so, yes. It’s a ‘contemporary Western’ but I’m not sure it is a ‘twilight Western’ since it has a very different kind of narrative structure and set of characters. In some ways it is quite a traditional Western story as oilmen from Texas arrive on Native American land in Wyoming – and a loner, the hunter, has to deal with them. The revisionist twist is to add the female FBI agent.

Wind River has been widely praised and in the UK it has been a surprising success on a limited release. It is distributed here by STX Entertainment, a new name in cinema for me but I see that in North America it has been active in cinema and TV distribution for a few years. It has significant Chinese investment and is targeting growth in East Asian markets. In the UK and Ireland, Wind River is one of its first releases and the release pattern seems to have been idiosyncratic – in some chain multiplexes, but not others. Even so the film reached the Top 5 in midweek, suggesting a skew towards older audiences. It’s worth keeping an eye on STX I think.

The Tracker (Australia 2002)

David Gulpilil as ‘the Tracker’ walking in front of the Fanatic’s horse.

The Tracker is an important film and represents a popular culture contribution to telling the early history of the ‘Commonwealth of Australia’. It was released just a few months after Rabbit-Proof Fence. David Gulpilil plays a tracker in both films and, like the earlier film, The Tracker offers a shocking glimpse into the attitudes of some ‘European Australians’ towards Australia’s Indigenous peoples in 1922.

The setting is not specified but writer-director Rolf de Heer chose the ‘wilderness area’ of Arkaroola in the mountains of South Australia for locations. The lack of specific location is mirrored in the names given to the five main characters, each of whom is simply listed in the credits according to their role or personal characteristic. At the beginning of the film the four ‘hunters’ are introduced by onscreen captions. A police officer (not in uniform), the ‘Fanatic, is in charge of a manhunt for an Indigenous man, the Fugitive, who has allegedly killed a white woman. A uniformed younger man, a ‘greenhorn’, the Follower, and an older ‘auxiliary’ man, the Veteran, make up the ‘posse’ (the film is very close to a Hollywood Western in several ways). The trio on horseback lead a separate packhorse. The tracker is on foot – an Indigenous man who is not ‘native’ to these parts.

One of Peter Coad’s paintings which depict the violent scenes.

Two other artistic devices (i.e. in addition to the lack of names) are the use of songs and paintings. There are ten songs all sung by Archie Roach, a well-known and popular Indigenous country singer. The songs, mainly in English, act as a kind of commentary on the progress of the narrative, performed in a range of styles including some Ry Cooder-like slide guitar. The paintings by the South Australian artist Peter Coad are used in the film to illustrate the violent scenes in the narrative, which are often ‘off-screen’. I should note here that in order to acquire a DVD to watch, I had to import one from Italy and, although the quality was fine, I discovered that the song lyrics and the opening titles introducing the characters were subtitled in Italian (in a very large typeface) and these were ‘burned in’ – unlike the dialogue subtitles which I could turn off. This was annoying, although I probably learned some Italian and it increased the ‘distancing effect’ of the other three artistic devices.

The landscapes of the mountains of South Australia provide a great location. (All three images taken from DVDBeaver.com)

The film looks terrific and the choice of landscapes is inspired. There is little dialogue and relatively little ‘action’ as such – but when it comes it is worth the wait. The story is told through the performances and the camerawork. Gulpilil is excellent as usual with his jokey, happy-go-lucky demeanour masking the intelligence behind his eyes and his silent battle with Gary Sweet as the Fanatic is compelling. I haven’t seen an Australian Western that so clearly refers to Hollywood Westerns. As the quartet move through scrubland and over mountain passes I was constantly reminded of those Westerns in which a US cavalry unit with a ‘native tracker’ is looking for ‘renegade Apache’ – Ulzana’s Raid would be the classic example. The hunt in The Tracker takes the quartet through the lands of a different Indigenous community and just like the Apache these people will lose some members to the Fanatic’s rifle, but will also ultimately outwit him. The Tracker also reminds me of those classic Budd Boetticher Westerns from the 1950s with small casts and groups of characters with different moral positions and ways of dealing with adversity.

The Fanatic is an accomplished hunter who understands the terrain, but he’s also a confirmed racist who treats Indigenous people with contempt. He’s the kind of man who finds himself respecting the Tracker’s skill and cunning, but who probably puts this down to the Tracker being ‘half-civilised’. In a different way, the position of the Veteran is also disturbing because he says nothing and does nothing to stop the Fanatic’s verbal and physical attacks. The Follower is the morally upright young man whose own attitudes are more conflicted – he will follow orders and is determined to do his job, but not at all costs. He is the product of a racist colonial society but has the possibility of changing. The script is on the side of righteousness and you can probably work out what will happen, but not how it will happen. I found it very satisfying. I particularly liked the presentation of different groups of Indigenous people rather than the undifferentiated ‘other’ of mainstream cinema.

The Tracker is the first of three films made by the partnership of Rolf de Heer and David Gulpilil. Ten Canoes followed in 2006 and Charlie’s Country in 2013. The trilogy offers a powerful presentation of Australian history from the perspective of Indigenous peoples personalised around David Gulpilil (and in Ten Canoes, his son). I’ll post on Charlie’s Country soon. Here’s a clip from an early part of the film featuring an Archie Roach song about each of the five characters in turn – ‘All Men Choose the Path They Walk’.

Sergeant Rutledge (US 1960)

The ‘noble’ Sergeant Rutledge, seen from a low angle (Screengrab from dvd.beaver.com)

Given that John Ford was the most lauded director of the studio era with four Academy Awards and one of the most critically appraised filmmakers during the development of contemporary film studies in the 1960s and 1970s, it’s perhaps surprising that some of his films have not been given more attention. Ford was prolific and ‘independent’. There are a lot of films to choose from, so perhaps that’s the reason, but the more I think about it – and the more I enjoy watching Ford’s films on TV – the more I wonder about how his films have been studied. Sergeant Rutledge certainly deserves more attention.

This 1960 release is unusual in several ways but primarily because it puts Woody Strode as the Cavalry Sergeant of the title at the centre of the narrative. As one blogger has pointed out, it gives us an African-American character in a courtroom drama accused of the rape and murder of a young white woman a couple of years before the more celebrated To Kill a Mockingbird. For John Ford it marks something of a change in his representation of both African-American and Native American characters (though he seemed to slip back again in later films). The Apache in the film generally appear to be ‘authentic’, though the narrative does not give them speaking roles. But at least we are spared the conventional speeches in English. Overall, I don’t think Sergeant Rutledge is ‘coherent’ as it mixes genres and Fordian elements such as casting and acting styles in unusual ways, but this is possibly a good thing. It’s certainly worth investigating.

The film begins with the arrival of Lt. Cantrell (Jeffrey Hunter) and  the opening of a military trial in the 1880s when Arizona was still a ‘territory’. As the first witness Mary Beecher (Constance Towers) begins her testimony we flash back to her return from the East after many years away. She is heading for her father’s remote ranch and on the train she meets Lt. Cantrell who reluctantly drops her off at a lonely station. A band of Apache warriors have broken out of their ‘reservation’ and Mary is rescued from danger by Woody Strode’s Sergeant Rutledge, who appears from the darkness, wounded but still able to attack the two warriors who approach her. We realise that Rutledge was escaping a crime scene and now he has been brought back to the fort where Cantrell is representing him. The rest of the film narrative unfolds through flashbacks as each of the witnesses give statements. At first, we don’t know what Rutledge is supposed to have done and Ford uses the courtroom drama mixed with the suspense story. Gradually the story unfolds and we see that Rutledge is taken into custody but then, along with Mary Beecher, is taken on Cantrell’s mission to return the Apache to their reservation. This then introduces the third genre repertoire of the action stories of the ‘Indian Wars’.

Lt. Cantrell (Jeffrey Hunter) with Cpl Krump (Rafer Johnson?) (uncredited)

Woody Strode (1914-94) was a football player and imposing athlete (6’4″) who began to get bit parts in films and then later TV from the early 1940s onwards. By the 1950s he had regular screen work, but mainly in action adventure films, several set in Africa. In 1956 he played the King of Ethiopia in The Ten Commandments. Sergeant Rutledge was his first film for John Ford and one of his first leading roles. He would go on to appear in three more of Ford’s late films followed by other major Westerns (famously in the opening sequence of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)). It is significant that Ford had not used Strode before, especially as Strode had Native American as well as African-American ancestry. Because of his imposing physique, Woody Strode would struggle to escape the confines of stereotypical roles. He was both ‘imposing’ and also ‘noble’. It’s worth noting that the other significant Black role in the film, Sgt. Skidmore, is played by Juano Hernandez (1901-70) an actor from a Puerto Rican background who doesn’t have the same physical presence as Woody Strode, but whose credits suggest a more varied range of roles. His first role was in an Oscar Micheaux ‘race’ film (i.e. an all Black cast and intended for a Black audience) in 1932.

The release of Sergeant Rutledge came at a crucial time for the progress of the Civil Rights movement in the US and the possibilities for African-American actors. Major stars such as Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte were still mainly involved in social or crime dramas/melodramas/musicals at this point. It was still unusual to find African-American actors in Westerns. In one sense, Sergeant Rutledge was undoubtedly progressive in featuring a ‘Negro troop’ in the 9th Cavalry based on the historical records of two such cavalry regiments (and four, later two, regiments of infantry) in the US Army after 1865. The troop presented a variety of ‘types’ and provided small roles for several uncredited Black actors. This didn’t go far enough for cultural activists but it was a start. Tag Gallagher in John Ford: The Man and His Films (1986) is one of several scholars who repeat the words of Woody Strode quoted in Joseph McBride and Michael Wilmington’s John Ford (1975) in which the actor says he will never forget Sergeant Rutledge and how Ford “put classic words in my mouth . . . You never seen a Negro come off a mountain like John Wayne before . . . I carried the whole black race across the river”. Strode is referring to the long sequence in which the Sergeant first escapes and then returns to help the troop under attack.

Sergeant Rutledge was not a commercial success in North America. I’m not sure how the film played in Europe but as with The Searchers (1956), the European film posters shown below are interesting. The French title of The Searchers translated as ‘Prisoner of the Desert’ which always struck me as more acute than the US version. Sergeant Rutledge appeared in two guises, both of which highlighted the Black soldier. One uses the title Le Sergent noir and the other Capitaine Buffalo (this is the Belgian poster with the Flemish title listed as well).

Captain Buffalo was in fact the working title of the film in Hollywood and the film opens with the Captain Buffalo song. The reference here is to ‘Negro soldiers’ who were known as ‘Buffalo soldiers’. The name is said to have come from the Native Americans who fought Black soldiers in the Indian Wars after 1866. Although the name was commonly used in the US Army, it didn’t circulate quite so widely in the mythology of the Hollywood Western. Although I have been reading and watching Westerns on TV and at the cinema since the 1950s, I don’t think I heard the term until the 1970s and it was really Bob Marley’s song, released in 1983, which popularised the history outside the US. ‘Captain Buffalo’ is an ironic title, referring to Rutledge’s leadership qualities in a troop which was ‘all Negro’ but with a white officer. The French poster is more explicit in its reference to the ‘Black Sergeant’ and both posters announce the controversial elements for a film from 1960 – the Black fist in handcuffs and the frightened white woman seemingly running from the sergeant – depicted in ‘noirish’ lighting. Compare this explicit representation with the UK ‘quad’ poster, which I believe was based on the US poster (UK posters have generally been ‘landscape’ rather than ‘portrait’ shaped).

UK poster

This poster tells us nothing about the story as such. Rutledge is simply ‘a MAN’ and Woody Strode is listed as a secondary star to Billie Burke (who has a minor role as the judge’s wife). The sergeant in the poster has a skin tone very similar to Hunter’s Lt. Cantrell – you have to look closely for signs of ‘blackness’. Why is he shown with unfastened handcuffs? The contrast to the French poster is remarkable. Sergeant Rutledge was a commercial flop despite its similarity to The Searchers in terms of setting. It was based on a novel by James Warner Bellah whose short stories had formed the basis for Ford’s earlier ‘Cavalry trilogy’ of the late 1940s – She Wore A Yellow Ribbon, Fort Apache and Rio Grande. He would also write the screenplay for The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), the best reviewed of Ford’s later works. Why did Sergeant Rutledge flop? I can’t help feeling that besides the lack of confidence shown by Warner Bros. in their promotional material, the film’s uneasy mixture of drama, suspense and comedy might have created poor ‘word of mouth’. Comedy is nearly always present in Ford’s films but it is usually better integrated in relation to the drama. I wonder too if the film suffers from the lack of a strong central performance from John Wayne or one of Ford’s other familiar leading men. Willis Bouchey as the Colonel and courtroom judge is a good character actor, but doesn’t dominate the group of officers who run the trial. It’s no surprise that the action sequences with Jeffery Hunter and Woody Strode holding the action together work more successfully. It wasn’t until after the screening that I realised that Constance Towers had been in Ford’s previous film The Horse Soldiers, the 1959 cavalry picture set during the Civil War and not written by Bellah. In Sergeant Rutledge she seems to be older (or perhaps more mature) than the young women linked to the young officers in the earlier cavalry films, but on reflection she seems well cast. Later she would appear as the lead in two strong Sam Fuller films, Shock Corridor (1963) and The Naked Kiss (1964).

As well as a film of its time, indeed of its ‘moment’, Sergeant Rutledge has to be read as a film in the final third of John Ford’s long career. One aspect of this is its role in confirming Ford’s long attachment to the ideals of the American military. It is important that the Rutledge character is finally exonerated by the Army and through the Army’s procedures. It may be the last such film in Ford’s list. The last few films seem to offer evidence of a director either being deliberately playful with some of those traditions among groups of men. The second aspect of Sergeant Rutledge is more problematic in representing Ford’s ideas about race and identity. I think the film stands up alongside The Searchers as an attempt to question the attitudes in most Westerns of the 1950s, but I don’t think it’s possible to make any judgements without referring back to Ford’s earlier films about Judge Priest, and especially The Sun Shines Bright (1953) which needs to be my next task. It also requires a return to Two Rode Together (1961) and Cheyenne Autumn (1964), two films which revert to the practice of casting Europeans as Native Americans, while still questioning representations.