Category: the Western

Slow West (UK-New Zealand 2014)

A great composition and seemingly generic. But not quite the Rockies?

A great composition and seemingly generic. But not quite the Rockies?

Slow West is beautiful to look at. It includes several stunning set pieces and it is well-researched and carefully prepared – but I couldn’t help feeling that it didn’t quite produce the coherent narrative I was hoping for. Perhaps the main issue is whether or not this is ‘a Western’? There has been plenty of critical weight behind Slow West including a piece on the ’10 Great Modern Westerns’ by the BFI and the implication that Slow West belongs in such company.

John Maclean was previously a musician in The Beta Band and he directed the band’s videos. One of these was seen by Michael Fassbender and eventually Fassbender appeared in two short films which both won prizes for Maclean. Slow West, written and directed by Maclean is his first feature. Maclean’s parents are both well-known visual artists and he studied painting at Edinburgh College of Art. It’s not surprising then that there are some wonderful compositions in Slow West. With the highly talented Robbie Ryan as cinematographer, Maclean is also served by a marvellous use of natural light. There are several scenes in the film I would like study in detail once it is available on DVD.

The film’s story involves a quest by a teenage Scots boy Jay (played by the gangling Australian actor Kodi Smit-McPhee) searching for the girl he loves whose family has been ‘cleared’ from the Highlands. He believes she now lives in Colorado with her father. (Jay claims to be the son of ‘Lady Cavendish’.) At the start of the film’s narrative we meet Jay in a forest clearing in the first of many dangerous encounters. He’s rescued by Silas (Michael Fassbender), an experienced but clearly suspect ‘drifter’ (the character repeatedly refers to ‘drifting’ and Eastwood’s High Plains Drifter may be a reference). The rest of the narrative takes the pair through a series of other similar encounters until it reaches the inevitable climax. Maclean also uses flashbacks and dreams experienced by Jay and voiceovers offering forms of narration by Silas. Maclean’s musical background means that there is an appropriate score composed by Jed Kurzel, the Australian musician who also scored The Babadook, plus a campfire song written by Maclean himself.

Apart from a few scenes in Scotland, most of the film was shot in New Zealand. Many critics have suggested that the setting could easily be the Rockies and that audiences won’t notice. I’m not sure about this. It seems to me that the story could have taken place in New Zealand anyway and still allowed Maclean to make all of the points he wants to make (i.e. about racism, colonialism, violence etc.) – ‘Westerns’ have often been set outside North America. It’s certainly the case that everything in the film could be an element in the repertoire of the Western. Maclean has done his research and he is aware that until recently Westerns were more mythological than realist. He wants to emphasise the various European migrant groups in the American West in the late 19th century, the ‘real’ Native Americans etc. – though I’m not sure about the three musicians from Francophone Africa (French imperialism in Central and West Africa was mostly later than 1870). According to this Guardian online piece by Rowan Righelato, Maclean himself has described his film as “an existential European road movie”. That seems a pretty good description for the overall ‘form’ of the film. It seems to me that although all the Western elements are ‘authentic’ they don’t all fit together either as a realist historical drama or as a traditional Western genre film. I’d be interested to see what academic scholars of the American West make of the film. Reviewers seem to refer to the setting as ‘1870’ but if this information was conveyed in the film (perhaps a date in a newspaper?) I missed it. It is clearly ‘post’ Civil War but some of the incidents suggest earlier or later periods – and different locations.

A father-son relationship?

A father-son relationship?

Does all of this matter? Probably not or probably only if, like me, you are expecting a Western. The Western was once the American genre par excellence and whatever the ostensible narrative intentions, Westerns always conveyed something about American myths and changing ideologies as well as broad statements about the history of the frontier. Even the revisionist Westerns of the late 1960s and 1970s conveyed something, perhaps more than before, in their discourses about the end of the West and the corporatisation of Western activities. I’m not sure that Slow West tells us anything apart from its fairly universal story about a young man’s dream and an older man’s survival instinct. That’s not necessarily a bad thing and in this case Maclean’s film is entertaining and its relatively brief running time (84 minutes) is packed with sounds and images to stimulate. Nick, my viewing companion did also question whether the script did enough to establish the relationship between the two central characters, citing the shaving scene. Are we meant to think of a surrogate father/son relationship? Michael Fassbender will attract many audiences to the film and he gives a strong performance, but I wonder if in this case his star persona is too powerful for the overall balance of the film, especially with his cigar-chomping flashing smile?

Reading through the reviews and audience comments I think that Slow West is being enjoyed in much the same way as the Coen Bros. films – and enjoyed in terms of its dark humour and intelligence.

On a technical note, Robbie Ryan’s images are presented in the old European ‘widescreen’ ratio of 1.66:1. I’m not sure why and because I saw the film in a real cinema with proper tabs and masking I didn’t really notice. But it looks great.

A short clip from the opening sequence in the film:

The Missouri Breaks (US 1976)

Kathleen Lloyd and Jack Nicholson in THE MISSOURI BREAKS

Kathleen Lloyd and Jack Nicholson in THE MISSOURI BREAKS

The latest ‘Matinee Classic’ at HOME in Manchester is the 1976 Western The Missouri Breaks. It has been programmed as part of a mini-season of offbeat Westerns to accompany the release of Slow West, the new film by John Maclean shot in New Zealand and Scotland and starring Michael Fassbender.

The ‘Missouri Breaks’ are the clefts in the landscape gouged out by the Missouri river in Montana close to the Canadian border. In the late 1880s this is the setting for a ‘twilight Western’ featuring Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson and directed by Arthur Penn. The film was both a commercial and critical flop in 1976 – partly because of the hype which surrounded the casting of two of the period’s major stars, each of whom earned a hefty fee and a cut of the gross once box office passed $10 million. Researching it now I see that Western film scholars such as Ed Buscombe and Phil Hardy rated the film highly and watching it again, nearly 40 years after I first saw it, I can see why.

The Missouri Breaks is both a ‘twilight film’ because the 1970s was the last decade of regular Western production and because its setting is the in the twilight of the ‘real’ Western frontier. The films of this period are all revisionist of the early certainties of the genre – more realist, more violent, more reflexive, more questioning. In this particular case the narrative also veers towards comedy, while maintaining the violence and sense of loss for the passing of an era. The overall ‘feel’ of the film comes from the novelist Thomas McGuane who wrote three screenplays in the 1970s as well as adapting one of his own novels and directing it himself. McGuane grew up in Michigan but moved to Montana in 1968 and his three Western screenplays all feature the same three characters locked in a deadly game – a rancher, a rustler and a detective or ‘regulator’. I loved Rancho Deluxe (1975) at the time with Jeff Bridges and Sam Waterston as the rustlers and Slim Pickens as the detective but was less taken by the biopic/drama Tom Horn (1981) with Steve McQueen as the regulator. The Missouri Breaks is arguably a more complex character study than either of those two films. Nicholson is the leader of a group of horse thieves and Brando (with a wandering accent) is Robert E. Lee Clayton, a notorious regulator brought in by rancher Braxton (John McLiam).

The film’s central theme is often seen in the twilight Western – the closing of the frontier and the pretensions of the cattle barons before Eastern capital comes in to take over. Montana was one of the last territories to be formally constituted as a state in 1889 when the ‘basic legal structure’ of the territory became more organised. Up until that point the newly powerful cattle barons like Braxton were able to dispense summary ‘justice’ (at least in the mythology of the Western). The Missouri Breaks thus begins with a hanging/lynching of a rustler carried out by Braxton’s men as a public event with picnicking women and children – some of them ‘sporting women’ according to the dialogue. Braxton justifies his action – an execution without trial – on the basis of the high percentage loss of cattle to rustling. He sits in his library surrounded by his works of ‘English literature’ like a country gentleman. Yet the northern trans-continental railway had already seen the final spike hammered in by President Grant in Montana in 1883. A train robbery features later in the film. The railway would both increase the efficiency of cattle transportation and bring in more aspects of East Coast culture. Braxton is already at the start of the film a ‘doomed man’ in terms of his business empire and his de facto judicial authority. This is the theme that is expanded in Heaven’s Gate (1980) perhaps the film that most clearly signalled the ‘end of the Western’ for Hollywood.

But The Missouri Breaks is arguably more interested in the personal stories of Braxton, his daughter, the horse thieves and the regulator. One of the elements in many twilight Westerns is the presence of two, usually male, characters who embody in some way the Western hero, the cowboy figure. It seems obvious to identify the film’s two stars as playing these characters from the twilight Western (though Harry Dean Stanton’s character is perhaps closer to the generic character). The point of these two characters is that they will have some kind of relationship and that through this they will define themselves in some way in relation to the ‘end of the West’. A classic example of this is in Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973) in which Garrett has accepted his fate and sided with the cattle interests whereas Billy feels that he has to remain an outlaw. In The Missouri Breaks, Brando’s character is so attached to his ‘job’ as a regulator that eventually he will pursue the rustlers even though Braxton attempts to end his contract. By contrast, Nicholson’s character, Tom Logan, shows every sign of adaptability in developing new relationships and new interests. The regulator will soon be replaced not just by local sheriffs and courts but also by private agencies like the Pinkertons (Logan warns that robbing trains will bring in the Pinkertons, employed by the railroad). Another clue to this historical change is the sequence in which the horse thieves cross the border into Canada – and are pursued by the North West Mounted Police, in some ways a more ‘modern’ law enforcement agency than what was in operation in Montana.

For me the most enjoyable part of the film involves the romance between Logan and the rancher’s daughter, Jane, played by Kathleen Lloyd (mysteriously this was her first and last major cinema appearance). I think she is very good here and she seems to be a modern woman in many ways – resisting her father, taking something of a lead in seducing Nicholson (in a couple of enjoyably complex sequences) and ending the narrative confident and assertive. She quotes Samuel Johnson and utters the immortal line for a twilight Western: “Let’s just talk about the Wild West and how to get the hell out of it”. Jane is a recognisable McGuane woman, a character handled with skill by Arthur Penn. For me this is a good match between script and direction. I’m also impressed by Michael Butler’s cinematography (who had begun his career with Don Siegel’s Charley Varrick in 1973 and who had also lensed McGuane’s own 92 in the Shade, 1975). John Williams turns in a score that also worked for me. In fact, all the production credits are top notch. This is a production well worth re-visiting.

The Homesman (France-US 2014)

Tommy Lee Jones and Hilary Swank on the trail (the three women are sleeping under the blankets).

Tommy Lee Jones and Hilary Swank on the trail (the three women are sleeping under the blankets).

I missed this on release so I was pleased to catch a showing by my local film club in Keighley’s Picture House. I love Westerns and this is a good one. It is another of the current crop of ‘international’ productions and it did seem odd to see ‘Luc Besson’ in the credits as producer for his Europa company. The French connection helped the film to get a place in the Cannes Palme d’Or line-up in 2014 but it doesn’t seem to have gone down too well in the US. This is a surprise since Tommy Lee Jones is a major figure in American cinema and his previous (modern) Western directorial credit for The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005) was very well received.

The Homesman has a good pedigree, being an adaptation of a novel by Glendon Swarthout whose other great Western novel was adapted as The Shootist (1976) with Don Siegel directing John Wayne for his last film. This new film is an ‘early Western’ – set in the 1850s before the Civil War and involves a perilous journey through the Nebraska ‘territory’ and across the Missouri River into the state of Iowa. It falls to a ‘spinster farmer’ (she’s all of 31!) to transport three women who have become mentally ill (because of the deprivations of the settler’s life) to possible recovery in the East. It is a daunting prospect so Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) hires (‘dragoons’?) a drifter played by Tommy Lee Jones to help her. In a way this is a miniature Wagon Master (US 1950) in reverse and because of its female leadership it’s also connected to Meek’s Cutoff (US 2010).

Jones certainly took a lot on to make the film, co-writing the script, directing and co-starring. He comes out of the production very well. The relative failure of the film with audiences seems to hinge specifically on a shocking turn/twist in the narrative about two-thirds through. I too found this shocking but I think there were enough narrative cues – revealed story data if you like – to make this event credible. Apart from this the narrative up to this point was harrowing and perhaps too ‘real’ for mainstream audiences. The ending of the film is also not conventional and may fail to satisfy some audiences. Surprisingly there are some anachronisms in the production design and the script suggesting that Jones was more interested in the look of the film than historical accuracy, But then, when you have a cinematographer as gifted as Rodrigo Prieto (responsible for Brokeback Mountain‘s wonderful landscapes) it’s tempting to just let him rip. The film does indeed look very good and the whole cast is excellent. I must pick out Hilary Swank – she would have got my vote for an Oscar ahead of Julianne Moore – and in the supporting cast the Danish actress Sonja Richter produces the most dramatic representation of anguish in her portrayal of one of the three women.

Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) with her washboard – keeping up appearances on the plains.

Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) with her washboard – keeping up appearances on the plains.

This is a ‘revisionist Western’ (cf the recent ‘traditional’ Western, The Salvation). The revision here is concerned with the ‘myth’ of the West and modes of representation. Jones makes a number of aesthetic choices which on the one hand appear highly stylised and at one point almost surreal, but which at the same time refer to aspects of the ‘real’ West not explored in many Hollywood Westerns. So, for instance, the journey across Nebraska was actually shot  in North-East New Mexico on a plain that is in effect a continuation of similar landscapes over the border with Nebraska. But this real location is made mysterious in the snow and wind – when Mary Bee loses her way on horseback and appears to be circling the same spot. The terrain is so featureless that it becomes almost an abstract space and the experience of passing through it is dreamlike. Later on a solitary building appears on the plain, almost like an oasis. It is a kind of show house for speculators hoping to ‘open up’ and exploit the potential of the territory. During the final sequence the action switches across the river and there is a palpable sense of shock that a town could be so ‘civilised’ and behaviour so decorous. The Missouri River literally becomes the ‘frontier’ between the ‘garden civilisation of the East and the ‘desert’ of the West.

The film has only recently appeared on DVD in the UK and my advice is not to miss it. This is a serious and ‘grown-up’ Western – a new approach to a fine tradition. But it isn’t what was once called a “shoot-em-up”. Most of all it’s a Western in which women are not required to be only the schoolmarm or the bar girl. You’ll have to decide whether representing the strong character of the lone female farmer and the mental illness of farmers’ wives is progressive or not.

Buck and the Preacher (US 1972)

Sidney Poitier as a Western hero

Following the release of the Harry Belafonte ‘bio-documentary’ Sing Your Song in UK cinemas, I decided to look at some of the Belafonte movies available on DVD. In all the coverage of the new documentary relatively little has been said about Belafonte’s film work – which though not extensive was important in the development of African-American cinema, not least because the actor-singer produced his own films at a time when few African-Americans had any direct power in the industry. Belafonte’s second independent production company, Belafonte Enterprises, made the film in conjunction with Columbia. Belafonte took the second lead, but the star and director of the film was Sidney Poitier (who took over from the first director, Joseph Sargent). Ruby Dee, often paired with Poitier as an actor and with Belafonte as an activist, was billed third. The script was by the distinguished TV writer Ernest Kinoy who had written another Sidney Poitier script, Brother John, a year earlier and who would go on to contribute scripts to the TV serial Roots (1977) and its sequel in 1979. The music for the film was composed by Benny Carter, the great jazz band leader, and includes contributions from Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee.

Buck and the Preacher belongs to the cycle of ‘revisionist Westerns’ in the early 1970s when the counter culture and the anti-war movement in the US managed to find an outlet in the New Hollywood. This was the period of Soldier Blue (1970) and Ulzana’s Raid (1972), but the most popular Western of the 1970s was Mel Brooks’ comedy Blazing Saddles (1974). What links these three very different films is a debunking of the mythology of the West and a reappraisal of the representation of characters who would later be known as ‘African-Americans’ and ‘Native Americans’. This same period also saw the commercial success of a range of ‘Blaxploitation’ films, led by urban crime thrillers like Shaft (1971) and this development also included Blaxploitation Westerns, especially the cycle of films starring Fred Williamson – The Legend of Nigger Charley (1972), its sequel The Soul of Nigger Charley (1973) and Boss Nigger (Black Bounty Hunter, 1974). The creation of Black ‘super-heroes’ in different settings attracted audiences (partly because of the provocative titles which created controversy) but didn’t really engage with the Western myths or the conventions of the genre as such. In his magisterial BFI Companion to the Western (1971), editor Ed Buscombe argues that Buck and the Preacher did precisely that – and that makes it an important film both for African-American cinema and the Western.

Outline

The narrative focuses on an aspect of American history largely neglected by Hollywood – the attempt by freed slaves from the South, after the Civil War ended, to head West on wagon trains, seeking new lands. Poitier plays ‘Buck’, an ex Union Cavalry sergeant, who sets himself up as a wagonmaster who will pilot wagon trains through hostile territory. He makes a deal with the local Native American chief to allow the wagon trains an unhindered passage, but he also has to battle a band of ex-Confederate soldiers. These men have been hired by plantation-owners in the South to drive the freed slaves back into low-paid employment in the cottonfields and their tactics are vicious and uncompromising. Ruby Dee plays Buck’s wife and Belafonte plays a con-man preacher who clashes with Buck but eventually forms an uneasy alliance with him to fight the ex-Confederates.

Analysis

The history of African-American cinema is usually presented via three distinct phases in Hollywood and then a question mark about what is happening today. In the first phase early American cinema and Hollywood in the silent era drew upon a range of Black stereotypes that had been developed in the nineteenth century. Donald Bogle’s ‘Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films’ revised in 1992 has the main title of Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks. These five types defined the roles offered to Black actors in mainstream Hollywood (although initially, following the practices of minstrelsy, white actors ‘blacked up’ for some roles). In the 1930s Black entrepreneurs struggled to offer an alternative to this Hollywood condescension but they did manage to produce low-budget independent Black films exploring popular genres – including Black Westerns such as the ‘Western Musical’ Harlem on the Prairie (1937) and the much earlier The Bull-Dogger (1922).

Hollywood eventually reacted to the potential of the Black popular audience with the gradual development of mainstream films with Black themes – and predominantly Black casting – by the late 1940s and early 1950s when Poitier and Belafonte were young actors seeking work. This was the second phase of African-American cinema with films that were presented as ‘liberal’ dramas attempting to deal with some elements of social realism. However, the old stereotypes remained in place. Sidney Poitier was the 1950s ‘good Negro’, essentially a ‘Tom’ derived from the character in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Ruby Dee was the ‘good Negro wife’ and Harry Belafonte was seen as the ‘beautiful, sexy young man’ – the ‘Buck’ (which he resisted strongly and which no doubt was one of the reasons why he focused more on his musical career). The third phase was associated with the Blaxploitation cycle which critiqued the old stereotypes and the most immediate signal of change was evident in the casting of Poitier, quite literally, as ‘Buck’ with Ruby Dee still his wife, but now supporting him in actions which under the conventions of the Western represent resistance to the dominant ideology. Meanwhile, Belafonte is cast as the ‘Preacher’, a con-man role which featured in several of the earlier Black Westerns of the 1930s/40s.

Harry Belafonte as the long-haired ‘Preacher’

Buck and the Preacher is partly a comedy and that may be both why the film was a relative commercial success, but also why it hasn’t perhaps been given the status it deserves. As Ed Buscombe points out, the script is intelligent and knowing in its play with the conventions and the performances are very enjoyable. Poitier doesn’t just play the ‘Buck’, he overplays the role, sporting two mini-howitzers rather than conventional six-guns. There is an exhilaration in the way in which all three leads become ‘Western heroes’ and Bogle tells us that Black audiences cheered at the sight of the three heroes racing their horses across the screen pursued by a sheriff’s posse – I won’t spoil the narrative by revealing why they are on the run. The smiles are more wry in the key scene when Buck negotiates with the Native American chief who responds to the argument that Black and Red men have both suffered at the hands of the Whites by pointing out that Buck had served in the Union Army. This again feels like a commentary on Poitier’s previous roles in Hollywood – as well as, perhaps, a comment on the way in which Black soldiers had become a crucial element in the US Army in Vietnam.

I highly recommend the film as an enjoyable Western and a film that at least lifts a corner of the carpet under which the African-American experience of the ‘Old West’ has been carefully swept by Hollywood. You can download my notes on Harry Belafonte and Hollywood here: BelafonteNotes