Fort Apache seems like a good start for thinking about John Ford’s films in the current context. It comes at a precise moment in Ford’s output and is possibly one of his most misunderstood films. Tag Gallagher in his magisterial book on Ford (University of California Press 1986), posits a ‘periodisation’ of Ford’s long career. He suggests five periods, taking the first as an ‘apprenticeship’ between 1917 and 1926. Period 1: 1927-35 is ‘Introspection’ and Period 2: 1936-47 is ‘Idealism’. Fort Apache is then the first film of the Third Period (1948-61), ‘Myth’. (The ‘Final Period’, 1962-65, is the ‘Age of Mortality’.) In the ‘Idealism’ period Ford had directed big ‘prestige’ pictures, including his two ‘straight’ literary adaptations How Green Was My Valley and The Grapes of Wrath and his study of Young Lincoln. He’d made two ‘art films’ in The Long Voyage Home and The Fugitive. He’d also been to war and served his country well. He was a popular and ‘serious’ filmmaker producing films respected by his industry peers. Then, just as European producers and aspects of Hollywood production were turning towards forms of realism and stories about social issues, Ford seemed to turn in on himself and make highly personal films, which were often couched in popular genre terms. One very pragmatic basis for Ford’s decision was to make money for his company Argosy Pictures. Like Alfred Hitchcock, Ford tended to work ‘with’ major studios through his own company (which he started with Merian C. Cooper). He had lost money on The Fugitive after taking only minimum payment for his wartime work.
Fort Apache is the first film in Ford’s unofficial ‘7th cavalry trilogy’. All three films were adapted from short stories by James Warner Bellah that appeared in The Saturday Evening Post in 1947. The story ‘Massacre’ became Fort Apache and, as adapted by Ford’s new scriptwriter Frank Nugent, it fictionalised aspects of General Custer’s actions in 1876, changing the Native American warriors to Apache rather than Plains warriors from further North. Ford’s Custer-like character is a West Point officer with no knowledge of ‘Indian Affairs’ who refuses to listen to his officers with real experience – but it’s also much more than that.
The opening to the film is quite brilliant at introducing the narrative and all the layers of meaning. The credit sequence offers a montage of shots from scenes across the whole narrative and the narrative proper begins in Monument Valley, which during this period becomes a kind of ‘Fordlandia’ seemingly extending across Arizona and Texas (it is actually between Utah, where Ford also shot on location, and Arizona). A stagecoach is heading for a staging post and on board is a sarcastic, stiff-necked officer Lt. Colonel Thursday (Henry Fonda). With him is his lively daughter Philadelphia (Shirley Temple). Fonda had starred in four of the top Ford pictures between 1939 and 1946 and in The Fugitive. Temple was the star of Ford’s Wee Willie Winkie in 1937. At the post Philadelphia is delighted to find a bare-chested 2nd Lt. John O’Rourke (John Agar) who is waiting for transport to take him to Fort Apache, returning after his commission at West Point.
The Scottish inn keeper and the stagecoach driver and guard are all old friends and recognisable Fordian characters. To emphasise this it is Ford’s older brother Frank, playing the stagecoach guard, who hawks with astounding accuracy to make the spitoon several feet away dance a little jig. When the fort’s ‘ambulance’ arrives it’s manned by a quartet of sergeants led by another Ford regular Victor McLaglen as Sgt. Mulcahy, who will turn out to be O’Rourke’s godfather (McLaglen was the star of Ford’s first Oscar winner The Informer (1935) and he played alongside Shirley Temple in her Ford film in 1937. If we’ve noted the credits we can probably guess that Ward Bond will be the boy’s father and we know that Wayne is in the film and that he will be the opposite of Fonda as a presence. The crucial exchange in the staging post is the news that the telegraph wires are down – a potential sign of Apache action. With this information and the arrival of the three ‘outsiders’, Ford has effectively set up his narrative. We note that the Fonda character is a WASP Bostonian who gets O’Rourke’s name wrong twice and treats him curtly while Philadelphia is already smitten (Temple and Agar were married just before shooting started). At least Thursday buys a round of drinks.
This is quite a long film for a Western (128 minutes) and the first part is almost a ‘cavalry fort procedural’ with new recruits to be trained, dances to be organised and the daily life of the fort before the first evidence of Apache action is presented. Then the battle between Fonda’s West Point martinet and Wayne’s Captain Kirby York as the soldier with local knowledge will begin in earnest. But there are other layered narrative strands. Philadelphia and John will have a romance even if Colonel Thursday’s social class rigidity (and army tradition) outlaw it. The sergeants will fall from grace, led by Mulcahy and there is yet another ‘couple narrative’ with the outgoing captain Collingwood (another Ford actor, from the 1920s, George O’Brien) and his wife (Anna Lee, yet another Ford actor from How Green Was My Valley who would go on to other Ford roles later). If actors appeared for Ford and he liked them and what they did, they invariably appeared for him again. The one star name I haven’t mentioned so far is Pedro Armendáriz. He was one of the great Latin American actors of the period and had worked on Ford’s previous picture, The Fugitive (1947), made in Mexico. His role in Fort Apache as Sergeant Beaufort is as the interpreter who enables Thursday to speak to the Apache leader Cochise using Spanish (Cochise is played by the Mexican actor Miguel Inclán). But Armendáriz must have riled Ford on his next picture as one of the three leads in 3 Godfathers (1948), because he never appeared for Ford again (and Henry Fonda only appeared in two further films in which Ford directed alongside others). Ford had his ‘stock company’. He was hard but loyal towards his actors who accepted and embraced his methods or didn’t repeat the experience.There are several well-known Ford character players in the fort including Mae Marsh as one of the officers’ wives and Hank Worden as a raw recruit. Both would go on to play multiple roles for Ford.
Ford’s films of this period are ‘personal’, almost keeping narratives ‘within the family’. Part of this communal family ‘feel’ also comes through the use of music – for marches, for dances and as folk songs/romances. Music is a feature of all three cavalry pictures, reaching a peak in Rio Grande (1950) with the Sons of the Pioneers. In Fort Apache the NCO’s dance is a high point and for me the most important scene in the film. I don’t want to spoil anyone’s enjoyment, so let’s just say it is Ford at his finest in exploring protocol and comradeship and Western culture. When the dance ends with Capt. York’s return and Thursday’s decision to betray York, Ford makes a clear statement. Ford was working with RKO but he didn’t use any contracted studio creatives. The music was score scored by one of the many European émigrés in Hollywood, the Dutch composer Richard Hageman. He had worked with Ford on three previous films and would continue on the next three before his retirement in 1954.
As with the music, Ford had his own preferred cinematographers. Ford had poor eyesight and eventually wore a patch over one eye. Before that he wore dark glasses. However, he had a brilliant internal eye and knew exactly what he wanted and how to get it. As Gallagher points out, Ford worked with big names like Gregg Toland and Arthur Miller, with their own distinctive styles, yet their films with Ford always looked like ‘Fordian films’. Archie Stout had photographed many Westerns in the 1930s including some of John Wayne’s B Westerns. His son was part of Ford’s wartime Photography Unit. Ford trusted him and admired his black and white work. On his Monument Valley shoots Ford would often use infra-red stock to achieve high contrast. One of Harry Carey Jr.’s stories about Ford sees Ford quizzing him about compositions and telling him that “if you can work out why the horizon is near the bottom of the frame in some shots and near the top in others, then you might become a picturemaker”. We can be sure Archie Stout new precisely why and delivered some of Ford’s most distinctive shots just as his director required. Ford also had William Clothier on Second Unit and he would become cinematographer on later Ford films such as The Horse Soldiers (1959) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). Archie Stout is one of my heroes because he worked with Ida Lupino on three of her early features as director.
Fort Apache made the money that Ford had aimed for – though Red River with Wayne made more in the same year. But if it was popular with audiences, the critical reaction was mixed. In the UK, the short Monthly Film Bulletin review praised the look of the film and the spectacular action and picked out John Wayne’s performance but the anonymous reviewer thought there were two many shots of mesas and buttes and riders silhouetted against the sky. They also had no time for Shirley Temple and the narrative strand of the romance. This last criticism is echoed in some American reviews. On the plus side the influential New York Times reviewer Bosley Crowther praised Ford’s representation of the Apache as a breakthrough. It is the seeming contradiction inherent in the closing scenes of the film that has proved a stumbling block for many critics. Since the story is based on the historical events involving the death of George Armstrong Custer, I’m not spoiling the narrative by analysing the ending of Fort Apache.
Thursday not only ignores York’s advice but pushes aside his objections about breaking his word to Cochise. Thursday is depicted as a racist from the East, obsessed with his own honour and adherence to Army regulations. The reason he is so bad-tempered throughout is that he believes he has been doubly punished by an ungrateful US Army. His wartime promotion to General was downgraded after the war ended (this was standard practice, not a personal rebuke) and he was sent to the “God-forsaken outpost” of Fort Apache. By contrast, Kirby York accepted his posting after similar success in the Civil War and has found a way to negotiate with the Apache and also to be at ease with the community of the fort. Why then does York at the end of the film praise Thursday’s bravery and attachment to discipline when asked a question by a journalist visiting the fort? The answer, I think, is embodied in the way in which York praises the whole cavalry regiment and maintains that those lost in Thursday’s fatal charge are not gone but ride on with the everyday soldiers who now defend the frontier.
When York, now Colonel, rides off to finish the picture he is wearing Thursday’s kepi and neck cloth. We are here in the territory of ‘fact’ and ‘legend’ in Ford, presented more directly in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Gallagher argues that in most of the films of this ‘Myth’ period, Ford’s focus is on community and often the military community. In his historical films he explores how these communities survived and grew. It is clear that Thursday is a threat to the community, but that to denigrate his memory would hurt the community by undermining the image of the military. But that’s a relatively clear explanation. Ford does more because he shows the ways in which all the members of the community contribute to upholding the social codes of Army life, even if it means they will be individually hurt, so in a crucial scene, Emily Collingwood does not attempt to stop her husband, whose recall to Washington has just come through, from riding out with Thursday. To do so would be to cast him as running from danger. A review of the film by Dennis Schwartz includes comments on Ford’s Irish characters and this:
. . . while the women on the outpost are made into saints. Emily Collingwood (Anna Lee), the wife of Captain Collingwood, is a picture of an ideal wife, who makes Philadelphia feel at home, while the sergeant major’s wife, Mary O’Rourke (Irene Rich), is the perfect Army wife and whatever she does is seen as noble.
The danger is in trying to see Ford’s depictions of the historical American West as ‘realist’ – though they are imbued with carefully researched accurate details. I think all the women in Fort Apache have important roles in the narrative and in this case they operate partly within the mythic narrative of army life and partly within the family melodrama which exists within the fort and which is in turn mixed up with the formal codes of social interaction. Thursday treats the O’Rourke family with disdain, safe in the knowledge that as 2nd Lt. O’Rourke is the son of an enlisted man and therefore not a ‘gentleman’ he cannot court Philadelphia. Sgt. Major O’Rourke was highly honoured during the Civil War and this enabled his son to enter West Point. Mrs O’Rourke understands these social codes. Note in detail how Ford directs the Grand March and the dance that follows during the NCO’s ball when Mrs O’Rourke must dance with Owen Thursday and her husband with Philadelphia as the ‘Colonel’s Lady’. Irene Rich does so much here with a few glances (She first worked with Ford in 1921 as a leading lady and then often with Harry Carey Sr. and Will Rogers, two major Ford collaborators.)
Several aspects of Fort Apache, including the representation of the Apache warriors (who apart from Cochise, never speak) will have to wait for commentaries on the rest of the cavalry trilogy, but I don’t want to leave the film without mentioning Richard Dyer’s analysis of Fonda and Wayne together in Stars (1979, 165-168). Dyer offers an early analysis of how Wayne has developed his performance skills in terms of his body movements and gestures in Fort Apache (see the still at the head of this post). I was impressed by this and it prompted my first attempts to work on the film in the 1980s. Since then I’ve read more about how Wayne learned about performance from both John Ford and Harry Carey Sr. and the big group of cowboy performers from early Hollywood. Quite why Fonda was replaced by Wayne in Ford’s casting at this point isn’t totally clear. Much of it was because of the change in the kinds of films Ford wanted to make, but I have seen some suggestions that Fonda himself changed around this time. Perhaps it was something to do with politics? Again, we’ll have to return to this later. The late 1940s became a fraught period when Wayne and Bond became leading ‘hawks’ and anti-communists during the HUAC and McCarthy periods. Ford’s politics were complex and he routinely mixed actors he knew were strongly opposed to each others views – as we will see in later posts.
There are two reasons why this film interests me, or rather two names – Sam Peckinpah and James Wong Howe. This was a film Peckinpah might have hoped to direct. He’d written an adaptation of the novel by Hoffman Birney, The Dice of God, in 1956 when he started working for the production company founded by Arnold Laven, Arthur Gardner and Jules V. Levy which owned the rights to Birney’s story. Laven and Peckinpah worked together on the successful Western TV series The Rifleman before Peckinpah got the chance to direct his first two film Westerns, The Deadly Companions (1961) and Ride the High Country (1962). In 1963 Peckinpah directed Major Dundee which would turn out to be his first truly disastrous confrontation with a studio after completing a film that ran significantly over budget and was far too long for a standard release. Columbia butchered the film which was eventually released in 1965. In the meantime he was fired from his fourth picture as director, The Cincinatti Kid which was taken over by Norman Jewison. Arnold Laven had decided to direct The Glory Guys himself and the film was released in July 1965 with Peckinpah still credited with the script. The next couple of years were arguably the lowest in Peckinpah’s career with his previously high reputation as the innovator on TV Westerns now trashed by producers associated with Columbia and MGM. In the latter case he also suffered from a fabricated scandal about the shooting of a nude scene.
The Glory Guys is a mainstream cavalry Western. Laven was mainly known as a producer and a prolific director of TV drama. He made only a handful of cinema features mostly for the Laven-Gardner-Levy company. One of Laven’s strategies in the 1950s was to register a title with the Writers’ Guild and then look for a property that might produce a script for the title. The Dice of God was intended to become a film titled ‘Custer’s Last Stand’, but a film with a similar title was underway at around the same time and thus the title change. How much of Peckinpah’s vision remains in the script used for The Glory Guys? There are certainly some familiar elements that turned up in Major Dundee, released earlier but written later. Peckinpah ‘contributed’ to the script for Dundee, seemingly unhappy with the work of Harry Julian Fink. How much he might have changed it is open to question, but Amos Dundee feels very much like a Peckinpah character. When he first tackled The Dice of God, Peckinpah arguably saw himself updating the familiar John Ford cavalry picture and there are recognisable elements in The Glory Guys. But the crucial device is to offer double male leads who might be in conflict because of different beliefs or histories, even if they have other things in common. (This is the basis for Ford’s Fort Apache (1948) with John Wayne and Henry Fonda as the mismatched pair.) In a Peckinpah film the two might have different views about the future of ‘the West’ and its codes of honour being replaced by capitalist exploitation. This was evident in Ride the High Country and would be repeated in many later Peckinpah films. In The Glory Guys, Tom Tryon plays Captain Demas Harrod, an officer with a past who is paired again with General McCabe (Andrew Duggan), a commanding officer he distrusts. At one point I thought McCabe could be the second leading male, but the second lead turns out to be the General’s scout Sol Rogers (Harve Presnell) and the ‘conflict’ is over a woman played by Senta Berger who has inherited the gunsmith’s business in Moose City close to the cavalry fort. General McCabe is the Custer figure who will disobey orders and send men to their deaths in an heroic but senseless attack on a larger force of ‘Plains Indians’ (who are never individualised in the film). As well as these four characters, only three others emerge in any detail from the large cast of smaller parts.
Slim Pickens plays the recruiting sergeant who first gathers the raw recruits at a railhead and his charges include Michael Anderson Jr. as a young man who has enlisted to escape his overbearing family and James Caan as a wise-cracking young Irishman seemingly always in trouble and up for a fight. Pickens was already a bona fide ‘character star’ of Westerns and Anderson was a young Englishman making his mark in three major Westerns in 1965. One of those three was Major Dundee in which he was again joined by Senta Berger and Slim Pickens. James Caan plays ‘large’ in only his second appearance in films after a successful stint in TV. He is entertaining but sometimes appears to be in another film altogether. However, if we play the game of mapping characters against those found in Ford’s Westerns and especially his cavalry pictures, these three all correspond – the regular Sergeant and the young naive trooper/young officer and Caan combining the Victor McLaglen fighting Irishman and any number of young bucks such as the Jeff Chandler or Ken Curtis characters in The Searchers. Peckinpah clearly didn’t buy the Caan combination but he did take Berger. He is reported to have said that he wouldn’t have cast Tryon or Presnell – and whatever their merits they don’t seem like Peckinpah players.
The structure of The Glory Guys fits the typical three-act sequence. The first act culminates in the recruits arriving at the fort and their reception and settling in while Captain Harrod re-acquaints himself with the other officers. Act two focuses on the preparations for the campaign and develops the Harrod-Rogers feud over Lou Woddard (Senta Berger). Act three comprises the action against the enemy. I think the general consensus is that acts one and two are a little ‘ho-hum’ but that act three is in many ways magnificent. The first two acts are notable for a cavalry dance referencing John Ford and a rolling saloon fist fight led by the James Caan character. Both of these feel like Peckinpah has written in some Fordian tropes. Alongside Caan, Michael Anderson Jr features in a sub-plot about him not being cut out for army life and possibly being ‘bought out’ by his father (and therefore missing out on his first romance). This too has its Fordian reference and indeed, because Ford made so many Westerns, much of the rest of the ‘action’ could be similarly seen as ‘referencing’. The real problem for me is Harve Presnell who just doesn’t belong in the film (he came out of musicals and was an accomplished singer but perhaps the most unlikely ‘Westerner’ ever to appear as a character in a Peckinpah script). But if I imagine James Coburn (who plays the scout in Major Dundee), everything might look different. Arthur Laven was an efficient director and on this film had a reasonable budget (including time spent in Durango) and a great cinematographer. I’m not criticising his direction apart from suggesting that it needed different leading personnel and a bit more ‘umph’ (partly to balance out the James Caan character’s antics).
James Wong Howe (1899-1976) was one of the most important cinematographers in ‘studio Hollywood’, shooting pictures from the late ‘teens to the mid 70s, just before he died. Wong Howe was already well-established before the studio era and soon found himself on major pictures in the 1930s. He filmed virtually every kind of feature, including Westerns. Previous to this film he’d worked on Hud (1963) and Outrage (1964), the first a ‘contemporary Western’ and the second a version of Kurosawa’s Rashomon. Both films starred Paul Newman. Wong Howe was known for his innovative lighting tricks and his attempts to always create lighting that had a logical source in the scene. As far as this film is concerned he mentioned some of the careful lighting of indoor/studio scenes. But I think he comes into his own for the action scenes. There are some beautiful sequences of men on horseback in different forms of natural light against the landscape. Laven also choreographs the action well. I should add that several Western fansites that I’ve checked out also praise the production design of the fort (see above) as close to the real forts used in the ‘Indian Wars’. I couldn’t find any good quality images to illustrate the comments about the troop movements (which might be directly compared to Ford’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, 1949). The Japanese poster below does make a stab at creating a collage of scenes. Westerns like this had a world market, but it’s interesting that Senta Berger doesn’t appear on the poster.
I’m glad that, as a Peckinpah completist, I was able to see this and it adds to my sense of a ‘Peckinpah film’. This film is out of date now, but the title is nicely ironic. There was little ‘glory’ in the Indian Wars but at least this time the Native Americans won – even if it was because of an American General’s vanity.
Bacurau is released in the UK on Friday and is likely to make quite a splash. It’s a long film (130 mins) and has an 18 Certificate in the UK. This is primarily for the spectacularly violent killings. It’s a difficult film to classify but a film that seems remarkable timely, especially in the context of Brazilian politics. The film’s opening suggests that the narrative is set ‘a few years in the future’ but the only obvious reference to this is the decision to present a contemporary piece of technology modelled as something that might have appeared in a 1950s science fiction movie. Everything else could be happening now – and some of it probably is.
Teresa (Bárbara Colen) is heading back to her village in the sertão (the Brazilian ‘bush’ or ‘outback’) in the North East of the country, hitching a ride on a water wagon. The area’s water supply has been cut off. Teresa is returning for the funeral and wake of Carmelita, her grandmother who has died at 94 as the matriarch of the (fictional) village of Bacurau. When she arrives she pops a pill, a traditional psychotropic drug taken in the village on specific occasions. The proceedings of the wake are interrupted by a drunken Domingas (played by the veteran Brazilian star Sonia Braga), the local doctor and presumably a rival for Teresa’s grandmother. Perhaps more significantly, a visit by the local politician ‘Tony Jr.’ is met with derision. The village leaders do however take his ‘bribes’ of out of date food and distribute them. This feels like a village which is isolated and possibly under siege. It suddenly ‘disappears’ off Google Earth and then the first killings of local farmers are discovered.
Bacurau won the Jury Prize at Cannes in 2019 and its writing and directing duo, Juliano Dornelles and Kleber Mendonça Filho, have themselves hinted at their main genre inspiration, the Western. They have fashioned a film which presents a region of Brazil in new ways and makes reference to Brazilian history and culture and to periods of American domination of Latin America. It also reminds us of the films of Glauber Rocha such as Black God, White Devil (1964) and Antonio das Mortes (1969), both Cinema Novo Westerns set in the sertão. Many of the references will only be accessible to some Brazilian audiences. The film’s title, the name of the village, for instance is the name of
a nocturnal bird with excellent camouflage when it’s on a branch . . . it evokes the mystery of something that is there, in the darkness, alive but unseen, and that will only be noticed if it wants to be. The same is true of Bacurau the town: it is familiar with darkness; it knows how to lay low; in fact it prefers not to be noticed. (The directors quoted in the Press Notes).
But for some reason this multiracial village, with a collectivist attitude towards helping each other, is now under threat. Where does the threat come from? Who is behind the killings? Is it Tony Jr.? Who is the English-speaking German (Udo Kier) who seems to be the ‘contract killer’ leading the attacks? My viewing companions both agreed that the battle that takes up the second half of the film is reminiscent of ‘spaghetti westerns’. It seemed to me that some scenes were modelled on Seven Samurai or it’s Hollywood remake, The Magnificent Seven – except that the numbers are reversed, so a small group of heavily armed foreigners takes on a larger group of villagers. The directors also show their hand with the choice of music score which includes the memorable music devised by John Carpenter for his early breakthrough, Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), another famous siege movie. It’s difficult to analyse other aspects of the production when the action is so tense but my impression was of long takes and long shots. The directors speak of miles of tracks laid down to enable a mobile camera. One thing I did notice which refers back to Seven Samurai was the use of Kurosawa style wipes, used here with the CinemaScope framing more associated with Leone. (Well done Simran Hans in the Observer for reminding me.)
It’s not difficult to link the film’s main ideas to contemporary politics with Jair Bolsonaro, the right-wing President who came to power on 1st January 2019 (when shooting would have been completed) and who represents the opposite of everything that the villagers celebrate. The power of the film is to oppose the threats of politicians like Bolsonaro by reference to traditional modes of resistance. The Press Notes refer to two traditions in Brazilian culture. One is the cangaço genre which featured a form of ‘social banditry’ and was popular in 1950s and 1960s Brazilian cinema. The character of Lunga, a young man who has made his base in the disused dam embodies this kind of social bandit. The film also reflects various political divides in Brazil, including the American incursions and within Brazil the North v. South. A specific concept related to this Coronelism:
Coronelism was the political machine that dominated Brazil during the Old Republic (1889-1930), when local power was in the hands of powerful landowners, coronels, who controlled a particular area and its population’s vote. More broadly, the term applies to this model’s enduring influence in the life of the country. (from the Press Notes Interview by Tatiana Monassa)
I hope that Bacurau finds the large audience it deserves in the UK. It could be a worthy successor to Parasite in attracting audiences to films with subtitles and which explore the basic inequalities of contemporary life. And, unlike Les misérables, it has several important roles for women.
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.