The Leeds International Film Festival Catalogue has this film described as
“a tense, atmospheric Romanian western . . . “
I rather wondered about this but several friends recommended it. The film does bear comparison with quite a few westerns though it is set in the early C19th. It is set in Wallachia, which is close to Bucharest and includes rolling plains, but also woodlands, rivers and some hills.
Across this territory ride Costandin (Teodor Corban), a constable, and his son Ionita (Mihai Comanoiu). They are chasing a runaway gypsy Carfin (Toma Cuzin) on behalf of a local Boyar (noble and landowner). Carfin, like many of the servants in this time and area, is equivalent to a serf, at the mercy of the lord. In fact, as the plot progresses, it becomes clear that Carfin’s sins are greater (or lesser) than this.
The gypsies, as it still the case in parts of Europe, are on the end of racist exploitation and oppression. Costandin represents this hierarchical and privileged system. And his conduct is ensured by the system whereby he is paid by results rather than by wages. This is no independent police force, and a judicial system seems entirely absent. The power of the Boyar is apparent in the submissive response that Costandin receives on almost every occasion.
As Costandin and Ionita ride the father talks incessantly: much of the time imparting his experience to his son. Other character also talk volubly. They meet an Orthodox priest whose long rant exhibits prejudices about almost every conceivable class and ethnic group except the ones to which he belongs. Also along the way the pair meet an encampment of gypsies, poor rural peasants and craftsmen: and late in the film a fair where among the items for sale are adult and children sold as slaves.
The film offers a caustic portrait of this reactionary and oppressive society. But it does so with great skill both in the performances and in the production values. The film was shot in black and white anamorphic Eastman 35mm film stock. It has a tendency to site people in landscapes in long shot, visually pleasing and reminiscent of some classic westerns. It runs for 108 minutes and has English subtitles. However, it has also been copied onto a DCP (very likely only 2K) and I am sure that 35mm would have given greater definition, especially in the depth of field. It has an 18 certificate in the UK, due to very strong language, some violence but presumably also for a sequence where Costandin arranges part of Ionita’s education.
This Western, directed by Edward Dmytryk and adapted by Robert Alan Arthur from a novel by the Western writer Oakley Hall, had been rather forgotten but has now been restored by Twentieth Century Fox. It’s a familiar story set-up found in several 1950s and 1960s Westerns – an isolated town is terrorised by a local rancher and his group of cowboys/’gunslingers’. The Deputy Sheriff is rarely in a position to resist the mayhem and the nearest lawman with real power is 50 miles away. At the end of their tether, the leading figures of the town decide to pay a significant salary in order to attract a notorious ‘enforcer’ who arrives with a business partner, a saloon owner. Henry Fonda, playing against type (well before Once Upon a Time in the West) is the enforcer with the ‘gold-handled colts’ and the snappy suits and a grey-haired Anthony Quinn is the saloon owner (with a limp). Later on a third new arrival, who clearly has history with the other two, arrives on the stagecoach in the form of Dorothy Malone – and the film gets a lot more interesting.
I did feel that this was a fairly pedestrian Western in some ways, but the casting is interesting and the script and dialogue are intelligent. There is something different about the Fonda-Quinn-Malone triangle. Equally, the ranks of the cowboys include Richard Widmark in an interesting role that plays with his good/bad star persona. Here he switches sides in the confrontation and becomes almost saint-like. More surprising still is DeForrest Kelley, aka ‘Bones’ in Star Trek as the most interesting of the cowboys. I didn’t know about his long TV career and many film roles in Westerns.
The film is unsurprisingly in CinemaScope, which is fine, but I thought that the DeLuxe Color had a rather yellow palette. I’m not sure if this was intentional or whether it was not a priority in the restoration. Overall, I didn’t think Dmytryk made the most of the location of the story in Utah. The extreme long shot in the opening looked like a model until the tiny figures moved. But clearly the film is about the characters. It’s a narrative in which characters actually seem to change in order to deliver the conventional resolution and along the way there is a hint that Quinn’s devotion to Fonda’s cause might be be based on more than just old times’ sake. In his paper on ‘Social class and the Western as male melodrama’ in the Movie Book of the Western, David Lusted includes an analysis of Warlock. He places it as a ‘township Western’ and discusses it in terms of the split between romance and melodrama, bracketing it with similar films of the period which he describes as ” . . . clearly melodramas, disturbed and disturbing, at times hysterical in their character relations and fevered in their crises of male identity”.
Lusted identifies the ‘romance of the hero’ in the way that Widmark becomes decisive and eventually wins the day and the separate but related narrative in which Fonda makes a decision to finally reject his capitalist enterprise of ‘legalised crime’ (i.e. effectively extorting a high salary from the town via his gunfighting prowess) for the more acceptable bourgeois world embodied in a woman with capital in a mining operation. Quinn comes between these two and ignites the melodrama. Indeed Fonda’s ultimate response to Quinn’s action is almost operatic in its excess. I’m less convinced by Lusted’s class analysis, though I very much support his intent in trying to explore ways in which these 1950s Hollywood Westerns appealed to male British working-class audiences. Lusted sees both Fonda and Widmark as working-class characters (both are cowboys/gunfighters) who make attempts to operate as individuals in the new social structures offered by towns like Warlock. The image of Widmark above is misleading – he is in ‘Sunday best’ for a a meeting with Dorothy Malone – and most of the time he is in cowboy denim. My feeling is that David Lusted’s analysis fails to deal with the star personae of the leading players. Widmark is perhaps a little too old to be rebel cowboy who puts himself in danger (his younger brother in the film, who stays with the cowboys, is played by an actor 20 years younger). I know Fonda played the great working-class hero in The Grapes of Wrath (1940) but I can’t see the Fonda of 1959 as a working-class figure, or more pertinently, I can’t imagine him as having once been a working-class figure. This doesn’t mean I don’t value David Lusted’s analysis and his discussion of the ways in which interior and exterior locations are used for the ‘romance’ and melodrama scenes is very useful.
The main interest in the film is probably the homoerotic charge in the relationship between Quinn and Fonda and the balancing charge of revenge directed towards the pair by Dorothy Malone. This is a good 1950s Western and I love melodrama but I’m still glad that Peckinpah and Leone appeared in the early 1960s to shake up the Western genre.
On the audience angles of the film, I noted that although there were many grey heads at the Vue in Islington, there were a number of younger men and women – so perhaps the male melodrama will get some support in future.
Reference: Lusted, David (1996) ‘Social class and the Western as male melodrama’ in the Movie Book of the Western, eds Ian Cameron & Douglas Pye, London: Studio Vista
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.
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 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.