These notes were originally written for an Evening Class in 2006 devised around the then topical reactions to the success of Brokeback Mountain in UK cinemas. The course began with a screening of The Last Picture Show (1971). I’m particularly interested in the idea of the ‘Twilight Western’ so this blog has a tag that links to several posts on specific films.
History and myth
The Hollywood Western focuses primarily on the ‘opening up’ of the American frontier which followed the end of the Civil War in 1865. There were several different kinds of Western narratives, partly dictated by location and the various forms of economic endeavour. There are the ‘exploration’ tales of the wagon trains, the engagements with and exploitation of Native Americans (and the narrative of colonialist expansion), the ‘settlement’ of the plains and the high sierra, the ‘mountain’ Westerns with railroads across the Rockies and gold-mining, the cowboy/cattle driving tales and finally the closing of the frontier in the South and West. New Mexico and Arizona were the last territories to be made states of the Union in 1912.
The cattle business in Northern Texas as shown in Red River was eventually pushed West and in the 1880s the so-called Lincoln County War broke out in New Mexico territory between a group led by the cattle baron John Chisum and another group of local capitalists who controlled the trade in the territory. The fighting, which involved William Bonney (aka Billy the Kid) and Pat Garrett provided the basis for many ‘late Western’ stories.
The ‘West’ began to be captured in various media – in paintings, poetry and song, ‘dime novels’ and journalism, as well as circus entertainment – almost as it happened and the first ‘Westerns’ in the cinema appeared early in the 20th century. What was presented in these stories was not the ‘real, historical’ West, but a mythological West in which the ‘frontier spirit’ was to be celebrated:
. . . in spite of environment, and in spite of custom, each frontier did indeed furnish a new field of opportunity, a gate of escape from the bondage of the past; and freshness, and confidence, and the scorn of older society, impatience of its restraints and its ideas, and indifference to its lessons, have accompanied the frontier. (from Frederick Jackson Turner, The Frontier in American History, 1920 – first papers discussed 1893 and quoted by Calder (1974))
The early cinema Westerns, with notable exceptions, were relatively straightforward adventures and melodramas (which in the 1930s was a term for ‘action pictures’). The genre came of age in the late 1930s and 1940s, most notably via the work of John Ford and the creation of stars such as John Wayne, who appeared to embody the masculine values of independence of thought and surety of action. As early as the 1950s it is possible to see changes in the Western – not least because the genre became so familiar that it could be used to explore a wide range of contemporary concerns and still keep within the confines of the familiar.
The Twilight Western
The ‘modern’ or ‘contemporary Western’ is a film set ‘now’ in the those parts of America which were the locations for the historical and mythical ‘West’. It is also concerned with at least some aspects of ‘cowboy culture’. It’s hard to put a date on the first ‘contemporary Western’ but by the late 1940s Roy Rogers had become just about the most well known entertainer in America as a ‘singing cowboy’ in a host of B Westerns and his TV series (started 1951) was set in the contemporary West. Roy Rogers was the ultimate ‘good cowboy with the white hat’, but the contemporary Westerns in the cinema were different. They focused on the problems of the cowboy and Western culture as they became increasingly ‘out of touch’ with what was happening in urban America. This is well described in Ron Grundmann’s review of Brokeback Mountain:
Clearly in evidence is [Larry] McMurtry’s stature as the dean of twilight Westerns – a realist, demystifying subgenre that produced such classics as The Lusty Men (1952), The Misfits (1961) and Hud (1963) and depicts the West as an orphaned, beat down territory passed over by the great societies heralded by Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson.
McMurtry’s novels – most notably Horsemen Pass By (the basis for Hud), The Last Picture Show . . . , and Lonesome Dove (made into a popular TV miniseries in 1989) – have stamped their indelible mark on the twilight Western. The author understands how to expound the genre’s latent capitalist critique, which he unrelentingly harnesses also to Proulx’s story: the erotic rhythm of Ennis and Jack’s cowboy romance, we realise, echoes the kind of transience and mobility that lastingly constituted frontier life as the archetype of American social formations straight into industrial capitalism. Only that, once modernisation had steamrolled across many regions, this mobility designated little more than the meandering paths of the rural lower class’s disaffected wanderings; or else, it transmogrified into the nasty, dust-blown rinks of small time rodeo- traveling circuses of the West, a potter’s field of itinerant ex-cowboys. (Grundmann, 2006)
Hud (dir Martin Ritt, 1963)
‘Hud’ (Paul Newman), is the second son of ageing rancher (Melvin Douglas) somewhere in Texas. The two men live with Lorne, Hud’s nephew and a housekeeper (Patricia Neal). Hud is wild and wants to leave the ranch. He is constantly drinking, sleeping with married women in the local town and brawling. His behaviour disgusts his father and fascinates his nephew. Crisis comes when a foot and mouth outbreak hits the ranch.
Everybody talks about Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West as being a parable for the commercialisation and subsequent collapse of the West, but as amazing a piece of work as that movie is, I don’t think it cuts that deep; Hud, on the other hand, wrote the book on the subject – it understands generationalism, if you will: that torches are more often extinguished than passed. (Bill Chambers, filmfreakcentral.net/dvdreviews/longhotsummer.htm – this 2003 review is not currently available)
The reference above to Sergio Leone also points us to the change in traditional Westerns that took place in the 1960s. Increasingly, they began to focus on the ‘closing years’ of the 19th century or ‘the End of the West’. The themes of these films were the same as those of the ‘contemporary Western’ – the closing of the frontier, the ‘industrialisation’ and ‘urbanisation’ of the ‘open range’. They also focused on the imperialism/colonialism inherent in the subjugation of Native Americans (and provided metaphors for the American action in Vietnam after 1965). A further factor was the real ‘twilight’ in the careers of ageing Western stars such as John Wayne (e.g. The Shootist, 1976) and Randolph Scott (e.g. Ride the High Country, 1962).
Both the contemporary Western and the ‘End of the West’ traditional Western have been classified as ‘Twilight Westerns’ and perhaps the most well-known director associated with the sub-genre is Sam Peckinpah who produced at least four ‘End of the West’ films (Ride the High Country, The Wild Bunch (1969), The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970) and Pat Garrettt and Billy the Kid (1973)) and four films that are either firmly ‘twilight’ contemporary Westerns (Junior Bonner (1972)) or closely associated (The Getaway (1972), Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974) and Convoy (1978)).
Junior Bonner (Sam Peckinpah, 1972)
Steve McQueen is ‘Junior’ Bonner, an ‘over the hill’ rodeo cowboy who returns to his hometown of Prescott, Arizona. He discovers that his father is in hospital and that his brother, a realtor, has bulldozed his father’s home to clear land for a mobile home development. Junior has to face his own failure and listen to his father’s plans to emigrate to Australia and become a sheep farmer. All this takes place on Prescott’s ‘Frontier Day’ with a parade and rodeo.
Many of Peckinpah’s films (and many Twilight Westerns generally) feature two male characters, both ‘cowboys’. The ‘hero’ is typically the character who still holds to the cowboy culture – the code of honour. The other character bows to the oncoming surge of ‘modernity’ (usually reluctantly). Often there is the prospect of ‘escape’ over the border into Mexico where the code still operates, but this means a ‘betrayal’ of sorts. In some of these films there is a generational difference with the older character representing the past and the younger the future.
Ed Buscombe (2006) ‘Man to Man’, Sight & Sound, Jan
Jenni Calder (1974) There Must be a Lone Ranger: The Myth and Reality of the American Wild West, London: Hamish Hamilton
Roy Grundmann (2006) Review of Brokeback Mountain in Cineaste, Vol XXX1, No 2
Roy Stafford 18/5/06
Currently streaming on MUBI, Lonely Are the Brave is one of the Westerns I’ve always wanted to watch because of its reputation as a form of contemporary Western. I have also been intrigued by a short piece by Colin McArthur in the Media Education Journal No. 58 (Winter 2015/16), analysing the opening of the film in terms of mise en scène and the seemingly obvious use of binary oppositions to introduce its narrative. McArthur’s aim was to discuss issues related to the development of structuralist ideas in film studies in the early 1970s, but I’m not going to pursue that argument here. Instead I want to discuss the film in terms of various issues about genre in the 1960s and specifically the Western. Before I forget though, the opening titles tell us this is a ‘contemporary Western’, simply by the typography and graphic design.
Lonely Are the Brave is a ‘Twilight Western’ – a film which deals with the death of the culture and mythology associated with the Western ‘frontier’ in American history. Kirk Douglas plays Jack Burns, introduced to us as a cowboy resting on a hillside with his horse Whisky. He looks up and sees the vapour trails of military jets across the sky. This is one of the oppositions ‘over-emphasised’ in the opening scene. When he rises and re-mounts, Jack discovers a wire fence and beyond it the outskirts of a town in New Mexico. He cuts the wire and symbolically moves from the open range into the modern world. He’s come to find Paul (Michael Kane), a friend who shares his ideas about individual freedoms. But when he meets Paul’s wife Gerri (Gena Rowlands in an early film role after several years in TV) he discovers is serving time in gaol for helping Mexican migrants. Jack decides to pick several fights and land himself in the same gaol and break out with his friend. But here comes the important ‘Twilight’ convention. While Jack cannot settle down to conventional 1960s suburban life, his friend has a wife and child he wishes to return to and he refuses to leave his cell. Jack breaks out anyway and sets off South to the Mexican border, but with several police and military forces chasing him, the odds on his survival are long.
Kirk Douglas is as good as you expect him to be in a role for which he seems well suited. The film looks good in black and white 2.35:1 thanks to Philip Lathrop who came late to the full cinematographer role but who had worked on the TV series Rawhide in the late 1950s. Lathrop is able to represent the Sandia Mountains and other New Mexico locations as beautiful but dangerous open country where a resourceful man (and his horse) might be able to escape the law. The score is by Jerry Goldsmith, another TV Westerns series graduate. It is recognisably his work with a military march motif but it becomes a little overpowering for me when Jack and his horse Whisky are attempting to climb a mountain. The supporting cast includes Walter Matthau as the sheriff who must pursue Jack. Matthau was yet to make the move to lead roles but his later star persona is already in place here – the grouchy figure with a sardonic wit and a weary despair about the intelligence of his men. George Kennedy takes a familiar role as a heavy – in this case a violent police officer who takes pleasure in attacking Jack.
The script is by Dalton Trumbo, the best-known of the ‘Hollywood 10’ black-listed after the HUAC hearings. Trumbo was now able to take credit for his work, especially after the success of Spartacus in 1960 when support from Kirk Douglas was crucial. The director of Lonely Are the Brave was David Miller, an experienced studio director who would work again on Trumbo’s script Executive Action (1973) a thriller about the John F. Kennedy assassination, described on IMdB as ‘speculative agitprop’.
It’s not difficult to see what attracted Douglas and Trumbo to the story of Jack Burns which Douglas discovered in a novel by Edward Abbey, The Brave Cowboy (1956). Douglas bought the rights and produced the film himself. He then blamed the distributor, Universal, for releasing the film wide without promotion as a genre Western. Douglas believed it should have been ‘platformed’ first (though I doubt he used that term) and treated like an art film. He had a point at the time, but it isn’t really an art film, but instead an interesting genre hybrid.
Abbey was an unusual writer who had won a Fulbright scholarship at Edinburgh University. He was an anarchist and early environmentalist with a range of interests which eventually led him towards ‘direct action’ and he became a celebrity figure for the activist environmentalist groups. The original novel includes important narrative elements that are there in the film but perhaps not as prominently as in the novels. I use the plural because Jack as a character appears to be in other novels by Abbey. It’s worth considering the intertextual aspects of Lonely Are the Brave. I’ve quoted the twilight Western and there are a couple of sequences when the film, consciously or not, seems to quote John Ford’s The Searchers (1956). Both feature Jack with Gerri. How do they feel about each other? Is there a repressed attraction? When Jack first arrives at his friend’s house, Gerri offers to wash his shirt and when he returns after breaking out of prison she offers him the clean shirt. Unlike the Ford film, the dialogue in Lonely Are the Brave spells out everything. In The Searchers (and in Brokeback Mountain) we have two characters who can’t speak about their love. It’s all in looks and gestures. But when Jack rides away from Gerri’s house we are offered the classic Fordian shot in reverse. We see Jack slowly disappearing into the the open country, just as we saw John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards riding towards the isolated ranch house where Martha is watching his progress.
There are other possible genre links as well. The image of a modern criminal being hunted down in remote places dates back to at least High Sierra (1941) and the deserts and mountains of the South West and the journey to Mexico (in itself another element of the twilight Western) recalls films like Ida Lupino’s The Hitch-hiker (1953). Abbey’s books reveal his concerns about the ways in which the open country of the South West has been used for various forms of development, including building military air bases. This appears in the film as a battle between Jack, hiding in the rocks and the helicopter attempting to find him. I was reminded of my childhood viewing of the TV series Whirlybirds (Desilu 1957-60) in which the helicopter pilots were the good guys. This film posits the possibility that they might be if not the ‘bad guys’ at least the over-confident and ‘gung-ho’ guys who might end up in Vietnam. This last thought also makes me think of the way that the cowboy loner has been translated into the lone survivalist in films like the first Rambo film, First Blood (1982).
When I looked at two of my Western reference books I discovered that both Phil Hardy in his Enyclopedia of the Western and Julian Petley with his contribution to the BFI Companion to the Western find Lonely Are the Brave to be too self conscious and ponderous in spelling out its ideas rather than letting the audience discover themes for themselves. This marks a significant difference to The Last Picture Show in my previous post which is another twilight Western that doesn’t need to explain anything. However, on IMdB, Lonely Are the Brave has a high score of 7.6 and a reputation to match. I agree broadly with the critics about the dialogue. Jack has a long speech in which he explains to Gerri what it means to be a loner. But I can forgive the film that speech because the struggle of man and horse up the mountain is thrilling. There must have been a wrangler who worked hard but I did wonder about how some shots were achieved without putting the horse at risk. I’m not sure I can be equally forgiving about the film’s ending which is signalled so clearly in the first 10 minutes. Even so, the film is certainly worth a watch if you have MUBI in the UK.
In 2006 I ran an evening class looking at the films that influenced Brokeback Mountain – or in some way helped to inform how Ang Lee’s ‘Western romance’ might be read by audiences. One of these films was The Last Picture Show and the following notes have been re-worked for this blog. I’m particularly interested in the concept of the ‘Twilight Western‘ but I was prompted to post this now as the idea of ‘left behind communities’ seems so important in UK and US politics at the moment. See also my previous post on Inland Sea.
It is often argued that the brief period between the collapse of the old Hollywood studio system in the late 1960s and the re-birth of commercial Hollywood with Jaws and Star Wars in the mid 1970s was the best of all times in terms of the quality of the films produced. In 1971 The Last Picture Show, competing against A Clockwork Orange, The French Connection, McCabe and Mrs Miller and Klute amongst others, was nominated for 8 Academy Awards, winning two for Supporting Actors, Ben Johnson and Cloris Leachman. Perhaps because of its Oscars, I saw the film in March 1972 on release in the UK at the most prestigious art cinema in London, the Curzon.
Forty-four years later, The Last Picture Show stands up very well and it isn’t surprising that Ang Lee took it as his most important starting point for the tone and ‘feel’ of Brokeback Mountain, an adaptation co-scripted by Larry McMurtry, arguably the most prominent writer in portraying rural Texas. McMurtry writes about the West – in history and in contemporary life. As one reviewer has put it:
No other author has so thoroughly and delightfully debunked the ill-advised romanticism of the American West. McMurtry’s immense talent punctures the cowboy mythology with such finesse that the reader never feels the prick; we just joyfully go along for the ride of a lifetime. (Jami Edwards on http://bookreporter.com)
The Last Picture Show is a melodrama involving a small group of characters with close personal relationships who are all involved in the changing world of a small Texan town. The time is the early 1950s and the decline of the ‘old ways’ of the town is represented by the threatened closure of the local cinema. The Last Picture Show followed an earlier novel, Horseman Pass By, filmed as Hud with Paul Newman in 1963. Searching for a location for the 1950s Texas depicted in The Last Picture Show, director Peter Bogdanovich eventually turned to McMurtry’s home town of Archer City – a journey that Ang Lee also took some thirty plus years later. Bogdanovich in 1971 was a film critic turned filmmaker with minimal experience but plenty of chutzpah. He asked Orson Welles for advice on shooting the film and decided on black and white in order to be able to shoot scenes with great depth of field and characters close to the camera dominating the frame (as in Welles’ Magnificent Ambersons, another film about the past). Robert Surtees seemingly provides exactly what Bogdanovich was looking for.
Bogdanovich had interviewed both Howard Hawks and John Ford. This partly explains the choice of Hawks’ Red River (1948) as the last film to be shown in the picture house and the long struggle to get Ben Johnson to play the role of ‘Sam the Lion’. Johnson, a real cowboy and rodeo rider, made his name as part of John Ford’s Western ensemble in films like Wagonmaster (1950) (a poster for the film is seen in the cinema lobby in The Last Picture Show) and then worked for Sam Peckinpah. For Western fans, Johnson is an iconic figure. Bogdanovich reportedly told Johnson that he would win an Oscar in the role and he did.
The Last Picture Show has a remarkable cast. The young characters are each played by stars in the making in 1971. Jeff Bridges, the son of action star Lloyd Bridges, went on to become one of the major ‘character stars’ in Hollywood Cinema. Timothy Bottoms had a strong early career in the 1970s, but Cybill Shepherd, a ‘supermodel’ in 1970 when Bogdanovich saw her on the cover of a magazine, began an affair with the director which proved disastrous for both herself and Bogdanovich. The real strength of the film is in the supporting cast. Alongside Johnson are three women with reputations mostly forged in television – Eileen Brennan, Cloris Leachman and Ellen Burstyn – and Clu Gulager, another television actor with a memorable performance alongside Lee Marvin in Don Siegel’s The Killers (1964).
Bogdanovich made several other decisions about staging the story. Perhaps most important was the precise dating of the events, covering a period from November 1951 to a year later in 1952 (or from the start of one football season through to the start of the next). The music playing on the radios in the film is authentic for the period (especially Hank Williams, who was the major force in country music at the time).
The timing enables Bogdanovich to send Duane (Bridges) off to Korea and to date precisely the period when the community in a small Texas town began to turn away from the cinema and towards the television set. The film draws on a number of genre repertoires, in particular the ‘youth picture’/‘coming of age’ story of the three young leads, the melodrama of small town life and, crucially, the ‘twilight Western’ – the ‘end of the West’ story.
The three genres come together through the relationships that Sonny (Tim Bottoms) has with Duane, Sam, Jacy (Cybill Shepherd) and Ruth (‘the Coach’s wife’ played by Cloris Leachman.) Sonny and Duane are the future, the heirs to Sam’s legacy. They represent the dual figure at the centre of many of the stories about the end of the West: two men, one resigned to the soul-destroying work of modern capitalist America, the other trapped in a way of life that is clearly dying and which offers no viable future. These two characters have a strong bond of friendship, one that will be tested to destruction in the narrative.
Sam represents the honourable past of the Western philosophy. He runs the last three ‘social facilities’ in town, the café, the pool hall and the cinema. These provide the possibility of a ‘community’ and refer back to the ‘civilising’ of the West in classic Westerns such as My Darling Clementine – as distinct from the anti-community ethos of television. Sam recognises that Sonny is his heir. He is, in some ways, Sonny’s surrogate father (Sonny’s real father is glimpsed briefly in the Christmas scene).
Duane is the cowboy who adapts to work as an oil rigger and then as a marine, off to Korea. Jacy is the girl who comes between the two central characters, but she too has choices to make. She doesn’t listen to her mother or take much notice of the other older women in the community, all of whom have tales to tell and warnings to give. Jacy doesn’t know what her role in small town Texas might be and her experiments with men don’t fill us with hope for the future. Another Bogdanovich decision, to show Sonny in the cinema watching a young Elizabeth Taylor in Father of the Bride (1950), is perhaps a reference to films like Giant (1956) and the disruption that a woman with the presence of Shepherd/Taylor could cause in a small Texas community. Sonny is with Charlene when Duane and Jacy arrive and the difference between the promise of Jacy and the reality of Charlene is underlined when Sonny reacts to being told that he and Charlene have been ‘going steady’ for a year with a weary “Seems like a lot longer”.
Anarene, Texas is presented as a dying town with a population of disappointed people. The central characters are all single or in relationships which are not functional. We learn little about the family background of Sonny or Duane and Billy (Sam Bottoms) is presented as an archetypal character, found in any small town. In one sense, the narrative involves an older generation ‘passing on’ its own disappointments to a younger generation, but there is still a suggestion that something was there in the past (Sam’s references to his time with Jacy’s mother). It isn’t there now and change must take place. At the end of the film, the heavy symbolism sees harmless Billy killed by a truck full of cattle – literally killed by the mechanised West which has replaced the romantic nostalgia of Sam and the cowboy pictures he showed in the Royal Cinema.
The Last Picture Show might seem at first glance like an unlikely model for Brokeback Mountain, but dig deeper and the links between the films begins to emerge. Aesthetically one is mostly enclosed in a windswept town and the other presents characters in a magnificent landscape, but in both the camera is used to bring the characters into the foreground in close-up, so that we enter a character study but recognise the importance of the environment in the background. In both films, we get a strong sense of a conservative community with individuals desperate to find a happiness that seems to evade them and we get a running commentary from the country music soundtrack. The Last Picture Show is more of a melodrama in its interrelationships within the community, but its two young men look forward to Jack and Ennis in the later film (and back to the heroes of ‘end of the West’ films such as Randolph Scott and Joel McRea in Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country). Ang Lee, without the detailed knowledge of the West, wanted a model for how to achieve an effortless authenticity for characters and setting and he found it in The Last Picture Show.
McMurtry wrote two further novels about the characters of The Last Picture Show, Texasville (1987) and Duane’s Depressed (1999). His biggest successes were the novel Tears of Endearment (1975) – later a successful film melodrama – and the long historical novel Lonesome Dove (1985) which became the basis for one of the most successful mini-series in US television history.
After The Last Picture Show, Peter Bogdanovich had two further hits with What’s Up Doc? (1972) and Paper Moon (1973) before a series of disasters, starting with Cybill Shepherd as Daisy Miller (1974). He also directed the film of Texasville (1990) which sees the younger cast members of The Last Picture Show some thirty years later. The film was not a success. Randy Quaid as Lester Marlow provides the link between both films and Brokeback Mountain, in which he plays the agent who hires Jack and Ennis.
A detailed description of The Last Picture Show with explanations for the numerous references to American popular culture can be found on Tim Dirks’ ‘Greatest Films’ website at http://www.filmsite.org/lastp.html.
Delmer Daves was active in Hollywood from the 1920s to the 1960s. He studied law at Stanford and was initially a writer, part-time actor and ‘adviser’, working at MGM and Paramount and then contracted at Warner Bros. He didn’t become a director until 1943 when he was nearing 40. He is perhaps best known for the Westerns he made in the 1950s, the most well-known being Broken Arrow (1950) and 3.10 to Yuma (1957). The Last Wagon was a CinemaScope Western Daves directed for 20th Century Fox as another entry in the cycle of Westerns from the late 1940s/early 1950s which begin to engage with the representation of Native Americans and the racism of most Hollywood narratives, Broken Arrow being one of the first. The Last Wagon has some elements in common with Ford’s The Searchers which was also released in 1956. It is not as profound or as challenging as Ford’s masterpiece but I’m surprised that it hasn’t received more attention. In his Encyclopaedia of Western Movies, Phil Hardy suggests it might be Daves’ best Western, but doesn’t really say much about the film. Julian Petley in The BFI Western Companion (ed. Ed Buscombe) suggests that Daves didn’t get the recognition he deserved in the US, though he was rated by several French critics. In the UK it wasn’t until Michael Walker explored Daves’ Westerns in depth for The Movie Book of the Western (eds Cameron & Pye, Studio Vista 1996) that the film received proper attention. Walker refers to an interview by Christopher Wicking (Screen, July/October 1969) in which Daves says that the wagon train experience was part of his own family history and that after he graduated in 1926 he lived for three months with both Hopi and Navajo communities in Arizona. He also seems to have been a ‘liberal Democrat’ (Wikipedia).
I would classify the film as a ‘liberal Western’, although it is uneven as a narrative, undermining any simplistic notion of a ‘message film’. The opening few minutes are spectacular and tremendously exciting. One man on foot is being hunted by four others on horseback across ravishing landscapes in Northern Arizona around Sedona in 1873. Much of this is in long shot compositions with tiny figures against the landscape by Wilfrid Cline, a Western film specialist, facilitated by the editing of the equally experienced Hugh Fowler and with a score by Lionel Newman. The lone man is ‘Comanche’ Todd, played with customary vigour by Richard Widmark. He manages to kill three of his pursuers but is eventually captured by the fourth who turns out to be Sheriff ‘Bull’ Parker (George Mathews). At this point the script seems to be flawed. Harper wounds Todd in the shoulder and then treats him brutally before a wagon train arrives on the trail led by ex-Colonel Normand, comprising his family and others. They accept Parker and his prisoner, but as a Christian group they are troubled to see Todd chained, almost like a crucifixion on a wagon wheel. The script problems are two-fold. First, Todd’s wound seems to disappear and secondly Harper will go on to state that there is a $1,000 reward for the arrest of Todd, yet his crime involves the killing of Harper’s three brothers which we have just seen happen. We won’t learn the truth about his crimes until the end of the film.
The second section of the narrative sees Harper pitted against the wagon train community because of his ‘inhuman’ treatment of Todd. We learn from Harper that Todd was captured by Comanches as a young boy and grew up as an ‘Indian’. Harper’s stance is clearly racist – to justify his inhuman treatment. During an altercation between Harper and the wagoneers an axe is dropped and Todd picks it up, throws it and kills Harper. As Walker points out, this sequence seems almost like a collective ‘Freudian slip’. It’s as if dropping the axe and pushing Harper close enough for Todd to throw it was unconsciously willed by the group. Later that night a group of young people from the wagon train leave the camp to go skinny-dipping. When they return they find the camp has been attacked by Apache warriors (they are on a notorious trail through Apache territory) and everyone has been killed – except Comanche Todd who, still manacled to a wagon wheel, has miraculously survived when the wagon was pushed over a cliff.
The third section sees the rescue of Todd and the agreement that he will guide them through Apache territory to safety. The small group includes the Colonel’s two daughters, one of whom is white and one bi-racial after his second marriage to a Native American. There is also a younger boy who has become attached to Todd and his older sister Jenny (Felicia Farr). It was this couple who first supported Todd. Finally there are two other older teenagers, one of whom has been against Todd from the beginning. I won’t spoil the narrative from this point but it should be clear that it has taken a different turn. Todd has to convince the group to do things his way – the Comanche way – if they are to survive. This involves some philosophical debates and some explorations of Native American cultures. The aggressive boy displays the most open racism but the white step-sister Valinda is perhaps the most danger to Todd. She resents her own sister as well as contact with Todd. Her step-sister Jolie is played by Susan Kohner who in 1959 would be Oscar-nominated for her role as a young bi-racial woman who ‘passes’ for white in Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life. Kohner’s mother, Lupita Tovar was a Mexican actor who worked for various Hollywood studios on Spanish language versions of English language films. Kohner’s role in The Last Wagon has more/different meanings in retrospect after her success in 1959. This is especially true in relation to a statement Jolie makes in the final sequence of the the film on her changed ideas about her own identity as a bi-racial woman. There were more Mexicans than Native Americans who became stars or leading players in the studio Hollywood era, but they were still discriminated against and subject to forms of racial type-casting.
This third section of the film is the most interesting for me and it is dominated by the idea that Comanche Todd is in effect teaching the youth about Comanche (and Apache) culture and why they need to know about it in order to survive. Widmark is central to the success of the film and his authority as a star actor is just as important as the good sense he speaks in the dialogue. The sequence is quite ‘talky’ for a Western but broken up by the long shot cinematography and bursts of action, each of which is in some way metaphorical in relation to the predicament facing the group.
In the final section, the script (by Daves, James Edward Grant and Gwen Bagni Gielgud) manages to bring the group to safety, once again through an action engineered by Todd. This then leads to a closing section in which Todd is ‘tried’ by General Howard, the historical figure (known as the ‘Christian General’) who also appears in Daves’ film Broken Arrow. Each of the group give their own testimony and even those who have shown racist views are prepared to support Todd. I did find this ‘closure’ to be too sentimental and it is interesting to note that it is the opposite of the closure of The Searchers in which Ethan Edwards is himself unable to rejoin the community, possibly because his own racial hatred is still too strong. I don’t intend to pursue a comparison of the two films here, but I do want to point to the way that both films deal with the ‘war’ waged by white settlers and Union cavalry against Native American peoples by means of a proxy – the bi-racial or bi-cultural characters that come between the two main protagonists. The production context in 1955-6 also suggests films which consciously or not refer to incidents in the Civil Rights struggle such as the furore following the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling of 1954. What’s interesting also is that The Last Wagon creates a narrative in which a group of ‘juveniles’ is ‘instructed’ by a character who has spent his adolescence learning to be a Comanche. Michael Walker usefully points out that in this period of ‘juvenile delinquency films’, it is often a ‘liberal’ figure who gains the respect of the youth who learn to trust him, e.g. the Glenn Ford character in Blackboard Jungle (1955) or Edward Platt’s juvenile officer in Rebel Without a Cause (1955). The same actor, Nick Adams plays one of the gang in Rebel and the most racist character in in The Last Wagon. Todd is not ‘liberal’ but he ‘knows’ both white and Native American culture. The film may well be radical in the ways in which it attempts to ‘recuperate’ Todd’s behaviour and make him eligible to return to white society, while still critiquing it. Michael Walker has much more to say about the ideological underpinnings of the film and his piece is a must-read for anyone interested in Westerns.
The Last Wagon is a ‘journey Western’ which enables a form of ‘conversion’ for its group of travellers and it also includes a romance but most of all it engages with the history of the West even if it doesn’t present us with a Native American actor playing a significant character – the Apache warriors are seen mainly in long shot. Here’s a trailer for the film which is available as a ‘complete movie’ on a well-known streaming site:
Apache was a box office hit in 1954 for the independent production company Hecht-Lancaster releasing through United Artists. Burt Lancaster was perhaps the most successful of the actor-producers who were part of the changing structure of Hollywood during the decline of the studio system in the 1950s. The film was directed by Robert Aldrich, one of the key directors of the period for ‘action pictures’ but here early in his directorial career on just his third feature shot in only 30 days. The story, based on incidents in the life of a historical character, was adapted from Paul I Wellman’s 1936 novel Broncho Apache by James R. Webb, a prolific screenwriter who would later pen John Ford’s Cheyenne Autumn.
In the early 1950s there was a cycle of films that featured Native American characters and unsurprisingly most of them were Westerns. Delmer Daves’ Broken Arrow (1950), George Sherman’s Battle at Apache Pass (1952), Douglas Sirk’s Taza, Son of Cochise ( 1954) and Sam Fuller’s Run of the Arrow (1957) were just some of the films in the cycle. Historical Native American characters were generally played by white actors. Jeff Chandler plays the Apache chief Cochise in three of the above titles. The casting of Burt Lancaster as another Apache warrior Massai in Apache is therefore conventional for the period.
Many of the films in the cycle refer to the ‘final’ war between the US Cavalry and the Apache nations in the late 1880s in Arizona and New Mexico. Massai was a warrior invited to join Geronimo but he was disarmed around the time Geronimo surrendered. Like Geronimo he was put on a train to go to a prison camp in Florida but escaped and walked back 1200 miles to Arizona. These events are shown in the film, but the remainder of the film narrative is more creative with historical events. Lancaster is in his athletic mode in the film; leaping, rolling, riding and generally outwitting capture. The plot sees him being betrayed by a local chief, the father of a young woman he wants as his bride. Nalinle is played by Jean Peters and eventually she will overcome Massai’s anger about the betrayal (which at first he thinks involves her). Perhaps the crucial sequence in the narrative is when Massai on his long walk back to his home meets a Cherokee man who has ‘become white’, living in his own ranch house and adopting a white life. This man gives Massai the warrior a bag of seed corn and urges him to be a farmer not a warrior. Although Massai at first appears to dismiss the Cherokee man’s ideas, we know that what he has said has more meaning than it might have coming from a white settler or US government agent.
As Massai, Lancaster is athletic, intelligent but stubborn and brutal when he needs to be. The depiction of his treatment of Nalinle is disturbing to watch now but it’s important for the narrative. It’s a great performance and over the next couple of years Lancaster would reach his peak as the athletic and charismatic leading man. He went on to work with Aldrich on Vera Cruz, also released in 1954.
The film does give time to what I would now see as the colonisers of the West, represented here by the US Cavalry, various private ‘agents’ and the important historical figure of Al Sieber, the ‘Indian hunter’ whose job was to find those Apache warriors who became ‘renegades’. Played here by John McIntire is the familiar figure who understands his quarry and will eventually find him and, sometimes reluctantly, deliver him to the coloniser. It’s also worth noting that the film represents the large numbers of Apache who take the US dollar and serve with the Cavalry as scouts and regular soldiers. Charles Bronson makes one of his early credited appearances as the scout Hondo working closely with Sieber.
The ending of the film was forced on Lancaster-Hecht and Aldrich by the distributor United Artist, but what we see in the main part of the narrative has been acknowledged by various film scholars who deem the film one of the strongest of the cycle. I enjoyed the film and it was interesting to see it and to be reminded of more recent films covering aspects of the same story, including Walter Hill’s Geronimo: An American Legend (1993) with Native-American actor Wes Studi in the lead role. It’s also interesting to see Aldrich and Lancaster working together on their first film and to be reminded of Ulzana’s Raid (1972) one of the most important of the ‘allegorical’ films commenting on the Vietnam War.
Reading some of the many blog entries of Western fans and scholars about this and similar films is a fascinating exercise. Much comment is made about Lancaster as a ‘blue-eyed’ Apache warrior. The eyes are certainly noticeable and like Lancaster’s flashing white teeth, stand out against the heavy make-up. As I’ve noted this casting decision was the convention at the time and we should remember how the film industry followed the racist attitudes of the wider society, but this shouldn’t mean we ignore the film. I noted one comment that suggests that ‘blue-eyed’ Native Americans are not that uncommon and may have been around for several generations. More disturbing for me was the significant number of right-wing commentators who want to dismiss Aldrich and Lancaster as having anything to say about American history. Some do this in a disguised way by simply arguing that this is a poor Western and laying out all its ‘inauthenticities’ – Apache was shot mainly in California with just a few landscapes in Arizona and New Mexico and the story is very much a fictionalised version of the events. I don’t think this distracts from the central purpose of the film which is to show us the final stage of the process of colonialist settlement from the perspective of the colonised, rather than the coloniser. Apache was a popular film and one of the more influential films of the 1950s.
The Sisters Brothers has been declared to have ‘bombed’ in the US because box office takings have been only a fraction of what might have been spent by American independent distributor Annapurna on screening rights. The box office results have been better in Europe. But I suspect in a few years time the film will start to receive a lot more interest from cinephiles. I like and admire Jacques Audiard’s work and that admiration is carried over to this his first English language film. But Audiard is not the only auteur involved. John C. Reilly bought the rights to the novel by Patrick DeWitt close to its publication date in 2011 and he is credited as one of the producers. The adaptation was by Audiard and Thomas Bidegain who collaborated with Audiard on his previous three films and who directed John C. Reilly in Les cowboys (France 2015).
The ‘Sisters Brothers’ are Eli (John C. Reilly) and Charlie (Joaquin Phoenix), a pair of hired guns who work as assassins for ‘The Commodore’ (Rutger Hauer) in Oregon Territory in 1851. This is the time of the Gold Rush in California and finds were made near Jacksonville in Oregon Territory. The Brothers are given the task of finding and assassinating Hermann Warm (Riz Ahmed) who is being followed by a detective also employed by The Commodore, John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal). The two brothers are quite different. Charlie is the younger, but he acts as the leader and is much more aggressive. Eli is more philosophical and reflective – although he still kills efficiently when he needs to. The journey they take south towards California and what happens when they find Morris and Warm gives the narrative plenty of time to fill out the characters.
My feeling about the film, which I very much enjoyed, is that it resembles several other ‘literary’ Westerns such as The Missouri Breaks (US 1976) from the novel by Thomas McGuane or, more recently, The Homesman (France-US 2014) from the novel by Glendon Swarthout. Both these films were also relatively big-budget films that flopped and both had ‘name’ directors and stars, Arthur Penn with Jack Nicholson and Marlon Brando for the first and Tommy Lee Jones as both director and star (with Hilary Swank) in the second. The Homesman is also an ‘international production set in the same time period as The Sisters Brothers.
There is a featured review of The Sisters Brothers by Nick Pinkerton in Sight and Sound (May 2019) in which he refers to the film as having an unusual setting in the pre-Civil War era. The review makes some interesting points but I think that Pinkerton hasn’t seen enough Westerns – there are enough pre-1861 Westerns to form a separate classification and the pre-war period includes both the Gold Rush and the migrations via wagon trains to Oregon before the coming of the transcontinental railroads. The opening up of Oregon was remarkably fast-paced over the first few decades of the 19th century, moving from a territory of fur trappers and the Hudson’s Bay company through British and American claims to sovereignty and the subsequent formation of the ‘Oregon Territory’ in 1848 south of the 49th Parallel and admission as a new state of the Union in 1859. There were periods of lawlessness as jurisdictions changed and the pace of development is neatly represented by the surprise for both the educated Morris and Eli when they find themselves both brushing their teeth with toothbrushes and tooth powder. But this is a very male early Oregon community. Women are usually bar girls. Wives and mothers are not very visible.
One of the criticisms of the film is the dialogue which includes some modern speech which seems anachronistic. But it also includes some literary language, especially when Morris is writing his diary. Eli too uses some formal language which Charlie derides, but the most articulate character is Warm, who has big plans, first for gold extraction and then for a new utopian society he wants to set up in Texas. There was a real attempt by democratic socialists from France, Belgium and Switzerland to set up a community known as ‘La Réunion’ in Dallas County in 1855 based on the ideas of Charles Fourier. (Fourier called the building in which a small community might live a phalanstère.) The American writer Henry David Thoreau is also mentioned in the script, although as Pinkerton points out Thoreau’s best known work, Walden, was not published until 1854. However, he had published earlier papers and the script suggests that Warm is not just formally educated like Morris, but also much more aware of new ideas. I did notice the language ‘mix’ and I’m still not quite sure how to read it – but I don’t see it as a ‘mistake’.
Against this minutiae of American life, the film offers us the landscapes of Spain and Romania, because this is very much a European production from Why Not Productions in France as the lead company. It includes scenes shot in Almería in Andalusia (like all the classic European Westerns) as well as mountain scenes in Navarre and Aragon and other landscapes and studio sets in Romania. There is a tradition of pitting history against myth in European Westerns and this film continues that process. This doesn’t make The Sisters Brothers a ‘realist film’, but it does suggest an intelligence ‘playing’ with Western conventions and historical discourses. The problem is that audience expectations are perhaps for clearer narrative drives and for a rousing climax and resolution (see this typical US review). I’m not in the spoilers game, but there is a relatively downbeat ending. There are at least three big shootouts but the emphasis is on the characters. I’m not sure that the balance between ‘action’ and ‘talk’ is actually that different from the majority of Western films. It’s more a case of what the ‘talk’ is about. I found the talk very interesting and enjoyable and I’d be happy to watch the film again.
The casting of Riz Ahmed, a fine actor, worked for me. I was reminded of another very good and unusual Western, The Ballad of Little Jo (1993) written and directed by Maggie Greenwald. Set in roughly the same mid-19th century period and again in a mining camp, the central character, a woman trying to ‘pass’ as a man, meets an Englishman played by Ian McKellan sporting his own ‘real’ Lancashire accent. The film also features the Chinese migrant community. Another British connection is to Michael Winterbottom’s wonderful Thomas Hardy adaptation (of The Mayor of Casterbridge) The Claim (UK-Canada 2000). Again associated with the ‘mining Western’ this is set slightly later in the 1860s when the railroad is coming, but the ‘back story’ is the 1849 Gold Rush. This film too has its migrant characters. I think I need to watch both these other films again! Riz Ahmed’s character is, I think, meant to be a European migrant and his character’s name suggests German/Belgian/Dutch? (But his middle name ‘Kermit’ seems to be American- and possibly anachronistic).
We watched the film on the big screen in Pictureville at the Museum in Bradford. I thought Alexandre Desplat’s score worked well and Benoît Debie’s cinematography is equally impressive. All the performances are good but it’s clear that John C. Reilly is the most invested in the project he started. Nick didn’t like the film and perhaps he’ll add a comment as to why not. I’ve really enjoyed researching the film and if you like Westerns I’d say this is a ‘must see’ – unless the issues I’ve described above are ones you know will be a problem for you. The trailer below doesn’t give out as many spoilers as the usual Hollywood trailer, but I don’t remember anything like the song in it appearing in the film.