Tagged: Western genre

Wind River (US 2017)

Grahame Greene and Elizabeth Olsen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Two Men in Town (Fra-Bel-Algeria-US 2014)

Forest Whitaker as Will Garnett. © Tessalit-Pathé Photographer: Gregory Smith

Forest Whitaker as Will Garnett. © Tessalit-Pathé Photographer: Gregory Smith

The French Maghrebi filmmaker Rachid Bouchareb made two films in the US following his first film in English (with a fair bit of French) London River (France-Algeria 20o9). This remake followed Just Like a Woman (2012) and has received a similar response in the US to that for Bertrand Tavernier’s In the Electric Mist (France-US 2009) – bafflement at the arthouse approach to what seem like US genre stories. The difference here is that Bouchareb has not adapted an American story but has instead transposed a French original to New Mexico.

Deux hommes dans la ville was a 1973 French film written and directed by José Giovanni. It starred Alain Delon as a man released from prison partly because of the work of a social worker/parole officer (Jean Gabin). The two men develop a relationship outside prison but the ex-convict’s attempts to go straight are caught between a vengeful police inspector (Michel Bouquet) and his former criminal colleagues who want him to rejoin the gang. I haven’t seen this original film so I’m unsure of the details but this sounds like a classic noir/polar. Giovanni was himself an ex-con and he was a highly respected writer of polars, one of which was Classe tous risques (France-Italy 1960). His scripts were also used by leading directors such as Jean-Pierre Melville and Jean Becker.

Here’s the trailer for the original (out in North America from Cohen Media). Don’t miss the brief appearance of Gérard Depardieu:

Rachid Bouchareb adapted Giovanni’s script for the contemporary US with his regular collaborator Olivier Lorelle and a new collaborator Yasmina Khadra (like Giovanni working under a pseudonym – Khadra has political ambitions). In Bouchareb’s version, the convict is William Garnett, a local boy who killed a sheriff’s deputy. Played by Forest Whitaker, he converts to Islam in prison and is released on parole after 18 years. On release he is placed under parole officer Emily Smith, played by Brenda Blethyn (the lead in London River). She is a stern, ‘no nonsense’ but generally fair and progressive officer. Unfortunately Garnett is released locally (as per local custom) where the sheriff, Harvey Keitel, remembers the death of his deputy and is determined to put Garnett back behind bars. Garnett’s criminal connections from his youth are represented by Luis Guzmán‘s ‘Terence’, now a local hood engaged in criminal activities that cross the border.

Brenda Blethyn as Emily Smith, the parole officer. © Tessalit-Pathé Photographer: Gregory Smith

Brenda Blethyn as Emily Smith, the parole officer. © Tessalit-Pathé Photographer: Gregory Smith

As in Tavernier’s American film, the strong cast and setting (New Mexico desert landscapes) promise something dramatic and spectacular, but here the story – a character study drawn for a polar in France – is perhaps just too alien for American audiences. The assumption must be that Bouchareb is interested in all the problems and the possibilities that arise in border communities. Race, religion and politics all impinge on the central narrative in quite complicated ways. Garnett finds love quite quickly after leaving prison – with a Spanish woman. Keitel’s sheriff is a civic leader welcoming a returning soldier from Afghanistan at a celebration. He’s also quick to stamp down on local vigilantes who have illegally ‘arrested’ Mexican migrants but then intimidates Garnett quite unreasonably and seemingly encourages his deputies to do the same. Bouchareb also throws the audience by introducing Garnett’s mother at one point – played by Ellen Burstyn. We wonder how she met Garnett’s father and what life was like for the family as her son grew up.

Harvey Keitel as the sheriff, berating vigilantes on the border. © Tessalit-Pathé Photographer: Gregory Smith

Harvey Keitel as the sheriff, berating vigilantes on the border. © Tessalit-Pathé Photographer: Gregory Smith

The strength of the film drama is to be found in the use of landscape. I was interested to find out later that it was photographed by Yves Cape whose credits include several of the French films I admire, including White Material (France 2009) by Claire Denis. It was also an interesting decision to provide Garnett with a second-hand motorbike as his means of travel to work (a Triumph Bonneville?) – the images of him riding to work at a cattle ranch with Éric Neveux‘s excellent score mixed with the ambient sounds of the desert are evocative of a wide range of films.

The film narrative opens with a murder which takes place in extreme long shot much like the celebrated scene in Timbuktu (Mauritania-France 2014) and it is only later that we realise that this is a flash-forward to the last scene of the film.There is relatively little action in the film, although when it does come it is handled well. Most of the drama comes from the character studies. It is a formidable cast, especially with that fine actor Brenda Blethyn. I’ve no idea where her accent suggests that she comes from, but she is a compelling character. Whitaker is shown with a neatly trimmed hair style, suit and heavy-framed glasses that make him a dead ringer for Malcom X and emphasising that African-Americans have converted to Islam in prison since the 1950s (confirmed by Bouchareb in the French Press Pack). His new Muslim identity is evident throughout and causes some bemusement for his workmates, but this is not an easily typed identity for him – nor for them. At the point of release Garnett is visited in prison by an imam and throughout the film we see him at prayers. Only one person directly insults him. There are stand-offs between Blethyn and Keitel and a sad story about another of the parole cases – both of these incidents point to problems with the parole system. Bouchareb is interested in the psychology of the characters and the pressures of society rather than genre conventions – though he recognises that he is attracted by the Western. He tells us he did a considerable amount of research on the border migration issues and spoke to law enforcement officers and parole officers in New Mexico.

The only real problem I had with the ‘bare bones’ DVD distributed in the UK by Signature Entertainment was the lack of subtitles. Like many modern films, the ‘realist’ dialogue is sometimes hard to follow and I would have appreciated English subs for the hard of hearing. In addition there are a few scenes in which Garnett and his lover (Dolores Heredia) speak in Spanish. Not understanding these lines completely didn’t really spoil the film for me but the lack of subs does indicate the way the film was ‘dumped’ on the UK DVD market (with no cinema release). I think the American Region 1 DVD does have subs.

As a French-Maghrebi director, Rachid Bouchareb offers a possibly unique take on the American border/migrant story, though he does join other European directors such as Tony Richardson (The Border 1982 – also with Keitel) and Louis Malle (Alamo Bay 1985) as well as US ‘independents’ such as John Sayles (Lone Star 1996). I think Two Men in Town (awful title!) deserves to be seen. I think I’ll watch it again. Two Men in Town is one of those films which, if you set out to denigrate it, is a soft target. (See this Variety review which does an effective hatchet job.) But if you give it a chance, it will grow on you through landscape and performances. Yes, it does attempt to be a modern day Western like The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (France-US 2005) – but that’s no bad thing.

Here’s the US trailer for the 2014 film. It includes some SPOILERS – but also a nice shot of Brenda Blethyn as John Wayne from The Searchers (or ‘Prisoner of the Desert’ as it was in France):

Slow West (UK-New Zealand 2014)

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

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

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

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

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

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

A father-son relationship?

A father-son relationship?

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

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

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

A short clip from the opening sequence in the film:

Meek’s Cutoff (US 2010)

Shirley Henderson, Zoe Kazan and Michelle Williams as the three women on the trail

Beauty is suddenly back in the cinema. Following Norwegian Wood this is another film to invite the audience to experience the beauty of landscape. This is a harsh beauty in terms of its inhospitable face presented to travellers, but the magical light of early morning and evening sun is breathtaking – reminding us of films with similar settings (although in different landscapes) such as Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven.

Kelly Reichardt’s film (she co-wrote, directed and edited Meek’s Cutoff) recounts a journey by hopeful settlers across the wild country of the Cascades in Oregon territory during the 1840s. Three couples have hired a guide with local knowledge called Stephen Meek to take them on a route that will shortcut the main Oregon trail – thus Meek’s ‘cutoff’. Other than a boy, who is the son of one couple, and their oxen and horses, this is the totality of the party – until they come across a lone Cayuse ‘Indian’. At this point they fear that they are lost and they are suspicious of Meek’s ability to get them through this country. Emily Tetherow  (Michelle Williams) is particularly assertive within the group and her contempt for Meek and his reaction to the Cayuse becomes an important narrative element.

The print I saw was digital and the detail of the image was at times breathtaking. In one early scene a character leans forward towards the camera to fill a water container and the effect is almost 3D-like. I felt that I could reach out and put my hand in the water. It was only later that I realised how important that water was going to be in the narrative. This high level of visual realism is framed in Academy ratio (1:1.33). An unusual choice in modern cinema and Reichardt has explained that it represents the restricted view of the female characters – i.e. from beneath their bonnets. This is an interesting idea and it certainly serves to mark a difference from the films which have presented the Western landscape in CinemaScope since the mid-1950s (as well as the earlier Fox Grandeur widescreen The Big Trail from 1930 – one of the first representations of the wagon trains on the Oregon trail). Academy means vertical compositions and a feeling of containment rather than the ‘open-ness’ of ‘Scope. Two technical issues raised questions for me. The first was simply to wonder how multiplexes have got on projecting the film since I remember seeing Academy prints of classic films which had been ‘topped and tailed’ to fit onto the 1:1.85 screen in many cinemas. (Most good independent cinemas are properly prepared to show Academy ratios.) The second was to query the sound design. I had some problems with the dialogue and the directionality of some of the sound effects – as if the Academy ratio was a problem with stereo sound design. Has anyone else experienced this?

This classic Western composition resembles the opening of Ford’s The Searchers when Martha watches Ethan riding in the distance.

Ford’s imagery in The Searchers presents the iconic landscape of Monument Valley in a widescreen frame (VistaVision). In both these images the woman is visually in the ‘home’ and the man is in the landscape. Reichardt can’t alter this spatial arrangement easily (the women don’t ride), but she can frame the action in the domestic space so that the women are less marginalised.

As to the film’s narrative, I’ve read that Reichardt and her collaborators were not particularly familiar with previous films on the same topic. (See the Sight and Sound coverage (May 2011). The film was motivated more by Reichardt’s discovery of the landscape when she was researching an earlier film – and by her co-writer Jon Raymond’s research into the local history of the region which turned up the Meek character. But Reichardt certainly was aware of the ways in which Westerns have traditionally marginalised women and her focus on the three women working together is clear. In some ways however I think that film pushes more towards allegory than social history. It made me re-think my own experience of watching Westerns and why I didn’t more forcefully resist the casual sexism and more blatant racism of so many Western narratives. In a typically solid summary of women’s roles in Westerns by Ed Buscombe (in the same issue of Sight and Sound), he mentions both Ford’s Wagonmaster and the TV series Wagon Train which I watched regularly in the 1950s. As Buscombe points out, the series format and the need for new narrative material meant that the TV representations of the wagon train were more likely to feature domestic scenes and it is interesting to see how Reichardt’s vision makes the collecting of kindling, cooking, sewing etc. much more realistic and much more part of the trail experience. The framings also emphasise this with the women often in central positions when the group is viewed in relation to the landscape (i.e. when they are discussing which way to go). Her women are clearly part of the survival discourse of the film and the interaction between Emily and the Cayuse demonstrates this. She is repelled by his stench, but she mends his moccasin. She explains this as a pragmatic decision but it is also suggestive of her humanity, her compassion and perhaps her sense of justice because of the way he is being treated by Meek. Jon Raymond refers to Cormac McCarthy’s novel Blood Meridian as an inspiration and I can see that in some of the interactions between characters and with the landscape.

I suspect that some audiences will struggle with the film, partly because of the otherness of its look but mainly because of its narrative. In the goal-orientated fictional worlds of Hollywood, the ‘end is always in sight’ but Reichardt is much more interested in the journey itself. But I thoroughly enjoyed the film. I hope she either makes another Western or that she has inspired others to explore similar territory. More please!

Here is the film’s trailer illustrating some of the points presented above:

The Coen Brothers: Serious Men?

Ethan and Joel Coen at the 'True Grit' press conference during the opening day of the 61st Berlin International Film Festival on February 10, 2011 (Photo by Andreas Rentz/Getty Images)

I’m booked to run a day school with this title at the end of February and I’ve been working on some ideas in preparation for watching True Grit and then deciding how to structure the day. Films and filmmakers associated with major Hollywood studios are not the focus of this blog, but the Coens occupy an odd position, critically and commercially, a kind of no man’s land between mainstream and independent. At this time of year with virtually no high-profile releases from outside the US because of the awards season, they are getting a lot of attention. Their anomalous position is part of the their appeal to festival organisers – as in Berlin last week.

However, I realise that I’ve been watching Coen Bros. films since the 1980s without ever spending too much time thinking about them. What I do remember is an interesting presentation in the NFT by Julia Short, then of Polygram (?) explaining how the marketing of Fargo (1996) was handled in the UK (i.e. quite differently than in North America). Later I worked on a presentation about O Brother Where Art Thou? (2000) which was mainly I think about Roger Deakins’ cinematography and the (then) new ways in which colour grading could be altered significantly at the digital intermediate stage. O Brother is possibly my favourite Coen Brothers film – primarily because of the music and the ensemble comedy playing of George Clooney, Holly Hunter, Tim Blake Nelson, John Turturro et al.

In a sense, I think I’ve just skated over some of the key Coen Brothers traits: excellent casting and performances, great music (e.g. T-Bone Burnett), great cinematography and a slightly odd position re Hollywood studios (UK production company, Working Title via Universal have been the consistent funding source since Barton Fink in 1991). Against this is a feeling that the Coens are talented filmmakers who sometimes just seem to make lazy choices of project. After the disappointing Intolerable Cruelty (2003) I decided to give The Ladykillers remake a miss. I’m not sure what I made of No Country For Old Men (2007) but I’m not sure it added that much to my experience of reading the novel, apart from the usual excellent ensemble acting and technical credits on cinematography etc. To begin my preparation for the school I watched The Big Lebowski (1998) and A Serious Man (2008). Predictably perhaps, I found the first entertaining with an interesting soundtrack, but not much more, whereas the latter seemed quite clever with an intriguing narrative structure and a refreshingly different approach to representing the Jewish community of their youth in the Mid West.

On Saturday Will Self, the novelist and once newspaper film reviewer, wrote a piece in the Guardian which felt rather like my own view of the Coens, though I suspect that we might disagree on which Coen Bros. films we preferred. I then watched the 1969 adaptation of True Grit directed by Henry Hathaway and starring John Wayne in his Oscar-winning role. I don’t think that I’d watched it before (Wayne’s Green Berets put me off him for several years I think) though I remembered the Glen Campbell song and the iconic Wayne/Cogburn charge towards the end of the film. I found the film entertaining, mainly for the dialogue which presumably comes from the novel and Kim Darby’s performance which was at least different. It is also beautifully shot by Lucien Ballard who also shot Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch and Ride the High Country (1962) and was one of the top visualisers of the West. I’m intrigued to see what Roger Deakins does for the Coens. At first, I thought that the film was very old-fashioned, reminding me of Western TV series and the ‘cleaner’ look of the 1950s movies. In the latter half when it becomes a ‘mountain Western’ I was reminded of Ride The High Country, in which a young woman is similarly in the charge of two (much older) men. In 1969, however, Peckinpah was bringing out The Wild Bunch and consciously changing the Western. The Wayne True Grit did seem more like a literary adaptation, i.e. of a classic novel – I’ve seen Mark Twain mentioned – rather than a Western novel. I’ve ordered the book to check out its style.

The Coen’s True Grit has been hyped to the skies and has been rewarded with a strong box office and heaps of critical praise. They have spoken at length about their intentions and how they have ignored the Wayne version. In another Guardian piece they are quoted as saying that their film isn’t really a Western at all. My feeling is that much of what they say could be just flim-flam, but I’ll wait and see what I make of their film this week. In some ways the most interesting aspect of all of this is to try to work out what audiences are getting from the film, the most successful ‘historical film’ from Hollywood in recent times. Why does something that at least looks like a Western appeal now? Is it because there is a more satisfying story than most contemporary Hollywood films – or because the folk memory of the Western as ‘the great American story’ is comforting during a recession (i.e. that genre recognition means more than the Coens claim)? After the first couple of weeks of the film’s run outside North America we’ll know if the feeling is similar for audiences globally. If it is, that prompts other questions. (The opening weekend in London saw True Grit topping the chart. In the rest of the UK it also did very well but couldn’t dislodge The Kings’s Speech from No 1 film outside the children’s market.)

I’m hoping to explore these ideas at the National Media Museum in Bradford on 26 February.

Westerns: A Routledge Film Guidebook

Westerns, A Routledge Film Guide Book by John White (2010), £16.99, 208pp ISBN 9780415558136

The Routledge Film Guidebooks are slim A5-sized books. The list so far includes director studies (James Cameron and Jane Campion) as well as genre guides such as Horror and Romantic Comedy. With the imminent UK release of True Grit by the Coen Bros., the appearance of John White’s guide is timely.

The first task for the reviewer in this instance is to consider exactly what can be fitted into a relatively small guidebook when dealing with a genre as extensive as the Western. Inevitably, what to leave out and what to make a focus becomes a major issue. The decision will also determine the address of the book to a particular audience. Unfortunately John White doesn’t give any direct indication of who he thinks his readers might be. Since he teaches undergraduates at Anglia Ruskin University but also writes textbooks for A Level film students in the 16-19 sector, his target presumably spans this range. The book’s blurb and the short explanation of the film guidebook project inside suggests that this will be an ‘introductory book’ and indeed all the guidebooks seem to have a similar structure: the evolution of the genre/movement/directorial career, discussion of a variety of critical approaches that could be applied to the films and then a more detailed discussion of key films.

Herein lies a problem. White argues in his opening that many books on the Western spend too much time re-telling the stories of a wide range of films. His focus instead will be on the exploration of different critical approaches, so he tells us that his outlines will be kept to the minimum and he will assume that “readers are already familiar with the basic plot”. Well, he may well be right since the repertoire of elements of the Western has permeated not just American but global culture over a long period. On the other hand it seems to me that younger audiences viewing one of the relatively rare Westerns in contemporary cinema (such as Brokeback Mountain or The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, two of his key films) are coming to the Western in quite different ways than similar-aged audiences in the 1950-70s. Apart from any other contextual/conjunctural factors, audiences now are not being exposed to Westerns as ‘genre texts’, available everywhere in a more or less constant stream (during the 1950s literally dozens of different Western TV series played on American television every week). Instead, a Western is now a ‘one-off’ (unlike horror films which do still appear in a constant stream, even if some of them are marketed heavily as single titles).

But perhaps I am being unreasonable? John White lays out his aim and pursues it. The chapter on ‘the evolution of the Western’ manages to cram a great deal into under 30 pages and I found the material on ‘silent Westerns’ in particular informative and helpful. For students without detailed knowledge of the genre, this short section will provide a useful primer. White references key films and important scholarly work – and at the end of the book he provides a timeline of important historical events that inform the narratives of many Westerns set in the nineteenth century. He then continues the timeline to include the release dates of key films and the events in later American history that help to contextualise production and reception of the films. The guide overall is well served by its bibliographies, index and endnotes.

The second part of the book offers 5-6 pages on each of a range of critical approaches: genre, semiotic analysis, representation, ideology, discourse analysis, narrative structure, realism, auteur theory, star theory, psychoanalytical theory, postmodernism and audience response. In each case, two or three films are used as case studies. The film choices seem to me to be pretty sound, but the brevity of each analysis means that students will probably need supplementary material to get the most from them.

The third section then applies combinations of the critical approaches from section two to eight key films: Stagecoach (1939), My Darling Clementine (1946), Shane (1953), The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966), McCabe and Mrs Miller (1971), Unforgiven (1992), Brokeback Mountain (2005) and The Assassination of Jesse James (2007). Again, this seems a good selection and offers a film from virtually each decade from the 1930s onwards. All the films are easily available and many of them are accompanied by extensive online critical commentaries. I do wonder if some films/directors could have overlapped a little more – enabling more depth at the expense of more examples. For instance, the critical approaches section references another two John Ford films, plus John Wayne and Clint Eastwood as actors and directors. But suggesting other ways of organising the material is not particularly helpful – we will all have our own preferences.

This little book does what it sets out to do. It’s well-referenced and will provide a good introduction. You can’t ask for too much more.

Major Dundee (US 1964)

An example of the impressive widescreen cinematography in Major Dundee as the cavalry troop splits into three to investigate the burning settlement.

I think that Major Dundee is the only Peckinpah film that I haven’t managed to see at the cinema. Despite being a massive Peckinpah fan, I couldn’t drum up much enthusiasm for the pan and scan TV version that I managed to tape many years ago. I knew the legend of the film – Sam’s first big studio picture that went over budget and was butchered on release. So when I saw a discounted DVD of the ‘restored’ version of the film (released by Sony in 2005) I snapped it up.

Although released in US cinemas, I think that this restored version has had only a handful of UK cinema outings as it hasn’t been resubmitted to the BBFC. There is a lot of confusion about the various cuts of the film. Several reference books quote 134 mins for the original studio cut but in the UK, the BBFC (the classification agency) gives the length as 124 mins. The restored version runs on DVD at 130 mins (approx 136 for the film at 24 fps) giving around 12 mins of extra material. Peckinpah’s original print ran to 4 hours plus and his ‘cut’ has been stated as running to about 152 mins. What we have now on DVD – all cleaned up – is essentially the producer Jerry Breslin’s cut before Columbia chopped it further.

The script was unfinished when Peckinpah started filming and he had to re-write and add material ‘on the hoof’ during a very ambitious shoot. His biggest mistake was to select locations in Mexico which were widely scattered, creating logistical nightmares. Although the studio was typically blinkered in how they dealt with the production, Sam no doubt caused some of the problems himself.

Plot outline

If you’ve seen any of Peckinpah’s Westerns, the plot will sound familiar. It’s 1864, the Civil War is still raging. Major Dundee (Charlton Heston) is the commander of a US Army prison in New Mexico territory. His prisoners are Confederate soldiers under the command of Captain Tyreen (Richard Harris). A local Apache warrior chief has massacred the whites in a nearby settlement along with their Army protectors. Dundee vows to bring the Apache to justice and to rescue three young boys who have been abducted. To do so he must venture into Mexico and confront not only the Apache, but also French lancers who are fighting the Juaristas on behalf of the Emperor Maximilian of Austria. Dundee has few men able to go on the expedition so he is forced to take both Negro soldiers, who are fed up of being prison guards, and the Confederates led by Tyreen and ‘on their honour’ not to escape – at least until the job is done. With this motley crew, Dundee, like Captain Ahab in pursuit of Moby Dick, stands little chance of success.

Commentary

Apart from Heston and Harris – very big stars at the time – Peckinpah assembled a strong cast including those already regulars in his company – Warren Oates, L. Q. Jones, R. G. Armstrong etc. – and those destined to become so – James Coburn, Ben Johnson, Slim Pickens. He couldn’t have his usual cinematographer Lucien Ballard, but Sam Leavitt did a great job. Controversially, he was also saddled with music from Daniele Amfitheatroff (complete with irritatingly catchy marching song). The restoration has a new score (but both are available on the DVD).

There is a great deal written about the film and the DVD comes with commentary from four of the main Peckinpah chroniclers – David Weddle, Garner Simmons, Nick Redman and Paul Seydor. I’m going to focus on some less well-covered aspects.

My immediate reaction to the film, even on my small TV screen was to its epic scale. I could hardly remember anything from the pan and scan TV print of years ago, but the DVD is riveting. This must be one of the most beautifully-mounted Westerns I’ve seen in a long time. Much comes from the location shooting in Mexico, but the CinemaScope compositions and the crane shots of action are very well used. The restoration presents the beauty and the horror in sensitively balanced Eastman Color. I’ve compared the DVD to my copy of Ford’s She Wears a Yellow Ribbon (1949) and the results are interesting I think. The Ford film is also visually stunning and, I was surprised to note, gives the impression of greater pace in the editing. But this is achieved through rapid montage. By contrast, Peckinpah, despite his reputation for fast-cutting, seems to move his horsemen across the landscape in a more languid way and includes longer takes and more long shots. When he comes to the action sequences, it is possible to see the beginnings of the multiple camera shooting in some of the spectacular action which involved the greatest number of stuntmen ever assembled for a Hollywood Western (a ‘featurette’ on the stunt work is included on the DVD).

The comparison with Ford is important. Major Dundee riffs on two of Ford’s major Western creations – the cavalry trilogy (Yellow Ribbon, Fort Apache, Rio Grande) and The Searchers. Charlton Heston is no John Wayne but he’s better under Peckinpah than in many of his more well-known roles. The Peckinpah stock company is a match for Ford’s but the main difference is Peckinpah’s attempt to represent the West he knows as grittier and more ‘real’. I think he manages this and in the Mexican scenes in particular you can see the ingredients of The Wild Bunch. It’s worth noting that Dundee was made at the same time as Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars and released well before the ‘spaghetti Westerns’ reached North America. Although their aims may have been different, Leone and Peckinpah had a similar impact on the Hollywood Western.The difference that Peckinpah makes is best illustrated by the one other feature of the film that he couldn’t control – the casting of Senta Berger. Ms Berger, at the time a major European star, was cast to help the film’s prospects in Europe. She appears as a very beautiful and well maintained German doctor’s wife in a small Mexican town – visually out of place. The character is quite acceptable (i.e. there were Europeans in Mexico at the time) but Berger just looks wrong and the potential romantic pairing with Heston detracts from the narrative drive. Ironically, despite officially dying at the US box office, the film may indeed have done quite well in Europe. According to one French website it made over $1.5 million in France alone. I wish I could verify this and find other European box office figures.

It’s a cliche to say that Peckinpah was widely misunderstood and undervalued, but it still needs to be said. I’m glad this DVD of Dundee is available. I’m looking now for a DVD of my favourite Peckinpah, Junior Bonner which I’ve yet to find in the original Todd-AO ratio.