Monthly Archives: July 2013

Lone Star

Nicholas Chennault ~ July 30, 2013

Lone Star—Chris Cooper, Matthew McConaughey, Kris Kristofferson, Elizabeth Pena, Joe Morton, Ron Canada (1996; Dir:  John Sayles)

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The central character is Rio County sheriff Sam Deeds (Chris Cooper) in modern-day Texas.  Sam is grappling with personal and professional (but mostly personal) issues relating to his own legendary-but-now-deceased sheriff father Buddy Deeds (played as a young man in flashbacks by Matthew McConaughey) and Charlie Wade, Buddy’s brutal and corrupt but effective predecessor (Kris Kristofferson) as sheriff.  However, there are also multigenerational issues involving Latinos and blacks, as well as the area’s changing demographics.  These are all played out against a background of finding and identifying a body in the desert, dead for decades and reduced to bones.  It’s a rich canvas, focusing on several families with different backgrounds and weaving them together with the central story.  The quiet use of the changing ethnic mix of Texas, with the conflicts between generations, is never heavy-handed and seldom predictable.

In addition to dealing with the heritage of the western mythos in the person of his father (who was apparently more successful as a lawman than as a father), Sam copes with his own ethical and relationship dilemmas.  He’s divorced and becomes interested in renewing a relationship with Pilar Cruz (Elizabeth Pena), his Latina high school girl friend.  Pilar, now a high school history teacher, has some issues with her own mother Mercedes, a widow who runs a successful Mexican restaurant.  Fort McKenzie, the local army base, is slated to be closed.  The new camp commander, Col. Delmore Payne (Joe Morton), is a hard-line military type trying keep his command in shape while juggling his feelings about his estranged father Otis (Ron Canada) and his own adolescent son who’s chafing under his military father’s restrictions.  Otis runs Big O’s, the only bar in the county primarily for blacks.

While Sam investigates past sheriffs Buddy and Charlie and digs up old secrets, he tries to figure out if he wants to run for sheriff again when the much more numerous Latinos get political power in the next election.  Buddy could be as controlling as Charlie—it was part of the job description for a sheriff in border country—but was he as corrupt?  Some of the investigation involves Pilar’s family, too, and the Paynes.  Sam and Pilar hit it off as well as they did when they were teenagers.  Eventually he finds the truth about the body and some about his father, as well.

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Two former sheriffs of Rio County face off.

The cast is surprisingly good, especially the understated Cooper, Elizabeth Pena, Ron Canada and Joe Morton.  Even Matthew McConaughey is good in this (albeit with little actual screen time), which must mean that the story and director are unusually excellent.  The smaller characters, like Clifton James who plays a former Wade deputy who’s now the town’s mayor, are quite good, too.  Frances McDormand has a very good cameo as Sam’s ex-wife, who’s “wound a little too tight.”  There’s a deliberate pace to the development and a focus on relationships, with a little action interspersed.  In the occasional flashback, the camera pans seamlessly from the present to the past to start the flashback, or from the past to the present at the end in an interesting technique.

Director John Sayles is known much more for easterns than for westerns, but he created a gem here.  This was not widely seen on its release in theaters—it was shown mostly in art houses.  But it’s very good.  It’s rated R, apparently for some language, violence and even some sexual references.  This is perhaps one of the three best westerns set in modern times, along with Bad Day at Black Rock and No Country for Old Men.  [But see also Treasure of the Sierra Madre and Giant, which many don’t put into the category of westerns.]

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The Missing

Nicholas Chennault ~ July 29, 2013

The Missing—Tommy Lee Jones, Cate Blanchett, Val Kilmer, Aaron Eckhart, Evan Rachel Wood, Jenna Boyd, Eric Schweig, Jay Tavare, Simon Baker (2003; Dir:  Ron Howard)

At the heart of this story is the strained relationship between Samuel Jones (Tommy Lee Jones), a father who abandoned his family years ago to go live with the Chiricahua Apaches, and his grown daughter Maggie Gilkeson (Cate Blanchett), a New Mexico rancher and healer with two daughters of her own.  A restless sort, Jones has never been one either to maintain family ties or to stay very close to civilization.  “If I stay here very long, I might misbehave.  Somebody might have to kill me.”  Now that he thinks he’s dying, he is in fact seeking out his lost family to make what modest amends he can at this late stage of his life.

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Cate Blanchett, in a hat reminiscent of Clint Eastwood (Pale Rider).

Maggie is fairly blunt about the fact that she has no use for him at all, but she finds that she needs his help to recover her own daughter Lily (Evan Rachel Wood) when she is abducted by a band of white and Indian renegades.  Samuel Jones’s knowledge of Indians and the terrain and his ability to navigate and survive in desolate conditions are essential to the pursuit, or Maggie wouldn’t have taken him along even in her desperation.  Maggie turns out to be her father’s daughter in the good sense:  she has grit, resourcefulness and determination, carrying the small group in their mission by sheer will at times.  On the expedition, they come to know each other at last, and they come to some acceptance of each other’s weaknesses.  They do eventually rescue the girl, among others.  And come to a greater appreciation of Indians generally.  And take care of the bad guys.  It’s better and more fun than that sounds.

Jones, a native Texan, is really a natural in westerns, with his weathered face and quick drawl.  He, like Robert Duvall, has attained a kind of iconic status in the genre, in part from their partnership in Lonesome Dove.  Blanchett, perhaps the premier actress of her generation, has never been in a western before, but she’s as convincing at this as she was as such imperious characters as Elizabeth I in Elizabeth or as Katherine Hepburn in The Aviator.  Val Kilmer is excellent in a cameo as the not-terribly-helpful commander of a platoon of cavalry.  And Aaron Eckhart seems to deserve better than the small, thankless role he has early in the movie as a foreman and romantic interest for Maggie.  Jenna Boyd as younger daughter Dot Gilkesen outshines abducted older daughter Lily (Evan Rachel Wood), but much of that may be in the way the parts are written.  Jay Tavare and Simon Baker are very good as Katiyah and his son, Apache acquaintances of Jones with more dimension than Indians usually are given in westerns.  Canadian Indian actor Eric Schweig, so noble as Uncas in Last of the Mohicans a decade earlier, is virtually unrecognizable as the renegade Apache El Brujo.

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In general theme, this is similar to The Searchers, the John Ford classic from 50 years earlier.  In interviews, director Ron Howard said that The Missing was basically a remake of The Searchers, and that may be true in the sense that the basic plot involves white people trying to retrieve captured girls from Indians.  In broad outline, it’s another of many westerns with a search-for-family theme, but the two movies are based on separate novels by different authors (Alan LeMay and Tom Eidson).  And as it turns out, the main characters, their attitudes and the balances between them are very different.  The time frame is compressed here, the irrationality in the obsessive pursuit is gone and the attitudes toward Indians are much more complex.  Jones and Maggie are also searching for their lost father-daughter relationship, even though they’re actually in the same place for the first time in decades, and for common emotional ground that would allow them to remake that relationship.  There’s an undercurrent of conflict between conventional Christianity (embodied by Maggie) and Indian animism (embodied by Jones and others) that is not entirely successful.

With the confluence of top-flight director and cast, this could have been absolutely terrific, and it isn’t, quite.  The weakness is in the story, with its emphasis on the Apache brujo leader of the renegades and on supposed Indian mysticism.  That current is a little freaky and doesn’t mesh entirely with the more realistic western elements of the film.  But it’s still an excellent western.  Ron Howard was a first-time director of westerns with this and probably won’t remember it as one of his three or four best movies, but it’s enjoyable.  It’s rated R, largely for its violence and for the nastiness of the renegades.

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Open Range

Nicholas Chennault ~ July 27, 2013

Open Range—Robert Duvall, Kevin Costner, Annette Bening, Michael Gambon, Michael Jeter, James Russo (2003; Dir:  Kevin Costner)

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Kevin Costner isn’t in great critical favor as a director these days, but he also seems to be one of the three or four best current directors of westerns (see the discussion of directors below).  He’s probably underrated as an actor as well, since he’s turned in some strong work at this stage of his career in such non-westerns as The Upside of Anger.  He directed and starred in Open Range, and he did very well in both those capacities.

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Boss Spearman and Charley Waite heading for the showdown.

The story is a pretty typical cattle drive/range war sort of thing, in which Robert Duvall is Boss Spearman, a rancher moving his herd to market in 1882 with the help of Charley Waite (Kevin Costner) and a couple of others.  At Harmonville, they run afoul of the entrenched local land baron Denton Baxter (played by the British actor Michael Gambon) and his minions, including a corrupt marshal (played by James Russo).  These sorts of conflicts are never settled easily in a western.  “Man’s got a right to protect his property and his life, and we ain’t lettin’ no rancher or his lawman take either.”  Duvall is superb as usual, and Costner has enough heft and strength to play off him well.  The Costner character seems a bit dour under the harsh circumstances (although less so than in Lawrence Kasdan’s Wyatt Earp), but he looks and plays as authentic.

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Even so, this might be ordinary enough were it not for two elements.  The first is an excellent mature romance between Waite and Sue Barlow, the local doctor’s sister (Annette Bening)—mature because it’s between realistic people of a certain age, not because a lot of flesh or overt passion is shown.  It is convincing, charming and seems true to the period.  The second takes a while to develop, but the culminating shoot-out actually manages to seem more believable and real than most others in westerns.  Note, however, Waite fanning his gun.  It looks impressive and conveys a sense of familiarity with a gun, and perhaps expertise, but it was a notoriously inaccurate and often wasteful way of discharging a weapon, especially if you needed to save ammunition during an extended fight.  Still, westerns have always been reluctant to show gunfighters reloading, since it slows down the action.  The sound of guns firing in this film is loud enough to carry a shock with it (as with the punched-up sound of gunshots in Shane 50 years earlier), and that seems realistic, too.

In the extreme situations that develop, Spearman and Waite each discover new things about the other.  There seem to be real relationships here.

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Annette Bening as the doctor’s spinster sister Sue.

Michael Gambon’s sheer malevolence as the land baron can seem a little over-the-top, and there’s a fair amount of scenery-chewing on his part.  However, there is the gorgeous scenery of the Canadian Rockies as captured by cinematographer James Muro.  This was the last movie made by veteran character actor Michael Jeter, who died soon after its release.   Because of the violence, the movie is rated R.

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Broken Trail

Nicholas Chennault ~ July 25, 2013

Broken Trail—Robert Duvall, Thomas Haden Church, Greta Scacchi, Scott Cooper, Gwendoline Yeo, Rusty Schwimmer, James Russo, Chris Mulkey (Made for television, 2006; Dir:  Walter Hill)

This originally aired as a two-night miniseries on television; its playing time on DVD is just over three hours.  But television or not, its top-of-the-line casting, a strong story, good direction and excellent production values qualify it for this list.  It won an Emmy for Best Miniseries.

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Broken Trail takes place in 1898 and follows Print Ritter (Robert Duvall) and his nephew Tom Harte (Thomas Haden Church) as they drive a herd of 500 horses from the John Day country of Oregon eastward across the mountains of Idaho to Sheridan in north-central Wyoming.  That’s where the British are paying top dollar for horses because of the Boer War.  Along the way, they have a number of unexpected adventures, such as rescuing a wagon-load of non-English-speaking Chinese women destined for prostitution.  They deal with problems provided by nature and by various miscreants, loathsome outlaws, prostitutes, vile madams and a lawless mining town.

But the story and characters are what keep us watching.  Duvall has always been supremely watchable in a western role if the writing’s any good at all.  However, he and the film benefit hugely when he’s got another strong performer to play off; think of Tommy Lee Jones in Lonesome Dove and Kevin Costner in Open Range Duvall has said that he thinks of these two movies along with Broken Trail as his trail boss trilogy, and they’re all good. 

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In this case it’s Church’s performance, and his relationship with Duvall’s character, that make this movie excellent.  In some ways his character is harder, more humorless and more unyielding than Duvall’s, but in the end he can change more than Duvall can.  There’s a certain amount of heartbreak in this one, as well as all the action one could wish.  There are a number of historical touches that make this richer than it had to be.  It takes the time to develop not only the relationship between uncle and nephew but to differentiate the Chinese women as individuals.  It’s longer than most movies and the pace isn’t quick, but it seldom seems to drag.

This is obviously the story of a stock drive, horses in this case–or as Print Ritter calls them, “high-desert mustangs.”  As with many westerns, however, the subtext is the search for family on a number of levels:  the healing of long-time family relationships; the bonding of strangers; the formation of new romantic relationships and the relationships that don’t quite get formed—all while using traditional western themes, situations and settings.

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Lonesome Dove was clearly a strong influence on this film, and this is not quite on the same level as that masterpiece.  The three-hour playing time makes the pace seem leisurely at times, especially in the second half.  The editing is looser than it could be, and not all of the many threads of the story seem to be entirely consistent or tied up by the end of the film.  There are a couple of spots where it seems like what was captured on camera could be clearer, as when the horses crest the Whale’s Back and start down the other side.  The ending seems extended beyond what we expect, but that extension has a certain power to it as we learn what became of these characters after the events of the movie.  Although they are fictional, they do seem real after this recounting.  The device is fairly common, but it is exceptionally well done in this case.  In the words of Print Ritter, “We’re all travelers in this world.  Sweet grass to the packin’ house, birth to death, we travel between the eternities….”  People make their choices, and human ties remain what the individuals have made of them.

Broken Trails Ritter and the Chinese girls

The Chinese women are all sympathetic and well-played, especially Gwendoline Yeo as Sun Foo (No. 3, the oldest).  Greta Scacchi is Nola Johns, an older prostitute who flees Cariboo City with Harte and the Chinese women, and she’s very good.  Scacchi is a very beautiful English-Italian actress of a certain age, deliberately made up here to indicate the hard use to which her character has been subjected.  She shows quiet warmth as her relationships develop with other characters, along with strength in disappointment, and, in the end with just her voice, controlled heartbreak.  Other smaller roles are excellently played:  Rusty Schwimmer as the vicious madam Big Rump Kate Becker; Chris Mulkey as ruthless bad guy Big Ears Ed Bywater; Scott Cooper as Heck Gilpin, fiddler and apprentice horse wrangler; and James Russo as Captain Billy Fender, loquacious white slaver.  The bad guys are pretty thoroughly evil, no question about it.

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Bad guys:  Big Rump Kate Becker (Rusty Schwimmer) and Big Ears Ed Bywater (Chris Mulkey)

The production design is excellent, overseen by Ken Rempel.  The production team obviously spent time doing their research and making this look and sound authentic for its period.  Except for Cariboo City, a rowdy Idaho mining camp (which was in fact largely abandoned by 1898), this movie doesn’t spend much time in towns, so look at what the characters are wearing and the equipment they use:  The curve of the brim on Church’s hat, for example, and the leather cuffs these working cattlemen wear to protect their arms from rope burns.  (Now we need to see a cowboy on these northern ranges wearing a pair of woolly chaps.)  The use of the term “buckaroo” was in fact common especially around the Great Basin and points north where this takes place, although not so much in more southern ranching areas.  The description by Nola Johns of the downward career path of a western prostitute is quite accurate.

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There’s been a trend in recent years to use the Canadian Rockies in Alberta for filming westerns, and Broken Trail benefits from this gorgeous scenery, with Lloyd Ahern as the cinematographer.  The horses crossing a river or just breathing on a frosty morning, keeping the herd moving through an early snowfall–it always looks great, even if you’ve never seen these things before.  On occasion it may not look much like the high deserts of eastern Oregon and southern Idaho, however.  Since it wasn’t released in theaters, it wasn’t subject to the cinematic rating system.  It would have been on the borders of PG-13 and R, because of the violence, occasional language (although they’re careful), and themes involving prostitution, ruthless behavior, and death.  Director Walter Hill (see The Long Riders, as well as the underrated Geronimo:  An American Legend) clearly feels an affinity for the era and is one of the three or four best directors now working in the genre, although he doesn’t actually make a lot of westerns.

If you’re interested in another good western featuring the Chinese in the American west, see A Thousand Pieces of Gold.

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Thomas Haden Church and director Walter Hill.

 

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3:10 to Yuma (the Remake)

Nicholas Chennault ~ July 24, 2013

3:10 to Yuma—Christian Bale, Russell Crowe, Ben Foster, Alan Tudyk, Peter Fonda, Gretchen Mol, Dallas Roberts, Logan Lermon, Vinessa Shaw  (2007; Dir:  James Mangold)

Great westerns don’t get released every day, or even every year.  These days, when the genre is largely out of fashion, it’s notable when a western this good appears.  The basic story deals with Dan Evans (Christian Bale), an Arizona rancher in dire financial difficulty who agrees to help take notorious outlaw leader Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) to the town of Contention, where he’ll be placed on a train to the territorial prison in Yuma.  It’s dangerous, primarily because the outlaw’s gang is certain to try to rescue him, but there are other less predictable dangers as well.  Along the way, the civilized rancher and the ruthless outlaw develop a certain ambivalent relationship, which really forms the heart of the movie.  It’s forged of honor and responsibility pitted against conscienceless pragmatism, and they’re not entirely hostile.

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Christian Bale as beleaguered rancher Dan Evans; Russell Crowe as outlaw chieftain Ben Wade.

Getting to Contention is not easy, what with hostile Apaches, nasty railroad men, bickering among the members of the party and the constant possibility of Wade’s gang overtaking them.  Once in Contention, the job is far from over.  In fact, in Contention there are even bigger obstacles to getting Wade on the train at 3:10.  Meanwhile, Evans’ teenaged son, who has seen his father battle ineffectually against the elements, lack of water, the bank and hostile marauders on his ranch, begins to re-define his own relationship with his father.

This is an instance where a remake is better than the original, released 50 years earlier.  This remake obviously has a higher budget.  While it has the same strong core story as the original (both based on a story by the great Elmore Leonard), what elevates this version are the performances of the two leads, Bale and Crowe, along with Ben Foster as Wade’s psychotic lieutenant Charlie Prince.  Bale, in particular, makes the rancher more understandable and less distant than he might have been.  On the whole, Crowe plays the bandit leader as more believably amoral, and occasionally more lethal, than Glenn Ford did in the original.  Crowe is very persuasive when his eyes turn cold.  The rancher’s wife character, played here by Gretchen Mol, may not be as interesting as the same character in the original.  There are stronger sub-themes in this remake, though, producing a richer movie.  Alan Tudyk is good as the local doctor, a civilized character who is actually admirable, unlike most of the other law-abiding types in the movie. Dallas Roberts as Grayson Butterfield, stagecoach line businessman, is very persuasive, as is Logan Lermon as Evans’ headstrong older son William.  In a small role as Emma Nelson, a bargirl who takes Wade’s fancy for a brief interlude, Vinessa Shaw does well, too.  There’s a lot of bittersweet on both sides in that interlude.

There are other differences from the original:  The entire extended sequence between leaving the ranch and arriving in the town of Contention is new.  The role of the older son is much enlarged, not always with complete believability, but it does add a deeper layer of father-son relationship issues to the story.  The Peter Fonda role as Byron McElroy, an unsympathetic Pinkerton bounty hunter, is new, as are other supporting characters.  The outlaws, including their charismatic leader, seem more ruthless than in the original, notwithstanding a couple of touches intended to soften the Ben Wade character slightly.  Following cinematic fashions, the violence in the remake is more graphic than in the original, and in full color.  Most of the supposedly good guys aren’t very admirable, but the contrast helps to make the main point with the Bale character:  the real nature of heroism is that it’s rarer, more admirable and also more mundane than you’d think.  The ending seems stronger (certainly more violent) in the remake, although some have suggested that they don’t find it entirely believable.  In retrospect, the violence seems over the top, but Ben Foster as Charlie Prince is surprisingly compelling in the middle of it all.

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Ben Foster punches it up as Wade’s lieutenant Charley Prince.

For western devotees, this is very worth watching, but it earns its R rating with some rough language and especially with the violence, including the extended shootout at the end.

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True Grit (the Remake)

Nicholas Chennault ~ July 23, 2013

True Grit—Jeff Bridges, Hailee Steinfeld, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, Barry Pepper, Dakin Mathews (2010; Dir:  Ethan Coen, Joel Coen)

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“You go for a man hard enough and fast enough, he don’t have time to think about how many’s with him.  He thinks about himself, and how he might get clear of that wrath that’s about to set down on him.”  This line of Rooster Cogburn philosophy wasn’t explicit in the original 1969 True Grit.  Many wondered if a remake was necessary, especially with westerns being so out-of-cinematic-fashion and all.  But the result has been the Coen brothers’ most profitable movie to date, even taking into account their Oscar winner No Country for Old Men.  The Coens’ attempt to return more closely to the original Charles Portis novel is successful on its own terms, even though much of the dialogue sounds familiar.

The outlines of the story are very familiar by now:  14-year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) from near Dardanelles in Yell County, Arkansas, sets out for Fort Smith in search of her father’s killer, only to find he has headed off into the wild and lawless Indian Territory to the west.  She hires one-eyed Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), said to be the most ruthless of Judge Parker’s federal marshals, to pursue the killer, Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin).   They are joined by a dandified Texas ranger, La Boeuf (pronounced “La Beef” and played by Matt Damon), who wants Chaney for a Texas murder.  In the end, all three pursuers have demonstrated their own versions of True Grit in battling outlaws, snakes and the elements in their pursuit of Chaney and his new associates.

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There are various elements that are unchanged from Henry Hathaway’s original film version of the story.  If anything, the remake keeps even closer to Portis’ period language and does so quite successfully.  The interplay between the three protagonists will seem familiar, if more balanced with a better actor in the La Boeuf role.  The high point of the movie’s action, Cogburn’s one-on-four joust with Lucky Ned Pepper’s gang in a high mountain meadow, remains one of the most compelling sequences in any western. 

But there are other elements that are even more rewarding in the Coen brothers’ version than they were in the Hathaway movie.  The conscientious use of period details and a somber palette of colors in the production design are very thorough and work well with the dialogue.  There are upgrades in several of the roles:  Hailee Steinfeld in her first film role is magnificent as young Mattie Ross, in a role that could easily just be strident and irritating in the wrong hands, and Matt Damon’s performance as La Boeuf is a marked improvement on non-actor Glenn Campbell’s version of the role.  Rather than being a John Wayne vehicle (the original won Wayne his only Best Actor Oscar), this version is much more an ensemble effort.  The ending is truer to Portis’ novel.  The music by Carter Burwell, with its theme based on a 19th-century hymn tune (“Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” recognizable from 1955’s Night of the Hunter), feels not only authentic but haunting, and lends an elegiac tone to the entire film.  The cinematography often makes use of sepia tones to suggest old photographs and natural 19th-century lighting in the wintry setting.

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Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) and La Boeuf (Matt Damon) confer on the trail.

If anything, making this movie might be harder now than it was in 1969.  The Coen brothers suggest that one reason is that rules for filmmaking with horses have become much more stringent in the intervening 40 years.  The Coens could throw their 14-year-old lead actress into a freezing river with impunity, but the water had to be at least a certain minimum temperature to do the same with a horse.  Among the less persuasive sequences are Rooster and Mattie’s desperate ride for medical help on the floundering Little Blackie.  One reason it’s less effective might be the inability to actually put such stress on an animal, and relying more on sound effects (such as the heavy equine breathing) and editing.  The rhythms of the motions of the two riders on the horse don’t seem right in the closeups, and that may be because they weren’t actually on a horse for those shots.

Nevertheless, the Old Testament flavor, from the initial scriptural “The wicked flee when no man pursueth…” (Proverbs 28:1), to the narrating Mattie Ross’s comment that a price must be paid for everything in this world save the grace of God, to the older Mattie’s thoughts on Rooster’s final resting place works very well.  It gives both the younger and older Mattie a hard and unforgiving edge (not in precisely the same way), which serves her and Rooster well in the hard and unforgiving territory where they must navigate and with the hard and unforgiving men with whom they must deal.  In the end we see not only True Grit on display with the three principals, but the honest affection and regard in which they come to hold each other and the way they have re-shaped the course of each other’s lives, especially young Mattie’s.  And there is a slight sadness for the ways in which the course of one’s life turns out to be other than one might have wished.

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Rooster Cogburn as played by the excellent Jeff Bridges (with the eye patch on the opposite eye from John Wayne) is more enigmatic, just as coarse, harder and, when the chips are down, just as capable and decisive as the earlier Cogburn.  Although Bridges didn’t win an Oscar for this role, he was nominated.  The supporting roles are well-played, especially Dakin Mathews as the horse trader Col. Stonehill in Fort Smith and Barry Pepper (scarcely recognizable in his woolly chaps, stringy hair and dental prosthetics) as Lucky Ned Pepper, head of the gang with which Chaney falls in.  They play roles that were superbly played in the original by Strother Martin and Robert Duvall, and they hold their own.  Josh Brolin has little screen time as Tom Chaney and he seems a bit overly charismatic for someone who is after all just a stupid killer; but he is otherwise excellent in the role.

This version of True Grit was a surprise success at the box office. The first $100 million western since the 1990s; it eventually passed Dances With Wolves to become the highest-grossing western ever made.  It received ten Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture (although the field for that award had been doubled to ten films beginning the previous year), Best Director for the Coen brothers, Best Actor for Jeff Bridges (even though he’d won for Crazy Heart the previous year and John Wayne had won for the same role 40 years earlier, so chances of Bridges actually winning were minimal), and Best Supporting Actress for Hailee Steinfeld.  It was also nominated for Adapted Screenplay, Art Direction, and Roger Deakins’ Cinematography.  It didn’t win any of them, defeated mostly by The King’s Speech.

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The 55 Great Westerns

Nicholas Chennault ~ July 22, 2013

The List of Greatest Westerns, by Decade

They aren’t all equally great.  Those with their titles indented are great, but perhaps slightly less so than the others.  “MfTV” means “Made for Television,” which two of these were.  You can find most of these titles on Amazon: great westerns since the ’70s, great westerns ’60s and earlier.

If you’re looking for a shorter list, check near the bottom for the 13 very greatest westerns.  And for 13 westerns to watch first if you’re new to westerns generally.  There’s some overlap, but they’re not exactly the same thing.

2010s

True Grit—Bridges, Steinfeld, Damon (2010; Dir:  Coen, Coen)

2000s

3:10 to Yuma—Bale, Crowe (2007; Dir:  Mangold)

Broken Trail—Duvall, Church (MfTV; 2006; Dir:  W. Hill)

Open Range—Duvall, Costner, Bening (2003; Dir:  Costner)

            The Missing—Jones, Blanchett (2003; Dir:  Howard)

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Tommy Lee Jones as Samuel Jones in The Missing.

1990s

 Lone Star—Cooper, McConaughey, Kristofferson, Pena, Morton (1996; Dir:  Sayles)

            Last of the Dogmen—Berenger, Hershey (1995; Dir:  Murphy)

Tombstone—Russell, Kilmer, Elliot (1993; Dir:  Cosmatos)

Last of the Mohicans—Day-Lewis, Stowe (1992; Dir:  M. Mann)

Unforgiven—Eastwood, Freeman, Hackman (1992; Dir:  Eastwood)

            A Thousand Pieces of Gold—Cooper, Chao (1991; Dir:  Kelly; no DVD)

Dances With Wolves—Costner (1990; Dir:  Costner)

Quigley Down Under—Selleck, Rickman (1990; Dir:  Wincer)

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Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday in Tombstone.

1980s

Lonesome Dove—Duvall, Jones, Cooper (MfTV; 1989; Dir:  Wincer)

Pale Rider—Eastwood (1985; Dir:  Eastwood)

Silverado—Kline, Costner, Glenn, Glover (1985; Dir:  Kasdan)

The Grey Fox—Farnsworth (1983; Dir:  Borsos; no DVD)

            The Man From Snowy River—Burlinson, Douglas (1982; Dir:  Miller)

The Long Riders—Keach, Carradine, Guest, Quaid (1980; Dir:  W. Hill)

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Richard Farnsworth as Bill Miner in The Grey Fox–probably the greatest western not currently available on DVD.

1970s

The Shootist—Wayne, Bacall, Howard, Stewart, Boone (1976; Dir:  Siegel)

The Outlaw Josey Wales—Eastwood, Bottoms, George (1976; Dir:  Eastwood)

The Cowboys—Wayne, Browne, Dern (1972; Dir:  Rydell)

Jeremiah Johnson—Redford, Geer (1972; Dir:  Pollack)

Valdez Is Coming—Lancaster (1971; Dir:  Sherin; the version currently on DVD is said to be missing scenes)

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Roscoe Lee Browne as Jebediah Nightlinger in The Cowboys.

1960s

The Wild Bunch—Holden, Ryan, Borgnine, Oates (1969; Dir:  Peckinpah)

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid—Newman, Redford (1969; Dir:  G.R. Hill)

True Grit—Wayne, Campbell, Darby (Duvall) (1969; Dir:  Hathaway)

Support Your Local Sheriff—Garner, Elam, Hackett (1969; Dir:  Kennedy)

            Hour of the Gun—Garner, Robards (1967; Dir:  Sturges)

The Professionals—Marvin, Lancaster, Cardinale (1966; Dir:  Brooks)

Duel at Diablo—Garner, Poitier, Travers, Andersson (1966; Dir:  Nelson)

Cat Ballou—J. Fonda, Marvin (1965; Dir:  Silverstein)

           The Hallelujah Trail—Lancaster, Remick (1965; Dir:  Sturges)

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance—Wayne, Stewart, Marvin (1962; Dir:  Ford)

Ride the High Country—McCrea, Scott (1962; Dir:  Peckinpah)

The Magnificent Seven—Brynner, McQueen (1960; Dir:  Sturges)

North to Alaska—Wayne, Granger, Kovacs (1960; Dir:  Hathaway)

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Lee Marvin as Liberty Valance in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

1950s

Rio Bravo—Wayne, Martin, Nelson (1959; Dir:  Hawks)

           Comanche Station—Scott, Akins, Gates (1959; Dir:  Boetticher)

The Tin Star—Fonda, Perkins (1957; Dir:  Mann)

Seven Men from Now—Scott, Marvin, Russell (1956; Dir:  Boetticher)

The Searchers—Wayne, Hunter (1956; Dir:  Ford)

The Man from Laramie—Stewart (1955; Dir:  Mann)

            The Far Country—Stewart, Brennan, Roman (1955; Dir:  Mann)

The Naked Spur—Stewart, Ryan, Leigh (1953; Dir:  Mann)

Shane—Ladd, Heflin, Palance (1953; Dir:  Stevens)

Hondo—Wayne, Page (1953; Dir:  Farrow)

High Noon—Cooper, Kelly (1952; Dir:  Zinneman)

Winchester ’73—Stewart, Winters (1950; Dir:  Mann)

Rio Grande—Wayne, O’Hara (1950; Dir:  Ford)

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John Wayne as Ethan Edwards in The Searchers.

1940s

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon—Wayne (1949; Dir:  Ford)

Red River—Wayne, Clift (1948; Dir:  Hawks)

Fort Apache—Wayne, Fonda, Temple (1948; Dir:  Ford)

My Darling Clementine—Fonda, Mature, Darnell (1946; Dir:  Ford)

The Ox-Bow Incident—Fonda, Andrews, Morgan (1943; Dir:  Wellman)

Stagecoach—Wayne, Trevor (1939; Dir:  Ford)

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Henry Fonda as Wyatt Earp in My Darling Clementine.

Earlier

The Big Trail—Wayne (1930; Dir:  Walsh)

Cimarron—Dix, Dunne (1931; Dir:  Ruggles, Ising)  Won the Oscar for Best Picture, the first western to do so.  That’s the only reason it appears on this list.

Last of the Mohicans—Scott, Barnes (1936; Dir:  Seitz)

The Plainsman–Cooper, Arthur (1936; Dir:  DeMille)

The Virginian—Cooper, Huston (1929; Dir:  Fleming)

Silents

The General (1926; Dir:  Keaton)

Three Bad Men (1926; Dir:  Ford)

The Great K & A Train Robbery (1926; Dir:  Seiler)

Tumbleweeds—Hart (1925; Dir:  Baggot)

The Iron Horse (1924; Dir:  Ford)

The Covered Wagon (1923)

Mark of Zorro—Fairbanks, Beery (1920; Dir:  Niblo)

Hell’s Hinges—Hart (1916; Dir:  Swickard)

The Squaw Man—Farnum (1914; Dir:  DeMille)  Generally considered the movies’ first full-length feature.

The Great Train Robbery (1903; Dir:  Porter)

The 13 Greatest Westerns:

This list is somewhat arbitrary, as all such lists are, and gets re-negotiated from time to time.  But today, these are the thirteen greatest (not ten, because there were more than ten that couldn’t be left off the list).

1.  Lonesome Dove

2.  The Searchers

3.  Shane

4.  Red River

5.  Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

6.  Rio Bravo

7.  The Magnificent Seven

8.  Ride the High Country

9.  Stagecoach

10.  Unforgiven

11.  The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

12.  The Outlaw Josey Wales

13.  The Wild Bunch

If You’ve Never Watched Westerns Much (13 for Beginners):

1.  Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

2.  Rio Bravo

3.  The Outlaw Josey Wales

4.  Silverado

5.  True Grit (the Original)

6.  Ride the High Country

7.  Shane

8.  Stagecoach

9.  The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

10.  The Magnificent Seven

11.  Last of the Mohicans (1992, but watch the 1936 version too, if you like this story)

12.  Support Your Local Sheriff

13.  The Searchers or Red River or She Wore a Yellow Ribbon

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What Makes a Western Great?

Nicholas Chennault ~ July 20, 2013

Criteria for greatness in a western movie:

  • Setting:  It almost goes without saying that a western is set in the American west, almost always during the period of greatest western expansion and settlement (around 1840 to 1890).  But that isn’t invariably true.  Last of the Mohicans, for example, is set in the east, in upstate New York, when that was on the frontier of white settlement.  The same is true of Drums Along the Mohawk.  There have been westerns set in the far north (The Spoilers and North to Alaska), even in South America (Savage Pampas) and Australia (Quigley Down Under and The Man from Snowy River).  There are many westerns set during the Civil War, which took place almost entirely east of the Mississippi River.  There is a subgenre of westerns set in the modern west but dealing to some degree with traditional western themes (Bad Day at Black Rock, Lone Star, No Country for Old Men).  Some science fiction and samurai movies seem to be westerns.  It is one of several criteria, and it has some flexibility.

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  • Use of traditional western themes:  Similarly, there is a wide range of western themes, many of which expand into universal human themes such as the search for family in an unfriendly world.  They include clashes of races (usually whites and Native Americans), clashes between social and commercial objectives (law vs. anarchy and unrestrained self-interest, ranchers vs. farmers, for example, or cattlemen vs. sheepmen), man against nature, self-reliance and the place of violence in society.  They are too numerous to make any comprehensive list.  At times “a western theme” almost seems like Justice Potter Stewart’s elusive definition of pornography:  “I know it when I see it.”
  • Story and performances:  It’s hard to have a great western without a good story and strong performances.  As with any other cinematic genre, directors can sometimes get distracted by the magic of movie-making at the expense of story.  While that can lead to some interesting movies, they’re not generally as strong as those where story is more at the front.
  • Visual sweep and impact:  Good use of the American west’s big skies, open plains, towering mountains and general natural splendor is a hallmark of great westerns, such as Stagecoach, My Darling Clementine, Red River and, more recently, Jeremiah Johnson and The Horse Whisperer.  Westerns offer a unique scope for the physical background to become another character.  In fact, the west’s visual magnificence can become distracting if the director isn’t careful.  But there have been great westerns shot on back lots in Hollywood that make virtually no use of traditional western scenery beyond a western town set—High Noon, for example.

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  • Re-watchability:  In a way, this is the Cimarron vs. Stagecoach question.  Is this something you welcome the opportunity to see again, even though you’ve already seen it before?  Yes for Stagecoach; not so much for Cimarron.  However, this question is not determinative—it’s one of several.  Some of the great westerns one just doesn’t go back to as often as others, and that doesn’t mean they’re not great.  Unforgiven and Dances With Wolves are great westerns, but once seen one might not re-watch them as often as, say, Rio Bravo or The Outlaw Josey Wales.
  • Film-making skills for its time:  Most movies are inseparable from the time they were made.  The state of movie-making technology, the social attitudes, the fashion and actors’ makeup, the approach to story and cliché—all these and many other things speak of the time a movie was made.  You probably wouldn’t confuse 1939’s Stagecoach with a movie made only eleven years later in 1950, although black-and-white was still common for westerns in 1950.  Is the director making good use of what’s available to him at the time he made the movie?  If the direction isn’t remarkable in any way, is there something else that’s carrying the movie so you don’t think about it much?
  • Impact on the genre in its time:  How was the movie received upon its original release?  How are westerns different (if at all) because of this movie?  Unless you’re interested in film history, this might only be a subtext, and a subconscious one at that.  Sometimes you can even forgive a clunky story if a movie changed the course of what was made later.  That’s one reason to watch some of the influential silent movies, like The Iron Horse or the films of William S. Hart.  If it is just influential and not of continuing greatness on a number of levels, however, you won’t tend to go back to it.  Sometimes it is the body of a director’s work that seems to shift the course of westerns made after.  Think, for example, of the films of John Ford, Anthony Mann and Sergio Leone.
  • How does it age?  (The Test of Time):  Is it still a good and enjoyable film notwithstanding its age or the time at which it was made?  Cinematic and societal fashions change.  Although one can’t really separate a film from the time it was made, is there something that pulls you back to it?

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  • Historicity—How true is it to its supposed time?:  This one is tricky, in part because standards of historicity change.  In 1939, for example, historicity was all but ignored in the service of what was thought to constitute a good story.  Jesse James is much more interested in perpetuating the outlaw’s myth and getting people into theaters than it is in telling the actual story.  Compare it with The Long Riders, Walter Hill’s 1980 retelling of the story of the James Gang, which has a much stronger historical sense.  My Darling Clementine, however, works magnificently as a film even though it’s a very garbled retelling of the Wyatt Earp myth that worries very little about what actually happened and feels free to toss in invented characters, such as the titular Clementine.  In westerns from the 1950s, western clothes (hats in particular) and women’s garb tend not to be very accurate historically.  Recent decades (since the 1980s, perhaps) seem more concerned with historical accuracy, although those financing the movie will seldom let the actual facts get in the way of the movie they want to make.

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  • Good introduction of non-traditional elements? Sometimes the ability to think beyond traditional western elements broadens the scope of the movie.  Sometimes it’s just distractingly anachronistic.  Some consider McCabe and Mrs. Miller a great western because it approached some subjects (such as prostitution) in a different way than previous movies set in the west had.  It is very much a movie of its own time (the anti-authoritarian early 1970s, with a grainy-ish look) and its director (Robert Altman, who made only one other western even more explicity revisionist).  The nihilism and explicit violence of The Wild Bunch (combined, of course, with terrific performances and stunning cinematography) have affected every western made since, although they were mostly new to westerns when the movie was made.
  • Use of supporting elements (musical score, writing, supporting performances, cinematography, etc.):  Movie-making is such a collaborative art that it’s kind of amazing when it all comes together to produce a great film.  That’s as true of westerns as it is of any other kind of movie.  Good writing (think Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, for example) produces lines that the movie fan mutters to himself as he watches the film again; writing is always more important than movie makers (especially the financial backers and the studio) think.  Music undeniably influences one’s memory of the film (the Tex Ritter version of the theme from High Noon, Dmitri Tiomkin’s “Deguello” from Rio Bravo, Bruce Broughton’s stirring theme from Silverado, and Basil Pouledoris’ rollicking theme from Quigley Down Under all come to mind), and become inseparable from the experience of that movie.  Sometimes the statement is made by not having music, as in Westward the Women.  John Wayne’s bravura performance as the Ringo Kid in Stagecoach wouldn’t have been as effective without the talented ensemble of supporting actors (Claire Trevor, Thomas Mitchell, John Carradine, Donald Meek, and others).  In fact, Wayne is more one of the ensemble than the star.  Wayne and James Stewart are giants in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, but it wouldn’t have worked as well without the despicable malevolence of Lee Marvin as Liberty Valance.  You may or may not overtly notice the brilliant cinematography in Red River, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, The Wild Bunch or Jeremiah Johnson, but it’s part of what makes you think you’ve seen a great western.

 

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The Greatest Westerns Since 1939

Nicholas Chennault ~

Everybody who likes western movies has his own mental list of the greatest of them.  This starts with a list of the fifty-five greatest westerns since 1939, with some description of each film and why it’s on the list.  There are lots of sublists as well, including a list of westerns that don’t show up among the fifty-five greatest, but for which an argument can be made that they belong there.  There are lists of westerns according to their thematic material, lists of westerns with social concerns, lists of spaghetti westerns, lists of westerns according to their supposed historical content, and lists of the greatest directors, stars, writers and composers who have worked on westerns.  And lists of westerns not among the fifty-give greatest but which are nevertheless worth watching, often with descriptions.  The site is just starting out, so some of those sections are still in development, but it’s all coming.

Although westerns, like most forms of cinema, are more generally available than they once were if you know where and how to look, nobody has seen all the westerns that exist.  Even some of the fifty-five great westerns aren’t generally available these days on DVD. The list has been given a great deal of thought, but it’s not cast in stone and is open to the addition of new or overlooked western movies.  Although westerns have been mostly out of cinematic fashion for more than three decades, some filmmakers with an ongoing affection for the genre do continue to make them.  The most recent great western was released in 2010.

beaugeste Not a western?  1939, though.

So if you like western movies already or are just curious about them and where to start, look things over.  Chances are that no matter how well you know westerns, you can find one or two additional gems you’ll come to appreciate.  It’s a uniquely American genre of film (although related to both samurai films, private eye-films noir, many science fiction films and others), but westerns can be either simple or thematically complex.  People far beyond America’s shores love these stories and films, too.  So if you’re looking for battles, stories about man against nature, Native Americans, revenge, the search for family, the extravagant beauty of the American west, courage, honor—you can find something here you didn’t know about.  Or maybe enjoy again something you already did.

Why start in 1939?  Several reasons:

• It is a truth universally acknowledged (well, mostly) that 1939 was the greatest year in the golden age of the Hollywood studios.  Movies released that year included such gems as Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Gunga Din, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Ninotchka, Dark Victory, Goodbye Mr. Chips, Wuthering Heights, Beau Geste, Only Angels Have Wings, Young Mr. Lincoln, The Roaring Twenties, and, of course, Stagecoach.  The list is amazing.
• While there were many great movies of all sorts made earlier during the decade of the 1930s and the even earlier period of silent movies, that is not as true of westerns.  There had been an ambitious western released in 1930 that might have revolutionized the genre and introduced a major new star: director Raoul Walsh’s The Big Trail, with handsome and inexperienced young John Wayne.  But it was not a success at the box office, and both the genre and Wayne had to wait for most of a decade for their cinematic breakthrough.  This was true despite the fact that 1931’s winner of the Oscar for the best movie of the year was a western—the only western best picture winner until the 1990s. And it was an epic in scale.  It was Cimarron, based on the Edna Ferber novel and starring Richard Dix.and Irene Dunne, albeit with an uncredited director (Wesley Ruggles).  But it is not much watched these days, unlike, say, Stagecoach.

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• What was so revolutionary about Stagecoach, then?  It was a departure in a number of ways.  Cinematically, it made striking use of western settings not seen much before (Monument Valley in the Four Corners area on the Utah-Arizona border, which became one of director John Ford’s trademarks).  It had a strong story.  It made use of small historical connections with the west (the names Luke Plummer and Ringo Kid, for example, and the aces and eights hand of playing cards).  It featured the work of both the greatest director of westerns (John Ford) and the most enduring western movie star (John Wayne) the movies have yet seen.  Notwithstanding Wayne’s considerable presence, it was a well-cast ensemble movie that worked extremely well. It even featured ground-breaking stunt work by Yakima Canutt, one of the greatest and perhaps the best-known Hollywood stunt men ever.  It was not only the best western of 1939; it was one of the greatest movies ever made.  Unlike The Big Trail, it also made a star of John Wayne.

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• Even leaving aside Stagecoach, this list would probably start in 1939 anyway.  There were several near-great westerns that year that indicated a new, more serious and larger budgetary approach to the making of westerns.  Many of them are still watched, too:  Dodge City (with Errol Flynn), Destry Rides Again (James Stewart in his only western before the 1950s), Jesse James (Tyrone Power and Henry Fonda), and Union Pacific (Joel McCrea, Barbara Stanwyck and Robert Preston).  All this revitalized the genre and made it more significant cinematically.  By the late 1940s, such stars as Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea were devoting their careers almost entirely to the making of westerns.  By 1950, Scott was the biggest male box office star in Hollywood.  There are those who would say that before 1939, the biggest stars were women, but after the social and cinematic changes brought about by World War II, men had become bigger stars.  And westerns had come into their own as a genre.

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