Monthly Archives: August 2013

The Professionals

Nicholas Chennault ~ August 31, 2013

The Professionals—Lee Marvin, Burt Lancaster, Robert Ryan, Woody Strode, Claudia Cardinale, Jack Palance, Ralph Bellamy (1966; Dir:  Richard Brooks)

This one takes place in the late western period just before World War I, when the American west was closing down and the action was in northern Mexico.  The professionals of the title are Marvin, Lancaster, Ryan and Strode, playing a band of mercenaries in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands.  Marvin is an ex-military weapons expert and tactician, and Lancaster does explosives.  Ryan’s skill is with horses, and Strode is a tracker and bowman.  They’re not young, but they are very good at what they do, and for $10,000 each they take on a dangerous mission from which they are unlikely all to return. 

professionals1

They are sent into Mexico to retrieve the beautiful young Mexican wife (Claudia Cardinale) of J.W. Grant, an older mining baron (Ralph Bellamy).  She has been kidnapped for ransom by Jesus Raza (Jack Palance), whom Marvin and Lancaster know well from their days supporting Mexican revolutionaries.  Grant selects the Marvin, Ryan and Strode characters for the team; Marvin brings in Lancaster.  It still seems like a small group for the task, given the rough terrain and the odds against them.  But they are, after all, professionals.  And that’s a large part of the enjoyment provided by this film—watching them accomplish their task.  The question is what kind of transformation will take place, and the tension is not only in the action but in the frequent balancing of one code of behavior against another.

Marvin plays Rico Fardan, a version of the hard-bitten, ultra-competent military man he has done in other films (see, for example, The Dirty Dozen from about the same period).   In his period campaign hat with the flat brim and four creases in the crown, he organizes and directs the team, and he’s very good at it.  Note his use of a pump shotgun (a Model 1897 Winchester trench gun?).  Burt Lancaster was probably a bigger star than Marvin at the time, although Marvin was fresh off his Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Cat Ballou.  Lancaster had won his own Best Actor award for the lead in 1960’s Elmer Gantry, working with director Richard Brooks there, too.  Here, Lancaster plays Bill Dolworth, the womanizing explosives expert and Fardan’s closest friend on the team.  They have a lot of history together in revolutionary Mexico.  More inclined to think about what it all means than Fardan is, Dolworth has some of the movie’s best lines and Lancaster’s effervescent performance is the best in the movie.  Robert Ryan, always an excellent actor but seldom a lead at this stage of his career, is Hans Ehrengard, the horse wrangler and packmaster for the team.  He is the least physically robust of the group and often seems to care more about horses than about people.  His part also seems underwritten, especially for an actor as good as Ryan.  Jacob Sharp, the tracker and bowman, is the smallest role of the four, well-played by the quiet Woody Strode.  Jack Palance is good, but not entirely authentic, as the leader of this particular band of Mexican revolutionaries.  And sultry Italian actress Claudia Cardinale does what is required of her, looking beautiful and voluptuous.

professionals2

The four professionals, plus Cardinale.

Since their employer is (a) a wealthy mining baron, and (b) played by Ralph Bellamy, he is inherently an unsympathetic character, and you know he’s not going to win in the end even if the team is successful.  When Fardan spells out the final terms of the deal, Bellamy spits out, “You bastard.”  In the movie’s final line, Fardan returns with:  “Yes, sir.  In my case an accident of birth.  But you, sir, you’re a self-made man.”  And he walks off into his personal sunset, having kept to his code with his mercenary’s integrity intact.

professionalsposterprofessionalsjapan

Cross-cultural appeal.

Producer and director Brooks wrote the excellent script.  The roles are well differentiated, and there are many memorable lines with engaging notes of fatalism and philosophy, especially in the interplay between old friends Fardan and Dolworth.  Dolworth, upon being surprised:  “Well, I’ll be damned.”  Fardan responds:  “Most of us are.”  (Maybe it’s all in the timing, or maybe it’s just Marvin’s way with a line.)  The central question of the film is voiced by Dolworth, as he considers his current fight against former comrades:  “Maybe there’s only been one revolution since the beginning—the good guys versus the bad guys. The question is, who are the good guys?”  It was true of the Mexican revolution, and it’s an apt observation on the immediate situation in this movie, too.

professionals3

Lancaster as Dolworth negotiates from a position of dubious strength.

Having said that, it must also be admitted that there are moments when this movie is a little too fond of the sound of its own script and could have used some tighter editing.  At times there is just too much talking, especially where Dolworth is involved.  Look, for example, at the final duel between Dolworth and Raza in the canyon.

There’s violence of the pre-Wild Bunch cinematic sort, but this is rated PG-13.  This is another western beautifully shot by cinematographer Conrad Hall (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and many other movies).  It was shot largely in Nevada’s Valley of Fire north of Las Vegas and in California’s Death Valley, making excellent use of the desolate landscapes there.  The movie got Academy Award nominations for Best Director, Best Screenplay (both for Brooks) and Best Cinematography for Hall.  The score is by prominent 1960s movie composer Maurice Jarré.

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Pin on PinterestEmail this to someone

Hour of the Gun

Nicholas Chennault ~ August 30, 2013

Hour of the Gun—James Garner, Jason Robards, Robert Ryan, John Voight (1967; Dir:  John Sturges)

This underrated retelling of the Wyatt Earp story features the grim James Garner (see also Duel at Diablo and A Man Called Sledge), not the comic one with the easygoing charm.  Garner plays Wyatt, paired with Jason Robards as an excellent Doc Holliday—more believable as the tubercular gunfighter than the physically robust Kirk Douglas and Victor Mature in previous film versions of the story.  

hourofthegunGarner Garner as Wyatt Earp.

The Earp story has been more successfully retold in movies than any other from actual western history, with varying levels of accuracy.  The best cinematic version of the Earp story may be Tombstone, although My Darling Clementine, one of the older and least historically accurate versions, has its proponents.  Hour of the Gun belongs in this more than respectable company.  In fact, gritty thriller writer George Pelecanos, who says that westerns are his favorite film genre, claims Hour of the Gun as his favorite western, as the upright lawman Earp becomes a colder and more implacable killer in hunting his brothers’ murderers (interview on NPR’s Morning Edition, October 9, 2009).  Pelecanos points to the excellent Jerry Goldsmith score as one of the movie’s overlooked strengths.  The cinematography by Lucien Ballard is also terrific.  Edward Anhalt wrote the screenplay; he shows up briefly in the film as Doc Holliday’s doctor.

This was director Sturges’s second telling of the Earp story, a decade after his earlier Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.  In the meantime, he’d made The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape and The Hallelujah Trail, and he was at the peak of his game.  He was one of the best directors of his time in dealing with large-scale stories and action, but this is a more modest effort in terms of scope and budget.  While Gunfight goes with its title and builds up to the legendary battle, Hour of the Gun starts with the gunfight and focuses on Earp’s subsequent vendetta ride, as he hunts down those he holds responsible for gunning down his brothers.  In telling this story, it keeps more to the historical facts than the older film did, but only to a point.  Much of the dialogue in the courtroom scenes, for example, is taken from actual transcripts.  Text on screen after the initial credits says, “This picture is based on fact.  This is the way it happened.”  Well, not quite, but it’s closer than previously filmed versions of the story.

hour-of-the-gunEarps

The Earps and Holliday at the OK Corral.

In his 1967 review of the film, Roger Ebert called this one of Garner’s best performances.  The casting is one of the film’s strong points, especially in the three primary roles:  Garner as Earp, Robards as Holliday and Robert Ryan as an older and more cerebral Ike Clanton than we usually see.  Robards is good as Doc, although he’s significantly older than the actual historical character.  He mentions having killed during the Civil War, but the real Doc Holliday was much too young to have fought in the war.  The Earp brothers (Virgil and Morgan) are not terribly memorable in this version of the story.  Look for a young John Voight as Curly Bill Brocius in an early role.  Interestingly, there’s no Johnny Ringo in this version of the story.   And basically there are no women in this story, either.

Because of its focus on Earp’s search for revenge, the movie becomes more melancholy as Doc tries to keep Earp balanced.  Doc:  “I know you.  You can’t live like me.”  “Those aren’t warrants you have there.  Those are hunting licenses.”  Earp comes to realize the ultimate futility of revenge past a certain point.  The vendetta itself is not celebrated as much as in Tombstone.  The film’s climax shows Wyatt shooting it out with Ike Clanton in Mexico, which is not at all the way Clanton died.  The end of the movie, with Doc dying in a Colorado sanitarium, is heart-wrenching.  Wyatt says he’s going back to Tombstone as the U.S. marshal, so Doc will think he’s regained his idealism and respect for the law; in fact, he intends never to be a lawman again.  The irascible dentist-gunman forces Wyatt to leave and sits playing cards with an orderly on an outdoor veranda as Wyatt drives off in a buggy.  

hourofthegunposter

The poster emphasizes the revisionist elements of the film.

Since the movie presented a revisionist view for its time of a famous western lawman, audiences weren’t sure what to make of it when it was released.  But it stands up pretty well more than 40 years later.  Garner would play Wyatt Earp again in Blake Edwards’ 1988 comedy-thriller Sunset.   In Sunset, Garner is an aging Earp during the period of the late 1920s when the former lawman was in Hollywood advising on westerns, paired with Bruce Willis as Tom Mix.

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Pin on PinterestEmail this to someone

Support Your Local Sheriff

Nicholas Chennault ~ August 29, 2013

Support Your Local Sheriff—James Garner, Joan Hackett, Jack Elam, Harry Morgan, Walter Brennan, Bruce Dern (1969; Dir:  Burt Kennedy)

This is probably the best western satire ever made.  Yes, that includes Mel Brooks’ broader Blazing Saddles.   The plot seems to follow Rio Bravo from ten years earlier, but that’s not an uncommon plot for westerns.  (See 2008’s Appaloosa for a later, but more serious, example.)  The title comes from a law-and-order bumper sticker popular with some in the late 1960s.

In a small western town, settlers and prospectors discover gold in Boot Hill while burying one of their own.  That sets off a gold rush and overnight the town develops aspirations to respectability—except for the many rowdies attracted by the gold strike.  Among those with newfound wealth are Mayor Ollie Perkins (played by Harry Morgan) and his daughter Prudence (Joan Hackett), along with others on the town council.  The prosperity brings a fair amount of disorder with it, however, and the town council is unable to keep a live sheriff for long until they happen on Jason McCullough (James Garner, in his good-natured mode).  McCullough is just passing through “on my way to Australia” when he decides to check out the gold rush.  He seems handy enough with a gun, and he’ll actually take the job, however temporarily.  So he’s hired.

supportlocal1 Basically on his way to Australia.

His first act is to imprison Joe Danby (Bruce Dern), whom he sees kill a man in a saloon.  Danby is part of an important Clanton-esque family of quasi-outlaws; the Clanton connection is strengthened because Pa Danby, head of the clan, is played by veteran character actor Walter Brennan in a role reminiscent of his Old Man Clanton in My Darling Clementine twenty years earlier.  The Danbys can muster legions of relatives and gunmen, while McCullough’s support is mostly the town “character” (or drunk) Jake (Jack Elam) who becomes McCullough’s unwilling deputy, along with Prudy, to whom McCullough is attracted romantically.

support2 Romancing the mayor’s daughter.

The writing is sprightly enough, but the genius of the film lies in the casting.  This is the sort of role James Garner played better than anybody else; he’s basically reprising his Maverick character from the television series.  If you want to see what a good job Joan Hackett does as Prudence, compare her with Suzanne Pleshette in the sequel Support Your Local Gunfighter.  Pleshette is fine; she just doesn’t have the comic intensity and daffiness that Hackett does.  Elam is marvelous.  He demonstrates here that he has made the transition from playing criminals, villains and evildoers to full-blown character parts.  As Elam’s Jake says while striking a pose at the end of the movie, he “goes on to become one of the most beloved characters in western folklore.”  And we believe him, mostly.

Harry Morgan’s appearance as the town’s mayor and Prudence’s father is particularly interesting when compared with another role from earlier in his career.  He played one of the townspeople who wouldn’t help Marshal Will Kane in 1952’s High Noon.  When it comes to the showdown here, he doesn’t help Jason McCullough, either, although he is much more charming about it.  And McCullough never seems all that threatened, anyway.  Jack Elam’s “town character” also echoes his town drunk role from High Noon, but he comes through better here in a much meatier role.

support3 The town character takes a hand.

Director Burt Kennedy has done a fair number of workmanlike westerns spread over several decades.  He’s also known as the writer for the best of the Budd Boetticher-Randolph Scott westerns of the late 1950s.  This movie represents the best of his work as a director.  The script by writer-producer William Bowers is terrific.  Too bad Bowers didn’t write the sequel.  The Gunfighter sequel, with the same director, Garner, Elam and Morgan, is enjoyable, too, but not as perfect as this film.  For more of Garner in his amiable con-man mode, see Skin Game, with Louis Gossett and Susan Clark.

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Pin on PinterestEmail this to someone

True Grit (the Original)

Nicholas Chennault ~ August 28, 2013

True Grit—John Wayne, Glenn Campbell, Kim Darby, Robert Duvall, Jeff Corey, Dennis Hopper, Strother Martin, John Fiedler (1969; Dir:  Henry Hathaway)

In the most enduring scene from this movie (and one of the great shootouts from any western), U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn (John Wayne) shouts “Fill your hand, you son of a bitch!”, takes his horse’s reins in his teeth and, with a rifle in one hand and a pistol in the other, charges across a mountain meadow at Lucky Ned Pepper (an early Robert Duvall role) and three others of his outlaw gang.  It was for this role that Wayne won his only Best Actor Oscar, although you could argue that he’d done better acting in Red River, The Searchers and maybe later in The Cowboys.  Even Wayne thought this was not necessarily his most memorable work.  When asked if he thought True Grit was the best film he’d ever made, Wayne replied, “No, I don’t. Two classic Westerns were better — Stagecoach and Red River — and a third, The Searchers … and The Quiet Man was certainly one of the best.”

truegritrooster

John Wayne as one-eyed marshal Rooster Cogburn, one of his signature roles.

True Grit is ostensibly a manhunt western, but like any great movie it depends on character development as well as the story.  The story, taken from a best-seller by Charles Portis, features Mattie Ross (a first role for Kim Darby, then aged 21 and playing 14), a teenaged girl and also a person with True Grit from Arkansas.  After her father is killed on the streets of Fort Smith and the killer escapes into the lawless Indian Nations, Mattie decides to go after that killer.  Joining her on this quest are the one-eyed, hard-drinking Cogburn and bounty-hunting Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Glenn Campbell), both with their own agendas and reasons for going on the hunt.  In order to extract the killer, this small but plucky band must locate him and take on a variety of unsavory characters, including a nest of rattlesnakes and the outlaw gang with whom the killer has taken up.

Wayne deserved his Oscar for his performance as Cogburn, which wasn’t simply a straight-up reprise of characters from his other westerns.  In many ways he’s playing against those invincible characters and his traditional image, as he lets his age show.  Darby was impressive her first time out although her career quickly faded.  John Wayne apparently didn’t share that view of Darby, bemoaning their “lack of chemistry” and calling her “the lousiest goddamn actress I ever worked with.”  Duvall is good in a brief role as the outlaw leader.  Glenn Campbell is the weak spot in the casting; you can see why he didn’t have much of a film career.  Campbell’s shortcomings are made more obvious by the screenwriter’s choice to follow the period flavor of the Portis book in the use of dialogue.  For the most part that works (Wayne and Darby carry it off well, for example), but Campbell would have a hard time acting even with more modern language.  Good character roles go to Strother Martin as Col. Stonehill, a Fort Smith horse trader bested by Ross in negotiations, and to a young Dennis Hopper as an outlaw (the same year he gained more celebrity in Easy Rider).  And of course to John Fiedler as Ross’s lawyer J. Noble Daggett in another brief appearance.

truegritWayne true-grit-wayne

There are many lines that stick with you, with the mostly successful attempt at period dialogue.  Pepper’s response to Cogburn’s challenge at one point:  “I call that bold talk from a one-eyed fat man.”  Cogburn says of Mattie Ross as she swims a river on her horse rather than be left behind:  “By God, she reminds me of me.”   The young outlaw Moon says of his partner Quincy:  “He never played me false until he killed me.”  The killer Tom Chaney bemoans his fate after Mattie shoots him:  “Everything happens to me.  Now I’m shot by a child!”

This movie came out about the same time as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.  They’re both great, and they both depict western characters near the end of their careers.  But Butch Cassidy offers a more forward-looking twist on traditional western themes, while True Grit is much more of a play on those traditional themes.  They both work well, though.

truegritorig

Marshal Cogburn, telling stories to a child.

Henry Hathaway was more a workmanlike than a spectacular director, and this was the best film from Hathaway’s late period.  He started out directing westerns during the early 1930s when they weren’t all that respectable, including being an assistant director on the 1929 version of The Virginian, with the young Gary Cooper in the title role.  He had acquired considerable experience by the time he made True Grit forty years later.  The music is by Elmer Bernstein, veteran composer of scores for many other westerns as well as lots of other movies of every kind.  Lucien Ballard shot it beautifully, largely in Colorado locations more mountainous and scenic than the supposed setting of Oklahoma.

This classic western no longer stands alone.  It must be viewed together with the Coen brothers’ 2010 remake, which also appears on this list of great westerns.  Wayne dominates this original as Rooster.  Jeff Bridges as Rooster is more remote in the darker remake, putting Mattie more in the center of the film.  The remake is truer to the ending of the novel.  And both are very worth watching.

TrueGritPosterTrueGritLatePoster

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Pin on PinterestEmail this to someone

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

Nicholas Chennault ~ August 27, 2013

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid—Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Katharine Ross (1969; Dir:  George Roy Hill)

While True Grit in the same year was a backward-looking western playing off the traditions of the genre, Butch Cassidy looks ahead.  The language and humor are modern, and were more revolutionary when this movie was released than they seem now.  There are more overtly and self-consciously cinematic techniques used.  For example, the movie occasionally slides into sepia tones to reproduce the effects of old photographs; it even opens with such a sequence as it introduces Butch and Sundance to us.  And the “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” interlude where Butch rides a bicycle and frolics with Etta Place and a belligerent bull is reminiscent of the singing scene from Rio Bravo, although Burt Bacharach’s music here is better, if more irrelevant to what’s going on in the rest of the movie.  The soundtrack was immensely popular in its time, and the “Raindrops” song won an Oscar for Best Song.

butch&sundance

Paul Newman, of course, plays Butch Cassidy and Robert Redford is the Sundance Kid.  They were so good in these roles that they touched off a vogue in “buddy” movies, where the primary relationship was a friendship between two males.  The peak of this trend was 1973’s The Sting with the same stars and director, which won the Best Picture Academy Award.  Butch Cassidy is so enjoyable that it has a lot of re-watchability.  For someone who is not familiar with westerns, this movie might be a good place to start.

The plot deals with the late stages of the career of the Hole-in-the-Wall Gang.   Historically, it was sometimes called the Wild Bunch, not to be confused with the fictional outlaws in the Peckinpah movie with that title or with the Doolin-Dalton gang based in Oklahoma, sometimes referred to by that name.  The gang is led by mastermind Butch Cassidy, who is slowly coming to the conclusion that there isn’t much future in the train-robbing business at the end of the 19th century, as the railroads devote more resources to his capture and become better at pursuing him. 

The movie opens with two brilliant sequences.  First, with the opening credits, is a pseudo-version of The Great Train Robbery, followed by a sepia-toned card game that establishes the tone for the movie with its dialogue, as well as setting the characters for Butch and Sundance.  As the movie goes to full color, it features two actual train robberies and their aftermath.  Butch and Sundance escape their relentless pursuers, but only with great difficulty.  They take temporary refuge with Etta Place, a rural school teacher and the girlfriend of Sundance, with whom Butch enjoys the musical bicycle interlude.  Etta is played by the luminous Katharine Ross, then best known for her breakthrough role a couple of years earlier in The Graduate.  (These two movies represent the peak of her cinematic career.)  And Etta doesn’t come between Butch and Sundance.

butchbicycle

Foolin’ around, during a musical interlude that shows off the David-Bacharach music but doesn’t do much to advance the plot.

Using their ill-gotten train-robbery gains, the trio stops in New York to see the sights on the way to South America.  They travel to Bolivia and try to go straight, but that doesn’t work for them and they take up bank robbery again as Los Bandidos Yanquis.  Eventually tracked down by the Bolivian army in the small town of San Vicente, they shoot it out, ending the movie with the famous final freeze-frame shot of the wounded Butch and Sundance emerging with guns blazing from the room where they’ve taken cover.  For many, it’s a more effective end for characters we’ve come to care about than the final slow-motion violence of The Wild Bunch or Bonnie and Clyde.

Butch was an immensely attractive character, both in real life and as portrayed by Newman in this movie.  It is now hard to imagine anybody but Redford as Sundance, although the role reportedly almost went to Steve McQueen.  Newman and Redford are very persuasive, both in their individual roles and as friends.  The cast is excellent, top to bottom.  Ross is very good, although there are times when her character seems extraneous.  The various members of the gang are very good, too, although Ted Cassidy is physically much larger than the actual Harvey Logan, the meanest and perhaps most dangerous man in the gang.  (See the famous photograph of the bunch taken in Fort Worth, where Harvey Logan appears much more innocuous.)  Strother Martin makes a memorable appearance as a “colorful” Bolivian mine manager.  Jeff Corey, who was the killer Tom Chaney in True Grit, is a sympathetic sheriff here.  This was also the film debut of Ross’s future husband, Sam Elliott, but he’s hard to spot.

butch&sundancereal

The famous photograph of the Wild Bunch taken in Fort Worth in 1901, with Sundance in the left front and Butch in the right front.  Harvey Logan is standing on the right.

There is violence in this movie, and not just from blowing up safes and railroad cars.  Aside from all the shooting in the final scene, there is also a scene where Butch and Sundance take back from Bolivian bandits the mine payroll they were hired to protect.  In Bonnie and Clyde fashion, the shootout and the resulting deaths are in slow motion–except here the slow motion is stopped with the hail of bullets, so the last image of the two is of them in action.

butch_cassidy_sundance_kid_01

Butch and Sundance take on the Bolivian army.

The script by William Goldman (The Princess Bride) is an acknowledged gem, and it won the Academy Award for Best Screenplay.  Lines from it are bandied between aficionados of the genre:  “Rules, in a knife fight?”  “Can I move?  I’m better when I move.”  “Woodcock, is that you?”  “Think you used enough dynamite there, Butch?”  “You just keep thinkin’, Butch.  That’s what you’re good at.”  “If he’d just pay me what he’s spending to make me stop robbing him, I’d stop robbing him.”  “Who are those guys?”  “Boy, I got vision, and the rest of the world wears bifocals.”  The squabbling of Butch and Sundance sometimes sounds like an old married couple, but it’s effective.  The film was included at no. 73 on the American Film Institute’s list of the greatest American films of all time (http://www.afi.com/100years/movies10.aspx).

Butch&SundanceWide

As with True Grit, much of the movie was shot in Colorado; the Bolivian scenes were shot in Mexico.  The cinematographer was the excellent Conrad Hall, who won the Oscar for Best Cinematography for his work here.  The movie was nominated for Best Picture but lost to Midnight Cowboy.

Save

Save

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Pin on PinterestEmail this to someone

The Wild Bunch

Nicholas Chennault ~ August 26, 2013

The Wild Bunch—William Holden, Robert Ryan, Ernest Borgnine, Warren Oates, Ben Johnson, Edmond O’Brien, Bo Hopkins (1969; Dir:  Sam Peckinpah)

In Peckinpah’s earlier Ride the High Country, two former lawmen were playing out their string in a corrupt turn-of-the-century west.  In The Wild Bunch, there’s no hiding the fact that the protagonists are a gang of bandits and savage killers coming to the end of their time in an even more corrupt revolutionary Mexico.  Eventually they find unexpected humanity, even heroism, in that end.  “I was trying to tell a simple story about bad men in changing times.  The Wild Bunch is simply what happens when killers go to Mexico.  The strange thing is you feel a great sense of loss when these killers reach the end of the line.”  That’s what director Peckinpah says he was trying to do, but it’s more than that.

wild-bunch-movie-title

The title notwithstanding, this doesn’t deal with the outlaw group historically known as the Wild Bunch—that was Butch Cassidy’s gang of bank and train robbers.  Like Butch Cassidy and, to some extent, True Grit in the same year, this is an end-of-an-era western.  The outlaw gang has reached the end of its time and knows it.

It is 1913, just before World War I—an era of multiple revolutions in Mexico.  The fictional outlaws in question are led by Pike Bishop (William Holden, in one of his last good roles).  Other members of the gang are played by Ernest Borgnine, Warren Oates, Ben Johnson, Edmond O’Brien and Jaime Sanchez.  Robert Ryan is Deke Thornton, a former member of the gang captured and forced by the authorities to help track down his onetime comrades.  The movie opens with a memorable image of several children torturing a large scorpion with ants as the gang rides into a town, and the analogy of the scorpion to the gang will become obvious.  In the town, the gang botches a train station robbery, is shot up and then looks for a last big score.  They find it south of the border, agreeing to steal U.S. military weapons from a train for the benefit of Mexican revolutionaries.  However, there is a falling out with their employers on this job, and the climax of the movie involves a long shoot-out between the outlaws and the corrupt revolutionaries, which the outlaws cannot possibly win. 

wildbunchletsgo “Let’s go.”

The shoot-out scene is reminiscent of the final scene of Butch Cassidy, released the same year.  Both involve outlaws in a final fight against overwhelming odds south of the border.  A major cinematic difference, however, is that Butch Cassidy ends with a freeze frame of Butch and Sundance emerging from their cover and firing at the Bolivian army.  In a sense, they never really die because we don’t see the effects on them of the hail of bullets we hear.  The famous end of the fight in The Wild Bunch features extended slow-motion violence as each member of the gang is cut down while slaughtering as many Mexicans as possible.  In that slow-motion violence, it also has much in common with the end of Bonnie and Clyde from two years earlier.  Some felt that The Wild Bunch glorified violence too much, and it certainly influenced the way violence has been shown in westerns ever since.  That’s why most of the good westerns in the last two or three decades have R ratings.  Butch was lighter and more enjoyable; The Wild Bunch was more influential among cineastes. 

Playing Pike Bishop is one of William Holden’s best performances ever.  The role was originally slated to go to Lee Marvin, but he dropped out to make Paint Your Wagon (bad career move).  Holden made this at a time when drinking and hard living were taking their toll on his appearance and acting skills, but here he was still very good.  As with central characters Charlton Heston in Major Dundee, and Joel McCrea in Ride the High Country (earlier Peckinpah movies), the movie depends on Holden’s ability to keep our interest and sympathies.  He does it well.  Ernest Borgnine is excellent as Dutch Engstrom, Bishop’s principal support in the outlaw band. 

This is also one of the last roles for Robert Ryan, who plays Deke Thornton, conflicted as he leads a group of despicable bounty hunters in tracking down his former friends (much like the John Vernon role in The Outlaw Josey Wales).  Few actors in westerns played conflicted as well as Ryan (see Day of the Outlaw and Lawman, for example).  As edited for the film’s theatrical release, Thornton’s principal function is as audience surrogate, telling us what to think about what are actually repulsive-seeming outlaws, but are in many ways more admirable than the other characters with whom they come in contact:  railroad executives and detectives, bounty hunters theoretically on the right side of the law, corrupt Mexican revolutionaries, even German militarists.  Everybody’s corrupt, it seems to say; you just get to choose the direction and the degree of your corruption. 

wild-bunch-machine-gun Pike Bishop goes big.

The film also has good supporting performances from Peckinpah regulars Ben Johnson and Warren Oates (as the outlaw Gorch brothers), Strother Martin and L.Q. Jones as sleazy bounty hunters, and Bo Hopkins in his first role as a feeble-minded gang member abandoned and killed in the early railroad office holdup.  Edmond O’Brien is the old horse wrangler for the gang.  There are no significant female roles in the film, but even those few females are less admirable in their way than the outlaws who are their customers.

The depiction of many of the Mexicans now seems a little dated, but it’s still powerful.  They’re mostly caricatures and prostitutes.  Jaime Sanchez as Angel, the Mexican member of the outlaw band, may have deserved better.  Much of the movie was filmed in Mexico, a favorite Peckinpah location as well as the actual setting for this movie’s action.

Most would see The Wild Bunch as Sam Peckinpah’s masterpiece.  Others prefer the earlier Ride the High Country, as a purer story.  The Wild Bunch certainly has a lot more moral ambiguity; there are no purely admirable characters, just strong ones and weaker ones.  There are some themes of honor and loyalty, but it’s not certain what they mean or exactly how they apply.  The Wild Bunch shows some development in cinematic abilities from High Country (the memorable scorpion image, for example) and it’s near the peak of Peckinpah’s depiction of male bonding and love of violence.  Even in this great movie, however, there are signs of the self-indulgence that marred much of the director’s career.  Decades later, the violence still seems savage and excessively gory.  The glorification of drunken roistering as central to male bonding seems somewhat misplaced, although it fits with Peckinpah’s own views and life.  As with some earlier Peckinpah movies (notably Major Dundee), and almost all later ones, Peckinpah had continual battles with the studio over his inability or unwillingness to control the film’s budget and shooting schedule.  This one is a great western and a strong one, but it’s also one of those, like Unforgiven and even The Searchers, which can be easier to admire than to watch again, mostly because of their emotional roughness.

The cinematography by Lucien Ballard is marvelous.  There’s a brilliant shot, for example, of an exploding bridge dumping a dozen horsemen into the Rio Grande, and another of horses and their riders tumbling down sand dunes where you can taste the sand and dust.  The movie has many memorable images, but not a lot of memorable lines.  The lines you do remember seem unremarkable by themselves; it’s the situations which cause you to remember them.  When Bishop says to his gang, “Let’s go,” for example, you know then (and you sense that they know) they won’t survive, and you remember that feeling.  Bishop’s ethos is expressed in his rationale for not breaking up the gang:  “We’re not gonna get rid of anybody!  We’re gonna stick together, just like it used to be!  When you side with a man, you stay with him!  And if you can’t do that, you’re like some animal, you’re finished!  We’re finished!  All of us!”  But it isn’t like it used to be, and the suggestion is that it probably never was.  They are finished, and they’re just trying to find a way to play it out.  The screenplay and Jerry Fielding’s score were nominated for Oscars; they didn’t win.

wildbunchposter

In the DVD age, there is a director’s cut of the film (144 minutes), released in 1994, although Peckinpah was long dead by then.  It includes more of the relationship between Pike Bishop and Robert Ryan’s Deke Thornton, giving the Thornton character more weight than he had in the theatrical release.

This movie did not spring fully-grown from nowhere.  It owes something to The Professionals three years earlier, to the sensibility and look of Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns, and to Bonnie and Clyde two years before.  But it is clearly its own Sam Peckinpah movie, too, and has itself become very influential far beyond westerns.  As a western, its limitations may be that it lies on the fringes of western themes and leaves a feeling of nihilism and discomfort for reasons that can be hard to define.  Roger Ebert referred to it on its release as “possibly the most violent film ever made,” and more than 40 years later that violence has not lost its impact or its controversiality.  And it has influenced just about every western (and many movies in other genres) made since.

This was not just an “end-of-an-era” western; it was also one of several “end of the western” films, supposedly tolling the death of an entire genre of movies.  It was the end of its era in westerns, certainly, and the beginning of another one.  The lover of westerns can find quite a few great westerns in the 40-plus years since this one, including such other “end of the western” movies as The Shootist and Unforgiven.  According to Roger Ebert, one of the film’s stronger proponents, “It represents its set of sad, empty values with real poetry.”  He recommended the restored 144-minute cut.  The Wild Bunch is one of the five westerns listed by the AFI on its list of the 100 greatest American movies, along with High Noon, The Searchers, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. and Unforgiven.  (See http://www.afi.com/100years/movies10.aspx.)

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Pin on PinterestEmail this to someone

Valdez Is Coming

Nicholas Chennault ~ August 25, 2013

Valdez is Coming—Burt Lancaster, Susan Clark, Jon Cypher, Barton Heyman, Richard Jordan (1971; Dir:  Edwin Sherin; the version currently on DVD is said to be missing scenes)

This is one of those movies that time has not treated kindly in a physical sense.  Most who have watched this movie in the DVD age have only seen a grainy transfer with missing scenes.  If you watch it on TCM or MGM HD, you’ll see a nice, clear print.

The plot is a typical Elmore Leonard story, in which bad guys underestimate somebody who looks regular but has hidden skills—an everyman rising to battle.  Burt Lancaster is Bob Valdez (Lancaster was 57 but in great shape), a New Mexico peace officer of Latino ancestry.  He is forced by powerful rancher Frank Tanner (John Cypher) to.kill a black man accused of murder.  Valdez asks the rancher for $100 in reparations for the black man’s pregnant Indian widow, and in response is almost killed by the rancher’s henchmen.  They beat him badly, tie him to a cross and drive him out into the barren mountains to die.  After a brief recuperation, Valdez suits up in his old gear from his days as an army scout.  He takes to the mountains of his own volition, resurrecting his tracking and hunting skills from earlier days scouting Apaches for the army and Gen. Crook, “before I know better.”  He captures one of the rancher’s men and sends him back with the message “Valdez is coming.”  The hunt is on in earnest, with the prey becoming the hunter.

valdeziscoming2 Valdez_Is_Coming.

Valdez captures the rancher’s girlfriend (Susan Clark), who is also the widow of the man the original black man was supposed to have murdered.  She becomes his unwilling companion as he hunts Tanner and his men while they’re hunting him.  Over time, she develops an attraction to Valdez because of his tired decency, and because he treats her better than the other men she has known.  Leading Tanner’s men on the hunt is El Segundo (Barton Heyman), Tanner’s Mexican foreman who comes to his own grudging respect for Valdez.  Richard Jordan plays a Tanner gunman who releases Valdez from his cross and is then captured by Valdez in turn.

El Segundo:  [after pausing and nervously clearing his throat]  Tell me something… Who are you?
Valdez:  I told you once before – Bob Valdez.
El Segundo:  [referring to Valdez’s earlier marksmanship against his men]  You know something, Bob Valdez, you hit one, I think, 700-800 yards.
Valdez:  [with certitude]  Closer to a thousand.
El Segundo:  What was it?  Sharps?
Valdez:  [nods] My own load.
El Segundo:  You ever hunt buffalo?
Valdez:  Apache.
El Segundo:  I knew it.  When?
Valdez:  Before I know better.
El Segundo:  You know how many men you kill these last two days?
Valdez:  Eleven.
El Segundo:  You counted.
Valdez:  You better.

valdezSegundo

El Segundo (Barton Heyman) comes to admire Valdez.

We’ve seen this story of the hunted-becoming-the-hunter before, in Joe Kidd and Chato’s Land, to cite two examples from the same time period.   This version is better, in large part because of Lancaster’s performance and a fairly coherent story based on a novel by Elmore Leonard.  It also has overtones of racial conflict and bigotry in an early 1970s way.  A movie with modest pretensions, it’s nevertheless worth watching.

Taken together with another Elmore Leonard story from the mid-1960s (Hombre, also an excellent movie from 1967), you can see Leonard playing with unusually capable protagonists from minorities (Bob Valdez is Latino, John Russell is more Apache than white).

ValdezClarkLanc Valdez and hostage.

This was filmed in Spain and the terrain has a look similar to the spaghetti westerns of its era.  Along with the excellent Ulzana’s Raid, this is one of the two “old scout” movies Lancaster made about the same time, among the best of their type.  For Susan Clark in another western, see her with James Garner in the comedy Skin Game.

Save

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Pin on PinterestEmail this to someone

Jeremiah Johnson

Nicholas Chennault ~ August 23, 2013

Jeremiah Johnson—Robert Redford, Will Geer, Allyn Ann McLerie, Delle Bolton, Joaquin Martinez, Stefan Gierasch (1972; Dir:  Sidney Pollack)

This is perhaps the best mountain man movie ever made, although that’s kind of a limited field.  Robert Redford was a hot acting commodity in the years between Butch Cassidy and The Way We Were, and this was his second western.  It was filmed in Utah, much of it on the back side of Mount Timpanogos near Redford’s adoptive home.  Redford had been so taken with the Timp Haven ski resort there that he bought it and renamed it Sundance, after his character in Butch Cassidy.  Redford’s well-known ecological sensitivity is on display in the film.

JeremiahJPosterJeremiahJPoster2

Jeremiah Johnson (or John Johnston) was an actual historical character during the late fur-trapping period.  He was sometimes referred to as Liver-Eating Johnson for his supposed culinary inclinations during a lengthy feud with the Crow Indians in Montana and Wyoming.  His story is as much legend as fact, however.   This movie conveys the beauty, the solitude and the dangers of the early west during that late fur-trapping period.  It depends on Redford’s star power to carry it, and he’s up to the task. 

Jeremiah Johnson is a disillusioned soldier from the Mexican War who heads as far away from people and civilization as he can get.  That puts the start of this movie in the late 1840s, after most of the fur-trapping era was done.  He goes to the mountains in the vicinity of Montana, with references to the Judith and Musselshell rivers of that state.  He encounters Bear Claw (Will Geer), an older mountain man whose specialty is hunting grizzly bears and who teaches him the basics of mountain hunting and survival.  Johnson later comes across Del Gue, a different kind of loud-talking trapper played by Stefan Gierasch.  Johnson accidentally acquires a family, taking on the mute young son of a crazy woman and receiving a Flathead wife in a situation where he can’t argue or refuse.

jeremiahjohnson1

Johnson and his mentor Bear Claw (Will Geer).

While guiding a party of soldiers to rescue stranded emigrants, he unwillingly (but not unwittingly) trespasses on a Crow burial ground, thereby touching off a feud with that tribe.  Taking revenge for the Crow killing of his Flathead wife and adoptive son, Johnson kills several of the Crows and the feud is on.  Once the feud has started, the Crows come at him one by one, as a point of honor.  Johnson doesn’t come out of these encounters unscathed, but he wins each one.  There’s no eating of livers in the movie, however. The final scene is a wordless encounter with Paints-His-Shirt-Red (Joaquin Martinez), Johnson’s avowed enemy since mid-film and the presumed force behind the attacks on Johnson.  Several hundred yards apart, Johnson reaches for his rifle for what he thinks will be a final duel, but Paints-His-Shirt-Red raises his arm, open-palmed, in a gesture of peace that Johnson returns, closing the film.

Some feel that the portions of the film where there isn’t much dialogue—and there are a lot of them—drag a bit.  The end feels abrupt and lacking in resolution, as if somebody just got tired of telling the story and quit.

jeremiah-johnson-4

Johnson and Caleb encounter Del Gue.

The Indians in this movie look very authentic, if occasionally somewhat overdressed.  In particular, Delle Bolton, who plays Johnson’s quiet young Flathead wife Swan, is very effective in a limited role.  Redford doesn’t have the imposing physical size of the real Johnston, but he’s very good at the central role of the movie, maintaining an innate sense of mystery about his character.

Sidney Pollack was an excellent director not particularly known for westerns.  He was talked into doing this one by Redford, who made seven movies with him.  Something like this, with comparatively little dialogue, requires very high composition skills to take advantage of the natural setting, which becomes a primary character.  And it’s not just showing the mountains and background.  There’s a scene in which Johnson is shot from his horse and plays dead on the ground, while his assailant comes up behind him.  The camera work and editing are masterful in indicating clearly where Johnson lies, where his horse is standing and where the out-of-focus Indian that Johnson can’t see is coming from.  It must have been extremely hard to set it up so the action is that clear but mostly implied from Johnson’s point of view.

jj-paintshisshirt Paints-His-Shirt-Red.

Sam Peckinpah was originally attached the project to direct, with Clint Eastwood slated to star.  But Peckinpah and Eastwood did not get along, so Peckinpah left the project (just as well, probably); then Eastwood decided to make Dirty Harry instead. The script with its notably spare dialogue was originally written by John Milius, who says he was paid $5,000 to write it at first.  But he was then hired to rewrite it several times and wound up earning $80,000 on it, with Edward Anhalt.  Milius says he got the script’s idiom and American spirit from Carl Sandburg and was also influenced by Charles Portis’ novel True Grit.

liver-eatingjohnson The real Liver-Eating Johnston.

The bones of the story are based on Raymond Thorp and Robert Bunker’s supposedly non-fiction book Crow Killer: The Saga of Liver-Eating Johnson and Vardis Fisher’s novel Mountain Man.  The music by Tim McIntire (the son of actors John McIntire and Jeanette Nolan, who also provides the voice-over narration for the film) and John Rubinstein (the son of internationally-known Polish pianist Artur Rubinstein) is a little pretentious for a western, with an overture and entr’acte.  But this is not a typical western, and the music works well enough in its way.

According to Hal Herring in Field & Stream (May 2012), this is “an epic about loss, and how change will take from us everything we love, but that there are, indeed, things that endure.  Some people thinks it’s the greatest outdoor adventure movie ever made.”  For the second-best mountain man movie, try Howard HawksThe Big Sky, from 1952.

Narrator:  “His name was Jeremiah Johnson, and they say he wanted to be a mountain man.  The story goes that he was a man of proper wit and adventurous spirit, suited to the mountains.  Nobody knows whereabouts he come from and don’t seem to matter much.  He was a young man and ghosty stories about the tall hills didn’t scare him none.  He was looking for a Hawken gun, .50 caliber or better.  He settled for a .30, but damn, it was a genuine Hawken, and you couldn’t go no better.  Bought him a good horse, and traps, and other truck that went with being a mountain man, and said good-bye to whatever life was down there below….”

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Pin on PinterestEmail this to someone

The Cowboys

Nicholas Chennault ~ August 22, 2013

The Cowboys—John Wayne, Roscoe Lee Browne, Bruce Dern, Sarah Cunningham, Slim Pickens, Colleen Dewhurst, A Martinez, Robert Carradine (1972; Dir:  Mark Rydell)

CowboysPoster1972CowboysPoster_1972

Wil Anderson: [repeated line]  “We’re burnin’ daylight.”

This is one of the two great cattle drive westerns starring John Wayne.  The other is Red River, which admittedly is better and was more ground-breaking in its day.  But this is excellent in its way and has aged fairly well in the more than 40 years since its release.  John Wayne carries this movie pretty much on his own; although the supporting roles are well-played, they are significantly smaller than Wayne’s.

cowboys1 Andersen and his recruits (click on the picture for better focus).

The emphasis in the title is on the “boys” part, although the cows are certainly present as well.  Aging Montana rancher Wil Andersen (Wayne) finds himself without his usual help when it’s time to drive his cattle 400 miles east to market in Belle Fourche.  In desperation, he is forced to take on eleven young boys as his drovers, and it is a coming-of-age exercise for them.  They encounter Colleen Dewhurst and her bevy of soiled doves, as well as rough men of questionable motives, as they do their growing and learn their trade.  Like many other westerns (The Outlaw Josey Wales and The Shootist, for example), this one is also about the search for family and belonging.  Andersen can offer them knowledge and opportunities they don’t yet have and becomes their hard-edged father figure; they become the replacements for his own dead sons.  It all works.

It was no secret when this movie was released that a John Wayne character would get killed for the first time ever in a western, or at least for the first time since he had become a major star (with the exception of The Alamo, of course).  That provided part of the punch of the film on its initial release.  The rest of the impact was in the way it was done, by the near-psychotic villainy of Bruce Dern as Long Hair/Asa Watts.  Wayne told Dern that everybody would hate him for the role; Dern said he responded, “Maybe, but they’ll love me in Berkeley,” a reference to distaste among some on the left for Wayne’s right-wing politics. 

cowboysbrownecowboysdern Nightlinger and Watts

When the movie was released in 1972, the country was still in the midst of a strong wave of anti-Vietnam war sentiment, and many thought that the way the rest of the movie played out after Anderson’s death glorified too much violence by boys too young.  But that seems less of a worry on re-watching; a greater problem lies with incomplete believability in that sequence.

Jebediah Nightlinger[praying to God as he’s about to hanged by Asa Watts and his gang]  “I regret trifling with married women.  I’m thoroughly ashamed of cheating at cards.  I deplore my occasional departures from the truth.  Forgive me for taking your name in vain, my Saturday drunkenness, my Sunday sloth.  Above all, forgive me for the men I’ve killed in anger [eyes shifting to Asa Watts] … and those I am about to.”

cowboyswayne2CowboysJap

Still, it’s a good movie, and an excellent western.  Young director Mark Rydell (The Rievers, On Golden Pond) said he wanted George C. Scott for the lead role at first but was persuaded by the studio to go for Wayne’s surer box office clout instead, despite Rydell’s personal distaste for Wayne’s politics.  It was a smart move.  Although Scott was an excellent actor, he didn’t carry the same authority in westerns that Wayne did.  It’s a fairly simple plot, and the film takes its time getting things set up before the cattle drive actually takes off.  But overall the movie’s pacing works well.  It was shot in New Mexico with a lot of dust, textures, long vistas and beautiful mountains.  The John Williams score is excellent, with a touch of some guy named Vivaldi.

In addition to Dern’s wonderfully loathsome badness, Roscoe Lee Browne gives a strong performance as Jebediah Nightlinger, the drive’s cook and the first black man these young men have seen.  Browne plays Nightlinger with perhaps the most perfect diction and Shakespearean delivery ever heard in a western.  Colleen Dewhurst is great in her brief role as the madam of a traveling group of soiled doves, and Sarah Cunningham shows a lot of character as Anderson’s wife.  Richard Farnsworth is a member of Long Hair’s gang, a decade before he started getting meatier roles.  Among the boys, A Martinez as Cimarron, the outsider (and the oldest), and the young Robert Carradine as Slim are particularly memorable.  But the boys all make an effective ensemble.  Five of them had experience acting, and the rest were from ranching and rodeo backgrounds.  They work together well.

CowboysGun

John Wayne had some strong performances in the last part of his career, from True Grit to The Shootist.  Along with those two, The Cowboys and Big Jake are memorable.  Of course, he was in some duds as well, such as The Train Robbers and Rio Lobo.  But that’s not a bad batting average.

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Pin on PinterestEmail this to someone

The Outlaw Josey Wales

Nicholas Chennault ~ August 21, 2013

The Outlaw Josey Wales—Clint Eastwood, Sam Bottoms, Chief Dan George, Sondra Locke, Will Sampson, John Vernon, Bill McKinney, Royal Dano (1976; Dir:  Clint Eastwood)

joseywalesposterjoseywalesPoster2

The nation’s bicentennial year of 1976 was a watershed for westerns.  The early 1970s had seen a number of westerns, many of them “revisionist” or strongly influenced by spaghetti westerns.  The summer of 1976 saw the release of two excellent traditional westerns:  The Shootist and The Outlaw Josey Wales.  And then the genre fell completely out of fashion and largely disappeared.

The Shootist marked the end of the cinematic career of John Wayne, and it is tempting to see that as the end of westerns generally.  But The Outlaw Josey Wales in the same year was an early directorial effort of Clint Eastwood, who would become one of the great western directors as well as continuing to reinforce his status as a great western star.  And Bill McKinney managed to be in both The Shootist and Wales as a villain, a remarkable accomplishment.

Wales (played by Eastwood) is a Missouri farmer at the start of the movie.  His family is killed, and he is left for dead, by Union-sympathizing Kansas Redlegs led by McKinney’s character.  Wales joins southern border guerrillas under Bloody Bill Anderson and rides with them through the Civil War.  In the fighting, Wales has honed his skills as a warrior, particularly as a “pistolero.”  All this is set up economically at the start of the movie. 

joseywales The quintessential Josey Wales shot.

Refusing to surrender with the rest of his guerrilla band at the end of the war, Wales heads south into the Indian Nations (now Oklahoma) and Texas with a price on his head, pursued by the vengeful Yankee Redlegs.  Along the way, he picks up two Indian companions—Lone Watie, an old Cherokee (played memorably by Chief Dan George), and Little Moonlight, a Navajo woman escaping from captivity with Cheyennes, Arapahoes and white trash.  Wales rescues what is left of a Jayhawk family from scurrilous Comancheros, and he bonds with the inhabitants of the small, dusty Texas town of Santo Rio, where the Kansans are headed.  He has accumulated a new family and taken on more humanity, but before he can settle down he has to deal with hostile Comanches and the nasty Redlegs pursuing him.  However, the only thing worse than continuing to pursue Wales is catching him.  When there is no way out, he doesn’t waste time trying to back away.  “You gonna pull them pistols, or whistle ‘Dixie’?”

Dan George almost steals the movie in his restrained way.  The interplay between Wales and Watie features an understated humor, with Watie frequently having the last word.  Wales tries to discourage Watie from coming along with him:  Referring to the death of family and earlier companions, he notes, “When I get to liking somebody, they ain’t around for long.”  Watie replies, “I notice when you get to disliking somebody, they ain’t around for long neither.”  

joseywalesgeorge

Wales demonstrates his ability to sneak up on an Injun (Chief Dan George).

There are nice casting touches throughout the movie.  John Vernon is good as the conflicted traitor/hunter Fletcher.  Bill McKinney is relentless and despicable as the leader of the Redlegs.  Sam Bottoms gives what may be the best performance ever by any of the Bottoms brothers, playing a dying young Confederate from Alabama in the early part of the movie.  Will Sampson has an appropriate gravitas as Ten Bears, the Comanche chief.  John Russell briefly appears at the start as Bloody Bill Anderson, and Richard Farnsworth is one of the Comancheros.  The denizens of Santo Rio make a nice ensemble, including longtime western character actor Royal Dano.  The weak point in the cast is Sondra Locke as Wales’ romantic interest, but she was Eastwood’s girlfriend at the time.  And she doesn’t get in the way that much.

The Outlaw Josey Wales has a nice look to it.  It’s not as glossy as some westerns, but the interior lighting seems more authentic, and the backwoods characters dirtier than in more Hollywood-ized period westerns.  Wales carries multiple pistols (Walker Colts, which were substantial), two prominently at his waist (not tied down on his legs).  He can also use a rifle to good effect, as he does to give the Redlegs a “Missouri boat ride.”  The movie was filmed on the Feather River in northern California and in southern Utah, and uses its settings well. 

joseywalessampson

Wales (Clint Eastwood) negotiates with Comanche chief Ten Bears (Will Sampson).

There’s a fair amount of violence in this one, and Wales displays one of the very best cinematic versions of the famous “border shift,” in which the gunfighter reverses the positions of his guns to put them in firing positions.  In addition to sporadic violence throughout the movie, rather a lot of Locke gets flashed when she is attacked by the loathsome Comancheros.

One historical quibble:  At the end of the movie, a couple of Texas rangers show up in Santo Rio to document the end of Josey Wales and close the case.  This would be 1865 or 1866, and the Texas Rangers had not yet been reconstituted after the Civil War, since the federal authorities in Texas didn’t want any local law forces with dubious loyalties

Eastwood would yet make more westerns, but only a couple more.  They’re good, though:  Pale Rider and Unforgiven, also on this list of great westerns.  Josey Wales doesn’t have the pure nasty punch that the later Unforgiven does, but it has much more re-watchability.  The underlying novel, Gone to Texas by Forrest Carter, is decent, too.

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Pin on PinterestEmail this to someone