Monthly Archives: August 2013

The Shootist

Nicholas Chennault ~ August 20, 2013

The Shootist—John Wayne, Lauren Bacall, Ron Howard, James Stewart, Richard Boone, Harry Morgan, John Carradine, Hugh O’Brian, Bill McKinney (1976; Dir:  Don Siegel)

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The Richard Amsel poster for The Shootist is typical for the 1970s and 1980s.

An elegiac end-of-an-era western, as the titular shootist, gunfighter John Bernard Books (John Wayne), literally and figuratively comes to the end of his road with considerable dignity.  This is also a coming of age story for Gillom Rogers, well played by the young Ron Howard.  And it was the last movie in the remarkable career of John Wayne, then 68 and dying of terminal stomach cancer. 

The movie opens with an effective montage of shots from earlier Wayne movies, from Red River to Hondo to Rio Bravo to El Dorado, as Books supposedly ages, with a voiceover by Ron Howard.  The Books credo sounds persuasive, coming from a character with the physical and historical heft of John Wayne:  “I won’t be wronged, I won’t be insulted, and I won’t be laid a hand on.  I don’t do these things to other people, and I require the same from them.”  In 1901 Books is heading to Carson City, Nevada, where all the action in the movie takes place.  The Old West is passing, and so is Books himself. 

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J.B. Books (John Wayne) arrives in Carson City at the turn of the century.

Books is in fact dying of cancer and is looking to live out whatever time is left to him with as much dignity as he can muster.  How he goes about this makes up the remainder of the movie.  It moves more slowly than most John Wayne westerns, but we’re happy enough to see him on the screen that it doesn’t drag and it never becomes unduly sentimental.  Howard is good as a fatherless, sometimes mouthy, teenager looking for role models.

The movie has some excellent actors in cameos and character roles:  James Stewart as a doctor, Lauren Bacall as the widowed operator of a boarding house and mother of the young Howard, Harry Morgan as an obnoxious marshal, and the funereal John Carradine appropriately cast as an undertaker.  You sense that there could have been a relationship between Books and the Bacall character if only Books had more time left to him, although if she’d known who he was she wouldn’t have let him stay at her boarding house in the first place. 

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Books (John Wayne) teaches Gillom (Ron Howard) to shoot, but also and more importantly, about becoming a man.

And then there are the villains, played by Hugh O’Brien, Richard Boone and Bill McKinney.  One gets the feeling that none of them had enough dramatic weight to balance the Books character, so there were three.  They still don’t balance with Books.  Richard Boone is always good to watch, but this isn’t his best role, and he seems more curmudgeonly than downright bad.  He deserved a better-written character with more lines and personality, and perhaps a touch of his traditional villainous courtliness.  This was one of the last movies for both Boone and Stewart as well as for Wayne.  A generation of actors was passing.

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In his final shootout, Books (John Wayne) takes on three separate bad guys at once.

As in The Cowboys, the John Wayne character doesn’t come out of this alive.  But he wasn’t going to, given the setup of the movie, and it’s a pleasure to watch the grace with which he accomplishes it.  It’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role, but it’s said that the producer approached Paul Newman and George C. Scott first.  At the time there was no certainty that it would be Wayne’s last picture, but it was a strong way to go out. 

Don Siegel directed a couple of westerns, but he was known more for his work with Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry and Escape from Alcatraz.  The music is by Elmer Bernstein, a long-time master of the traditional movie score, including many westerns.  This was based on a decent novel of the same title by Glendon Swarthout.

It was the Bicentennial summer, and this was one of two great westerns released.  The other was The Outlaw Josey Wales, and they both remain highly watchable.

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The Long Riders

Nicholas Chennault ~ August 14, 2013

The Long Riders—Stacy and James Keach, David, Keith and Robert Carradine, Christopher and Nicholas Guest, Randy and Dennis Quaid, Pamela Reed (1980; Dir:  Walter Hill)

There’s an obvious gimmick to this movie, with several sets of actual brothers playing historical brothers.  The effectiveness of movies about the James gang must usually balance three characters:  Jesse, his brother Frank and their cousin Cole Younger.  Historically, Jesse was the most charismatic of the three, and making him seem so in a movie can be a challenge.  You can think of movies obviously cast with a charismatic Jesse first (as with Tyrone Power and Brad Pitt).  But in this movie Jesse (played by James Keach) seems a little remote and is perhaps less effective than his older brother Frank (Stacy Keach).  David Carradine as a long-haired Cole Younger has one of his best movie roles, along with brothers Keith and Robert as Jim and Bob Younger.  The Guest brothers are Bob and Charlie Ford, and the Quaids play Ed and Clell Miller.  Gimmick or not, the casting works remarkably well here.

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Three Carradines, two Guests, two Quaids and two Keaches.  The long linen dusters are historically accurate, worn by the gang because they could be used to cover up guns and firearms.

This western has a dim, dusty and rough-hewn look to it, appropriately evoking the post-Civil War era.  The music, composed and arranged by Ry Cooder, has an old-timey bluegrass-mountain flavor, also appropriate to the time and setting.  The outlaws wear grey dusters and other period gear, and it looks authentic but not glossy.  There are a number of good small touches here:  A three-man band swings into “Jack of Diamonds” at the gang’s favorite whorehouse, although it only plays three or four bars before the action cuts away; there’s a real community feel to the dancing at Jesse’s wedding; a solemnly drunk Clell Miller quotes Isaiah to a bare-breasted prostitute; and many others.  It means that small moments are engaging to watch even if the gang isn’t robbing a bank or a train or having a shootout with the Pinkertons.  Particularly notable among the supporting roles is Pamela Reed as Myra Belle Shirley (later Belle Starr), a whore who longs for semi-respectability through marriage to the rootless Cole Younger but will never get it. 

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Like most movies about Jesse, this one is mostly sympathetic to the outlaws.  The Long Riders is more historically accurate than most, and was referred to on its release as revisionist because of that accuracy (and because of a certain amount of nudity).  The Pinkertons are generally unsympathetic here, as they could be in real life and as they are portrayed in most movies about Jesse James, although they are not unrelievedly so in this film.  There are a few inaccuracies, especially with the characters of Belle Starr (the impressive Pamela Reed) and Sam Starr (James Remar).  Some historical episodes are telescoped closer together for purposes of pacing.  Still, it’s good and marks the entry of director Walter Hill to a genre with which he clearly feels some affinity. 

For contrast, look at the recent (2007) Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Bob Ford.  The cinematography is a lot cleaner and just plain more magnificent in the newer film.  Brad Pitt as Jesse is more compelling than James Keach; you can see both the charismatic attraction and the psychotic edge, along with the weariness creeping in at the end of his outlaw career.  Casey Affleck is an unsettling Bob Ford, partly because the camera focuses on his face so often and so long when he’s not giving much away.  It makes him seem creepy, which is perhaps the point.  That film is interesting in some ways and visually beautiful, but it doesn’t move, which is a problem for a movie.  The Long Riders, now more than 30 years old, is still the best movie about the Jesse James gang. 

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Director Walter Hill is known for his association with and admiration for Sam Peckinpah, leading to a supposed preoccupation with violence.  The extended climactic sequence at Northfield, Minnesota, in which the James-Younger gang tries to rob a bank and is shot to pieces by the townsfolk, is one of extended violence, some of it in slow motion.  But it is well-staged, with good stunt work, and has a compelling quality to it, a horrific fascination—more, perhaps, than the more celebrated climax of The Wild Bunch.  When Jesse and Frank, seeking a way out of the death trap on the main street, burst through two sets of large windows on horseback and make their escape, that is visually impressive.  And when a cold-eyed Jesse makes the decision that he and Frank will leave the Youngers and Clell Miller behind because they’re all shot up and can’t ride, that seems like real Jesse.  It’s amazing that the Youngers survive their wounds; Cole is said to have been shot eleven times.

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The Keach brothers not only have the lead roles here; they’re also listed as executive producers and have writing credits.  They, along with director Hill, deserve most of the credit for this successful venture into western history and action, especially in an era when westerns were no longer cinematically fashionable.  (This was released shortly after the Heaven’s Gate debacle and may have suffered at the box office by association.)  Hill and the Keaches do a good job in attempting to connect the James gang with their actual history.

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The Man from Snowy River

Nicholas Chennault ~

The Man from Snowy River—Tom Burlinson, Kirk Douglas, Sigrid Thornton, Jack Thompson (1982; Dir:  George Miller)

Based on an Australian epic poem by Banjo Paterson, this is a young-man-triumphing-over-adversity-and-making-his-way-through-perseverance-and-force-of-character movie, set in the highlands of Australia.  It’s also a movie for horse lovers.  Tom Burlinson plays young Jim Craig, who’s trying to put together a respectable highland spread for himself after his father is killed in the movie’s opening scene.  While working for the local ranching baron Harrison (Kirk Douglas), he meets, falls in love with and tries to win the baron’s daughter Jessica (Sigrid Thornton).  Burlinson and Thornton are appealing as the young lovers.  Douglas plays a dual role as both the baron and his estranged one-legged prospector brother Spur; he occasionally gives in to a temptation to chew the scenery, especially in the prospector role.  Jack Thompson is good in a supporting role as Clancy, the legendary highlands horse and cattle man.

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Craig captures and domesticates brumbies (wild horses) in the Australian highlands, and he’s good at it.  Based in more beautiful upland country than some Australian westerns, the cinematography is stunning, as are the chase scenes.  The most memorable images are of Craig hurtling down almost vertical slopes in pursuit of the brumbies, barely under control and only a slight misstep away from breaking legs and necks.  No other film has so successfully conveyed the joy of riding a horse full out, with the sense of speed, power and partnership.   There’s a very Australian feel about the movie, with class conflicts and the underdog-makes-good story.  There are incidental conflicts between Craig and a couple of ill-meaning other riders, and with the over-proud Harrison.

When Craig is sent to the highlands in pursuit of straggling cattle from the roundup, Jessica follows, only to be thrown by her horse and trapped on a cliff.  Reading the physical signs of what happened, Craig finds and rescues her, and they fall more deeply in love.  He completes the task and delivers the stragglers and Jessica back home; but he also encounters Harrison’s hostility to their relationship.

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Jim Craig (Tom Burlinson) rescues the heiress (Sigrid Thornton).

A fiery stallion (the first “foal of Old Regret”) released into the wild years earlier by an angry Harrison is now the leader and protector of the highland brumbies.  Now Harrison has purchased the last colt of Old Regret for £1000.  Jim Craig tames it, but when he leaves it is allowed by troublemakers to run off with the brumbies.  An enraged Harrison convenes all the riders in the vicinity; Clancy brings along Craig, who would otherwise not be welcome.  In the chase, the brumbies take off down slopes so steep riders can’t follow—except for Craig and his mountain-bred mount.  He brings them in and Harrison gets his colt back.  Craig claims twelve brood mares and says he’ll be back for them “and whatever else is mine,” looking at Jessica.  And that’s where the movie ends, without showing explicitly what happens to the young lovers or to the untamable leader of the brumbies.

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Hurtling down the hills, with no stunt rider.

The basic plot is fairly ordinary, but here it’s done well.  The movie’s beautiful setting in the wooded Australian highlands, decent acting, excellent cinematography and a good romantic musical score by Bruce Rowland make it quite enjoyable.  The sight of riders in their Australian hats and flying coattails, with their drover whips cracking like gunshots, evokes a longing to be with them.  Without much violence or harsh language, it has been characterized as a “family film,” but that is too limiting.  The director is the Australian George Miller, but not the more famous Australian director of the same name who made the Mad Max movies and Babe.  There is a passable sequel, Return to Snowy River (1988), which is a bit more formulaic but still watchable.  Jim Craig’s highland homestead, built for the movie, became a kind of Australian national historical site until it was destroyed by wildfires more than twenty years later.

There was a 1920 Australian silent movie with the same title based on the Banjo Paterson poem, but that is now considered lost.

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The Grey Fox

Nicholas Chennault ~ August 12, 2013

The Grey Fox—Richard Farnsworth, Jackie Burroughs, Wayne Robson (1983; Dir:  Phillip Borsos; no DVD)

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Richard Farnsworth as The Grey Fox, and the real Bill Miner

A small film when it was initially released, it’s also one of the few great westerns not available on DVD, so it remains largely unseen.  Note the Canadian spelling in the title.  This was a Canadian production, most of the story takes place in Canada, and it was beautifully filmed on location in British Columbia.  It has an excellent soundtrack with music by Canadian Michael Conway Baker and The Chieftains, although that soundtrack has never been released in the United States.  There’s a Celtic flavor to the sound, which works well with the time and setting.

The film is an end-of-an-era western based on the true story of Bill Miner, a stagecoach robber released from San Quentin in 1901 after 33 years in prison.  He tries to go straight, but it’s not easy at his age and with his lack of modern skills.  There aren’t many stagecoaches left to rob, but there are trains, so Miner adapts to the new transportation technology, aided by an inept young assistant named Shorty Dunn (Wayne Robson). 

Meanwhile, the aging Miner, who is going under the name George Edwards, also begins a charming May-December romance with Kate Flynn (Jackie Burroughs), a younger liberated modern woman and photographer.  The romance, Miner’s new career as a gentleman train robber and its aftermath form the rest of the story for this movie.  There’s not much violence or hard language, although there is tension as Miner is hunted by the forces of the law.  The film’s pacing is slower than that of many westerns as relationships develop.  (Compare it to A Thousand Pieces of Gold, perhaps, although it has more action.)  But the elegiac pacing seems to fit the story and the actors, and it works well.

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The movie is marvelously directed and acted.  At the time The Grey Fox was made, Richard Farnsworth was 61, with a 40-year career as a stuntman and minor supporting actor.  His role here is at the center of this movie, and he’s great.  Farnsworth’s voice, phrasing and intonations are unique, velvety and memorable, not to mention those gentle blue eyes and the terrific moustache.  Toward the end of his career, he played three marvelous roles, and this was perhaps the best of them.  (The others are Matthew Cuthbert in the Canadian television series Anne of Green Gables [1985] and Alvin in The Straight Story [1999], but during the 1980s after The Grey Fox he started getting meatier supporting roles in many movies.)  You have to believe in Miner and care about him for the movie to work at all, and Farnsworth is quietly superb.  Jackie Burroughs is also very good in her smaller role as the emancipated photographer and romantic interest.  The romance could easily have been not terribly believable, given the difference in ages and eras, but it works and works well. 

In his calm, steady way, Farnsworth knew how remarkable his feat was, and he was appreciative of the opportunity.  He told the Associated Press in 1983, “I guess you might say that The Grey Fox is a kind of Cinderella story for me.  When I was a kid, I read in the western magazines about a skinny old guy with a moustache who came out of San Quentin after 30 years for stage robbing and tried his hand at train robbing.  Forty-two years later, I end up playing him in a movie.  I guess I grew into him.”  He was a natural presence in westerns, but he also worked well in such films as The Natural (1984).  He had significant supporting roles in Tom Horn, Comes a Horseman and The Two Jakes.  He even played Wild Bill Hickok in the execrable The Legend of the Lone Ranger (1981), although he was significantly older than Hickok ever got to be.

GreyFoxBorsosFarnsworth Director Borsos with Farnsworth.

This gem was made with a limited budget; it didn’t have recognizable stars and was released principally in art houses.  It’s clearly on a different scale than, say, Silverado, which had much more to work with in terms of budget and stars.  But for what it is, it’s great, and it ends on a curiously upbeat note that you wouldn’t have seen coming with the generally autumnal feeling of the film.  Even in a film this small, Farnsworth got a Best Actor Oscar nomination for his role as Miner.  The film won the Best Film Genie, the Canadian version of the American Oscar, and Richard Farnsworth won the best foreign actor award (foreign, as in non-Canadian).

The director, Tasmanian-born Canadian Phillip Borsos, was only 27 when he made this movie, his first feature film.  He died in 1995 of leukemia at 41.

For another excellent and largely unseen small Canadian western check out Gunless (2010), with Paul Gross as The Montana Kid sidetracked in western Canada.  For another underrated but excellent relationship-oriented western, see the aforementioned A Thousand Pieces of Gold (1991), if you can find it.  It’s not available on DVD, either, although there were rumors that it was to be released by Panamint in late 2015.

Note:  The real Bill Miner died in prison, but this story ends the way it should.

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Silverado

Nicholas Chennault ~

Silverado—Kevin Kline, Kevin Costner, Scott Glenn, Danny Glover, Brian Dennehy, John Cleese, Rosanna Arquette, Jeff Goldblum, Linda Hunt, Lynn Whitfield (1985; Dir:  Lawrence Kasdan)

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After his successes with Body Heat and The Big Chill, Lawrence Kasdan apparently felt the desire to try his hand at the seemingly-defunct large-scale western and now had the resources to do that.  Silverado is the result, a large-budget western that seems to have it all.

And that is its main problem.  There are so many elements to this story that they are not quite stitched together effectively.  There’s a range war with threatened settlers, there’s a group of emigrants making its way west, there’s racial tension and bigotry, there are outlaws reformed and mostly unreformed, there are shifty gamblers, there are corrupt sheriffs.  And guns, lots of guns.  No Indians, though.  You can tell that this movie started in the minds of the writers (the Kasdan brothers) with several characters and situations, not with one overarching story.  Still, it’s fun to watch, and it was especially appreciated when it was released, in an era when this kind of film was an anomaly.  There weren’t many westerns being made, and especially not good westerns with traditional themes.

It’s 1880 in New Mexico Territory.  The two principal characters are Paden, played by Kevin Kline, a one-time outlaw fallen on harder but more respectable times, and Emmett, played by Scott Glenn, recently out of prison after having killed the leader of the opposing side in a settlers vs. cattlemen range war.  Emmett’s now returning to Silverado and his sister’s family to sort out what’s next for him.  Only slightly less central are Mal (Danny Glover), a black man returning to his own family, and Jake (Kevin Costner in his first western role) as Emmett’s scapegrace younger brother.  The four of them return to Silverado, only to be engulfed by old situations with new twists.

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Emmet meets Paden.

There is a host of excellent supporting characters, including Brian Dennehy as a gleefully corrupt sheriff, John Cleese as a less corrupt sheriff with an English accent, Linda Hunt as a diminutive saloon proprietor, gravel-voiced James Gammon as the leader of an outlaw band, Lynn Whitfield as Mal’s prostitute sister, Jeff Fahey as Dennehy’s lethal deputy and Jeff Goldblum as a slick gambler of uncertain allegiances.    

So what doesn’t work here?  Two things:  First, Rosanna Arquette as a supposedly desirable newly-widowed emigrant woman.  It’s a thankless and underwritten role, and one gets the feeling that some significant part of it was left on the cutting room floor.  Arquette’s character desperately needs a note of humor and more desirability than shows up on the screen.  The other is the flip side of Paden’s own attractiveness.  He’s always cool, charming and smooth, and he never loses his temper.  While moving toward a climactic shootout (what else?), Paden sometimes has slightly too much good humor, with never a hard edge to show when he is pushed too far.  It seems too much like a game.  But these are quibbles, especially since Arquette’s character turns out not to be very important.

There’s lots to like in Silverado, and one has the feeling with many of the supporting characters that more could be made of them—that there was more story to be told.  There’s so much that’s so good that it gets a top ranking.  This movie is beautifully made, shot on location in New Mexico with top-flight production values.  It features an excellent operatic score by Bruce Broughton, in the finest Elmer Bernstein tradition.  The Silverado theme will stick with you for decades, perhaps because it’s always showing up at sporting events.  Director Lawrence Kasdan’s only other try at a western was less successful–1994’s Wyatt Earp, also with Costner.

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Pale Rider

Nicholas Chennault ~ August 11, 2013

Pale Rider—Clint Eastwood, Michael Moriarty, Carrie Snodgress, Richard Dysart, John Russell (1985; Dir:  Clint Eastwood)

The title reference is to a phrase from the book of Revelation in the New Testament, also quoted more explicitly by the Johnny Ringo character in Tombstone.  The scripture refers to a pale horse with a pale rider, who is death.  In retrospect, this film is also apparently a remake of Shane, with Clint Eastwood even more mysterious and implacable than Alan Ladd’s gunfighter in the earlier movie.  The basic story is of small miners and settlers versus an established mining company in northern California’s gold country, with all the strength apparently on the side of the establishment.  Until the Preacher (Eastwood) rides in, that is.

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As in Shane, the principal miner/settler (Michael Moriarty) is somebody with strong moral and community sense but not the skills with violence to defend himself or his community.  And the principal settler’s woman (girlfriend, in this case, played by Carrie Snodgress) is attracted to the new, stronger intervener.  So is her 15-year-old daughter, setting up a new kind of potential conflict.  As in Shane, while defending the miner community, the Preacher remains visibly separate from them.  With Shane, there was the sense that Shane would like the kind of family and roots he saw among the settlers, but ultimately recognized that he could never be like them.  The Preacher never gets that close or makes any attempt to avoid violence.  He’s always definitely “other.”  From the beginning he seems to see the final climax is inevitable and strides unswervingly toward his role in it.

Unlike Shane, there is a suggestion of the supernatural and foreknowledge about the Preacher.  A shot of Eastwood’s unclothed back in one scene shows a pattern of bullet scars, repeated during the climactic shootout on another character.  It doesn’t seem that somebody with these scars could have survived the incident that created them.

There are also links with prior Eastwood films.  The supposedly dead character who returns for revenge is a Clint Eastwood specialty (cf. High Plains Drifter and Hang ‘Em High), as is a principal character with no name (as in A Fistful of Dollars and its sequels).

Two other elements of Shane are rather obviously repeated in Pale Rider.  There is a shootout in the street, where a miner is forced to face odds that he can’t possibly beat.  In Shane, it was a laughing, black-clad Jack Palance against Elisha Cook, Jr.  Here it is the corrupt Marshal Stockburn and six duster-clad deputies against one drunk miner in the street.  The result is the same, but even more ruthless.  And instead of the young boy yelling for Shane to come back at the end, here it is the 15-year-old girl.

As in Shane (and countless other westerns), there is a climactic shootout, very effectively done, with the Preacher against Stockburn and six deputies.  The corrupt Marshal Stockburn with six hired gunmen as deputies recognizes, and is shocked by the appearance of, the Preacher during the climax.  Stockburn is played by John Russell, who over the years played head bad guy Nathan Burdette in Rio Bravo and, briefly, Bloody Bill Anderson at the start of The Outlaw Josey Wales.  This role is kind of a reference to his years as Sheriff Dan Troop of Laramie in the television series Lawman from the early 1960s.  If the head bad guy’s son looks familiar, it’s because he’s Sean Penn’s brother Christopher.

The action can be a little slow; the Preacher doesn’t even put on a gun until about two-thirds of the way through the movie.  The sense is sometimes that director Eastwood is still working out some of what he learned from Sergio Leone twenty years before, with a few more reaction close-ups and low-angle shots than are really needed to tell the story.  Eastwood also plays with light and shadow in interesting ways.  And the outdoor setting in the Sawtooth Mountains on the Idaho-Montana border is magnificent.  One of the ways it’s made clear that the bad guys are evil is by the way they despoil the environment through their hydraulic mining practices.  You can also see one of the themes here as similar to Unforgiven—the former gunman’s unsuccessful attempt to reform into a more peaceful role.   Although much about Pale Rider suggests that it’s an obvious homage to Shane, it’s very much worth watching on its own.  It’s well done, and very Clint Eastwood.

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Pale Rider movie poster art by Michael Dudash. The original is in the possession of Clint Eastwood.

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Lonesome Dove

Nicholas Chennault ~ August 9, 2013

Lonesome Dove—Robert Duvall, Tommy Lee Jones, Chris Cooper, Anjelica Huston, Diane Lane, Danny Glover, Robert Urich, Rick Schroder, D.B. Sweeney, Glenne Headley, Frederick Forrest, Steve Buscemi (miniseries made for television, 1989; Dir:  Simon Wincer)

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Finally, in 2008, a DVD with a worthy version of this modern classic novel was released.  Although Lonesome Dove was made for television in the late 1980s, it was apparently filmed with a large budget in a widescreen format, as now shown on the 2008 DVD.  And the new transfer was of a significantly better, clearer quality than earlier releases.  One result is that this version gives a greater sense of the visual sweep and power of the American west than its more limited predecessors.

The spine of Lonesome Dove is the story of a cattle drive from Texas border country on the Rio Grande north to Montana, but it includes so much more:  Indians and renegades, scurrilous buffalo hunters and rough cowhands, romances current and past, outlaws and old friends gone wrong, Texas rangers and Mexican rustlers, battles against evildoers, miscreants, Indians and the elements.  Based on one of the greatest American novels of the 20th century, it takes the time to do justice to its rich source material.

How can the greatest western be something made for television?  It was the coming together of so many elements, including the rich and sprawling story, terrific cinematography, excellent music (by Basil Pouledoris), masterful direction, superb casting, and, perhaps most of all, the time to tell the story fully at its own pace and develop the characters.

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Capt. Augustus McCrae (Robert Duvall) and Capt. Woodrow Call (Tommy Lee Jones).

And the cast!  The casting is magnificent.  Some of the excellent cast members (Anjelica Huston, Diane Lane) are known best for their work in non-western films.  Others (Robert Duvall, Tommy Lee Jones, Chris Cooper) are icons well known from other westerns on this list.  Duvall is so good as romantic former Texas Ranger Gus McCrae that it is now impossible to think of anybody else in the role, although a younger McCrae has been played by others since.  Originally, James Garner was to have played Gus, but had to drop out for health reasons; he played Woodrow Call very creditably in the sequel Streets of Laredo miniseries.  Tommy Lee Jones, who is actually younger than Duvall, nevertheless matches him well as the unyielding, steel-spined Captain Woodrow Call.  Anjelica Huston as McCrae’s lifelong love Clara has one of the most memorable roles of her career, as does Diane Lane as the prostitute Lorena.  Danny Glover as the scout Deets is terrific.  It’s still strange to think of Frederick Forrest as the enigmatic but thoroughly evil Comanche Blue Duck, but even that bit of casting works.  Chris Cooper, in one of his first major roles, is oddly and quietly impressive as July Johnson, drawn out of a quiet life in Arkansas and thrust into the epic struggles around McCrae and Call.

There are vivid scenes that come to mind, and everyone has his favorites:  the death of a drover in a river filled with snakes, McCrae’s relentless pursuit of the elusive Blue Duck (who appears mysteriously and memorably in a flash of lightning), the hanging of an old friend gone wrong, Call decisively taking on the U.S. cavalry without hesitation (“I can’t abide rude behavior in a man”), McCrae and Clara trying to work out an old love, July Johnson coping with death and with the continuation of life, and Call’s inability to claim an important relationship, are only some.  Some things get resolved, and some seem not to; that’s life, and sometimes death.  It has an air of authenticity.  It stays with you.

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McCrae looks for a lost love with Clara (Anjelica Huston).

The McCrae-Call partnership around which this story revolves was loosely based on the Oliver Loving-Charlie Goodnight relationship from the 1860s; they’re the Texas pair who blazed the Goodnight-Loving Trail.  This version of the story was so powerful that it generated three more long novels (one sequel and two prequels) with the same characters from author Larry McMurtry.  None of those matches the novel on which this was based.  The others tend to get more sidetracked in the dark, the quirky and the wildly idiosyncratic, losing their grip on the themes and story that give the Pulitzer Prize-winning Lonesome Dove its powerful narrative thrust.  Some of them have been made into watchable miniseries themselves (Streets of Laredo, Comanche Moon), but none of them works as well as this original on the page or on screen.  The story of Lonesome Dove seems complete in itself, despite McMurtry’s insistence on giving more of it less compellingly in other novels.  As for made-for-television sequels not based on McMurtry novels, such as Return to Lonesome Dove, watch them at your own peril.

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This was the first large-scale directing effort by Australian Simon Wincer, who has gone on to make both theatrical releases (Quigley Down Under) and excellent made-for-television westerns (Last Stand at Sabre River, Monte Walsh), including the Lonesome Dove prequel Comanche Moon.  He got it right the first time.

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Blue Duck (Frederick Forrest), the worst of the bad guys, although there are a number to choose from.

Lonesome Dove and one other are often cited as the best miniseries ever, and their proponents tend to divide along gender lines.  The other is the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice (the 1995 Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle version), and you can guess who likes which.  They’re both great, but only one of them is a western.

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Quigley Down Under

Nicholas Chennault ~ August 8, 2013

Quigley Down Under—Tom Selleck, Alan Rickman, Laura San Giacomo (1990; Dir:  Simon Wincer)

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Tom Selleck as Matthew Quigley

As the title suggests, this is not an American western, since it takes place in Australia.  However, the Quigley of the title is an American cowboy from Wyoming, and the action takes place on the frontiers of western Australia.  The director, Simon Wincer, is also Australian, but he has directed several westerns, including Lonesome Dove.

Matthew Quigley is played by Tom Selleck, who, as usual, seems very at home in a western—even an Australian western.  Quigley has been brought to Australia from Wyoming because he responded to an advertisement for a marksman; his expertise is with a specially fitted-out Sharps long-range rifle with custom ammunition.  His new employer is Elliot Marston (superbly played by Alan Rickman), the owner of a large ranch in the Australian outback.  When the task for which he has been hired is finally revealed, Quigley refuses to go along with it and his expression of that refusal triggers a war between himself and Marston.  The advantages seem to all be on Marston’s side, including the regional British constabulary, such as it is.

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A demonstration of shooting prowess for Marston’s benefit.

Initially beaten by superior numbers, Quigley is left in the desert for dead, along with a mentally unstable prostitute, Crazy Cora (Laura San Giacomo).  With the help of aborigines, they make their way through desert and outback to a town on the coast.  Quigley fights off Marston’s minions there, and he then takes the battle back to Marston for its ultimate resolution.

Selleck and Rickman are excellent in their roles, and their performances balance each other nicely.  The sole casting misstep is Laura San Giacomo as Crazy Cora.  She has too urban and modern a sensibility to seem at home in this kind of movie, but it survives nevertheless.

The movie has great scenery, a sense of vast spaces, wilderness, deserts, gunfights, aborigines and much more, along with an excellent soundtrack by Basil Pouledoris.  Australian director Simon Wincer has an affinity for westerns, having made his reputation with Lonesome Dove and several other made-for-television efforts with Selleck (and with very good production values).

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Quigley’s modified 1874 Sharps.  In the film, Quigley says of his gun:

It’s a lever-action breech loader.  Usual barrel length’s thirty inches.  This one has an extra four.  It’s converted to use a special forty-five caliber, hundred and ten grain metal cartridge, with a five-hundred and forty grain paper-patched bullet.  It’s fitted with double-set triggers, and a Vernier sight.  It’s marked up to twelve-hundred yards. This one shoots a mite further.

Three fully functional .45-110 rifles matching the above description were built for the film in 1989 by the Shiloh Rifle Co. of Big Timber, Montana.  They also had a 15 14 inch length of pull to fit Selleck’s tall frame, a full octagon heavy barrel with a blue finish, and weighed 13 12 pounds.  Due to the weight, one of the rifles was sent back to Shiloh to be refitted with an aluminum barrel so it could be swung faster (as a club) in fight scenes.

If you’d like other “westerns” with an Australian setting, try The Man from Snowy River and its sequel, the much bleaker The Proposition, or even Australia, with its cattle drive and World War II.

 

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Dances With Wolves

Nicholas Chennault ~ August 7, 2013

Dances With Wolves—Kevin Costner, Graham Greene, Mary McDonnell (1990; Dir:  Kevin Costner)

This is the other western Best Picture Oscar winner from the early 1990s, one of the seven Academy Awards it won.  It also won a Best Director Oscar for star and director Kevin Costner.  It was a breath of fresh air when released, but over time it hasn’t worn as well as some others.  Unforgiven, for example, is as hard and bracing now as when it was released.  But perhaps Dances With Wolves depended for its initial effect on ideas new at the time, which are no longer quite so new.

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The principal character is Lt. John Dunbar (Kevin Costner), a badly-wounded Civil War hero sent to be the sole occupant of a frontier outpost on the plains.  He fixes up the modest post and tries to learn about the country and its native inhabitants—a band of Lakota Sioux and a wolf who finds Dunbar intriguing.  Gingerly getting to know them bit by bit, he gradually becomes one of them in his way, even forming a relationship with a white woman (Mary McDonnell) who was captured by the Indians so long ago she barely speaks any English.  The Indians go from being inscrutable and savage “others” to being real characters with different personalities as Dunbar gets to know them.

This idyllic existence is only sullied by the eventual return of other soldiers to the post.  Unlike Dunbar, these other whites are completely nasty and unsympathetic, and Dunbar sides with the Sioux against them.

There are excellent performances in this film, including Costner’s, McDonnell’s and especially Graham Greene as Kicking Bird, leader of the Sioux.  Rodney A. Grant is good as Wind in His Hair;  Mary McDonell has one of her best roles ever as Stands with a Fist.  Costner basically has to carry the film, and he does a good job.  The Indians speak Sioux (with English subtitles) to give the movie more realism.  And they look like Indians, because most of them are.  Greene is an Oneida from Canada, and Rodney A. Grant is an Omaha.  These Indians are on screen a great deal and are treated with a strongly romantic sympathy, a new approach at the time.

Commercially, this movie was a gamble at the time of its release, because of its genre, the way it treated Indians, its healthy $18 million budget and its unusual length.  It went on to make $400 million at the box office, a very respectable figure.  In its initial theatrical release, it was three hours long—unheard of in 1990.  Since its release, varying extended cuts of the film have been released on video and DVD, some as long as four hours.

danceswolves1 Invitation to the Dance

Lurking in the background throughout the movie is our knowledge of how things are going to work out long-term.  The ultimate outcome can’t be good for the Indians, no matter how much we come to like these individual Lakotas.  Roger Ebert quite accurately characterized this film as a fantasy.  In his review he wrote, “In a sense, ‘Dances With Wolves’ is a sentimental fantasy, a ‘what if’ movie that imagines a world in which whites were genuinely interested in learning about a Native American culture that lived more closely in harmony with the natural world than any other before or since. But our knowledge of how things turned out – of how the Indians were driven from their lands by genocide and theft – casts a sad shadow over everything.”  Excellently made and eminently watchable, but with a whiff of the counter-historical about it.  For Kicking Bird and John Dunbar, we could wish history had worked out as the film depicts, even if it is romanticized.

According to Hal Herring in Field & Stream (May 2012), “…Beyond all the morality tales told, the psychology illuminated, the power struggles and genocidal impulses revealed, what Dances with Wolves is, at its essence, is a magnificent adventure story, richer than Shackleton’s Endurance, of much more historical power than any of the narratives or dramatizations of, say the journals of Lewis and Clark.  It’s a grand tale of the individual transcending the collective culture.  The overall nations–the Lakota and the European-Americans–are hopelessly, mortally, at odds.  But within that death struggle, individuals can become friends and hunting partners.  We all know how the story ends, both the movie, and the real history of the Plains Indians.  That knowledge makes the movie, with all its exuberance and adventure, also unbearably sad.”

dancewolves2 Graham Greene as Kicking Bird

Beautifully shot on location in South Dakota, the film remains very watchable after almost a quarter of a century.  The Best Cinematography Oscar for Dean Semler was more than justified.  It is not without a few minor historical faults.  From Herring:  “Buffalo were not slain by lances that are thrown–the lance is thrust, from horseback.  Dunbar’s woman, Stands-with-a-Fist, must be the only white woman for a thousand miles, and yet he stumbles upon her, and love ensues.  Everybody’s hair is bit too clean, and too fly-away late 80’s style.”

Looking at it in retrospect, it has two problems as cinematic storytelling:  First, the slow pacing sometimes seems indulgent, especially since that’s the director on which the camera focuses almost all the time.  It’s slow in getting off the ground and on to its real subject, and it is admittedly a pretty long and sometimes leisurely movie.  And secondly, all the Indians are so good, and all the whites other than Dunbar so unrelievedly bad, that it detracts from the overall balance and believability of the story and smacks of political correctness.  In a movie this long, couldn’t there have been one more decent white character, and perhaps just a little more (accurate) Indian savagery?  Still, it did start a new era of western movies, and it was the first large-scale movie to succeed in portraying Indians this sympathetically since A Man Called Horse and its sequels in the early 1970s.  And for more than 20 years, until the Coen brothers’ remake of True Grit, it was the highest-grossing western in film history.

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A Thousand Pieces of Gold

Nicholas Chennault ~ August 6, 2013

A Thousand Pieces of Gold—Chris Cooper, Rosalind Chao, Michael Paul Chan (1991; Dir:  Nancy Kelly)

This is a small movie—one with a limited budget and without major stars at the time it was made—and it’s not available on DVD, so many people haven’t seen it.  Based on a novel by Ruthannne Lum McCunn, it’s a more or less true story of how China Polly and Charlie Bemis meet in an Idaho mining camp, and what follows from that meeting.  There are, strangely enough for a western, no gunfights, but there is a lot of gambling and anti-Chinese prejudice.

jim_lalu_over_mts Lalu arrives in Idaho.

Lalu (Rosalind Chao) is sold by her impoverished family in China and is transported to San Francisco and then to a mining town in northern Idaho, where she has become the property of Hong King (Michael Paul Chan).  Hong King runs the local saloon and gambling den, which he rents from Charlie Bemis (Chris Cooper); he can’t own it since he isn’t a citizen and isn’t allowed to become one.  A constant element of the background is the racist treatment of the numerous Chinese.  Charlie himself, though not Chinese, appears to be on an extended streak of bad luck.

Everybody refers to Lalu as China Polly, and Hong King intends to sell her sexual favors in a back room of the saloon.  With the help of a knife, she persuades him that this would not be a good course to take, and she earns her keep with more socially acceptable forms of hard work.  Eventually, Charlie wins her from Hong King in a poker game, and she repays Charlie by nursing him back to health after Charlie receives a serious wound.   He’d like a permanent relationship with her, but she’s adamant that she intends to return to her family in China.  By the end of the movie, however, the Chinese are driven out of the mining camp, and China Polly decides her real home is with Charlie.  The real-life Bemises established a homestead together on Idaho’s romantically named River of No Return.

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Polly (Rosalind Chao) and Charlie (Chris Cooper) dance warily.

At heart, this is a romance with a western setting.  It is also the only one of the great westerns directed by a woman.  It is slower-paced than many westerns, but it seems true to its time and place.  It’s surprising how many really good westerns of the last 20 years have featured Cooper, an otherwise not-terribly-well-known or flashy actor.  (See Lone Star and Lonesome Dove, for example.)  He’s understated, and he’s good.  And Rosalind Chao is excellent as Lalu/China Polly; she is the central figure and really makes the movie work.  It was filmed in the old mining town of Butte, Montana. As of late May 2020, a restored 4K version of this is available on blu-ray DVD, at long last.  Just be aware that it focuses more on relationships and less on action than most westerns do.

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The original 1991 poster for the film (on the left), and the new 2020 poster for the restored version (on the right), focusing more on Rosalind Chao.

If this movie leaves you wanting to know more about the real China Polly and Charlie Bemis, check out The Poker Bride by Christopher Corbett (New York:  Atlantic Monthly Press, 2010).  For another great western featuring the Chinese in the American west, try Broken Trail, above.

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