Tag Archives: Chinese

(Far) East Comes West

Nicholas Chennault ~ June 25, 2014

(Far) East Comes West:  Asians in an American West

An Easterner coming west and coping with different behavior and values has been a subject for western movies from their earliest times, especially for western comedies in the days of silent films.  That idea is also at the heart of one of the oldest and most popular western novels, which has often been made as a movie: The Virginian, first published in 1902.  But Far Easterners, or Asians, are another matter.  There haven’t been so many of them coming west in the movies.

Historically, of course, Chinese were much more numerous in the American west than Japanese or other Asians, especially in building railroads and in mining camps.  Asians mostly showed up in western movies, if at all, as incidental characters.  For example, Henry Nakamura appears as Ito, the Japanese cook in a wagon train full of women in 1951’s Westward the Women, where he is both comic relief to some degree and Robert Taylor’s conscience and drinking partner.

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Henry Nakamura as Ito the cook, in Westward the Women, 1951.

However, beginning in the 1970s with a burgeoning interest in martial arts fostered by Bruce Lee movies, a new kind of Far Easterner occasionally appeared in westerns—an Asian warrior, fighting alongside a more traditional western gunfighter.  The first of these was the instantly recognizable Toshiro Mifune, from the greatest of the Japanese samurai movies, with Charles Bronson in Red Sun (1971).  It was a remarkably international cast, with not only the Japanese Mifune but with the Swiss Ursula Andress and the French Alain Delon, in addition to Charles Bronson (Charles Buchinsky, born in Pennsylvania to a Tatar immigrant father and a Lithuanian-American mother).

A generation later, a couple of the Great Westerns introduced actual Chinese immigrants more or less realistically into western stories, with A Thousand Pieces of Gold (1991) and Broken Trail (2006).  These were both stories of young Chinese women being sold into prostitution in western mining camps.  In the new century, there was an attempt to mix the fish-out-of-water comedy of the silents with the martial arts of the 1970s, which did well enough at the box office that it spawned a sequel:  Shanghai Noon (2000) and Shanghai Knights (2003), both with Jackie Chan and Owen Wilson.  Most recently, a gentler comedy took a humanistic view of the Chinese in a western community, as part of the story of the Montana Kid in western Canada in Gunless (2010).  There is even a Korean-made Chinese martial arts movie set in a ghoulish American West, complete with circus, dwarf, hordes of evil outlaw thugs and invincible assassins:  The Warrior’s Way (2010).

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As with all such lists, there are bound to be others not included here. If you know of any that should be, please leave a comment.

Westward the Women (Henry Nakamura, 1951)

7 Faces of Dr. Lao (Tony Randall, 1964)

The Five Man Army (Peter Graves, James Daly, Bud Spencer and Tetsuro Tamba, 1970)

Red Sun (Charles Bronson and Toshiro Mifune, 1971)
The Stranger and the Gunfighter (Lee Van Cleef and Lo Lieh, 1974)
A Thousand Pieces of Gold (Chris Cooper and Rosalind Chao, 1991)
Samurai Cowboy (Hiromi Go, 1993)
Shanghai Noon (Owen Wilson and Jackie Chan, 2000)
Shanghai Knights (Owen Wilson and Jackie Chan, 2003)
Broken Trail (Robert Duvall, Thomas Haden Church and Chinese maidens, 2006)
Gunless (Paul Gross and a Chinese sub-community, 2010)
The Warrior’s Way (Dong-gun Jang, Kate Bosworth, Geoffrey Rush, 2010)

The Magnificent Seven (Byung-hun Lee, Denzel Washington, 2016)

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Westerners in Japan

The Silent Stranger (Tony Anthony, 1968)

The Last Samurai (Tom Cruise, 2003)

The martial-arts-meet-the-west movement spread in other media as well.  (See the Six-Gun Samurai pulp novel cover, below, the first in a series of at least eight such novels.)  And Tom Laughlin’s follow-up of sorts to Billy Jack, The Master Gunfighter, was a pretty terrible movie, but the titular Gunfighter carried a katana (which he actually uses several times) to emphasize his inner peace, his connection with the mysterious Far East, and his prowess with multiple types of weapons and mayhem in defense of that inner peace.

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Gunless

Nicholas Chennault ~ January 2, 2014

Gunless—Paul Gross, Sienna Guillory, Dustin Milligan, Tyler Mane, Graham Greene (2010; Dir:  William Phillips)

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This is another western in which the beautiful hills and mountains of southern Canada stand in for… the hills and mountains of southern Canada?  Yes, this is a northern western, and a comedy.  And it’s pretty successful as a western comedy.  Now, this is a movie of which few have heard, so it didn’t make much of a splash on its initial release in 2010.  It opened 11th in Canada, and as a Canadian-funded, Canadian-set and Canadian-made film, it would have been expected to do as well there as it could anywhere.  Although it had a small budget ($10 million Canadian), it has good (not great) production values, decent writing, and, above all, good acting, especially in the leads.

As the film opens, a horse with a filthy rider sitting backwards and trailing a rope and branch slowly enters Barclay’s Brush, a town on the Canadian western frontier.  As the horse comes to a stop, the rider slides off the horse upside-down, and it is apparent that he is tied up.  After a brief conversation with a Chinese girl, he is extracted from his bonds and buys some bullets at the local store.  He comes from the States, where he was in the process of being hanged.  He is the Montana Kid. 

GunlessDirtyKid The filthy but possibly deadly Montana Kid.

Wandering back outside, he looks for his horse, which has disappeared.  It turns out the horse is with the local blacksmith, who is fixing it up.  There are words between the two, and the gunman calls out Jack the blacksmith (Tyler Mane), who doesn’t have a pistol.  After due consultation, a woman rancher, Jane Taylor (Sienna Guillory), offers the Kid a broken pistol in exchange for help putting up her windmill.  And a medical alert:  “Your bottom is bleeding.”   The doctor removes a bullet from the Kid’s gluteous maximus, free of charge.

The Kid (played by Paul Gross, who was brilliant in the Shakespearean comedy series Slings and Arrows on Canadian television) slowly gets to know the townsfolk, who are rather taken with him, partly because of his dime-novel notoriety and partly because they seem to be genuinely friendly, if a bit quirky.  The local Mountie constable, Jonathan Kent (Dustin Milligan), a very stiff and rulebound young man, comes round to meet the Kid and have him sign his ledger—with his real name, Sean Lafferty.  Kent’s cosmopolitan Indian guide Two Dogs (Graham Greene) has to redirect him a time or two.  The Kid is invited to dinner at the doctor’s house, and regales them with tales of his killings, eleven of them.  Everybody calls him Sean—a name he apparently hasn’t used for years. 

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Rapacious and loathsome bounty hunters, and N’kwala, otherwise known as Two Dogs.

Meanwhile, he’s on the lookout for pursuit from the States, bounty hunters who have been after him for ten years.  He plans to leave as soon as his horse is recovered, his deal with Jane is complete and he fulfills his obligations as a gunfighter by having it out with Jack the blacksmith.  Meanwhile, he attends an RCMP dance where Kent seems enamored of Jane, and the rest of the Mounties are not so enamored with the Kid.  As they try to intimidate him by beating him up, he is rescued curiously by the stiff Kent, who points out that the Kid has broken no laws and has no outstanding warrants in Canada, and that is not the Mountie way.

His clothes are being cleaned and repaired by the local Chinese tailor and laundryman, and meanwhile he’s wearing Chinese clothes around town.  He takes part in an evening of intellectual discussion about Aristotle led by the local schoolmarm, Alice.  And he thinks it’s time to leave when Jane shows signs of falling for him.

GunlessKidJane Sean and Jane

Jack has repaired a broken piece of the pistol (a big old Navy .44) and given it to the Kid, even though he knows the Kid plans to use it to force him into a gunfight.  And the bounty hunters draw ever nearer and demonstrate their lack of character by gratuitously killing a dog.  The question is not really whether they’ll catch up, but what will happen when they do.

The shootout is surprising, as are Sean’s new philosophical misgivings about his lifestyle, apparently triggered by Aristotle.  As the movie ends, we see young Kent’s romantic attentions turning to Alice, the blushingly receptive schoolmarm.

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The Kid, back at his cleaned-up gunfighting best. Or is he?

The humor is dry Canadian, not broad Mel Brooks.  This might be the closest thing to the Support Your Local Sheriff movies made by James Garner in the late 1960s and early 1970s.  It’s not as quickly paced as those, and the humor is quieter.  The pacing and the tone are not perfect.  It should have a better title.  Given Canadians’ sensitivities about their larger neighbor to the south, you can see why a Canadian production would not want to call itself The Montana Kid.  But that is its title in Australia, and it works better. 

With all this, Gunless is very worth watching.  It depends on Gross’s ability to project confused decency under filth and to develop believably and sympathetically, and he is charmingly up to the task, even if he occasionally mutters his lines.  His horse performs well as a confidante with a mind of his own.  And Sienna Guillory is fine as the feisty rancher Jane, with a lovely British accent.  This movie deserves to be much more widely seen.  Be sure to watch the outtakes with the credits; they contain some dubious language that was missing from the film, though.  Filmed at Fort Langley, British Columbia.  Short, at 89 minutes.  The DVD of this film was recently (Dec. 2013) on sale at Amazon for $3.62, and it’s hard to beat that.

It may or may not be significant that the writer-director of this movie is William Phillips.  That is also the name of a man in Spokane in the 1920s and 1930s who was rumored to have been Butch Cassidy, returned from Bolivia and not killed by the Bolivian army.

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William Phillips of Spokane, and William Phillips of Canada.  What is the beard hiding?

For a younger Paul Gross in a made-for-television romance set in modern Alberta, see Getting Married in Buffalo Jump.

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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.  It’s not on DVD, but it’s worth seeking out wherever you can find it.  Just be aware that it focuses more on relationships and less on action than most westerns do.

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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Broken Trail

Nicholas Chennault ~ July 25, 2013

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

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

church-broken trailritterbrokentrail Church and Duvall

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

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

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

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

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

Broken Trails Ritter and the Chinese girls

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

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

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

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

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

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Thomas Haden Church and director Walter Hill.

 

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