Tag Archives: Euro-Westerns

The Salvation

Nicholas Chennault ~ March 17, 2015

The Salvation—Mads Mikkelsen, Eva Green, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Mikael Persbrandt, Jonathan Pryce, Douglas Henshall (2014; Dir: Kristian Levring)


This is a bleak Danish Euro-western with a vengeance-driven plot.  Jon (Mads Mikkelsen) and his brother Peter (Mikael Persbrandt) are Danish veterans of an unsuccessful 1864 war with Birmarck’s Germany, as Germany grabbed the traditionally Danish province of Schleswig-Holstein.  In the wake of the war they came to settle on the American frontier, and after seven years Jon’s wife Marie (Nanna Øland Fabricius) and 10-year-old son Kresten are finally able to join them.  As Jon and his family take a stagecoach from the town of Black Creek, they are joined at the last minute by two men who have been drinking.  In the course of the journey, the men show interest in Jon’s wife and knock him out of the coach.  He follows and finds first his dead son and then his wife’s body.  Implacable, he kills the two men responsible.

It develops that the more offensive of the two was the brother of Henry Delarue (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), a Union army veteran, former Indian fighter and now local outlaw chieftain.  Delarue has terrorized the town, led by mayor-undertaker Keane (English actor Jonathan Pryce) and sheriff-priest Mallick (Scottish actor Douglas Henshall), but now he ups the ante.  He demands that in two hours the town surrender the killer (obviously impossible), or two people for him to kill.  When he doesn’t like the two chosen, he gratuitously shoots a third.


Col. Henry Delarue (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) takes his head tax.

[Spoilers follow.  If you plan to see this in the near future, you may wish not to read this and the following paragraph.]  Delarue is not operating alone.  He is chasing people off so that a railroad can take over the town and all the country around because it has oil—hence the name Black Creek.  Keane buys up farms for a pittance and delivers the deeds to Delarue.  When Jon and Peter come back to town to sell their farm, Jon is captured and Peter thrown in jail.  Peter escapes and releases the beaten Jon.  As they flee, they split up, and Peter is killed. Jon finds a rifle and heads back to town.


Brother Peter (Mikael Persbrandt), not a man to underestimate.

Delarue has raped his brother’s widow Madelaine (Eva Greene), who has a scar across her mouth and is mute from having her tongue cut out by Indians.  She tries to leave but is restrained by Delarue’s men, and he gives her to them.  Having made it back to Black Creek, Jon kills Keane and puts him in one of his own coffins.  Jon starts picking off Delarue’s men one by one, and a larger-scale battle breaks out.  Jon is hit twice, and it looks like Delarue, the last survivor of his band, will win.  But voiceless Madelaine kills him with a rifle blast to the back.  As Sheriff Mallick and his posse come back to town, Jon orders them to leave, and then he and Madelaine leave together.


Former soldier Jon (Mads Mikkelsen) is not a man to run.

Mads Mikkelsen, with the sharp planes of his face, plays implacable very well, but he seems mostly to have only one expression.  Eva Green, with no dialogue but only her ferocious eyes for communication, is very effective.  Jeffrey Dean Morgan makes an adequate villain, but one that is written without much subtlety; the story would work better if there were more dimension to him.  Swedish actor Mikael Persbrandt as Jon’s brother Peter may be the best character in the movie, but he is killed off too early.  French-English former soccer star Eric Cantona plays one of the most prominent of Delarue’s henchmen (the Corsican).  This is an unusual take on the immigrant experience in the American west.

The combining of town positions like mayor and sheriff with undertaker and priest make clear the town’s connivance with Delarue and its responsibility for what comes of that.  The sheriff-priest has chosen to protect his flock by acceding to the presence and dominance of evil.  This kind of collective guilt is reminiscent of Clint Eastwood’s town of Lago in High Plains Drifter (1973), although The Salvation has none of its surrealism.  The necessity and ultimate futility of violence remind us more of Eastwood’s masterpiece Unforgiven (1992).  There is little dialogue and less exposition.  Although the movie is not long at 92 minutes, it feels quite leisurely, even slow, in its pacing.  As a western, it works; although it is violent, it nevertheless does not exactly revel in the violence.  This may be the best Danish western you’ll ever see.


Madelaine (Eva Green), recent widow who doesn’t say much, is not a woman to take lightly.

The film was co-written and directed by Kristian Levring.  The excellent cinematography, much of it in tones of brown, is by Jens Schlosser.  It was shot in South Africa, with the occasional butte or other geographical feature to remind us, perhaps by means of CGI, of the American west.  The music, mostly quiet guitar, is played by Javier Mas.  Rated R for violence.  Seen at several film festivals (including Cannes) in 2014, it was released in the U.S. in art houses and video-on-demand in late February 2015 and is scheduled for release in the UK in April 2015.

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Nicholas Chennault ~ February 10, 2014

Blackthorn—Sam Shepard, Eduardo Noriega, Stephen Rea, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Padraic Delaney, Dominique McElligott, Magaly Solier (2011; Dir:  Mateo Gil)


This is a wintry Euro-western, with a Spanish director and mostly Spanish-speaking cast, shot in Bolivia.  It’s a “what if Butch Cassidy didn’t die in San Vicente in 1908?” story, starring Sam Shepard as the aging Butch.  It takes place mostly twenty years after Butch’s supposed death in Bolivia, as Butch, now calling himself James Blackthorn, considers a return to the U.S.  Etta Place has died of tuberculosis in San Francisco, leaving a young adult son with whom Butch has corresponded.  “I been my own man,” Blackthorn comments. “Nothing’s richer than that.”

Butch sells his horses and has a nest egg of $6000, sufficient to return to America.  While returning with the money to say goodbye to friends (particularly a young Indian woman named Yana [Megaly Solier]) before leaving the country, he finds a dead horse and rides on.  He is ambushed by the horse’s former rider, a young Spaniard named Eduardo Apodaca who had worked for a mining titan and robbed him of $50,000.  He was on his way to retrieve the money when he was shot at and lost his horse.  Now Butch’s horse, with his money, is scared off.  In return for reluctantly helping Apodaca out of the desolate, remote area to the mine, Apodaca promises Butch half his loot.

BlackthornCassidyApo Blackthorn and Apodaca.

There are flashbacks showing the young Butch (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), Sundance Kid (Padraic Delaney) and Etta Place (Dominique McElligott) being captured at one time by Pinkerton agent McKinley (Stephen Rea) and escaping.  As in the story we remember, Etta left Butch and Sundance in South America, returning to the U.S. alone—and pregnant in this version.  In San Vicente, Butch and Sundance are thought to be killed, but they get away, although Sundance is mortally wounded.  Butch helps him die in as humane a fashion as possible, and goes off to his life as a solitary rancher for the next twenty years.

While retrieving Apodaca’s ill-gotten gains, they are trapped in the mine by a posse of native trackers and frontiersmen.  Apodaca knows of a secret exit, and they make it away to Butch’s ranch, where Apodaca recovers from a wound.  One morning a couple of women show up, saying they have recovered Butch’s horse with the money.  They pull out guns, shoot Butch, kill Yana and Apodaca finally gets them.  But Butch and Apodaca are on the run again, this time with Butch badly wounded.


They are followed by the relentless posse into the desert, where Butch, Apodaca and attrition wear the posse down.  Finally, Butch gives Apodaca the good horse that should get him out of the desert and instructs him to meet him in a town on the other side.  It seems unlikely Butch will make it.

But somehow he does.  We next see him in a near-coma on a doctor’s table.  The doctor seems to know who he is, and sends for the alcoholic McKinley, now an honorary consul in that town, to ask him.  McKinley says it is Butch, and sits with Butch until he awakens.  By that time he has thought better of giving Butch over to the authorities.  But he informs Butch that, instead of robbing a mining baron, Apodaca has stolen the money from poor mining familiies who had been awarded the played-out mine by a Bolivian court.  Butch sees this as an affront to his Robin-Hood-style ethics and similarly to his views on the sacredness of friendship.


Young Sundance, Etta and Butch, in their carefree days.

[Spoilers follow.]  With McKinley’s help Butch escapes the town, once more into a desolate high desert, heading for the Andes to cross into Chile.  Apodaca, it turns out, was also in town, and barely escapes with his loot.  The two of them make their separate ways across the desert to the Andes foothills.   As Apodaca wakes up one morning he finds Butch watching him and hopes that they can continue their escape together.  Instead, Butch shoots him in the leg, runs off his horse and leaves Apodaca and his money to the pursuing posse, which now includes soldiers.  As he climbs the mountains on his horse he hears shots as they find Apodaca.  The soldiers have forced McKinley to accompany them, and as they crest the mountains on the Chilean border they are frustrated at having seen Butch’s track but not being able to find him.  So they strand McKinley there without his horse.  Not knowing anything of this, Butch moves on, presumably to make it back to the U.S., although that’s not shown.

There are a lot of positives about this bleak film.  Sam Shepard is convincing as the aging Butch, and the younger actors in the flashbacks are enormously attractive, especially Coster-Waldau (now known from his appearance in HBO’s Game of Thrones) and McElligott (later seen in AMC’s Hell on Wheels, a western series).  Coster-Waldau and Shepard do seem believably to resemble each other.  In a way, this attractiveness is a problem:  we’d like to see more of the younger Butch, Sundance and Ella than of the supposed main story, which takes its time developing.  Noriega is also very good as the amoral Spanish robber Apodaca.


The use of the vast Bolivian landscapes is very good, with superb cinematography by Jose Ruiz Anchia.  It captures some of the wide-open feel of many good westerns, but it doesn’t look at all like the North American west.  It’s fascinating in its own way.  The music by Lucio Godoy is excellent, with wonderful use of U.S. folk music in songs like “Sam Hall.”  It’s not a long movie at an hour and forty-five minutes, but it’s not tightly put together, either.  Sometimes there doesn’t seem to be quite enough story here.  Watching this, one is reminded that a European sensibility has some differences from the American approach to westerns.  Not one of the greats, but one would like to see this sort of thing tried more often.

Shepard’s natural wintry reserve plays well in westerns, and it’s the heart of this movie.  He’s a living example of how a certain kind of what initially seems to be inexpressiveness actually translates well to a style of acting that works and seems quite natural in westerns.  That’s not to say that all inexpressiveness works in westerns; the argument is that for some actors it’s not as inexpressive as some may take it to be.  For more Shepard in a western context, see him in Purgatory and the miniseries Klondike and Streets of Laredo.  He also has a small role as an aging Frank James in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) and appears in All the Pretty Horses (2000).  One could wish that more westerns were being made so Shepard could be in them, even at his age (in his seventies).


Another quibble:  Granted, Butch spent his adult years in wild places with rough companions on the wrong side of the law, but this Butch seems to drink heavily and swear a lot for a Robin Hood with a Mormon upbringing who maintained some connections with it.  One can see him drinking and using occasional bad language, but probably not to this extent.  This is rated R for profanity and violence.

For another story of Butch not dying in San Vicente, if you can find it try John Byrne Cooke’s novel South of the Border, with Butch in Mexico during the revolution.

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