Tag Archives: Kevin Costner

Shooting Stars, Part 2

Nicholas Chennault ~ April 16, 2015

Shooting Stars:  A Ranking of the 29 Greatest Western Actors Since 1939
Part 2—Filling Out the Top Ten

For the top five, see our post Shooting Stars, Part 1.

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6.  Joel McCrea  [Barbary Coast, Wells Fargo, Union Pacific, Buffalo Bill, The Virginian (1946), Four Faces West, Ramrod, The Oklahoman, Colorado Territory, The Outriders, Frenchie, Stars in My Crown, Cattle Drive, Saddle Tramp, The San Francisco Story, The Lone Hand, Black Horse Canyon, Border River, Wichita, The Tall Stranger, Gunsight Ridge, The First Texan, Stranger on Horseback, Trooper Hook, Cattle Empire, Fort Massacre, The Gunfight at Dodge City, Ride the High Country, etc.]

For current audiences, McCrea can be the most underestimated actor on this list.  In the early stages of his career during the 1930s he made all kinds of movies.  By 1939, when he made Foreign Correspondent with Alfred Hitchcock and Union Pacific with Cecil B. DeMille, he was a significantly bigger star than John Wayne, and he was about to appear in brilliant comedies with such directors as Preston Sturges (Sullivan’s Travels, Palm Beach Story) and George Stevens (The More the Merrier).  He had always made some westerns, but by the late 1940s, like Randolph Scott he began to concentrate almost entirely on the genre.  His quiet demeanor projected a basic decency, even when he was playing an outlaw (Four Faces West, Colorado Territory).  Neither he nor Scott worked with the very greatest directors of westerns of their time until very late in their careers, but McCrea did have a productive relationship with director Jacques Tourneur (Stars in My Crown, Stranger on Horseback, Wichita).  He appeared in the first of Andre de Toth’s two best westerns (the underrated Ramrod) as well.

McCrea had his own ranch, and he always described himself in his tax returns as a rancher.  He and Scott were among the very best riders in westerns, and he always looked like he knew what he was doing on a horse.  (Watch him in Colorado Territory and Gunsight Ridge, for example.)  His very best western was also Randolph Scott’s best, and the last significant western for both of them:  Sam Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country.  McCrea’s unbending Steve Judd is remembered for his resonant line in that film:  “All I want is to enter my house justified.”  He does, always playing it straight on.

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7.  Randolph Scott  [Heritage of the Destert (1932), Last of the Mohicans (1936), The Texans (1938), Frontier Marshal, Western Union, Jesse James, Virginia City, When the Daltons Rode, The Desperadoes, The Spoilers (1942), Belle Starr, Belle of the Yukon, Gunfighters, Abilene Town, Badman’s Territory, Trail Street, Albuquerque, Coroner Creek, Return of the Bad Men, The Doolins of Oklahoma, Fighting Man of the Plains, Santa Fe, The Walking Hills, Sugarfoot, The Cariboo Trail, The Stranger Wore a Gun, The Man Behind the Gun, Thunder Over the Plains, The Bounty Hunter, Hangman’s Knot, Ten Wanted Men, Man in the Saddle, The Nevadan, Colt .45, Fort Worth, Carson City, Riding Shotgun, Tall Man Riding, Rage at Dawn, 7th Cavalry, Shoot-Out at Medicine Bend, Seven Men from Now, The Tall T, Decision at Sundown, Westbound, Buchanan Rides Alone, Ride Lonesome, Comanche Station, Ride the High Country, et al.]

At mid-century (1950), Randolph Scott was the top male movie star at U.S. box offices—not because he appeared in big blockbusters, but because his lower-budget and sometimes formulaic westerns played well in rural America.  Like Joel McCrea, he had always done some westerns (Last of the Mohicans [1936], Frontier Marshal, Jesse James) but in the 1930s he played a wide range of roles.  In larger-scale westerns (Western Union, Virginia City), he tended to play an unusually principled semi-bad guy who didn’t get the girl because he died before the end of the movie.

By the late 1940s, he had decided to concentrate almost exclusively on westerns, much like Joel McCrea.  Also like McCrea, he seldom worked with top-flight directors during this stage, although he worked frequently with Andre de Toth (The Bounty Hunter, Thunder Over the Plains, Carson City) and Lesley Selander (Tall Man Riding).  There were always some very good westerns (Hangman’s Knot, Ten Wanted Men, The Bounty Hunter) among the more formulaic work.  He would not be nearly this high on the list except for an amazing burst of great work near the end of his career with two great directors—Budd Boetticher (Seven Men From Now, The Tall T, Decision at Sundown, Ride Lonesome, Comanche Station) and Sam Peckinpah (Ride the High Country, Scott’s last film).

With his courtly North Carolina accent, his riding ability, his weathered good looks as he aged and his ability to project stern rectitude, Scott just needed the right team to work with and was lucky enough to find it in the last seven years or so of his career.  In the 1950s and Ride the High Country, look for him wearing his trademark worn leather jacket, often riding his beautiful dark palomino horse Stardust, who always went uncredited.  In the sheer number of westerns he made, he’s remarkable, and most of them, even the formulaic ones, are pretty watchable.

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8.  Kevin Costner  [Silverado, Dances With Wolves, Open Range, Wyatt Earp]

Kevin Costner is the youngest actor on this list, and he hasn’t made that many westerns.  But of his four westerns, three of them are on the list of 55 Great Westerns and the fourth (Wyatt Earp) is a notable addition to the impressive list of westerns telling the Wyatt Earp story.  Like Robert Duvall, he has both been lucky and has chosen well when selecting his movie roles in westerns.  Like Clint Eastwood, he has been unusually successful in directing himself in westerns (Dances With Wolves, Open Range).

Costner has always connected well with the western sensibility.  His first large-scale film role was as the scapegrace younger brother Jake in Silverado, adept with two guns, physically restless and gymnastic but impulsive.  He next showed up as both director and principal actor in Dances With Wolves, with its extraordinarily long running time.  This was the first western in more than 60 years to win the Best Picture Oscar.  He went on to work with Lawrence Kasdan again in the interesting but not-entirely-successful Wyatt Earp, and finally to direct himself and Robert Duvall in Open Range.  In fact there are those who would say that many of his films are westerns regardless of their supposed settings: the futuristic Waterworld and The Postman, for example, and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, with his abominably American accent in the title role.  On the down side of his career now, he may not make more westerns, but he has been extraordinarily successful in those he did make.

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9.  Henry Fonda  [Drums Along the Mohawk, Jesse James, The Return of Frank James, The Ox-Bow Incident, My Darling Clementine, Fort Apache, The Tin Star, Warlock, A Big Hand for the Little Lady, How the West Was Won, The Rounders, Firecreek, Once Upon a Time in the West, The Cheyenne Social Club, There Was a Crooked Man, My Name is Nobody, Welcome to Hard Times]

With his All-American looks, demeanor and speaking voice, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that Henry Fonda was a superb actor.  Yes, he did seem to be playing a version of himself as Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath and in The Ox-Bow Incident, but those are carefully-edited versions.  After service in World War II, he played it more laissez-faire as Wyatt Earp in My Darling Clementine (possibly the best Wyatt Earp on film) and much more tightly wound as the martinet Col. Owen Thursday in Fort Apache.  His version of outlaw Frank James, played in two films (Jesse James, The Return of Frank James), may also be definitive.

In the first half of his career, he worked with some great directors: Fritz Lang (The Return of Frank James), John Ford (Drums Along the Mohawk, Young Mr. Lincoln, My Darling Clementine, Fort Apache), William Wellman (The Ox-Bow Incident), and Anthony Mann (The Tin Star).  After the excellent Warlock (1959), his career in westerns went into a long, slow fade, although he was usually worth watching.  The most notable of his westerns in the post-Warlock period is probably Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, in which he plays (effectively) against type as a remorseless, blue-eyed killer.  After that, he took what he was offered, including the occasional spaghetti western, but the era of great westerns was fading along with his career.  Fonda’s career arc, normal for his time, demonstrates by comparison why John Wayne was so unusual in his ability to produce the occasional great western even at the end of his life.

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10.  Glenn Ford  [Go West, Young Lady, The Desperadoes, Texas, The Man from Colorado, Lust for Gold, The Redhead and the Cowboy, The Man from the Alamo, The Violent Men, 3:10 to Yuma, The Fastest Gun Alive, Jubal, Cowboy, The Sheepman, Cimarron (1960), The Rounders, The Last Challenge, Heaven with a Gun, A Time for Killing, Day of the Evil Gun, Santee]

Canadian-born actor Glenn Ford was a very durable and versatile leading man, beginning in the early 1940s.  Among his earliest westerns were Texas (1941), where he was paired with William Holden, and The Desperadoes (1943), with Randolph Scott, before he left for service in World War II.  Upon his return, he made his mark with several movies in the new film noir genre (see especially Gilda [1946], for one classic example).  But he also moved back into westerns (The Man from Colorado, Lust for Gold), showing that he was not afraid to play against his generally wholesome image.  Indeed, in one of his very best westerns (the original 3:10 to Yuma) he plays outlaw chieftain Ben Wade, making the unlikable more attractive, and being attracted to the code of good guy Van Heflin more than he expected.

Some of his best work during this middle period of his career was done with the excellent director Delmer Daves (3:10 to Yuma, Jubal, Cowboy), who obviously liked working with him.  He fought Barbara Stanwyck, Edward G. Robinson and Brian Keith (The Violent Men), and spent a whole movie trying not to fight Broderick Crawford (The Fastest Gun Alive).  As film noir faded in popularity, he was sometimes cast in romantic comedies (The Courtship of Eddie’s Father) and military comedies (The Teahouse of the August Moon, Don’t Go Near the Water, Imitation General), and he brought some of that restrained comedic talent to the westerns The Sheepman and Advance to the Rear as well.  If given a choice, through the 1950s and 1960s, he always wore the same beat-up hat, which was looking pretty disgusting by the early 1960s.  The remake of the western epic Cimarron (1960) with director Anthony Mann and Ford in the lead didn’t really work well, but that wasn’t Ford’s fault.

His later career followed an arc similar to Henry Fonda’s, where the quality of the westerns he was offered declined.  As he played out his string (The Last Challenge, Heaven With a Gun, Santee), he often effectively played a kind of father-figure.  But the scripts weren’t as good, and the popularity of westerns as a genre was fading generally.

To continue the list, see Shooting Stars, Part 3.

 

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Wyatt Earp (1994)

Nicholas Chennault ~ October 27, 2014

Wyatt Earp—Kevin Costner, Dennis Quaid, Michael Madsen, Gene Hackman, Mare Winningham, Catherine O’Hara, Linden Ashby, Mark Harmon, Joanna Going, Jeff Fahey, Bill Pullman, Isabella Rosselini, Tom Sizemore, JoBeth Williams, Jim Caviezel, Annabeth Gish, James Gammon (1994; Dir: Lawrence Kasdan)

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In the 1980s, director Lawrence Kasdan was riding high, with successful movies in a variety of genres:  neo-film noir (Body Heat), Boomer nostalgia (The Big Chill) and even the deeply unfashionable genre of westerns, with Silverado.  By the mid-1990s, Kevin Costner was at the peak of his acting/directing career, having appeared in Silverado and having directed and starred in Dances With Wolves, which accomplished the then-unthinkable—Best Picture and Best Director Oscars for a western, the first to be awarded a Best Picture Oscar in sixty years.  So if Kasdan and Costner were to join forces on another western, revisiting the ever-popular Wyatt Earp story, how could that be anything but great?

It’s not a failure, exactly, but it did not turn out to be great.  It was complicated by the fact that this was one of two Wyatt Earp movies in production at the same time.  Tombstone, with Kurt Russell and Val Kilmer, was released first and turned out to be the better (and more enjoyable) western.  Even without comparisons with Tombstone, Wyatt Earp feels overlong, sometimes turgid and dour.  It is also perhaps the most accurate telling of the Earp story on film so far (although it has a few inaccuracies of its own), making it worth while to watch, and doubly so if you’re fond of the Wyatt Earp-Doc Holliday gunfight story.

The first hour or more is spent setting up the story, and, although we haven’t seen a lot of this stuff before, it feels slow.  It starts with a brief scene setting up the famous gunfight in Tombstone and then cuts to Wyatt’s childhood in Illinois during the Civil War.  Oldest brothers James and Virgil are off at the war, and we see patriarch Nicholas Earp (Gene Hackman), a lawyer and farmer, instilling his own version of family values.  “Remember this, all of you.  Nothing counts so much as blood.  The rest are just strangers.”  After the war Wyatt spends some time out west, freighting in Wyoming and refereeing the occasional bareknuckle fight.

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Young Wyatt (Kevin Costner) freighting out west in Wyoming; and the tubercular dentist-gambler-gunfighter, Dr. John Holliday (Dennis Quaid).

Returning to Missouri, Wyatt plans to study law with his grandfather, a judge, and to marry Urilla Sutherland. He succeeds in the second, only to see Urilla (Annabeth Gish), who is expecting their child, succumb to typhoid.  Wyatt goes off the rails, and we next see him as a drunk, robbing a man and stealing a horse in Arkansas.  Thown in jail, he is bailed out by his father, and he is next seen as a dour teetotaler, hunting buffalo on the southern plains, where he employs Ed (Bill Pullman) and Bat Masterson (Tom Sizemore) as skinners.

Nicholas Earp: “You know I’m a man that believes in the law.  After your family it’s about the only thing you’ve got to believe in.  But there are plenty of men who don’t care about the law. Men who will take part in all kinds of viciousness.  Don’t care who gets hurt.  In fact, the more that get hurt, the better. When you find yourself in a fight with such viciousness, hit—hit to kill.  You’ll know, don’t worry….you’ll know when it comes to that.  The Earps always know.”

When he takes care of a violent man the marshal won’t handle in Wichita, Wyatt is hired as a deputry.  He develops a direct way of dealing with disorder and shows a talent for handling disorderly groups.  Hired away as a deputy by Dodge City, he brings along the Masterson brothers and his own brother Morgan as deputies, too.  Some think he’s too quick to bust a rule-breaker over the head, but he tells Ed that talking too much and being too affable can get a man killed.  While on the outs with the Dodge City fathers, he meets John Holliday (Dennis Quaid) in Fort Griffin, Texas, and the two form a friendship.  Then he is called back to Dodge because things have gotten out of hand without his firm approach.

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Bad guys hanging out in Tombstone. That’s Ike Clanton (Jeff Fahey) in the middle in the long duster.

Eventually, Wyatt talks his brothers into moving to Tombstone, to get out of the law enforcement business and take up new opportunities in mining and gambling.  He does this against the wishes of his brothers’ wives and quasi-wives.  He himself brings along Mattie Blaylock (Mare Winningham), to whom he is not married.  His older brother James’ wife Bessie (JoBeth Williams) is a prostitute, and Virgil’s wife Allie (Catherine O’Hara) is not fond of Wyatt’s influence in the family.  Doc Holliday follows along, with his paramour Big Nose Kate Elder (Isabella Rosselini).

Bessie Earp:  “We are your wives.  Don’t we ever count more than the damn brothers?”
Wyatt: “No, Bessie, you don’t.  Wives come and go, that’s the plain truth of it.  They run off.  They die.”

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Heading to the OK Corral:  Doc Holliday (Dennis Quaid), Morgan Earp (Linden Ashby), Wyatt Earp (Kevin Costner) and Virgil Earp (Michael Madsen).

In Tombstone the film is finally entering familiar territory.  The brothers acquire some mining and gambling interests, and Virgil signs up to be the town marshal when Fred White is killed by Curly Bill Brocius.  This brings in three of the brothers, including Wyatt, and they begin to run afoul of the Clanton-McLaury faction and slippery Cochise Co. Sheriff Johnny Behan (Mark Harmon).  Wyatt slips away from Mattie Blaylock and takes up with Behan’s young Jewish paramour, Josie Marcus (Joanna Going).  While attempting to disarm the Clanton group, the famous gunfight erupts, with three Earps and Holliday taking on two Clantons, two McLaurys and Billy Claiborne.  It ends with all of the Clanton group but Ike Clanton dead.

In revenge, the Clanton group shoots Morgan Earp in the back with a shotgun blast, killing him, and on the same night bushwhacking Virgil as he does his rounds.  (Those events actually happened three months apart.)  Virgil’s arm is crippled.  Wyatt takes his father’s words to heart, and the vendetta ride is on.

Strangely for such a long movie, not so much of the vendetta ride is shown, just the killing of Frank Stilwell in the Tucson railroad station, the shooting of Indian Charlie and the fight at the river where Brocius is killed.  The implication is that Ike Clanton and Johnny Ringo were both killed there as well, which was not the case.  Neither Brocius nor Johnny Ringo is developed much as a character, making the end of the vendetta seem inconclusive.  Doc’s death in a sanatarium in Colorado is not shown as it is in some cinematic versions of the story (Hour of the Gun, Tombstone).  For the rest of Wyatt’s life, there is just one scene on a boat heading into Nome, Alaska, where a young man asks about Wyatt holding off a mob that wanted to lynch his uncle, Tommy Behind-the-Deuce.  There is nothing about Wyatt’s subsequent career as a prospector, a prize-fight referee or even as an adviser on Hollywood westerns in the late 1920s.  For such a long movie, there are a lot of loose ends remaining.

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Wyatt (Kevin Costner) taking back the streets.

Costner and Quaid are very good in the two main roles of Wyatt and Doc.  Unfortunately Costner isn’t as good as Henry Fonda (My Darling Clementine) or Kurt Russell (Tombstone), and Quaid is second to Val Kilmer (Tombstone) as a cinematic Doc Holliday.  Quaid lost thirty pounds for this role, and he’s excellent, managing to convey a sense of meanness under the tubercular exterior.  Costner shows the relentlessness and direct nature of Wyatt, but less the charisma and leadership.  He makes Wyatt seem dour even when he takes up with Josie Marcus, and the part needs lifting somehow.  Still, Costner has a flair for westerns, as he showed later in directing and starring in Open Range.  The film has a huge cast, many of whom have worked with Kasdan before and many of whom are very good.  Among the casting notes that don’t seem to work is Joanna Going as young Josie Marcus.  She doesn’t have the dramatic heft to balance Wyatt, as the story seems to call for.  Bill Pullman as Ed Masterson and Linden Ashby as Morgan Earp are good in smallish parts, and Mark Harmon is suitably distasteful as Johnny Behan.

Among westerns strongly grounded in history, the Wyatt Earp story has generated an unusual proportion of good films and successful retellings:  Frontier Marshal, My Darling Clementine, Gunfight at the OK Corral, Hour of the Gun and Tombstone.  Although this is not the best of them (probably My Darling Clementine and Tombstone), it does belong in that excellent company.  It keeps closer to the actual events than most, but don’t look for complete accuracy here, either.

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Wyatt (Kevin Costner) romances Josie (Joanna Going) in Tombstone.

Much of what doesn’t work so well here probably has to be chalked up to Kasdan’s direction and editing.  The cinematography by Owen Roizman is elegant, but it contributes to the slow moving of the first hour, with drifting shots of corn fields, flowering trees and extended plains.  There is excellent music by James Newton Howard, but it feels in some ways like it lacks a western connection.  The movie is more than three hours long at 191 minutes, although there is also an extended cut at 212 minutes.

If you’re interested in the real history of the Earps, in addition to the sources cited elsewhere there is a recent biography of Josephine Marcus Earp, often referred to as Wyatt’s wife or common-law wife since there is no record of them having been married:  Lady at the O.K. Corral by Ann Kirschner (2013).

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Calling the Shots: Great Directors of Westerns

Nicholas Chennault ~ December 26, 2013

Calling the Shots:  Great Directors of Westerns

“A director must be a policeman, a midwife, a psychoanalyst, a sycophant and a bastard.”  Billy Wilder.

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What makes a director of westerns great?  Criteria include the following: 

·         Ability to tell stories:  Does the story flow?  How well can a viewer follow it?  Some directors are interested in mood and style to the exclusion of story.  They can also be great directors, but westerns are rooted in stories, and in certain kinds of stories.  If there is inadequate attention to story, or if it’s hard to follow and doesn’t flow, or if it causes the viewer’s attention to wander, the other elements of the film had better be unusually strong to retain our interest.  Some directors seem less interested in story and are still great.  Consider Howard Hawks, who in recruiting Robert Mitchum for El Dorado in 1966, responded to Mitchum’s questions about the movie by telling him the story didn’t matter because the movie had “some great characters.”  And Sergio Leone would often not pay much attention to plot and story while he was playing with mood and visual style.  But they’re both great directors of westerns nevertheless.

·         Visual style:  Film is primarily a visual medium, and those directors who are remembered as the greatest either have their own distinctive visual styles or are linked for several movies with an excellent cinematographer.  It can be hard to distinguish which parts of the visual style are the responsibility of the director and which of the cinematographer.  But the director bears the ultimate responsibility for how the movie works, and they both have to perform well to score high in this area.  Think of Sam Peckinpah and Lucien Ballard in this context, or John Ford and Winton Hoch.

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·         Use of actors:  It’s no accident that certain particularly effective directors develop relationships with actors that they tend use over and over again.  They tend to reinforce each other’s strengths.  John Ford and John Wayne are the best-known such director-actor pairing, but Anthony Mann-James Stewart, Budd Boetticher-Randolph Scott and Sergio Leone-Clint Eastwood also come quickly to mind.  Ford and Wayne worked together from 1939 until the end of Ford’s career in the 1960s, but more frequently these actor-director partnerships flourish for five years or less.  The best directors often get good (or even great) performances out of actors that don’t do as well in other contexts.  Think of Howard Hawks’ use of Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson (and maybe Angie Dickinson) in Rio Bravo.  That’s one of the things that tends to make us think of Hawks as a great director.

·         Connection with traditional themes:  Sam Peckinpah’s connection with traditional western themes often causes questions in the mind of his viewers, but it’s undeniably there—sometimes revisionist in sensibility, but always there.  This is one of John Ford‘s strengths, too, although he can also seem too connected with nostalgic Americana.  Other directors who are great seem to lack the sense of connection and go straight for the revisionist elements.  These may produce great movies but not necessarily great westerns.  That’s one reason why there has been a discussion for decades about how great McCabe and Mrs. Miller by Robert Altman is.  Some think it’s one of the greatest westerns, but it has a fairly low sense of connection with traditional themes and remains rooted pretty firmly in the early 1970s.  Altman was a great director, and you couldn’t consider you’d seen his best work without watching McCabe, but it’s not inarguably a great western. 

·         Innovation:  In westerns, as in other genres of movies, it can get tiresome to watch the same movies over and over under other names.  Something has to be different, and the great ones bring innovation with them.  John Ford’s stories often seem based in a nostalgic Americana from another era, but he was the first to see the possibilities of Monument Valley as a location and nobody has used it more effectively.  And his visual sense was cutting-edge in its time.  Anthony Mann’s anguished protagonists (usually played by James Stewart) were different than what had been seen in westerns before, but they ushered in perhaps the greatest era of western movie-making in the 1950s.  Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah were innovators whose innovations have stuck in the genre.

·         Body of work:  It’s pretty hard to be considered a great director of westerns with only one western.  That means, in a film-making business where not that many westerns are made, that there are few directors you can point to as up-and-coming directors of westerns.  A director of a great western (Michael Mann with Last of the Mohicans, James Mangold with 3:10 to Yuma, the Coen brothers with True Grit) might make only one western in an entire career.  So one of the considerations in being a great director of westerns is to ask, “What is the totality of his work in the genre?”  Not every western John Ford or Howard Hawks made was great, but you have to take them all into account, the great and the less-great, when assessing the director. 

·        Influence on others:  If you have any sense of cinematic history, it’s impossible to watch violence in a current western without considering how The Wild Bunch changed the depiction of violence on film.  Certain kinds of shot (a rider in the distance, a tight close-up focusing on the eyes) remind one of Sergio Leone’s style, as does music involving chanting or whistling.  Effective use of wide desert vistas, especially the geological formations in Monument Valley, calls John Ford to mind.

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·         Film-making adventurousness:  Doing something new is always a risk, because films are marketed along traditional lines, pitching them in ways that have worked before.  Studio executives always want something that’s worked before, as opposed to something different.  Doing the different thing may produce a great western without producing the kind of financial returns that get a studio’s or distributor’s attention.  The Grey Fox, A Thousand Pieces of Gold and Lone Star were modestly successful films that were great westerns without spawning a horde of imitators, or, in the case of two of those, without even being available on DVD.  But the urge to do something in a different way will be essential to keeping the westerns genre (or any other) alive.  It’s a constant process of referring to the past (since the western as a genre relates uniquely to the history of America’s west) and infusing it with something new.  That challenge can be having the discipline and skill to balance the urge to reach for one’s own vision without tipping over into self-indulgence (the curse of Sam Peckinpah).

Having said all that, below is a an idiosyncratic and fairly short personal list containing a ranking of the greatest directors of western movies.  This will be followed by short lists of directors that might be great if we expanded the list a bit, lists of the greatest directors of westerns still working, and some others.  Each of the greatest directors and the near-greats will get an individual future post.

The Greatest Directors of Westerns Since 1939

  1.  John Ford
  2.  Anthony Mann
  3. Howard Hawks
  4. Sam Peckinpah
  5. Budd Boetticher
  6. Sergio Leone
  7. Clint Eastwood
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Clint Eastwood on the set of High Plains Drifter, 1973.

Near-Great Directors of Westerns

  1. Walter Hill
  2. Kevin Costner
  3. John Sturges
  4. Delmer Daves
  5. Simon Wincer
  6. William Wellman

Greatest Directors of Westerns Now Working

(Those Who Have Made More Than One).  If any of these guys made one more great western, and maybe just one more good one, they’d vault on to the list of greatest directors.  Eastwood’s last western was Unforgiven, more than twenty years ago, and he’s now in his 80s.  Walter Hill is getting up there, too.  But Costner and Wincer could each come up with something, although Costner doesn’t often direct any more.

  1. Clint Eastwood (already on the Greatest Directors list)
  2. Walter Hill
  3. Kevin Costner
  4. Simon Wincer
  5. The Coen Brothers

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Notable Directors of Westerns

1.  Henry Hathaway (North to Alaska, True Grit, The Sons of Katie Elder, Rawhide)
2.  Raoul Walsh (The Big Trail, They Died With Their Boots On, San Antonio, Colorado Territory, The Tall Men)
3.  Andre de Toth (Ramrod, Carson City, Riding Shotgun, Day of the Outlaw, The Bounty Hunter)
4.  Jacques Tourneur (Canyon Passage, Stars in My Crown, Stranger on Horseback, Wichita)
5.  Edward Dmytryk (Warlock, Alvarez Kelly, Broken Lance)
6.  Don Siegel (The Shootist, Two Mules for Sister Sara)
7.  Andrew V. McLaglen (Cahill U.S. Marshal, Shenandoah, The Way West, McLintock!)
8.  Burt Kennedy (Support Your Local Sheriff, Support Your Local Gunfighter, The War Wagon, The Train Robbers)

Antonia Bird in 2004. Antonia Bird

Female Directors of Westerns

They’re still quite rare.  Most of these are within the last twenty years.  But one of them, Nancy Kelly, made a western that’s on the list of 55 great westerns.  Now, if somebody would only issue a DVD of A Thousand Pieces of Gold.  After all, there are many others not so great for which a DVD is available.  (The MfTV designation means it was made for television.)

Lina Wertmuller, The Belle Starr Story

Maggie Greenwald, The Ballad of Little Jo (MfTV)

Nancy Kelly, A Thousand Pieces of Gold

Antonia Bird, Ravenous

Randa Haines, The Outsider (MfTV)

Kelly Reichardt, Meek’s Cutoff 

Suza Lambert Bowzer, A River of Skulls

Rachel Talalay, Hannah’s Law (MfTV)     

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One-Eyed Directors of Westerns

Raoul Walsh and Andre de Toth were both genuinely one-eyed.  The others tended, especially as they got older, to wear an eye patch over a weaker eye.  Two of these directors even made 3-D films during the brief fad for those in the early 1950s:  House of Wax and The Stranger Wore a Gun by Andre de Toth, and Gun Fury by Raoul Walsh.  With only one eye, they could of course not see the 3-D effects at all.

John Ford

Raoul Walsh (The Big Trail, They Died With Their Boots On, San Antonio, Colorado Territory, The Tall Men, etc.)

Fritz Lang (The Return of Frank James, Western Union, Rancho Notorious)

Andre de Toth (Ramrod, Carson City, Riding Shotgun, The Bounty Hunter, Day of the Outlaw)

Nicholas Ray (Johnny Guitar)

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Great Performances in Westerns, Part 5

Nicholas Chennault ~ December 7, 2013

Richard Farnsworth as Bill Miner in The Grey Fox

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Richard Farnsworth as Bill Miner, and the real Bill Miner.

After a lifetime as a stuntman and extra, Farnsworth had an unusual resurgence as a leading man toward the end of his career, and this was one of his three best roles—perhaps the very best.  His understated style and low-key charm, with a soft voice, warmly reticent smile around a white moustache, and expressive blue eyes are his trademarks.  He was unexpectedly cast as the lead in this low-budget Canadian production from 1982.  He plays Bill Miner, a one-time stagecoach robber who has spent most of his adult life as a prisoner in California’s San Quentin prison and is now released into a more modern west he doesn’t quite understand.  We relate to his charm and apparent affection for people, however, as he tries to reshape his outlaw career into something more modern.  It’s a seldom-seen gem of a movie, and it all depends on Farnsworth.  He’s magnificent.  For his other great roles, see him as Matthew Cuthbert in the Canadian television miniseries Anne of Green Gables (1985) and as Alvin Straight, driving a yard tractor to visit his brother before his own death, in The Straight Story (1999).

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Kevin Costner as Lt. John Dunbar in Dances With Wolves and as Charley Waite in Open Range

People are ambivalent about Costner as an actor, with some of his highest visibility coming in large-scale action turkeys like Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves; Waterworld, and The Postman.  (They’re surprisingly watchable, even when Costner is obviously miscast, as he was in Robin Hood.)  However, he seems to have an affinity for westerns, both as an actor and as a director, as demonstrated by these two films in which he performed both functions.  For his first western, see him as young scapegrace Jake in Silverado.  If you like him in these roles, look at his four baseball movies:  Bull Durham, Field of Dreams, For the Love of the Game and The Upside of Anger.  He’s a better actor than he is generally considered in the twilight of his film career.

  • In Dances With Wolves, he’s not only the lead as Lt. John Dunbar, Civil War hero and budding anthropologist, but he’s alone much of the time he’s on the screen.  And he’s the sole decent white man in the entire movie.  He won Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Director (unusual for a western), and he carries this lengthy movie as an actor. 

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  • In Open Range, he is again the director and also a lead as Charley Waite, but as Charley he gives more space to other leads (Robert Duvall, principally, and Annette Bening).  Charley is a more dour character—a cowboy with a backstory as a gunfighter, and Costner is excellent and persuasive.  His look is very authentic, too.  His achievements in these two movies as director and actor draw inevitable comparisons with Clint Eastwood.  He just hasn’t made as many westerns as Eastwood. 

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Graham Greene as Kicking Bird in Dances With Wolves

If Costner as Lt. Dunbar carries Dancing With Wolves as the only white man with whom we feel much sympathy, it is Canadian Oneida character actor Graham Greene who provides the human face of the Sioux/Lakota with whom Dunbar interacts throughout the movie.  (Rodney A. Grant provides a kind of younger, harder-nosed counterpoint to Greene.)  As the Lakota chief Kicking Bird, Greene approaches Dunbar as a human he doesn’t understand, and it enables Dunbar and Kicking Bird eventually to bridge the sizable linguistic and cultural gulf between them.  Greene’s understated but excellent performance emphasizes the Indians’ basic humanity.  For a brief performance with more humor, see Greene in Maverick and fleetingly in Gunless.

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Clint Eastwood as Josey Wales in The Outlaw Josey Wales and as William Munny in Unforgiven

Eastwood was his own director in both these movies, and that makes his achievement even more remarkable.  By now, at the end of his career, Eastwood is acknowledged as a masterful director.  Although the stories in both these movies are built around his character, he is generous in allowing others juicy parts as well.  Josey Wales is a quintessential Eastwood character, with his squint, his soft-spoken but hard-bitten way with words, and his ability to draw other characters to him sometimes against his own choice—not to mention his handy way with guns and with tobacco juice.  William Munny is even more hard-bitten, and at bottom may not be a very good person, as we see him forced more and more into an old life and the use of devastating old skills through the movie.  He is what Josey Wales might have become.  Together with his early work with Sergio Leone in the Dollar trilogy and Pale Rider, these roles and the rest of his career present the most impressive body of acting work in the genre since John Wayne.  And Wayne never wore the director’s hat as successfully as either Eastwood or Costner.

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Chief Dan George as Lone Watie in The Outlaw Josey Wales

Notable especially for its warm, understated humor and elegant humanity, Chief Dan George’s performance as aging Cherokee Lone Watie stands with Graham Greene in Dances With Wolves as the two best performances by Native Americans in westerns.  Time after time, George steals scenes from Eastwood’s Josey Wales.  On rewatching the film, George’s performance is one of the principal joys that one looks for.  He came to acting very late in his life and really has no comparably excellent parts in other films.  But look for him as Old Lodge Skins, Dustin Hoffman’s adoptive Cheyenne grandfather, in Little Big Man as well; he’s the best thing in that film, and was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his work there.

 

James Stewart as Destry in Destry Rides Again, as Howard Kemp in The Naked Spur and as Ransom Stoddard in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

One of the best-known, most popular and most versatile actors of his time, Stewart also worked with a range of some of the best directors of his era.  In westerns, they included Anthony Mann and John Ford; in mysteries and thrillers, Alfred Hitchcock; in populist fare, Frank Capra.  He was kind of an American everyman, perhaps Henry Fonda’s only equal in that kind of role.

James Stewart - destry rides again - & Marlene Dietrich

  • In his early career, Stewart didn’t make many westerns.  But in 1939 (the same year he did Mr. Smith Goes to Washington with Frank Capra), he starred as an offbeat kind of lawman in Destry Rides Again.  Played with warmth, gentleness and an often exaggerated version of his signature drawl, this was one of the most memorable westerns in a good year for the genre.  It has been remade more than once, but never as successfully as this original.  It must be admitted that Stewart is helped greatly by having Marlene Dietrich to play off.  With Smith in 1939 and with The Philadelphia Story coming the next year, you can’t even say Destry represents his best performance of this early phase of his career.  But Destry’s very memorable and bears rewatching more than 70 years later.  If you like this gentle Stewart approach, try 1950’s excellent Harvey, even if it isn’t a western.  Late in his career, Stewart again played a western mostly for laughs in The Cheyenne Social Club, with Henry Fonda as his costar.

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  • After his return from World War II, Stewart remade his career in his work with Alfred Hitchcock (Rear Window, Vertigo, The Man Who Knew Too Much), Capra (It’s a Wonderful Life) and his westerns with Anthony Mann.  One of his best roles with Mann was the reluctant and psychologically-damaged bounty hunter Howard Kemp in The Naked Spur.  Mann heroes are never all good, and Kemp is perhaps the most overtly conflicted of all of them.  But he holds it together and begins a comeback in the course of this film.  All of Stewart’s five westerns with Mann are worth watching:  Winchester ’73, The Far Country, Bend of the River and The Man from Laramie in addition to this one.

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  • Stewart made three movies with John Ford, and his most prominent role was as Ransom Stoddard, eastern lawyer out to remake the west in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.  There’s a lot of ambivalence in the film between his reliance on law and Tom Doniphan’s (John Wayne’s) more direct approach to the violence of Lee Marvin’s Liberty Valance.  Stoddard may be admirable in his way, but his approach wouldn’t have worked without Tom Doniphan’s, too, as the film shows.  Stewart seems miscast as Wyatt Earp in Ford’s Cheyenne Autumn, but the entire Earp interlude in that film is ill-conceived.  If you like Stewart in Liberty Valance in the late phase of his career, look for him in Two Rode Together, Shenandoah and How the West Was Won.

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Jeffrey Wright as Daniel Holt in Ride With the Devil

He starts out as a minor supporting character in a large cast.  By the end of this underrated Civil War film, he is one of the two principal remaining characters.  Their parting, at the end of the movie, is one of its most wrenching scenes, and Wright carries more than half of its dramatic weight, much of it without words.  (There’s good direction and editing at work here, too.)  Wright’s character Daniel Holt is a freed slave who fights for the south as a Missouri bushwhacker out of loyalty to George Clyde (Simon Baker), the man who freed him.  The motivations of such a man would be hard for modern audiences to understand under any circumstances, and Holt starts out carefully and enigmatically in a group of men who are not entirely sympathetic to him.  His friendship with Jake Roedel (Tobey Maguire) develops over the course of the film and becomes its strongest emotional current by the end.  Wright is a superb actor who has been seen principally in a variety of supporting and character roles.  Here he is excellent.

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Robert Ryan as Blaise Starrett in Day of the Outlaw

Robert Ryan was an excellent and versatile actor, and he seldom played unalloyed good characters.  In Day of the Outlaw, he plays the improbably-named Blaise Starrett, the founder and largest rancher in the remote town of Bitters in wintry Wyoming.  Starrett is at odds with local farmers as the movie starts, and he’s having an affair with the wife of one of them.  A gang of outlaws led by ex-army officer Jack Bruhn (Burl Ives) moves in, interrupting the confrontation between Starrett and the farmers and replacing it with another.  Starrett doesn’t care for the few farmers and townspeople, but his sense of responsibility kicks in and he tries to figure out how best to try to protect them.  He’s the only one in town with the competence to do anything.  If you like him here, try The Proud Ones.  Later in his career he was principally a supporting character, as in The Wild Bunch, Lawman, and The Professionals.  For Ryan in bad guy roles, see him in The Naked Spur, Bad Day at Black Rock and Hour of the Gun, in which he played a more cerebral Ike Clanton than usually seen in the Wyatt Earp story.

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Silverado

Nicholas Chennault ~ August 12, 2013

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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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.

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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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Open Range

Nicholas Chennault ~ July 27, 2013

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

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

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Boss Spearman and Charley Waite heading for the showdown.

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

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

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

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Annette Bening as the doctor’s spinster sister Sue.

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

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