Tag Archives: Walter Hill

Wild Bill (1995)

Nicholas Chennault ~ August 2, 2014

Wild Bill—Jeff Bridges, Ellen Barkin, John Hurt, Diane Lane, David Arquette, James Gammon, Christina Applegate, Keith Carradine, Bruce Dern, Marjoe Gortner, James Remar, Steve Reevis (1995; Dir: Walter Hill)

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This film sports an excellent cast with Jeff Bridges as Wild Bill Hickok, Ellen Barkin as Calamity Jane, and, best of all, one of the greatest living masters of the western movie, Walter Hill directing.  Should be great, right?  It doesn’t seem to be, though.

Jeff Bridges does look terrific as Wild Bill; there is very good production design on this film.  At the start of the movie, there are brief vignettes from his career as a lawman:  battling cavalrymen from the Seventh Cavalry in a bar in Tommy Drum’s saloon in Hays City, Kansas, killing several of them; killing Phil Coe and, accidentally, his own deputy Mike Williams, in Abilene; and jousting with and killing Sioux chief Whistler (Blackfoot actor Steve Reevis) on the plains, at Whistler’s insistence.  All those incidents get him to the rough mining town of Deadwood, Dakota Territory, in August 1876.  He hasn’t been a lawman for five years, and he’s 39 years old.  He makes his living as a gambler (badly, apparently).  His eyesight is going, thanks to glaucoma.  He may be suffering from a venereal disease.  And he drinks a lot and takes refuge in smoking opium.

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Jeff Bridges as Wild Bill Hickok; Ellen Barkin as Calamity Jane.  One looks pretty authentic, and one less so.

As soon as he gets to Deadwood, he encounters old friend Calamity Jane (Ellen Barkin), who makes it plain she’d like to renew an old relationship and even take it farther.  He doesn’t reciprocate, although he still values the friendship.  Jack McCall (David Arquette) is the none-too-smart son of Susannah Moore (Diane Lane), whom Hickok had once promised to marry.  Instead, he went off to scout for the army and, when he came back six months later, she had a relationship going with Dave Tutt.  Hickok killed Tutt in a gunfight in Springfield, Missouri, in 1865, and Susannah died in an asylum.  McCall announces he intends to kill Hickok, but Hickok, who has already demonstrated that he doesn’t have much fear when it comes to guns, doesn’t seem unduly concerned.

Bill hits the opium den, and smoking the stuff takes him back to other events in his life.  Sometimes those are in color, as with his gunfight in Cheyenne with a crippled Will Plummer (Bruce Dern), with Bill tied to a chair.  Usually, the flashbacks are in black and white, often with a skewed angle, as when Bill encounters a band of Cheyenne dog soldiers.  He remembers the McCandles fight that made his reputation as a gunfighter and almost killed him.  He remembers his brief and unsuccessful theatrical career with Buffalo Bill (Keith Carradine in a cameo).  He remembers Susannah Moore and Dave Tutt, as well.  McCall finds him in the opium den relatively helpless under the effects of the narcotic, but he’s not as helpless as he seems.

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Cheyenne dog soldiers in an opium dream.

Finally McCall and several desperadoes, including Donnie Lonnigan (James Remar) and Jubal Pickett (Stoney Jackson), get the drop on Hickok as he and Calamity Jane are dallying in No. 10 saloon.  Hickok friends Charley Prince (John Hurt, apparently an English version of actual Hickok friend Charley Utter) and California Joe (James Gammon) join them, as well as a prostitute on whom McCall has a fixation (Christina Applegate).  We know how this is going to end, and it takes a while getting there with all these extraneous characters.  Finally, Bill gets some of the desperadoes and chases off the rest.  But he’s holding black aces and eights, and the weaselly McCall shoots him in the back of the head with a derringer, to be hung himself later.  Nowhere does Bill’s recent wife, Agnes Lake, show up, nor is she referred to.

Jeff Bridges is an excellent actor, and he looks good in the part.  He communicates Hickok’s fearlessness and a powerful personality.  But it’s not an attractive period in Hickok’s life, and the performance seems a bit over the top.  The Hickok gunfight scenes are very effective and believable.  Ellen Barkin is much more attractive than the real Calamity Jane, as is usual in a movie about Hickok.  Although there are a number of good character actors (Bruce Dern, John Hurt, James Gammon, Diane Lane), many of them seem extraneous to what’s going on, especially during that overly-extended final sequence in the bar.  Hurt’s character talks too much, meaning the writing isn’t as good as it could be.  Arquette’s McCall is probably intended to be as weaselly as he is here, but he’s on screen too much.

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The real James Butler Hickok and his murderer, Jack McCall, the first person executed by federal authorities in Dakota Territory.

Director Walter Hill has made what may be the best movie to date about Jesse James (The Long Riders), as well as an underrated film about Geronimo (Geronimo: An American Legend) and the really excellent made-for-television Broken Trail.  He has a genuine feel for westerns, but this is probably his weakest.  The movie claims to be based on a good novel by Pete Dexter, Deadwood, and the play Fathers and Sons by Thomas Babe, but it certainly doesn’t keep very closely to the novel.  Hill himself wrote the screenplay, so he has no one else to blame for that.  It was not a success at the box office, costing more than $30,000,000 and making back only $2,168,000 domestically.

Cinematography, mostly in color but also occasionally in sepia tones and black and white, is by Lloyd Ahern (Broken Trail).  Music is by Van Dyke Parks, who also did the music for the Coen brothers’ remake of True Grit (2010).  Perhaps that’s why the song over the opening and closing credits is the same as that used as the theme music for True Grit:  the hymn “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.”  Jeff Bridges starred in that one, too, as Rooster Cogburn.  Wild Bill is only 98 minutes, but it feels longer, which is not a good sign.  However, if you’re particularly interested in cinematic versions of Wild Bill Hickok, Jeff Bridges’ work in westerns or the career of Walter Hill, you’ll want to watch this, too, if only for the sake of completeness.  This doesn’t keep particularly close to the facts of Bill’s life, but neither do most movies featuring Wild Bill Hickok.  In particular, McCall had no relationship with Hickok.  He was just someone who had lost money to Hickok the night before and killed him opportunistically by shooting him in the back of the head with a .45 (acting alone).  The movie is rated R for violence and seaminess in language and sexual matters.

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Walter Hill directing Jeff Bridges.

Hill was also involved in the making of the cable television series Deadwood, which had some of the same gritty feel, directing the first episode (2004).  That one featured Keith Carradine as a world-weary Wild Bill for several episodes.  For an earlier and more adulatory version of Wild Bill’s myth, see Gary Cooper as Bill in The Plainsman (1936).  The definitive Wild Bill movie probably has yet to be made.

If you want the real historical background on James Butler Hickok, look for the biography by Joseph Rosa, They Called Him Wild Bill: The Life and Adventures of James Butler Hickok (1974).

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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)     

Lang  Fritz Lang

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.

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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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The Long Riders

Nicholas Chennault ~ August 14, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

long riders-escape Frank and Jesse try to escape

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

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

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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.

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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.

Broken Trails

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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