POST-GOLDEN AGE WESTERNS….A HANDY TEN

The “Golden Age” of the Hollywood western is generally conceded to have stretched from 1946 to 1962. It’s bounded by the respective releases of John Ford’s My Darling Clementine in the former year* and Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and Sam Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country in the latter.

Based on the films each man released in ’62, the hand-off from Ford to Peckinpah should have been a natural one. What happened instead was what we like to call The Sixties.

All that’s beyond the scope of what I’m after here, which is simply to suggest some films for viewing that, taken together, make up an impressive legacy of their own. Call them markers on a trail to what might have been…

The Shooting (1966)
D. Monte Hellman

Harrowing. This film is as unsettling as In a Lonely Place…perhaps more so, because it doesn’t have Humphrey Bogart’s, or even Gloria Grahame’s, level of star power to supply a set of foundational assumptions. With this and Ride in the Whirlwind, Hellman invented what came to be called Acid Westerns. That’s a ridiculous moniker (did anyone think to call Lonely Place Acid Noir? As though it’s destabilizing qualities were merely hallucinatory? Thought not.) When Warren Oates is the stable one, you’re in another land alright. But it’s one that could only be reached through the gateway of the western–not a pill. Next to this, the best spaghetti westerns and The Wild Bunch look silly and ham-handed. Not to mention light-hearted.

Hombre (1966)
D. Martin Ritt

Strong by any standard. One of Newman’s signature “H” movies (The Hustler, Hud, Harper) and perhaps the best. Not least because his character has no redeeming quality except that he’s right. This is Stagecoach turned into a nightmare. One where the characters never quite wake up. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that Martin Ritt (who made an awful lot of good movies for a guy who doesn’t get talked about much) watched a lot of Boetticher-Scott westerns somewhere along the way. Or maybe Elmore Leonard (who wrote the source material for this and Boetticher’s The Tall T–as here, Richard Boone played the villain) just brought certain qualities out of people.

True Grit (1969)
D. Henry Hathaway

Don’t sleep on this one just because John Wayne’s Oscar winning performance is larger than life even by his standards or because there’s been a fine remake. Kim Darby is still the definitive Mattie Ross. George MacDonald Fraser’s assertion that the line readings throughout are the closest we’ll ever have to hearing Victorian western speech as it was actually spoken makes it plain this is a window into a lost world. Charles Portis’ source novel provided dozens of memorable lines…and Marguerite Roberts’ script added a few more, without missing a beat. I still wish they had kept Portis’ ending, but everything else is in place. For Wayne and Darby and a host of fine characterizations (Strother Martin and Robert Duval are especially memorable) it will always be worth revisiting.

Bad Company (1972)
D. Robert Benton

One of the best roles Jeff Bridges ever had while he quietly went about being the best actor of his generation. Here, he and an equally effective Barry Brown are green as grass Civil War draft-dodgers heading west….and finding out maybe marching off the war wouldn’t have been such a bad idea after all. Bridges’ brand of American innocence is even funnier–and warmer–in a western setting. It’s a shame he didn’t come along twenty years earlier, when he might have made a dozen of these.

Ulzana’s Raid (1972)
D. Robert Aldrich

Aldrich and star Burt Lancaster had been players in the Golden Age and even made a couple of fine westerns together (Apache and the wonderful Vera Cruz, with Gary Cooper). This gave them an opportunity to raise their game and they were more than up to the task. Lancaster was never better than as a grizzled scout trying to help a green lieutenant (a superbly callow, but learning fast, Bruce Davison), track down a renegade Apache band and perhaps even live to tell the tale. This might be seen as re-revisionist western–a kind of answer film to Arthur Penn’s misguided Little Big Man, which had perverted Thomas Berger’s great novel from comedy into parody, and presented the warrior cultures of the Plains Indians (in that case the Cheyenne, who held the U.S. Cavalry at bay for forty years) as peace loving flower children. No one, at least, will emerge from watching Ulzana’s Raid for the first or twentieth time under any misapprehension that Apaches would have been at home in the Age of Aquarius….or welcomed hippies into their own age.

The Shootist (1976)
D. Don Siegel

A setup to be sure. John Wayne, cancer victim and last of the Golden Age cowboys, playing John Bernard Books, cancer victim and last of the Old West gunfighters. But, with the great Don Siegel (like Martin Ritt, an underappreciated pro’s pro) at the helm, an impeccable cast (Lauren Bacall, Ron Howard, James Stewart, Richard Boone–one could go on) and a lean, well-measured script, it defies expectations and transcends its own nostalgia. It self-consciously echoes a hundred westerns, none more than Shane. Except this time, the gunfighter does not ride out of the valley. And it isn’t clear what he has done for Civilization–except represent the best of what it inevitably washes away.

The Quick and the Dead (1987)
D. Robert Day

In the eighties, the western was represented most ably on television, with adaptations of Louis L’Amour (usually starring either Sam Eiliott or Tom Selleck) leading the way. This and the Selleck vehicle, Crossfire Trail, are my own favorites and can stand for the lot–fine westerns that might not have stood out in the Golden Age, but certainly would have held their own. Elliott and Selleck, both excellent, are a wash and Crossfire Trail gave Wilfred Brimley the role of a lifetime. Still, I’m giving this one the edge because it has a slightly more expansive story and a fine performance by the always under-utilized Kate Capshaw, as an eastern woman adapting to the mindset of the frontier more rapidly  than her husband (an equally good Tom Conti), in part because she grasps how vulnerable any woman (let alone one as fetching as Kate Capshaw) is in a land where the law is what you make it.

Lonesome Dove (Miniseries) (1989)
D. Simon Wincer

Speaking of television….This epic mini-series blew the doors open when it first aired. There was serious talk of the western being revived in a way that hasn’t really occurred since. And it’s all that. None of the fine cast were ever better, and, though the story is an old one (it’s about a cattle drive after all), the mini-series length gave Tommy Lee Jones and Robert Duval, among others, a scope rarely afforded elsewhere. They took full advantage. The effect on Duval’s career was unfortunate. He’s satisfied himself with playing old coots ever since, with markedly diminishing returns. Jones didn’t get his mojo back until he learned to laugh at himself in the Men in Black series. But that doesn’t diminish what they did here, in the company of the strongest female cast to appear in any western (again, the length matters)–Anjelica Huston, Diane Lane, Glenne Headly, all superb. The other volumes in the Lonesome Dove series are good, especially Streets of Laredo, with James Garner and Sissy Spacek taking over the Jones and Lane roles (and being everything you would expect from those two). I also recommend Larry McMurtry’s source books. But the space opened up here has never been filled by anything else, making it, in its own way, as epic as anything done by the old masters.

Appaloosa (2008)
D. Ed Harris

An entertaining, if troubling, update on the town-taming ethos. The set up is similar to Warlock, Edward Dmytryk’s entertaining, if troubling, take on the town-taming ethos from 1959. I like Appaloosa better. The story is tighter, the grim psychology more relentless and logical. And there’s a rare good middle-age role for Renee Zellweger. Those who worry about the western (or any action) genre bleeding into fascism will not be comforted, but not being comforted is a symptom of the concerned citizen and you could spend your life worrying about subjects a lot less worthy of your time and attention. And I’m normally not big on actors directing, but Ed Harris does a lovely, understated job here. No fancy camera tricks, just straight, non-nonsense storytelling that lets the good actors (including himself) do their thing.

True Grit (2010)
D. Joel and Ethan Coen

It feels a little odd to include both versions of True Grit on such a small list. Thee are other worthy candidates even if I did leave off spaghetti westerns (God help me, I do like Sergio Leone), Peckinpah (I like several of his later westerns, including, until the end, The Wild Bunch–that’s the part that excites a lot of people but seems to me senseless bluster), or spoofs (highly recommend the Kennedy/Garner Support duo and Waterhole #3).

But I can’t choose between them and I certainly can’t leave them both off. This has the advantage of great atmosphere and sticks reasonably close to Portis’ story and language. Jeff Bridges proves again that a lot was lost when he didn’t get to make more westerns. Matt Damon acquits himself well. Hailee Steinfeld makes for a compelling contrast to Kim Darby’s Mattie Ross and gives the role her own stamp–maybe proving that, like Rooster Cogburn, Mattie’s just a great character, open to a wide array of interpretations. And the Coens more or less restored the book’s ending, pulling the punch only slightly by not having the older Mattie recite the entire last paragraph of the novel, which gets my vote for the finest ending of any American novel. It was a hit and, once more, there was talk of reviving the western. There always will be such talk–the western is in our DNA. But if we have to live with what we have, it’s still a lifetime investment getting to know the best of it. If you want to take that journey, everything here is worth adding to your list.

**NOTE: Howard Hawks’ Red River was shot in 1946 but not released until 1948. According to one of the film’s stars, Joanne Dru, the main reason was trouble in the editing room, resolved when Hawks sought Ford’s advice (Ford did not, so far as I know, do any actual editing but made some key suggestions). Hawks later admitted to Peter Bogdanovich that Ford was always in his head anyway. I mention it only to illustrate that Ford was always in everybody’s head. Regarding anyone who’s up to any good, he still is, even if they’ve never heard of him.

 

BACK ON TRACK…MEANING SCARY AGAIN…BUT ONLY IF YOU’RE PAYING STRICT ATTENTION: HOMELAND SEASON 6

Homeland: Season 6

In Season 6, Homeland pulls off a miracle. In the past, including the anemic Season 5, the show has always worked best when Carrie Mathison is off her meds. That’s because Carrie has always been best at her job–keeping herself both interested and alive (she’ll settle for the second part if it comes to the rest of us, as it periodically must, in order for us to be interested as well)–when she’s gone full manic-depressive. How people who actually have the condition feel about it I don’t know nor can I judge how “realistic” this portrayal of mental illness is. But, up to now, and strictly in a narrative sense, Crazy Carrie has been interesting Carrie. More to the point, Crazy Carrie has been best adapted to deal with the cauldron around her, which only involves the security of the free world.

In Season 6, Crazy Carrie is kept firmly on the sidelines. It’s the stories that  count…and they all work.

Of course this comes with caveats. Stable Carrie is still way less stable than most people, even the monsters who surround her (and who feed and are fed by her) in the Homeland universe. And it should go without saying that not every scene works in a 12-episode arc. Maybe Shakespeare or Henry James could have kept everything boiling without wandering too far afield. But that’s too much to expect from teams of anyone, let alone teams of Hollywood moderns. Master Narrative has turned out to be a solitary art after all.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t stand amazed at what Homeland does do–which is continue to poke a stick in the eye of the Security State’s own principal Narrative.

The Security State, however named, insists on one message: You need us.

If they were ever pressed to elaborate (as they never are) they might expand that a bit:

You KNOW you need us.

That’s their message and it is relentless.

You can tune in the broadcast channel of your choice, read the newspaper you like best (or least), or listen to talk radio, and have this message reinforced and underlined twenty-four hours a day. I doubt even Alex Jones or Michael Savage (Jones is parodied but not really captured here by the usually reliable Jake Weber, loaded up with a Texas accent Jones, a Texan, doesn’t have, and a Manchurian Candidate subplot that works pretty well in context but doesn’t score any points for originality–the idea of the rabble-rousing flamethrower being in bed with the enemy he publicly despises was old and tired when Joe McCarthy was in diapers) would really contest the idea that the CIA (or NSA or FBI or any other alphabet agency) perform useful functions if/when they are managed properly. No one else who could be called mainstream even questions the absolute necessity of the Security State’s existence.

Well no one else but whoever is responsible for Homeland.

That none of our intelligence services have ever done any demonstrable good–and have done much demonstrable harm (even the FBI, even in the operation of their one legitimate law enforcement function, which is the pursuit of criminals operating across state lines), has mattered little to the overarching public narrative.

That’s how it is with Security States. Once you permit one to exist, it will have a single, unalterable goal: It’s own survival.

This is what Homeland has done an even more brilliant job of portraying than its popcorn predecessor, 24.

One thing it hasn’t done at all well–something 24 didn’t do well either except in Seasons 1 and 5–is integrate the Personal stories with the Political and Spy stories.

This has been more disappointing in Homeland because Claire Danes and Mandy Patinkin are much better actors than Keifer Sutherland–and they are playing much more interesting characters.

I’m not quite prepared to call them three-dimensional. That’s a tall ask on television. But that such a question can even be considered is extraordinary.

Carrie Mathison and Saul Berenson do, after all, have inner lives. And those inner lives impact how they do the jobs that keep them, and us, interested. The principal dynamic from the beginning has been Carrie’s hope/belief that she can somehow walk away from it all running into, around and (occasionally–she did try to have him killed) over Saul, who knows she can’t and knows he can never let her know. Not unless he wants to lose his best agent/asset, which she remains, always, even when, as here, she’s not working for him. In his mind, letting her go would be the same as losing himself, which–also in his mind–would be the same as losing the world.

One reason Homeland, especially Season 6, works so well, is that very little of this is foregrounded. Despite the occasional blunt, obligatory confrontation scenes–most of them intelligent though hardly deep or even clever–most of this seeps out of the air. It’s walking around inside the characters and the less they talk about it, the more undeniable its presence becomes.

The other reason Season 6 is the best since the first is that everything else finally links up with this half-buried dynamic.

Yes, Carrie’s now a full-time a mom, but that just means the State has another especially creepy and suffocating weapon to use against her. Among other things she can’ t go off her meds. At least not until the State makes a mistake and actually takes the child away–then makes clear how contingent seeing her daughter is on Carrie behaving herself before (in a twist that may or may not be revealing…is it really a mistake? or just one of those glitches even the most rigorous police state cannot avoid?) pushing their advantage too far. In an especially deft move, we don’t see Carrie’s full response. We only see Saul, in her house, staring at the signature handiwork of her manic phase that we’re familiar with from earlier seasons.

From that foundation, the story builds out. The Peter Quinn angle is finally strong and has a powerful conclusion–one that links into the fates of two characters played by actors who are given enough space to compete with Claire/Carrie and Mandy/Saul and are more than up to the task. That  F. Murray Abraham’s  Dar Adal is all that isn’t surprising. He and his character have been strong since first appearing and Abraham’s qualities as an actor are well established. But Elizabeth Marvel, saddled with the show creators’ assumption that Hilary Clinton would be President as this season unfolded, is a revelation.

My only impression of Marvel going in was as the older Mattie Ross in the Coen brothers fine version of True Grit, where she was the only weak link.

Here, she’s all presence. It’s like seeing a real-life Mattie become President, with all the terror that implies (a Mattie who wanted to avenge her father’s blood was terrifying only to his killer–a Mattie who wants to be President should scare everyone).

Of course the show cheats a bit. Whether they were caught completely off-guard and had to go with a contingency plan or simply had the foresight to have such a contingency in case Clinton lost I’m sure no one will ever credibly explain. (Someone may explain. They may have already done so. But I credit these same people with schooling me on the perils of trusting anyone.) Either way, they were caught with the prospect of an obvious Hilary stand-in. So they did the only thing they could and turned her into Donald Trump. And not the actual Trump but the Trump of liberal nightmare. Marvel’s Elizabeth Keane has Trump’s foreign policy (or at least his public campaign strategy) of curtailing the empire (i.e., the part that has him at war with the Security State in the first place). She has mobs in the street yelling death threats and “Not my President.” She’s being shivved from every side.

And she’s merciless.

Had she even (unimaginably) given it a go, the real life Hilary could never have pulled this off.

But Elizabeth Marvel does. Among other things, she does for the idea of a woman President what Hillary couldn’t do (and I’d of said the same if she won), which is what Dennis Haysbert’s David Palmer did for the idea of a black president in 24.

Makes it seem as natural as breathing. So much so that I can easily imagine this performance changing the outcome of the election if it had happened two years earlier.

The Hillary-as-the-real-Trump–whether planned all along, or conjured on the fly–works better than even those of us who believe any stick is good enough to beat the Security State with could have hoped. The shadow war Trump has played out with our Stasi wannabes in the “real” world bursts into the open in Season 6 of Homeland.

And I won’t give the ending away. But if the show’s creators really did plan this all along, and really did think Hillary was going to be elected President in 2016, they’re even braver than I thought.

Which is going some.

*NOTE: Critics Consensus on Rotten Tomatoes: Homeland delivers introspective comfort food with a satisfyingly strong leading female character and story lines that continue to surprise.

Introspective comfort food?

See what I mean about the Security State controlling the Narrative?