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.

 

WHAT IMPRESSED ME THIS WEEK (Shia LaBeouf Looks Back, Robert Ryan is Careful Not to Look Ahead)

The Company You Keep (2012)

I saw both Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps in theaters.

Though he was far from the worst thing in either, if Shia LaBeouf had been standing in the lobby of those theaters wearing exactly what he wore in the movies I had just seen, I probably would have walked right by him without a second glance.

The credits of The Company You Keep, Robert Redford’s casual, by-the-numbers mea culpa for Weatherman (where once again we learn that they were in it to save us from our poor, ignorant selves!…who knew?), were so stuffed with Oscar Winner/Nominee types that I didn’t even register the names of the actors if and when they rolled at the beginning. Figured I’d surely recognize anybody who had anything important to do.

So imagine my surprise when twenty minutes or so had passed and I had to look up the name of the youngish actor who was moving through this sedentary “thriller” like a lightning strike through a corn-field and it was….Shia LaBeouf.

Seriously, he was so quick on his feet, so much the only member of the cast who “got” the sixties, that I thought at some point they should just start playing early Who songs in the background every time he came on screen. And he kept it up almost the entire movie. Right up until the very end when the script (which had let everybody else down a long time since) finally let him down too.

Lightning strikes are tricky, so I don’t know if this was a one-time occurrence or he’s finally on to something. But I’m definitely going to start keeping watch.

The Naked Spur (1953)

I’ve probably seen this a dozen or so times. Like many great movies, it strikes different chords at each separate viewing. What really got through to me this time was Robert Ryan’s villain–or more accurately, how different he is from Robert Ryan’s several other distinctive villains in other good or great movies.

It’s an early version of the types who showed up in Budd Boetticher’s Ranown series with Randolph Scott a few years later, where they were typically played by Lee Marvin or Richard Boone or Claude Akins, all of whom were wonderful.

But Ryan’s take is more realistic, hence more chilling.

I’ve met this guy on occasion and, even when he isn’t a suspected murderer on the run, he really is like this.

In life and in the movies, he has a world of cunning. In most movies he also has a world of cool. It’s the type of part that was made for the always uninteresting belief that villains are inherently more interesting than the rest of us.

Except the way Ryan plays him, his Ben Vandergroat doesn’t have an ounce of cool. He’s grasping and desperate and manipulative, not merely slippery with sweat but greasy with it–as far as possible from the modern villain’s mask which so often calls to mind the cool shark gliding in the shark pool. (The actor even trades in his trademark rasp for a high-pitched not-quite-whine.)

It’s a testimony to the quality of the script, direction and cast that nothing else fades away once this is finally recognized by slow learners like me. If anything the stakes are intensified (it doesn’t hurt that the finale is one of history’s greatest sustained action sequences). The scariest thing in the world, after all–even scarier than nature–is a villain who is actually villainous. One who, lacking the cool villain’s essential sadism, controlled only by meanness, truly doesn’t care about anything like money or revenge or jealousy but only about his own survival.

I guess by the time he made The Naked Spur, Robert Ryan knew there’s no threat in this world quite as unsettling as simple human banality.

 

WHERE DID THE DANGEROUS MEN GO? (Or…As long as men are in charge, never underestimate the power of “I think I can take that guy!” to determine the course of human affairs.)

Now that I’m starting in earnest on my John Ford journey here, I’ve been seriously researching sites with intelligent things to say about the western in general and Ford in particular. To that end, in addition to April Lane’s great “Directed By John Ford” site (which I linked to a few weeks ago), I’ve added two of the best–”50 Westerns From the 50s” and “Riding the High Country”–to the blog roll. I strongly encourage anyone who is interested in a broader perspective than I’m likely to pursue here to visit those sites (and check their blog rolls as well). Even if you think you know a lot about classic westerns, you’ll almost certainly learn something and have a lot of fun doing it.

Just by coincidence, something in Colin’s latest piece here hooked up with something that struck me recently after seeing Zero Dark Thirty. This, in turn, fanned some dying embers back into a flame and revived a nagging idea I was on the verge of leaving for some other time (which might have been next week or never…all you fellow writers out there know how these things go).

The whole thing is worth reading, but here’s the quote that caught my particular attention:

“Richard Boone’s crafty and cunning Grimes is the ideal foil to Newman’s motionless and emotionless Russell. Boone gave countless performances that were straight out of the top drawer and Grimes has to rank up there among the finest. He had a real knack for conveying a quiet threat – there was always the feeling that here was a man it would be foolish to cross.”

(NOTE: I don’t intend this as a serious think piece or anything…just having some fun with a few thoughts that have crossed my mind in the past few weeks….Please bear that in mind if anything from here forward starts to threaten your blood pressure!)

To go back to Zero Dark Thirty: for me, one of the more fascinating aspects of the film–fascinating because so much effort has been made to assure everyone of its general veracity (with the usual caveats regarding fictional portrayals of real events, etc.)–was how distinctly unthreatening the Navy Seals were.

I want to be careful here, because quite obviously the actual Seals who killed Osama Bin Laden by performing an extremely difficult and dangerous mission were genuinely hard men in a way one would never expect any professional actor to be. And, for all I know, real life Seals look, sound and behave very much like those in the film. (Certainly the only one who has come forward to be publicly identified does not radiate the aura of a man “it would be foolish to cross.”)

So it could very well be that Kathryn Bigelow was given a chance to observe some actual Seals, got a vibe from them, and cast actors who fit that vibe perfectly.

But what I do find myself wondering is this: What if she had really wanted a few dangerous-seeming men to play those roles?

What if any modern Hollywood director wants even one dangerous-seeming man to play ANY role?

Who exactly would they get?

I’ve put some thought into it and I’ve come up with….exactly no one.

I know it’s a subjective question. Doubtless there are people who saw George Clooney in The American or Brad Pitt in The Assassination of Jesse James…or Samuel Jackson in whatever, and thought “Boy, I’m sure glad I was never on the wrong side of that one in a bar fight!”

But I don’t think it’s really all that subjective. Not when we cast our collective memories back.

I mean, these modern choices might convince a few people. But it’s not that long ago when there was no “subjective” to it. When all but a few were convinced. And the men who did the convincing did so with little or no apparent effort.

In other words, if you wanted somebody to play a role that called for an unspoken aura of a man it would be “dangerous to cross” there were real choices.

Not just second line stars like Boone or Lee Van Cleef, but first line ones. Robert Mitchum, say, or Lee Marvin. Or character men like Neville Brand and Aldo Ray. I’m naming only the very most obvious, those that spring first to mind. Certainly any old movie fan could name several dozen more who would–and did–look the part of men ready to be sent to the most dangerous places.

Some of these older “types” actually were hard men in life (not a few had served in WWII or Korea themselves) and some of them were probably cream-puffs when the cameras weren’t rolling. We can all probably have a fun game trying to decide which were which.

But I still think it’s interesting to compare the changing “appearances-vs-realities” dynamics. To contrast one era’s version of an ideal to another era’s version of same….and it’s worth asking if the disappearance of the former ideal from popular culture reflects an almost insane confidence. (“Got terrorists? Don’t worry…we’ve rounded up some dudes from the bar down the street and outfitted ’em with the latest technology. They’ll be along shortly to hold your hand or burn your town as needed!”)…or a complete lack thereof (“This is the best we got, the elite of the elite. Think what the hell would happen if we had to actually wage war!”)

That the good old U.S.A. still has men who can carry out dangerous real life missions is unquestionable. That we still have some number of men (and perhaps women as well) who could perform the even more difficult task of taking and holding the ground that would need to be taken and held for missions such as the one celebrated in Zero Dark Thirty to become unnecessary, is also unquestionable.

But we used to have enough such men that their presence was mainstream–all but taken for granted. So many that it was probably inevitable that a few of them–or a few skilled actors who had the chance to observe them first hand–would end up burning holes in movie screens.

If it were ever to become absolutely necessary–not to having better movies, but to, you know, making the world safer and freer–then maybe we could do so again.

Or maybe not.

I’m getting to the point, though, where I don’t know if I can keep blaming all those politicians who never, ever want to find out.

Better to just send in the Seals.

[NOTE: Just anecdotally and strictly for what it’s worth: The only real life Navy Seal I ever observed in action was a fifty-something retired-from-service gentleman who looked to be about five foot ten and weighed maybe a buck seventy. He was umpiring a semi-pro national tournament-level softball game (translation: presiding over a testosterone-laden arena of very large men with very thin skins and very short tempers under considerable pressure). The “action” I observed was his handling of a potentially ugly brawl that was about to break out between half a dozen players who, on average, probably had him by six inches and fifty pounds of 400-foot-off-the-handle style muscle–the kind you get putting in prison yard hours at the local gym. He shut things down rather quickly and easily. So quickly and easily that anyone who hadn’t been paying strict attention might have been deceived into thinking it had all been no big deal. And–in a fashion that was a lot truer to a movie-land Robert Mitchum than to anyone observed in Zero Dark Thirty–he did not have to raise his voice. (Though he was smiling later by the concession stand when he repeated what he had said, out of everyone else’s hearing, to the central-casting bully of the lot who was the heart of the trouble. I don’t remember his exact words, but they were along the lines of precisely which bones he was going to break in the big man’s body if he didn’t get his fat ass back to the dugout and keep his mouth shut….I do, however, remember this part, delivered with a Tennessee drawl they never, ever get right in the movies: “The first thing I told him was that I’m a retired Navy Seal which means I’ve been trained to cut your heart out with the pocket-knife I just happen to be carrying….” Don’t know if he was embellishing. I do know that, whatever he had really been trained to do, and whatever he really said to the large fellow in question, it worked. Retired or no, he looked and sounded very much like a man you would send on dangerous missions…and nothing at all like anyone who was available to be cast in Zero Dark Thirty.)]