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.)]

THOSE WOMEN OUT WEST….ALWAYS GETTIN’ IN THE WAY! (I Watch Westerns: Special Edition)

“In fact we always throw a woman into the story, because without a woman, a western wouldn’t work. Even though she isn’t necessary, everyone appears to be convinced that you cannot do without a woman. But as soon as you get to fighting against the Indians, or to the chase scenes, or when the heroes discover the traitor, then the woman gets in your way. So then you have to come up with a clever trick and send her somewhere so she won’t be in your way, and you won’t need to film her. It’s sad to say, but women do not have much importance in westerns…On the other hand, maybe someone will make a western some day with a woman as the main character.”

(Source: “Interview With Anthony Mann,” conducted by Charles Bitsch and Claude Chabrol for Cahiers du Cinema, March 1957 and reprinted in the booklet accompanying the Criterion Collection’s release of The Furies)

Well, with all due respect to one of my favorite directors (and one of the greatest western directors) it was hardly as bad as all that!

It’s true women weren’t usually leads in westerns, but Mann himself had, for instance, seven years prior to this interview, made The Furies, in which Barbara Stanwyck–being, you know, Barbara Stanwyck–had not exactly shrunk into the background just because she had top billing and the most screen time and was the script’s central character and all.

And as for them “getting in the way,” when the going got heavy? Well, I guess that was sort of a rule, but I could point to a lot of exceptions.(My favorite being Susan Hayward’s sharpshooting at the end of Rawhide–beautiful because it comes straight out of her character even though we’ve never seen her with a rifle in her hand before that moment–Jack Elam might have looked surprised at having that twitch in his eyelid permanently stilled but there’s no reason we should be!)

Still, while Mann’s expressed view may have amounted to a kind of selective amnesia, it was and is–all evidence to the contrary–a common one.

Too bad, because, outside of what used to be called “women’s pictures,” actual women (as opposed to the admittedly marvelous fantasy creatures favored by the makers of screwball comedy, musicals , biblical epics, film noir and Li’l Abner movies) played a more significant role in westerns than in any other major Hollywood genre.

If we’ve mostly forgotten their vital presence, it’s probably because we don’t think we need their kind any more.

Since I beg to differ–and since I need to update my file of self-defining things–I’m listing a countdown of my five favorite examples out of a potential hundred or so (with accompanying introductory and valedictory shots):

5) Gail Russell as Annie Greer in 7 Men From Now (1956: Budd Boetticher, director)–Quite probably the most affectless and unassuming performance ever given by a strikingly beautiful woman in a Hollywood film. Russell’s own inherent shyness and troubled life–which had very much left its mark on that beautiful face by then–probably worked in her favor here, even as it had almost certainly kept her from major stardom elsewhere. One wonders if the brief time she had left might have been lengthened if more people had noticed.

All in a day's work...

All in a day’s work!

After the bodies have stopped falling.

After the bodies have stopped falling.

4) Angie Dickinson as “Feathers,” (aka “The Girl,” aka “The Lady,” aka “The Lady She Did Not Go!”) in Rio Bravo (1959: Howard Hawks, director)–The Hawksian woman–greatest of all Hollywood’s femme fantasies–improbably and indelibly humanized.

I think we might be in a Howard Hawks movie...

I think we might be in a Howard Hawks movie…

Yes...yes we are.

Yes…yes we are!

3) Claire Trevor as Dallas in Stagecoach (1939: John Ford, director)–The epitome of turning a shop-worn cliche (in this case “the hooker with a heart of gold”) into flesh and blood, maybe because she did the best job of showing that the heart wasn’t made of gold but of pain and fear. The Oscar waited down the line, for some year when Vivien Leigh and Hattie McDaniel weren’t performing miracles in Gone With the Wind. But Ford’s single-handed resuscitation of the western as an art form could never have worked all the way through without her.

Shamed in sunlight...

Shamed in sunlight…

Redeemed in darkness.

…Redeemed in darkness.

2) Kim Darby as Mattie Ross in True Grit (1969: Henry Hathaway, director)–Darby played Mattie Ross, one of the great prickly pears in American fiction, as though Charles Portis rather than Hollywood convention should be the prevailing authority on the subject. (Pick to click: “If I smelled as bad as you, I wouldn’t live near people.” But there are oh, so many.) Boy has she been slagged for it, especially in light of Hailee Steinfeld’s very fine, if rather comfortingly modern, take in the 2010 remake. Boy are people wrong. Among the dozens of reviews I read when the newer version hit theaters, only one–by the conservative critic James Bowman–bothered to point out that Darby was much more convincing than Steinfeld when taken as the frontier woman Mattie Ross is supposed to be. (Granted Steinfeld wasn’t always helped by the newer script, which, among other things, has Mattie professing ignorance of what horses eat!) Out of Darby’s many adroit touches, my own favorite is the arm-swinging walk she used to hold up against John Wayne in long shots. Yeah, it was Mattie Ross to a “T,” but I’ve also often wondered how many of the great thespians Wayne routinely dominated in such shots over the years wished they had thought of that.

Old maidhood awaits...

Old maidhood awaits…

...Not without its memories.

…Not without its memories.

1) Vera Miles as Hallie Stoddard in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962: John Ford, director)–Not just one of the great gender/genre performances but one of the great performances period and, as almost goes without saying, she’s received scant thanks for it. All she had to do, for starters, was hold her own–playing twenty-something and fifty-something–in a western that had John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart and Lee Marvin all at the very top of their considerable games. She made that look easy (and made it look easy in that particular way that allows many people to assume that it could only look so easy if it really was easy). Then she had to make it her character’s movie without resorting to any obvious scene-stealing (not so much because anyone would have cared–though they might have–as because such obviousness would have fatally unbalanced the story). After all that, at the very end, she had to deliver the “Aren’t you proud?” speech in such a way that the answer would remain naggingly ambiguous, forever reminding us that the value of the past will always be determined by what we make of the future–while leaving room for those who insist on “knowing” to make up their own minds. And yes, she made that look easy, too. Ever gallant, Hollywood rewarded her by providing that all her best future roles be TV show murderesses and Disney wives.

Age...

Age…

...to youth

…into youth

And youth...

And youth…

...to age.

…into age.

Please feel free to add your own…Like I say there are many to choose from!