THE FOURTH TURNING OF THE EMPIRE, THE GRAND BARGAIN AND THE AGE OF THE ROUGH BEAST

[NOTE: I’ve been promising this one for a while and, barring truly unforeseen developments, it will be my major statement on Election Year 2020. Nothing much has changed since 2016 and I commented plenty then. I’ll probably still drop a humorous aside now and again. (Though with the clownish Democratic nomination process now winnowed down to Bernie and Biden, the clown show having predictably ended with the top clowns emerging from the pack, even the comedic value of the race is likely to diminish. The general election will consist of a cat toying with a half-dead mouse, which isn’t really my kind of humor). Short of assassination, the Overlords have shot their collective wad, so there isn’t much left to say. Donald Trump isn’t up against J. Edgar Hoover and Allen Dulles. He is opposed by morons…and only morons. Get ready for four more years. For those who have other hopes, be warned that you will find no comfort in the following. But I can’t promise you wont learn something!]

Patton is treated as if he were the spirit of war, yet the movie begs the fundamental question about its hero: Is this man the kind of man a country needs when it’s at war?

(Pauline Kael, review of Patton, in The New Yorker, Jan. 31, 1970)

There is a soul to an army as well as to the individual man, and no general can accomplish the full work of his army unless he commands the soul of his men, as well as their bodies and legs. (William Tecumseh Sherman)

The secret of victory lies not wholly in knowledge. It lurks invisible in the vitalizing spark, intangible, yet evident as lightning–the warrior soul. (George S. Patton)

(Introductory quotes to The Soul of Battle, Victor Davis Hanson, 1999)

Pauline Kael was often good at distilling things to their essence. Her quote above is a  version of the Good Liberal’s Eternal Question, nearly as succinct as the Question itself:

Are we there yet?

Do we still need the Rough Beasts?

Can’t we just talk this out?

Is this the kind of man a country needs when it’s at war?

Hanson’s book, coming nearly thirty years later, evincing a knowledge of the movie Kael was reviewing, perhaps of the review itself, and certainly of the mindset behind the review, which Kael strove to represent, plays as a kind of professional military historian’s answer record.

And the historian’s answer?

Only if you want to win.

And therein lies the rub.

These days, Hanson, whose opinion of the movie wasn’t much different than Kael’s is better known as a political columnist. In twenty years, he’s gone from being a Truman/Kennedy style liberal to a Bush Republican to a solid Trump supporter, all without changing his basic views, though he’s sometimes been a little slow to recognize the speed at which history can leave a man behind while Empires are busy collapsing…or at very least evolving.

His contention all along has been that men like William Sherman and George Patton are in a long line of heroes produced by Western Civilization’s history and mythology going back to the Greeks. Such figures rise to the surface only when there’s a dirty job to be done and are soon dismissed once they are no longer deemed necessary.

I find the theory compelling, with a lot to support it (even if I have to assert the not insignificant caveat that it focuses only on those who succeeded in accomplishing Civilization’s reluctantly appointed tasks–Hitler himself was a bit of a rough cob after all). Sticking to winners, I’ve even expanded it a bit.

To the three subjects of Hanson’s original thesis, the ancient Theban Farmer General Epaminondas, Crazy Billy Sherman and Patton the Primitive, we can, just for starters, add the Heretic Joan of Arc, Savage Andy Jackson, the Drunkard Sam Grant, Lincoln the Rube, the Mad Bomber Curtis LeMay, Churchill the Warmonger.

Lincoln may have had the best answer to Are we there yet?, when, assailed by reports of Grant the Drunkard, Grant the Butcher, Grant the Unfeeling Monster willing to throw away his men’s lives without a second thought, said simply “I cant afford to lose this man. He fights!”

So it has been, again and again, and not just in history.

Hanson, trained as a classicist, also periodically makes reference to the lonely heroes of Greek mythology, from Homer and Sophocles on down, and of American westerns.

Again the connection is apt. It’s why the western endures and outstrips every other Hollywood genre in historical and emotional resonance: It’s why Ethan Edwards turns from the open door at the end of The Searchers; why Will Kane throws his badge in the dust of High Noon‘s street; why Shane rides out of the valley slumped over his saddle having rid that valley of guns the way Churchill fulfilled his pledge to “rid the world of his (Hitler’s) shadow,” only to be turned out of office by high-minded voters at the first opportunity once he had done just that.

I was surprised in 2015 and 2016 when Hanson took many months to recognize Donald Trump as one of his crude, vain, unpolished men (Rough Beast is my own designation) who step forward in Democracy’s hard, existential moments. Once he took on the task of explaining why Trump fit the mold (just before the 2016 election) it was easy enough. Compared to Patton or Sherman (a stout supporter of slavery, it was disunion he had issues with), or even Harry Truman, Trump’s a beacon of Enlightenment, a softy even. But he’ll do for the moment.

I think one problem Hanson had with Trump in the beginning was what I’ll call Tom Brokaw Syndrome, summed up by Brokaw’s pained, puzzled expression early in the 2016 primary season, when he was a guest on somebody’s MSNBC show and insisted Things just aren’t that bad! and it wasn’t yet clear just how many million people thought For you maybe.

Like a lot of intellectuals, Hanson wasn’t out front, but, unlike Brokaw and many others, he at least caught on.

If millions are voting for Trump, things must be worse than I thought.

And so they were. Like most professional historians who venture into political commentary, Hanson is much stronger on history than current events, just as Pauline Kael was much stronger on film criticism than philosophy.

Having no professional credentials myself–I really am just a blogger–I’ll take a moment to outline my own world view.

Start with the obvious.

The absence of any intelligentsia or punditry able to gauge his purpose, policies or effectiveness, is the principal reason Trump’s in a position to impose any purpose or policy at all. There’s no question Trump saw in our contemporary cultural collapse–a condition, as I’ve pointed out before, of which he may have been the single biggest beneficiary–a chance to do something unprecedented. While others of his generation with presidential ambitions went about pursuing them the same old way, becoming what the Overlords demanded, learning to take orders, he went about becoming himself. And when he was ready to present himself as a political candidate it was himself we got: crude, vain, ambitious…and proud of it!

Also supremely focused and ready to take his voice and his case straight to the People, whom he trusted, even worshiped, in a way no traditional politician could. That they trusted and worshiped him in return should be no surprise and, unless you really are invested in the idea that Professionalism is the Path of Progress, no cause for alarm.

And yet alarm rings through the land. It rings in the face of more peace, prosperity and security in a three-year stretch than anyone had even imagined possible in fifty-plus years of misgovernance, the last thirty-five better described as malgovernance, irrespective of who was in charge at any given moment.

It rings in the face of Reaganomics (put on Steroids by Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, who, post-Presidency, gorged themselves on eight and nine-figure personal fortunes as a reward for their services) having finally been proven a fraud; of Free Trade (never really Free and never really Trade) being punched in the nose; of North Korea going silent; of China backing down in a “trade war”; of high-ranking terrorists being killed at such an alarming rate that the last couple barely made headlines. The alarm rings in the face of prison reform, the best wage hikes in decades, low inflation, employment numbers that have disproportionately benefited minorities and poor people, a jobs training effort that threatens to lift millions out of poverty and off food stamps, etc. etc. etc.

It rings through constant talk, backed by occasional action, of bringing the boys home.

Boy does it ring through that.

At some point one is tempted to conclude that the old orthodoxies were not merely insufficient at solving problems but were imposed to create them.

So concluded Donald Trump. If you quaked at his coming or are bothered by his presence on what, after all, is not a battlefield–not a place were a Saint Joan or a Billy Sherman or a George Patton could see clearly the best way forward while others remained trapped in the orthodoxies of Good Taste and, even more hilariously, Decency–that probably means you were as comfortable with the old Narratives as the plantation class of Ye Olde Confederacy was with theirs. If you were a Liberal, then Reagan and the Bushes suddenly didn’t seem all that bad. If you were a Conservative then Obama or the Clintons the same. At least they all played by the same rules.

Those were the rules of the Grand Bargain, where, circa 1980, Democrats took the Culture and Republicans took the Economy. If one or the other happened to ascend for a moment they made sure to rig the game in a manner their putative opponents could recognize and everybody got fat (and protected from prosecution, no matter how many “investigations” were launched) so long as they stayed within the carefully constructed guidelines which certainly had nothing to do with preserving either the culture or the economy.

And meanwhile back at the D.C. Ranch?

Well something that called itself the Intelligence Community, nascent in the First World War, powerful by the end of the Second, “necessary” by the Dawn of the Cold War, had grown up inside the newly imperial government. Such an apparatus may not be necessary to a nation, certainly not to a free nation, but it is always crucial to the maintenance of an Empire.  Whether or not the leap to Empire, begun in the Spanish American War, taken as a given by the end of WWII, was a good idea is debatable, but the unwillingness to shoulder the moral burden–the pretense that we could maintain our notional idea of a Nation of Settlers (rather than Conquerors, or, more disingenuously, “Immigrants”) sufficiently well to keep everyone in line on the home front when it was time to make the ultimate sacrifice has proven disastrous. One does not need to be a Trumpian to realize he is a necessary corrective to decades of preening hypocrisy, endless war and the normalization of a two-tiered society where some have all and most have just enough to keep them voting for Republicans and Democrats, cycle after endless cycle (and turning to loony options like Socialists and Greens and Libertarians when they stray).

I confess I did not see him, or anyone like him, coming until he was here. I assumed the Overlords had stifled all dissent. When you find yourself with a lifetime of being asked to choose between Ronald Reagan or Walter Mondale, Bill Clinton or Bob Dole, Al Gore or George W. Bush, Mitt Romney or Barack Obama, it becomes very easy to think the cage is strong enough no one can ever rattle it.

Besides it had all proceeded so smoothly.

The Empire had presented itself in neat epochs:

First Turning the Leap: 1945–1963

Second Turning the Sorting: 1963-1980

Third Turning the Frozen Silence: 1980-2016

I thought that 2016 would be a much later number, occurring sometime in the next 50-100 years, with the fourth turning coming when we collapsed within and the world’s new powers (China, India, the EU, maybe even Russia or some Mid-East coalition) moved in to mop up the leftovers.

Then came Trump…and all bets were off.

They still are. I am more or less in agreement with John Michael Greer, the sci-fi novelist and professional Druid who has been the sanest and most insightful commentator I’ve found on our current predicament–this is more likely a temporary speed-bump along the road to Decline and Fall than any kind of reversal.

But Trump has at least made it possible to think about national renewal and drawing down the Empire in such a way that the world doesn’t collapse into a series of smoking craters or piles of ash and bone. Like the necessary men who have come before him, he will only be redeemed by history if his side wins and after he is safely dead. If not, he’ll join history’s villains, as all the figures I mentioned above would have if their side had lost.

Heck half of them are reviled still (Churchill the Warmonger is now Churchill the Racist, Sherman, the most humane of the major Civil War generals is counted the bloodthirstiest, the faith Jeanne D’Arc was willing to die for proves she was a bigot, and so on and so on).

Since the matter of his victory or defeat will be purely political (as opposed to military or intellectual)–and the chance of any final victory (like the Survival of the American Experiment) is slim–Donald Trump will likely be an even more problematic figure.  My own prediction, safely rendered since none of us will live to see it confirmed or denied, is that his long-term legacy will be the question that consumes, perhaps vexes, whoever replaces us.

How did they ever let it come to this?

We are too close to the problem to do anything but stay in our corners and rant and rave and, once we are out of breath, suck our collective thumbs.

How those who will own the future answer that question will determine whether they last any longer than we did.

All I know is that, whatever happens in November, the die is cast. The Old Guard has come at Donald Trump with everything it has and he is stronger than ever. He’ll stand for re-election against either a Socialist version of George McGovern or an enfeebled version of Fritz Mondale.

The Grand Bargain has unraveled.

The Fourth Turning is here. The Rough Beast has come, like him, want him, need him or not. The more Peace and Prosperity he threatens us with, the louder will be the Tumult and the Shouting and the more certain he won’t be invited to any state dinners once we return to our Destiny.

Ain’t that a kick in the head.

GOLDEN AGE WESTERNS–THE CANON (A Handy Ten, Times Two)

There is no way to limit Hollywood’s Golden Age westerns to a mere ten, or, as you’ll see, twenty, without seeming silly. You can do it with every other genre, even war films, even noir. The western is deeper at the high end, low end and every level in between, so I won’t be stopping here. A similar list of movies that aren’t as well known, will follow at some point.

But what with civilization crumbling faster every day, this seems like a good time to ruminate on the 1939-1962 period that defined what we thought of ourselves then and what troubles us now, as the thrashing about that was bound to follow the breakup of the Frozen Silence (1980-2016) proceeds apace and the past threatens to repeat its well-established pattern of eternal return to the anti-utopian verities. It won’t be long now before any discarded lessons contained herein will become valuable again.

Stagecoach (1939)
D. John Ford

There were other good westerns made in the late 30s, but John Ford’s return to the form–his first since his great silent Three Bad Men in 1926–is rightly regarded as lifting the game for his favorite genre. It wasn’t the first or last time he managed the trick, but it may have been the most influential. Rightly so. It made the western’s definitive star, John Wayne, solid box office, won Thomas Mitchell a well-deserved Oscar, and set Claire Trevor on a path to winning one later, some year when Vivien Leigh wasn’t making Gone With the Wind. They headed a deep, faultless cast, and the story, a series of intertwined character studies, grows like a fresh flower from the oldest dirt in the hills (or anyway Guy de Maupassant by way of Ernest Haycox).

After this, perhaps Ford’s most purely exciting and entertaining film, with action informing character, and character action, at lightning speed, the cliches that had propped up thousands of dime novels, silents, and serials for half a century were at last so well-defined the western–and the western alone–could go anywhere.

Destry Rides Again (1939)
D. George Marshall

And one of the first places it went, in the very same year, was a wiseacre spoof of itself. It’s prevented from stooping to parody by being a full-blooded western first, with a strong, well-developed, town-taming story that was pure Hollywood, owing little more than its title to Max Brand’s fine source novel. Highlights: Marlene Dietrich’s loose, unmannered performance, proof she should have done more westerns; Samuel S. Hinds’ tobacco-chawing judge, dispensing Boss Brian Donlevy’s mayhem with a firm, laconic hand; Mischa Auer’s seriously whipped “deputy”; and, the big screen’s greatest catfight, courtesy of Dietrich, the priceless Una Merkel, and “eight gallons of water.” Jimmy Stewart? Well, that’s a given, but it’s high even on his endless list of indelible performances.

The Ox-Bow Incident (1943)
D, William Wellman

Wellman made better westerns (my later list will feature at least a couple of them), but none quite so iconic. Matching Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s superb source novel scene-for-scene, it’s not an easy watch. Henry Fonda and Harry Morgan (neither ever better) are a couple of cowhands caught up in a lynch mob. Jane Darwell, two years after her salt-of-the-earth Oscar turn in The Grapes of Wrath, plays the Spirit of the Mob, a kind of Rocky Mountain Madame LeFarge, with such conviction you might never see her the same way again. Here and there it’s a touch heavy-handed, but given the subject matter, that’s almost unavoidable and easy to bear. Certainly easier than the final scenes which put a noose around the neck of anyone who has studied enough history to know how often man’s gift for folly, from which God has not made him exempt, is the real source of horror in the universe.

My Darling Clementine (1946)
D. John Ford

Returning after a seven-year break, Ford remakes the Western again and sets the stage for everything it would become. Henry Fonda and Victor Mature play a Wyatt Earp and Doc Holiday who are sufficiently removed from history that Ford asked studio head Darryl Zanuck for permission to change the names. Zanuck had a studio to run. No way was he going to give up those names. Ford, typically, doubled-down and vouchsafed the historical accuracy of the obligatory gunfight, claiming Earp had told him all about it in their silent-era bull sessions. But Ford the tall tale-spinner never got in the way of Ford the Artist. Ford the Artist knew the real story was about the epic Loneliness of the Gunfighter and how thin the line between lawman and outlaw was in a lawless land. In other words, the tall tales were what mattered, not the tawdry facts, which would have held nobody’s interest for more than thirty seconds. A century-and-a-half later, the Earp story is still being told and retold. No one has come close to giving it the significance it acquired here, as a cautionary fable.

Canyon Passage (1946)
D. Jacques Tourneur

This isn’t a town-tamer epic so much as a town-being-born Narrative, with all the nuances and complexities that implies. Susan Hayward was on her way up, and you can already see why she will make it to the top. Playing friends who are growing apart and beginning to compete for the same woman, Dana Andrews and Brian Donlevy are at their respective peaks as are the arts of cinematography (courtesy of Edward Kronjager) and Technicolor. Not even Ford’s westerns ever looked more spectacular. Ward Bond shows yet again why he was Hollywood’s supreme character actor, this time portraying a terrifying, animalistic thug who would have been at home in Deadwood…or Deadwood. As usual, the second romantic subplot is a little weak, but not fatally so–once Susan Hayward’s on the screen, it’s not likely the hero will end up with anyone else. As with Stagecoach, the story is from Ernest Haycox, another fine western writer who has been neglected by our urgent need to forget. The fate of Andy Devine’s family is all the more devastating for being handled with gravitas but no fuss. Not as famous as most of the films here, but like all the rest, it grows with time and distance.

Red River (1946–Released 1948)
D. Howard Hawks

Proof that Howard Hawks could conjure an “all is now right with the world” ending out of any scenario. But don’t let that deter you. According to Joanne Dru, Hawks needed editing advice from Ford. That seems to have been the principal reason for the film’s release being delayed for two years. We have Hawks’ own word–every bit as reliable as Ford’s–that this is where Ford saw Wayne’s performance and said, “I never knew the big sunnava-bitch could act!” The discovery would alter the course of the western for decades to come. As for Red River itself, it has more than enough going for it to justify its place in the pantheon: It made Montgomery Clift’s reputation, there’s stellar work from Dru, John Ireland, Walter Brennan and a host of sidekicks. The story, about the first trail-drive from Texas to Kansas after the Civil War, is epic and intimate in equal measure. And, yes, as only the very stupid or the very misinformed would doubt going forward, the big sunnava-bitch could act.

THE CAVALRY TRILOGY (1948–1950)
D. John Ford

Fort Apache (1948)

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949)

RIo Grande (1950)

John Ford’s three late-40s cavalry films have been considered a loose, informal trilogy almost since they were made. Themes certainly unite them, as does a keen eye for the details of cavalry life as men and women actually lived it in the post-Civil War generation during the conquest of what became the American Southwest. I’m treating them as one entry because there’s nothing else here I could leave off in good conscience–and certainly, none of these three could be left off!

What’s interesting narratively, is that each story stands alone at least as well as the three hang together. Ford viewed cavalry life as a continuum in three distinct modes, first as Tragedy (Fort Apache) then as a Comedy of Manners (She Wore a Yellow Ribbon) and finally as Elegy (Rio Grande). Anyone who thinks Ford glossed the men in “dirty shirt blue” should give his subsequent takes on the subject a gander (Sergeant Rutledge, Two Rode Together, even The Searchers) for a stark, sometimes corrosive contrast.

Most of Ford’s stock company features throughout this cycle of Tragedy-Comedy-Elegy, keeping things lively in one, two or all three pictures. Beyond that, look for a teenage Shirley Temple, luminous in Fort Apache, John Wayne at his most moving and eloquent in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Maureen O’Hara’s twirling parasol in Rio Grande (If Ford had given it to Phil Sheridan it would have been yet another historical touch he was accused of manufacturing). Those and a thousand other things. (Stanley Crouch, lifetime Crit-Illuminati member paid in full, once described Shirley Temple in Fort Apache as “somewhat monstrous.” Has any actress ever done a more valuable service than making Stanley Crouch look under the bed?)

And keep going back to them. There’s always more to learn.

Where they rode, that place became the United States of America.

Colorado Territory (1949)
D. Raoul Walsh

Perhaps the greatest western heist flick. It’s a train robbery this time (as opposed to a bank or stage), and a redemption story to boot. Walsh remade his own High Sierra, setting the modern gangster story that had made Humphrey Bogart a star back three-quarters of a century and mining even more gold from it. Joel McCrea didn’t know how to give a bad performance but this time, as “nothing but a big Kansas Jay,” he had a script that allowed him to be far better than good. Same for Virginia Mayo as a girl who’s been run out of all the best saloons in the territory and proves more honorable than either the thieves McCrea’s character has fallen back in with or the good girl (Dorothy Malone, always a welcome sight even in a stodgy role) he has fallen for. A strong story, a sterling character study of a man trying to escape his past, and nobody, but nobody, ever said Raoul Walsh was anything less than an action master of the highest order. The climax stings, no matter how often I watch it.

The Gunfighter (1950)
D. Henry King

The pinnacle of the gunfighter-tries-to-lay-down-his-guns narratives. Gregory Peck proved one of many western leading men who were more convincing playing an older man than a younger one. He’s not grizzled exactly, but there’s an old soul watching every single thing from behind those eyes. This is one where the bullets hit the bone. You can feel the weight of the lives, and souls, at stake, including eternal sidekick Millard Mitchell in the role of a well-spent lifetime. Peck’s aging gunfighter keeps looking for answers and the film doesn’t let you believe he’ll find them–but it lets you believe he believes.

Leads to killing in the end. One of those films where you know where it’s going but you can’t stop watching just the same.

WInchester ’73 (1950)
D. Anthony Mann

Outside of John Ford’s very best, perhaps the greatest and most influential western of the era. It remade Jimmy Stewart’s career, allowing him to keep all the associations of his past everyman roles while he re-invented himself as a western hero who, while still on the side of the angels, serves them with a touch of warrior madness in his soul. It also vaulted Anthony Mann, who had already made several fine noirs and historicals, to the top shelf of Hollywood directors, where he was to remain for more than a decade. It’s great enough that, except for Rock Hudson, who didn’t make a very convincing Indian, everyone associated with it would be remembered even if they had never done anything else.

Just on a side note, it was seeing Winchester ’73 on a big screen (after a dozen viewings on video), that made me realize no great film can be appreciated on a television set. When the bullets hit the rocks in the famous final shootout between Stewart and Stephen McNally, I felt like the shards were knicking my cheek.

High Noon (1952)
D. Fred Zinnemann

Of the many good things that can be said for High Noon, the best thing is that it troubles hidebound souls straight across the political divide. No ideology you bring to it can survive its scrutiny, which is why so many feign boredom or derision or simply run out of the room to keep from confronting it. Its primal power has rarely been matched even in this most primal of genres.

The constant repetition of the theme song, the ticking of the endless  array of clocks, Gary Cooper’s stone face, all work to set the audience on edge (or drive them batty), as the plot keeps us invested in that most nerve-wracking of existential questions: What happens under the pressure of time that doesn’t happen any other way?

It’s the question that drove Howard Hawks, John Wayne, Louis L’Amour and other giants of the genre to distraction when they came to assess the film as Realism. That is, they, and others felt compelled to demand strictures from High Noon they rarely paid the least attention elsewhere, including much of their own best work.

I love it myself, for all those reasons and more. But it really doesn’t matter. Like the next film here (which seems to elicit similar discomfort from the tepid and the passionate alike), it needs to be confronted. Be careful, though. Like the next film on the list, If you pay too much attention it might start to work you over. You might start finding a lot of elements, like Katy Jurado’s face, that won’t let you run and hide.

Priceless exchange overheard in the men’s room by the director following the not-very-promising debut of his only western: “What does an Austrian Jew know about making a western anyway?”

Shane (1953)
D. George Stevens

Jack Shaefer’s source novel has a gem-like purity. George Stevens, with memories of Dachau still playing in his head, both toughened and expanded it without losing the story’s central iconic force. Among the more famous exchanges, including the last one between Alan Ladd’s Shane and Jack Palance’s Jack Wilson so oft-quoted elsewhere, I like this one best:

Shane: What’s your offer, Ryker?
Rufus Ryker: To you, not a thing!
Shane: That’s too bad.
Ryker: Too bad?
Shane: Yeah, you’ve lived too long. Your kind of days are over.
Ryker: My days! What about yours, gunfighter?
Shane: The difference is I know it.

The tragedy is that Ryker’s “kind of days” are never over.

Except in the valley Shane rides out of, slumped in his saddle, the dreamland where he has obliterated himself and there is no more need for his guns…or any guns at all.

The man who filmed the ashes and bones at Dachau, another man who made only one western, must have wished it could be so–and must have known it could never be.

The Man From Laramie (1955)
D. Anthony Mann

Anthony Man and Jimmy Stewart again. Each of the five westerns they made together is a masterpiece and ranking them by quality is a fool’s errand. But, after Winchester ’73, this is the one that seems to carry the most canonical weight. Stewart ratchets up his a-man-against-himself-is-a-man-against-the-world persona to Shakespearean proportions. The story and cast (exceptional: Donald Crisp, Arthur Kennedy, Aline MacMahon, Alex Nicol and the great Cathy O’Donnell who makes even the obligatory ingenue role sing) are up to the task. It’s a stranger-in-town saga (Stewart, with a secret and a purpose of course), crossed with a family drama of an aging cattle king (Crisp) reaching the time of life when he must choose between the son he has (Nicol) and the son he wishes he had (Kennedy).

Anyway, he thinks Kennedy is the son he wishes he had.

Like I said, Shakesperean. At least.

The Searchers (1956)
D. John Ford

The apex, a narrative so densely layered it can no more be plumbed than Hamlet or the Illiad or War and Peace. It’s also a hellishly entertaining Saturday Matinee western. John Wayne’s performance was one of the handful that makes awards irrelevant. The greatest American director’s greatest film. If Ford had made noirs or musicals or horror films, one of those would be the defining American genre.

He made westerns.

7 Men From Now (1956)
D. Budd Boetticher

The first of the Ranown western cycle made by Boetticher, producer Harry Joe Brown, writer Burt Kennedy, and star Randolph Scott. They are all endlessly rewatchable. At least four, including this one, Comanche Station, The Tall T, and Ride Lonesome, are masterpieces. People debate endlessly about which is best but the four are on a level where rankings are silly. I’m choosing this one because it’s first, it has an astounding performance by Gail Russell which has grown with time (and which, according to the great critic Blake Lucas, who had a good bit to do with restoring 7 Men From Now, Boetticher’s favorite of his western leading ladies, all of whom were excellent), and it’s Lee Marvin’s definitive bad guy turn.

If there had been Oscar justice, Marvin would have won for his supporting role in the same year John Wayne won for his lead in The Searchers.

Oscar ain’t about justice.

3:10 to Yuma (1958)
D. Delmer Daves

A morality/mystery/miracle play all in one, which I wrote about at length here.

I said most of what I had to say there, so I won’t pontificate. This about sums it up:

However, he got there, Daves must have recognized that 3:10 to Yuma was a chance to merge the presumably old-fashioned prestige genre with the just-about-to-be-cool one (noir) he had helped pioneer in a way that was rare, if not unique.

I say “must have” because films that are better on the eighteenth viewing than on the first don’t happen by accident.

It’s a lot more than eighteen now. And it’s better still. Glenn Ford and Van Heflin, each at their very best, give one of the top ten “dual-performances” in any Hollywood film and I doubt I need to restrict that to Hollywood.

The film’s prestige has grown sufficiently to have a Criterion release in recent years. Any list of a hundred American films that fails to include it doesn’t have my serious attention.

Avoid the pointless remake.

Rio Bravo (1959)
D. Howard Hawks

The story has been told, again and again, that Howard Hawks and John Wayne were disgusted by films like High Noon and 3:10 to Yuma, where professional lawmen seek help from amateurs. It was the seeking that disturbed them, not whether Gary Cooper failed to find a Van Heflin in his particular town. It’s our good fortune that by the time they actually made  Rio Bravo, their “answer” film, all that preaching was conveniently tabled and they just went out and made one of the all-time pure entertainments (one where it should be said Wayne’s John T. Chance is helped by amateurs whether he likes it or not–it’s okay, apparently, as long as he didn’t ask for it!). Everyone’s great, with special kudos to Angie Dickinson, Walter Brennan in what might be his defining comic role, and Claude Akins, playing that rarest of men–one with no redeeming virtues whatsoever.

The story doesn’t bear too much scrutiny measured against history or common sense. Just as a for-instance, drunks don’t dry out after a two-year bender and start shooting like Annie Oakley the next day, as Dean Martin’s Dude does here. But it works within its own miracle play assumptions and achieves its own kind of perfection.

The reason I know is that except for The Searchers, I’ve watched it more than any film here.

The Magnificent Seven (1960)
D. John Sturges

John Sturges made better westerns (more on that later)..but this is by far his most iconic and well worthy of the canon. It’s a remake of Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. You can fall short of that standard and still be damn good. The Magnificent Seven falls a bit short of that standard–and is still damn good. (Sturges said no less than Kurosawa told him so.) The story has professionals putting their lives on the line for Mexican villagers who are plagued by a band of outlaws. No doubt Howard Hawks and John Wayne approved!

Truth be told, the village scenes drag a bit and Horst Bucholz, a good actor, was a bit miscast, not so much because he doesn’t seem Mexican as because he seems urban and modern, which might just be a way of saying too European (a problem that did not extend to Yul Brynner, who according to Bucholz, was the only cast member to extend him either courtesy or respect).

But Sturges was an action master and there’s a raft of career-making performances by Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, James Coburn, Robert Vaughn. That plus the great presences of Brynner and Eli Wallach as the outlaws’ leader make this an easy watch.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)
D. John Ford

The direction of the country since its release–beginning with John Kennedy’s assassination a year later–has lifted this into competition with The Searchers as John Ford’s greatest, most prescient work. It would be great in any case. There’s definitive work from James Stewart, John Wayne, Lee Marvin, Woody Strode, Edmond O’Brien. Vera Miles gave one of the finest performances in American film. It’s also one of the great language films, the source of “Well, Pilgrim,” “Print the legend,” “You don’t own me” and much more.

And it contains the greatest line in American fiction, and the greatest line reading in American film, spoken by Miles’ Hallie Stoddard near the end:

Look at it. It was a wilderness. Now it’s a garden. Aren’t you proud?

Well, aren’t we?

Ride the High Country (1962)
D. Sam Peckinpah

Well, aren’t we?

There is almost no way to reconcile this film with Bloody Sam’s later, more famous exercises in style. It’s laconic, elegaic, sure-footed, unhurried, character-oriented, without a single false note. Here, he seems all but fated to pick up John Ford’s torch and carry it forward.

Fate, as it often does, had other plans. Peckinpah’s most famous film, The Wild Bunch, made a mere seven years later, is a lynchpin of another age, one that sought to extinguish not only all assurances but the traditions upon which they were based.

His later approach met with considerable short term success.

Whoever replaces us will get to decide what that’s worth. I don’t short The Wild Bunch‘s considerable virtues and I understand its reputation even if I don’t agree with it.

But for me, this film is worth far more.

Joel McCrea’s aging sheriff would have heard Hallie Stoddard’s question and answered: “Hell yes, I’m proud!”

But whoever was listening might have noted–might still note–that he was dying.

[NOTE: As I mentioned above, I’ll be doing another list of less well-known westerns from the same era. Give or take The Searchers, I think I can come up with a list of twenty that are just as good as what’s here, if not as iconic. Heck, I already have, and it wasn’t even hard.]

Til then….

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 to 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, no-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.

 

3:10 TO YUMA…BLOGATHON AT CRITERION BLUES (I Watch Westerns: Take Two)

Criterion Banner FINAL

NOTE: This was scheduled to be part of the blogathon devoted to Criterion Collection releases that is being run by Criterion Blues this week and, though the blogathon is still running, I’m a day or two late. My deep apologies to Aaron and his cohorts for the late posting as computer problems compounded by a health issue kept me from filing on time (and much thanks for their patience and understanding of the situation). I’m also using this post to inaugurate a new category “I Watch Westerns” which will give me an excuse to review some of the many westerns that have cycled to the top of my frequent watch list in recent years. FYI: John Ford will continue to be handled under the John Ford categories. Meanwhile, Please visit Criterion Blues early and often to check out the many other entries! They’ve got a whale of a list over there and any film fan should find plenty to interest them.

3:10 to Yuma (1957)
Delmer Daves

NVE00182NVE00184Two men in a hotel room. On a first visit, it’s tempting to think that’s what 3:10 to Yuma is principally, or even all, about.

After eighteen viewings (three for this post), I’ve found that it yields quite a bit more, though never a false note.

William Wellman once noted that, in Hollywood’s Golden Age at least, American film was genre film. Being a master of so many himself, his opinion deserves respect, but I’m not sure it goes far enough. One of the benefits of having well-defined genres produced “on assignment” by so many of the same directors, producers, studios and stars was that their mature work tended to flow across those boundaries with a natural, practiced ease. By the late fifties, when the middle-aged pros who were responsible for 3:10 to Yuma were hitting their stride, the border between noir and westerns was especially fluid. But the lessons accumulated across the board, in musicals, horror, comedies or melodramas, were hardly lost on the men who made this film and they brought every bit of their generational experience to bear.

That might be one reason eighteen viewings doesn’t seem like a lot.

There was an arc to the development of the western itself, of course, and that arc was at its very highest peak in the last half of the fifties. One advantage the genre had, and still has, is that John “I Make Westerns” Ford defined it. That meant the purely narrative possibilities were consistently expanded and redefined over the course of the western’s own “golden age,” which stretched from the late forties to 1962, when the Ford of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance all but literally handed the reigns over to the Sam Peckinpah of Ride the High Country, who proceeded, for better and worse, to get lost in the sixties.

All of which may help explain why so many fifties’ westerns bear up under relentless viewing even if they weren’t made by geniuses.

I’ve never heard anyone call Delmer Daves a genius or an auteur so “damn good director” may have to do, as it did for so many others who followed the noir-to-western path in the post-war era when westerns (again thanks largely to Ford) were often prestige items and noirs were almost always solid little money makers, made primarily on the cheap, just waiting for French critics to elevate them to a place where the term acquired its present day  status as an all-purpose euphemism for “cool.”

However, he got there, Daves must have recognized that 3:10 to Yuma was a chance to merge the presumably old-fashioned prestige genre with the just-about-to-be-cool one he had helped pioneer in a way that was rare, if not unique.

I say “must have” because films that are better on the eighteenth viewing than on the first don’t happen by accident.

 *   *   *   *

Back to that hotel room. It’s in Contention City, in the Arizona Territory, circa 1880, as imagined by Elmore Leonard and re-imagined by Daves and company and it’s certainly rife with tension, not to mention subtext.

A family man (Van Heflin’s Dan Evans) is holding a shotgun on a notorious outlaw (Glenn Ford’s Ben Wade) while they wait–and wait–for the train that will take Wade to the prison at Yuma.

And, while they wait, Dan Evans sweats and worries…

NVE00267

And Ben Wade? Well, he watches…

NVE00183

and smiles…

NVE00188

and talks…

NVE00242

and stays quiet…

NVE00246

and tries to escape…

NVE00196

or doesn’t…

NVE00202

…all while remaining supremely confident that, if by some rare chance he can’t find his own way past Dan Evans’ defenses, his men are coming to the rescue.

It does not take a lot of psychoanalyzing to compare it to a flirtation and plenty have done so. Homoeroticism is always catnip for theme-oriented critics. And when all this is playing out in the Bridal Suite (or as Wade puts it, ever so casually, “the Bridal Suite huh?…I wonder how many brides…Hmmm?”), while Wade’s faithful second (Richard Jaeckel in a performance that’s part peacock, part rattlesnake, part lit-fuse on a stick of dynamite, and would have stolen ninety-nine percent of the movies ever made), searches desperately for the key in the lock to that room filled with all those noir-ish shadows, moving about like a dancer who has lost the only perfect partner he ever had? Well…

NVE00255

…You can see why those two men in that hotel room get a lot of whatever ink happens to be spilled over this movie.

You might even give it that kind of attention yourself, the first few times around.

And you wouldn’t exactly be wrong.

But you would be limiting yourself.

3:10 to Yuma is a noir and a psychodrama and it’s got music in its bones and Val Lewton-style horror in the marrow of those bones.

It might be a few other things as well. I’ve only seen it eighteen times so I wouldn’t presume to have found its limits.

Mostly, though, it’s a western, a western as fine as any made by anyone not named John Ford and not far off even his highest standard. All of  which means it’s bigger than its considerable parts. It’s at the far limit of what genre film can do and that turns out to be just about anything.

*  *  *  *

I find myself drawn to westerns for a pretty simple reason. Even the modest ones tend to be about first things in general and first American things in particular.

How will we live? What is civilization worth? What does it take to build one?

What does it take to maintain one?

These are not exactly settled questions. Check any given day’s headlines.

No narrative, film or otherwise, western or otherwise, puts those questions in starker terms than 3:10 to Yuma. That starkness is realized–and fully integrated–on every level.

Starkness. In the tone poem visuals…

NVE00001

NVE00003

NVE00010

Starkness. In the purely philosophical skeleton of the story’s underpinning value system…(“Safe? Who knows what’s safe? I knew a man dropped dead from looking at his wife. My own grandmother fought the Indians for sixty years then choked to death on lemon pie…Do I have two volunteers?” You’ll look a long time before you find the American frontier’s peevish brand of can-do Calvinism put more succinctly than that.)

NVE00113

Starkness. In the off-handed terseness of even the throwaway dialogue…(“Quiet here?” “Like a tomb.” Hell, Sergio Leone wasted more words than that.)

NVE00205

Starkness. Especially in the rhythm of the romance, the real flirtation that pulls Ben Wade in…

NVE00048

NVE00074

NVE00075

then catches him out…

NVE00081

then obliterates itself…

NVE00095

Starkness or anyway spareness. In the indelible grace notes, of which there are dozens, my favorites being the neat inversions (not revisions, those were left for later, cheaper, filmmakers, valuing  mechanical flash over every human quality) of Fordian style…Felicia Farr’s barmaid, who has inadvertently trapped Wade, helping him into the sort of stagecoach so many of her predecessors (including Claire Trevor in Stagecoach) have been ushered out of town on, often to find the very kind of civilization-building redemption that eventually, and not inevitably, awaits Wade himself…

NVE00124

And then watching him ride away with the stoic pride and sorrow of a Cavalry wife in the set of her shoulders, the depth of her own virtues, dignity not least among them, unmistakable and far past irony…

NVE00126

Deep starkness. In the way every element is woven together by a lonely, purely thematic score that is sung, hummed, strummed, whistled and orchestrated with an endless, minimalist insistence and variety (bracketed by one of Frankie Laine’s very greatest vocals) that would be called avant garde if it came from any place but Hollywood, supporting the subtlest mood shifts and not only melding the austere visuals that link the desert to the edge of civilization…

NVE00020

but the outposts to the towns…

NVE00158

NVE00159

and the sun-baked exteriors…

NVE00121

to the shadow-striped interiors…

NVE00122

and those interiors, in turn, to the faces of the men at the story’s center…

NVE00173

and, finally, to what’s going on behind those faces…

NVE00216

And, stark raving starkness, no matter how many times or how many ways “There is a lonely train, called the 3:10 to Yuma,” plays, the stark raving loneliness is most of all plain in the storytelling itself. In the way each scene–each situation within each scene–builds its own tension before insinuating itself straight into the next. How death enters early….

NVE00018

and keeps an ever firmer grip on the proceedings…

NVE00019

…How the reality of Ben Wade’s iron-hard character, capable of shooting down his own man in cold blood for the crime of making a mistake, is carried with him every step of the way. How when he’s caught red-handed, he can wear the inevitable iron bracelets as if they were cuff links…

NVE00106

….serene in the confidence this is only temporary.

The serenity holds. It holds Wade’s character together and it hold the spare, terse, nerve-grating mood together and it holds the deceptively far-reaching narrative together as well.

For all the power represented by what I’ve mentioned above, 3:10 to Yuma reaches the next level, the level where it can sit beside John Ford and Anthony Mann and High Noon and Shane at the top of American film’s strongest and deepest genre, when civilization comes to call.

It makes its presence felt at the deepest level–the level beyond plot represented by the town marshal, the posse, the owner of the stage line Wade’s gang has robbed, the brother of the driver who has been killed–in two unlikely sources.

First there’s Henry Jones’ Alex Potter, the “town drunk,” whose presence as a bulwark of civilization would be unlikely anywhere except maybe Hollywood and is not less integral or intense for all that.

“Come on,” he says. “Give me a chance.”

NVE00116

“You can tell Dan he can count on Alex Potter right to the end,” he says, even before the solid citizens of Contention City have joined the solid citizens of Bisbee in demonstrating how little they can be counted on.NVE00365

And he gets his chance….To be shot down by Jaeckel’s not-yet-jilted lover for the crime of being a man Dan Evans could count on to the extent of shouting a warning with a gun in his back…

NVE00369

And paying the exact price that kept all the solid citizens at bay…and which Dan Evans will now have to measure himself against.

NVE00370

The movie goes past that, however. It makes it clear that all that might not be enough.

For civilization to finally be left standing, it helps to have a second bulwark, one whose presence was once only unlikely in Hollywood, where she was (again outside Ford and the western) so often neglected, if not forgotten: the Frontier Wife.

Van Heflin and Glenn Ford gave perhaps the finest performances of their stalwart careers here, the kind of performances that never get mentioned for awards and never yield a false second under the most intense scrutiny. But 3:10 to Yuma wouldn’t work at the highest level if it weren’t for Lenora Dana’s presence as Alice Evans.

You don’t have to believe me. You just need to watch the hard man, Ben Wade, killer of his own men, leader of a nest of rattlers bound to respect only the kind of man who can ride herd on their sort, seducer of barmaids who needn’t worry about his careless mistake in getting caught because, wherever they take him to wait for the train, his men will be waiting between there and the station.

Oh, there’s nothing different at first, nothing remotely spiritual.

He’s caught. He’s spirited to the Evans’ house and sneaked off the stage. That hotel room is waiting, its particular tension held in abeyance.

For the time being, the hard man sees what we see. The tired face, the slumped shoulders….

NVE00027

The accumulated burdens of marriage, childbirth, hardship, life in the unyielding, drought-stricken wilderness you can always see from her porch, at her back or over her shoulder, depending on which way she’s facing.

NVE00133

Dana’s performance and her character’s relationship with her husband are of a rare kind, one completely without glamour or pretense (which is what “without glamour” almost always means in movies, even in good movies). There’s a strong hint that she’s from money, a hint Wade picks up on immediately and begins using as a wedge. He seems to know what kind of ammunition he’ll need when he’s trapped in that hotel room and the train is drawing near and those handcuffs stop feeling like cuff links.

NVE00143

He’ll need to be able to say “I’ll tell you one thing Dan, if she was my wife I’d treat her a whole lot better,” and have it get under Dan Evans’ sweat-soaked skin. He’ll need to have been the man who brought a small light to Alice Evans’ eye, the light even the best husband is likely to have a hard time drawing forth after a thousand petty squabbles, a generation of backbreaking labor, a life that’s put tired lines around eyes that might have very reasonably expected better.

NVE00144

When they are finally alone in that room, Ben Wade means to ensure that they are not really alone. He has played the charmer, taken a risk that, here in the home of Dan and Alice Evans, at their dinner table, with their kids watching, he can find a wedge to plant between them, or at least between himself and that train ride.

Yes, he’s taken a risk. Only it’s not the risk he imagined. For most of his time in that hotel room, though, a hotel he’s entered as sure of himself as Cary Grant on a Hitchcock set, eyeing decor that might have graced a cabin on one of the ships owned by Alice Evans’ father, while everybody else does the worrying…

NVE00169

…it will be a risk that looks to be paying off.

He tries Dan Evans and comes up short. But Evans doesn’t shoot him, so he has time.

And time works for him because it’s ticking, ticking.

His boy Charlie will find him…

NVE00297

He’ll be dealt the best possible hand…

NVE00301

For the longest time he’ll be able to work both ends against the middle. Wait for his men. Work on Evans.

Start offering him money.

Way more than the two hundred he’s being paid to deliver Wade to the station.

By the time the thunder rolls and the storm breaks–not inside Dan Evans, but in the Arizona skies and within the conscience Ben Wade didn’t know he had left–the offer’s up to ten thousand and Evans looks to be baited.

Probably he would be, too, if civilization hadn’t been doing it’s work, if the ship captain’s daughter hadn’t been chasing her own conscience, wondering what her marriage was really worth.

First she rides to Bisbee, where civilization is not yet a full step from the wilderness…

NVE00319

Then she confers with the other women who are holding down the fort, waiting. They include the wife of Alex Potter (foregrounded, face half in shadow), who doesn’t yet know her man’s fate…

NVE00322

Alice Evans will know soon enough. She’ll arrive in Contention City in record time, having made the journey that apparently took her husband, Alex Potter and Ben Wade all night in just an hour or two.

It could be simple cheat, of course. But in the context of visiting and re-visiting 3:10 to Yuma, it acquires the effect of an earned miracle…

NVE00382

a miracle which she cannot yet see…

NVE00383

Because she isn’t looking up at the window…

NVE00387

,,,where Ben Wade has just discovered that what he’s really risked is being forced to look inside himself and decide whether he still likes what he sees and Dan Evans has just found the strength he’ll need to break free of that hotel room in ways that go far beyond putting an outlaw on a train and collecting a reward.

He’ll need every bit of that strength, too, because just here, 3:10 to Yuma begins to acquire the shadings of a Lewton level horror, with the miracle wife pushing on, finding herself under the town drunk’s shadow as he hangs from the hotel’s chandelier…

NVE00388

A sight that joins her with the stage owner, the man who had, not so long ago, promised to walk with her husband “every step.”

NVE00377

NVE00378

NVE00380

…and is now prepared to pay Dan Evans not to take that walk.

Though, if Mr. Butterfield, having felt the shadow of that corpse, can’t talk her husband out of it, surely she can…

NVE00391

NVE00396

And if she can’t do that, then she must at least be able to keep him from telling the only sort of lie either would ever tell the other. The kind meant to spare her from an uglier truth…Like the real odds that he’ll live to see the miracle rain the thunder she refuses to hear portends…

NVE00399

She can’t accomplish even that.

Even finally knowing what his life and hers are really worth, he can’t walk away from that body stretched on the chandelier and live with himself.

It’s not a fake sacrifice. There are seven killers between him and the station and he doesn’t yet know that the man he’s been holed up with is changing. In a room where each of them has spent every second he’s not watching the other knowing he’s being watched, where we’ve begun by knowing what each man is saying by the other man’s face and ended by knowing what each man is thinking by the other’s face, he has still missed at least one thing we’ve seen….

NVE00392

The sight of the outlaw realizing the homesteader has the one thing he can’t have and of us realizing the choices he’ll make from now on, including the choice that saves Dan Evans’ life, are those of a man who knows something about such choices and their costs.

So, in the end, Dan Evans walks Ben Wade to the station in a tense, drawn out sequence that’s as hard and spare as the rest of the film, all angles…

NVE00422

and shadows…

NVE00428

and menace…

NVE00450

and constant evocation of those impossible odds…

NVE00453

In the end, it will be plain that Ben Wade’s final choice, his emergence from the fog…

NVE00458

into the light…

NVE00459

won’t result from all that time spent together drawing them closer and closer…

NVE00437

but from the recognition that what stood between them all along wasn’t a barmaid…

NVE00055

or an honor code…

NVE00363

or a gang of men…

NVE00456

or even a spurned Iago…

NVE00376

determined to have his man back…

NVE00461

 

 

Or end in the boneyard…

NVE00462

No, what was standing between them all along was the same thing that would, in another earned miracle, join them in the end.

Something far more prosaic.

That frontier wife, the sort of woman civilization always tends to neglect and always at its own peril…

NVE00469

and who both Dan Evans…

NVE00464

and Ben Wade…

NVE00476

were lucky to have met.

You might even call it a miracle.

NVE00473

You might even say that train to Yuma wasn’t so lonely after all…

NVE00477

FINAL NOTE: If you want some evidence of just how forgotten the Frontier Wife is, you can watch the 2007 remake of 3:10 to Yuma, which changed the setting to modern day but, mysteriously, kept the period costumes. That’s the only reason I can think of for ever recommending it.

LONERS (Monthly Book Report: May, 2015)

[NOTE: There was actually a good bit more May reading. I’ve already posted my review of Paul Williams’ Outlaw Blues. I also read the sixth book in the Travis McGee series thinking it was the fifth so I’ll review both next month. Also working my way through the Library of America’s Ross MacDonald volume which I hope to review for BWW later in the month. With all that, the regular book report is a little slim but a couple of worthwhile entries nonetheless.]

Shane (Jack Schaefer, 1949)

SHANE

“His past was fenced as tightly as our pasture.”

I read this as a teenager, long before I first saw the classic film it inspired and was duly impressed. As someone who went away for a while and “came back” to the western years later (I always watched some films, but not nearly enough to understand the genre properly, and stopped reading them almost entirely), I’m more impressed now.

Even more than that very great movie (which, remarkably, improved it in some ways) Shaefer’s finely wrought novel is an elegant blend of cowboy, homesteader and gunfighter history and mythology, told sparingly and without fuss by one of those adult-narrators-recalling-childhood who, like Scout Finch or Mattie Ross, is entirely, even disarmingly, honest, but, at such a distance, perhaps not entirely reliable.

These days it’s also striking in part for how much was taken for granted in 1948 that now seems sufficiently ancient as to be biblical:

 “They had the stump way up at a high angle. They were down in the hole, one on each side of it, pushing up and forward with hands flat on the under part reared before them higher than their heads. You would have thought the stump was ready to topple over clear of its ancient foundation. But there it stuck. They could not quite push it the final inches.

“Mother watched them battling with it. ‘Joe,’ she called, ‘why don’t you use some sense? Hitch up the team. Horses will have it out in no time at all.’

“Father braced himself to hold the stump still. He turned his head to look at her. ‘Horses!’ he shouted. All the pent silence of the two of them that long afternoon through was being shattered in the one wonderful shout. ‘Horses! Great jumping Jehosephat! No! We stared this with manpower, and by Godfrey, we’ll finish it with manpower.'”

Not to mention the simple description of the quintessential American…

“Nobody’ll push him around or scare him away.”

Now vanished of course. Good riddance to some, and maybe he never really existed. It’s a fable after all. But it may be worth remembering that the idea of him once existed. And that it’s only very lately we’ve convinced ourselves he’s no longer necessary….

Shaefer’s narrator, speaking from a point somewhere between the novel’s publication date and the age of its setting, seems already well aware of the distinction between myth and memory and the ways in which each anticipates the other:

“A haze of thinning smoke was by the ceiling over them all, floating in involved streamers around the hanging lamps. This was Grafton’s saloon in the flush of a banner evening’s business. But something was wrong, was missing. The hum of activity, the whirr of voices, that should have risen from the scene, been part of it, was stilled in a hush more impressive than any noise could be. The attention of everyone in the room, like a single sense, was centered on that dark figure just inside the swinging doors, back to them and touching them.

“This was the Shane of the adventures I had dreamed for him…”

That last is a nice corrective for those who think those old guys who translated western myth and, yes, western history, for the new and improved twentieth century didn’t know what they were about.

The Quick Red Fox (John D. MacDonald–1964)

QUICKREDFOX

Fourth in the Travis McGee series, which I’m planning to reread in its entirety in the coming months.

Remarkably, this was MacDonald’s fourth McGee book in the space of a year and, knowing him, he probably had a couple of others out as well. The pace tells a bit here. There are certain things you have to leave by the wayside if you type that fast.

That said, so far, these books have all been rewarding well beyond the already considerable pleasures of top level pulp aesthetics that make them hum right along.

This one puts McGee among the Hollywood elite, searching for a blackmailer who has photos of a famous actress (Liz Taylor famous apparently, though the character doesn’t seem based on anyone in particular) taking part in an orgy.

No big deal now, of course, when the only problem would be managing the roll-out and the publicity leaks. But, 1964 being almost as long ago as 1864 in psychic time, that sort of thing was, in those days, still a scandal that could have wrecked a career.

McGee, though, is certainly done with all that “Shane” stuff. Having a series to maintain, more books to sell, a new mythology to peddle, he scoffs at the notion that a man who can’t or won’t fit into ordinary life may be missing out on something:

“I am not a nine to five animal. I cannot swallow the myths which say nine to five is a Good Thing because that’s the way nearly everybody else gets stuck.”

Four books in and I already know that when McGee starts talking like that–like he’s left the “myths” behind–he’s a few chapters away from being in love with “the one.”

In this case it’s the actress’s secretary and this time he swears (repeatedly, to himself and to us) it’s not just sex therapy.

Of course, I also know it’s not going to work out somehow or other and the way it doesn’t work out in this one isn’t quite as effective as the way it didn’t work out in The Deep Blue Good-by. It works well enough but not so well I didn’t start wishing he (or his creator) would leave well enough alone.

Too bad, because the plot is otherwise lean and tough, the social insights sharp as usual. There’s an especially nice paean to San Francisco, in 1964, already “lost” as it has continued to be for somebody or other every few years since.

And there’s this, an ode to the future we now inhabit:

“Our dear Uncle owns over 23,000 polygraphs. Lie detectors. God alone knows how many industry owns. Not satisfied anymore with giving you the whole series of Multiphasic Personality Inventory tests, they want to make damn well certain you are not merely giving them the answers you think they want.”

And, okay, I have to admit, even the romance isn’t without its familiar charms:

“I liked Dana’s delight….I knew I had to watch it, or I would be trapped into the hopeless project of trying to find ways to delight her.”

So even the least of these so far (replete I should add, with the contempt for the bourgeoisie shared by every thriller writer I know except Ross MacDonald and, I suspect, the true reason “crime” fiction is held in so much higher regard than its “western” equivalent), is satisfying on multiple levels.

All that, plus a theory of “the one percent” that beats anything Occupy Wall Street came up with.

Can’t wait for 1965 to get here!