"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Stagecoach (UA, 1939)




 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
The best B western ever made.
 




 
It is sometimes said that Stagecoach is the greatest Western ever. It isn’t, of course.

But it is a very good picture. It was perhaps the first serious, adult talkie Western artistically made, as an ensemble piece, not a star vehicle. It has a wonderful blend of good screenplay, direction, photography and acting. And it has a message: it says that society’s outcasts were the ones who did the real work, the brave ones: the escaped convict, the prostitute, the gambler with a murky past, the alcoholic.
 
 
You know the story, I am quite sure. Six passengers set off from Tonto on the stage to Lordsburg - so we are in New Mexico (despite the Monument Valley, UT setting), and it’s the time of a marauding Geronimo. They are: a woman of, ahem, dubious virtue; a whiskey drummer; a drunken doctor; a disreputable Southern gambler; a respectable Army captain’s wife; and the town banker. Up on the box is the driver, with the local marshal beside him acting as shotgun messenger. Along the trail they pick up a young man, escaped from prison. So altogether they are nine.

They develop relationships, one has a baby, they are pursued by wild Indians and they finally make it to Lordsburg, where Ringo has a shoot-out with the badmen who framed him and got him sent to jail for murder. Voilà.

In his biography of John Wayne, Garry Wills makes an interesting point about Stagecoach:  as they set off on their journey, the passengers' social standing is clear:

Banker (social pillar)
Army wife (respectable)
Gambler (nevertheless a gentleman)
Whiskey salesman (transient, sells booze, barely acceptable)
Doctor (drunken and disgraced, run out of town)
Prostitute (outcast from society, run out of town)
Kid (escaped convict).


At the end of the adventure, an exact reversal has taken place. The order is:

Kid (hero)
Prostitute (heroine)
Doctor (redeemed)
Whiskey salesman (dignified)
Gambler (scurrilous past revealed)
Army wife (needing all the above)
Banker (embezzler and thief).


The cast:

Thomas Mitchell, as the bibulous Doc Boone, was well known but the others were solid character actors (with big Hollywood stars it would have been only half the picture it was).


Claire Trevor, as Dallas (women with place names were often disreputable), got top billing. Of course the word whore could not be pronounced in a 1939 movie but all the adult audience understood that that was exactly what she was. Trevor had actually debuted in a Western, in 1933, but tended to specialize in shady ladies and gun molls. She was a good actress and had been Oscar-nominated in 1937 for her part Dead End, with Humphrey Bogart. But she was really a B-movie actor. She suited Ford well. She would return the following year with John Wayne in a Western, Republic’s Dark Command.
 
 
Wayne got second billing. Duke, of course, had made it big with Raoul Walsh in Fox’s The Big Trail in 1930 but then came the Depression, the studio cut back and his career foundered. Wayne's years in the wilderness during the 1930s were somewhat less than Churchillian, and Winston's didn't involve acting in low-budget B Westerns for minor studios (at least not to my knowledge) but Duke wallowed in pretty low-grade oaters for, especially, Monogram/Republic, all through the 30s. Yet as the decade drew to a close, the two giant figures re-emerged, Duke and Winnie, to a commanding position in their respective genres (Western movies and geopolitics, respectively). John Ford finally forgave Wayne for being Walsh’s star in The Big Trail (Ford always had an inferiority complex as far as Walsh was concerned – Walsh was the director Ford wanted to be) and gave Duke a key part.
 
 
That didn’t stop Ford mercilessly bullying and abusing Wayne on the set – he always homed vindictively in on one poor actor or another. Duke later said, “Shit, I was so fucking mad I wanted to kill him. And he got the whole cast hating him for doing that, until finally even Tim Holt, the young kid, was saying goddammit, quit picking on Duke like that!” Wayne wasn’t yet world-famous (he would have to wait for the post-war years, in Red River and Fort Apache, for that) but he was known, especially to Western fans, and Ford thought he would do well as the rather naïve young fellow bent on (his brand of) justice. Although a tad old at 32 for a ‘kid’ part, Wayne was in fact absolutely superb in the role, quite splendid. He communicated complexities that he had never even come close to doing in previous movies. Perhaps Ford's goading helped to elicit that performance, who knows.

It’s actually almost a minor part: the Ringo Kid appears late on the scene, when the other characters are already established, and he has fewer lines. And he is surprisingly passive for a hero, surrendering his guns in the coach, giving up his freedom and even his true love at the end of the trip (it's the marshal who arranges his escape). Often the camera homes in on the Kid for a silent reaction shot. Small part or not, Wayne’s sheer power and charisma allow him pretty well to dominate the cast. He only got $3700 for his fee, barely more than John Carradine for the gambler part.

Good old Andy Devine was billed third, as the driver, Buck. Devine was one of the few actors who could handle a six-up Concord (although much was shot on a sound stage with back-projection so they could have used stuntmen for the location longshots and had anyone as the driver). Arizona-born Devine, with his rotund shape and high-raspy voice, was increasingly popular in comic roles but he had done Westerns, starting in the 1932 Tom Mix Destry Rides Again and, the same year, appearing in the important Earp/Holliday treatment Law and Order. He is very entertaining in Stagecoach.
 
 
John Carradine was next, as the gentleman gambler Hatfield, who isn’t quite run out of town but leaves on the stage to forestall that unfortunate fate, and is gallant towards the Army wife. Carradine had debuted on the stage back East in 1925 but came to Hollywood and got small parts with Cecil B DeMille. A protégé and friend of John Barrymore, he won better and more roles. He had been in three Westerns before John Ford took him up and he was in both Ford’s 1939 frontier dramas, Stagecoach and Drums Along the Mohawk. He was in five Westerns in 1939 alone. He liked the genre and became a regular in them for decades, and indeed founded a kind of Western dynasty. He is good as the Southern gambler with a shady past, though he apparently bored the socks off the set with endless discourse on how Edward de Vere was really the author of Shakespeare’s plays.
 
 
Mitchell came next. He was a well-known Broadway and silent movie actor but he didn’t do many Westerns. Stagecoach was his first and was followed by The Outlaw, appalling dross in which he was frankly dreadful as Pat Garrett. I don’t actually care much for his ‘drunk’ part and find it slightly tiresome and overdone – though Mitchell was a recovering alcoholic and should have known how to do it. Mitchell rather made rather a thing of drunks and would often appear as an inebriated character. But there’s no denying the feel-good when he sobers up and delivers the baby. He comes across as a decent man, despite his shortcomings and Mitchell handled this aspect well. He won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for the part (I would have given it to Wayne).
 
 
The cast list then continues with Louise Platt as the rather prim and snobbish Army wife, Mrs. Mallory, who softens when Dallas helps her in childbirth - Platt had a very short career and Stagecoach was her biggest picture.

George Bancroft is solid as the marshal/guard; he had been badman Jack Slade in James Cruze’s 1925 silent version of The Pony Express but Stagecoach was his first talkie Western. The following year he would appear in When the Daltons Rode but he didn’t really ‘do’ oaters.

Donald Meek is amusing as the little whiskey drummer Peacock. Glaswegian Meek had started on the stage aged 8 with Sir Henry Irving and was well named – he specialized in mousy little men. He had had a small part in Barbary Coast in 1935 but Stagecoach was his first (relatively) big part in a Western. The same year he featured as the railroad boss in Fox’s Jesse James and suddenly the mouse roared – he was a badman. Meek inherits the earth on the stagecoach, and wins plaudits for his courage and tenacity.
 
 
Canadian Berton Churchill is rather good as the fat and pompous banker Gatewood. This was his sixth Western of seven. It was Mrs. Gatewood (Brenda Fowler) and her cronies who ran Dallas out of Tonto (rather like the Petticoat Brigade in Dodge City the same year) and judging by her then, no wonder her husband decided to do a bunk with the loot. Crooked banker Gatewood is, in fact, the nearest we come to a villain. Ringo’s target, Luke Plummer in Lordsburg (Tom Tyler), the man who framed him, is hardly seen and briefly disposed of (off camera) in the last scene.
 
 
Of the smaller parts, it’s nice to see Tim Holt as the young cavalry lieutenant. A former child actor, his appearance in Stagecoach was already his tenth movie though he was only 20. He would go on to be a popular B-Western hero. Franklyn Farnum, Francis Ford, Hank Worden and Woody Strode can all be spotted in bit parts. Yakima Canutt did the famous stunts, of course, but also appeared briefly in a bit part as a cavalry scout.

So there’s the cast for you. No one really stellar (Ford didn’t have the budget for that anyway), but the ensemble piece is all the better for the lesser-known but more than competent actors. Ford had pitched the picture to David Selznick back in ’37 but Selznick was hesitant about the genre (then) and insisted on Gary Cooper and Marlene Dietrich. Ford wasn’t interested. He knew what he wanted, and it wasn’t a star vehicle.

And he was right. In some ways the characters are stereotypes: Southern gentleman gambler, whore with a heart of gold, drunken doctor, and so on. But they are ‘ordinary’ people interacting and reacting to a dangerous situation, which brings out the best/worst in them. And the characters are so well played and the script is so good and the movie is so well shot that you don’t care that they aren’t famous stars. In this film we love the sheer sense of narrative, as the coach rolls from a one-horse town to the bigger destination town via the wild desert terrain.
 
 
In the end producer Walter Wanger took the project up. He knew that adult Westerns were a financial risk, and had been since the box-office failure of Fox’s The Big Trail (with Wayne) and MGM’s Billy the Kid, both in 1930. He also knew that although Ford had made his reputation on Westerns, he hadn’t made one since the advent of sound. But he knew too that Paramount had struck it rich both with Cecil B DeMille’s The Plainsman in 1936 and Frank Lloyd’s Wells Fargo in 1937. He believed it was time for a cowboy comeback. And he wasn’t wrong.

While Ford’s The Searchers was perhaps the classic post-War Western with its color, its subdued eroticism and its violence, Stagecoach was the high point of the pre-War Western with its black & white, the interaction of the personages and its classic characters. Although the 'ship of fools' plot was rarely emulated in Westerns, Stagecoach influenced all good examples of the genre that followed (Scott Heyman says, “The modern Western starts here”) and there isn’t much wrong with it.
.
There are some things. For one, there are too many studio sets and interiors, for all Ford’s love of Monument Valley. And for another, there are too many attempts at ‘comedy’ (it was always a weakness in Ford’s work). However, we must remember that location shooting in the 1930s was rare, prohibitively expensive (United Artists' total budget for Stagecoach was only $392,000) and risky. There wasn’t even electricity in Monument Valley. The crew spent barely a week there. And comic interludes were standard, almost necessary. Ideas of what is funny change and we shouldn’t really condemn the 'hilarity' of the 1930s or judge it by today’s standards.
.
And we notice especially the compositions and lighting. Each scene is a work of art. Cameraman Bert Glennon and Ford worked brilliantly together. The movie is crafted. No director had a better eye. Just take Wayne’s entry, for example, that famous shot of him halting the stage, rifle in hand. Really memorable. And the contrast between the claustrophobic stage interior and the wild terrain outside is also striking.
 
Wayne idolized Yakima Canutt, the actor, stunt man and second unit director who taught Duke so much and with whom he had worked in so many of those B oaters. Canutt’s stunts in Stagecoach are legendary, although Ford didn’t take to people giving orders on his set and used other stunt directors thenceforth. Ford could never abide talent in others unless it cringed before him and said Yes, sir, anything you say, sir. Ford and Canutt's paths crossed only a couple of times afterwards when studios hired Yak for sections of films directed by Ford, which Ford grumpily tolerated. There was something tyrannical about John Ford on the set, and he was often a bully. Each movie was his work and woe betide anyone who even suggested an improvement.

Ford’s Indians were just nameless and faceless savages to be shot down at will. It wasn’t until Fort Apache in 1948 that they became a worthy foe, and there was just a hint that they might actually be people. We had to wait till his final Western, Cheyenne Autumn, before he began to make amends. In Stagecoach the ‘Apaches’ were in fact Navajo, but hey, Indians are just Indians, right?
 
 
The attack on the stagecoach is classic Western fare. It harks right back to Buffalo Bill’s 1883 ‘Attack on the Deadwood Stage’. The hero, Ringo (such a redolent Western name) is the standard good-badman that had been a staple ever since Western movies began, notably with William S Hart, and in a coming-of-age he progresses from a young tearaway to a responsible citizen. So in some ways Stagecoach is formulaic, even corny.

But Ford plays with these standard forms. The redemptive woman is not a virginal schoolma’am but a prostitute. The comic drunken doctor shows signs of genuine alcoholic abjection. Although we are used to ‘progressive’ Westerns in which a journey is made from rude frontier lawlessness to law-abidin’ civilization, in this movie the destination, Lordsburg, is an even more corrupt place than the starting point, Tonto – it’s an urban sink, with mean streets, and it’s shot in darkness. And the representative of the law allows the jailbreaker to escape to Mexico (the classic new frontier just over the horizon) with a whore. This is not a standard Western recipe. Ford seems to be deliberately questioning the comfortable assumptions that Americans have when watching Westerns.


It’s not pretentious to say that Stagecoach was modelled on Maupassant’s story Boule de Suif. Read it and see. Probably, though, it is more accurate to say that the movie Stagecoach was a free interpretation of a short story, itself based on the Maupassant tale, which had appeared in The Saturday Evening Post in 1937 written by
Ernest Haycox and published under the title Last Stage to Lordsburg, then Stage to Lordsburg
. Haycox was an absolute master of the Western tale and Stage to Lordsburg is superb. But it only served as the basis for Ford's movie. When written up into a screenplay by Ford's friend Dudley Nichols, with additions by Ben Hecht, it was very different. In the original there is no drunken doc, no pregnant Army wife, no crooked banker, no wild chase with Yak stunts across Monument Valley pursued by Indians; there’s not even the Ringo Kid.

The movie was an unsensational but decent box-office success but a great critical hit. The Daily News wrote, “Every part is admirably acted … and John Wayne is so good in the role of the outlaw that one wonders why he has had to wait all this time since The Big Trail for another such opportunity.” Pauline Keel wrote of Ford’s “simple, clear, epic vision” and said that the movie “had a mixture of reverie and reverence about the American past that made the picture seem almost folk art.” Westerns through the 1930s had become repetitive, slightly infantile pictures which appealed to some but left many adults indifferent. After Stagecoach, grown-ups formed lines outside movie theaters to see Westerns again and all the big studios, sensing the $$$ potential, got in on the act. Warners'
Dodge City with Errol Flynn, Fox's Jesse James with Tyrone Power and Henry Fonda, Paramount’s Union Pacific with Joel McCrea and Barbara Stanwyck, and Universal's Destry Rides Again with Marlene Dietrich and James Stewart
all appeared in 1939.

There was a
remake of Stagecoach in 1966 which was pale by comparison (though no worse than many Westerns in 1966) and another for TV
 (one of those country-singer Westerns) in 1986 which was pretty poor.

Randy Roberts and James S Olson, in their 1995 book John Wayne, American, say (rather unfairly of Haycox, I think):

For all of Ford's innovative techniques, however, Stagecoach is at its core a B Western all the same. Based on a piece of pulp fiction, it had a B Western plot and B Western actors, and although Dudley Nichols's script added characters and deleted characters from Ernest Haycox's short story, it did not change the overall B quality of the tale.

 
In any case the 1939 Stagecoach is “The best B western ever made.” (Scott Eyman).


Sunday, June 26, 2016

Fort Apache (RKO, 1948)


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
A seminal work of mythography
 

 

 
 
Fort Apache is essentially a war film, almost an apologia for the US Army, and in the post-Second World War period it must have resonated, as it did for succeeding Korea, Vietnam and even Iraq generations. It was a war film, though, that was set firmly in John Ford’s admired frontier context. Stagecoach and Drums Along the Mohawk had brought him back to the Western genre in 1939 and the Wyatt Earp myth My Darling Clementine was his first movie after the war. Fort Apache was the first of the three celebrated cavalry Westerns made by Ford in 1948 – 50 (the others were She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and Rio Grande) and in several ways it is the greatest of them.
 
 First and perhaps greatest of the cavalry trilogy
 
In peacetime, Hollywood returned to the familiar terrain of the Western. If we look at Westerns of 80 minutes’ length or more (i.e. we exclude juvenile programmers and the like), only eight were produced in 1945, but in 1946 there were 12, in 1947 there were 14 and 1948, 31. It was a genuine renaissance of the form. But of course they were ‘new’ Westerns in the sense that they were greatly influenced by the war and war movies, and they tried to reference the peacetime future. From 1947, ‘year 1’ of the Cold War (the year Russia got the bomb) and the year Fort Apache was filmed, frontier conflicts in which decent and brave Americans faced up to the menace of the ‘red’ men represented how America would confront the ‘red threat’ of the Communist world, just has war movies had used the threat of the evil Axis powers. In many of these post-war Westerns, Fort Apache included, the recently concluded Civil War was to be read as World War II. The movies were often pretty obvious metaphors of the contemporary scene.
 
John Ford
 
Fort Apache starred John Wayne. After Stagecoach, Wayne continued the series of Republic B Westerns which he had contracted for. There were four in 1939 alone. Then came the unusually big-budget Dark Command, Republic's masterpiece, and of course a series of war films. He did make Westerns during the war years, such as Universal’s The Spoilers (1942) or Tall in the Saddle for RKO (1944). In 1947 came the pleasant little Angel and the Badman, which he also produced.
 
John Wayne on his ride to greatness
 
But of course it was really Fort Apache that brought Wayne back to Western stardom after the Second World War and, along with Red River (shot before Fort Apache but released after) established him as the towering presence of the Western movie.

In his book The Western Films of John Ford, JA Place suggests that American soldiers make two great sacrifices: they may lay down their lives but they also, on enlistment, lay down their individualism. This story is one of conflict between Colonel Owen Thursday, a play-it-by-the-book martinet of a commander, superbly interpreted by
Henry Fonda in one of his greatest roles, and a more human, Captain Kirby York (an equally fine Wayne), who has certainly not laid down his individualism. Thursday is an Easterner – worse, he has been in Europe! He is a racist, a snob and he respects only the forms of the army, not its spirit. York, however, is a Westerner, informal, rugged, brave, knowing Indians, a democrat and at heart a rebel. But at the end, when York puts on Thursday’s desert cap and barks, “Any questions?” he has learned from the late commander and now, says Ford, combines the qualities of both.
 
Henry Fonda superb as Col. Thursday

What comes across strongly in the movie is the sheer rigidity of Colonel Thursday. Every scene in which he appears highlights this stand-to-attention stiffness. Ford loved community dances – nearly all his movies contain them - and Thursday interrupts dances twice: once on his first arrival and once when he summons the regiment to battle. The first one is a swirling, waltzing ball and it’s the first time we see Wayne's character, York, smiling and whirling a lady round. Thursday is totally out of his element. When Thursday dances, in the NCOs’ ball later in the movie, it is a linear march and they parade up and down with the colonel unsmiling and stiff as a poker. York, by contrast, moves fluidly, stands at ease in that languid Wayne way and speaks with a low, slow Western drawl noticeably different than Fonda’s cropped Eastern tones.

.
Rigid as a poker

There’s an obvious reference to Custer. The obstinacy which leads to Thursday’s last stand and the annihilation of his men is very Custerish, even if Thursday as a man has none of the dash of Custer. Cochise and the Apaches are portrayed as noble and brave, which is a great improvement on earlier Ford Westerns, where Indians were just savages to be shot down. The militaristic James Warner Bellah’s stern original plot was softened by Ford and his screenplay writer Frank S Nugent. Thursday despises Apaches but York and Cochise respect each other as warriors. Ford makes a stark contrast between the way Thursday rudely and clashingly interrupts the fort rituals, and York respectfully entering the presence of Cochise and his Apaches, as an equal.

Miguel Inclan as Cochise
 
As Richard Slotkin pointed out in his essay on Fort Apache in Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America, in war movies ‘home’, or ‘the home front’ was often a utopia in which everything will be perfect when this vile war is over. In Fort Apache, it’s different. The wartime fort is a well-ordered meritocratic society (at least until Colonel Thursday arrives) while the ‘home front’ is back East and is a world of class oppression and social snobbery, and is the very kind of society honest frontier folk had fled.

One of Ford’s weaknesses, by modern standards anyway, was the way he portrayed women. Westerns of course had a dismal record in that department. The Hollywood West was a real men’s place and women were only there to be saloon gals (i.e. whores) or saintly schoolma’ams, occasionally sturdy farmers’ wives, and were rarely actual ‘people’. I suppose nineteenth century frontier army posts were unlikely to be hot-beds of feminism. Certainly earlier cavalry Westerns, such as They Died with Their Boots On, were pretty male-chauvinist affairs.
 
The women
 
Still, John Ford did make an effort. Women had been increasingly emancipated during the war and it was time to represent them as such. In Fort Apache fort society is still pretty traditional and hierarchical: officers are WASPs while Irish and Hispanics are other ranks. Ford’s war service seems to have reinforced a rosily romantic officer’s view of the troops. But women this time play a more subtle role than was usual in the genre. The female population of the fort is given a moral weight equal to that of the fighting men, and, in the case of the scene where Colonel Thursday rudely enters the O’Rourkes' home uninvited, a superior one. The colonel has to be reminded by Mrs. O’Rourke even to remove his hat. Thursday has come in order to rule out a marriage between his daughter and the socially inferior sergeant’s son. It is an unpardonable intrusion. The American home is sacred, Ford is saying, and no tyrant may enter it in such a way, and certainly not to preach snobbery. The women are the democrats who counter Thursday’s autocracy.

There’s absolutely no sex, though, not even by 1940s standards. The women are maternal figures except Ms. Temple's character and she is virginal. Novelist and screenwriter John Gregory Dunne wrote, “Sex is so absent in Ford’s Monument Valley that his desert forts seem almost monastic.”

Another of Ford’s weaknesses was his propensity for (let’s call it) broad humor. He loved drunken Irish sergeants, for example. Viewed today, these scenes are coarse and unfunny, though I suppose even Shakespeare had his porters and fools, and standards of humor change with the times. Perhaps 1948 audiences found those parts hilarious.
 
McLaglen as comic relief
 
It was inspired casting. Henry Fonda was a supreme professional but was socially awkward and was ideally suited to the role of Thursday. In fact this period of chumminess with the Ford-Wayne clan was the closest Fonda ever got to being one of the guys. Later he fell out with Ford (who was a poisonous old man) but he maintained a lifelong friendship with Wayne.

The support cast of Fort Apache is also outstanding, particularly Ward Bond as Sergeant-Major O’Rourke, Victor McLaglen as Sgt. Mulcahy and Pedro Armendariz as the interpreter (all Ford stock-company regulars), and Shirley Temple is also excellent as Thursday’s daughter who has none of the rigidity of her father.


Mr. & Mrs. Temple
 
Ford usually victimized one cast member or another on his sets. This time he had it in for John Agar, who played the young 2nd Lieutenant O’Rourke, West Pointer son of the sergeant. Ford could be really unpleasant at times and he really lit into “Mr. Temple” as he called Agar (Agar was married to Shirley Temple). The other actors, especially Wayne (who had often been on the ugly end of Ford’s spitefulness) supported Agar and encouraged him. Wayne was employing him as late as Chisum (1970), when Agar’s career was reduced to Z-list sci-fi movies. Wayne was a thoughtful and decent man. Agar does a good job in Fort Apache, in fact, but still was only billed 21st, after Hank Worden, “Southern Recruit”.

George O’Brien got a good 5th-billed part as Capt. Collingwood. O’Brien had been a Ford favorite back in the silent days with Fox but had fallen out of favor, and his career was in the doldrums. O’Brien’s wife Marguerite (female lead opposite Wayne in The Big Trail in 1930), who loathed Ford (“A son of a bitch. Drunk, hateful, vicious”) called Ford and said, “Jack, you’ve got to do something for George.”
 
A splendid scene: Fonda, Wayne, O'Brien, Bond
 
“I wouldn’t do anything for that son of a bitch,” the director replied, still nursing a grudge against O’Brien for having deserted a drunken Ford one time in Manila. But Marguerite then played her ace: “Jack, if you don’t, it will be the ruination of a good Catholic family.” In fact, Ford and George O’Brien immediately fell back into their old rapport, and the part went well. The Collingwood character is actually rather moving.

Archie Stout shot some of the picture with infra-red film to heighten the dust and veil the action in mystery. Much of the black & white photography is magnificent and we know how ‘visual’ Ford was, and how closely he worked with his cinematographers. He had an artist’s eye.
 
Archie Stout was behind the camera
 
What really makes Fort Apache, though, is the ending. It is in some ways very curious and surprising – Scott Eyman in his biography of John Wayne John Wayne: The Life and the Legend, wrote, “This is more ambiguity than audiences – or most writers – are used to in the movies;” I am referring of course to the almost ironic epilogue, when we viewers know that the Army’s handling of the Apaches was unjust and dishonorable but Captain – now Colonel York tells reporters that the famous romantic painting of Thursday’s heroic, noble (and Custer-like) last stand was “true in every detail.” It is a lie, of course, but as Wayne himself later said, “He [the character York] can’t say, ‘Why, the stupid son of a bitch got all those guys killed and made a liar out of me to the Indians.’ He can’t say that because it would be bad for morale. It wouldn’t do anybody any good … to belittle the guy.” Ford seems to be saying that Thursday’s action, though fundamentally stupid and wrong, was nevertheless redemptive: it purges the worst (Eastern) element of the army and brings forward the best qualities of the regiment, personified by York, who assumes the mantle of command, “real command”. Myth is more beneficial and useful than fact. Ford echoed it in the later The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance when he has a reporter told, “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."This is, in a way, Ford’s message to America. And it is also the apologia of the Western movie.

Fort Apache is a fine film. In fact it’s one of the seminal Westerns and it’s a rarity also in getting a Jeff Arnold five-revolver rating. And that really counts, you know.

Some of the cast with Ford

Friday, June 24, 2016

The Revenant (Fox, 2015)


American creation myth




 
 
To complete our reviews of the trio of Westerns that came out in 2015 (the other two are Bone Tomahawk and The Hateful Eight) which are now available on DVD, a word or two on The Revenant.
 
 
Back in May 2013, in a post on Jim Bridger, I wrote a little about the ordeal of Hugh Glass. I didn’t know then that they would make a movie about Glass, still less an Oscar-winning epic with Leonardo DiCaprio. But the story of Hugh Glass is certainly a dramatic one.
 
Hugh Glass
 
Westerns don’t win Oscars. Oh, there were a few notable exceptions, like Cimarron and Unforgiven, but as a general rule even undeniably great pictures like High Noon or The Searchers didn’t get near the Best Picture award. So when The Revenant won Best Motion Picture last time round (and several other Oscars too, including Best Actor and Best Director) well, that was good news. If, that is, you regard The Revenant as a Western - it’s an 1820s mountain-man story. I do, because it has several Western aspects to it – a difficult journey in the wild, a brave loner determined to right wrongs, hostile Indians and a revenge pursuit, for example.

It was directed and co-written by Mexican Alejandro G Iñárritu and based on the 2002 novel by the multi-talented Michael Punke. The movie does play a bit fast and loose with historical fact but we don’t hold that against Westerns, do we? They are not supposed to be documentaries after all. The point is that it makes a gripping story.
 
Alejandro G Iñárritu
 
The two lead personages are Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) and John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy). Their characters are established right from the get-go: Glass is taciturn, tough and a bit of an action man (a classic Western hero, in fact) while Fitzgerald is snide, sour and hyper-critical. They don’t develop, really: they remain that way throughout.
 
Tom Hardy as Fitzgerald
 
A young Jim Bridger plays an important part, though. He is played by Will Poulter, 22 (Bridger was 19 so that will do). The question of whether Bridger deserted Glass is not skated over but it is rather excused because of his young age, and blame squarely apportioned to Fitzgerald. Glass himself did in fact pardon Bridger, just because of his youth. Jim Bridger has appeared often in movies, starting with the silent movie The Covered Wagon in 1923 when Tully Marshall took the role, which he reprised in the talkie Fighting Caravans in 1931. Most Bridgers were absurdly false (e.g. Van Heflin in Tomahawk) so it’s good to have a plausible Jim, as here. Glass has also appeared on the screen, small and big, impersonated by John Alderson in Death Valley Days and Richard Harris in Man in the Wilderness (though he had a different name in that epic). DiCaprio’s is certainly the most authentic so far, despite the monkeying about with history.
 
Will Poulter as Jim Bridger
 
The movie opens with action, as the trappers’ camp is attacked by Arikara Indians and Glass gets the survivors (including Fitzgerald and Bridger) to the river boat and relative safety. The attack on Glass by a grizzly is brilliantly filmed. It’s utterly realistic. I have no idea how they did it, CGI I suppose, but it’s outstanding. Glass’s injuries were horrific and it is no wonder that his companions gave him up for dead. But he did not die.
 
 The grizzly
 
The film Glass has a backstory of an Indian wife (Grace Dove) and son (Forrest Goodluck), and the son is among the party and does all he can to save his father but is murdered by Fitzgerald for his pains. By now Fitzgerald is firmly in the villain camp, and probably has too few saving graces (none, actually) to make him credible. Tom Hardy is a Londoner, in fact, but you wouldn’t know it. He featured in Inception, Band of Brothers and Black Hawk Down, among others, and he does a good job as Mr. Nasty here.

Of course a dead wife and son is a common Western trope. It allows the hero to be both tragic loner and loving family man at the same time.

Most of the movie is (justly) taken up with Glass’s survival and grueling journey to safety. He braves cold, Indians, hunger, rapids and of course his appalling injuries. To rub salt in the wound, Fitzgerald stole his rifle. He starts by crawling but gradually hobbles, then walks. Later on he athletically leaps aboard a horse to escape the Arikara posse. In reality the grizzly had broken his leg, which he set himself, so I don’t think he would really have been doing Tom Mix stunts to get mounted but never mind. Later he disembowels and crawls inside the corpse of this horse, which gives scope for plenty of steaming offal in the snow to wrinkle the noses of the viewers.
 
Injuries
 
He does have help, from a nameless Pawnee (later murdered by French trappers, who are also baddies - On est tous des sauvages) and from a woman who (I think) is the daughter of the Arikara chief pursuing the white men. I say “I think” because it isn’t really made clear. But he finally makes it to Fort Kiowa and safety.

The last part of the picture concerns Glass’s revenge-pursuit of Fitzgerald. History tells us that Fitzgerald had left and joined the US Army and was unreachable by Glass, who did, however, retrieve his rifle from Bridger, but we don’t want mere historical truth to get in the way of a good story so we have a bloody dénouement in the snow.

Mr. DiCaprio, a versatile actor whom I admire, does an earnest job as Glass. For much of the movie he has no one to talk to/interact with and that must make it hard for an actor but he manages to transmit the toughness, grit and determination (fueled clearly by a lust for revenge) that drove him on against nigh-on impossible odds. DiCaprio started Westernism in the perfectly dreadful The Quick and the Dead in 1995 but made up for it with Django Unchained and this one.

The ending is left open, deliberately, I am sure. Does he survive the final revenge ordeal? I take comfort in history: Glass lived another ten years and died in 1833.
 
 Wow
 
Visually the movie is superb, shot by Emmanuel Lubezki, much-nominated for Oscars (understandably so, judging by this picture) in Tierra del Fuego, Alberta and Arizona locations in a washed-out blue & white, as close to monochrome as a color film can get. I also liked the somber and tragic music by Carsten Nicolai and Ryûichi Sakamoto.

To see.