Harold and Maude–Still funny and inspiring after all these years

The 1971 comedy Harold and Maude fit the late hippy era as perfectly as Pink Floyd and the munchies. At a time when young Americans were embracing non-conformity, free love, ecstatic joy, and 40-year-old Marx Brothers movies, this counterculture romance between an alienated and death-obsessed young man and an almost 80-year-old woman made total sense. The broad and outrageous humor helped considerably.

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I revisited the movie Friday night on Blu-ray. I can’t say I love it as much as I used to, but it’s still touching and very funny. And its message is still a good one. But the ending bothers me considerably now much closer to Maude’s age than Harold’s. I give it an A-.

I first saw Harold and Maude a year or so after its original release, and fell in love with it immediately. I saw it countless times in revival movie theaters over the next decade. In the last 30 years, I’ve seen it only twice. The first time was on Laserdisc in 1996 or ’97, when I showed it to my son–who was really not ready for it. The second time was last Friday night.

As the story begins, Harold (Bud Cort) lives in a huge mansion with his very proper and aristocratic mother (a very funny Vivian Pickles). He appears to be about 20, with no responsibilities; he doesn’t work or go to school. But he has hobbies. He drives a hearse. He attends funerals. And he tortures his mother by staging fake suicides. Many of the movie’s biggest laughs come from Pickle’s mildly annoyed reactions to his ghastly fake deaths; she’s clearly used to them.

Then he meets Maude (Ruth Gordon), another fan of funerals. She’s almost 80. She loves life–her own and others. While Harold is quiet and introverted, she’s loud and open to anything. She talks about her past political activism. She jokes, flirts, dabbles in the arts, and steals cars so that people won’t get too attached to material objects.

And of course she’s exactly what Harold needs. She opens him up and allows him to see that there is more to life than death. Within the space of a few days, they become close friends, then lovers.

The story could easily become sappy, but writer Colin Higgins and director Hal Ashby avoid the trap with broad and effective humor. Harold’s shrink, priest, and war-monger uncle are almost as funny as his mother (the priest has a short but pricelessly hilarious monolog near the end). Two encounters with a frustrated cop bring additional laughs. And a running gag where Harold continually sabotages his mother’s attempts at finding him a bride are priceless.

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Even watching it alone–not the best way to see any comedy–I was laughing out loud much of the time.

But there are dark sides to the story, and not just in the funeral and suicide gags. Maude lets on briefly that her life has included some serious suffering. And one shot, so short you might miss it, tells you just how horrible her past had been.

Ashby handles the sexual part of their relationship carefully. There’s only one chaste kiss. The only time you see them in bed, they’re on opposite sides and not touching. The film is rated PG.

I can’t discuss Harold and Maude without mentioning the songs by the artist formerly known as Cat Stevens. At his artistic height, he was a brilliant singer and songwriter (if a bit didactic), and his songs fit this film perfectly, both musically and thematically. It seems impossible that the man who wrote "If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out" would become a fundamentalist who would embrace the call to murder a novelist. But we have to face the fact that it happened.

Now I would like to discuss the ending. So if you haven’t seen it, and don’t want your first screening spoiled, you should stop reading this now.

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Okay. Is everyone here ready to read about the ending?

Maude commits suicide on her 80th birthday, just before Harold was to propose. It’s not entirely a surprise. Some casual comments she makes beforehand suggest her plan. "I’ll be eighty next week. A good time to move on, don’t you think?"

Now, if she was decrepit, miserable, and facing a horrible and fatal illness, I could understand her action. But she’s a very young 80, living life to the fullest. She’s just acquired a lover a quarter of her age. She has a lot to live for.

The filmmakers could have found a better ending. She might have rejected Harold’s marriage proposal, and sent him on his way, explaining that she doesn’t want to be tied down. She could be facing a horrible and fatal illness, and wanted to go before the symptoms took over her life.

Either of those could still have motivated Harold to do what he does in the movie’s wonderful last few seconds, when he drives his car over a cliff, then walks away strumming a banjo.

Die Hard: Even Better on the Big Screen

Sunday afternoon, I finally saw Die Hard in a movie theater. And not just any movie theater, but the Castro. I’ve liked this movie for a long time. But between the big screen, the powerful sound system, and the enthusiastic audience, it was a whole new experience.

And a great experience. I used to give Die Hard an A. Now I give it an A+.

To begin with, it has one of the great action hero plots. Very evil people, who don’t care how many innocent bystanders they kill to achieve their goal, take over a location where they control who gets in and who gets out. Luckily, one man (always a man) is in that location but out of their control. He plays cat and mouse with the bad guys, killing them one at a time while avoiding being killed.

By now, that plot is a cliché. But Die Hard did it first, and more importantly, did it best.

The movie’s power comes from its willingness to build a situation before the action starts. For the first 25 minutes, Die Hard is a relationship drama. NYC policeman John McClane (Bruce Willis) arrives in LA just before Christmas, hoping to reconcile with his estranged wife (Bonnie Bedelia). She relocated to California, with their children, for her job. She’s a rising executive; he’s a working-class cop. His attempts to reconcile turn into arguments; he acts like a sexist pig, then regrets it the moment she leaves the room.

All this happens in the new, not-quite-finished skyscraper where she works.

Then a dozen well-armed, highly-trained bad guys take over the building, kill a few people, then hold everyone hostage. But not everyone. They missed McClane. Barefoot and initially armed with only a pistol, he has to do what he can to stop them and save the hostages–including his wife.

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Willis doesn’t play McClane as a superhero. He’s obviously very clever when cornered, but he’s clearly a regular guy in a horrible situation. He spends much of his time talking to himself, wondering how he got into this awful situation and why he just did something stupid.

He’s also, it’s quite clear, a very annoying person. But in this situation, he uses that character flaw to his advantage. He makes the bad guys angry, and when they’re angry, they make mistakes.

Much of the film’s pleasure comes from his discussions, via walkie talkie, with the chief bad guy. Alan Rickman plays one of the great, suave villains. He’s civilized, well-mannered, well-dressed, and witty. But he’s also a cold-blooded murderer. The hero and villain come to respect each other, and enjoy their talks, even though each wants desperately to kill the other.

But this is an action movie, not a drama. It’s filled with gunfire, explosions, and impressive stunts. These action scenes are as well-staged and as well-edited as any you can find. They keep the suspense and the adrenaline running throughout the movie.

They’re also, I should mention, very violent. Die Hard earns its R rating, and not for sex or nudity.

I missed Die Hard when it first came out, and saw it a few years later on Laserdisc. I rented it several times–both on Laserdisc and DVD. Then, when I was researching an article for PCWorld , 20th Century-Fox sent me the Die Hard box set, containing the original and the three sequels released as of that time.

But on Sunday, I finally got to see it properly. (Okay, it wasn’t a 70mm print, but it was a very good DCP, and aside from some soft scenes early on, I can’t complain.) When the screen fills most of your field of vision (I was in the third row), and you can’t hit a pause button, McClane’s sense of entrapment feels personal. After all, you can’t glance at the bookshelf or get up for food (at least not without missing something).

But the audience really made this screening special. Applause, laughs, and cheers turned the matinee into a group experience. You don’t get that feeling when you watch Die Hard in the living room.

The movie is so much fun that, even though I find more implausibility each time I see it, I don’t care.

If you doubt how good the basic story is, consider how many rip-offs we’ve seen since the original came out in 1988. We’ve had Speed, Under Siege, The Rock, Sudden Death, Air Force One, and last year’s White House Down. And those are just the ones I saw and liked.

Sequels are another story. The only really good one was Die Hard with a Vengeance, at least until it fell apart in the third act. The sequels to the rip-offs aren’t worth discussing.

But the original is one of the great action movies. And it’s much more fun in a theater.

The Castro screened Die Hard on a double bill with Scrouged. But other responsibilities (including writing this report) kept me for seeing the second feature.

Saving Private Lebowski at Rio Bravo: 25 movies added to the National Film Registry

As they do every year, the Library of Congress has added 25 additional motion pictures to its National Film Registry. According the press release I received Wednesday, "Selection to the registry will help ensure that these films will be preserved for all time."

Or at least until Congress cuts the budget to provide additional income for the Koch brothers.

The LoC doesn’t claim that these are the 25 best films not yet already in the Registry. Movies are chosen for their cultural or historical importance. They may show a way of life that few have seen and that perhaps no longer exists. They may represent a new technical or stylistic cinematic direction. They may have been huge commercial hits or developed a large cult following.

On the other hand, some achieved cultural or historical importance by being really, really good.

There’s only one movie on the list that I would give (and have given) an A+, Howard Hawk’s Rio Bravo.

I may one day give an A+ to The Big Lebowski. But since I don’t give that high a grade to films less than 20 years old, we’ll have to wait a few years to find out.

I’m also glad to see Little Big Man on the list. I haven’t seen this film in many years, but I loved it when it was new. I might love it again.

Some of the films have strong followings, of which I don’t belong. Saving Private Ryan struck me as a mediocre war movie with a great opening sequence. And Rosemary’s Baby, for me at least, just barely works. I hated Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory almost as much as I hated the book. I’ve never even thought about seeing Ferris Bueller’s Day Off; maybe I’m missing something.

There are a lot of films here that I would like to see, some of which I didn’t know existed until I read the press release. These include the unfinished Bert Williams Lime Kiln Club Field Day and Please Don’t Bury Me Alive!, "considered by historians to be the first Chicano feature film." Amongst those I’ve heard of but haven’t seen are The Power and the Glory, Preston Sturges’ first produced screenplay, and a major influence on Citizen Kane.

Someone should do a festival of all of these films.

The Best Years of Our Lives at the Castro

There’s no better movie for Veteran’s Day than William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives. A huge commercial hit and the Best Picture Oscar winner for 1946, it’s now all but forgotten. That’s too bad, because Best Years is not only an excellent film, it also deals with an issue that’s unfortunately still with us–how to integrate war veterans back into civilian life.

So I was delighted when I saw that it was coming to the Castro on Veteran’s Day, and I made sure I’d see it. It screened on a double bill with First Blood–the semi-serious action movie about a Vietnam vet that launched the unexpected Rambo franchise.

Before the film started, the Castro entertained us with a slideshow of coming attractions and music appropriate to the immediate postwar period. Then came the organ concert, followed by The Best Years of Our Lives.

As I explained in my review of the book Five Came Back, Wyler was a returning veteran himself when he made Best Years–and a disabled one. He left Hollywood soon after Pearl Harbor to film the real war for the government. He lost most of his hearing in the war, and Best Years was his first film after coming home.

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The film intertwines the separate but sometimes connecting stories of three veterans who meet and become friends as they return to their home town (which actually appears to be a small city) after the war. They didn’t know each other in the service, and they never crossed paths in their previous civilian lives.

Al (Fredric March) was a rich, middle-aged man, a husband and father, and a respected banker when he walked away from all that to fight fight for his country (as did Wyler). In the army, he never got passed sergeant. Now he has to reacquaint himself with his wife (Myrna Loy) and grown children. But he’s developed a drinking problem, and he’s having trouble with the bank’s less-than-humane policies.

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Fred (Dana Andrews) comes from a desperately poor background. He was a soda jerk before the war. But in the Air Force, he became a bombardier, a captain, and a decorated hero. But back home, he’s a nobody.

He married Marie (Virginia Mayo) shortly before going overseas, without really knowing her. So along with finding a job, he has to deal with a harpy of a wife who deeply regrets that she didn’t marry a rich man. To make things more complicated, he’s falling in love with Al’s daughter Peggy (Teresa Wright).

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But the most touching story of all is that of Homer, a former high school athlete who lost both of his hands in the war. He’s played by non-actor Harold Russell, who’s own story inspired the character. You feel Homer’s pain because you know that it’s Harold’s own pain and loss you see on screen.

On the surface, Homer seems at ease with his disability. He likes to show off what he can do with his hooks, and he often jokes about them. But the jovial nature makes a thin mask for his fear and depression.

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Through these three men and the people around them, Wyler and screenwriter Robert E. Sherwood show us both the problems of returning veterans and an uneasily rigid class system. The wealthy Al just walks into his bank and gets a promotion. Homer is clearly middle-class, although not much is made of that. Fred was born poor and will remain so. The culture insists on that.

The film is beautifully photographed by the great Gregg Toland. The songwriter, musician, and actor Hoagy Carmichael does a nice supporting role as a favorite uncle who owns a bar and plays piano (that’s Carmichael really playing). Despite its nearly three-hour running time, the movie never lags. I wouldn’t cut a frame.

I give Best Years an A.

My only complaint is with Hugo Friedhofer’s music score. There’s too much melodramatic music.

This was my third viewing of The Best Years of Our Lives, and my first in a theater. The crowd wasn’t big, but it was enthusiastic. A drunken speech that grew into well-deserved sarcasm earned applause. And it was nice to have people to laugh with in this serious film’s few jokes. The large screen allowed me to truly admire Toland’s photography.

The Castro screened the film off a DCP. Most of it looked excellent–like a mint 35mm print without the vibration. But a few scenes looked horribly contrasty and, yes, electronic. I assume these ones came from a bad source, and were over processed in an attempt to fix their shortcomings.

If it had been a Friday or Saturday night, I might have stayed for First Blood. But I needed a full night’s sleep.

Thoughts on The Bicycle Thief

If you want to understand Italian neorealism, the desperation of poverty, or simply the power of cinema, you have to see Vittorio De Sica’s masterpiece, The Bicycle Thief (AKA Bicycle Thieves or Ladri di biciclette). You’ll find it deservedly on any short list of great motion pictures.

This film pits the desperately poor against the desperately poor, in a story that you know, deep down in your bones, can’t possibly end well. And yet, there are many touches of beauty, human kindness, and humor. It also has a young Enzo Staiola in what is probably the most adorable little kid role in the history of movies. Staiola’s Bruno, a practical but adoring boy still at the age of father worship, provides most of the humor, as well as the story’s heart. The protagonist, Antonio (Lamberto Maggiorani) sacrifices so much not for his own benefit, but for his family–especially his young son.

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I first saw The Bicycle Thief, in 16mm, in a college class in 1972. I instantly fell in love with it. And yet, I didn’t get around to seeing it again for many years. I next saw it, in 35mm, at the UC Theatre of blessed memory. That was probably in the 1980s, although I’m not sure. I revisited it again last Saturday night, streaming off of Netflix.

Let’s get the multiple versions of the title out of the way. The film was originally released in its native Italy as Ladri di biciclette. According to both Google’s translation tool and Wikipedia, that translates into Bicycle Thieves (or at least bike thieves). But when it opened in America, it was called The Bicycle Thief. Today, Netflix uses the singular title; Criterion the plural one. Both seem appropriate, but I stick with The Bicycle Thief because that’s the title I first knew, and the one on every version I’ve seen..

As the film begins, the unemployed Antonio, desperate to feed his family, finally gets a job–in part because he owns a bike, although his wife has to hock their bed sheets to get it out of hock. Then, on his first day on the job, his bike is stolen. Most of the film follows Antonio and Bruno in a desperate search through Rome, hoping against hope to find the bike.

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(Why would a grown man take his young son on such a quest? Officially, it’s because Bruno did the bike-repair chores, and therefore knows it better than anyone. The real reason, of course, is that Bruno adds to the drama while providing adorableness and  comic relief.)

Neither Maggiorani nor Staiola were professional actors. That was the point of neorealism. As much as possible, the short-lived style used real people in real locations to capture realistic stories of desperate poverty.

De Sica makes sure you know that Antonio’s poverty is the norm, not an exception. Even the thief, when you get to know him, is desperate and did what he had to do.

Despite (or perhaps because of) their lack of experience, both Maggiorani and Staiola display considerable acting talent and star charisma. Both had modest movie careers after this film. Unfortunately, at certain angles, Maggiorani reminded me of a dark-haired Dick Cavett, but since Cavett was a kid when the film was made, I can’t blame that on the actor or the director.

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This is a sad, heart-breaking story, relieved only by the love of family–even if it’s the family that is in crisis. I definitely give it an A+.

Early and Excellent Kubrick at PFA

As I discussed last week, I lost a lot of my love of Stanley Kubrick over the decades. But I didn’t lose my love for all of his pictures. And amongst my favorites are his first two Hollywood pictures, The Killing and Paths of Glory. Saturday night, I revisited these favorites at the Pacific Film Archive, where they were screened as part of the series Eyes Wide: The Films of Stanley Kubrick.

Some historical background: Kubrick started his career with two super-low budget independent features–Fear and Desire and Killer’s Kiss. I saw Fear and Desire some years ago and hated it (Kubrick eventually disowned it), and have never seen Killer’s Kiss. The PFA screened them Thursday night, but I was unable to attend.

Although it wasn’t a commercial success, Killer’s Kiss impressed enough people to bring Kubrick into the Hollywood system, albeit on a low budget. United Artists financed and released his next two pictures, The Killing and Paths of Glory.

The PFA screened them in reverse order, showing Paths of Glory first.

Paths of Glory

To my mind, this is Kubrick’s masterpiece (with Dr. Strangelove a close second). This World War I tale of ruthless generals and the common foot soldiers they see as disposable pawns, shows Kubrick at his best. His visual flare brings a powerful contrast to the film’s two major settings: the ugly, dirty, and dangerous trenches of the front, and the opulent palace where the generals’ live in comfort and luxury.

The story is simple, but powerful. In 1916, with the war at a long stalemate, two French generals (Adolphe Menjou and George Macready) decide to take a German position that everyone knows can’t be taken. With little time to prepare and almost no support, the men leap out of their trenches and attack–only to be mowed down. The survivors understandably run back to their trenches. Unable to admit that their plan was impossible, the generals order that three men be arrested as examples, tried for cowardice, found guilty, and shot.

Before Saturday night, I had last seen Paths of Glory on a rented, Criterion Blu-ray about a year ago. I don’t remember when I last saw it theatrically, but I think it was in the 1980s.

Paths of Glory is one of the rare Kubrick films that allows us to care about the characters. This is especially true with the three condemned "examples," charged for failing an impossible task and knowing without a doubt that they will be executed. Each was chosen by their superior officer. One of them, played by Ralph Meeker, knows that his truly cowardly lieutenant (Wayne Morris) has reasons for wanting him dead.

Kubrick generally avoided heroes, but he got one in Paths of Glory–Kirk Douglas as Colonel Dax–the lawyer-turned officer who leads the charge and becomes the men’s defense attorney. Douglas was the first big star to appear in a Kubrick film, and he probably demanded a rewrite to make his part larger and more noble. In a late scene, he angrily tells off a top-ranking general, calling him a "degenerate" and promising that "I’ll go to Hell before I ever apologize to you again." Kubrick generally avoided such moral preaching.

Kubrick’s visual sense comes to fully glory here. Tracking shots through the trenches help illustrate the claustrophobic, horrific nature of men’s predicament. Another tracking shot, leading up to the executions, help emphasize the ritual aspects of these legal and ceremonial murders. The court martial, or perhaps I should say the kangaroo court martial, is set in an opulent room whose floor suggest a chessboard.

World War I produced more great films than any other war. This is one of the best.

The Killing

It’s hardly surprising that a young filmmaker breaking into Hollywood in 1956 would start with a noir. After all, these gritty crime films were cheap to make and popular with audiences. But The Killing proved to be one of the best of the genre.

In this classic heist thriller, an experienced criminal (Sterling Hayden) orchestrates a complex racetrack robbery likely to net two million 1956 dollars. Of course, he needs collaborators. And each one of them has to do his job at the exact right time for everything to work.

Needless to say, human frailty is going to get in the way.

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Kubrick and screenplay collaborator Jim Thompson (working from a novel by Lionel White) found a unique structure to tell the story. It’s not in pure chronological order, but it’s not a flashback, either. Instead, the movie follows one member of the gang, then leaps back in time to follow someone else. The film’s eye-of-God narrator helps the audience keep all of this straight with simple statements like "Three hours earlier, Johnny left his apartment and headed for the motel." (Someone needs to write an essay on Kubrick’s use of spoken narration.)

Hayden’s Johnny Clay is a professional, but most of his collaborators are breaking the law for the first time, motivated by a desperate need for money. The most heartbreaking is Joe Sawyer’s racetrack bartender, who needs money to help the very sick wife he loves so much.

But Elisha Cook Jr.’s character is a different kind of marriage problem. He hopes that if he had more money, his dreadful, scornful, adulterous wife (Marie Windsor) might actually love him. We feel little sympathy for Cook’s character, and none at all for Windsor’s, but these two are clearly the most entertaining people in the story. When Clay meets that awful wife, he sees her for exactly what she is. "You’ve got a great big dollar sign there where most women have a heart."

As it should be, The Killing is filled with such snappy, pulp-heavy dialog–probably written by Thompson. In hiring a sharpshooter, Clay argues that the risks are limited. "You’d be killing a horse – that’s not first degree murder, in fact it’s not murder at all, in fact I don’t know what it is."  Hayden’s rat-a-tat-tat delivery makes that like explosive and funny.

Before Saturday night, I had last seen The Killing at the UC Theater, probably in1996 or 1997. I was glad to remake its acquaintance.

Digital projection done mostly right

Both movies were made by United Artists after 1951, which means that they’re now owned by MGM/UA. But MGM/UA no longer distributes its own films. Criterion has released both of these films for home use. Other UA titles have been released on video by Fox and Kino.

A company I’d never heard of, Park Circus, now distributes these two titles theatrically on DCP. Both films started with a Park Circus logo, and then the MGM lion. Every UA film, no matter who distributes it, now starts with the MGM lion–even though none of them are real MGM films. And that lion is in color, even before a black and white film.

Other than that, this were excellent transfers. Whoever supervised the digital mastering respected the film look and the grain structure. They kept the original mono soundtracks, without trying to convert them to 5.1. Both movies looked and sounded great, and still felt like works of their time.

Book vs. Film: Red River

When someone turns a mediocre book into a great film, people forget that it ever was a book. Such is the case with Borden Chase’s decent but unexceptional novel, Blazing Guns on the Chisholm Trail, and the cinematic masterpiece that Howard Hawks made out of it, Red River.

imageAs I mentioned in my Red River Blu-ray review, Criterion includes a paperback copy of Chase’s novel in the package. At the time I wrote that review, I had not yet read the book. I have now.

But be warned: This article contains spoilers. You should see the film before you read any further. And if you’re really a fanatic about spoilers
–even spoilers for long-forgotten books that aren’t that good to begin with–maybe you should read the novel first, too.

No one ever agreed on what to call this novel. When it first appeared serially in the Saturday Evening Post, it was simply The Chisholm Trail. By the time it came out in hardcover, the title had grown to Blazing Guns on the Chisholm Trail. The film’s opening credits refer to it cryptically as "the Saturday Evening Post story." The movie’s commercial success gave the paperback edition the  title Red River. Criterion, in republishing the book as a DVD/Blu-ray extra, returned to Blazing Guns on the Chisholm Trail, probably because it sounds so appropriately cheesy.

Now that I’ve read it, I’m not surprised that Howard Hawks was attracted to this story. It’s about men who work a dangerous job for a living, have the professional skills needed for that job, and define their masculinity by their profession. It has one important female character, who is smart and strong and knows how to take care of herself in a man’s world. That pretty much describes half of Hawk’s work.

Hawks’ film closely follows Chase’s story, but not too closely (Chase wrote the first draft of the screenplay). Many of the characters changed from page to screen. Both Cherry Valance and Tess Millay are far less likeable and sympathetic in the book. The book’s Cherry–self-centered and cold-blooded–is probably a more realistic view of a hired gun than the one John Ireland played. But I missed the evolving, arguably homo-erotic friendship between Cherry and Matt that helps make the film so interesting.

The book’s Tess is quite willing (and skilled) at getting one man to kill another for her benefit. Cherry kills a man for her. Then, when Dunston and Cherry make their deadly confrontation, she takes steps to make sure that Dunston is the survivor.

In the novel, Groot is merely the cook; we only meet him on the cattle drive. We never get to know him. In the film, he’s Dunson’s sidekick from the start and becomes a major character. That makes his decision to join the mutineers all the more dramatic and meaningful.

Also in the book, Dunson–that paragon of western strength and reckless violence who could only have been played by John Wayne–is English. That’s right; he comes from the land of teatime and the stiff upper lip, although he never behaves like such a person. When I read his dialog on the page, I didn’t hear a British accent in my head; I heard John Wayne.

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Both the book and the film try for an epic feel, but only the film succeeds. Chase attempts a mythic style through purple prose ("A score of years–mad, cruel, bitter years of conflict in which a nation trembled on the rim of ruin") and by inflating the story’s stakes. Matt, and Chase, keep reminding us that this cattle drive isn’t about saving Dunson’s ranch; it’s about saving Texas.

Hawks, on the other hand, created a true epic feel through Russell Harlan’s Fordian black-and-white photography, and Dimitri Tiomkin’s magnificent score. Only Tiomkin could make "Git Along, Little Doggies" sound important and dramatic.

Borden Chase hated Hawks’ happy ending, which undercuts the epic feel of the story. We’ve been set up for a fight to the death between Dunson and Matt–the surrogate father and son heroes who must inevitably become enemies. But their fight turns into reconciliation, and everyone smiles at the end.

The book sort of ends as epic tragedy. Dunson–fatally wounded from his confrontation with Cherry–is too weak to fight. Matt and Tess take him south, so that he can die in his beloved Texas.

But for real epic tragedy, Matt would have had to kill Dunson. After all, the story is really Mutiny on the Bounty seen through the lens of Oedipus Rex.

There’s something else about Hawk’s ending that’s always bothered me: Cherry’s fate. His brief confrontation with Dunson leaves the older man with a flesh wound, but Cherry falls to the ground. Men come running to help him. All this happens in the background, far from the camera. A major character, one whom we’ve grown to like, who fell trying to save the film’s most likeable hero, ends up either seriously wounded or dead. We don’t know which. The film doesn’t seem to care about him any more.

And everyone smiles at the end.

Despite these flaws, Red River is still a great movie–one of the best westerns ever made, and a study in ways to be a man. And it’s based on an entertaining but unexceptional novel.

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