Tombstone as Myth: My Darling Clementine on Blu-ray

By all rules of the western genre, John Ford’s My Darling Clementine shouldn’t work. The plot, the primary motivations, and the action all but disappear for the whole middle part of the movie. And yet it’s one of the greatest westerns ever made.

Ford’s westerns, at their best, danced along a thin line between reality and myth. The characters seem down-to-earth, and can surprise you with their all-too-human frailties and contradictions. But the atmosphere created by framing, lighting, and music suggests something bigger than the story of these people–the story of America..

Of all Ford’s westerns, Clementine gives us the greatest sense of myth. That’s hardly surprising, since it’s built around one of the west’s most famous legends–the shootout at the O.K. Corral.

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Yes, I know that it really happened. But the tall tales about this gunfight overtook actual history long before Ford rebuilt Tombstone in Monument Valley. And Ford and his screenwriters pretty much ignored history in their goal of creating an American myth.

Ford never used Monument Valley as extensively and as effectively as he does here. Every daytime exterior in the film uses the Valley as its background. When you’ve got Wyatt Earp, Doc Holiday, and the Clantons on the streets of a Deadwood right smack in Monument Valley, you know that you’re watching a myth.

The plot is simple. The Clantons rob Wyatt Earp’s cattle, and murder one of his brothers. So Wyatt (Henry Fonda), who was just passing through, becomes the town’s marshal, clearly without any ambitions beyond vengeance.

All that is set up in the first 20 or so minutes. Then the film all but forgets about vengeance. Instead, it introduces us to Tombstone, pictured as a wide open western town inching its way towards proper civilization.

And in that changing town, Wyatt Earp develops a complicated and not-always-imagecooperative friendship with Doc Holiday (Victor Mature). Holiday’s Mercurial, self-hating, and possibly suicidal personality makes it impossible to know when he’s with Wyatt, and when he’s against him. If you need any more proof that John Ford was a great director, consider this: He pulled a terrific, conflicted, and empathetic performance out of Victor Mature, a movie star known for being a bad actor. Even he would joke about it later in life. But here he even manages a slice of Hamlet’s "To be or not to be" soliloquy without it looking ridiculous.

While praising the cast, I have to recognize Walter Brennan as the Clanton’s evil patriarch. This is one of the great villains in the movies–spiteful, angry, intelligent, and terrifying even to his own four sons. They’re as evil as he is, but considerably less intelligent. 23 years later, he played a comic variation of the same character in Support Your Local Sheriff.

Alas, the female leads scarcely appear to be their own people. Cathy Downs as the titular Clementine, is little more than a symbol of civilized American womanhood. She’s the pure, perfect woman that Wyatt loves but can’t approach with anything but stiff politeness. And Linda Darnell’s Chihuahua, lovesick and full of larceny, would be a horrible Mexican stereotype if some dialog didn’t define her as Apache. That doesn’t help.

The climatic gunfight is one of the best, with slow-building suspense before the bullets fly.

My Darling Clementine was John Ford’s first film after he was mustered out of the navy after World War II. In it, he took one of America’s strongest myths and made it his own.

First Impression

imageCriterion has given up their policy of putting DVDs and Blu-rays in the same package. Now, you have to buy one or the other.

The Blu-ray version of My Darling Clementine comes in a simple plastic case. There’s one disc, and a small foldout rather than a full book. The foldout is dominated by an essay by David Jenkins, "The Great Beyond."

As is standard for Criterion, the disc opens to the main menu the first time you insert it into a player. After that, it offers an option for Resume Playback. A timeline allows you to set bookmarks.

How It Looks

Like most films of its time, My Darling Clementine was shot in black and white, and in the Academy Ratio, 1.37×1. it’s one of the most visually striking films of its era.

Fox and Criterion have done a wonderful job on this 4k restoration. Fine details, including stubble on men’s chins, are clearly visible. The grayscale is excellent, from near-whites to deep blacks, with fine shadow detail.

How It Sounds

The audio is PCM 2.0 mono. As such, it succeeds in producing the original sound as well as could be imagined.

The Preview Cut

Like most Hollywood movies, My Darling Clementine was previewed and recut multiple times before its release in the final 97-minute version. One of those preview cuts, running 103 minutes, has survived.

The Blu-ray offers this preview cut as a supplement. The disc also contains a 42-minute documentary, narrated by UCLA’s . Robert Gitt. Both cuts, plus the documentary, were on the original Fox DVD release.

As Gitt reminds ups, this is "Not a director’s cut, but a work in progress." Both of these cuts were supervised by studio head Darryl Zanuck, and they’re almost certainly closer to each other than to Ford’s lost rough cut.

Most of the differences are minor. A few scenes go on a little longer, and these are seldom the best scenes. One scene is visually identical, but with different music cues. Overall, I prefer the release version.

But I wish that Zanuck had kept Ford’s original ending. Zanuck, in a memo, admitted regret for altering the ending for commercial reasons. Ford’s original ending, available now in the preview version, makes a big improvement.

Although transferred in HD, the preview cut doesn’t get the full 4K-mastered, 1080p treatment of the release cut. It looks like broadcast HD, with that annoying video smoothness that movies shot on film are not supposed to have.

And the Other Extras

  • Commentary by Ford biographer Joseph McBride. This is a new commentary; not the one on the original Fox DVD. McBride covers pretty much every issue about the film, from historical inaccuracy to how Chihuahua becomes idolized once she’s dying. He even explained a few things about the gunfight that had me confused.
  • Print the Legend: 14 minutes, HD. New interview with western scholar Andrew C. Isenberg, author of Wyatt Earp: A Vigilante Life. He talks about the real Earp and Ford’s fiction.
  • David Brinkley Journal: "tombstone": 8 minutes. A 1963 NBC-TV piece on Tombstone. Moderately interesting.
  • Today: "Report on Monument Valley": 6 minutes. 1975 episode of NBC’s Today show. Talks about the location, the Navaho, and the movies. Doesn’t mention My Darling Clementine by name, but does mention the Tombstone set.
  • Lost and Gone Forever: 18 minutes. Video essay by Tag Gallagher. Discusses Ford’s early friendship with Earp, the different cuts, music, framing. Makes a good argument that Ford’s wartime experience influenced the film and made it Ford’s darkest work.
  • Bandit’s Wager: 14 minutes. 1916 western short starring and directed by Ford’s older brother, Francis Ford. John also plays a supporting role. I only figured out who is was by matter of subtraction; only three people in the movie. Not all that funny. Music by Donald Sosin.
  • Lux Radio Theater: 58 minutes; audio only. I have to confess, I got only 12 minutes into this 1947 radio adaptation of the film. 
  • Trailer

The Blu-ray is available now.

MVFF: The Good, the Bad, the Ugly, and the Lark

Wednesday night I finally got to a 2014 Mill Valley Film Festival event–a screening at the Lark of one of my favorite westerns, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

imageBelieve it or not, this was my first visit to the Lark. Yes, I’ve been covering it at Bayflicks for years, but this was the first time I actually stepped inside.

The Lark is a modest-sized neighborhood theater of the sort that dotted the small towns and suburbs before the invention of the multiplex. The art deco décor has been lovingly restored. The lobby is small, with two small areas off to the side where people can sit and talk.

The screen isn’t huge, but it’s big enough to create a real movie feel. The seats are comfortable, with good drink holders.

Before the movie, Festival Executive Director Mark Fishkin came onstage and introduced James Hetfield of Metallica, who hosted the screening. Metallica is this year’s Artists in Residence, and each member of the band got to select a favorite film to be screened.

Hetfield talked briefly about The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, and how it had influenced him. He discussed the three main characters, the use of close-ups, and–not surprisingly–Ennio Morricone’s iconic score. The film started at about 7:15.

The Great, the Crazy, and the Iconic

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is an epic quest motivated purely by greed. Three violent and deadly criminals, all very skilled at their job, set out to recover $200,000 in stolen gold. None of them knows exactly where the loot is hidden, but individually each has a piece of the puzzle. They constantly change allegiances, sometimes collaborating with and then double-crossing each other.

Meanwhile, war rages around them. Director/co-writer Sergio Leone set this western in the American Civil War. Issues like succession and slavery never comes up, but the destruction is vast and senseless. As the rebel army retreats from a town, an innkeeper loudly hails the Confederacy, while privately telling his wife that the Yanks will be better because they pay in gold. Another town has been battered to ruins–perhaps an echo of Leone’s adolescence in World War II Italy. Twice a day, armies clash over a bridge that both sides want and no one can hold. Soldiers on both sides speak with sarcastic hate of their commanders.

And through it all, our three lead characters (I can’t quite call them all protagonists) cheat, threaten, bribe, and murder their way to their ultimate goal.

The Good: Clint Eastwood plays his iconic Man With No Name, although in this film his friends call him Blondie. He’s a thief and a con artist, a quick and deadly draw who feels no remorse after killing someone. When he tires of his partner, he leaves him in the middle of the desert without horse, food, or drink. In any other movie, he’d be the villain. But he doesn’t kill without reason, and he occasionally displays acts of generosity to minor characters. By this film’s standards, that makes him the good guy.

The Bad: Lee Van Cleef’s Angel Eyes stands amongst the vilest villains in film history. His nickname is clearly ironic–his eyes look as evil as Satan. He tortures people for information, robs prisoners, and murders with the slightest of motives. His only code of honor: If he takes the money, he sees the job through. Early on, he kills two men because each of them paid him to kill the other one–and he shoots one of them in cold blood.

The Ugly: The Jewish-American actor Eli Wallach played Mexican banditos in at least three movies, but only here did he make the character funny, touching, lovable, and utterly horrible. His Tuco–devious, dumb, proud, and as wily as a rat–carries The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. When he’s out for vengeance, his cruelty surpasses Angel Eyes. But when he needs the victim of that cruelty, he becomes the dependable partner–just so long as you don’t turn your back. More than anything else, Wallach’s performance raises this movie from very good to great.

Leone and his collaborators tell the story of these men in a flashy and daring style. In addition to the close-ups and musical score I’ve already discussed, there’s the striking use of the widescreen frame, splashy editing–especially in the climatic three-way gun duel–and the dark humor that pervades the picture.

Versions and restorations

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is an Italian film with American stars, shot in Spain, and set in the American west. Like most Italian films of its day, it was shot without recording a dialog track. All of the dialog was dubbed in separate Italian and English versions (and other languages too, I assume).

Leone’s original cut ran 175 minutes–too long for the American distributor, United Artists. So Leone cut it back to 161.  The cuts were made before the English dubbing; the removed scenes could not easily to restored to the film.

That was fixed in 2003, when MGM/UA created the Extended English Language version. They restored and redubbed the cut scenes. Eastman and Wallach dubbed their parts, but another voice actor talked for the late Van Cleef. They also added a scene that Leone had cut from the Italian version, bringing the running time to 179 minutes. They also remixed the soundtrack, taking it from mono to Dolby Digital 5.1.

So the film has now grown by 18 minutes from the version I first fell in love with. I have mixed feelings about the changes, and I still cling to my 161-minute DVD. Some of the recovered scenes add atmosphere and character development. Others fill in plot gaps that never really needed to be filled. I love both versions, but I love the shorter one more.

This year, MGM/UA gave this picture a 4K digital restoration. They stuck to the 179 extended version, and–I’m glad to say–they restored the mono soundtrack. The festival screened the film from a 4K DCP, with the mono sound.

Aside from a rather ridiculous MGM 90th Anniversary trailer (see MGM 90th Anniversary…without MGM), it was a great presentation, showing the deep colors and heavy grain expected in a Techniscope production of the 1960s. Unless there’s an archival dye-transfer print from the original release somewhere, this is as good as the picture can get.

Overall, a very good evening.

James Garner and Some Forgotten Western Laughs

James Garner’s recent death left me thinking about some of my favorite films starring the low-key star. And one title, rarely mentioned today, leaped up immediately: Support Your Local Sheriff.

That title pretty much guarantees that the movie would be forgotten. A topical joke in 1969 (a popular conservative bumper sticker of the day read "Support your local police"), it just seems weird to people too young to remember the reference. The title has aged; the movie has not–or at least not as much.

Although marred with some serious flaws (more about them below), this western parody makes good use of Garner’s talent and star appeal. As the fastest draw, the most accurate sharpshooter, and the smartest man in the unnamed territory, Garner gets to play his laid-back, unflappable persona at its calmest, all the while showing off a sense of comic timing that seems almost unfair in such a handsome leading man.

Most comic protagonists start out utterly inept–the worst possible person for the job (consider The Big Lebowski and anything starring Bob Hope). But Garner here plays the opposite. He’s always a step ahead of everyone, and never seems truly worried. While remaining calm and polite, he keeps a blood-thirsty murderer (Bruce Dern) in a not-quite-finished jail with big open spaces where there should be iron bars. (It helps that this particular killer has the brains of a drugged sparrow.)

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Comic westerns have been a movie mainstay for about a century. Harold Lloyd, Bob Hope, Don Knots, and Jackie Chan all made them. When the Marx Brothers made theirs, they stole the title from Buster Keaton’s entry in the form and the plot of Laurel and Hardy’s. But if there’s a comic western that understands the western genre as well as Support Your Local Sheriff, I haven’t seen it. The plot comes from Rio Bravo, with a little bit of High Noon thrown in.

Garner did a number of westerns, and the cast is peppered with veterans from the glory days of the genre. Walter Brennan (Red River, Rio Bravo) does a comic variation of his vicious patriarch from My Darling Clementine. Henry Morgan (High Noon, How the West was Won) shows off the low-key timing he would soon bring to the sitcom MASH, and has some wonderful comic dialog with Garner. Dern (Hang ‘Em High, Will Penny) does wonders as a fool who thinks he’s a tough guy. But it’s Jack Elam (The Comancheros, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral), who steals the picture as Garner’s somewhat reluctant, wild-eyed sidekick. Director Burt Kennedy and writer/producer William Bowers were also western veterans.

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Overall, Support Your Local Sheriff provides a healthy collection of big laughs, with a real understanding and love of the genre it’s lampooning. But as I said before, It’s far from perfect.

Consider Jeff Alexander’s horrendous score, which has the horrible habit of telling you when you should laugh. Alexander provides a few good musical moments–especially in a sequence when hired killers come to town. But for the most part, the music just annoys the audience, and hurts more gags than it helps.

Other flaws include a clumsily-written romantic subplot (Joan Hackett plays the spirited ingénue), a slow first act, and a prospecting sequence that offers nothing and changes Garner’s character for some cheap laughs.

And the climax disappoints. It has its funny moments–some very funny moments–but there should have been more. After watching Garner outsmart everyone for over an hour, we have every right to expect a brilliant for the finale. Screenwriter Bowers failed to come up with one.

I can’t honestly call Support Your Local Sheriff a comic masterpiece. But if you really love westerns, this is a comedy worth catching. And a celebration of Garner’s comic strength.

Red River on Blu-ray: Of men and cattle

To those who consider westerns mindless shoot-em-ups, and dismiss John Wayne as a talentless reactionary symbol, I can think of no better answer than Howard Hawks’ Red River. And outside of a movie theater, I can think of no better way to see it than in this new Criterion Blu-ray release.

In Tom Dunson, Wayne found his first complex, nuanced character–a man who starts out as the movie’s hero and slowly becomes its villain. Even then, he’s an honorable and sympathetic villain, and you understand why he behaves as he does. But you nevertheless root for the other guy.

That other guy is the orphan Tom raised as his own, Matt Garth (Montgomery Clift in his breakout role). They love each other as father and son, but under the strain of a long and dangerous cattle drive, their conflicting ways of handling hardship and managing hired hands turns them against onr another.

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Tom Dunson is a hard and determined man. He killed other men to establish his Texas ranch. In his defense, the other guys always drew first, but they wouldn’t have drawn at all if he was the sort who negotiated. But as the post-Civil War southern economy threatens to destroy all he worked and fought for, he gambles on a dangerous longshot–driving his immense herd across a thousand miles of potentially deadly territory. Matt, ever the loyal son, will help him lead a bunch of hired hands and thousands of cows across mountains and plains that may be infested with rustlers and Comanches.

In addition to Matt, Tom has a sidekick, Nadine Groot (Walter Brennan). Older and in some ways wiser than the others, he’s the loyal friend who tries to steer Tom away from his darker tendencies.

And Tom’s tendencies get very dark. As the drive drags on and the dangers increase, the men begin to grumble. Tom reacts with anger, pigheadedness, bullying, and eventually violence.

But Matt is one apple that clearly fell far from the tree. He treats the men with respect. He listens. He defends them when Tom becomes violent. A confrontation becomes inevitable.

This personal story plays out against an epic background. Russell Harlan’s beautiful black-and-white location photography has the mythic look of a John Ford western–a major departure from Hawks’ usual matter-of-fact visual style. And Dimitri Tiomkin’s magnificent score suggests that there’s something going on beyond the story of two men leading a cattle drive.

Unfortunately, the film reflects the almost subconscious racism of its time. Early on, Duson–basically at this point a squatter– kills a man trying to protect his employer’s property. I don’t believe that would have been acceptable if not for the convenient fact that both employer and employee are Mexican. Native Americans, of course, are treated as simple savages.

Like all great westerns, Red River is about masculinity. But it’s about two kinds of masculinity, and two very different kinds of men.

The ending has generated a lot of controversy since the movie opened in 1948. That’s all I’ll say about it.

The Two Versions

imageIf you’ve already seen Red River, chances are you’ve seen the pre-release version, originally shown in previews. The theatrical version runs about six minutes shorter.

After previewing his original cut in front of audiences, Hawks shortened the film. He also replaced narrative intertitles–designed to look like pages in an old book–with first-person narration by Brennan. That that version screened in theaters in 1948. And that, Hawks always insisted, is the definitive Red River.

And yet the pre-release version somehow got released and accepted as something like a director’s cut. And most people, myself included, prefer the pre-release version. The intertitles enhance the epic feel, while Brennan’s narration just gets annoying. And the ending, considerably shorter in the theatrical version (for legal reasons explained in the extras), works much better in the longer cut. In the theatrical version, everything gets resolved too quickly.

But you can make up your own mind. Criterion gives us both cuts.

First Impression

imageCriterion packages Red River in a thick cardboard box containing a disc sleeve and a book. The book is Borden Chase’s short novel, Blazing Guns on the Chisholm Trail,  that Chase and Charles Schnee adapted into the Red River screenplay.

The disc sleeve contains four discs and another book. Well, a 28-page booklet with two articles on the film and both film and disc credits.

The discs are stacked, two on the left, and two on the right. You have to remove one disc to get to the one beneath it. This configuration always makes me worry that I’ll damage a disc. I haven’t yet.

The two discs on the left are DVDs; on the right, Blu-rays. Following Criterion’s current policy, everything is on both discs. I only looked at the Blu-rays.

The first disc contains the theatrical cut, plus a few extras. The second contains the pre-release version, with additional extras. I don’t know why they didn’t use Blu-ray’s (and DVD’s) seamless branching feature to put both films on one disc. There would probably have been enough room for all of the extras, as well.

How It Looks

Red River is a beautiful example of 1940s black-and-white photography. Much of the film was shot in twilight or around campfires, requiring good shadow detail. The many long shots, showing wagons, galloping horses, and cows moving across vast stretches of open land require fine detail to make their impact.

Criterion’s 2k transfer manages all of this. Ninety-five percent of the time, this Blu-ray (or perhaps I should say these Blu-rays) looks great–from the mountains to the clothes to the faces seen only in shadow. Unfortunately, one of Red River’s most spectacular shots–a slow pan across the cattle just before the drive starts–looks horrible. In both versions, this shot is ruined by what looks like a combination of heavy film grain and digital artifacts.

How It Sounds

The PCM mono soundtrack is exactly what it should be. It doesn’t try to sound like anything beyond an optical soundtrack from 1948. But it sounds like a pristine soundtrack of the period, played in a really good theater.

And the Extras

By Criterion standards, these disappoint. There’s no commentary track, and no real documentary. Mostly you get interviews, some only in audio.

Disc One: The Theatrical version

  • About the Versions: Just a paragraph of written text about the two cuts.
  • Peter Bogdanovich on Red River: 17 minutes. The film historian and sometimes director explains Hawks’ esthetics and simple visual style. He also discusses the two versions.
  • Hawks and Bogdanovich: Criterion divided this 16-minute this audio interview from 1972 into 7 section. It’s worth a listen. I was surprised to discover that Hawks regretted shooting the film in black and white. Personally, I’m glad he did.
  • Trailer: 2 minutes.

Disc Two: The Prerelease Version

  • Molly Haskell: 16 minutes. The critic and historian discusses Red River’s gender issues, and Hawks’ approach to genre. Like me, she prefers the pre-release cut.
  • Lee Clark Mitchell: 13 minutes, The author of Westerns: making the Man in Fiction and Film talks about the western as a literary and cinematic genre, masculinity, and ties it all to Red River.
  • Borden Chase: 10 minutes. Audio excerpts from a 1969 interview, separated into four chapters. He talks a good deal about how Hawks changed the ending. He wasn’t happy with that.
  • Lux Radio Theatre: 59 minutes. Radio adaptation with much of original cast. I didn’t listen to it.

Red River is already on sale.

The Big Trail: A Big Western Shot on Big Film

Raoul Walsh’s The Big Trail is not by any stretch of the imagination a great film. But it’s fascinating, historically unique, and beautiful to look at. I caught it Sunday night at the Pacific Film Archive. I’d seen it before–on Turner Classic Movies–but this was my first Big Trail big screen experience. It deserves the big screen.

Three factors make The Big Trail historically significant. First, it was an unsuccessful attempt to revive the big-budget epic western–a blockbuster sub-genre that enjoyed large but brief popularity in the mid-1920s. Second, it was shot and originally shown in a widescreen, 70mm format 25 years before such things really caught on. And finally, it was John Wayne’s first starring role.

The Epic Western

There was no difference between a western and a B western until The Covered Wagon added production value and sweep to the genre in 1923. It was a smash. So were several follow-up films, including John Ford’s first A picture, The Iron Horse. But audiences soon tired of big westerns, and the genre returned to its low-budget roots.

In 1929-1930, Fox decided that with talkies firmly in place, it was time to revive the epic western–this time with audible dialog. Box office results easily proved the company wrong.

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Fox Grandeur

But that wasn’t the only bad idea Fox had in 1929. The company also decided that if one technical gimmick (sound) can sell tickets, two could sell more. So they developed Fox Grandeur, a 70mm format with a frame more than twice the size of standard 35mm, with an aspect ratio of more than 2×1.

This sort of thing would not become common until the mid-1950s.

The result is beautiful and spectacular. Covered wagons, herds of cattle, and breath-taking scenery fill the screen almost constantly. In the movie’s most stunning sequence, wagons, cows, luggage, and people are lowered via pulleys down a cliff–all done without special effects.

imageWalsh and cinematographer Lucien Andriot show an instinctive understanding of the large, wide screen–all the more surprising considering that no one had done this before or would do it again for almost 25 years. And since The Big Trail was in black and white, very few ever did it like this again.

Few theaters converted to Grandeur (the movie was simultaneously shot in 35mm, adding to the high budget), making the widescreen version difficult to show. In the 1980s, Fox and MOMA preserved the picture, printing it in anamorphic, Cinemascope-compatible 35mm, pillarboxed to the right aspect ratio.

Sunday night, the PFA screened an archival print of this preservation. It clearly came from a heavily-scratched source, and some image quality was lost with the optical printing process required to reduce and squeeze the image. The result was flawed, but still spectacular. Unless someone puts up the money for an 8K digital restoration, this as good as The Big Trail will ever again look.

John Wayne

Fox must have felt they didn’t have a star for this story, so they took a chance on Marion "Duke" Morrison, a young college football imagestar who was working at the studio in menial jobs and occasional extra work. Someone, and there’s controversy about who it was, changed the new actor’s name to John Wayne.

At this point in his career, Wayne wasn’t much of an actor. His inconsistent line readings sometimes ring laughably false. But even with these faults, he’s an easy-going and likable presence on screen.

To be fair, the rest of the cast sounds stilted and false, as well. There was probably little they could do with the corny script. The dialog mostly reeks, and the three villains are so broadly drawn and played that they might as well have worn signs that read "Bad Guy."

The climax was about as exciting as a dishwasher’s last cycle.

I’m glad I’ve finally seen The Big Trail theatrically. If you care about the evolution of the Western, or about the history of movie technology, it’s a must. But if you’re just looking for a good movie, there are better choices.

The PFA screened The Big Trail as part of their series, A Call to Action: The Films of Raoul Walsh. Walsh made better movies, and several of them are coming up in the series.

A Case for Silverado as a Great Western

Before he became the auteur of mediocre drameties like Darling Companion, Lawrence Kasdan wrote or co-wrote The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, and Raiders of the Lost Ark. For his third directorial effort, Kasdan created another action entertainment gem–although an unfairly overlooked one: the neo-classic western Silverado.

Shot against beautiful New Mexico scenery, Silverado plays as great escapist action adventure–big, loud, rousing fun, entirely lacking in moral ambiguity. When a villain kills a man, it’s murder. When one of the four heroes does it, his action deserves cheers. Kasden and screenplay collaborator (and brother) Mark Kasden laced the script with memorable lines ("I don’t want to kill you, and you don’t want to be dead") and cues for audience applause. Bruce Broughton’s rousing musical score evokes adventure and the bigness of the West.

I’d be hard-pressed to think of another western so nakedly in love with the genre. The movie opens in quiet and dark, as the camera lovingly examines a saddle, gun, and silveradoother cowboy accessories in a tiny, unlit cabin. Sounds from outside–a hawk’s cry, horses–come quietly through the walls. Suddenly a gunfight breaks out–several men on the outside vs. the loner inside. With each shockingly loud gunshot, a new hole opens up the cabin wall, introducing a new shaft of sunlight. (Silverado is also nakedly in love with it’s visuals, and with the still-relatively-new Dolby Stereo.) As the victorious loner (Scott Glenn as Emmett–the first of Silverado’s four heroes) walks out the door, the camera follows, taking us from a dark and cramped interior into sunlit, wide-open spaces as the music swells.

Between that opening and the climatic gun duel in the deserted street, Kasden treats us to a wagon train crossing a river, two jail breaks, multiple gun fights, several horse stunts, a stampede, and a saloon staffed with women of easy virtue. It’s as much an homage to westerns as a western itself.

And yet, with all that going on, Silverado takes time to breathe. Compared to Kasdan’s work for George Lucas, the pace is downright casual. It takes nearly an hour of screen time for the four heroes to meet, team up, have a couple of comic adventures, and finally get to the town of Silverado, and the more serious story.

While the characters are far from realistic (no one in the west was that good a shot), they’re deeper and more engaging than any found in a Star Wars or Indiana Jones flick. There’s one man–I won’t say who plays him—who may or may not be a villain. You suspect that he probably is, but you’re not sure. Then he fires a thieving employee, and when the ex-employee pulls a gun on him, he shoots first and kills in self-defense. Totally justifiable acts. But the cruelty with which he fires the man, and the joy he seems to take in the killing, leave us with no doubt. He’s a bad guy.

But what about the good guys? Two of the heroes–the above-mentioned Emmett and Danny Glover’s Mal, are iconic cowboys who seldom speak but know right from wrong. Mal is the more interesting of the two, partially because of Glover’s talent and charisma, but also because he’s a black man in an overwhelmingly white world. (Yes, I know, the frontier wasn’t overwhelmingly white, but Silverado is about the movie west, not the real one.) He conveys a great deal without talking. There’s a moment when, upon hearing of a heinous crime and people in trouble, he silently sighs and climbs onto his horse without saying a word. It’s a quietly commanding moment.

The picture deals with Mal’s race quickly and efficiently. In his first scene, he’s menaced by racists. After that, the issue is never raised again. Not historically accurate, but dramatically effective.

Kasden regular Kevin Kline plays Paden, who seems almost too urban to be a cowboy. A gambler and former outlaw, he sees everything as luck (good or bad), and it "only truly happy" in a saloon.

And it’s in Silverado’s saloon that he meets the picture’s most interesting character, Stella, played by the diminutive (4’9") Linda Hunt. In a world of tall men, decent wives, and dancehall girls, she fits no assigned role yet has found the perfect niche. She runs the town’s saloon with strength, determination, and good will. Stella and Paden hit it off immediately–not as lovers, but has very close friends. It becomes the most endearing relationship in the picture, and Hunt’s performance stands with Thomas Mitchell’s in Stagecoach amongst the great supporting parts in westerns.

Which brings us to the last of the four heroes: Jake–Emmett’s kid brother and yet another variation on that reoccurring western character, The Kid. A young, not-yet-famous Kevin Costner plays him as a happy, immature, post adolescent just bursting with energy. In his first scene, in jail, he swings on the bars like a monkey while explaining why he was arrested. I can’t help wondering how Costner’s career would have turned out if Silverado had been the success it deserved to be.

So why didn’t Silverado succeed commercially? I suspect that 1985 was a bad year to release a western. The cultural changes of the 1960s killed the classic western, replacing it as the decade ended with revisionist works like The Wild Bunch, Little Big Man, and McCabe and Mrs. Miller. These soon lost their audience, and by the mid ’70s, the western was for all intents and purposes dead. 1985 was too soon for a joyous, upbeat revival.

I consider Rio Bravo the most entertaining western ever made, but Silverado comes in a decent second. (For what it’s worth, Rio Bravo screenwriter Leigh Bracket wrote the first draft of The Empire Strikes Back, Kasden finished it.) Both lack the mythic power of John Ford, the dark humor of Sergio Leone, or the sad beauty of McCabe. But they’re as fun as this always-entertaining genre gets.

Why I Can’t Quite Call Unforgiven One of the Great Westerns

I first saw Unforgiven soon after its 1992 release. Everyone else was calling it a masterpiece, but I was deeply disappointed. Last Saturday, no longer remembering clearly why I didn’t like it,  I saw it again.

Now I view it in much the same way as Apocalypse Now. For most of its runtime, it is an absolutely brilliant motion picture. But it falls apart at the end.

In some ways, its collapse is worse than Apocalypse Now‘s, because it’s a cop-out. The ending is too much like a conventional western. The blame goes to writer David Webb Peoples–as I understand it, it was shot as he wrote it–and director Clint Eastwood, who didn’t insist on changing it.

I’m assuming you’ve already seen Unforgiven. The rest of this post contains spoilers.

For most of the film’s runtime, it brilliantly critiques and deconstructs the western genre. Violence is ugly, painful, and cruel. Even more so if the violence results in death. "It’s a hell of a thing, killin’ a man," says Eastwood’s character,  Will Munny. "You take away all he’s got and all he’s ever gonna have."

More than any other character, Munny represents everything false about the westernunforgiven_1 myth. Once a cruel and violent outlaw, usually drunk, he’s been reformed by a good woman. When we meet him, he’s a widower, a father of two young children, a tea-totaller, and a struggling pig farmer. He’s also, quite clearly, no longer a competent killer. Using a pistol, he can’t shout a paint can from a few paces.

Nevertheless, he teams up with old friend Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman) and a young, inexperienced, near-sighted braggart calling himself "The Schofield Kid" (Jaimz Woolvett), to kill two cowboys who cut up a prostitute. Munny tells himself that the cowboys have it coming, but he’s done worse himself. He’s after the reward.

The bulk of the movie follows these three killers, as well as the sadistic sheriff (Gene Hackman) maintaining the peace by bullying others. Of course, if he had properly handled those cowboys in the first place, the peace would not have been threatened.

Peoples and Eastwood make the themes clear. Violence is horrible and solves nothing. Western gunfights were never like the heroic, romanticized versions. There are no happy endings.

They also make it clear that Munny is no longer able to do this sort of work, and because he is sober, he no longer wants to.

The film is a masterpiece…up until the point where a prostitute, paying off Munny and the Kid for killing the cowboys, tells them that the sheriff has killed Ned Logan. Then everything falls apart.

Munny grabs a bottle of whisky and starts drinking. He rides into town, confronts the sheriff and a large posse. When his shotgun misfires, he pulls out his six-shooter, shoots the sheriff, and then kills enough deputies to convince the others to run away. Then he safely leaves town.

In other words, Peoples and Eastwood give Unforgiven a conventional, happy ending. unforgiven_2True, it’s shot to look uglier than usual, but its still about the hero killing a lot of bad guys. It violates everything the film has said about the west up until that moment, as well as everything we know about Will Munny. Yes, the whiskey could have loosened his inhibitions, restoring his violent disposition. But the whiskey could not have improved his hand/eye coordination, turning him from a bad shot to a great one.

Forgiven deserves a better ending, and Will Munny, as a character, deserved a worse one. I can imagine two preferable ways this picture should have closed:

  1. Munny kills the sheriff, then his deputies shoot down Munny like a dog.
  2. When Munny hears that the sheriff has killed his friend (which, let’s face it, is no worse than anything Munny has done), he should have just rode away, feeling bad.

Those endings would not have been as commercially successful. But they would have kept the film’s promise.

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