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.

SFIFF Report: Kanbar Awards: David Webb Peoples & Unforgiven

I started the day at the Kanbar Award presentation honoring screenwriter David Webb Peoples.

After an introduction and a selection of clips from his films (which include Bladerunner, Unforgiven, Hero, and 12 Monkeys, Peoples was interviewed on stage by novelist James Dalessando, an old friend of his.

A few notable Peoples comments:

  • Peoples started out wanting to write books. Then "I started seeing some of those great movies. I thought books are shit. Writings is shit. Everything is images. I worked as an editor at KQED. I had nothing but distain for the writers. Subsequently I got a job editing a picture. The script seemed to me pretty awful. I felt I could write better. I started writing screenplays. I got to love writing screenplays."
  • "I’ve always liked revisionist westerns. I wasn’t crazy about John Ford."
  • On directing (which he did once): "I didn’t get it so good. I had a good cast, a good crew, even had enough money. I realized my limitations."
  • On rewrites: "You should try to make it better, but if you can’t make it better, you shouldn’t make it worse.

Unforgiven

I remember being the only person who didn’t like it when it was new. Seeing it again, 20 years later, I still see it as flawed, but great, as well. The problem, and it’s a serious one, is that the climax throws away every brilliant thing that leads up to it. But until that climax, it’s one of the great westerns.

Clint Eastwood (who also directed) stars as William Muny, a once-horrible killer who gave up that life when he married a good woman. Now he’s a widower, a pig farmer, a tea-totaler, and a father of two young children. Desperate for money, he sets out with two companions on one more job: to kill two cowboys who cut up a prostitute, and now have a price on their head.

The picture is very much a critique and attack on the conventional western. People die badly. The picture makes abundantly clear that gunfights aren’t clear, and the winner isn’t the fastest draw, but the most cunning, the most aggressive, or the most lucky.

For most of the running time, this is one of the greatest westerns ever made. Everything falls into place–script, acting, sound, the aggressively not beautiful photography. It all comes together to say that the western as we know it is not only a lie, but a harmful one.

Then, at the end, it just blows it, violating everything that has gone before. I suppose a realistic ending, and one that would have fit into the film’s themes, would not have been as commercially successful.

The festival screened Unforgiven off of a Blu-ray disc, which is acceptable but not ideal. Since the film was shot in ‘scope, the Blu-ray was letterboxed. The image was considerably smaller than a scope 35mm print or DCP.

Cowboys, Aliens, and Original Blockbusters

I wanted to see Cowboys and Aliens as soon as I saw the advertising. Partly, it struck me as a cool idea. I also wanted to support any big-budget Hollywood summer movie that wasn’t a sequel, prequel, remake, or adaptation from a TV show, best-selling novel, or comic book.

Besides, a new western is a rare treat these days, even one with such an outlandish gimmick. I was also intrigued by the artless, blunt “This is what we’re giving you” title. A big movie today needs a title that tells you what you’ll be seeing in no uncertain terms. Most do this simply by being part of a franchise. If the title starts with Spiderman or Harry Potter, you know what you’re getting. You also know what you’re getting with Snakes on a Plane or Cowboys and Aliens (or for that matter, with the only art-house film I know of with such a blunt title: Young People Fucking).

I don’t buy movie tickets because of a genre or title. My final decision came only after seeing the mostly-positive reviews. Unfortunately, other priorities kept me out of the theater while the movie became a flop—or at least a “disappointment.” I don’t know why C&A hasn’t drawn a bigger audience, but I know what conclusion the studio heads will make: It’s too dangerous to invest a big budget in a movie that isn’t a sequel, prequel, remake, or adaptation from a TV show, best-selling novel, or comic book.

I finally saw the movie yesterday afternoon, in a near-empty theater. This movie deserves better.

Cowboys and Aliens comes very close to being an excellent neo-classic western. I’m not just talking about the easy stuff, like dirt. The plot, especially in the first act, offers vague suggestions of Rio Bravo and other classics without going over the line into rip-off. From the first to the last shot, it shows considerable love and understanding of the entire genre.

The actors all have the right look, playing characters that walk that fine line between archetypes and fully-developed human beings that make Ford’s best work so impressive. Daniel Craig stars as the lone, quiet gunslinger who wanders into town. Harrison Ford is the rich cattle baron who runs the town that Craig’s character wanders into. You’ve got the hotshot kid (Paul Dano), the saloon keeper (Sam Rockwell), and the sheriff (Keith Carradine). All that’s lacking is the drunken doctor and the whore with the heart of gold.

But then the aliens attack, and it gets kind of silly. It’s still fun, both because the alien action scenes are well done, and because by then we’re invested in the characters. But I couldn’t help suspecting that the filmmakers wanted to make a western, but couldn’t get financing without adding aliens.

The aliens, of course, are evil, ugly, and utterly lacking in subtlety or characterization. While the movie takes from the best of westerns, its science fiction elements seem taken directly from the Big Book of Movie Clichés.

Yes, much of it is predictable (anyone who doesn’t realize that the little kid would use that knife in an important way has never seen a Hollywood movie). But that’s part of the fun of genre. Cowboys and Aliens handles one genre expertly, and the other passably. I give it a B.

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