THE BIG COUNTRY

William Wyler’s The Big Country, from 1958, could almost serve as a
textbook on how to shoot a Western — it has some of the most amazing
images in the history of the genre.  Unfortunately, it’s not a very
good Western, not a very good film of any kind, and ends up being
terribly depressing.

Like John Ford, Wyler started out in the silent era directing
low-budget Westerns at Universal.  He graduated to more prestigious
material in the sound era but returned to the Western occasionally for
A-pictures in the genre, and made some fine ones, like The Westerner
with Gary Cooper.



The Big Country was a prestigious Western all the way, co-produced as
an independent film by Wyler and the film’s star Gregory Peck.  It had
a first-rate supporting cast including Charlton Heston, Jean Simmons
and Burl Ives.


Its story strove for the grandeur of a saga, and that perhaps was the
cause of its downfall as a film.  It proceeds at the stately pace of an
epic and clocks in at over two and a half hours, but it doesn’t have
the power or range of an epic, being a somewhat stodgy melodrama about
a feud between two ranching families over access to water for their cattle.



Peck plays a peaceably inclined Easterner who’s about to marry into one
of the families and isn’t impressed by the code of honor behind all the
violence he sees.  He gets mixed up in a couple of inconvenient love
triangles as the range war rages and eventually proves his manhood on
his own terms.


These are all familiar Western themes but they seem to have been
cobbled together without much conviction.  The central love story is
satisfying but takes a long time to get under way.



We are left with . . . the big country, shot magnificently by Wyler in
his usual elegant style, with stunning tracking and deep-focus shots in
spectacular scenery recording beautifully choreographed action playing
out in vast spaces.  It’s breathtaking, visually, but since we’re not
deeply invested in the story, the visuals have a limited impact.  We’re
seduced into magical spaces where nothing all that exciting happens
emotionally.  Big country, big production — little movie.

THE RETURN OF THE WESTERN

America, having lost its way in the 21st Century, is in desperate need of the Western, which it cast aside too heedlessly and too cynically in the 60s.  The Western keeps coming back, successfully when it celebrates the old values Americans are hungry for — the traditional, unifying national myth — disastrously when it tries to peddle the old 60s cynicism one more time.

The Coen brothers understand this if any filmmakers working in Hollywood today understand it, which gives me hope that their remake of True Grit, coming this Christmas, will offer a way back into the Western for modern audiences.



They've chosen the perfect vehicle.  When the Western was buried prematurely it was just starting to expand its horizons, just embarking on the next logical phase of its development, which was to incorporate a female perspective into the myth.  Charles Portis's novel, the story of an alliance between an aging lawman and a 14 year-old girl, may not offer a mature female perspective, but it's on the right track — it suggests a future.  14 year-old girl heroes grow up eventually into women heroes.

Portis's novel also deals with a social phenomenon that has only grown more pronounced since the book was published in 1968 — fatherlessness.  In the tale, Mattie Ross's father has been murdered, and she hires a broken down gunman to help her get revenge.  The gunman, Rooster Cogburn, must reconnect with his heroic youth in order to fulfill his mission — an image of manhood in need of redemption, of a kind of surrogate father given a second chance to do his duty.



The Coens are also among the few filmmakers working in Hollywood who understand how to use cinematic space for emotional effects — an understanding which is crucial to the success of any Western, which depends so profoundly on the truths about themselves people reveal in the ways they move through space, through iconic American landscapes, on foot or on horseback.

If the Coens pull this one off, it will be a grand Christmas present to cinema, and to the nation.

THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE

This is one of the saddest films ever made, but the depths of its sorrow don't reveal themselves on a first viewing, when we have the tension and suspense of the narrative to distract us.  But it's a tale told in retrospect, beginning with the death of one of its protagonists, and it's best appreciated, or most fully appreciated, on a second or third viewing, when you know what's going to happen — when you can relish all the small details layered into it to reinforce its melancholy, elegiac mood.



In 1962, when the film was made, the twilight Western was becoming a regular form of the genre, telling stories about the passing of the Old West and its heroes and their values.  It signaled a suspicion that the Western itself was almost played out as a commercial form, and an acknowledgment that the great stars of the genre were aging and not being replaced by younger stars of equal stature.



Ford was the only director who had the grace to try and give the Western a proper burial, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is that burial.  Sam Peckinpah, who made one of the great twilight Westerns in Ride the High Country, was driven by his demons to mutilate the corpse of the Western (in The Wild Bunch) before throwing the sod o'er it.

As with The Searchers, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance has at its tragic core the story of
a love that might have been but never was, regret for which consumes the female lead here, as it consumed the male lead in The Searchers.  This is what gives the film its emotional power, in a way that a tale of the civilizing of the West, the passing of an old way of life, would not have.  What might have been an exercise in nostalgia or sociology becomes something much deeper.



Hallie, played by Vera Miles, is the key to almost every scene in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.  As a general rule, if you want to know what Ford is interested at any given moment, watch her.  Watch especially the early scene in which Link, the old retired sheriff, played by Andy Devine, drives her out to the desert.  His delicacy in knowing what she wants to see but not speaking of it, her reliance on his unspoken understanding and sympathy, evoke something far more momentous than the passing of old times.

What we are seeing is the wisdom of age, a celebration of consideration, of the potent, consoling force of etiquette in human affairs.  It's the passing of chivalry, gallantry, self-sacrifice which the movie grieves over — not the rowdy freedom of the old days, but their silent and graceful formalities of mutual respect.

The idea is even more poignant now than in would have been in 1962, when it was genuinely prophetic.  There isn't a director working in Hollywood today who's wise or grown up enough to create a scene like that one between Link and Hallie, and even if there were, there isn't a producer or a studio with the guts to let a director create such a scene.  Ford was mourning more than the death of the Western in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance — he was mourning the death of humane cinema.

Ransom Stoddard, played in the film by Jimmy Stewart, embodies the logic of the law, right and true and admirable in every respect, but Tom Donophon, played by John Wayne, embodies the spirit of grace.  It's a spirit Hallie has come to cherish too late, but she pays due respect to it as it's laid to rest.

Stoddard once taught her how to read, but Donophon gave her a flowering plant, bearing cactus roses.  She never repaid the gracious gift in his lifetime, but she knows, with his death, what she owes him, has always owed him, and repays it symbolically, the only way she can.

The director Paul Schrader once said that Sam Peckinpah's contribution to the Western was carving its tombstone.  John Ford, by contrast, had the decency and the humility to lay a cactus rose on its grave.

THE WESTERN ARIA

Westerns used to be referred to sometimes as “horse operas”.  The term was slightly dismissive but has a kind of logic.  In good Westerns — good A Westerns and good B Westerns — the drama is punctuated and often driven forward by passages of action which have a musical quality.  For lovers of the genre, these passages are like arias, the great memorable numbers in the classic operas that you walk out of the theater humming.  In some ways they're what the show is all about.



The makers of most modern Westerns have forgotten this basic organizing principle of the form, if they ever understood it at all.  Horses in modern Westerns, as I've remarked elsewhere, are props, accessories, means of conveyance — not tenors or sopranos with a vital function to play in the show.  Phoning in the horse action in a Western is the equivalent of an opera director playing the great arias as recorded background music while the performers get on with the serious business of speaking the dialogue of the libretto.



Some Western “arias” don't require horses — these are the shoot-outs in which enemies face off and battle to the death.  These arias are all about space — about the camera making clear what spaces the combatants are in and what problems it confronts them with.  Their negotiation of these spaces becomes a kind of violent dance — like the violent dances that take place in a boxing ring or a bull ring, which become legible and beautiful only when the limits of the arenas are clear to the spectators.



The spaces can be intricate, as with a running gun battle through rocky terrain or through the streets and between the buildings of a town.  The spaces can also be very simple, as in the ultimate Western aria — the face to face showdown between two small groups of men or just two men in an empty street or corral or farmyard.  The dance here is usually very stylized and formal — from the challenge to the slow walk towards the meeting to the lightning-fast denouement.



In all these arias, the director needs to know how to elaborate and arrange “the kinetic melody of movement”.  When the directors of Westerns forgot how to do this, it was like that development in modern opera when composers forgot how to incorporate, or lost interest in incorporating, memorable melodies in their scores.  Opera ceased being a popular art form with this development, and Westerns will never again be a popular film genre until the modern directors of Westerns re-learn the art of the Western aria.

THE BALLAD OF CABLE HOGUE

Just a few months after he delivered The Wild Bunch, in 1969, Sam Peckinpah started work on its unlikely follow-up, The Ballad Of Cable HogueHogue is so sweet and sentimental that one is tempted to read it as an attempt to atone for the brutishness and meanness of the preceding film.

It’s a film that defies category.  Part revenge saga, part love story, part romantic comedy, part sex farce, part elegy, it’s a work that delights mostly in telling stories, in the slow rhythms of a good yarn spun out before a fire on a chilly night.  Audiences of the time were baffled by it and uninterested in a sweet and sentimental film from the director of the The Wild Bunch.  The studio that made it seemed equally baffled and uninterested and did not promote it aggressively.  It was a colossal flop at the box office in 1970, but its reputation has grown steadily over the years, and rightly so.  It’s a really wonderful film.

Like Ride the High Country and The Wild Bunch it’s a twilight Western, a film about the passing of the Old West, but it’s neither tragic nor savage on the subject — more bemused and fatalistic.  It has none of the nihilism and bitterness of The Wild Bunch, and one is further tempted to ascribe this to the fact that Peckinpah didn’t write the script, but that would be unfair — his commitment to the material is absolute.  In his later years he called it his favorite film, and it was the one work he wanted young people to see when he lectured on college campuses.

The love story is the heart of it, and it’s one of the best and most powerful love stories ever told in a Western — all the more so for the fact that it starts out so conventionally, even crudely.  Cable Hogue, visiting a nearby town to file a claim on some desert land where he has improbably found water, catches sight of Hildy, a cheerful whore with a heart of gold.  She’s lovely and magnificently sexual, and Peckinpah concentrates his camera on her cleavage — pointedly, almost obsessively.



Hildy is presented as a sex object, something to leer at, and Peckinpah leers at her with gusto.  But that changes.  It changes because of the way Cable, played with charm and intelligence by Jason Robards, treats Hildy — with respect for her humanity — and because of the way Stella Stevens, in an equally fine performance, expresses that humanity in Hildy.  By the end of the film, one is not ogling her boobs — one is studying her eyes to see what she’s thinking, what she’s feeling.  These things have become matters of paramount importance.



It’s an amazing bait and switch, turning this sex object into a complicated woman we care about, and it’s almost unprecedented in the Hollywood Western.  It becomes unbearably moving.  The climax of the relationship, and in some way the climax of the film, occurs during a scene in which Hildy visits Cable’s cabin on his claim.  She slips into a nightgown in the cabin and then opens the door for Cable, who’s waiting outside.

Cable looks at her, half-silhouetted in the lamplight behind her, and says, “That’s a sight for sore eyes.”  “You seen it before,” she reminds him, but he shakes his head and replies, “Nobody’s seen you before, lady.”  To her, it means being seen as someone reborn, with her shady past gone, irrelevant.  To lovers of the Western genre, it means looking at a woman as a full person, not just a reward for male heroism or an occasion for male gallantry.

It’s a tentative venture into territory the genre might have explored more fully if cynical Westerns like The Wild Bunch hadn’t sounded its death knell.  John Ford, for all his courtliness towards women, only created one female character in a Western as rich as Hildy — Maureen O’Hara’s Kathleen Yorke in Rio Grande.



The Ballad Of Cable Hogue is full of fabulous incidents and subplots, but in the end they all really serve to set off the story of Cable and Hildy — and the love of Cable and Hildy irradiates the rest of the narrative.  It leads to an act of unexpected forgiveness between mortal enemies, and seems to be the real source of Cable’s love of the desert, and even of his country.



When Cable signs a contract with a stage line to make his spring a station on their route, assuring his fortune, one of the stage drivers presents him with an American flag, which he flies proudly over his lonely outpost.  He’s lowering it one evening when Hildy shows up to stay with him for a while, whereupon he runs it up the pole again, as a kind of salute to the woman.

Hildy becomes by implication the spirit of the nation — the Eternal Feminine that leads it on.  Ford’s work often suggested this idea, but rarely personified the feminine as acutely as Peckinpah and Stevens managed to do in this film.  It’s a startling achievement.



The image of the flag flying over Cable Springs at twilight in a beautiful wide shot is grand and iconic, worthy of Ford.  The film is filled with such images, but cluttered with stylistic tics like split screens, zooms and extreme telephoto shots.  “This is a modern film, totally up to date!” they scream, in the language of 1970.  In the language of today they have another message — “This is an old film!”  Hogue has dated on this score to a far greater degree than other films made around the same time in a more classical style, like The Godfather.

This is the only thing that keeps Hogue out of the front ranks of the Western, but it doesn’t vitiate the radical humanism and deep emotion that drive it.

THE WILD BUNCH

[Note:  If you're a big fan of The Wild Bunch, please don't read this post -- it will really piss you off.]

I know that The Wild Bunch has a lot of cool stuff in it, a lot of cool lines and situations and scenes.  I know how startling a film it was when it first came out, because I saw it when it first came out and was startled.  I know its historical importance in inaugurating the era of the anti-Western.  I know that it was made by a filmmaker of genuine genius and has one set-piece action sequence that’s very close to being brilliant.

But I also know that, overall, it’s badly written, badly shot and badly edited.  It’s a mean-spirited, crappy little movie, for all its reputation, and its commentary on the Western genre, its revision of that genre, is puerile and meretricious.  It was made by a man who understood and loved the genre but sold his birthright for a mess of porridge.

If your positive feelings about the film are based on viewing it as a young person, then I can understand them — when I was a child I spake as a child, too.  But when I became a man, I put away childish things.  If your positive feelings about the film are based on a recent viewing and careful consideration, then I either don’t respect your judgment or I don’t like you.

There are some things a man can’t ride around, and for me The Wild Bunch is one of them.

This was Sam Peckinpah’s fourth Western feature.  The second, Ride the High Country (above), was one of the great twilight Westerns — a tale of the passing of the West and of the men who tamed it and of the code they lived by.  Peckinpah didn’t write that film.  He did co-write The Wild Bunch.  It has elements of the twilight Western.  Its protagonists are aging outlaws off on one last adventure just before WWI — but these men have only the crudest sort of code, which basically boils down to the idea that there should be honor among thieves.

They think nothing of murdering innocent bystanders to get what they want.  They tolerate one of their band murdering a former lover because she’s left him for a crud.  They’re content to murder U. S. soldiers in order to steal weapons for a corrupt Mexican tyrant, in return for cash. They’re not above using unarmed women as shields in a gunfight.

Yet somehow Peckinpah sees honor in these men — because they like to do things the hard way (why?) and because they stick together.  In a famous scene, the leader of the outlaw band played by William Holden says, to quell an argument in the ranks, “When you side with a man you stay with him.  If you can’t do that you’re just some kind of animal — you’re finished.”  But if you side with a man in order to do bestial things, what the hell does a code like that add up to?  Nothing much, really.

The film ends on a note of sacrificial bravery, or suicide by Federales, if you want to look at it that way, and it summons up enough of the old Western imagery to make you forget for a moment the real character of these men, brave but unprincipled by any conventional or admirable definition of the word, sort of like modern-day terrorists.  Peckinpah offers an image of redemption that may fire the blood but cannot convince the heart.

It being 1969, Peckinpah the screenwriter offers other apologies for the brutality and cynicism of his protagonists.  The bystanders they kill are part of a hypocritical and corrupt society.  The soldiers they kill are incompetent and of course, by implication, wear the uniform of the country that was at the time ravaging Vietnam.

It’s all crap of course — an attempt to burnish male violence and misogyny with some sort of vague social criticism.  The outlaws make crude jokes amongst each other and then laugh really hard over them — when you hear that totally unconvincing laughter, you know it’s just a cue to the young men in the audience to approve their own lowest locker-room sensibilities.  In the paean to the men that ends the film, Peckinpah offers this rough-house laughter as a kind of transcendent image of the life force of the outlaws.  It still rings hollow.

Peckinpah indulges his own adolescent insolence frequently in the film.  He knows how to make beautiful shots of horses moving through landscapes, but his big equestrian stunts are all about tormenting horses and making them look awkward and ugly.

He seems to take a special delight in degrading the aging icons of the Western genre, having them do shameful things — Holden occasionally but Ben Johnson often . . . Johnson who had been for John Ford the symbol of grace in the saddle and moral grace as a hero.  To show Johnson’s character drunk in a tub of water pawing a half-naked Mexican whore is to direct a gob of spit straight into Ford’s one good eye.

There are many beautiful images in the film, but many more which are turned into mush by telephoto lenses and zooms.

This style of shooting made the film seem new — in 1969.  Today, it simply dates the work, making it look cheap, like something shot for television.

There is one almost wholly admirable set-piece involving a train robbery, which is well staged and well shot and well edited — it’s the work of a filmmaker who knows what he’s doing.  But other action sequences are incoherent to the point of being unreadable, with fast cutting and shock zooms that give the impression of excitement by purely cosmetic means.

The film does have a few gracious moments — crepuscular mood pieces in which the nostalgia for past times is almost touching . . . would be touching if we could imagine that these men had ever been more than thugs.  And there’s a mystical love for Mexico, for the sweetness of certain aspects of Mexican culture, that really is touching, even if it hasn’t got much to do with the rest of the film.

After an initial robbery gone wrong the “wild bunch” retreat south of the border and have a brief idyll in a small Mexican village.  As they ride out of it the next day the villagers serenade them, and Peckinpah films their mounted procession in beautiful slow tracking shots.  It doesn’t make a lot of sense — why do the villagers seem to worship such men as departing gods? — but it’s very sweet.

The Wild Bunch got its juice when it came out from its graphic violence and its swaggering nihilism — for its daring in deconstructing the myth of the old West created over generations in the movie Western.  That sort of frisson has a short shelf life, though.  The anti-Western cycle that this film inspired exhausted itself very quickly, and soon the Western was more or less finished as a commercial proposition.  How many times can you deconstruct something that’s already lying scattered around in pieces on the ground?

Guys who thrilled to this film in their youths may have a certain nostalgia for its crude, chaotic energy, like the crude, chaotic energy of adolescence itself — and we can’t very well begrudge them this.  But it’s no movie for grown men, and it was a calamitous event in the history of the movie Western and thus in our culture at large.

THE KINETIC MELODY OF MOVEMENT


                                                                                                                            [Image © Paul Kolnik]

I learn from Oliver Sacks that neurologists use this phrase — the kinetic melody of movement — to describe the naturalness and fluidity of normal human movement.  They call a halting, broken movement, caused by something like Parkinson's disease, a kinetic stutter.

As Sacks explains it, “When we walk, our steps emerge in a rhythmical stream, a flow that is automatic and self-organizing.  In parkinsonism, this normal, happy automatism is gone.”

Dance elaborates on this natural kinetic “melody” in order to celebrate it, and it is something worth celebrating, as a sign of health and prowess, crucial to early human societies, especially ones based on hunting.


                                                                                                                                                    [Image © Paul Kolnik]

Like musical melodies, based undoubtedly on the pleasing qualities of human speech, especially in the unique voices of kinfolk and tribal allies, dance can become almost an end in itself — but it always retains an echo of the simplest kinetic melody, the song sung by any human body moving through space.

Sculptors, like Augustus St. Gaudens (above), and photographers like Paul Kolnik, who did the black and white images of the New York City Ballet here, can freeze motion in such a way that it implies the whole melodic arc of a movement.



When a filmmaker puts a frame around some part of the world, she is helping define a space, and thus helping us read any movement through it as a kinetic melody.  Such melodies can, by the choreography of the movement, become almost symphonic, in the way classical ballet can.  Good Westerns, which enlist the noble and elegant kinetic melodies of horses, are always symphonic in this way.

Every great filmmaker knows, if only intuitively, that she is really making a kind of music with her images.

LONE PINE

My nephew Harry and I, a couple of movie-mad kids at heart, made a pilgrimage last week to Lone Pine, California, to pay our respects to a location where scores of Westerns and other kinds of films have been shot over the years.

Fatty Arbuckle made The Round-Up there in the silent era (1920), and most of the exteriors of Gunga Din were shot there, incorporating some massive sets constructed in the Alabama Hills, in 1938.

Many of the films in the Hopalong Cassidy series were made in and around Lone Pine . . .

. . . and many of the Tim Holt Westerns, too.

The films in both of those series are beautifully shot — they are B-Westerns with first-class cinematography and can be watched over and over again for the aesthetic pleasures of their images alone.



The greatest films shot in and around Lone Pine were the Randolph Scott-Budd Boetticher Westerns, including The Tall T (above), Ride Lonesome and Comanche Station (below), and these films have consecrated the locale for me.  Lone Pine and the nearby Alabama Hills were for Boetticher what Monument Valley and Moab, Utah, were for John Ford.  I wanted to move through that landscape and see the raw material from which Boetticher conjured his enchanted spaces.



I was also doing a very preliminary location scout for a no-budget Western I'm working on, wondering if Lone Pine might be a place it could be made.

We started out our day at the excellent film museum in Lone Pine, which has an amazing collection of posters from the films shot in the area and a number of sublime artifacts — the most sublime of which was a cowboy hat worn by Barbara Stanwyck in a film made at Lone Pine.  My heart skipped a little beat as I stood before it, thinking of the way that woman could sit a horse.

The lane above runs next to the museum.



Like Monument Valley and the valley near Moab through which the Colorado River flows, Lone Pine has a lot of different-looking landscapes concentrated in a small area — which facilitates rapid company moves on a low-budget shoot.  You can get a sense of numerous contrasting locations with minimal logistical complications.



The Alabama Hills are a labyrinth of odd rock formations, passes and basins.  Minutes away to the east the Owens River runs through shady groves and reeds — familiar from the beautiful river crossing scenes in the Boetticher films.



One of the glories of Lone Pine is the range of the Sierra Nevadas looming up to the west of the Alabama Hills.

It makes for some spectacular scenery, but would be a problem for my film, which is set in North Texas, where such mountains do not exist.  Working in the Alabama Hills or along the banks of the Owens, which could stand in quite well for Texas, one would be severely limited in the directions from which one could cover a scene, but it's probably a limitation one could live with.



But that's a problem for another day.  The day we spent in and around Lone Pine was magical — it's ground haunted by galloping ghost horses ridden by ghost cowboys, whose images live on, even in these degraded and ignoble times.

We drove back through the furnace of Death Valley that afternoon . . .

. . . and sped straight to the In-N-Out Burger for sustenance.  That night, inspired by the grand Western landscapes of Lone Pine, Harry watched Jean Renoir's La Règle du Jeu for the first time.