Off the trail: Meek’s Cutoff (Kelly Reichardt, 2010)

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Meek’s Cutoff has an esteemed cast, an original premise, and laudable goals. All of this is obscured, however, by the approach director Kelly Reichardt took in making it. As a story about settlers struggling to reach Oregon, the film concentrates far too much on the drudgery and frustration of the experience, severely trying the viewer’s patience.

The settler party is led by Solomon Tetherow (Will Patton) and guided by Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood). Despite Meek’s inability to find fresh water, let alone a trail, only Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams) is able to express her lack of faith in the mountain man. When the group captures an Indian (Rod Rondeaux), the group must decide whether or not to put their survival in his hands.

Meek’s Cutoff’s overriding theme is the lack of agency given to women in this historical place and time. Conversations between the men are filmed from a distance, the sound low, while the women watch. At a crucial point, the men vote on a decision and exclude the women (who work as hard as the men) as a matter of course. Emily refuses passivity, however, taking action wherever possible. She can handle a gun and challenge Meek in an argument. She repairs the Indian’s shoes to try and obligate him to her. Eventually, she will have the final say over the Indian’s life.

In all of this, Meek’s Cutoff is an intriguing film. More intriguingly still, it keeps the race relations involved in this situation complex and on edge. Emily may need the Indian, but that doesn’t stop her from having contempt for him. Meanwhile, his trustworthiness remains in question. Some of his dialogue, when translated, gives clues about his intentions, but even then, we don’t know if this is a true alliance.

The film has little dialogue, distancing the viewer. Scenes that give further background to the characters appear briefly in a making-of featurette, but most of these did not make the final cut. Many scenes simply show the settlers walking, with a wagon wheel emitting a continual, irritating squeak.

Meek’s Cutoff has a strong sense of realism, and this sometimes adds to the storytelling. When Emily first sees the Indian and shoots into the air to summon the men, the time it takes her to reload adds tension to the moment. Similarly, the process whereby the settlers belay their wagons down an incline is painfully slow and difficult, with the cost of failure high. This is as exciting as Meek’s Cutoff gets, however. Want to watch the likes of Williams, Greenwood, Shirley Henderson and Paul Dano cook, sew and move wagons about? That’s mostly what this film is.

The viewer’s time could be paid off if the film had a conclusive ending. Conversely, its final ambiguity could be worthwhile if all that proceeded it had some sense of dynamism. As it stands, however, Meek’s Cutoff offers little reward and leaves a sense of wasted possibilities.

A subversive, quirky Western: Buck and the Preacher (Sidney Poitier, 1972)

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One possible reason that the Western has become a less popular genre in the past few decades is that audiences aren’t as willing to accept (or at least celebrate) the notion of Manifest Destiny, or the type of masculinity usually represented by the hero. Though this is a positive thing, it’s also something of a shame, because not every Western, past or present, plays into the same values. Most people who claim to hate Westerns seem to think they haven’t changed since the forties, but as often as the typical Western lead has been an unemotional, Indian-killing white man, there’s plenty of room within the genre for different points of view. Indeed, with his directorial debut, Buck and the Preacher, Sidney Poitier made an unconventional Western that manages to be fun as well.

Poitier plays Buck, a wagonmaster who does his best to escort former slaves to land where they can make new homes. These people are often pursued by Southerners and forced to return to their former owners. When Buck falls afoul of the Preacher (Henry Belafonte), a fast-talking conman, he’s made a devious enemy. However, after the Southerners attack his latest wagon train, Buck, the Preacher, and Buck’s lover Ruth (Ruby Dee) are the only people who can get back the settlers’ money and lead them to safety.

Buck and the Preacher is something of a buddy movie. The stoic and moral Buck stands in contrast to the eccentric, stylish Preacher. Of course, once Preacher starts caring about people other than himself, they’re going to make a great team, and the actors play their parts well. Surprisingly, though, there’s room in the partnership for Ruth too.

The film has a laid-back sense of style about it. There’s some odd framing in a few shots, but the film feels nicely quirky. The soundtrack, which combines harmonica with a lively bassline, is certainly off-kilter. A scene where the lead trio rob a bank so seamlessly that they don’t even need to say a word is impressively cool.

Buck and the Preacher’s plot is fairly predictable and the pacing is a mite slow, but it’s hard not to like this film. Though it takes on a much overlooked, weighty subject, the overall tone is optimistic. It’s also impossible not to admire a Western that mostly stars black men, gives a major role to a black woman, avoids making all the white characters bigots, and respects its Indian characters. Westerns need not be riddled with racist cliches (even if, like most Hollywood films, they often are) and not every film in the genre is cut from the same cloth. Buck and the Preacher reuses many familiar elements but, with only a few changes, becomes something markedly different. When so many more modern Westerns, from There Will Be Blood to The Ballad of Little Jo to Deadwood to The Proposition, take a heavy tone, this film’s lighter touch is appreciable, too.

Never mind Clint: The Unforgiven (John Huston, 1960)

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The Unforgiven is darker than most psychological westerns of the 50s, yet less explicit than the Revisionist westerns of the coming decades. This makes it a distinctive film in the genre. It’s the story of the Zacharys, a family that has grown prosperous even though the patriarch was killed by Kiowa Indians some years previously. When mysterious old Abe Kelsey (Joseph Wiseman) reappears and claims that the Zacharys’ adoptive daughter, Rachel (Audrey Hepburn) is herself a Kiowa, the Zacharys find themselves friendless and under threat from the Indians.

The Unforgiven does not actually show much violence, but it feels like a violent film. Peckinpah could have done much with the last half hour, in which the Zacharys are besieged within their home, but the extreme emotional turbulence the characters experience is more important than showing blood and gore. The story is full of dark themes, from racism to mental trauma to borderline incest.

If The Unforgiven were made in the 70s, it would push all of its material further, but it certainly doesn’t feel like the 50s either. The film does not operate through Hays Code-conscious inferences. Even a moment of innuendo is something so blatant that it probably wouldn’t have flown a few years previously: an Indian man tells a horse he’s breaking in that it won’t hurt much after the first time, before telling Rachel (who’s often dressed in white, symbolic in more ways than one) that she has a burr in her hair.

The film is more impactful because it feels grounded in reality. In addition to its landscapes, which are not Ford-ian in their grandeur but are shot with an eye for natural beauty, the people’s lives are depicted in ways that show how they are shaped by the circumstances of time and place. The Zacharys’ house is set into a hill, something that becomes first a strength and later a weakness as the film progresses. When the family has visitors, once of them, a young woman, asks her parents to stop their carriage so that she can run into the bushes and change into a dress that she hopes will impress Cash Zachary. The convivial gathering involves songs and entertainment that are certainly not modern. The film creates its world through small details, unfamiliar to us but not to its happy characters, so that it can tear it down by the story’s end.

The Unforgiven has a curious mix of onscreen talent. Lillian Gish is a fine choice for the mother of the family, Mattilda, who makes every effort to hide her secret for her daughter’s sake. Burt Lancaster brings an appropriate anguish to Ben Zachary, who has long been in love with his adopted sister, and Wiseman is genuinely unnerving as mad Kelsey. Most surprisingly, Audie Murphy, unrecognisable beneath a moustache, gives one of his best dramatic turns as racist, increasingly unhinged Cash.

The film’s biggest flaw was probably inevitable in 1960, but remains a glaring one nonetheless. The Unforgiven delves into Rachel’s sense of self and of her place in the world, and the ways in which she is accepted or rejected. Much of the power of these issues is undercut by the fact that Rachel is being played by Audrey Hepburn, and not an Indian actor. Hepburn is fine in the role, exhibiting an effortless radiance that makes it easy to believe that Rachel is dearly loved by some, and that makes the injustice of her persecution by others more obvious. It’s doubtless, however, than an Indian actor could have connected better with the character and added weight to her troubles, and done more to challenge the audience.

Though The Unforgiven is not so resonant as it would like to be, it is a western not easily categorised, and one that’s full of tension and powerful emotions. Most of all, it’s a film undeserving of its relative obscurity.

A killer’s game: No Name on the Bullet (Jack Arnold, 1959)

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The extent to which Audie Murphy gets derided for his acting is, I think, a little unfair. An actor doesn’t need to be able to adopt two dozen different accents or transform their appearance or even be particularly versatile to be effective in a film. As for the fact that Murphy was only taller than his onscreen love interests through artificial means… Perhaps it says more about ideas of gender (in the 50s, if not now) than anything else that the most decorated American soldier in WWII had to stand on a box to look manly.

Murphy had a fast draw and strong horse-riding skills, and worked well in the three westerns I’ve seen him in thus far. He has a great rapport with Dan Duryea in Ride Clear of Diablo, which is a hugely enjoyable movie. Though it pains me to say it, he’s better than Duryea in Night Passage – he has a good amount of swagger and gets to be the only character to make any negative comments about James Stewart’s accordion. And in No Name on the Bullet, he plays against type and makes John Gant one of the film’s best attributes. It helps that No Name on the Bullet has a clever premise, but as the only name actor in the film, Murphy keeps his character intriguing to watch.

Gant is a notorious assassin for hire, and when he rides into the small town of Lordsburg, the locals assume he’s there for one of them. As Gant points out more than once, everyone has enemies, and this is proven out as the townsfolk react to his passivity by turning on him, themselves, and each other. The only man who doesn’t fear Gant is Luke Canfield (Charles Drake), the local doctor. He’s a good-hearted optimist, and as he tries to get to know Gant, their worldviews clash.

No Name on the Bullet is directed without imagination by Jack Arnold, which brings the characters to the forefront. The film’s twists and turns stay interesting, and the moral conflict between Gant and Canfield steadily comes to a boil. Drake is the only actor other than Murphy who I recognise here (his character is memorably shown up by (who else?) Dan Duryea in Winchester ’73), and he ably plays Canfield as a man who has his convictions tested in ways he never expected. His affable manner stands in contrast to Gant’s cold, inexpressive demeanour, with Murphy avoiding any temptation to overplay his character in the slightest.

The film is strongly fatalist, but not in an oppressive way. It could feasibly have been blacker, but it is enough, perhaps, that Gant is at times made more disturbing by the sole fact that he’s being portrayed by Audie Murphy. This plays somewhat into the film’s theme of concealed darkness. So, Murphy’s not a great actor, and he’s short – but No Name on the Bullet is a good little film, and Murphy’s performance is no laughing matter.

Vincent Price in a… western?: The Baron of Arizona (Samuel Fuller, 1950)

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I was surprised and delighted to get my hands on The Baron of Arizona, not because it’s a particularly good film, but because it stretches the limits of what a western can be. An early work by Samuel Fuller, who also wrote the script, it stars none other than Vincent Price as James Addison Reavis, a real historical figure. Reavis was a swindler who hatched an incredible plan to gain ownership of the entire territory of Arizona. While the western is often concerned with exteriors and grandiosity, this film is largely set indoors, in Spain as well as America, and focused on following the complex machinations of an (initially) amoral man.

Though it has an original story, The Baron of Arizona is fairly slow and cheaply made and, to its own detriment, puts little emphasis on the characters other than Reavis. It’s up to Price to carry the film, and fortunately he was an incredibly charismatic actor no matter the part. He gets to do something different here to both his earlier typecasting as layabout playboys and his later iconic horror roles. He delivers his most fervent scene in this film with a noose around his neck, the performance only bettered by the rope having being tightened enough to constrict his voice.

Unfortunately, the film tries to redeem Reavis, contrary to the historical record. This conflicts with the amount of time we’ve spent following him play at being a forger, romeo, Gypsy and even monk over the course of many years as he pursues his goal. It also highlights that fact that the script hasn’t been terribly interested in the people who remain devoted to Reavis, including his wife Sofia (Ellen Drew), who he’s falsely established as being the heir to Arizona, and Pepito Alvarez (Vladimir Sokoloff), her adoptive father. These two find something to love about the erstwhile Baron, but even though all the actors play their parts well, we haven’t seen enough ourselves to be convinced.

Despite its flaws in pacing and characterization, The Baron of Arizona remains intriguing viewing for fans of Vincent Price and of the western. Price could convincingly take on a great many roles, and the genre can be bent howsoever a creative mind wishes. This film stands as proof.

Genre as variations on a theme: Seven Men From Now (Budd Boetticher, 1956)

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Seven Men from Now is a film entirely concerned with being what it is, not just by avoiding larger matters, symbolic or otherwise, but in how it focuses on showing and revealing one small story. It’s about the journey Ben Stride (Randolph Scott) takes to revenge himself upon the seven men who killed his wife during a train robbery. Along the way, he meets two settlers, Annie (Gail Russell) and John Greer (Walter Reed), and gunslinger Bill Masters (Lee Marvin); these three become part of his story too.

This film only involves a few characters. Even the seven men play little part. Rather, the film gradually explores the relationships between the four leads. They are all connected, and slowly drawn closer together. Reveals are made slowly and with understatement, and many thoughts are unspoken. Every nuance is explored as the journey continues, and as the characters separate and reunite.

In this context, an actor such as Lee Martin can be a standout with little effort. In only a few exaggerated gestures, Masters becomes positively flamboyant. He makes advances toward Annie in full view of her husband, he practices his quickdraw, he delivers exposition about the past that Stride has no interest in revealing. He’s charismatic, and funny, and ruthless, and his self-confidence may be his downfall.

Stride and Masters stand in stark contrast. Scott is stoically inexpressive, making every slight indication of Stride’s inner feelings significant. In an inventive scene, Stride sleeps out of the rain under a wagon, directly beneath where Annie will spend the night. A great deal passes between the characters even though they cannot see each other. Stride has been ruined by loss, and all that remains are remnants of emotions connected to his former life.

This film is rarely visually striking. Its landscapes are barren, with only one desert scene having a sense of beauty to it, and an unlikely one at that. Little details are important: a cloud of dust rising signals approaching riders; a wagon crossing a river sends sunlit ripples across the water, the journey briefly taking a pleasant turn; hidden gaps between rocks offer misleading means of escape, or entrapment. These are not Ford’s landscapes, or even Leone’s; they are unextravagant and often as ungiving as the film’s protagonist.

Seven Men From Now will feel familiar to anyone who’s ever seen a western. However, in its lack of scope, downplaying of iconography, and disinterest in violence, it shows how thoughtful decisions can create distinctiveness and defy expectations. As much as anything, the film is a highly successful commentary on the western. Its simplicity belies its intelligence and, under analysis, becomes its most accomplished feature.

Taking a Shot: Stagecoach (John Ford, 1939)

The longer John Wayne stayed offscreen in John Ford’s Stagecoach, the more curious I got about how he would make his entrance. Would he just kind of show up? Would it be an ignominous beginning to the ten Westerns he and Ford would make together? Would it belie the inextricable nature of their careers, or the mark they made on American cinema?

As it turns out, the shot that introduces Wayne (fifteen seconds in here) is quite well known. Generally, I’m more appreciative of “important” film moments if you don’t need to be told that other people think they’re important, because their technical achievement, or beauty, or dramatic impact is plain to see. Certainly, you don’t need to know anything about Ford or Wayne to be impressed by this entrance.

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The shot starts here. Wayne twirls his rifle, and the camera dollies allllll the way…

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…to here.

On my first viewing, I applauded in delight. And then I shrieked in terror at his resemblance to Mel Gibson.

A complex take on a complex war: Ride with the Devil (Ang Lee, 1999)

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A sweeping tale of conflicted allegiances and ambiguous moralities, Ride with the Devil does justice to the complexity of the American Civil War as fought on the Missouri/Kansas border. Its large cast is lead by Tobey Maguire as Jake Roedel, the son of a German immigrant, who sides with the political views of his loyalist best friend Jack Chiles (Skeet Ulrich). Joining up with Bushwhackers commanded by Black John (Jim Caviezel), they strike back at the Union and the Union-sympathetic Jayhawkers alike. Jake will eventually find himself following the infamous William Quantrill into a massacre that leaves dead more than 200 male inhabitants of Lawrence, Kansas. However, Jake has little stomach for the warfare practiced by Quantrill and the crazed Pitt Mackseon (Jonathan Rhys Meyers). He gradually loses his belief in the South as he meets Sue Lee Shelley (Jewel), a soldier’s widow, and Daniel Holt (Jeffrey Wright), a former slave attached to George Clyde (Simon Baker), Bushwhacker and son of Holt’s former owner.

It’s little surprise that Ride with the Devil was not a financial success – it asks the viewer to conider the perspective of the war’s losing side, but it’s persistent in showing their racism and brutality. Of course, this is not at all a bad thing. This film respects the viewer’s intelligence, letting them draw their own conclusions about why each of these people fought their neighbours as well as the Union. It also offers up detailed characterisation, elegant period dialogue, lingering landscape shots, and impressive action scenes that often involve hundreds of men on horseback. For all of these reasons, the film doesn’t deserve the relative obscurity into which it has sunk.

Ride with the Devil was clearly cast in the hopes (for naught) that its lead actors would draw audiences. Some of them are much less appealing in hindsight, but though I certainly wish the cast were different, even these late 90s heartthrobs don’t bring down the movie. The younger actors aren’t bad, but they don’t bring much to their roles. They’re missing something. Maguire probably looks the part – Jake is young, impressionable and not physically imposing – but he has little presence.  Meyers tries for pretty/crazy, but doesn’t have the off-kilter quality the character needs, and Ulrich is just uninteresting. As for Jewel… Well, why not? Even Ricky Nelson couldn’t ruin Rio Bravo, after all, and she doesn’t stop the movie for a song. With her imperfect teeth and round face, she doesn’t look quite like a typical starlet, either. There’s nothing at all objectionable about her performance, and I’m disappointed that she’s done little acting since.

Maybe I’ve been too hard on these younger actors – my preconceptions make me averse to all of them, particularly Maguire and Baker. However, it’s plain to see that there are better actors in this film. Zach Gremier and Mark Ruffalo convey a good deal with their little screentime. Caviezel shows the way John’s mindset shifts as the war progresses. Jeffrey Wright, meanwhile, runs away with the film. Even in his early scenes, where he doesn’t talk much, he manages to keep the viewer wondering who Holt is and what his motivations are. Watching his character unfold, and make his choices, is the most moving aspect of this story.

Ride with the Devil would be better with a less of-the-moment cast. However, neither its lead actors, nor audiences’ disinterest upon the film’s initial release, are indicators of how rewarding it is as a nuanced presentation of history.

Mann and Stewart, Take Two: Bend of the River (Anthony Mann, 1952)

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Anthony Mann and James Stewart team up for the second time in Mann’s third western, Bend of the River. This Technicolor film is brighter looking than Winchester ‘73 and The Furies, which is befitting, given that it feels less intense. Nonetheless, Mann is concerned as ever with the darker undercurrents in his characters’ psyches. No pun intended.

Stewart is Glyn McClyntock, a former Missouri raider who’s trying to turn good, starting with helping a group of settlers on their way to Oregon. Hoping to join them and become a rancher himself, he earns the affections of their leader, Jeremy Baile (Jay C. Flippen), and his daughter, Laura (Julie Adams). Along the way, Glyn saves Emerson Cole (Arthur Kennedy) from a hanging. Cole, too, was a raider – and he doesn’t believe either of them can ever really change. When a Portland businessman tries to cheat the settlers out of their food supplies, leaving them in danger of starving over winter, Glyn and Cole’s morals will be put to the test.

Stewart and Kennedy make a great pairing, with the connection between the two characters obvious on their first meeting. The whole film centres around their duality. While Stewart plays a seemingly good man, with flashes of violence a la Lin in Winchester ‘73, Kennedy switches very well from a smile to a sneer. (Between this film, The Lusty Men, and Rancho Notorious, Kennedy had a great streak of psychological westerns in 1952.) There’s rarely much doubt about which way Glyn’s going to go, but not so with Cole, who makes some quite surprising decisions at times.

Beyond the main two, several other characters in the film deal with their ability to commit violence. Trey Wilson (Rock Hudson) is a gambler who’s quick with a gun but perhaps not ruthless enough. Laura seems a little too soft, though independent minded, but is willing to shoot when driven into a rage. Jeremy, unaware of Glyn’s past, is insistent that men don’t change their natures, but by the end of the film finds himself able to kill. The issue, perhaps, is what lies behind violent acts: personal greed, or a wish to protect others? Bend of the River stays ambiguous about this, however.

Plot, landscapes and character development are all tied together in Bend of the River. Geographical features that get mentioned early on figure largely in later events. Though night scenes take place in a studio, the film involves impressive use of location filming. A snowcapped mountain dominates many scenes, and when the characters are actually up on the mountain, the location choices clearly show how far they have come on their journey. Glyn must make an uphill climb in more ways than one, and the place where he and Cole resolve the divergence between them will indeed be where a river bends.

The one with the big punchup: The Spoilers (Ray Enright, 1942)

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The Spoilers is an insubstantial western that’s pleasant enough to watch but mostly forgettable when it’s over – except for a single scene. It happens to feature one of the most over the top baroom brawls you’re ever likely to see onscreen.

John Wyane and Randolph Scott butt heads throughout the movie, over gold claims and over the affections of Marlene Dietrich. When it’s time for them to have at it, the fight is five glorious minutes of destruction and brutality. The stunt doubles are a little distracting, but were necessary because Wayne and Scott actually injured each other while filming.

The Spoilers may be worth a look for Wayne and Dietrich fans – the two make the best of some mediocre material, with Dietrich’s wardrobe and hair offering nary a dull moment. Everyone else can watch just the fight here.