Friday, May 1, 2020

The Homesman (2015)

A western unlike most others; it is based on a novel by Glendon Swarthout, a name that might ring a bell: he also wrote The Shootist, the novel that formed the base of John Wayne's last hurrah.

Hilary Swank is Mary Bee, a 31-year old frontierswoman and a spinster; she owns a piece of land, but can't find a husband because she is homely looking - at least she thinks that is the reason (others rather think she's too "bossy"). To take her mind off things, Mary Bee accepts the job of escorting three women who were driven mad by the harsh frontier life to a safe home in the East (This was a job that was usually done by a man, who was therefore called a homesman). The journey is expected to be harsh and perilous, therefore Mary Bee saves a low-life (director Tommy Lee himself) from the noose and employs him as her bodyguard and traveling companion.

The Homesman is Tommy Lee's second feature film as a director; like his first effort, The three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, it is a literate, flashback-driven movie. The flashbacks illustrate the plight of the three women and some of scenes are both shocking and heartbreaking, but their insertion into the narrative seems a bit arbitrary and they often works more confusing than illuminating. The storyline involves villains and even Indians, but there's hardly any western action, the movie is a period drama rather than a western. (text continues under the pic)

Vermeer in the West

This doesn't mean that the film is without merit. The director once said that he loved the art of the Dutch and Flemish masters of the Golden Age and in one scene (a lonely woman in a shadowy interior, the light coming from the left) is a clear reference to Vermeer's paintings. The darkened, stale interiors offer a sharp contrast to the bleached skies over the plains that reflect the harshness of life on the frontier.

Visually The Homesman is stunning, but these type of westerns, in which not too much happens, need strong characters and in spite of the presence of two of the best actors around, I felt little or no connection to either Hilary Swanks or Tommy Lee's character. The three unlucky women (played by Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto, Sonja Richter) have no dialogue and most of what the two lead characters have to say to each other, remains unsaid. 

And then there's this bizarre plot-twist, two thirds into the movie. I won't say what  it implies exactly - you need to find out yourself - but like some have said, it turns a movie that tries to show the harshness of life for women on the frontier, into a showcase for a male actor.



* Grace Gummer, who plays one of the unlucky women, is Meryl Streep's daughter. Streep has a cameo near the end of the movie as the reverend's wife

Monday, October 7, 2019


A low-key, eccentric approach to the western genre, about a damsel, not in distress


Damsel is set in the West, anno 1870, and can therefore be called a western, but there are no gunslingers and no shootouts in dusty town streets; there's a damsel, but she's not in distress, and there's even an Indian - sorry: a Native American - but he's different from any other red man you may have met in cinema thus far.

Like a few other 'different'  western movies in recent memory (The Homesman, Meek's Cutoff, The Sisters Brothers), Damsel is a movie about a journey. It is undertaken by a young man called Samuel Alabaster (wonderfully played by Robert Pattinson), who ventures West in the company of a mini-horse called Butterscotch and a parson. The horse is a wedding gift for a young girl who's supposed to be waiting for him out there at the frontier, and he picked up the parson in a frontier town because he needs a man of the cloth to officiate the marriage.

The opening scene has told us that the parson is a fake: he received his clothes and bible from an old preacher who wanted to make a new start in life. Soon we also start having doubts about Samuel and his girlfriend: Samuel holds a picture of the girl in a locket, but is she really waiting for him, out there in the wilderness? How on earth did she get there? When the priest utters his doubts, Samuel tells him that the girl is held captive by two settlers, a brute and his mentally retarded brother ...
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This is the first of a series of twists; the second - and most radical one - takes place at the half-way point, when Samuel  and the priest reach the cabin where this girl named Penelope (Mia Wasikowska in another excellent performance) is supposed to be held captive. Samuel and Penelope have shared a few happy moments in the past, but it becomes clear that the experience had a completely different effect on them, and all hopes for a happy future are blown away in a couple of moments of unexpected violence. The halfway point of this movie is an about face you hardly ever experience in cinema, worth an entrance ticket alone. Telling more about it, would spoil the fun, or the shock.

In their relatively young career, the Zellner brothers, David and Nathan, have developed a preference for oddball - yet warm - characters and unpredictable storylines. Damsel is all this. It's a comedy, but the comedy is of a deadpan nature and the atmosphere is rather bleak, eventually almost depressing. I found the movie quite likable, but some western fans will no doubt complain about the slow pace and the lack of authenticity (even most of the conversations have a contemporary ring). And if both Pattinson and Wasikowska are terrific - and perfectly cast - Nathan Zellner miscast himself as the preacher, a character that becomes increasingly unbelievable and pathetic as the story progresses. Maybe the brothers should have asked Robert Forster – who appears in this truly wonderful opening scene, and in this opening scene only -  for this role.

2018 – Directed by David & Nathan Zellner - Robert Pattinson (Samuel Alabaster), Mia Wasikowska (Penelope), David Zellner (Parson Henry), Robert Forster (Old Preacher), Nathan Zellner (Rufus Cornell), Joseph Billingiere (Zacharia Running Bear), Morgan Lund, Gary Brookins, Gabe Casdorph – Music: The Octopus Project

Tuesday, September 17, 2019


Along with Clint Eastwood’s Pale Rider, Lawrence Kasdan’s Silverado was supposed to breathe new life into the western genre in the mid-80s. It failed to do so. Reviews were positive, but moviegoers where underwhelmed. It did a lot better when released on videocasette and was one of those movies that drew Hollywood's attention to the new market.

The film’s story is classic western stuff: A cowboy named Emmett saves a man called Paden, who was left behind in the desert by bandits who had stolen all his possessions, including his horse and (worst of all) his hat. Emmett and Paden head for the town of Silverado, were Emmett was born. En route they pick up Emmett’s younger brother Jake, a womanizer and gunslinger, who invariably gets into trouble by courting the ladies and shooting their lovers (in self-defense, of course). They are joined by a fourth man, Mal, a former slave turned farmer, who is looking for the murderers of his father. The town of Silverado is dominated by the McKendriks clan, long-time enemies of Emmett’s and Jake’s family. The sheriff is one of Paden’s old ‘pals’, a guy with a very dubious background, and Mal also thinks the men he’s looking for are hiding out in the town of Silverado …

Silverado is a lot of fun to watch. The mosaic script with four leads and multiple storylines may cause some confusion, but there's plenty of action and in spite of a running time of more than two hours the movie is over before you know it. But if a movie aspires to revive a moribund genre, it must shed a new light on traditional genre elements, and this is exactly what Silverado fails to do. 
Like I have stated before, movies reflect as much the time in which they were made as the time in which they are set. If Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch was the prototypical American western of the late sixties, Silverado is the prototypical American western of the mid-eighties. It was not only made in the 80s, it breathes the 80s. No surprise if you know director Lawrence Kasdan contributed to the scripts of Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Empire strikes back. He called his own movie his ‘Western Raiders of the Lost Ark’.

The Sixties were a period of change and turmoil, and the best westerns from the late Sixties, early Seventies, were preoccupied with themes such as the closing of the frontier and the transition to a new era (The Wild Bunch, Monte Walsh), the outlaw as a folk hero (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid) or the plight of the red man (Soldier Blue, Little Big Man, Ulzana's Raid). The excessive violence in some of these movies was often interpreted as a reaction to the Vietnam war. It's significant that several movies from the period featured juvenile character who were exposed to dangerous situations (The Culpepper Cattle Company, Bad Company).

Those movies weren't all masterpieces, but they were thought-provoking, and dared to be dirty and violent. The American society was re-inventing itself, and so was that American genre par excellence, the western. The eighties were a decade characterized by a new national (nationalist) awareness. It also was a typical ‘bourgeois’ decade, hostile to true art. Like Roland Barthes stipulated in his classic study Mythologies, bourgeois society has two ways of dealing with art that challenges its nature: it either denies it, or tries to convert it. Silverado is very much a conversion, bourgeois style, of what the western had been in the previous decades. Instead of challenging and thought-provoking, Silverado is reassuring; it’s crammed with action, but it’s never dirty or nasty, it’s all clean fun for the entire family. People who usually do not love westerns, tend to love it more that fans of the genre. 

The four leads are fine, but their motivations and actions are purely rhetorical. No wonder some of the supporting actors steal the show: Jeff Goldblume is well-cast as a perfidious card player and Brian Dennehy is a true delight as the corrupt sheriff of Silverado. There are also a nice cameo appearances by Linda Hunt and especially John Cleese as a sheriff who’s definitely not from these parts.


(1985 – Dir: Lawrence Kasdan – Cast: Kevin Kline (Paden), Scott Glenn (Emmett), Kevin Costner (Jake), Danny Glover (Mal), John Cleese, Jeff Goldblume, Rosanna Arquette, Brian Dennehy, Linda Hunt)


* (1) Don't get this wrong: Art has no specific political color, it can be either left-wing or right-wing, but it is by definition challenging, thought-provoking.

Sunday, March 3, 2019

Texas Across the River (1966)

When relatively unknown American actors went to Europe in the mid-Sixties to appear in cheaply made spaghetti westerns (and in some cases became superstars), major European actors took the plane in the opposite direction to appear in lush Hollywood productions. With his appearance in Texas Across the River (1966), French superstar Alain Delon tried to establish his name across the ocean; for the occasion he was cast as a Latin Lover and paired with that other Latin Lover - the one from Hollywood - Dean Martin.

Delon is a Spanish nobleman, Don Andrea Baldazar, El Duce de la Casala, who is about to marry a Southern Belle, Phoebe (Rosemary Forsyth). It turns out that she was promised to another man, a cavalrist from the US army who takes his entire regiment to the wedding to claim his bride. When his rival is accidently killed during an incident, Don Andrea is unjustifiably accused of murder and must therefore flee across the border to Texas (not yet an U.S. state). He is joined by a gunrunner (Dino) who is crossing the same border in order to sell guns to a group of settlers who have created a very unsafe haven in the Texan wilderness ...

Delon had been working very hard to remove the distinctive French inclinations from his speech, so he would be able to play all kind of European nationalities in Hollywood productions, but he still sounds French, not Spanish. It doesn't really matter. The film is a spoof and his character a joke. Dino is top-billed and has a couple of funny repartees (especially in a raunchy scene in and around a pool with Rosemary Forsyth: Rosemary: "I can't come out of the water, I lost my clothes!" Dino: "Close your eyes!"), but it's really Delon's movie: In Texas Don Andrea tames a buffalo in the style of a torero, saves the life of a beautiful squaw, fights with Dino over Phoebe, and clears his name by saving the settlement from being raided by marauding Comanches.

Texas across the River is as entertaining as it is forgettable. The jokes come so fast that you really don't mind that a least half of them are graceless and unfunny. Just sit down and relax, enjoy what's enjoyable and forget the rest. Some will no doubt call it sexist and racist but since all sexes and ethnic groups are targeted the humor feels rather innocuous. All people involved seem to have a good time.


1966 - Director: Michael Gordon - Cast: Dean Martin (Sam Hollis), Alain Delon (Don Andrea), Rosemary Forsyth (Phoebe),  Joey Bishop (Kronk), Tina Aumont  (Lonetta), Peter Graves (Cpt. Stimpson, Michael Ansara (Comanche Chief), Linden Chiles (Comanche Chief's son), Andrew Prine (Lt. Sibley), Stuart Anderson (Yancy Cottle), Richard Farnsworth (Medicine Man)

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

More Dead than Alive

More Dead than Alive (1969, Robert Sparr) 

The title and the poster of the movie may give you the impression that this is a spaghetti western, but no, More Dead than Alive is an American movie. It stars Clint Walker as a former gunslinger - known as 'Killer Cain' - who has spent 18 years in jail and discovers that it's hard to leave his past behind. 

The film opens with protracted (and remarkably bloody) sequence of a jailbreak that ends in carnage. Cain refuses to help the jail breakers because he wants to serve his sentence and start a new life, but when he is finally released from jail, the world he once knew has become a recent memory and he himself a living anachronism. The only person willing to offer him a job, is a showman named Ruffalo, who asks Cain to perform as a sharpshooter in a traveling sideshow. Also working for Ruffalo is a young man named Billy Valance, who soon starts challenging Cain to a duel, in order to prove himself as a gunslinger ...  

The name Billy Valance is no doubt a reference to John Ford's, The man Who Shot LibertyValance, the movie that (along with Peckinpah's Ride the High Country) had established the End of the West as a dominant theme of American westerns from the decade. More Dead than Alive is set in a West that is no longer Wild, but the story device of the famous gunfighter who is repeatedly challenged by a younger man, is closer to Henry King's The Gunfighter, a western from Hollywood's glory years. The surprise ending (I won't give it away) also brings The Gunfighter to mind, but what worked marvelously in King's movie, is strangely ineffective here, leaving us with a feeling of malaise.
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Director Robert Sparr mainly worked for television and it shows. This is a routine movie, but it's well-cast and easy to enjoy. Walker and Francis (as the woman who helps him forget the past) are a nice, physically contrasting couple and Vincent Price is as flamboyant as ever as the sideshow barker. Singer/actor Paul Hampton overacts as the immature, psychologically unstable Billy, but the role seems to ask for it. The bloody opening sequence almost feels completely detached from the rest of the movie. In the previous year Bonnie and Clyde had a set a trend and in 1969 we saw various western with excessive bloodletting and a tragic ending in which the 'heroes' were shot to pieces. But movies like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Wild Bunch were movies about people who had chosen a violent lifestyle; in the case of More Dead than Alive the gory killings seem to undermine the anti-violence message of the movie. But those were the days, and in 1969 cowboys died in bloody fashion.


Director: Robert Sparr - Cast: Clint Walker (Cain), Anne Francis (Monica), Vincent Price (Ruffalo), Paul Hampton (Billy) - Written by George Schenk - Produced by Aubrey Schenk and Hal Klein - Music by Philip Springer

R.I.P. Clint Walker, Gentle Giant

Thursday, April 26, 2018

The Undefeated

A routine western with patriotic overtones that is presented as a homage to John Ford. It was overshadowed by the immensely successful True Grit, released earlier the same year. The story is set in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War and the script is sprinkled with human-interest stories and colorful peripheral characters, most of them played by familiar western actors such as Ben Johnson, Harry Carey Jr., Dub Taylor and others. And of course it stars the Duke, for the occasion paired with Rock Hudson.

The film opens with a remarkably violent and bloody charge, led by Yankee Colonel John Henry Thomas (John Wayne) against a confederate regiment. Overlooking the tragic results of the carnage, the news is brought to the Colonel that the war is over, that the surrender terms were actually signed three days earlier. Thomas is the type of man who will always do his duty, but who also abhors violence  and therefore cannot understand why anybody would keep on fighting when the war is over. Hudson's Confederate officer Langdon is almost his direct opposite: he is stubborn and self-righteous, not willing to give up the fight and therefore rather torches his ranch than leave it to Northern carpetbaggers.

Shortly after, both men cross the Rio Grande, Thomas to sell horses to Emperor Maximilian, Langdon to join the Emperor's forces with the survivors of his regiment and their families (*1). Their paths cross on different occasions: together they fight off a gang of Mexican bandits, they relive the hostilities during a drunken brawl at a 4th of July party, there's an interracial love story (involving Thomas' adopted Cherookee son and Langdon's daughter) and eventually they all decide that it's time to go 'home'.

The film's patiotism may feel a bit simplistic today, but in 1969 the country was entangled in anti-war and anti-imperialist demonstrations and Wayne and McLaglen clearly wanted to make a statement. The ending is a bit of an anti-climax, but the theme of reconciliation is well-handled and the large-scale action scenes are quite good, if not always believable: Mexican bandits would of course not attack entrenched Americans in 'Indian' style, but such an attack offers ideal material to fill the widescreen and William Clothier's widescreen cinematography is breathtakingly beautiful. The natural charm of the actors will give you the idea that you're back in the good old days, when heroes were tall in the saddle and solid as a rock. The Duke seems to have a great time, but in reality filming was a difficult, painful experience: he broke three ribs when he fell from a horse and later tore a ligament in his shoulder  



* The charactor of Col. Langdon was most probably based on the historic Confederate officer Joseph Shelby, who crossed the border with around 1,000 of his men after the end of the war to seek asylum in Mexico. For their unwillingness to surrender, they were called 'the undefeated'

Dir: Andrew V. McLaglen, John Wayne (uncredited) - Cast: John Wayne, Rock Hudson, Roman Gabriel, Ben Johnson, Lee Meriwether, Antonio Aguilar, Dub Taylor, Bruce Cabot, Harry Carey Jr, John Agar, Marianne McCargo, Merlin Olsen, Jan-Michel Vincent

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

The Duel at Silver Creek (1952)

The Duel at Silver Creek

This was Don Siegel's first foray into the western genre. The script combines two archetypes of western stories: the town under terror type and the revenge western. Both stories have their own protagonist, an undaunted sheriff and a young man seeking the murderers of his father.

The father of a young man, Luke Cromwell (Murphy) is killed by claim jumpers, bandits stealing the claims of small time minors. Luke becomes a gambler and a gunslinger but the local sheriff appoints him as his deputy: he's in need of a quick drawing assistant after he has been hit by a bullet and is no longer able to squeeze the trigger. The two fall out when Luke discovers that the sheriff's sweetheart is in league with the claim jumpers and the older man won't believe him. Luke wants to leave town but is then told that the sheriff is about to face a young man called Johnny Sombrero in a duel ...

Most characters are referred to by funny names like The Silver Kid, Lightning Tyrone or Johnny Sombrero and the story isn't exactly waterproof. The jumpers are openly selling the stolen claims and yet nobody can figure out who they are? But Murphy is perfectly believable as the hot-headed young man who is a lot smarter than the old fox mentoring him. He looks great in his black leather suit, almost as if he changed his Electra Glide for a horse at the Studio door. Faith Domergue is deliciously wicked as the she-devil in disguise; in one scene she even strangles a wounded man so that he can't give away any secrets, a scene that must have shocked viewers in those days. Lee Marvin makes a cameo appearance as one of the frequenters of the local saloon. 

With too much happening in a running time of a mere 77 minutes, the movie feels a little hectic. It's also quite uneven; Siegel was a late bloomer and had not yet reached full artistic maturity when he was offered this movie (at the age of forty), but his talent was undeniable; with his typical no-nonsense approach he makes the best of the mediocre story material and the triangular shootout in the town street - involving Luke, the sheriff and Johnny Sombrero - is a great scene, both Peckinpah and Leone must have studied it.

1952 - Dir: Don Siegel - Cast: Audie Murphy (Luke 'Silver Kid' Cromwell), Faith Domergue (Opal 'Brown Eyes' Lacy), Stephen McNally (Marshall 'Lightning' Tyrone), Susan Cabot (Jane 'Dusty' Fargo), Eugene Iglesias (Johnny Sombrero), Gerald Mohr (Rod Lacy), James Anderson ('Rat Face' Blake), Lee Marvin ('Tinhorn' Burgess) 

The Homesman (2015)

A western unlike most others; it is based on a novel by Glendon Swarthout , a name that might ring a bell: he also wrote The Shootist...