Sweet Country (Australia, 2017)

Sour

My intention is to watch films ‘blind’; not with my eyes shut but with as few preconceptions as possible. I try to pick up a vibe as to whether the film is worth seeing and then take it for what it offers me. After watching the brilliant Sweet Country I was surprised to see it described as a Western. Was I simply not seeing the genre signifiers or was it, as director Warwick Thornton had encouraged the idea the film was of that genre for marketing purposes, seen as a Western because the idea was planted in the spectator’s mind? Of course now I see how it could be read as a Western, but for me the racial aspect of the narrative was the key framework. Although American Westerns did deal with race (particularly the ‘revisionist’ ones of the ’70s) the indentured slave relationship that Aboriginals had at the time of the film (1920s) was absent. Other than being co-opted as scouts, Native Americans were not portrayed as being part of white man’s colonial society. Hence, I think it is better not to read the film as a Western; Roy Stafford has some interesting remarks on the issue.

Such is the complexity of reading texts and I make no claim that my ‘innocent eyes’ are any better than those steeped in preconceptions. A reading of the film as a Western would no doubt reveal things I have missed.

To an extent the narrative, the racism against Aborigines in Australia, is full of familiar tropes; Rabbit Proof Fence is one powerful example. That’s not to say the message that colonialism is evil is one that shouldn’t be retold as often as possible, just that different ways of telling the tale are needed. No doubt that the fact Thornton is Aboriginal, as is one of the scriptwriters (and sound recordist) David Tranter, ensures we get a new perspective because BAME groups remain marginalised. I particularly liked the use of flashbacks and flashforwards, which often operate as an expressionist manifestation of a character’s state of mind; for example, the veteran suffering from PTSD is shown in mental torment. Incidentally, the film is based on a true story related to Tranter by his granddad.

Sweet Country abounds with brilliant cinematography, also by Thornton, who shows an area he knows well, around Alice Springs, in a wide variety of often awesome landscapes. Veterans Sam Neill and Bryan Brown add heft but theirs are minor parts and the central characters, played by newcomers Hamilton Morris and Shanika Cole, are absolutely riveting in their roles.

Probably my least favourite scene in cinema is the ‘courtroom’, but even that is gripping in this film. Cole’s Lucy is called to testify and her painful inability to speak is a testament to the marginalisation of people who are Aboriginal and female. It also shows the subtlety of Thornton’s direction: almost unnoticed at the edge of the frame, and then in the background, the only two white female characters quietly leave the scene when they sense it is going to get nasty. Rarely has boozy ‘incel’ (there are understandably very few women about), male culture been represented so well: ‘toxic masculinity’ doesn’t cover it.

I need to catch up with Thornton’s debut, Samson & Delilah (Australia, 2009), and hope he gets to direct another film soon.

El Dorado (US, 1966)

Hollywood greats

It’s easy to imagine John Wayne and Howard Hawks deciding to, just as De Niro and Scorsese did with The Irishman, do what they knew would work. So they made what was essentially a remake of Rio Bravo, of seven years earlier; Leigh Brackett is one writer common to both though the source material is different. Now it is difficult to get non-franchise films made (even if you are a bone fide star-director partnership), then it was the fading Wayne and 70-year-old Hawks who were scrambling around for something the studios would accept. In 1966 the majors had lost the plot and it’s unlikely that reported $6m domestic box office (the_numbers) encouraged further backing of old school westerns. Hawks directed one more film, Rio Lobo, also starring Wayne, released in 1970; although Wayne did win an Oscar for True Grit (1969) that took $31m.

It’s many years since I’d seen either Rio Bravo or El Dorado and was motivated to catch the screening of the latter on Film4 after recently reading biographies of Robert Mitchum and John Ford (in which Wayne figured prominently). I was surprised how much I enjoyed the film, even though its sexual politics, amongst other things, is inevitably of its time. Much of the entertainment comes, of course, from the stars; no matter how execrable Wayne was as a person, he was great film star. By that I mean he perfectly embodied his persona as a self-reliant but moral man. Mitchum seemingly lazily (the biography by Lee Server confirms that Mitchum was invariably the consummate professional) just seems to be himself: the art of concealing art. He’s good at comedy, too, as shown when he’s caught having a bath virtually in public.

Mitchum plays the drunk sheriff role and I expected his alcoholism would be played purely for laughs. However, it wasn’t; the looks of disgust that Wayne’s character gives is sufficient to show how pathetic being a drunk is. I’d be interested to see Rio Bravo again and whether Dean Martin’s character is similarly treated.

Although the women are secondary, and Charlene Holt’s ‘love interest’ in Wayne (over 20 years her senior but the gap looks bigger) is rather risible, there is a nod to the ’60s in Michele Carey’s ‘tomboy’ Joey who gets to do the ‘Liberty Valence’ shot. The Mexicans, including an inevitable Pedro, are less than secondary though it is noticeable how Wayne’s character speaks Spanish to them and is always respectful.

Maybe these old school westerns aren’t as reactionary as I imagine them to be.

Bone Tomahawk (US-UK, 2015)

Not your average ‘Indian’

S. Craig Zahler’s debut as a director (he also scripted) is less a Western than an outback horror movie, though the tropes of the former are present. A posse of four ill-matched men go after some particularly savage ‘Indians’ who have kidnapped one of the pursuers’ wife. So far so conventional and the unspoken male creed of ‘what a man’s gotta do…’ underpins the men’s bravery. The landscape, a mixture of scrub and glorious vistas, is typical of the genre too though the setting, in the last decade of the 19th century, is later than ‘classic’ Westerns.

The (for me) dread hand of Tarantino is present in some of the dialogue that seems to be trying to be clever but that’s never over-bearing and it’s delivered brilliantly by the cast. The actors are the main reason to see this film unless you wish to be grossed out. Kurt Russell’s rugged visage was designed to be a sheriff and Richard Jenkins’ garrulous old man is a delight.

The film risks going back to the reactionary ‘Indian as savage’ trope but Zahler’s careful to distinguish the savages with ‘authentic’ Native Americans. And savage they are ‘treating’ us to the ‘best’ dismemberment I’ve seen in film; if that’s your bag.

One bright spot, in terms of it being a Western, is Lili Simmons’s character, the abducted wife. Although marginalised for much of the film she does get a great speech where she talks about the problems of the frontier (which had disappeared by 1890) not being the terrain or ‘Indians’, but male stupidity. The ‘men’s gotta do…’ is certainly stupid in some contexts and the narrative stretches too far in allowing them to do it; even in the context of a genre film, it is not believable.

The film is overlong, some of the dialogue could have been trimmed, but is worth seeing for the cast but if you’re squeamish avoid the last half hour.

Hombre (US 1966)

Soulful eyes

Hombre is a revisionist western where the ‘savage Indian’ is shown to actually have been the victims of rapacious white men. I was slightly worried at the start of the film where we see Paul Newman as an Apache (above) but we find he was merely adopted by the Native Americans and it’s not a case of ‘whitewash’ casting. The ‘good but indecisive’ Mexican stereotype, however, is embodied by Martin Balsam; we shouldn’t go too far in condemning racist conventions of the time (though we can condemn the practice now – see Emma Stone in Aloha, 2015, and others) particularly in a film that is trying to be progressive. It should be noted, however, that there are no speaking parts for Native Americans; as is often the case with liberalism, ‘white man speak for all’!

The narrative is driven by Richard Boone’s brilliant bad guy chasing down a disparate group on a stagecoach who defer to ‘hombre’s’ (Newman) expertise in survival. Blessed by James Wong Howe’s widescreen cinematography (the western landscape looks tough), and Martin Ritt’s (the sixth and final film he made with Newman) careful compositions, the film’s modernity stands up well 50 years later, not least in the ending. It presaged ‘New Hollywood’ – heralded by Easy Rider – by a couple of years but probably would sit comfortably alongside Little Big Man (‘probably’ because I haven’t seen it for a long time). According to Wikipedia (citing Variety – behind a paywall) Hombre took $6.5m in rentals at the domestic box office, it was the 14th top film of the year, though well behind Bonnie and Clyde, another movie that showed the type of films made by the Hollywood studio system were about to be consigned to the past.

One link to the past, in the film, is the casting of Frederic March, one of Hollywood’s heart-throbs of the 1930s. Diane Cilento, an Australian who spent most of her career in Britain, is excellent as a ‘moral conscience’ despite her admission that, even though she is unmarried, she shares her bed with the local sheriff. It was unusual for such a ‘loose woman’ to be presented as such; she’s not a victim like many ‘tarts with a heart’ played by, for example, Claire Trevor in Stagecoach. I liked the line when she is – for purely practical reasons – trying to persuade the sheriff to marry her: “I don’t say ‘no’ when you wake me up in the middle of the night”. She’s rebuffed but she’s not bothered; the character is a strikingly modern woman for the time (sexual emancipation in the 1960s framed women as sexual active at the service of men). The screenplay’s based on Elmore Leonard’s novel so sparkling dialogue is to be expected.

The film was produced by Hombre Productions; presumably created to produce this one film. It was distributed by 20th Century Fox.

The Big Trail (US, 1930)

A very big trail

This is a fascinating ‘prestige picture’ from the early days of Hollywood cinema. The fascination comes from John Wayne’s first lead, though his breakthrough Stagecoach is nine years in the future, and the staging of the wagon train trek west. Director Raoul Walsh and his crew go to extraordinary lengths for authenticity including wagons, and oxen, being lowered down cliffs, and crossing extremely fast rivers. The sense of threat to the settlers is palpable.

In the opening scene a montage of preparations at the start of the trail includes women washing their hair. However, this is ameliorated soon after when we see a woman wielding an axe. Unsurprisingly the narrative is dominated by men with a revenge sub plot not unlike that of Stagecoach, however it is the spectacle that is the most important element of the film.

It was shot in what was a new process, Fox Grandeur, a 70mm format that proved the film’s commercial undoing as few theatres could screen it as the studio wanted. The sound’s not bad but it’s clear the silent era isn’t far away from Tyrone Power’s (Sr.) execrable performance: he mugs and can’t speak a line.

Godless (US, 2017)

Rewriting rules

Two brilliant Netflix productions (the other’s Mudbound) within a month proves the worth of the subscription. If Mudbound should have been seen in the cinema, then Godless, as a series, belongs on television though it too would have looked great on the big screen. The Santa Fe locations are stunning and writer director Scott Frank produces some fantastic visuals. Frank has a long track record as a scriptwriter in Hollywood but only directed two feature films; he’s responsible for the whole eight hours (across seven episodes of varying length) of Godless.

While the Western pops up occasionally in feature films, the last I saw was the disappointing The Homesman (US-France, 2014), it remained a television staple in the latter years of the 20th century. I’m not sure how it’s fared since, though I thoroughly enjoyed HBO’s Deadwood (2004-06) – though I only saw season one. Godless, apparently, was marketed as a feminist Western, featuring a women-only town. One tweet pointed out that, despite this, women only had 38% of the dialogue in the first episode. I suspect the progressive claim was manufactured by the marketing department seeking a USP; though such Westerns aren’t unique – see The Ballad of Little Jo (1993). That’s not to say that women aren’t important, Michelle Dockery and Merritt Wever have great roles as outsiders who refused to be bowed. Their performances, indeed the cast are uniformly great, are excellent as are the protagonist, Jack O’Connell, and the antagonist, Jeff Daniels who has never been better.

In common with long form television, the narrative is fragmented with liberal flashbacks filling in the gaps. Dramatically this is valid and helps maintain the pace in a long narrative. There’s also time for diversions to puncture American myths, Mormons who massacre and blame the Indians for example; rewriting the Western, the genre that tells of the greatness of pioneers, is entirely appropriate as contemporary America implodes.

It is rare for me to be impatient for the next episode and I’ve resisted ‘binge watching’ (sounds unhealthy) but I saw Godless within 17 days and I recommend this article about the series’ greatness.

Hell or High Water (US, 2016)

Trapped by malicious circumstance

As American cinema, at last, sinks into artistic irrelevance it’s a delight to find the possibilities for interesting cinema haven’t completed died over the ‘pond’. I’m guilty of hyperbole here; for years snooty critics, only interested in art for what it says about their ‘cultural competence’ rather than genuine appreciation, have berated Hollywood in particular as being worthless. American cinema has produced, both in the indie and commercial sectors, many great films.

However contemporary Hollywood is, with its belief that franchises are the only game in town, neglecting the medium sized, not to mention small, movie so that 1970s ‘New Hollywood’ seems even longer than 50 years ago. Maybe even the most commercially oriented executives might be sweating over the box office under performances, in North America, of many of this year’s ‘tent pole’ releases; although the international market is baling them out at the moment.

Hell or High Water does hark back to ‘70s Hollywood and it probably just about broke even on its $12m estimated budget. The presence of Jeff Bridges, not entirely convincing in the role of the retiring sheriff, evokes that era’s The Last Picture Show (1970) and Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974); particularly the latter with the outlaws on the road element. Director David Mackenzie’s insists that the setting, rundown Texas in the main, is an important character and, like its ‘70s forebears, politicises the narrative. Taylor Sheridan’s script ensures we understand that the financial crash of 2008 has damaged the American poor as much as the 1930s Depression.

Chris Pine shows himself to be a fine actor and Ben Foster, playing the older and wilder brother, is equally good. The film combines suspense, mystery (the brothers’ motivations) and humour as well as an excoriating critique of banking in America. I must catch up with Sheridan’s Sicario and David Mackenzie is one of my favourite contemporary directors.