Posted tagged ‘neighbours’

In Praise Of Westerns

May 8, 2020

Here in the midst of our Covid time, I am on my own, since my wife is stuck in China (fortunately in good health).  This is not necessarily bad, as I am a solitary sort, and thus there are few people coming upon me to randomly scatter virus.

In the evenings, after I work on development of a second novel, I like to watch DVDs from a collection accumulated mostly by happenstance.  I’m watching most of them for at least the second time, and it’s remarkable how much I’ve forgotten about each one!

Lately I’ve focused on westerns for some reason, and they make me think about my own history and that of the genre.  The four movies I’m going to pay attention to here are: Appaloosa (2008), 3:10 to Yuma (2007), Little Big Man (1970), and The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2006).

Back in the ’60s

Along with my mother and two younger brothers who loved to play cowboys and Indians, we lived in 1960’s rural north-central British Columbia in a log cabin. We had almost unlimited space to imaginatively populate the trees, creek and hillocks with what we saw on TV and the occasional movie.

After my father died, our little household was more or less adopted by a huge-hearted neighbour family.  The older I get the more unusual I realize their caring was.

maxresdefaultAlmost every Sunday, and often other days during the week, my mother would drive the four of us up the narrow dirt driveway to the neighbour’s house on a rise above the highway.  We were always there to watch Bonanza with the Cartwrights just after we all finished Sunday dinner.

Westerns on TV

Westerns were the most popular genre on TV.  Other shows we boys watched with great enjoyment whenever we could (at our cabin we had no electricity and no TV) included Gunsmoke, The Rifleman, Have Gun Will Travel, Rawhide, Wagon Train, Wanted: Dead or Alive, The Virginian, Daniel Boone, and especially, for me, Maverick.

Maverick starred James Garner. To see the wiseacre gambler, mildly larcenous with a hidden good heart make his way amidst the dust and guns of the West, often playing off Jack Kelly as his brother, greatly appealed to me.  It was in some ways the same kind of role that Garner would perfect as the reluctant hero in the much later detective drama The Rockford Files.

It reflects changes in American culture that Gunsmoke was the longest running prime-time TV series of all time until it recently lost out to Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, an urban police drama about disturbing sex crimes.  (Which is very good in my estimation: the acting and the writing are top notch.  But still… my mother would never have let us watch it if it had been around. For that matter, it would have been impossible for that show to even be on TV then.)

At the end I would like to touch again on this contrast.

So here I am with my four movies of interest.  They are all from a later era than the TV glory days, but hearken back in varying degrees.  All of them, it turns out, are about male friendship, even Little Big Man, that older movie of the four.

Appaloosa

indexThis is the most traditional western of the four to me in tone, character, and wonderful cinematography. But the set-up is not so usual: it is that of two itinerant lawmen who travel the west hiring themselves out to pacify lawless towns.

The two men played by Ed Harris and Viggo Mortensen have been doing this for 12 years and know each other well.  Appaloosa is the town they come to, and due to a rogue rancher tyrannizing the place, the two are hired by the frightened town fathers.  They promptly and rather dictatorially take over and put things right.

Of course, a woman comes between the two men, interestingly portrayed by Renee Zellwegger, and although the friends eventually resolve that, there are the standard confrontations with the bad guys and final justice done.

Ed Harris also directed the film, and it is amazing to me how he fulfills that role and acts with such focus at the same time.  (This is similar to the equally impressive Tommy Lee Jones taking on both jobs in The Three Burials….)

3:10 to Yuma

yumaThis is more modern in tone, directed by James Mangold, with Russell Crowe and Christian Bale in the lead roles.  Appropriately enough, it is a remake of a decent western from more than 50 years ago.

Crowe, who plays a masterful and murderous outlaw leader, is captured. A poor dirt farmer played by Bale, takes on the duty, after everybody else is too scared, to shepherd Crowe to a trailhead and thus off to prison and a death sentence.  Bale needs the reward money.

Crowe is an outlaw with a nihilist philosophy, but he is smart enough to have a philosophy in contrast to the men he leads.  He has become, almost despite himself, a student of human nature.

It is hard for Bale’s character to explain to either himself or his family how he has ended up in such a dangerous enterprise.

The two men slowly discover with some shock that they can make themselves understood to each other.

Peter Fonda is in the mix as a Pinkerton bounty hunter, and along with nasty henchmen from Crowe’s gang, they up the violence quotient.

But in the end, the heart of the story becomes the unlikely respect that forms between the two leads.

Little Big Man

little bigI first saw this in a movie theatre in 1970, and a couple more times over the years since.  Dustin Hoffman is in the title role as the 121-year-old lone white survivor of Custer’s Last Stand.  The movie begins with the aged Hoffman, in amazing make-up, in an old folks home telling the story of his life to an interviewer.

The movie, directed by Arthur Penn (also known for Bonnie and Clyde), shifts from sincere to satirical and back again.  Hoffman relates and the movie shows the lengths he went to for survival as settler, adopted Cheyenne brave, gunfighter, medicine show spieler, cavalry scout, hermit and drunkard.

In its serious aspect, the movie is a meditation on the continuous betrayal of native Indians by an expansionist and merciless white culture.  The massacres shown of Indian villages brings this home.

But where the movie shines for me is the warm portrayal of the Cheyenne chief, Old Lodge Skins, played by Chief Dan George.  He is the father figure, and the friend, where Hoffman’s character finds his spiritual home.

Towards the end of the movie, General George Armstrong Custer, played by Richard Mulligan, arrives with his golden locks and his megalomania.  I’m sorry to hit this note, but he resembles no one so much as Donald Trump.  (The calamitous stupidity demonstrated in this very short video, is entirely emblematic and parallel to Custer’s portrayal here.)

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada

51RKF1m8EnLThis has become one of my favorite movies, of any genre.  It is authentically a western, although it is set in modern times, in Texas and Mexico.  Hey, it’s got horses, guns, desert, and a laconic hero!  And it has a profound sense of hard bitten decency in the midst of the wasteland of modern life that hearkens to the best of what westerns have to offer.

As noted above, Tommy Lee Jones stars in and directs this tragic tale, which also ends with redemption of a sort.

The beginning of the movie is non-sequential in places and confusing until you realize the scenes are spiralling toward the tragedy at its core.

Melquiades Estrada, played by Julio Cedillo, is an illegal immigrant from Mexico who rides into Texas on his horse one day and asks for work from a small rancher outside a small town near the border.  Pete Perkins, played by Tommy Lee Jones, takes him on, and they become fast friends.  Estrada tells Jones’ character of his wonderful family and the little village he comes from in Mexico, and makes Jones promise to return his body there if he should die.

Estrada is shot and killed by mistake by an angry and lost young Border Patrolman, played with impressive intensity by Barry Pepper.  Pepper buries him to hide his mistake, but the body is found.  The town’s sheriff has the body relocated to the local cemetery. The sheriff has no sympathy for illegal immigrants and ignores anything that implicates the Border Patrol.

Jones’ character is pushed over the edge by this, and kidnaps Pepper at gunpoint.  This turn of events caught me by surprise.  Jones throws over everything to keep his promise to his friend.  He makes Pepper dig up the moldering body, and the two men and a cadaver take off towards the border and Mexico on horseback.

I have to mention the Texas small town.  It’s like places, I’m sure, all over North America, but the arid southwest highlights the arid emotional life portrayed here.  Everyone seems lost, desperate, alienated, without any centre to their lives, so they indulge in drinking or adultery or pornography or mindless violence.  Both the sheriff and Jones commit adultery with the aging wife of the local cafe owner. Pepper’s too pretty wife gives up on him and leaves.

Meanwhile, on the way to the destination in Mexico, Pepper tries to escape from Jones, but is brought painfully to heel.  Adventures ensue.  They fill the corpse with antifreeze so it doesn’t rot too badly.  They find a lonesome blind old man in the middle of the desert, played by the wonderful Levon Helm (of The Band fame).

Finally, they arrive at where Jones was told he should go by his friend, and finds that most of it was a lie, perhaps to make it seem like the man had a fuller life than he did.  There is no tiny village of the name Jones was given.  The wonderful family doesn’t exist.

Pepper has been a hard ass all the way along, unrepentant yet slowly breaking down from the rigors of the journey.  Jones has been tough on him.  They find a ruined house which Jones decides must be the site of the third burial.  He orders Pepper to apologize to the corpse for what he did, and when Pepper resists fires his gun at him several times, but deliberately misses.  Pepper finally breaks down completely and apologizes fervently for the wrongs he’s committed.  Jones looks on approvingly, and leaves him there, riding off on his horse, leaving Pepper with a few words that capture the moment, and their humanity, roughly: “You’re free to go, son.”  Pepper calls out after him, asking if Jones will be okay.

I’ve spent some words on this because for me the movie captures an existential truth of the human condition: we are alone, but the meaning we create is with each other.

Tommy Lee Jones’ later movie The Homesman, a kind of mid-western about women’s madness and early settlers in Nebraska, also has this feeling of apprehending difficult truth about the human situation.

Reflection

Viewing from Canada the decline of American society in recent years, I’ve formed an opinion about some of what has happened.  Watching movies like these and remembering the many westerns once on TV has reinforced it.

The shift away from westerns reflected the cultural centre of gravity moving from ranches, farms and small towns to the ever expanding large cities with all their opportunities and excesses.  Despite all the modern conveniences though, alienation from the land and from each other is rampant.  When a community of people depend on the land and its fruits, and each other, you cannot, for instance, be caught up in perpetual hateful political discourse.  You have to be neighbours.

The entertainment sought and offered also is part of the cultural environment, of course.

Given that westerns could be silly with their stereotypes of black hats and white hats, bad Injuns and good ones, of solving problems by violence, yet their essence often was that of a kind of morality play.  They modelled men, usually, striving and succeeding through honesty, decency and courage.

Men need that kind of modelling, especially.  Women tend to be more rooted in the everyday necessity of such values.  Men become distracted from them too easily.

I apologize for my sweeping generalizations, yet….

To me the demise of the western in popular culture was the beginning of the end of the American dream.

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