Love Letter to the West

Love Letter to the West

Westerns.  John Ford was the master of Westerns.  He was THE guy when it came to depicting gunfights and chases on horseback.  Sergio Leone might be the director you’d like to think invented the Western genre, but he didn’t.  He improved the Spaghetti Western one.  The Western genre was all John Ford’s.  Westerns at the time (we’re talking about 1930s and 1940s) were rather easy (financially cheap) films to make and they often revolved around the same story.  The prominent themes were those of family, friendship, trust.  The Wild West was just a stage for it.  That’s why we should never forget Ford’s brilliance.  He reinvented the genre and added a huge chunk of value to it.  The settings mattered, the surroundings mattered, the characters felt more real than ever and of course, the action (at the time) was incredibly modern in its presentation.  Ford began in the silent movie era and as time went by he grew to become one of the most famous directors in Golden Hollywood.  He was notorious for his bad temper, rough words and sometimes, arrogance.  While for quite some time Henry Fonda was his number one actor, the man he collaborated with the most, their relationship began to deteriorate in the late 40s and the two eventually fell apart during the shooting of a movie in the mid 50s, when Ford socked Fonda in the mouth. As Fonda swore he’d never work with the director again,  Ford brushed these remarks right off his shirt and remembered that he had directed another bright kid in a big movie back in 1939.  His name was John Wayne and the movie was Stagecoach. Now, ten later years later John Wayne was a big bright star shining all over the world of cinema.  He had been nominated for his work in Sands of Iwo Jima and had become a ‘serious’ actor giving memorable performances in Fort Apache and Red River.  It had been the latter, Howard Hawks’ Red River that convinced Ford to offer Wayne, what the actor would call, his favorite and most valuable role.  That of Captain Nathan Brittles in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.

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Welcome to the Wild West.

 

Brittles is an essential character when speaking of Westerns.  He wasn’t the conventional macho man of the West, as most would expect from John Wayne.  He embodied the essence of a man of the Wild West.  And that’s why She Wore a Yellow Ribbon can be interpreted as the ultimate love letter from Ford to the West.  It is also why this was one of the first movies directed by Ford in color.  His aim was to translate the beauty and the fascination of this magnificent world of desert, dirt, sunsets, buffalo, canyons, woods presented in the paintings of the great Frederic Remington onto the moving screen. And as I sat a couple days ago and watched this movie for a second time, I noticed how accurate the translation from the canvass to the screen truly is. The images in Ford’s film are brilliantly structured and staged.  The actors are scattered around the frame in a way that allows us to really grasp the dimension of the settings, be it a vast open range or a tiny cemetery at sunset.  Many directors forget the importance of composition.  Ford doesn’t.  He clearly understands that to achieve a peace within a shot of film you need balance.  Balance, like in most paintings, is found  in color and composition, two prominent features of this particular movie.  The contrast is between the visual balance and thematic balance.  The story is that of an impending war between the different tribes of Native Americans and the US Calvary after the massacre at Little Bighorn, and yes, John Wayne’s character is there to try to and prevent it from happening.  So, as you can see, the turmoil and chaos of the story, of what happened and what could happen, is evidently contrasted by these beautiful images that evoke a feeling of calmness, harmony and… balance.

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Shot compostion example n1.
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Shot composition example n2.
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Shot composition example n3.

Aside from the theme of war and danger, Ford’s love letter contains also the theme of time.  The passing of time to be precise.  In fact, John Ford said of John Wayne’s performance (who at the time was 40 years old) as the 60 year old Captain who’s facing retirement: “I didn’t know the big son of a bitch could act!”  And indeed, if you’re not convinced of Wayne’s ability to act after seeing Red River then here you have further proof.  Wayne’s task in this particular role was to deliver a performance that was meant to tell the stories of all the men who lived their entire lives in the middle of nowhere.  He was supposed to show a man’s weakness, strength, character and inner loneliness and conflict, and here you get all of it.  As I said before, there is absolutely no macho feel to Captain Brittles.  He is just an ordinary man whose time is unfortunately coming to an end.  He has to face reality and let the younger generation take his place and again, Ford’s choice to shoot this film with the use of an experimental color palette, allows the viewer to fully grasp each movement, each look that appears on Wayne’s face, and yeah, you bet; the son of a bitch can act!

Don’t believe me? Here you go;

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Another note on the cinematography and direction this movie takes.  This could have been an absolute failure since it’s marketed and labeled as a Western but in truth very little happens in this movie.  Don’t expect gunfights, standoffs, chases and hangings like in Ford’s other Westerns like Stagecoach, My Darling Clementine or The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.  She Wore a Yellow Ribbon is a romantic drama that talks about the struggle between man and the land of the West.  Shot composition proves this.  There is always a presence of landscape in every single frame and very often, the characters are extremely small compared to it.  It feels like nature, the clouds, the dust, the rocks, the canyons, loom over these tiny human beings.  It may be a warning, a sign of impending doom.  Perhaps it means humans can fight all the wars they want but at the end they’re not the ones making the ultimate choice.  Captain Brittles is just an officer at the end of the day.  He is not God.  He’s a mortal man.  One of us.  And Ford doesn’t hold back in underlining it.  Many critics failed to understand his movies.  He didn’t preach the grandeur of cowboys nor the courage of soldiers.  All he did was tell stories of a land he so deeply admired and loved.  By using Remington’s paintings as a visual inspiration, the love glows more than ever in each color frame.  The beauty and the cruelty merge and create a stunning portrayal of what the Wild West truly looked like once upon a time, far and far away…

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Nature vs Man.
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Nature vs Man.
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And at the end of the day, one of the most beautiful sunsets shot on film…

 

Son of a Gun

Son of a Gun

Today’s topic: the not so Spaghetti Western of Sergio Leone. The 1960s were a time of booming ecstasy in European cinema, especially the Italian, German and French, which were producing an average of 112 films every year. It may not seem as much compared to today’s Hollywood productions, but in those times the three countries I mentioned were on a roll. However, quantity doesn’t mean quality. In fact, most of those movies were  called ”B-movies”; cheap, quick to make and either comedic or action-packed. In the main roles were either foreign, mostly American, washed-up stars or Italian good looking actors like Terrence Hill or Franco Nero. They weren’t there to play a part, they were there to carry a story. And that’s how Spaghetti Westerns got made; German, French and Italian directors would film stories of revenge and justice in the Spanish desert instead of Monument Valley because of budget restraints. Spaghetti Westerns were the bread and butter during those years, and honestly they all looked the same. Until the very day, one chubby Italian from Rome appeared on the Spaghetti Western stage: Sergio Leone. Maybe to some his movies seem too long and too predictable, but try and compare them to other movies of the cheap genre and you’ll notice that what this man did was start a Western Renaissance.

It's always quiet in the West.
It’s always quiet in the West.

In this post I’ll have a look at what I think is his most mature work – Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) – which doesn’t mean that his other pieces of filmography aren’t worth discovering: the whole Man with No Name Trilogy has some of my favorite set pieces ever put on film; Duck, You Sucker from 1971 is hilarious fun, and Once Upon a Time in America, his last effort before his sudden death in 1984 is a brilliant gangster epic. On the other hand though, I can’t help myself but think that Leone reached a peak of his directorial efforts in his smash hit, Once Upon a Time in the West. Why is that? Well, take a look at the opening scene. No one, not even Hitchcock could reach the same level of suspense and tension that Leone used in every movie of his. The first twelve minutes are almost played out without a single word being said. The only sound we hear is that of a broken windmill spinning, a fly buzzing around, and water slowly dripping onto a man’s hat. It’s the details that make us nervous. Leone’s strategy is to create a very long moment of silence and then disrupt it into million pieces with the use of the loudest sounds available, to make the audience jump, to make the audience think on the importance of sound. In fact, his movies never really focus on dialog almost as if they were silent films. In Once, the opening scene follows three strangers covered with thick dusters and dirty hats. We don’t know who they are. We don’t know where they come from and why are we following them but for some odd reason we can’t take our eyes off them. They’re nasty, ugly looking men, for all we care they’re simple bandits waiting for a train, and yet Leone manages to make it interesting and fun just looking at them. And when the train arrives, the credits stop rolling, we witness the climax of all that we’ve been waiting for. The windmill stops.

Henry Fonda's blue eyes hide one of the most terrifying villains in the history of movies.
Henry Fonda’s blue eyes hide one of the most terrifying villains in the history of movies.

Leone didn’t simply direct Westerns; by combining the ugly with the beautiful, the evil with the good, the present with the past he created art. A scene in Once that takes place in a sleazy saloon in the middle of the desert, where bounty hunters and filthy horsemen sit drinking and spitting, is a perfect place to introduce us the real nature of Claudia Cardinale’s character, the gorgeous Jill, a frightened yet strong woman that will face any man that stands in her way. How does the man behind the camera do it? Close-ups. That’s Leone’s trademark and something that went on and influenced later famous directors like Quentin Tarantino and John Woo. It made him recognizable. We see a close-up and we immediately know it’s him. And again it’s the attention to detail that shapes this movie. In American Westerns, well respected directors like John Ford or Howard Hawks would never use close-ups because they felt the West was all about the posture and strong figure of cowboys, muscular lawmen. Leone had his own idea. His focus was on the slight movements, barely visible tics, a tear in the corner of the eye. Leone’s details tell us more about a character than any form of dialog. In Once we have the mysterious character of Harmonica, played by legendary Charles Bronson, we know nothing about him and yet he’s one of the main characters of the movie. In that same saloon scene, Leone directs a close-up of Harmonica’s face while the man plays a tune on his silver instrument. We ask ourselves what’s the meaning of this close-up? And I say precisely that: the audience asking themselves a question. We raise questions because we’re curious and Leone delivers the answers with the same close-up at the very end of the movie, letting us finally discover the character’s identity, motivation and dark past. You’ll never play harmonica again.

He plays, you live. He stops...
He plays, you live. He stops…

Finally, the score. Leone without composer Ennio Morricone is like steak with no fries. It’s good but the taste is not the same, it’s as if something’s missing. Morricone, an old friend of Leone’s from high school, would in some way help create the movie. He gave the director’s movies their identities, their spirit. Today almost everyone knows the celebrated tracks “Ecstasy of Gold” or “A Fistful of Dollars” with the recognizable whistle and whip sound because Morricone knew how to make the song not only suit the scene it played on, but make it memorable, make something special that people will always come back to and be left with their jaws dropped just like the first time they heard and saw it. Here, Morricone composes the chilling sound of a peaceful harmonica, and whenever we hear it we know who’s behind the instrument, ready to draw first.

The cause of all the good and evil, the beautiful Jill.
The cause of all the good and evil, the beautiful Jill.

Leone created a new way of telling personal stories in an impersonal world. His guns didn’t always fire bullets; they fired emotions and bruised feelings. The protagonists weren’t always presentable good guys: they were people touched by the past.

Luckily for us, Leone will always be the future.

A faded past marches toward us.
A faded past marches toward us.

No Heroes

No Heroes

Today’s topic: the end of an era in The Wild Bunch (1969). A lot of people consider the Western genre to be boring nowadays. My own generation, the youngsters, seem to be repulsed by the boring scenery, outdated dialogue and predictable action. Sure, Westerns are predictable; the good guy wins, the bad guy dies. The special effects sure look like nothing compared to today’s fast paced action blockbusters and yet, to all the non-Western-watchers, you’re missing out. Westerns were made to enjoy, to make audiences root for the hero who who would always come out victorious, to make them boo at the ferocious indians and ugly bandits, to make them laugh whenever the clumsy old sheriff’s sidekick would come up on the screen. Western set laws that didn’t apply to any other genre in the 1940s Hollywood. As movies they always followed a certain scheme, a plan that had a prepared route of what will follow. And yes, many times Westerns would get repetitive, tackling the same subject matter – that of a glorious Wild West, a land so rich and so beautiful that only the rightful hero can have. But then again, exceptions are made. The exception here was Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch that managed to destroy the myth of the good Old West.

William Holden as the protagonist of the dying breed.
William Holden as the protagonist of the dying breed.

As some of the more seasoned movie fans may know, Peckinpah was famous for his head-on, no-brakes concept of violence (Straw Dogs, from 1971, being the prime example), which in some way revolutionized the way audiences started to adapt themselves to the violent imagery depicted in movies. Until that time, most directors chose not to show blood on screen. Blood was considered a dirty element in the golden industry of Hollywood. However, Sam Peckinpah did not care. He was a true visionary who looked at film with his own eyes and mind. The Wild Bunch was his way of depicting the reality of what people considered a fairy tale. The very Wild but pretty West. Peckinpah does not talk about a good sheriff, or a handsome rider; he does the opposite – his movie is about the cruel passing of time. Time ignores the fact if you’re rich, poor, black, white, whatever. Time is time and in The Wild Bunch, it’s ruthless. Our main protagonists are no kids; they’re seasoned veterans, real filthy bandits who in the past have killed, raped, robbed and drank every little penny they had. Their best days are way behind them. Maybe they never had them. They’re not as quick at pulling the trigger anymore, and their only reason to live is the love they have for crime. That’s their addiction, something they can’t stop themselves from doing. Time is killing them. What they once considered an easy two minute job becomes a bloodbath of a robbery. The authorities begin to outnumber them and in no time out of a whole gang, only six of them remain alive and loyal. Running.

Where are the horses? Long gone.
Where are the horses? Long gone.

As the movie progresses we notice how Peckinpah plays with time; in the shootout sequences, which for 1969 were something out of this world, he tackles time by making the most out of slow motion and fast paced intercuts. When a bounty hunter is shot dead and falls down to the ground from the top of a building, as he slowly reaches the ground, the director intercuts with the wild motions of galloping horses, symbol of progress and immediate change. Right after the bloodshed that took place in the street of a peaceful border town, Peckinpah dissolves to an image of a scorpion being eaten by thousands of ants. What happens next? Children set the insects on fire, and Peckinpah keeps the camera rolling as the flames devour what seconds before was devouring a mighty predator. We get the message. It’s time for the old timers to step away. If they stay, time will swallow them up. Even technology is subject to change and here too, the director makes the most out of the available props. Revolvers are replaced by semi-automatic pistols, bolt action rifles are left off in exchange for modern shotguns, and horses can’t outrun an automobile. It’s these simple things that make the biggest change in the gangbangers’ lives. The Wild West is filled to the brim with criminals much more skilled than these six poor old sobs.  This is no country for old men. Old men must go, but before they do, Peckinpah leads the gang into a brothel, just to show us that there is no class in being a bandit. It’s a simple reminder that makes us think about all those times we saw the hero prepare himself for his final battle by praying in a church or cleaning his weapon in a quiet hotel room. Not in this case. In this case, the brothel is the sanctuary. The holy temple.

Fairy tales do not exist.
Fairy tales do not exist.

As I mentioned before, what is so revolutionary about this movie is the use of epic violence: corpses riddled by bullets, a machine gun that rips bodies apart and grenades that destroy entire buildings. The final shootout is an example of a virtuoso working against a whole world of viewers by challenging the way they’d watch Westerns. This is a war movie. The remaining five bandits face a squadron of angry Mexican soldiers. It’s the scorpion being eaten by the never ending masses of ants. It’s five men against the inevitable passing of time. It’s the Wild West against the approaching twentieth century. It’s the beloved traditions against the modern age. The bullet-spraying machine gun, in this case, is seen as the last door to knock at. Each one of the wild bunch tries to hold the weapon for as long as he can, but in the end, they all let go, crippled by the enemy fire. Crippled by their dark past. Their mistakes. Time sinks its teeth into their lives, ending them once and for all. It’s never been about gold, silver or any of that. It was about living the fearless life no one would get to live anymore after that.

The dying breed of a dying era.

Their last walk.
Their last walk.

The Duke

The Duke

Today’s topic: the controversial icon. I’ve known the name ‘John Wayne’ since I was a little child. It made me feel safe, it made feel right at home. That familiar face, those reassuring blue eyes, and that walk. He would come up on screen and it was celebration time for me and the entire family. An old friend. That’s who John Wayne is to me. Because let’s face it, maybe not my generation, but anybody who’s lived through the 50s, 60s or 70s  must remember what it felt like when the big man hit the theaters. Of course, a lot of people think of him as the racist, homophobic, over-the-top republican washed up Hollywood actor. Yet, there must be a reason why he’s still famous and remembered by millions as “The Duke”.

You want that gun, pick it up. I wish you would.
“You want that gun, pick it up. I wish you would.”

Go ahead, complain about how every movie of his was about cowboys shooting Indians, cowboys taking over the prairie, cowboys killing buffalos. I won’t argue. But there is a lot more to who he really was than just that first impression. Wayne (with an acting career that spread well over 50 years), in fact, was an inspiration to such future celebrities like Frank Sinatra, Roger Moore, Martin Scorsese and Michael Caine. He was great friends with Dean Martin, Bob Hope, Walter Brennan and James Stewart. He was revolutionary in the way he brought the Western genre to the big screen time after time and still managed to be a box office hit. However, Wayne was and still is misunderstood by the public. Seen as the ‘macho’ type, the one who always comes fists first, words later. The kind of character who punches someone and then asks the questions. A very common mistake committed by Hollywood, that still applies to today’s situation. John Wayne was type casted in the last twenty years of his career. He would be hired to make B-movies where he knocked the guy’s teeth out, or rammed through a door with his powerful kick. But as Wayne said many times: “The guy you see on the screen isn’t really me. I’m Duke Morrison, and I never was and never will be a film personality like John Wayne. I know him well. I’m one if his closest students. I have to be. I make a living out of him.” 

In fact, many people don’t know this or refuse to believe it, but John Wayne’s walk was invented by the actor. Like the greatest performances we see on screen by actors like Daniel-Day Lewis, Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio, Wayne would undergo tough, compelling changes in the way he behaved and talked. The famous walk was invented and built in its entirety by the actor himself. He wanted some of his characters to have a past, dark motivations, scarred memories. He wished to push the character development as far as possible, to the extreme edge. And look how he fooled whole generations of viewers, letting them believe that it was all part of his true self. The slurred speech, the funny look, the way he reached for his rifle, Wayne had it all under control and all hidden under a great actor’s mask. A hidden identity.

The angry bastard in Red River.
The angry bastard in Red River.

Of course, he also had a bad reputation amongst other Hollywood stars and well known directors; he would argue like a madman with frequent collaborator, the legendary John Ford (director of Stagecoach, Rio Grande, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance), up to the point where the two would start cursing at each other and one of them would walk off set. During the shooting of Howard Hawks’ Red River (1948), Wayne and actor-friend Walter Brennan would fight with co-star newcomer Montgomery Clift over political ideas; Brennan and Wayne were hardened Republicans while Clift was a convinced Democrat. Clift, after the movie got released, said he’d never work with the two again, especially with John Wayne. The Duke was  famous for his heavy drinking and chain smoking that eventually led to his death in 1979. He was also a strong supporter of the Hollywood Blacklisting, convinced that “un-american Americans need to stay out of here”.

So what is there to admire? Wayne’s passion and love for what he did. He loved acting, he loved people and he loved life. He loved simplicity and when we watch him act out his lines we see honesty and truth in the way he delivers them. Want to see an unusual, subtle performance by the tough guy who breaks people’s noses? Watch The Quiet Man (1952) and notice the transformation. For me, it will always be the 1959 Western, Rio Bravo (one of Tarantino’s favorites). The way Dean Martin’s character introduces the big man, Sheriff John T. Chance. His confident walk, his posture and warm look. A familiar face in a saloon full of bandits and drunks. There would always be hope when he  appeared on the big screen. His presence would and still does, make everything seem better. He can be the bad guy, the asshole, the hardened Sergeant, but he will always have a positive impact on how we view the picture. And I’ll never forget when Bruce Dern’s character in The Cowboys murdered John Wayne in cold blood. The tears I cried when I was a kid watching that scene. The many nightmares I’ve had since seeing that final bloody shootout. How could a nobody just go ahead and kill the man who’s never been killed before? How could someone put a deadly bullet into the back of a legend? I couldn’t comprehend and to this day I don’t have the courage to watch that scene in its entirety. It takes guts to kill John Wayne.

The way, Wayne revolutionized acting in The Searchers.
The way Wayne revolutionized acting in The Searchers.

What’s my point? Perhaps I’m just talking to myself, perhaps I just want to remind myself of some childhood memories or perhaps I just like to brag about some of the forgotten idols. Whatever it is, I like to think that Wayne is and always will be appreciated for his presence, his warm smile and the fact that John Ford admitted that “Wayne will be the biggest star of all time”. Don’t let the controversies fool you, because we all live in a world that’s built on controversies. That’s no news.

The Duke will always be The Duke.

Sail on, Captain, sail on.
Sail on, Captain, sail on.