The moment I started up this crazy column, people have been asking me when I would write up The Wild Bunch. It’s not my intention to snub Sam Peckinpah (though he has been poorly represented here) at all. When I started this column, it was meant to inspire discussion of older films, and encourage people to seek out classics they hadn’t seen. With online streaming, it’s easier to do than ever, and I tried to focus on films that were on Netflix or Hulu because the format removed any excuses you had not to watch The Searchers or Stagecoach.
The past few installments haven’t been on Netflix Instant due to the luck of the draw — if The Great Silence or Hannie Caulder arrives in the mail, how can I not write it up? — and time constraints. One of the reasons I had put off The Wild Bunch was that I was hoping it, like The Searchers, Stagecoach, and much of Sergio Leone, would pop up on Instant Watch. But it hasn’t. Instead, it played on TCM. A more savvy writer may have timed this piece to go up prior to its airing. Oh well. Chances are, this is a film you’ve seen. But it’s always a film worth talking about.
The Wild Bunch is a significant Western, obviously. It’s the first American western to get as down, dirty, and violent as they had in Italy. (Vera Cruz paved the way though, remember?) Sergio Leone considered Sam Peckinpah his only rival in the genre. That said, it’s not one of my favorites — I prefer a cool flip of the serape to scorpions being eaten alive, because I like my cathartic violence to be a little more stylish. But that’s just me.
As I’ve made way through the Western genre, I’ve had one silly hope — that I’d stumble on some awesome, forgotten, cultish series that centered on a female gunfighter. The Quick and the Dead couldn’t be the only one, could it? Surely Sam Raimi had a stash of some spaghetti westerns he drew from?
Obviously, there isn’t such a series. I’ve met many a tough broad in the genre (I mean that in the most complimentary of ways) but other than Doris Day’s Calamity Jane (a write up that will come eventually) or Jane Fonda’s Cat Ballou, lady gunslingers are in short supply. Thankfully, Sharon Stone has some competition in Raquel Welch and Hannie Caulder.
Hannie Caulder’s origin story is predictable pulp — her husband is killed, and the outlaws responsible promptly gang rape her. Caulder strides out of her burning house with only a blanket to her name, and vows to get revenge.
Luck delivers her a bounty hunter in Thomas Luther Price (Robert Culp) who reluctantly agrees to train her in the art of killing. He also buys her a pair of pants (but not, it seems, a shirt) and takes her to Mexico where she can have a pistol made by Bailey the gunsmith (Christopher Lee).
Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah painted some bleak and cynical portraits of the West. They gun down children, show the futility of civil war, pile corpses in wagons, and survive by whatever bloody means they have to. It’s my humble opinion that Sergio Corbucci might make them both look like Walt Disney with The Great Silence. (PG-13 Disney, mind you ….)
The plot of Silence is typical spaghetti – mysterious gunslinger rides into corrupt town, aims to clean it with bullets, rival bounty hunters get in his way – but is far more hellish. Corbucci once again makes a greater use of landscape and weather than most Westerns do (Django was one of the few that embraced mud and dank, Silence is the rare one that replaces the bleakness of the desert with the inhospitable winter). But there’s no thrill of the wild here.
Leone took a certain glee in painting his fictitious “age of the bounty hunters”, and Corbucci embraced that spirit in Django, but here he creates a West of punishment and horror. It feels more like Purgatory than faux-history. There’s no world outside of his Snow Hill. Characters ride in and out of it, but they don’t seem to go anywhere or have any awareness of a world outside their town. There’s no greater plan for civilization – at one point the newly appointed sheriff speaks grandly of eliminating the bounty hunter in favor of law, order, and peace. Everyone looks at him as though he’s speaking Greek.
When you discuss the Western, there’s three shadows that loom over the main street at noon — John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, and Gary Cooper. The sturdy Randolph Scott (who made dozens upon dozens of Westerns) doesn’t warrant much of a mention except in exhaustive compendium books about the genre.
I suspect this is because a lot of his Westerns were the muddled, bloodless movies most people associate with the genre. He didn’t really have a script that would allow him to stretch out and strike an iconic pose like Wayne or Eastwood. The makings were there, though.
To quote THE BFI Companion to the Western (by way of Scott’s Wikipedia page): “In his earlier Westerns … the Scott persona is debonair, easy-going, graceful, though with the necessary hint of steel. As he matures into his fifties his roles change. Increasingly Scott becomes the man who has seen it all, who has suffered pain, loss, and hardship, and who has now achieved (but at what cost?) a stoic calm proof against vicissitude.”
It’s true. Scott was, in a weird way, his own icon or character — this stalwart and sad survivor of many a gunfight. I think this is what makes Ride the High Country so affecting. Like The Shootist or Unforgiven, Scott is looking back at the long and dusty trail, and wondering what it all meant and whether it mattered. It seems particularly poignant for him since he was so overshadowed by successors and competitors.
“I’m a dying man, scared of the dark.”
I’ve put off watching The Shootist for a long time. It has such a weighty legend hanging over it. It’s John Wayne’s final film, and features melancholy appearances from a lot of greats such as Jimmy Stewart and Richard Boone. Even Humphrey Bogart’s ghost looms over it because of Lauren Bacall’s sad and spare performance. Even the horse figures prominently — Dollar was Wayne’s favorite horse, and its appearance was a condition of his doing the film.
My goal was to watch (or rewatch) all of Wayne’s Westerns before tackling this one. But it’s been hanging on my DVR for a few weeks, tempting me, and I decided to stop putting it off. Wayne died several years before I was born. There’s a finite amount of his movies any way you slice it, and why put off the inevitable?
Which is, of course, what The Shootist is about. Acceptance. It’s a powerful film. No matter how you feel about Wayne, it’s a moving portrait and one of his best performances. We all know Wayne wasn’t the most nuanced or gifted actor. He played himself.