Tag: Westerns

There Will Be Blood (2007)

There Will Be Blood (2007)

Daniel Day-Lewis triumphs in this incomparable masterpiece from Paul Thomas Anderson

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson

Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis (Daniel Plainview), Paul Dano (Eli Sunday/Paul Sunday), Kevin J. O’Connor (Henry), Ciarán Hinds (Fletcher Hamilton), Dillon Fraser (HW Plainview), Russell Harvard (Adult HW Plainview), David Willis (Able Sunday), Hans Howes (William Brandy), Paul F. Tompkins (Prescott)

Citizen Kane’s original title was “American”. David Thomson observed perhaps there hasn’t been another film so deserving of that title until There Will Be Blood. This is one of those once-in-a-decade films, possibly the greatest American film of the twenty-first century and Anderson’s career-defining masterpiece. It’s a gripping exploration of what makes America tick, captured within the self-destructive greed and hunger for power of one man. It’s a stunning piece of work, a cast-iron masterpiece, that takes a stack of influences and reinvents them into something fresh, daring, bold and above all unrepeatably unique.

Adapted very loosely from Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil, the film follows thirty years in the life of Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), a misanthropic and fiercely ambitious empire-building oil man. Running a ‘family business’ with his adopted son HW (Dillon Fraser) – the boy’s father having been killed in a drilling accident – Plainview takes up a sea of leases across California. The film focuses on his exploitation of a rich seam under the community of Little Boston. A very religious community – dominated by the strong-willed Eli Sunday (Paul Dano), almost a mirror image of Plainview’s monomania – Little Boston becomes the setting for Plainview’s struggles with men and land, in a growing cacophony of drama that inevitably (as the title promises) builds towards an explosion.

Watching it you can see the inspirations. It reflects The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (which Anderson watched endlessly in preparation) in its chilling exploration of the impact of greed and Plainview is the grandfather of Charles Foster Kane. It’s set in a Fordian west, but filtered through the unique vision of Kubrick. But it’s not a slave to these: it’s a truly original work, an off-kilter epic, shot with a stunning beauty that’s half poetry, half gothic horror by Robert Elswit. It sounds like no film ever made, a deeply unsettling score that mixes discordant rhythm and baroque-inspired strings by Johnny Greenwood.

And it has two geniuses at its centre. Anderson, a director best known for large-scale ensemble pieces, inverts his style to focus on one single misanthropic force of nature, a man who sees people as only tools or rivals. His film hits every note from near silent-cinema expressionism, to Grand Guignol fever-dream intensity. It’s shot with an all-consuming urgency, long-takes of fluid camera movement, mixed with interrogative still shots. The film digs itself into your soul, takes hold and doesn’t let go. It’s at times as darkly funny, as it is horrifyingly bleak. No one else could have made it.

And no one else could have played Plainview. If There Will Be Blood cemented Anderson as one of the leading directors of the early 21st century, it confirmed Day-Lewis as the era’s greatest actor. Day-Lewis is beyond superb here: this is the sort of, epoch defining performance you see only a few times in your life. Hunched forward, like a man constantly on the move, dark eyes gleaming and his voice a malevolently rolling John-Huston inspired baritone, Day-Lewis makes Plainview a misanthropic monster. He’s articulate, instinctive and destructive. Achieving his dreams only makes him even more inhuman and bitter. And Day-Lewis makes clear the stunted, half-grown creature under the skin of the confident businessman.

It’s clear he’s desperately lonely, but seemingly only has enough humanity in him for one relationship at a time – even then, people still must serve a purpose. HW – and later Henry, the man who arrives on his land claiming to be his brother (a wonderful inscrutable performance from Kevin J O’Connor) – become props in the family business. Plainview reaches out to them for emotional connection, but it’s all one way. When an accident robs the young HW of his hearing, Plainview is incapable of caring for him – he treats the deafness like a betrayal. He banishes HW, just as he will banish and punish all those who he sees as betraying him, including Henry. There isn’t a scene that doesn’t have a piece of performative magic from Day-Lewis.

Alongside this genius, Anderson’s subject is America. It’s a stunning exploration of how capitalism, greed and an insatiable hunger for more – be it money, land, power or anything else worth a jot of value – has shaped the country. Plainview is the dark soul of pioneering American entrepreneurial spirit, obsessed to the elimination of anything else, with accumulation. Oil is the life blood of the country, God’s own gift of power wrapped in a dangerous black liquid. It’s pumping through the country’s soil, and to control it is to control the country’s circulation. It’s Plainview’s faith – and it’s the faith of all these men forging an empire out of the ground, motivated by the desire for more. It’s partly why the film is so focused on men – because it’s always grasping men like this, titans of industry, who shape the dark soul of our civilisation.

Nothing will please Plainview until he controls all around him, confessing in a quiet moment (there are no words for how brilliantly unrepentant, yet also strangely regretful Day-Lewis is in this underplayed scene) that he has “a competition within him. I want no one else to succeed. I hate most people.” Like the country itself, he has forged himself from nothing through naught but will-power and a determination to never know failure. There Will Be Blood argues that, much as we might want to think otherwise, America is built on the backs of men like Plainview – monsters with the vision and determination to turn a desert into a city.

God himself has no place in these calculations. Anderson contrasts the obsessive sweat of Plainview with the dogmatic and vainglorious Christianity of Eli Sunday (a brilliantly weasly Paul Dano). Eli’s church is a haven of evangelistic worship and showmanship, which Plainview immediately finds disgusting (does he recognise another expert peddler of bullshit?). Eli has a moral arrogance and as much as a desire to control as Plainview, and the battle that grows between these two for dominance not only shows the ruthlessness of both men, but also reflects the struggle between religious obligation and Mammon that has run through America’s history.

The rivalry between the two men revolves around three crucial confrontations. Having effectively robbed valuable land from Eli’s family for a pittance, Plainview then humiliates Eli, forcing him head first into the mud, refusing to allow him any influence over his dig. Eli’s revenge comes in spades: controlling a vital piece of land for Plainview’s pipeline, he demands Plainview comes to his church to be rebaptised. The resulting scene sees him goad, provoke and demean Plainview for his sins, forcing Plainview into a series of humiliating confessions (both actors are earth-shakingly brilliant).

Their final reckoning closes the film – and is both its most controversial and overblown sequence. Jumping forward fifteen years, to Plainview’s sprawling mansion (where Day-Lewis has become a dishevelled hermit, his misanthropy unchecked and his victories only confirming his loathing of humanity) it’s the famous ‘milkshake’ scene, played with the sort of OTT intensity only Day-Lewis could risk and which the film has carefully built us towards accepting. Blood-dripped in a Kubrickian setting of a bowling alley, it’s the final expression of two men’s mutual hatred and views of a world – Eli’s that it owes him something for his faith, Plainview’s that he controls it through will alone.

Only a film that has built on such firm grounding of escalating tension and excess could make such a scene a success. This is a film that starts with a near-silent 15 minutes, of Plainview hammering with a pickaxe obsessively in the belly of the country’s soil. It ends – after a long journey that has seen Plainview wheedle, steal, bully and grasp – with him entombed again, this time in his mausoleum of a home, no daylight allowed and the air filled with Plainview’s hate-filled rants. Along the way, we’ve seen the plains of California as a place of dreamy beauty, marshalled to the will of one man to control all around him, scenes of striking beauty and haunting intensity.

There Will Be Blood is a masterpiece, an inspired parable for American history, a showcase for one of the greatest actors of his generation to redefine his craft and a marvel of character study, epic vision and haunting lyricism from its director. There is not a false note in it and it stands towering as a landmark in American film history. The greatest American film of the 2000s? Possibly yes.

Rio Bravo (1959)

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John Wayne, Ricky Nelson and Walter Brennan are supremely unbothered by danger in Hawks’ High Noon riposte, Rio Bravo

Director: Howard Hawks

Cast: John Wayne (Sheriff John T Chance), Dean Martin (Dude), Ricky Nelson (Colorado), Angie Dickinson (Feathers), Walter Brennan (Stumpy), Ward Bond (Pat Wheeler), John Russell (Nathan Burdette), Pedro Gonzalez Gonzalez (Carlos Robante), Estelita Rodrigues (Consuelo Robante), Claude Akins (Joe Burdette)

When they saw High Noon Hawks and Wayne were unimpressed. Who was this sissy cry-baby, blubbing in his office, begging all and sundry to join him in an impending gunfight with an outraged gang? This wasn’t the West they knew. How un-American was that? So, heads went together and they came up with their counterpoint: Rio Bravo, where the Duke does the right thing, locks up the bad man, is supremely unruffled by threats of violence from his gang, turns down offers of help from across the town (he doesn’t need to worry, they all help anyway) and even finds time for an unfazed, late-night jail-room sing-along with his deputies. Take that Fred Zinnemann and Carl Foreman!

The Duke is John T Chance, a grizzled, experienced sheriff, still in-his-prime, who arrests the brother of Nathan Burdette (John Russell) after he shoots an unarmed man in a bar brawl. When Nathan demands his release – or there will be hell to pay – Chance relies on the men he can trust: old-timer Stumpy (Walter Brennan), recovering alcoholic former-deputy Dude (Dean Martin) and (eventually) plucky young gunslinger Colorado (Ricky Nelson). The three simply have to wait for the Marshalls to arrive and take Burdette away – but will the Burdette’s strike first? On top of which, Chance’s eye is caught by the widow of a cheating gambler, Feathers (Angie Dickinson) – does he also have time for a bit of love?

Rio Bravo is possibly one of the most “shooting-the-breeze” films ever made – even though the general air of manly cool is punctuated by the odd gun-fight. Wayne and his gang are far too cool, confident and quick on the draw to ever be that worried about the approaching threat of the Burdette family – not that you can blame them, since Hawks spends only the minimum amount of time fleshing them out. Instead, the film is a chronicle of a few days where they hole-up and basically shoot-the-breeze – their banter carrying over to exchanging bon-mots during the final gunfight (“You took two shots!” “I didn’t take the wind into account”). It’s the sort of unfazed cool against the odds that you can see has carried across to a whole host of modern action and superhero films, heroes who are so confident in their skills they crack wise even under fire.

Rio Bravo is directed at a gentle pace but complete assurance by Hawks. It occasionally has a feel of settling down and watching a relaxed after-show party, with a group of actors so comfortable in each other’s company, that they simply filmed themselves having a whale of a time. Wayne marshals the whole thing on screen with authority and confident precision: the part is far from a stretch, but he hits the beats with a naturalness that really works, from a fatherly mix of encouragement and disappointment in Dude’s slow turnaround from his drunken collapse, to a crusty flirtatiousness with Feathers (Angie Dickinson at her most radiant here).

The film is full of delightful little moments that pop-up with a perfectly judged regularity. Colorado and Feathers save Chance’s bacon with a perfectly timed flower-pot through the window, matched with Colorado’s pitch-perfect shooting skills. Dude judges exactly the location of sharp-shooter through the drops of blood on a full beer-glass (a lovely image from Hawks). Chance and Colorado confront a card cheat. Chance is so cool under fire, that pinned with two guns on his back in a small room, he never once feels like he thinks there is any real danger.

Either side of these events, the film is full of a sublime lackadaisical charm, as our heroes riff off each other, never once letting events get too heavy. You couldn’t cast Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson without having them break into song – so of course, they do just that in a late-night sing-along. It seems to be about blocking out the sound of Degüello, the cut-throat Mexican song that plays non-stop outside the town overnight, warning them of the perils to come. But really it’s just because we are watching three blokes chilling and simply too cool to be that flustered by scare-tactics. (The Degüello here, by-the-way, was composed by High Noon’s composer Dimitri Tiomkin – another one in the eye for that film).

Wayne’s charges all do a fine job on screen, with Dean Martin in particular fitting the role like a glove and bringing a wonderful sense of sixties brashness as well as a surprisingly affecting struggle with alcohol. Ricky Nelson does his duty when pushed. Walter Brennan wheezes and cackles as only he can. Angie Dickinson is wonderfully vibrant and sexy – surely, with those tights, she’s too much for even the Duke to handle?

Duty is what it is all about, and these are men’s-men who knuckle down and get on with it rather than complain. People may offer to help, but only those qualified will do so (two of them rock-up to help at the final gunfight anyway). That film’s concluding shoot-out is rousing, dramatic and literally explosive. Hawks shoots it all with assured skill – the film’s long silent opening, is a wordless delight of reaction, implication and careful character development (Chance and Dude are wordlessly, but perfectly, established).

Rio Bravo is one of those films people has have their “favourite” – and that might be because it’s laid-back, fun and invites you to join on it. It’s free of pretension and shows you the sort of men you’d like to be, going about effortlessly the sort of things you’d like to do. No wonder people love it so much.

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949)

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John Wayne embodies the honour and duty of the American man in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon

Director: John Ford

Cast: John Wayne (Captain Nathan Brittles), Joanna Dru (Olivia Dandridge), John Agar (Lt Flint Cohill), Ben Johnson (Sgt Tyree), Harry Carey Jnr (Lt Ross Pennell), Victor McLaglen (Sgt Quincannon), Mildred Natwick (Mrs Abbey Allshard), George O’Brien (Major Mack Allshard), Arthur Shields (Dr O’Laughlin)

If there is a film that marks John Ford as the great American Artist of the West, it might just be She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. Shot in glorious Techicolour on location in (where else?) Monument valley by Oscar-winning cinematographer Winton C Hoch, it’s a gorgeously lit celebration of everything that made the American West a legend. Streaking red sunsets, rolling plains, lightening that slices through the sky, masculine military ruggedness beautifully bought to the screen. It’s Ford’s biggest push to become a Winslow Homer or Edward Hopper of the wide-open American space.

Nuzzling in the middle of Ford’s unofficial Cavalry trilogy (either side of Fort Apache and Rio Grande), John Wayne plays Captain Brittles (who might as well be Kirby York again, since he shares the same personality and most of the same backstory), is counting down the last few days until retirement. After Custer and his men are slaughtered at the Battle of Little Big Horn, he’s ordered to lead a cavalry patrol to fly the flag and help prevent a new war with the Indians. At the same time, he’s to escort his commander’s (George O’Brien) wife (Mildred Natwick) and niece Olivia (Joanna Dru) to an eastbound stagecoach (and safety). Olivia herself is in the middle of a love triangle with the two lieutenants eying taking on Brittle’s command, Cohill (John Agar) and Pennell (Harry Carey Jnr).

The film tells the story of that patrol and the subsequent follow-up mission to save those caught protecting the rear guard (needless to say Brittles continues the mission after his supposed retirement, bending the rules). There isn’t actually much in the way of plot in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. Instead, Ford’s intention is to front-and-centre those particular American qualities of loyalty, honour, dedication to the cause and self-sacrifice. The men of the cavalry always put their country and fellow soldiers first, willing to sacrifice themselves to the greater good and show not one jot of hesitation in doing so. Ford shoots all this with real beauty and more than a touch of whimsical wit, coming particularly (where else?) from the Irish American contingent among the soldiers.

At the film’s heart is Wayne himself, now cemented in Ford’s films not as the traditional romantic action hero, but an elder statesman, wiser and less trigger-happy than his fellows, an unflappably experienced man who guides and inspires, shrugging off praise with an aw-shucks-just-doing-my-duty nobility. If Fort Apache and Red River were first steps towards Wayne – at this time only just past 40 – starting to act as if he was ten years older than he actually was (and in Red River’s case a little bit older than that!) – She Wore a Yellow Ribbon cemented him as the grizzled, inspiring man of action, a role he would play in variation for most of the rest of his career.

And he’s very good in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. Ford had of course been impressed by the depth and shade of his performance in Red River. This is a simpler role – it would be a few more years before Ford used the darkness in Wayne as well as that film – but it shows Wayne slotting into place as part of What Made America Great. Wayne plays Brittles with a sadness – he’s a touching grieving husband, who takes a familiar chair out every night to talk to his wives tombstone – and a fatherly concern for his men, but tolerating no selfishness or greed. He mentors and pushes Cohill and Pennell like a second father, and has a brotherly banter with his loyal sergeant (inevitably Victor McLaglen as a hard-drinking, extremely Irish drill sergeant). He will do his duty, but he also respects Indian culture, will fight but prefers a peaceful option, will follow orders but never blindly. He’s all that’s good about the American fighting man, and this is one of his finest performances (and a personal favourite of his).

The yellow ribbon wearer is Joanna Dru as Olivia, the sort of spunky young woman Ford’s films frequently feature in key roles. Dru is just about the archetype: brave, determined, smart – much smarter than both of the rather dull men playing court to her. She’s also sensitive and understanding of Brittle’s grief and can hold her own with the men out in the field. Dru’s very good in the role, bringing it a great deal of depth and more than a touch of heart.

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, plot wise, is more of a day-in-the-life movie. At heart not a lot actually really happens in it other than following the cavalry on two missions (one of which fails) and far from averting the war, it’s explicitly suggested they are just delaying it. The status quo is almost completely restored by the film’s end. The real focus of the film is the detail of what the men set out to do, the determination and humanity with which they go about it – not least the self-sacrificing bravery – and then the return to rest and prepare to go out again. All shot in some of the most striking and beautiful images of the West ever committed to the screen. As a visual tribute, the film is a rich feast.

It’s Ford’s celebration of America and the West and his case for the beauty and majesty of a generation and the values that they placed above all others. For this, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon may be one of the finest of its kind. It lacks the narrative thrust of Fort Apache – and like that film is, in the end, as unquestioning and uncritical of the actions and legacy of those pioneers out West, or the dangers of imperial expansionism or blind veneration of deeply flawed heroes like Custer – but it’s beautiful, very well acted (particularly by Wayne) and a fine film from a director at the top of his game.

The Power of the Dog (2021)

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Benedict Cumberbatch rules his ranch with an iron fist in Jane Campion’s extraordinary The Power of the Dog

Director: Jane Campion

Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch (Phil Burbank), Kirsten Dunst (Rose Gordon), Jesse Plemons (George Burbank), Kodi Smit-McPhee (Peter Gordon), Thomasin McKenzie (Lola), Genevieve Lemon (Mrs Lewis), Keith Carradine (Governor Edward), Frances Conroy (Old Lady), Peter Carroll (Old Gent)

At one point in The Power of the Dog, Phil Burbank, monstrously domineering Montana Rancher, stares out at his beloved hills. Where others see only rocks and peaks, Phil sees how (like a cloud) they form themselves into looking like a howling dog. Seeing things others do not is something Phil prides himself on. It’s also something The Power of the Dog excels out: it’s a continually genre- and tone-shifting film that starts as a gothic, du Maurier-like dance among the plains and ends as something so radically different, with such unexpected character shifts and revelations, you’ll be desperate to go back and watch it again and see if you can see the image of a dog among its rocks.

In Montana in 1925, two brothers run a ranch. George (Jesse Plemons) is polite, formal and quiet, seemingly under the thumb of his aggressively macho, bullying brother Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch). Phil is fully “hands-on” on the ranch, priding himself on being able to perform every task, from rope weaving to bull skinning, all of which he learned from his deceased mentor “Bronco” Henry. Things change though when George marries Rose (Kirsten Dunst). Phil takes an immediate dislike to Rose, engaging into a campaign of psychological bullying that drives Rose to drink. However, at the same time a strange bond develops between Phil and Rose’s student son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) – is Phil’s interest in the boy part of a campaign to destroy Rose or are there other forces at work?

Campion’s film (her first in over ten years) is a fascinating series of narrative turns and genre shifts. It opens like a gothic Western. The ranch is a huge, isolated house surrounded by rolling fields and its own rules. Phil is an awe-inspiring, still-living Rebecca with Rose a Second Mrs de Winter having to share a bathroom with the perfect first wife. The psychological war Phil launches against Rose, like a hyper-masculine Mrs Danvers, seems at first to be heading towards a plot where we will see a vulnerable woman either crushed or fighting back. Then Campion shifts gears with incredible professional ease; the kaleidoscope shifts and suddenly our perceptions change along with the film’s genre, which becomes something strikingly different.

This all revolves around the character of Phil. Excellently played (way against type) by Benedict Cumberbatch, in a hugely complex performance, Phil at first seems an obvious character. A bully and alpha male who mocks George as “Fatso”, hurls homophobic slurs at Rose’s sensitive, artistic son and would-be doctor Pete, and treats his duties with such masculine reverence that the idea of wearing gloves to skin a cow or washing the dirt of his labour from him is anathema.

But look at Phil another way and you see his vulnerability. The opening scenes play as a torrent of abuse to George. But look again and you see this is a man desperately trying multiple angles to clumsily engage his brother in joint reminiscences. His emotional dependence on George is so great that they still share a single bedroom in their giant house (and even a bed in a guest house, like Morecambe and Wise) and he weeps on their first night apart. Despite his brutish appearance, his conversation is littered with classical and literary allusions (we discover later he is a Yale Classics graduate). His life is devoid of emotional and physical contact and he maintains a hidden retreat in the woods, a private den the only place we see him relax.

He’s a man clinging desperately to the past. At first it feels like he has never grown up, that he is still a boy at heart. But Campion slowly reveals his emotional bonds to his deceased mentor Bronco (whom he refers to almost constantly in conversation) to be far deeper and more complex than first anticipated. He treats Bronco’s remaining belongings with reverence, maintaining a shrine to him in the barn and cleaning his saddle with more tenderness and care than he feels able to show any human being. The depths of this relationship are crucial to understanding Phil’s character and the emotional barriers he has constructed. His gruff aggression hides a deep isolation and loneliness, feelings Campion explores with profound empathy in the film’s second half.

That doesn’t change the monstrousness of the bullying Phil enacts on Rose. Played with fragile timidity by Kirsten Dunst, Rose becomes so grimly aware of Phil’s loathing that is too paralysed by intimidation to even play Strauss on her newly purchased piano in front of George’s distinguished guests (Phil pointedly plays the music far better on his banjo and takes to whistling in in Rose’s presence) and later tips into alcoholic incoherence.

Despite Dunst’s strong performance, if the film has a flaw it is that we don’t quite invest in Rose enough to empathise fully with her emotional collapse. Both she and George (a fine performance of not-too-bright-decency from Plemons, in the least flashy role) disappear for stretches and play out parts of their relationship off camera, making it harder to bond with them (a bond the earlier part of the film needs). It perhaps might have been more effective to centre the film’s opening act on Rose rather than Phil, allowing us to relate to her better and feel her decline more.

Dunst however nails Rose’s growing fear, desperation and depression while her status as an unwelcome guest is constantly forced on her. Her panic only deepens with the return of her son Peter. This is where the film takes a series of unexpected shifts. To the surprise of all Phil offers to take the sensitive, quiet Pete under his wing: perhaps he’s impressed by Pete’s indifference to the homophobic abuse from the ranch-hands, perhaps he sees a chance to spiritually resurrect his mentor by playing the same role himself to Phil (pointedly, the film implies the younger Phil may not have been dissimilar from Pete). Either way, Campion’s film heads into its extraordinary and deeply impactful second half as an unsettling and uncertain personal drama between two men who seem totally different but may perhaps have more similarities than expected.

As Peter, Kodi Smit-McPhee gives a wonderfully judged performance of inscrutability and reserve. He’s an artistic boy who creates detailed paper flowers and keeps artistic scrapbooks, but can dissect animals without a flinch and snaps the neck of an injured rabbit with ease. He seems alternately devoted to his mother then queasily distant from her, calling her Rose and unsettled by her drunken inappropriateness. His motivations remain enigmatic, just as Phil’s motivations for befriending this isolated and very different boy could fall either way. Smit-McPhee and Cumberbatch are both extraordinarily good in the scenes between this unlikely partnership, and Campion’s artful film keeps us on our toes as to precisely what they want from this friendship. The result is haunting.

It leads into a stunning final act which demands we re-evaluate all we have seen and leaves such a lasting impression I was still re-living the film in my mind days later. Campion’s film is masterfully shot and carries a wonderful atmosphere of intimidation and unease, helped hugely by Johnny Greenwood’s brilliant score with its unsettling piano-inspired cadences. It reinvents itself constantly, Campion’s direction shifting tone and genre masterfully. It’s quite brilliantly acted and provides Cumberbatch in particular with an opportunity he seizes upon to slowly reveal depths of emotion and vulnerability an outwardly straight-forward monster. There won’t be many finer films released in 2021: and this will be a classic to sit alongside The Piano in Campion’s work.

The Big Country (1958)

Gregory Peck rides into town in The Big Country

Director: William Wyler

Cast: Gregory Peck (James McKay), Jean Simmons (Julie Maragon), Carroll Baker (Patricia Terrill), Charlton Heston (Steve Leech), Burl Ives (Rufus Hannassey), Charles Bickford (Major Henry Terrill), Alfonso Bedoya (Ramon Gutierrez), Chuck Connors (Buck Hannassey), Chuck Hayward (Rafe Hannassey)

From the very first frame when that score kicks in, you know you are in safe hands. The Big Country is a big film, and big entertainment. When I re-watched it I hadn’t seen it for years. I loved it. It’s a slab of prime Hollywood entertainment, not perfect, but it’s one of those films that always delivers.

It’s the American West, and James McKay (Gregory Peck) arrives in town to marry Patricia Terrill (Carroll Baker), daughter of local landowner Major Henry Terrill (Charles Bickford) who is in the middle of a turf feud with patriarch of a cowboy clan, Rufus Hannassey (Burl Ives). This is a town where men-are-men and a harsh word is met with a sock to the mouth. It’s a world where McKay is out of step: a seasoned naval captain, with more experience than anyone, he couldn’t care less what people think of him and won’t be goaded into doing something foolish. His self-assurance and strength of character are interpreted as wimpy yellow-belly-ness by nearly everyone, including Patricia and Terrill’s macho foreman Steve (Charlton Heston). Only local schoolteacher Julie Maragon (Jean Simmons) understands him. But as events come to a head, only McKay has the strength of character to step up and try resolve things without mass bloodshed.

The Big Country is the classic set-up: a stranger in town, who has the guts to stand up. The only difference here, is that McKay has the guts to stand up and not conform to the macho bullshit being driven by the two feuding patriarchs. Both of these men are, of course, far more similar than they would admit, being perfectly contrasting personalities. Charles Bickford plays a genteel man with the principles of a thug, while Burl Ives plays a thug with the principles of a genteel man. No wonder they can’t get on, both see in each other qualities they most likely despise in themselves.

Compared to them, McKay looks like the very model of twentieth century liberal coalition building. Or at least McKay is a liberal who packs a punch, since it’s pretty clear Peck is probably the toughest son-of-a-bitch in the town. What’s glorious in McKay – and Peck’s sensational performance of reserved warmth and wry amusement, mixed with world-weary sufferance – is that you get a definite sense he’s seen way worse than this before. A man who has sailed around the world for decades, in the hardiest conditions, who has been keelhauled and saved men from sharks, recognises this for the slightly pathetic parochial dust-up it really is, and has no interest – or need – to put his life or the lives of others at risk to make crude points about his manliness.

If only, the film argues, we could all be as confident in our own skin. McKay keeps his cool in a way no-one in film, except perhaps Tracy in Bad Day at Black Rock, has managed so successfully. He laughs off his irritation at a hazing from the Hannassey’s – and makes clear, as the Terrill’s saddle up to fight back, that in doing so they are not acting in his name. He won’t make a fool of himself by trying to ride a wild horse in front of a crowd. He won’t rise to Steve’s provocation for a punch-up in front of the entire Terrill gang. McKay is a man who only needs to prove things to himself: so he’ll tame that horse in front of no crowd and swear the only witness to secrecy. He’s not one to brag.

And if it’s a fight that Steve wants, he’ll give him one on his own time and his own terms – those being a dusky morning in private. Wyler shoots one of the greatest fights of all time, an exhausting slugging match between Peck and Heston, played out mostly in long shot that soaks up the dawn Western atmosphere, as the two men fight themselves to an exhausted score-draw, with each punch landing with a punishing wallop. There is something very compelling about this unflashy, in-the-dust, clash of two alpha males, and the strange sense of respect that grows between them (as well as the dry wit of the script – “You certainly take your time to say goodbye”, Heston deadpans after this exhausting ‘I’m leaving but first this’ fight).

It also showcases how well Wyler uses sound (or the lack of it), the fight taking place often in a longshot silence that somehow makes the dusty scuffle even more effective. Silence also comes into play brilliantly to stress McKay’s isolation when first the Terrill men ride away to extract vengeance and then the disgusted Patricia closes the front door on him, leaving him standing in magnificent isolation on the porch. Silence will also come effectively into play during the late act ride of various characters through a white chalk lined gorge and to stress the danger that the kidnapped Julie is under when being held by the Hannassey’s.

The final act brings all the threats of danger and threat together into a brilliantly tense final confrontation. This sequence showcases, not only Peck’s granite principles and nobility, but also gives excellent opportunities for Ives to explore hidden depths in Old Hannassey (it surely helped him win the Oscar for Supporting Actor) and his dumb son Buck (excellently played with a swaggering arrogance by Chuck Connors) who is all mouth and no trousers.

Sure, at times the film overplays the anti-violence card. It’s particularly noticeable as it sometimes wants to have its cake and eat it, favouring probably a sort of gun-toting liberalism, of the “I could kill you but I want to make it so I don’t have to” variety. But then the film would be a heck of a less effective if we weren’t so convinced that Peck was as tough as they come and that his unwillingness to throw himself into events thoughtlessly is a mark of his unparalleled strength. Again, Wyler uses silence as effectively as sweeping camera movements and that brilliant score, to suggest moral strength.

There is probably very little tension about where the romantic plotlines are going, but both Carroll Baker and Jean Simmons are very good as two very different, but equally strong, women (although both women allegedly found Wyler’s perfectionist Kubrickian retakes on set extremely trying). But it still works a treat because of the strength of the acting, and its strongly scripted characterisation.

That and I’ve hardly mentioned the score, by Jerome Moross, which is powerful and famous you’ll instantly know it even if you’ve never seen the film. The Big Country is a Western where the hero has the strength to stick to his principles while still getting the job done. It’s superbly acted by Peck, with Simmons, Baker, Heston, Ives, Bickford and Connors all excellent in support. Wyler combines visual and a compelling story into a film that, while at points a little long, is still a bona fide classic. Again I’ll say: I loved it.

No Country for Old Men (2007)

Javier Bardem is terrifying in the Coen’s Oscar-winning No Country for Old Men

Director: Joel & Ethan Coen

Cast: Tommy Lee Jones (Sheriff Ed Tom Bell), Javier Bardem (Anton Chigurh), Josh Brolin (Llewelyn Moss), Woody Harrelson (Carson Wells), Kelly Macdonald (Carla Jean Moss), Garret Dillahunt (Deputy Wendell), Tess Harper (Loretta Bell), Barry Corbin (Ellis), Stephen Root (Wells’ Hirer)

The borderlands of America. A vast panoramic countryside, where times may change but the underlying violence and savagery continues to lurk just under those dusty plains. It’s ground the Coens have explored before, but perhaps never with such mastery as in No Country For Old Men, a film that mixes the style of a classic Western with the nihilism and bleakness of their most challenging work, all capped with just a hint of their incomparable quirky black humour. A pitch-perfect adaptation of Cormac McCarthy, No Country For Old Men scooped four Oscars, including Best Picture.

In the border Terrell County in Texas in 1980, a Vietnam-vet and welder Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) stumbles across a drug deal gone wrong in the desert: several dead men, a truck full of drugs and a suitcase containing $2 million. Taking the case, Moss sends his wife Carla Jean (Kelly MacDonald) to her mother’s for safety and flees first to Del Rio then Mexico to try and keep the money. Unfortunately, he’s being followed by relentless, psychotic hitman Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) who will stop at nothing to fulfil his contract – and heaven help anyone who gets in the way. Trailing in their wake is worn-out Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), who feels increasingly adrift in a violent world he no longer understands.

The Coen’s film is a bleak, pessimistic and doom-laden look at man’s inhumanity to man – all of it watched with a weary sadness by Jones’ tired Sheriff, in a hauntingly gentle performance. The vision the Coens present is a world that may have moved on in decades from the Wild West, but still has that era’s cavalier regard for life. Life is very cheap in No Country For Old Men and even the slightest mistake, hesitation or act of kindness can have horrific consequences. It’s a film where death is a constant, terrible surprise – so much so it claims the life of one significant character entirely off-screen and can be handed out on the basis of a coin toss.

That coin toss will come at the prompting of Chigurh. Played with an Oscar-winning calm voidness, by an unworldly Javier Bardem, Chigurh is relentless, merciless and completely detached from humanity. Emotion is a complete stranger to him, other than a pride in his work and a capability for being irritated by a non-co-operative target. Chigurh sees himself as an instrument as fate, a nihilistic view where individual choice is removed from the equation. In one chillingly memorable scene, he relentlessly but with a terrifying calm gets a gas station attendant to call a coin toss: the attendant struggles to understand what he’s wagering, but it’s all too clear to us – and in case we miss the point, Chigurh urges him to keep the coin afterwards as it’s a momentously lucky object.

There’s a possibility that this is how Chigurh rationalises the world to himself. He is absolved of all moral consequences for his actions, as everything is pre-ordained, objects and people travelling to predetermined outcomes. It’s a viewpoint another character invited to toss a coin late in the film will firmly reject, saying all Chigurh’s actions are a choice. They’re probably also right. Chigurh kills throughout the film partly because it’s the most expedient way to get what he needs – from a car, to escaping a police station – but also because of the pride he takes in his work being the best, and anything obstructing that should be punished. He has no regard or interest in the money or even for his employers, all of them disposable in the pursuit of doing his job well. It’s perhaps not a surprise that a survey by psychologists named him the purest psychopath caught on film.

Pity those who cross his path. Compared to him, Woody Harrelson’s professional hitman is just that: a guy doing a job rather than an elemental, unstoppable force of nature (Harrelson is superb as a charming, slightly cocky pro, who accidentally gets in over his head). In many ways, it makes it even easier to root for Josh Brolin’s Llewelyn Moss as he tries to stay one step ahead of him with his ill-gotten gains. In a breakout role, Brolin makes Moss the quintessential everyman, with just enough touches of grace and decency to make us overlook the fact that he’s an opportunist putting himself and his family at risk to steal drug money. Moss is such an underdog – but also so ingenious and determined – he becomes the perfect person to root for.

The film largely chronicles the battle of wits between Llewelyn and Chigurh across Texas and Mexico, the two of them carrying out a hunter-tracker dance that has echoes of similar duels from directors like Leone. In one set-piece moment after another, we see their coolness under fire, as well as their focused determination to get what they want, regardless of cost. Brolin’s performance is a superb slice of taciturn Texan-ness, with just enough decency to get him in trouble: from protecting his wife, to taking water back for an injured man, to rejecting the advances of a poolside floozy. It’s interesting that he invariably ends up in more trouble when he tries to do something good – but such behaviour sets him aside from Chigurh and lets us know he’s one of us.

All this bleakness is followed with sad-sack sorrow by Tommy Lee Jones’ sheriff, whose eyes speak of endless, uncountable horrors that fresh ones don’t even seem to shock him anymore. Jones bookends the film with two superb monologues, that reflect on what seems like the increasing brutality of the modern world. But the Coens are smart enough to know that this sentimentality is misleading – Bell’s uncle Ellis (a fine cameo by Barry Corbin) tells him frankly that the world was ever thus and its naïve to think otherwise. This is also one of Jones’ finest performances, a tragic Homer, totally ineffective, reduced to following around and picking up the pieces.

All of this plays out without hardly any trace of a music score – Carter Burwell’s scant score makes use of everyday sound and hints of music at a few dry moments – hammering home the coldness and bleakness of it all. Excellently shot by Roger Deakins, whose classic, restrained, pictorially beautiful presentation of the West brings back a truckload of cinematic memories, the Coen’s film still finds room for dashes of dry humour. Sure, it ends with a nihilistic comment on the horrors of the world and our hopelessness in them, but there are small shoots of hope growing in there if you look closely. They are well hidden, but they are there.

No Country for Old Men is perhaps the Coens’ most fully rounded, morally complex, intriguing and dynamic film, a wonderful mix of the style of their earlier work with the bleakness of Fargo and just some touches of the wit they displayed elsewhere. Cormac McCarthy is the perfect match for two masters, whose direction is as faultless as their script. It’s a film that rewords constant viewing and is constantly shrewd and terrifying in its analysis of the human condition. Essential watching.

Cimarron (1931)

Richard Dix strikes a pose as Irene Dunne looks on in the appalling Cimarron

Director: Wesley Ruggles

Cast: Richard Dix (Yancey Cravat), Irene Dunne (Sabra Cavat), Estelle Tayler (Dixie Lee), Nance O’Neil (Felica), William Collier Jnr (The Kid), Roscoe Ates (Jesse Rickey), Stanley Fields (Lon Yountis), Robert McWade (Louis Hafner), Edna May Oliver (Tracy Wyatt), Judith Barrett (Donna Cravat), Eugene Jackson (Isaiah)

The only reason Cimarron doesn’t regularly top polls of the worst Best Picture winners ever made, must surely be because so few people have seen it since 1931. Believe me you are not missing anything. A ponderous, pompous, puff of a movie, Cimarron might have tricked people into thinking it looked radical, daring and inventive at the time – but it’s fooling no-one today.

Over 40 years in Oklahoma, from the Land Rush of 1889, the town of Osage grows from tents and mud hats to a thriving modern 1920s city. Part of the story of the town are the lives of two of its founders, Yancey Cravat (Richard Dix) and his wife Sabra (Irene Dunne). Yancey is a noble, man’s man with wanderlust, who rides into Osage, guns down the bullies and campaigns for the rights of the poor and down-trodden via his newspaper. Sabra picks up the pieces when he wanders off (often years or decades at a time) raising the children, running the newspaper and eventually becoming a congresswoman.

It should be a sprawling epic, but Cimarron is a dull fart of a film that runs out of any narrative drive after its opening hour (which largely focuses on 1889-1893) and collapses into a series of disconnected, uninteresting scenes, very dully filmed, that sees our characters obtain increasing amounts of old age make-up while shedding what little personalities they had to begin with.

Ruggles shoots the film with such tepid flatness, you might as well be in the theatre. Most of the scenes sees the camera set in a static position (to capture the sound – the sound mix on the film, by the way, is appalling making most of the dialogue extremely hard to hear) with scenes taking place in medium shot allowing us to see the sets and follow the actors walking in and out. You might as well be sitting in the theatre – although, if you were, it would be harder to leave.

It’s not helped by the generally terrible acting, pretty much across the board. Irene Dunne just about emerges with some dignity by underplaying and even showcases a surprising amount of feminine independence – even if her character is an insufferable prig, demonstrating flashes of racism as and when the plot requires. But you can at least see why she continued to have a career – just as you can see why this was Richard Dix’s highest profile sound film. Dix doesn’t know whether to go for a declamatory theatrical style or to telegraph every emotion with poses, silent movie style. So, he does both. The result is a ludicrous collection of poses and grandstanding, that his wild eyes, dyed hair and middle-distance starring stance doesn’t help with. It’s a dreadful performance.

It’s fitting it sits in a film as bad as this one. The only moment of invention the film manages is its opening sequence, restaging the Oklahoma Land Rush. This set piece uses an army of carts and horses to restage the entire land grab from start to finish, the camera capturing these waves of prospectors charging into Oklahoma to grab the best bits. Nothing else in the film beats it, not even the gun fight that occurs part way through. Instead, the film degenerates into long, vague scenes, usually centring around a self-important speech of self-righteous bluster from Dix.

Nothing looks more dated in the film than its depiction of anyone not white and Christian. Now I will cut the film a little bit of slack here. It’s clearly trying to make a plea for greater toleration. Dix’s character passionately campaigns for the rights of Native Americans (or “the red men” as he puts it). He treats his black servant Isaiah with love and affection. He defends the Jewish prospectors. This film is trying to push an agenda more advanced than its time. It gets points for that.

It loses them all though for how these characters are presented. The Jewish characters are smiling, wizened Shylocks. The Native Americans are exotics, forever “How”-ing and happily accepting their status as second-class citizens. Worst of all, Yancey’s servant Isaiah is one of the most shockingly racist caricatures put on film. You think Gone with the Wind is bad? Watch this. Isaiah is stupid, muddle-headed, speaks in a clumsy patois, ridiculously fawning, delighted to be a servant and treats the white men like Gods. The film encourages us to chuckle at him, while patting his head with a smiling paternalism. All the tragic death scenes in the world can’t wash the bad taste out of the mouth. Back then it was fairly forward-thinking – today its jaw dropping.

The main problem is the film is a dull, drifting, dawdling mess that goes nowhere and asks us to root for two characters who are both, in their ways, self-important prigs, convinced they are right about everything. It builds to nothing at all, other than mirroring the sort of relentless march of time you’ll experience while watching it. It’s patronising, uninteresting and outstays its welcome. I can’t even work out why it’s called Cimarron (the name of Yancey and Sabra’s son). Is it because it’s a film asking us to think about the future? It can’t be because Cimarron is important – in ten minutes he ages from about 12 to 40. But then the fact the title refers to an empty non-character is somehow fitting for a film that really should be put down at the earliest opportunity.

Unforgiven (1992)

Clint Eastwood rediscovers the dangers of killing in classic Western Unforgiven

Director: Clint Eastwood

Cast: Clint Eastwood (William Munny), Gene Hackman (Sheriff Little Bill Daggett), Morgan Freeman (Ned Logan), Richard Harris (English Bob), Jaimz Woolvett (The Schofield Kid), Saul Rubinek (WW Beauchamp), Frances Fisher (Strawberry Alice), Anna Thomson (Delilah Fitzgerald), David Mucci (Quick Mike), Rob Campbell (Davey Bunting), Anthony James (Skinny Dubois)

The Western has a reputation for “white hats” and “black hats” – goodies and baddies, with sheriffs taking on ruthless killers with the backdrop of civilisation hewn out of the wildness of the West. It had passed out of fashion by 1992, and this memory is largely what remained. That helps describe the impact of Unforgiven. A great revisionist Western, searingly honest about the brutality of the West, it was made by an actor more associated with the Western than almost any other since Wayne, Clint Eastwood. Articulate, sensitive, intelligent and superbly made, it marked the transition of Eastwood from star to Hollywood artist. It’s still his greatest movie.

In 1880 in Big Whiskey, Wyoming, the face of prostitute Delilah (Anna Thomson) is slashed with a knife after she sniggers at a customer’s unimpressive manhood. The two cowboys responsible are ordered to compensate her pimp by sheriff “Little Bill” Daggett (Gene Hackman). Disgusted, the other prostitutes chip in for a $1000 bounty on the men responsible. A young man calling himself ‘The Schofield Kid’ (Jamiz Woolvett) seeks out famed gunslinger William Munny (Clint Eastwood) to help claim the bounty. Once a brutal killer, Munny is now a repentant widower raising two children – and desperate for money. Recruiting old friend Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman), Munny rides to Big Whiskey – but will he return to his violent ways?

Unforgiven explodes the romantic mythology of the West, in a way that really made people sit up and notice. In truth, revisionist Westerns had been made for decades before 1992 – Eastwood himself had already directed at least two – but as the public hadn’t flocked to see films like McCabe and Mrs Miller (wrongly!) the main memory of the Western was of the (excellent) likes of High Noon, Shane and John Wayne (but not the Wayne of Red River). Nearly every classic Western, to be frank, has a dark heart and questions the mythology. But few films so starkly exposed the violence, ruthlessness, cruelty and empty morality of the West – or more viciously attacked the romanticism built up around it.

In Unforgiven characters – particularly Munny – are constantly haunted by their past killings. The violence described is always cheap, pointless and brutal, fuelled by huge amounts of booze. Munny never seems to remember why he even did something – be it blowing a man’s face off to killing women and children. Whenever we hear about the past, it is a parade of short-tempered, violent, pissed men using the gun as a first-and-last resort, and never thinking of the consequences. The real ‘heroes’ of the West kill without batting an eyelid and, no matter how charming they might seem, have a terrifying capacity for sadism and violence. Place Munny back into this environment, and it isn’t long before his long-hardened ease with killing emerges once again.

It’s men like this the bounty will draw to Big Whiskey – and Little Bill knows it. Little Bill is superbly played by Gene Hackman (he won every award going), full of bonhomie and charisma matched only by a ruthless “end-justifies-the-means” philosophy that sees this law-giver carry out increasingly brutal and sadistic acts to preserve order. Brutally beating gunslingers – and worse – are justified in his mind, to prevent the chaos and slaughter they bring. And he mocks the pretensions of gunslingers fancying themselves romantic heroes, but doesn’t half enjoy telling tales of his own of exploits.

It’s not a surprise that the film’s face of law-and-order is shown to be just as at ease with violence as the killers he is protecting the town from. It’s part of Unforgiven’s intriguing study of morality. When, if ever, is violence justified? Do the ends justify the means, or is killing never acceptable? Or is it fine if you are convinced the cause is right or the target deserving? How long before you’ve slid so far down this slippery slope, that questions of right-and-wrong don’t even enter your head before you pick up a gun?

There couldn’t be a better face for this than Eastwood. Clint looks old, ravaged and tired, just as Munny is, haunted by the screams of men he no longer even remembers. He’s soulful enough to know he has no soul, capable of understanding he needs to change, but also able to revert to dealing out murder. Eastwood deconstructs his own screen personae of “the man with no name” into an old man who can’t face his past and is filled with regrets. As the film progresses, more and more Munny rebuilds his ease with killing – eventually exacting a revenge that leaves a trail of bodies behind.

There is nothing romantic about any of this: despite the best efforts of journalist WW Beauchamp (played with wide-eyed gusto and energy by Saul Rubinek) to inject it. Beauchamp has made a living turning the adventures of gunslingers into romantic best sellers – and is the films’ clearest attack on Hollywood itself for romanticising an era of violence and mayhem. Beauchamp is the biographer of genteel killer English Bob, who has made his money “shooting Chinamen” for the railroads. Played with a self-important grandness by Richard Harris (one of his finest performances), English Bob (actually a working-class oik masquerading as a gentleman) is living his own press release as a gentleman gunslinger. The fact that – as Little Bill delightedly reveals – he is just as much an alcoholic murderer with no principles is just another example of how little reality and fiction meet.

At least Munny accepts he’s a bad man. Perhaps that’s why his late wife shocked her mother by marrying him – he has enough self-knowledge to want to change even if he can’t. But of his three companions – Morgan Freeman is brilliant as the jovial Ned who has lost his taste for killing – only he lasts the course. That’s not a good thing. When we finally see a fully reverted Munny, downing a bottle of whiskey and shooting up a saloon he’s terrifying: brutally efficient with shooting, in a way that panicked shooters can never compete with.

In Unforgiven violence comes with a cost. A shot man takes a long time to die. The women who called most for violence, are left speechless by meeting the reality of it. A man’s soul is marked forever by taking life – “It’s a hell of thing killing a man. You take away everything he’s got and everything he’s ever going to have”. It’s a responsibility only a fool takes on lightly – or sober. Munny and Little Bill are they only ones we see who have come to terms with it in some way, one as a necessary evil, the other as an evil he can switch on and off like a tap. Their ruthless coldness is hardly an advert for wanting to be part of this world.

Eastwood’s masterpiece tackles all these ideas with gusto, while telling an engrossing story powered by brilliant performances – Hackman in particular, Freeman and Eastwood are all stunning – and asks you to take a deep look at what we admire so much about violence. It does this in a subtle, autumnal way (with a haunting score), its muted colours helping to drain any further romance from the West. Gripping, thought-provoking and engrossing, Unforgiven is one of the greatest of Westerns.

How the West Was Won (1963)

James Stewart helps us see How the West Was Won

Director: Henry Hathaway, John Ford, George Marshall

Cast: Spencer Tracy (Narrator), Carroll Baker (Eve Prescott Rawlings), Walter Brennan (Colonel Jeb Hawkins), Lee J Cobb (Marshal Lou Ramsey), Henry Fonda (Jethro Stuart), Carolyn Jones (Julie Rawlings), Karl Malden (Zebulon Prescott), Raymond Massey (Abraham Lincoln), Agnes Moorehead (Rebecca Prescott), Harry Morgan (Ulysses S Grant), Gregory Peck (Cleve van Valen), George Peppard (Zeb Rawlings), Robert Preston (Roger Morgan), Debbie Reynolds (Lilith Prescott van Valen), Thelma Ritter (Agatha Clegg), James Stewart (Linus Rawlings), Rus Tamblyn (Confederate deserter), Eli Wallach (Charlie Grant), John Wayne (William Sherman), Richard Widmark (Mike King)

How the West Was Won was the Avengers: Endgame of its day: every star of the biggest box-office genre in America coming together for one epic adventure that would stretch over generations. Stewart! Fonda! Peck! Wayne! Together for the first time (only of course they are not, none of them appearing the in same scene). Even more than that, How the West Was Won would be filmed in Cinerama, a three-screen shooting method producing a panoramic image. All this would make How the West Was Won the biggest, grandest, largest film ever made. It was a massive box-office success, nominated for eight Oscars (including Best Picture) and wowed audiences.

Plot wise though, it’s basically a series of short films cobbled together into a single film. The stories are basically self-contained, although some actors cross over (especially George Peppard and Debbie Reynolds). The first episode The Rivers covers the migration west, down the river, of the Prescott family, taking on river pirates and allying with James Stewart (looking at least twenty years too old as a young drifter). The Plains sees Debbie Reynolds, daughter of the Prescott family, migrate further West and eventually marry gambler Gregory Peck. The Civil War sees Stewart’s son George Peppard caught up in the war. In The Railroad, Peppard reluctantly runs security for ruthless railway builder Richard Widmark. Finally, in The Outlaws an older Peppard attempts to retire, but not before one final shoot out with old enemy Eli Wallach during an attempted train heist.

All these short stories – each about 30-45 minutes in length – are entertaining. So entertaining that you won’t mind at the end that you have no idea how the west was actually won (I assume it’s something to do with progress and the law) or that the characters are basically actors riffing off their own personas rather than fully realised individuals. Despite the attempt to build the story around one  family (the Prescott-Rawlings), the stories are so disconnected and the characters so lightly sketched, with such huge time jumps, each story might as well be about completely new characters.

Not that there is anything particularly wrong with that. But it boils down to the key issue with How the West Was Won, a very flabbily constructed film that lacks any real sense of guiding narrative or vision behind it. It’s a series of set pieces, which are all about scale – the river rapids, the battles of the Civil War, the final train-set shoot out – in which some loosely defined characters live their lives. There are some decent performances – Debbie Reynolds does a very good job anchoring a couple of stories (plus we get to see her do some song-and-dance routines), while Peck (a smooth operator) and Fonda (a gruff woodsman) have the best parts among the stars. Others, like Wayne, pop up for but a few seconds.

They needed all these stars to fill the frame. How the West Was Won’s main problem is also its principle reason to exist. It was designed to showcase the wideness of Cinerama, one of only two films to use the technique. Designed to be projected into curved screens, the technique essentially used one massive camera to produce an image so large it needed three synchronised projectors to screen it. This led to an impossible wide frame to fill, with two clear joins in the middle. The challenge of shooting this was not an enjoyable one for the directors.

To cover the visible joins, nearly every scene in the film sees an object placed one-third and two-thirds of the way through the image (usually a tree or a post). The actors stand carefully on their marks in their assigned third of the image. Close ups involved flying the massive camera almost into the faces of the actors (and even then it only produced an image from the waist up). Awkward compositions abound – either with actors standing rock still in front of huge scenery, or actors standing in carefully assigned rows, standing on marks they never move from.

The sweeping shots of the American west look impressive, but in a National Geographic way – it’s simply fitting as much of the imagery of the countryside in as possible. It was a hugely difficult job for the directors. It was not helped by two of them being competent journeymen and all three of them having done their best work in 4:3. Quite frankly I don’t think any of them have a clue about how to fill a frame this mighty. Instead, the film for all its grandeur is frequently visually conservative and unimaginative to look at. It’s got huge landscapes, but no real inspiration.

How the West Was Won is an enjoyable curiosity. It is very rarely, if ever, seen as it was intended on a Cinerama screen (the version I watched on a large television, still showed the slight fish-eye effect at points of a curved image flattened). Telling five short stories, each of them entertaining enough, it keeps the interest. It has a lusciously beautiful (famous) score by Alfred Newman that captures the spirit of the West. But, for all its grandness, it’s a strangely small experience.

Shane (1953)

Alan Ladd as the mysterious gunslinger Shane

Director: George Stevens

Cast: Alan Ladd (Shane), Jean Arthur (Marian Starrett), Van Heflin (Joe Starrett), Brandon de Wilde (Joey Starrett), Jack Palance (Jack Wilson), Ben Johnson (Chris Calloway), Edgar Buchanan (Fred Lewis), Emile Meyer (Rufus Ryker), Elisha Cook Jnr (“Stonewall” Torrey), Douglas Spencer (“Swede” Shipstead), John Dierkes (Morgan Ryker), Ellen Corby (Liz Torrey)

On the surface Shane is pretty much the definitive “white-hat-black-hat” Western. Crikey, Jack Palance’s vicious gunslinger Wilson practically wears nothing but black. Alan Ladd’s heroic Shane does what needs to be done, and the kid loves him to bits. But Steven’s film is more complex and intriguing than that. Because Shane is in fact only a few degrees away from Wilson. When he rides into the homestead, he is already weighted down by the memory of all the people he’s killed. Shane is no saint. He’s a tired man whose shed too much of other people’s blood to ever feel anything but an outsider.

Shane arrives at the Starrett farm. Joey (Brandon de Wilde), the boy-of-the-house immediately hero-worships this mysterious stranger with the distinctive guns. Joe Starrett (Van Heflin) is at first hostile but takes Shane in as a farm worker and he and his wife Marian (Jean Arthur) – maybe particularly Marian – are drawn towards this reserved but good-natured man. Starrett and the other homesteaders are in the middle of a feud with local cattle rancher Rufus Ryker (Emile Meyer), who wants to drive them off the land so he can use it for his cattle. Violence seems inevitable – but how long can Shane keep his unspoken pact to himself to put down his guns and try a life of normality?

Shane is one of Steven’s finest films, beautifully filmed with Oscar-winning photography and told with a lavishly poetic sense. It works so well because it juggles both a simple story, with a deep poetic understanding of humanity. You can see why this is “a Western for those who don’t like Westerns”. It’s got a beautiful, understated sense of struggle to it – the homesteaders against the bullying of Ryker – beautifully mixed with a sense of the dangerous glamour of violence. Match that with some wonderfully hissable villains and the honesty and decency of the Starretts and Shane’s quiet dignity, and you’ve got a perfectly judged morality play.

But the film works because there is so much operating on multiple levels. Which brings us back to Shane himself. Sure, he’s a decent guy. We expect him to be the hero. He fulfils much of that function in the plot. He’s kind and loving with the kid. He holds his cool and never seems to get angry. But why is this? The film makes clear that Shane has a past. A past of gun-slinging violence. And if Shane is still standing at the end of a life like that, he must have been good. And ruthless.

What was it that made Shane so desperate for a change? To try a life of normality, chopping down stumps and putting up fences on a farm? I suspect Shane in his prime wasn’t that different from the calm, cool and ruthless Wilson. You can see the guilt in his eyes when he finally shoots his weapon (at a rock!) two thirds into the film. This is a man who knows that killing carries a terrible burden – and he clearly knows all too well after sending so many to their graves. At the end of the film, with his emotional pean to Joey (“There’s no living with killing”) he’s speaking from the heart. And only someone who has killed many, many people – who doesn’t look remotely worried when facing off with Wilson and Ryker – could really know that.

It’s an idea that you could miss in the film, but it’s there all the way through. The casting of Alan Ladd – who was never better – is crucial to the success of this. Imagine the strength and power a Wayne or Cooper or Stewart would have given Shane. They would never have felt so slight, or beaten down by a life of violence. But Ladd’s smallness, his sadness and his reluctance works for the part. Stevens continually shoots him as an outsider, on the edge of scenes or even isolated in crowds. He can fade into the background in the way other stars couldn’t have done. He feels like a man who knows he has been a moral failure, who isn’t redeemed by star quality.

Stevens plays with our expectations of Shane through the reactions of the Starretts. Joe is (tellingly) instinctively hostile to him at first, before Shane wins him over. Marian’s reaction is however fascinating. She is both slightly repelled by what she can see as Shane’s past violence, but also increasingly drawn towards him. Is this because Shane’s internal knowledge, his worldliness, his depths of sadness make him more of a thoughtful kindred spirit than her husband can be? Joe is a simple man, decent beyond words, but not a thinker. Shane is more – for all his danger – and Marian feels like a woman who has accepted her place but perhaps dreamed of more. She would never act on this, but Shane to her seems to represent a path not taken.

And Joey? Shane is everything a boy could dream of in a hero. The man with few words who appears over the horizon with nothing but a six shooter. Stevens camera cuts back again and again to Joey’s adoring, worshipping face – and it’s an excellent performance from (the Oscar-nominated) Brandon de Wilde, as a young boy on the edge of becoming a teenager who wants to be a man, but still looks with the eyes of a child. Stevens throughout places the audience on the same level with Joey. Like him we want to believe in Shane, to see him play the hero. It’s part of the films skilful construction that it finishes before it occurs to you that the character the audience most closely related to was the uncritical, unknowing child. On first viewing we stare at Shane with the same hero worship as Joey.

Shane wants a life of normality. Shane isn’t a million miles away from Eastwood’s revisionist Unforgiven. In fact, Munny’s life in that film is basically Shane’s, without Ladd’s humbleness. The brutal killer who wants to leave it all behind, but is dragged back in. Who finally faces off and guns down a horde of enemies in a saloon bar before riding off into legend. Sure, Shane will be remembed with more fondness by those he leaves behind – and he saves the homesteaders – but just like Munny he does it by leaving a trail of bodies behind him.

Steven’s beautiful film is both a compelling narrative of goodies and baddies, but also a profound, fascinating and challenging film. It’s wonderfully made and has a host of reliable actors at the top of their game. Ladd is superb, Jean Arthur brings great depth to Marian, Van Heflin’s Joe is a the sort of simple, decent, salt-of-the-Earth type the West was made of. Facing them, Jack Palance makes the most of limited screentime (and got an Oscar nomination) as the sneering, bad-to-the-bone Wilson. It’s a perfect mixture of small, intimate scale that seems to be taking place in an epic environment. It’s influence has been so profound it’s virtually an archetype. An American classic.