Even the advert, ‘Rooting, tooting but sincere’, takes the mickey. Waterhole 3 is no longer spoken of in polite circles. It may have inspired Sergio Leone to make The Good, The Bad And The Ugly but, if it did, Leone at least had the sense to abandon the rape scene. The scene is not graphic. The intention is comic. It offends because it insists that a man only needs to show superior strength and force, and the woman will discover ecstasy. Worse, the perpetrator, Lewton Cole, prefers his criminal act to be described as ‘assault with a friendly weapon’. Nobody in the film is interested in the grievance of the victim and that includes her father who is more interested in the theft of his horse.
To quote the song that helps narrate the movie –
‘Raping and killing aren’t so bad
But stealing Old Blue
That made Sheriff John mad.’
The affection for horses is understandable. How it is achieved is difficult to know but in this movie the horses have a strange look of disdain, as if they really are superior to the shenanigans of flawed human beings.
Waterhole 3 may be deliberately ignored now, and the critics are often snotty about the comedy but, when it was released in the late 60s, the movie was regarded as a breakthrough. Nothing had subverted the Western genre as seriously as Waterhole 3 and that included Destry and Cat Ballou.
Certainly, no other Western matches Waterhole 3 for cynicism. The others may show a more brutal world but none have its defiance in wicked delight. The attitude to rape is irresponsible but the movie intends to offend and traduce any comforting notion of a decent past. Inevitably, there is a critique of capitalism. When the Army colonel has to decide whom to charge with robbing the gold bullion, he picks the innocent shoemaker. He pledges stupid faith in the military, law and ‘professional enterprise’, all of whom are crooked, of course. But later there is also nihilistic acceptance of selfish behaviour.
‘Who’s dealing the hand?’ says the Sheriff
‘When we find that out,’ says Cole, ‘we will know how to play the game.’
But human beings never do find out. The film implies that cosmic mystery will always prevail and this is why we should not expect morality and integrity.
Initially, a corrupt Army corporal and 2 crooks steal $100,000 of gold bullion. They dig a tunnel from the shop of a shoemaker to the army store and kidnap the shoemaker. Later, Lewton Cole picks the pocket of one of the crooks and finds a map that shows where the gang has hidden the gold. The crook wants his map returned and neither is he happy about having his pocket picked. He challenges Cole to a gunfight. Rather than face the crook, the unprincipled Cole hides behind his horse and shoots him with a rifle. This leads to the arrest of Cole by Sheriff John. Cole escapes, rapes Billie, the daughter of Sheriff John, and steals Old Blue, the horse that belongs to the sheriff. Billie wants to reclaim her honour and the men want to find the gold. As in The Good, The Bad And The Ugly, the history of the West is presented as an unremitting battle between unprincipled opportunists.
Interestingly, the search for the gold begins with Cole having to face the challenge of riding through a hostile desert. This brief scene is important because it redefines Western heroism as no more than optimistic greed. The honest shoemaker is different. He attempts more honourable heroism. When he finds guns in a holster, he attempts to defy his kidnappers. He points them at the great and imposing Tim Carey who simply glowers at the shoemaker. In definitely understandable terror, the shoemaker immediately drops the guns. Bullies rather than heroes prevail. The shoemaker is actually called Ben but the others only use his name when they want him to say where the gold has been hidden. Otherwise, it is ‘Shoemaker’ or, when the Colonel has him arrested for something he did not do, ‘The Foreigner’. Just as today, the powerful – the military, law and professional enterprise – know who to blame.
If there is despair behind the black comedy, it is carefully hidden but we are given a glimpse when Sheriff John and Cole pause to recover breath. They stare at a fabulous Western view.
‘Kind of pretty out here,’ says Sheriff John.
‘What it’s all about,’ says Cole. ‘Beautiful.’
But he then sings a chorus of a trite song, and we realise that these two men talking about nature are merely passing the time. The world will have to be very different before their kind appreciates the glory of the planet. Greed and the need for material comfort will dominate their lives. Cole wants the gold for the same reason that he pickpocketed the wallet of the crook and stole the best horse in town. It is why he earns his living tempting suckers with card tricks. Lenin insisted that 19th Century capitalism was a system that redistributed money from the poor to the rich. Like the bosses that Lenin hated, Cole always wants what belongs to others. Of course, he is the hero which is why he needs funny lines and is not quite as bad as the other crooks or the sheriff. Fortunately, he is also more handsome. But the script makes clear that Cole is disreputable and no use to anyone. At the end of the film Cole is given a chance at redemption. Billie has found the gold and offers him both the gold and marriage. Cole tells untruths to Billie about his intentions, has sex with her and rides off with the gold. Everyone, apart from Billie, follows in pursuit of the gold. Billie, who alone embodies the supposed code of Western integrity, lies on a rock abandoned.
Prior to this, the narrative song had said, ‘To play the tricky game of life a woman needs a plan.’
And, in the West, a woman needed impeccable taste in men.
Waterhole 3 may be more fun than The Good, The Bad And The Ugly but it is not its equal. The Spaghetti Western of Leone benefits from his Marxist rigour. Blake Edwards produced Waterhole 3, and his heavy hand of cynicism and personal entitlement affects the final result. So does the direction of William Graham. Although the film looks good, Graham is poor at pacing and many scenes, despite the interest, invariably feel too long. At the shootout in the brothel the film descends into silliness although the wreckage, created by the double-barrelled shotguns of Cole and Sheriff John, anticipates the destructive violence that would follow in the movies. The brothel is destroyed and Cole and Sheriff John ignore the damage. The shootout is mishandled exaggerated farce but it may be the darkest moment in the movie because we realise how greed provides the nihilistic and amoral with purpose.
But even this does not have the impact of the final moment which I remember from when I saw the film in the
cinema. Bully, Tim Carey, had been vanquished but the other men were preparing to chase Cole. The shoemaker had fallen for the mercenary brothel owner, and Billie was left by herself on a rock. At the top of the ridge Cole paused and looked back towards Billie. She was beautiful and worthy. Cole leaned back in his horse and said, ‘Sometimes, I think we take gold too seriously.’
I remembered others and myself in the audience willing him to return to Billie.
‘No,’ said Cole. ‘We don’t take it seriously enough.’
This is professional enterprise and, unfortunately, it is what we have to deal with. All that in the cinema was forty years ago. Little changes.
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