Hollywood Cinema

THE MOVIE CHALLENGES

HOUR OF THE GUN

USA, 1967

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Director John Sturges went to his grave knowing that he had at least made some classic Westerns. The Magnificent Seven and Bad Day At Black Rock are the obvious highlights in a fine career.  Sturges, though, faltered after the success of The Great Escape in 1963. Hour Of The Gun appeared in 1967.   The opening credits of Hour Of The Gun feature the gunfight at the OK Corral.  The rest of the film is about what happened after the famous shootout.  The credit sequence promises a lyricism that the rest of the film fails to deliver.   In this opening scene there is an understated and mysterious moment.   As the Earps walk down the main street of Tombstone, we see and hear a distant figure urge the Earps to reconsider what they are doing.   Many years ago I walked the full length of Tombstone to the OK Corral, the same journey that Wyatt took with his brothers and Doc Holliday.  It is not a short walk. Wyatt Earp had plenty of time to think about what he was doing.

No Western character has inspired Hollywood moviemakers as much as Wyatt Earp. The story of what happened in Tombstone between the Earps and the Clantons has obliged many actors to reach for their holsters.   A few of these films have attempted a biography of Earp.  Others changed the names of the protagonists but shamelessly recycled the history.  Despite all this effort the character of Wyatt Earp remains as elusive as ever. Biographies like Tombstone and Wyatt Earp have their moments including a not to be forgotten performance by Dennis Quaid as Doc Holliday in Wyatt Earp.  All, though, fail to convince.  My Darling Clementine is supreme cinema from master filmmaker John Ford but romantic tosh.

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Wyatt Earp was a hard case that was interested in making money and having authority. The best of him stood up to other hard cases but the worst was not averse to taking advantage of the weaker. In Dodge City, and before he arrived at Tombstone, he was the local lawman that ran gambling and prostitution.   In the revisionist movie Doc the conflict between the Earps and the Clantons in Tombstone is presented as an economic contest between two rival families who each wanted to control the town.  The Earps did have economic interests in Tombstone but the Clantons were rowdy and unruly and their behaviour needed a law enforcement response.

Hour Of The Gun is not tosh.  It is interesting, decent and even important but for all that the movie somehow falls flat.   There are various reasons. The proclamation of historical accuracy at the beginning of the film invites an audience to expect authenticity and suspend disbelief.  Sturges fails to deliver and if there is a heaven, he may be there right now wondering why.   There are various reasons.  The casting is not as disastrous as it was in Gunfight At The OK Corral, which Sturges made ten years earlier, but it is not right.   Authenticity benefits from fresh faces and a different style. They do not bring realism but can supersede familiar theatrics.  James Garner tries hard as Wyatt Earp but the supposed moral decline of the lawman as he seeks vengeance for the shootings of his brothers is beyond an actor noted for his charm.   Jason Robards is watchable but he supplies scorn rather than the vicious temperament needed to make Holliday convincing.  The great Robert Ryan plays Clanton but is underused. Hollywood paid good wages, so it should have been able to recruit decent support players. There is not one convincing cameo in Hour Of The Gun.

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For the film to have impact we have to witness a supposed hero become a self-righteous serial killer. It never quite happens. The film suggests the dark side of Earp but it always gives the Western hero excuses. Nuance and ambiguity have merit but it is a short route from them towards timidity, and Hour Of The Gun takes it although even muted realism about Wyatt Earp is welcome. The gunfights in the film where the outcome is determined by the speed of the draw are fair contests that never existed. Earp killed the people he did because he was strong and sharp enough to gain an advantage.   This truth is hinted at in the gunfight at the train depot but the scene, which should have been a spectacular set piece full of suspense, is not well handled by Sturges. The point gets lost in our disappointment at the cinematic failure.

Edward Anhalt wrote the script for Hour Of The Gun.  Anhalt has an admirable sensibility and conceptual skill. The strength of the movie is how it analyses the changing relationship between Holliday and Earp. Before the film is finished Doc Holliday is warning Earp about seeking vengeance. The irony is satisfying because we are watching a man be counselled and restrained by the devil on his shoulder.   But Anhalt was a talented playwright who was tempted by Hollywood money.  His best work was outside the movies.  Hour Of The Gun would have worked better as a stage play with the emphasis on conversations between two men who have learnt much about themselves.   In Hour Of The Gun no one appears to learn anything of significance.   Holliday asserts that Earp will regret abandoning the law but that is about it.   The decision by Earp at the end of the film to quit being a lawman is not a surprise but the reasons behind the decision are unexplained and unexplored.  Earp spent much of the rest of his life as a gambler roaming the West.   He became an alternative version of Doc Holliday.  The two men were friends because they were alike.

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Earp only abandons the law when it proves ineffectual. When he can, he utilises the power of vested interests to give him the legal authority he requires.  Earp is also a public sector employee willing to cut corners.  For a brief period he is supported by Holliday, a man who is used to operating in a market where the winner takes all.   All this is believable but it is undercut by the cinematic presentation of Sturges and the performance of James Garner, which ensure that we cannot forget we are watching a resolute hero.   The truth, though, is that the story of what happened after the OK Corral gunfight is a dull one. Two public employees did what civil servants in Britain do often.   They exceeded their responsibilities and bent the rules to suit themselves.  Hour Of The Gun does not conceal the mundane element in the legend but its exposure weakens the action without ever providing enough intellectual interest.   No one should object to subtlety, and there is no reason why an audience cannot be expected to think about what they are watching. But for that to succeed or be justified the moviemakers need to approach their material with integrity, and it is lacking in Hour Of The Gun.   The subtlety on show feels like timidity.

Before Hour Of The Gun appeared in 1967 there were already precedents for realism in the Western.  Man Of The West appeared in 1960.  Gary Cooper is the hero with the dark past. Director Anthony Mann provides a bleak vision of human nature and somehow combines a King Lear tale with impressive action.   Hour Of The Gun has historical detail and two contradictory characters but, when compared to Man Of The West, it is superficial. Sturges and Anhalt refuse to be honest about a tale of vengeance and murder, material that could have been interpreted as stylised horror. There is nothing wrong with characters that are not obvious heroes or villains but the darkness within Holliday and Earp is underexposed.   Instead, we have the compromises in the life of a public sector employee presented as a Western adventure.   The inevitable happens. Hour Of The Gun is interesting but dull.

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Yet the film should be seen. A superficial man too willing to slay others is given the benefit of Hollywood glamour, and the result is an aesthetic confusion that pricks the conscience of the viewer. It may be an unintended consequence but, when we watch Hour Of The Gun, our relationship to violent drama becomes as baffling as the misunderstood men who inspired the tale.  Earp is an action hero but we do not know how to respond to his confident courage.  Something else stays in the mind, and it is the sense of entitlement that some people have.   Although Earp and the Clantons are preoccupied with each other, there is no concern for how their behaviour affects the townspeople.  People without power are invisible in Hour Of The Gun.  Earp feels entitled to his vengeance and influence.  He will not be denied. Holliday has appetites and expects comforts and pleasure beyond his enfeebled body.   Neither man has a conscience about the privilege that enables them to cut corners. They are philosophical about the premature death of others and callous.

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Those British Civil Servants who thought it would help their careers to accept impossible targets for reducing immigration into the UK were also willing to cut corners.  Because their careers and privilege were so important, they were prepared to have legal British citizens removed from their homeland.   No chance, though, of any of them becoming legends.  Earp was lucky.  He outlived his enemies and was able to present himself to writers as a hero. As hard as they try, the present British Government will not be able to rewrite their own history.   The stain is already spreading and it will be remembered.

Howard Jackson has had seven books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and collections of film criticism.   If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.

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THE MOVIE CHALLENGES

THE CABIN IN THE WOODS

USA, 2010

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The poster for the movie is smart and mysterious. The cabin is detached from the woods it is supposed to be inside.   It offers a clue to what will make the movie different. This horror movie will have an added dimension. The Cabin In The Woods earned twice the considerable amount of money it cost to make and received critical acclaim. An inevitable sequel followed. The movie demonstrates originality and intelligence. There are some witty lines of dialogue, and serious ideas about both horror movies and the limitations of the modern world exist behind the mayhem. The movie is misanthropic and, despite the humour and wit, informed by despair. Those who like the film are entitled to the distractions it offers. They laugh at smart in-the-know jokes and feel gratified because they have identified the serious themes. Some of us, though, are not so easily flattered, and the success of Joss Whedon depends on audiences that are susceptible to flattery.

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Many years ago the film critic in Punch magazine asked, ‘how do you burlesque a burlesque?’ He was talking about the James Bond films of the sixties and the various send-ups that followed.   Most of these spy spoofs have been forgotten. The movies were limp and tedious. More important the humour in those films was irrelevant. The jokes were already in the original Bond films. Absurdity has existed in popular culture and entertainment for over three thousand years. What appear to be cheese and corn to one generation were previously recognised as audacity and irony by others. All we have to do to understand this is read Homer and Shakespeare. Not every attempt at audacity and irony succeeds. The level of success helps define quality but views regarding what is tolerable absurdity change. The impossible antics of superheroes of today would be laughed at by a mediaeval audience if we could find one.

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Although completed in 2010 The Cabin In The Woods appeared in cinemas in 2012. Scream director Wes Craven had already exposed the routine formula behind horror movies fourteen years earlier in 1996.   The jokes or point had been made. One of the attempts at humour in The Cabin In The Woods is embarrassing and crude.   The typical bulky handsome hero suggests that the four college friends separate to cover more ground in what is a small cabin. The joke is that this always happens in horror movies. Instead of staying together the victims part and allow not only the monster to kill them one by one but also the proliferation of set pieces. The problem with the scene is that the joke is several decades too late. Hitchcock managed the trick of separating the victims in Psycho but he had a smart scriptwriter. When the overrated Alien arrived in 1979, we were already familiar with the cliché and the device.

The script of The Cabin In The Woods was written in three days. This is not necessarily bad. The audacity that genre entertainment needs is often inspired or facilitated by contempt. Take a potboiler too seriously and it will become leaden and stodgy.   But two people worked on the script of The Cabin In The Woods. The moment that calls for the group to separate, and a few others, should have set off alarm bells. Writing in three days the script of a film that has had blockbuster appeal requires talent but even the gifted writer benefits from having the time to become acquainted with his characters and plot. If the writers are not engaged with the story, it is no surprise if it fails to involve those who are interested in something more than sarcastic spectacle. There is also something distasteful about spending $30m on a film that satirises the efforts of filmmakers who had a fraction of that budget.

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The Cabin In The Woods is a deliberate and textbook example of postmodern culture. The movie has an original concept and approach but avoids original moments. Instead, Joss Whedon creates a kaleidoscope jumble of clichés and familiar moments. This is not a criticism. Not just horror movies are targeted, and there is some reward in identifying the various references, elements and genres.   What The Cabin In The Woods lacks, though, is a cohesive whole. The movie feels like two films tacked together, the old spooky dark house in the first half and the dystopian technological nightmare in the second.   Each section has a different objective or target and neither is given enough attention.   The characters and the movie leave the old dark house too soon for it to be a satisfying examination of horror movies.   Compared to what other filmmakers have achieved with old dark houses the satire in The Cabin In The Woods is underdeveloped.   We are familiar with the caricatures and their predictable fates. This is okay but their premature demise is not.   As in Alien, the moments of slaughter appear as sudden shocks rather than the conclusion of scenes of suspense.   There is humour in The Cabin In The Woods but most of it is confined to the dialogue. The visual potential of horror is considerable, which is why it attracts young and ambitious directors ready to demonstrate cinematic style.   In The Cabin In The Woods the best visual effects exist near the end of the film.

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The climax is a dystopian nightmare that precipitates an Armageddon. Compared to The Cabin In The Woods the ambition of Westworld is modest. Nothing can justify an apocalypse but before we are doomed there are brief pleasures. The insert from Japan is clever. Whedon takes a sly dig at Japanese horror movies and the need of those directors to feature innocent schoolgirls. The corridor shots inside the computer centre after the widespread slaughter confirm how the human imagination is degraded in a world designed to provide gratification and little else. The descent of the elevator down to the technological hub and nerve centre is also very fine. The violence is restrained because the monsters are trapped behind glass walls. The journey is haunting rather than violent and it is very sinister.

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The Cabin In The Woods is not the only film to invite us to watch another audience and its creation. For the structure to succeed, though, there needs to be more than scattergun fun and jokes that most of us are primed to expect. Yet despite the second rate mockery The Cabin In The Woods does not feel like self-indulgence. If anything, the movie suggests atonement by Joss Whedon for some of the escapist nonsense that has brought him fame and wealth. The final scene, which is about as unhappy as could be imagined, reveals the hidden truth about the fascist fantasies that Hollywood and Whedon have called action movies. In a contest between superheroes and super villains decency and humanity will be found not amongst the supposed good guys waging battle but off screen amongst ordinary and undistinguished people. This is more than whimsy. Amidst his atonement Joss Whedon shares his misgivings about the modern world. The Cabin In The Woods is loaded with warnings. Imaginations programmed for sadistic thrills will not be alert to the consequences of their behaviour. The final murder in The Cabin In The Woods is ignored by the spectators inside the movie.   Technology also makes us remote from human feeling. The bureaucrats and technicians place bets on outcomes rather than worry about the fate of human beings.   Thanks to technology the corporate world can hide behind machines and secret algorithms.   The technicians in The Cabin In The Woods are the new unapproachable secular gods. Faced with their power, old-fashioned heroism, as the two survivors realise, is futile.

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Horror movies are conceptual and have the virtue of teasing out the hidden neuroses of human beings. But the sadistic taste for mindless gore that exists amongst some horror fans cannot be denied.   Nothing exposes our double standards more than our attitude to physical pain in our neighbours.   We can be sympathetic but pragmatism about suffering and stoicism is for other people. Right now the utilitarian politicians that run the world have decided to escalate the conflict in Syria. A few of the powerful decided that bombs and casualties were needed to make a point to other powerful people. These decisions could mean a lot of innocent Syrians will experience additional physical pain and premature death. Those making the decisions may have to risk a disadvantage in future meetings with rivals but they will, of course, be immune to any of the physical pain. In their world of bulletproof limousines and obsequious lackeys any discomfort is minimal for these self-imagined good guys. The rest of us in the West may not share the luxury of our masters but, like the bureaucrats in The Cabin In The Woods, we have the benefit of watching the suffering of others on large TV screens.   Some of us object to the creation of violent conflict in remote lands but many of us fail to sustain our protest. Others, often middle-aged males, respond with enthusiasm to the prospect of a battle that will not involve them.   Nothing adds to the spectacle on our screens quite like violence.   Escalation of the Syrian conflict means more people will die in a country in which there has already been unnecessary death and carnage. Some TV viewers, though, will open cans of beer and cheer.

Howard Jackson has had seven books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and collections of film criticism.   If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.