Western movies

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 MAGNIFICENT SEVEN

USA 1960

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There is more talk and a lot less action in The Magnificent Seven than people remember. Not all the confrontations between the good and bad guys are violent. There are just two battles between the seven gunslingers and the marauding Mexican bandits of leader Calvera.  And this is in a Western that is over two hours long.  Chico is accepted as the seventh member of the hired American gunmen not because he proves his worth as a tough guy but because he catches a couple of fish for lunch.  In one scene the seven mercenaries hand over their weapons to the Mexican bandits without a fight. Later, though, they return to do the decent thing on behalf of the poor villagers and claim their manhood. Something similar happens in The Wild Bunch. The two movies can be viewed as almost alternative ways of telling the same story. The difference is that the heroes in The Magnificent Seven can hold their booze and do not mess around with whores or rob banks. They are the men without women that Ernest Hemingway identified in his marvellous short stories, men who will struggle in a hostile world.

If The Magnificent Seven is a remake of Seven Samurai, it is The Wild Bunch that honours the Japanese classic. All three films are romantic and poetical but only Seven Samurai and The Wild Bunch persuade us that their heroes are attempting to survive in a real and harsh world. But even if The Magnificent Seven can neither claim authenticity nor originality, it is a marvellous movie and, thanks to its charismatic actors, is always consistent with the glamorous world that is created. There are no false notes in The Magnificent Seven.

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Chico is the not yet adult in the gang but by the end of the film he understands his nature, his need for a wife and why he must settle and become something other than a warrior and a man without a woman.  He communicates his decision to Chris, the leader of the gang, with just one word, ‘Adios’, and nearly sixty years and God knows how many viewings later that moment still dries my throat.  The triumph of The Magnificent Seven is how it makes its action hungry audience feel for its characters. The conversations and debates between the heroes and villains are not just polemical argument although that exists in the film.  The scriptwriters, and despite what the credits say there are two of them, provide solid characterisation. The competent actors do more than play their parts but we also grieve because we have recognised the existential promise and potential of these seven brave but not so great men. The film ends with us sharing their glory but realising the truth about their and our own existences.   Life lasts too long to be sustained by promise and potential. The final shot shows Chris and Vin riding off together into a gorgeous landscape. The two men have everything and nothing, memories of nobility but an empty future.

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The script of The Magnificent Seven is credited to William Roberts. He also contributed to the Sam Peckinpah gem, Ride The High Country.  Apart from that effort his career was spotty but talented Western directors brought out something in Roberts.  No one can deny that Sam Peckinpah and John Sturges were exceptional.  Not all of the films of Sturges succeeded, and he was less innovative as he became older.  At his best, though, he was a master craftsman with a fine eye for the outdoors and a firm control of action. Ten years before The Magnificent Seven, Sturges made the low budget B movie, Mystery Street. The Time film critic called it ‘modest but perfect’.   Jeopardy is also a neglected classic. Its tension is managed with real expertise, and there is not a wasted moment in the whole film. There is also the masterwork Bad Day At Black Rock. Perhaps Sturges needed lyrical dialogue to create his own outdoors visual poetry.  Not to complement the dialogue but to ensure his own work was worthy of comparison with that of the scriptwriter. He had his failures, and his motivation may have consisted of nothing but competitiveness.  But to misquote what Steve Judd says in Ride The High Country, John Sturges could enter his father’s house justified.

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Walter Bernstein is the not named screenwriter on The Magnificent Seven. He is now 98 years old and still works as a visiting instructor at New York University.  In the 50s he was blacklisted in Hollywood for his membership of left wing organisations. Many including me have already written about how The Magnificent Seven dwells on the meaning of masculinity and what constitutes heroism, morality and loyalty, and how it all relates to violence.  The political element, which is likely to have been contributed by Bernstein, is usually overlooked.   The script makes clear that responsibility and application are important to personal worth but so is resistance. The heroes of both The Wild Bunch and The Magnificent Seven progress from individual non-conformism to communal rebellion. There are villagers in The Magnificent Seven who are willing to compromise and accept the demands of their oppressors. These moderates, or what today we call centrists, settle for supposed expediency.  Rebellion means that the villagers are obliged to make decisions about themselves, their lives and the presence of unjust authority.  Democracy requires not only respect for others but also resistance, defiance and a stand against oppressors.

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Such thoughts are not present in the economic approach of bandits like Calvera.   He says to Chris, the leader of the seven gunfighters, ‘Men in our profession do not worry about things like that.’ Near the beginning of the film he kills the villager who attempts to prevent the bandits taking food from the village. The scene reveals that Calvera is not only violent but regards all protest as stupid and unacceptable. He is not unlike the people who set up the blacklists in Hollywood. It may be taut but there is a lot of dialogue in The Magnificent Seven. Calvera is as talkative as anyone.   He has conservative values, and his hatreds include people who are restless and not willing to conform, the decline in religion and the immorality of modern women.  Rather than see himself as an exploiter of ordinary people who have to work hard for a living he complains about the extra responsibility of the powerful.  His men have to be fed, he insists.  Calvera forgets to mention that he only feeds them so they can rob on his behalf.  Calvera argues that the people he persecutes are weak and that their exploitation must be what God intended.  They should know their place and not be curious about how the powerful operate.   After the final battle the old man of the village understands the cost of resistance. ‘Only the farmers have won. They remain farmers.’ Somebody once said the same about the working class but that was before the arrival of consumer capitalism and the supposed death of struggle.   Now, though, we have globalisation and increasing inequality.  Who knows what will happen.

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The recent leak of the Paradise Papers has added to what we know about tax havens and their clients. Estimates vary as to the exact amount being syphoned away from the taxman but whatever is the exact figure it relates to trillions. Something around £7trillion has been robbed from government funds around the world.  Reluctant billionaire taxpayers prefer to pay millions to right wing extremists to dismantle government services rather than fund a local hospital.   These rich tax evaders are like Calvera. They act friendly and somehow manage to feel like victims while they rob everyone blind.  If only ordinary people would stop being restless, they say to their political lackeys.  Whatever the entrepreneurial prowess of these fortunate few the creation of a wealthy elite requires ordinary people to hand their money over to someone else.  Just in case that fails there are governments that impose taxes on the people who have already handed money over to the wealthy few.  Governments use the money they have raised to make investments in schemes that help the rich to make more money.  And if that is not enough, financial institutions create even more money and circulate debt. It sounds like pigs in the trough because that is what was created by the people who got ahead. Calvera spoke about the needs of his men, and global capitalists talk about their portfolios and businesses.  ‘Men in our profession do not worry about things like that.’

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Calvera could have been speaking on behalf of the richest 47 people on the planet, the same people who own over half the global economic wealth and ignore the billions of minions who live on less than $2 a day.   Jacob Rees-Mogg is by some people thought of as a potential Prime Minister.   He believes that the folk who criticise the £7trillion tax scam are ‘hypocritical and not very bright’.   Calvera thought the villagers deserved to be exploited.  He felt that they were submissive sheep created by God.   If Calvera had not been such a short-term thinker, he may have understood that his way of life and unnatural hierarchy could not be sustained.  The short-term approach of this Mexican bandit was, of course, a consequence of his hypocrisy and not being very bright.  There was a time when the Tory Party was supposed to represent solidity.  Now it prefers houses of glass.

Howard Jackson has had six books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and Horror Pickers, a collection 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.