Category Archives: Classic Films

The Dark Is All Around Us: The Film Classic, The Lion in Winter

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Christmas, and all the family is gathered together for the holidays. There’s a massive tree, lots of presents, spiced wine, feasting, and rancor galore. All the past year’s resentments and disappointments come bubbling to the surface because Daddy — a great, roaring lion of a man — is getting older and needs to think of which of his sons will follow him as the leader of the pride. He’s made no secret of his favorite, and his choice displeases everyone else. Mommy has her favorite, you see, and is determined to see that her special boy gets to succeed.

As if that weren’t enough tension and conflict, there’s yet another son who can’t understand why nobody in the family ever thinks of him when they think of the next head of the family business. To make everyone more edgy, let’s toss in the leader of a rival family, who has his own agenda, which mostly involves making sure the lion of this family goes down hard. To complicate things even further and make everything even more dangerous, lets throw in some tapestries for hiding behind, as well as some sharp, shiny knives — metaphorical and literal ones — for everyone to use against everybody else.

Welcome to the Christmas court of England’s Henry II in 1183. Adapted from James Goldman’s Broadway play of the same name, the witty, brutal, and passionate holiday gathering in the Oscar-winning classic The Lion in Winter (1968) makes crime dramas like The Godfather seem downright tame.

Peter O’Toole as Henry II (right) and Katharine Hepburn as his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine (left), The Lion in Winter (1968) ©

Henry II (Peter O’Toole) is 50 this Christmas, and he lets his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine (Katharine Hepburn) out of prison for the holidays. It seems Eleanor has led quite a few civil wars against Henry, over the succession no doubt, and Henry has to keep her imprisoned in order to feel safe. He’s letting Eleanor out this holiday season so they can plan, i.e., plot, who will become the next king.

Anthony Hopkins as Richard, The Lion in Winter (1968) ©

Their first son, Henry, died, and while you might think that their next son, Richard (Anthony Hopkins, in his first starring role), should be the designated king, and Eleanor heartily approves of Richard as England’s next ruler, and not just because he’s her favorite. Richard, known later as Richard the Lionheart, is a great miliary leader and a proven warrior, and Queen Eleanor thinks that a necessary qualification for Henry’s successor, if only because France and England are still fighting over land.

(L-R) Nigel Terry as John, Katharine Hepburn as Eleanor, Anthony Hopkins as Richard, and John Castle as Geoffrey, The Lion in Winter (1968) ©

Henry is the King of England but also the Lord of Ireland, Count of Anjou (similar to the English Duke of York, which would make Henry second in line to the French throne), and Duke of both Normandy and Aquitaine (in France, through his marriage to Eleanor), and Henry II doesn’t want Richard as the future king of England. Henry has other ideas for his presumptive heir.

John Castle as Geoffrey (L), and Nigel Terry as John, The Lion in Winter (1968) ©

Henry wants his youngest son John (Nigel Terry) to succeed, not because he’d make a better king but simply because Henry loves John best.

Timothy Dalton as King Philip II of France (L), John Castle as Geoffrey (center), and Nigel Terry as John, The Lion in Winter (1968) ©

None of this squabbling over Richard vs. John sits too well with brother Geoffrey (John Castle), who can’t understand why both Henry and Eleanor think their middle son would make a wonderful chancellor to the next king but never seem to think of Geoff as King Geoffrey, so he begins to plot against his father with both Richard and John as well as with one of Henry’s allies.

Jane Merrow as Alais, and Peter O’Toole as Henry II, The Lion in Winter (1968) ©

Young Princess Alais (Jane Merrow), who’s betrothed to marry the future King of England, doesn’t want any of Henry’s sons to be the future king. As Henry’s lover and long-time mistress, she want’s no one but Henry as king.

Timothy Dalton as King Philip II of France, The Lion in Winter (1968) ©

Alais’ brother, King Philip II of France (Timothy Dalton, in his film debut) wants the lovely Alais to be wed to the heir to the English throne right away. If that doesn’t happen during this Christmas visit, Philip wants his sister’s dowry back. Since Alais’ dowry is land in France, which both England and France claim at the time, Henry certainly doesn’t want to give back the dowry. Philip already knows this, so he’s plotting with Richard, Geoffrey, and John, and Philip is planning war with Henry, no matter whom he chooses as his successor.

Peter O’Toole as Henry II (L), and Timothy Dalton as King Philip II of France, The Lion in Winter (1968) ©

Henry’s fighting with his wife and all three of his sons, not only about who will be the next king, but who will get to marry Princess Alais. Henry doesn’t really want to give us Alais either: he’s madly in love with her.

Peter O’Toole as Henry II, and Jane Merrow as Alais (foreground), and Katharine Hepburn as Eleanor of Aquitaine, The Lion in Winter (1968) ©

And Eleanor, despite inciting rebellion against her husband and king, still madly loves Henry herself, and she’s well aware that Alais just happens to be young enough to give Henry more sons.

The first 15-20 minutes of the film are a bit slow, probably because everyone was trying a little too hard to say, “Look: we’re making a film, not jusstage playplay,” and while we get to see some outdoor shots where we meet the members of the family, none of these initial scenes really adds to the forward movement of the story. Once everyone is gathered together, however, it becomes obvious why this film is a classic.

from L to R: Timothy Dalton, Peter O’Toole, Anthony Hopkins, Katharine Hepburn, John Castle, and (sitting in foreground, L to R) Nigel Terry, and Jane Merrow, The Lion in Winter (1968) ©

The script is magnificent, the characters brutally fascinating, and the acting superb: O’Toole most definitely should have won an Oscar for his role as the anxious, angry, roaring Lion who feels his own winter coming on far too quickly and who is willing to do almost anything to prevent the destruction of his kingdom.

Katharine Hepburn as Eleanor of Aquitaine, and Peter O’Toole as Henry II of England, The Lion in Winter (1968) ©

Nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Actor (O’Toole) and Best Costume Design (Margaret Furse), the film won three: Best Actress (Hepburn), Best Adapted Screenplay (James Goldman), and Best Music Score (John Barry). Lion in Winter also won BAFTAs for Hepburn and composer Barry, and won Golden Globes in Best Picture, and Best Actor for Peter O’Toole as the fiery Henry II.

Available for rent ($1.99-3.99) or purchase from Amazon, iTunes, YouTube, GooglePlay, and Vudu.

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The Classic Film, To Kill a Mockingbird

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Maybe It Was the Heat of the Sun, Maybe It Was Something Much Hotter: Hombre, the Film

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If you’re not a fan of Elmore Leonard, you should be. He’s one of the best storytellers around, renowned for his gritty realism, his succinct and highly memorable dialogue, his intense characters, and conflicts that turn audience expectations upside-down and backward before rolling those expectations down a steep hill. Twenty-six of Leonard’s stories and novels have been turned into films or television series, and you can always pick out the original dialogue because, as he memorably quipped, “if it sounds like writing, I rewrite it” and “I try to leave out the parts that readers skip” (Ten Rules of Writing).

Whether you’re a fan of his early Westerns or his later crime fiction, you can never go wrong reading one of Elmore Leonard’s pieces of fiction or watching one of the dramatic adaptations of his work. “Edgy” and “unexpected” are probably two of the best adjectives to describe his fiction, although he’d no doubt object to my using so many adjectives, since he was famous for describing his characters as little as possible, letting their dialogue and their actions reveal all that was essential in their natures.

Paul Newman as John Russell, Diane Cilento as Jessie, and Margaret Blye as Doris, Hombe ©

Based on the novel of the same name by Elmore Leonard, Hombre (1967), the film is everything you’d expect from Elmore Leonard, but nothing you’d typically expect from Hollywood, espcially in the 1960s. If you were to see the advertisement, you’d think it was just another white man raised by Indians trying to return to white society where nobody wants him kind of movie. “Ah, yes,” wrote Roger Ebert in his original review of the film, “we know the characters well from a thousand other Westerns”:

The good but indecisive Mexican, the decisive but bad Mexican, the thieving Indian agent, his cultured wife, the desperado, the lady boarding house operator with a heart of gold, and the Kid.

While those are, indeed, some of characters in this story, Hombre goes far beyond the Western tropes and clichés to become an examination of morality, human nature, and the struggle to survive.

Some critics call Hombre a “revisionist Western” because it shows Indians — or, at least, a white man who was raised by Indians — in a way that’s different from the shrieking savages riding circles around burning covered wagons that Hollywood typically portrayed. But the film is not really interested in the conflict between the races, although racism certainly is a significant part of the characters’ natures and contributes to many of the film’s conflicts. Instead, Hombre is about human conflict, no matter the race, the gender, or the age of the character. And that’s what makes this film a classic.

Paul Newman as John Russell, Hombre ©

Hombre opens with a blue-eyed Indian (Paul Newman) and a band of fellow Apaches patiently waiting for a group of horses to come down to a waterhole, which they have fenced off in order to capture them.

Peter Lazer as the Kid, Hombre ©

A Kid (Peter Lazer) comes down and tells the blue-eyed Indian, whose adopted name is John Russell, that Henry Mendez wants to see him about an important matter.

Martin Balsam as Mendez, and Paul Newman as John Russell, Hombre ©

When John Russell goes to see Mendez (Martin Balsam), a half-Mexican, half-white stage driver, he tells Russell that his adopted father has died and left him a boarding house that actually makes money. Mendez encourages Russell to “accept” his own half-white heritage and take ownership of the boarding house, which would make his life easier. Mendez also encourages Russell to cut his hair so that other whites will accept him more easily.

Paul Newman as John Russell, Hombre ©

Meanwhile, at the boarding house, the woman who has been running it for years is nervously anticipating the new owner’s arrival.

Diane Cilento as Jessie, Hombre ©

Jessie (Diane Cilento) even tosses her sheriff-boyfriend Frank (Cameron Mitchell) out of her bed, sending him back to his own room in the boarding house, since she isn’t sure how the new owner will take such “immoral” relations. She gets the house ready for John Russell’s arrival, even polishing the silver, causing Mendez to laugh, telling her that Russell “eats with his fingers,” so she’s going through a lot of work for nothing.

Cameron Mitchell as Sheriff Frank, Hombre ©

Russell doesn’t want the silver because he doesn’t even want the boarding house. He intends to sell it, leaving Jessie out of a place to live and of an income. After she attempts to convince her boyfriend — Sheriff Frank — to marry her, she decides it’s time to leave and start a new life somewhere else.

Margaret Blye as Doris, and Peter Lazer as the Kid (Billy), Hombre ©

At the station, two other boarding house residents are also waiting to leave so they can start a new life: the Kid, whose name is Billy, and his wife Doris (Margaret Blye), who apparently married Billy to escape a brutal, unhappy life with her father, only to have an equally unhappy life with her new husband. She believes if they start their life somewhere else, their relations will improve, and Billy hasn’t much choice except to go along with her.

Barbara Rush as Audra Favor, and Fredric March as Reverend Dr. Alex Favor, Hombre ©

While this group is waiting for the stage’s departure, an obviously wealthy woman (Barbara Rush) and her older husband (Fredric March) come into the station. When Mendez informs them that they cannot hire the stage to get to their destination in three days, Mrs Favor buys the stage, horses and all, to ensure that she and Favor are able to make their trip.

Richard Boone as the Bad Guy, Hombre ©

Later that night, the Bad Guy (Richard Boone) comes into the station and insists on taking one of the passengers’ places on the stage. After he intimidates an army officer into giving up his seat, he joins the rest of the passengers on a journey that, rather than being merely the trope of strangers on a journey in a stagecoach who are forced to form a community, albeit a temporary one, becomes, instead, a journey that will show the racial, cultural, and economic tensions that divide everyone in the group.

All the gang in Hombre ©

When the stage driver Mendez attempts to go a different route to avoid three strangers that he fears are highwaymen who want to rob the passengers, the group is attacked by some people they never expected to fear. Stranded in the desert with the money the outlaws want, they attempt to return to the town they left. The outlaws, who have a hostage and some of the water, follow the group, willing to kill any and all of them for the fortune they stole from the stage.

Paul Newman as John Russell, Hombre ©

As if an abundant stolen fortune and a serious lack of water in the desert weren’t enough for a group of clashing personalities to deal with, the group members turn on each other for every reason imaginable, revealing the greed, misogyny, racism, and elitism that makes this Western more than a cowboys vs. Indians, white men vs. non-white men, good vs. evil tale. Virtually everyone in this story is selfish and ugly, everyone wants something he can’t have without hurting someone else, and everyone seems ready to betray everyone else in order to survive.

Hombre is an “excellent example of how violence is more effective the less it’s used,” and the emotional and cultural violence is more important to the story than any of the physical violence, most of which, including the murders, is not graphic. With outstanding performances by Newman (John Russell/Hombre), Boone (Bad Guy), and Cilento (Jessie),  Hombre‘s messages are far more brutal than its shootouts.

Available for rent ($2.99-3.99 SD/HD) from Amazon (free with a 7-day trial of Starz), GooglePlay, YouTube (not available for iOS), and Vudu. Always free for Starz or DirecTV subscribers.

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Walking Around in Someone Else’s Skin: The Classic Film, To Kill A Mockingbird

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Usually considered to have originated with Horace Walpole’s novel The Castle of Otranto (1764), which was subtitled “A Gothic Story,” Gothic fiction is literature that attempts to combine elements of romance, mystery, and horror — without becoming either too fantastic or too realistic. Initially featuring decaying castles, curses, ghosts or other supernatural creatures and events, madness, murder, and “oft-fainting heroines,” Gothic fiction was hugely popular entertainment.

About a generation after Walpole, Ann Radcliffe introduced the brooding Gothic villain in her novel A Sicilian Romance: a tempestuous, moody, sometimes secretive, and extremely passionate male who usually encounters a heroine that completely upsets his life. Later this type of “villain” would be called the Romantic era’s “Byronic hero.” Radcliffe also introduced more independent heroines to Gothic fiction with her bestselling The Mysteries of Udolpho. Though Radcliffe’s heroines are still pretty helpless and faint far more than anyone I’ve ever encountered, they inspired “gothic feminism” which critics claim the author herself expressed as “female power through pretended and staged weakness.” Further, Radcliffe changed the infant genre of Gothic fiction by introducing the “explained supernatural,” where all the apparently supernatural events, from ghosts and moving furniture to strange knocks and cries in the dark, turn out, eventually, to have perfectly reasonable, natural explanations.

Gothic fiction and its various, evolving components spread into the literature of the Romantic era, appearing in the poetry of Keats, Shelley, Coleridge, Byron, and Poe. In the Victorian era, Gothic elements were more prominent in fiction, and are found in the work Charles Dickens (A Christmas Carol), Bram Stoker (Dracula), Robert Louis Stevenson (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde), Oscar Wilde (The Picture of Dorian Gray), Mary Shelley (Frankenstein), Emily Brontë (Wuthering Heights), and Charlotte Brontë (Jane Eyre).

Many of these Victorian authors added strong moral elements to their Gothic fiction, producing novels that questioned everything from man’s relationship with newly developing technologies and medical advances to man’s responsibility for feeding and educating the poor. Gothic literature became more than entertainment to pass the long hours of a dark and rainy night: it explored the meaning of life, morality, social responsibility, and man’s relationship to the Divine.

As Gothic fiction spread to authors in America, especially in the South, it became a sub-genre called Southern Gothic. Authors like Faulkner, Caldwell, McCullers, O’Connor, Capote, and Percy examined family relationships, sexuality, poverty, race, and the Southern myths of an idyllic antebellum past. Southern Gothic is filled with

deeply flawed, disturbing, or eccentric characters… ambivalent gender roles, decayed or derelict settings, grotesque situations, and other sinister events relating to or stemming from poverty, alienation, crime, or violence.

With its particular focus on the South’s history of slavery, Southern Gothic became a vehicle for fierce social critique.

Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird is a classic of both American fiction and Southern Gothic. A coming-of-age story set in the fictional “tired old town” of Maycomb, Alabama from 1933-1936, during the Great Depression, the novel examines everything from family relationships and mental health to societal responsibilities, poverty, violence, and crime. The 1962 film version, adapted from the novel by Horton Foote, eliminated some of the novel’s childhood adventures to concentrate on the aspects of its storyline that make To Kill a Mockingbird so important to American literature and film: the ugly and intractable racism between whites and blacks, a bigotry and intolerance that still exists over most of the country.

Mary Badham as Scout (forefront) with author Harper Lee, To Kill A Mockingbird ©

The film’s (unseen) narrator looks back on her six-year-old self and on the events that changed her from an innocent to a more mature child. In 1933, Scout (Mary Badham) and her brother Jem (Phillip Alford) live in Maycomb, Alabama with their widowed father Atticus (Gregory Peck).

Mary Badham as Scout, Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch, and Phillip Alford as Jem, To Kill A Mockingbird ©

Together with a visiting neighbor, Dill (John Megna, modeled after Harper Lee’s lifelong friend Truman Capote, who spent summers next door to the Lees with his aunts), Scout and Jem roam around the neighborhood and create their own adventures.

John Megna as Dill, To Kill A Mockingbird ©

One of their most exciting “games” is scaring each other with stories about the never-seen Boo Radley (Robert Duvall, in his film debut),

Robert Duvall as Boo Radley, To Kill A Mockingbird ©

who lives just a few doors down and who is rumored to be a crazed, scissors-wielding psychopath, once locked up in the courthouse basement jail.

Paul Fix as Judge Taylor, To Kill A Mockingbird ©

Late one night, Judge Taylor (Paul Fix) comes over to request that Atticus serve as the appointed defense counsel for Tom Robinson (Brock Peters),

Gregory Peck as Atticus, and Brock Peters as Tom Robinson, To Kill A Mockingbird ©

a black man who has been accused of brutally beating and raping a white woman, Mayella Ewell (Collin Wilcox).

Collin Wilcox as Mayella Ewell (foreground), and Paul Fix as Judge Taylor (background), To Kill A Mockingbird ©

Atticus agrees, but despite his attempts to shield his children from the consequences of his decision to represent a black man in a racially charged crime, Scout and Jem soon become involved in the racial “war” brewing around them.

Collin Wilcox as Mayella, and James Anderson as Bob Ewell (both, foreground), To Kill A Mockingbird ©

In particular, the father of the ostensible rape victim, Bob Ewell (James Anderson) tries several times to intimidate Atticus into quitting the case. When that doesn’t work, Ewell threatens violence against Atticus and his children.

Phillip Alford as Jem, and Mary Badham as Scout, To Kill A Mockingbird ©

Though the children continue to find “gifts” in the hollow of a nearby tree, these gifts and their former adventures pale in significance to the events surrounding the crime concerning Tom Robinson and Mayella Ewell.

Gregory Peck as Atticus, To Kill A Mockingbird ©

By the time the trial starts, most of the town is divided and angry. Though Atticus warns his children to stay away from the courthouse completely, Jem refuses to be barred from the biggest event in the county, and Scout refuses to be left behind at home if Jem and Dill are going to the courthouse.

Phillip Alford as Jem, Mary Badham as Scout, and John Megna as Dill (L-R, foreground), with William Walker as Reverend Sykes (background, wearing suit and tie) To Kill A Mockingbird ©

Without Atticus’ knowledge or permission, Scout, Jem, and Dill sit in the gallery, in the “Negro section” of the court, and watch the entire trial.

William Windom as District Attorney (L), James Anderson as Bob Ewell (center), and Paul Fix as Judge Taylor (background R), To Kill A Mockingbird ©

Judge Taylor presides as the District Attorney (William Windom, in his film debut) badgers witnesses and makes his opinions about Tom Robinson’s guilt clear. Despite the fact that viewers can have no doubt whatsoever about the jury’s eventual verdict, the courtroom scenes are intensely riveting, especially when Atticus cross-examines Mayella herself.

Gregory Peck as Atticus, To Kill A Mockingbird ©

Though the verdict is not in question, Mayella’s father, angry at the Atticus’ not-so-subtle accusations of incest and child abuse, provokes Atticus repeatedly in an attempt to draw him into a physical confrontation. Then, he decides to provoke Atticus by going after his children.

Nominated for 8 Academy Awards, To Kill a Mockingbird won three Oscars:
Best Actor for Gregory Peck, Best Adapted Screenplay for Horton Foote, and Best Art Direction (set design, Black-and-White).

The film also won Golden Globes for Best Actor in a Drama (Gregory Peck), Best Original Score (Elmer Bernstein), and Best Film for Promoting International Understanding (to director Robert Mulligan).

When released, To Kill a Mockingbird was an overwhelming critical and popular success, earning more than 10 times its budget in 1962. To Kill a Mockingbird has gone on to become a classic, with the film listed 25th on the American Film Institute’s 100 Greatest American Movies of All Time (2007 list) [#34 on the 1998 list], and taking the top spot in AFI’s Top 10 Courtroom Dramas. Gregory Peck’s character Atticus Finch reigns as AFI’s 100 Greatest Heroes.

Everyone should see this film, though children under 12 may need to be cautioned about the subject matter and the language as this film deals openly with rape, clearly suggests incest, and uses language appropriate to the time and place of its story.

Be sure to watch the black-and-white version of To Kill a Mockingbird, not the colorized one: those who colorized it obviously completely missed the symbolism behind the story’s being filmed in black-and-white instead of in color. Available for rent ($2.99-3.99 SD/HD) from Amazon, iTunes, YouTube, GooglePlay, and Vudu.

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When Legend Becomes Fact: John Ford’s Classic Western, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

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Westerns are an “indigenous American art form,” romanticizing and nostalgically eulogizing the geographical territory west of the Mississippi before it was “tamed.” Set in eras when the West was wild, rough, and wooly, the major protagonists in Westerns are typically divided into easy-to-identify categories of Good Guy and Bad Guy, complete with white and black hats, respectively, and these protagonists often fall into the most dreadful stereotypes. Law and order, or the lack thereof, is a typical theme, and these films are often set at isolated forts or homesteads, or in small towns that are just beyond the reaches of Eastern “civilization,” towns that have not yet been dramatically changed by the arrival of the railroad. Most Westerns feature “romantic, sweeping frontier landscapes or rugged rural terrain,” all filmed in gorgeous technicolor.

When famed director John Ford decided to make The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), a Western adapted from a short story written by Dorothy M. Johnson, and starring John Wayne and James Stewart, Ford chose to shoot the film in black-and-white, and he did so on a Paramount stage-set. Critic David Courson believes that these artistic decisions about location and film choice stemmed from Ford’s fundamentally “re-imagined” vision of the mythic West; a vision that was now “pensive and thoughtful,” according to film critic (Roger Ebert); a vision which, according to fellow Westerns director Sergio Leone, who was influenced by the film, revealed that Ford had “learned about something called pessimism.

James Stewart as Ranse, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance © Paramount

Whatever the reason for Ford’s newly imagined, more pessimistic vision of the West, his artistic changes were a critical and financial success. The film’s budget was $3.2M, and it earned $8M when it was released. Edith Head’s surprisingly understated costumes were nominated for an Academy Award for Best Costume Design (black-and-white), one of the few Westerns ever nominated for this category. With a cast of great stars and loads of marvelous character actors, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is a one of the best classic Westerns. Despite its almost claustrophobic setting, the film examines the more expansive issues of frontier independence vs. civilization; social equality of men vs. that of women, children, and non-whites; and legal vs. moral justice vs. common sense, all while doggedly examining the role of myth in both culture and art.

James Stewart as Ranse, and Vera Miles as his wife, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance © Paramount

The film opens with a Senator Ransom (Ranse) Stoddard (James Stewart) returning, unannounced, to the frontier town of Shinbone for a funeral. While he’s there, the local reporters doggedly question the “famous man’s” return to the wilderness, which they believe must have some other purpose than his attending a mere funeral. Senator Stoddard agrees to tell them the story of his past, taking viewers into the flashback that will form the bulk of the film.

Lee Marvin (center) as Liberty Valance, with his gang members, played by Lee Van Cleef (L) and Strother Martin (R ), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance © Paramount

Ranse, a young attorney who goes West as a young man, hopes to bring civilization as well as law and order to whatever town he settles in and sets up his legal practice. He’s a greenhorn and a dude with an education, and when the stagecoach is robbed by Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin, above center) and his gang (Lee Van Cleef (L) and Strother Martin(R), above), the idealistic and naïve Ransom Stoddard is beaten and whipped, almost to death.

John Wayne as Tom Doniphon (Donovan), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance © Paramount

A local rancher, Tom Doniphon (pronounced “Donovan”) (John Wayne) finds the badly injured Ranse and takes him to town for help.

Vera Miles as Hallie, and Woody Strode as Pompey (foreground), Jeanette Nolan as Nora and John Qualen as Peter (background), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance © Paramount

While his injuries are being tended by Hallie (Vera Miles) and her Swedish-immigrant employers Nora (Jeanette Nolan) and Peter (John Qualen), Ranse urges them to send for the local Marshal (Andy Devine, below L) so that Valance can be arrested.

Andy Devine as the Marshal, and Woody Strode as Pompey, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance © Paramount

Everyone present, but most notably Tom, tells Ranse that Liberty Valance has no respect for the law, understanding only violence, brute force, and retaliation, but Ranse refuses to listen, insisting that he can get justice for his injuries and the stagecoach attack.

James Stewart as Ranse, and Vera Miles as Hallie, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance © Paramount

Without any money, Ranse is forced to accept the hospitality of the restauranterus Nora and Peter, so he does kitchen chores to repay them for lodging and meals. When Ranse learns that waitress Hallie can neither read nor write, he offers to teach her — and anyone else who wishes to learn.

Lee Van Cleef, Strother Martin, and Lee Marvin (L-R) as Liberty and his gang The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance © Paramount

Then Liberty Valance and his gang come into the restaurant, mocking the apron-wearing “dude” Ranse, and setting up a violent confrontation among Ranse, Liberty, Tom, and the newspaper editor Peabody (Edmond O’Brien).

James Stewart as Ranse, Edmond O’Brien as Peabody, and John Wayne as Tom, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance © Paramount

As a sort of unofficial protector of the townspeople due to his own shooting skills, which are at least equal to those of Liberty Valance, Tom teaches Ranse to shoot, expecting that Ranse will be able to defend himself against the notorious Valance.

John Wayne as Tom, and James Stewart as Ranse, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance © Paramount

Meanwhile, Hallie, who is being courted by Tom, begins to have feelings for Ranse as well as for Tom, setting up yet another arena for disaster and tragedy in Shinbone. To make matters even worse, the Territory in which Shinbone is located wants to be granted Statehood, to help protect itself against the cattle barons, who have apparently hired the notorious Liberty Valance to sabotage the town’s efforts.

James Stewart as Ranse, Lee Marvin as Liberty, and John Wayne as Tom, (with Lee Van Cleef and Strother Martin as Liberty’s gang, background), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance © Paramount

The initial conflict among Ranse, Liberty, and Tom intensifies and becomes political, endangering not only Ranse’s life but the physical safety and the lives of everyone who has befriended him in the town. Liberty Valance is not going to step aside without a gunfight, and Ranse, who’s not much of a shootist, is the man in Liberty’s sights.

Star-studded entertainment, with just enough humor to keep the film a drama without turning it into a tragedy, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is available for rent ($2.99-3.99) or purchase from Amazon (free with a 7-day Starz subscription), iTunes, YouTube, GooglePlay, and Vudu, and is always free for Starz subscribers.

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The Good, the Bad, and the Morally Complex: Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West

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If you know films, you know the work of director Sergio Leone, who is credited with re-inventing the western film genre with his “Spaghetti Westerns,” a sub-genre of Westerns directed by Italians and usually featuring a more graphically violent and morally complex vision of the American Old West. Old West (“Frontier”) stories typically “[exaggerate] the romance, anarchy, and chaotic violence of the [latter half of the 19th century in the American West] for greater dramatic effect.” Without ever having visited the United States or even being able to speak English, Leone, who often co-wrote his films, created western heroes, villains, and films that would change the genre forever. Beginning with his classic A Fistful of Dollars, the first of the Dollars (or Man with No Name) Trilogy starring Clint Eastwood, Leone paid tribute to Hollywood’s westerns while, at the same time, significantly humanizing them.

In Leone westerns, the heroes do not wear white hats, nor the villains, black, as was the Hollywood tradition. Leone’s characters do not wear designer outfits, and, whether heroic or villainous, his characters look dirty, sweat profusely, and rarely shave. Leone’s characters are more well-rounded human beings, with both “good” and “evil” traits, making them more complex and interesting. In fact, it is often difficult to determine which characters are the heroes and which the villains in Leone’s films since all characters are “morally ambiguous… appearing generously compassionate, or nakedly and brutally self-serving, as the situation [demands].” Further, the relationships of all Leone’s characters “[revolve] around power” — not around familial or romantic love — and “retributions [are] emotion-driven rather than conscience-driven.”

In Leone’s Dollars Trilogy — A Fistful of Dollars, A Few Dollars More, and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly — the protagonist, played in each by Clint Eastwood, doesn’t change, although his violent acts often alter the natures of those around him, making them either more dangerous and desperate, or more reflective and compassionate. In Leone’s second major trilogy of thematically connected films, sometimes called the Once Upon a Time Trilogy — Once Up a Time in the West, Duck, You Sucker (originally titled, Once Upon a Time… the Revolution), a western set in Mexico during its revolution, and Once Upon a Time in America, a crime drama about organized crime in New York — the same actor does not play the major protagonist in every film and the setting is not always the American Old West. Instead of the films’ being somewhat quirky and upbeat, the films in this second trilogy are slower paced and thematically darker.

In this second trilogy, Leone concentrates more on the “rituals preceding violence” than on the violence itself, which may have been why some critics and viewers called “slow” scenes in which not much happens. Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) marked a new phase in the style of Leone’s films as well as a new phase in his character development. The protagonists in these films, who are even less clearly defined along the traditional lines of good/evil or hero/villain, actually do change during the course of each individual film’s story, which is “unusual” for Leone characters. Because of its protagonists’ attempts to become different though not necessarily better people, Once Up a Time in the West is one of Leone’s best films and one of the greatest westerns. Its characters are so morally complex that critics and viewers often list it as one of the “greatest films of all time,” not just one of the greatest westerns.

The story of Once Up a Time in the West may seem predictable, with its Old West tropes of wealthy, land-grabbing villain going after the defenseless, newly widowed homesteader, but it is the shootists on opposite sides of this battle that are the film’s triumph. These shootists (sometimes called “gunslingers” or “gunfighters”) are so fascinating and disturbing that they justifiably become the story’s focal point. Instead of viewers’ caring about who wins the land-battle, they become more interested in the shootists and how their characters change.

opening gunfight in Once Upon a Time in the West ©

The film opens with a stunning scene: three men (Jack Elam, Woody Strode, and Al Mulock) terrorize people at a train station and then wait to ambush a traveller. Their target (Charles Bronson), who has no name throughout the film but who is called “Harmonica” because he often plays one.

Charles Bronson as Harmonica, Once Upon a Time in the West ©

Harmonica has arrived to keep an appointment with someone named “Frank” who is not at the train station. The resulting shoot-out between Harmonica and the three shootists is the first indication that this film is different from Leone’s previous westerns. Harmonica is wounded during the shoot-out: he is not invincible.

Henry Fonda as Frank, Once Upon a Time in the West ©

Meanwhile, at an isolated homestead, a widower and his family are massacred. In one of the most startling Reveals in film history, viewers are introduced to Frank (Henry Fonda), a shootist and one of the most heinous villains ever. Frank has been ordered to scare Landowner McBain and his children into leaving so his boss can acquire the land. Instead, Frank kills them all.

Claudia Cardinale as Jill, Once Upon a Time in the West ©

That is, Frank kills all the family except Jill (Claudia Cardinale), who has just arrived via train from New Orleans and who has become the landowner by default due to her recent secret marriage with the now-deceased McBain.

Jason Robards as Cheyenne, Once Upon a Time in the West ©

Meanwhile, at a roadhouse where Jill is awaiting transportation to her new home, Harmonica, who is pursuing Frank without knowing what he looks like, informs an escaped prisoner Cheyenne (Jason Robards) about the ambush at the railroad-station. The killers dressed like members of Cheyenne’s gang. Because Cheyenne himself has been accused of the McBain massacre, where the killers also wore the his gang’s characteristic dusters, Cheyenne must find out what happened.

Claudia Cardinale as Jill, and Henry Fonda as Frank, Once Upon a Time in the West ©

The film’s violence increases as the lives and interests of Widow Jill, Shootist Frank, No-Name Harmonica, and Prisoner Cheyenne now all converge on the McBain homestead. Cruelty, betrayal, (implied) sexual violence, and murder become so commonplace that the violence itself becomes less interesting than the natures of the protagonists themselves. For the film’s characters and its viewers, the initial McBain massacre — as well as the reason behind it — becomes merely a metaphorical footnote in the “real story” of Once Upon a Time in the West: how these characters themselves will change because of their interactions with each other.

Fonda was originally hesitant about taking the role of the murderous Frank — of the the wittiest and most caustic villains ever created — and did not accept Leone’s initial offer. After talking to his best friend Eli Wallach, who had worked with Leone in his classic The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, and who told Fonda he’d have the time of his life working with Leone on a film, Fonda accepted the part.

Henry Fonda as his blue eyes as Frank, Once Upon a Time in the West ©

He showed up for filming with facial hair and brown contacts, believing that his fans would more easily accept him as the bad guy if he looked different than he did in his other films. Leone insisted that Fonda shave and that, furthermore, his piercing blue eyes were necessary to symbolize the “cold, icy nature of the killer.” Fonda, cast against type, became one of the first lead actors to play a villain in a western.

Hugely popular in Europe on its release, though performing poorly in US markets — perhaps due to editorial cuts which were later restored to American versions in directors’ cuts — Once Upon a Time in the West is now considered to be a masterpiece and one the “greatest films ever made,” often ranked in the Top 100 lists of Best Westerns, Best Action, or Best Films.

Available for rent ($2.99-3.99 SD/HD) or purchase from Amazon (free with 7-day Starz trial), iTunes, YouTube, GooglePlay, and Vudu.

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