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We All Have It Coming: Top 5 Westerns

No Spoilers

Unforgiven

When you hear the term “Western” for a film or mini-series, you might think lone cowboys riding the line, cattle treks, a lawman protecting his town, or even the classic rags-to-riches story of a cattleman trying to build an empire then pass it on to his family. But there are many sub-genres of “Western” films that are more interesting and exciting than the predictable cowboy movie.

Most of the Westerns I favor fall into what are usually considered the sub-genres, with some of them not even taking place in the American West, for example, but containing the iconic character motifs and themes present in Western films. Sometimes called “Spaghetti Westerns” and sometimes classified as “Action & Adventure,” all these films still resonate with elements that make the Western iconic in Hollywood, and imitated worldwide.

My top five Western films and mini-series are sometimes set in the American West; often they are not. But their characters, storylines, and themes make them powerful films that I watch over and over. They don’t always end happily, lest you think I’m some kind of HEA-girl, but even if they don’t end happily, they end honestly, with the finale of the movie developing out of the characters’ natures, their conflicts, and the decisions they’ve made previously — either in the film itself or in their lives before the events in the story take place.

And, yes, Deadwood — the series — is one of my favorite Westerns of all times, and can read about it in detail in No One Gets Out Alive, but it’s a series, and I’ve dealt with it in detail elsewhere. This group of five westerns originally appeared in a post about my top 10 Westerns, but I shortened that post to update it, including trailers and availability, and dividing it into two posts so that people might have a chance to explore the films without feeling overwhelmed. The original films #10-6 are now in I’m Your Huckleberry: 5 More Top Westerns. Here are my top Westerns.

The Wild Bunch
(1969)

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Sam Pekinpah’s epic 1969 Western The Wild Bunch deals with an aging gang of gunfighters, on the Texas-Mexico border, trying to cope with the “modern” world (of 1913), in which they have become obsolete. The Wild Bunch has a stellar cast, including William Holden, Robert Ryan, Warren Oates, Ben Johnson, and Ernest Borgnine, all giving outstanding performances.

Controversial because of its graphic violence and its morally dubious characters, the film has nevertheless secured its place among top Westerns, and is considered “culturally, historically, and aesthetically significant” by the National Film Registry and the American Film Institute. It was also nominated for many awards, winning several.

Its famous portrayal of obsolete icons attempting to survive, by any means possible, reflects all aspects of any culture that gets overtaken by progress and technology. Since many settlers in this country went West to escape the culture and “laws” of the East, The Wild Bunch is a brilliantly ironic commentary on when the West itself became overrun by “civilization.”

The Wild Bunch is available to rent for $3.99 from Amazon, and YouTube.


Lonesome Dove
(1989)

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Based on the best-selling Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name by Larry McMurtry, Lonesome Dove is not a film but a mini-series, and when it came out in 1989, it was considered an incredibly ambitious project. It garnered praise, high viewership, and was credited with “reviving” the mini-series genre.

Filled with big-name stars like Robert Duvall, Tommy Lee Jones, Danny Glover, Ricky Schroeder, Diane Lane, Anjelica Huston, Chris Cooper, Barry Corbin, Frederick Forrest, and Robert Urich, the story covers partners’ Gus (Duvall) and Call (Jones) cattle-drive from the virtually deserted Texas town of Lonesome Dove to an “Eden-like” Montana (where none of them has been), encountering many hardships and disasters along the way.

A coming-of-age story involving the younger characters, which contains the Archetypes of the Journey as well as the “Wise Old Man” passing on his knowledge to the worthy younger hero(es), this Western classic also has what few others have: strong female characters.

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Though the roles of Clara (Huston) and Lorie (Lane) are subordinate to those of most of the minor male characters, they’re still essential to the storyline. Their characters force the males to become more than cowboys, and add depth and richness to this powerful exploration of the American West and its familiar themes in Westerns.

Lonesome Dove is available for purchase from Amazon (4 part mini-series, $2.99 each episode or $9.99  for all 4 episodes) and for streaming with Hulu. Free for Starz subscribers. (Note: This trailer is for the 20th anniversary of the award-winning series.)


Son of the Morning Star
(1991)

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Based on the non-fiction book of the same name by Evan S. Connell, this is one of the best treatments (book & two-part mini-series) of the morally ambiguous George Armstrong Custer (Gary Cole) during the Plains Indian Wars, ending with the Battle of Little Big Horn.

Unique because it tells the story from two perspectives, that of the whites and of the Native Americans, it is narrated by Custer’s wife Libbie (Rosanna Arquette) as well as by Kate Bighead (voice of Buffy Saint-Marie), the mini-series also stars Rodney Grant as Crazy Horse, and Floyd Red Crow Westerman as Sitting Bull.

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Closely following the original book in one of the most balanced portrayals of the Indian Wars, the Fetterman Massacre, and the Battle of Little Big Horn, where Custer’s defeat increased the US government’s determination to eliminate all Indians who were not “imprisoned” on reservations, Son of the Morning Star — despite its title’s allusion to Lucifer and his rebellion against God — is an excellent example of Hollywood’s ability to honestly evaluate and portray its subjugation of America’s native peoples, its confiscation of their lands, and their justified outrage and retaliation.

(Apologies: There is no official trailer for Son of the Morning Star and, alas, it does not seem to be available for online viewing. The only copies for purchase at Amazon are VHS and one non-region-1, i.e., non-US, Spanish DVD.)


Duck, You Sucker
(1971)

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Directed by Sergio Leone, this is one of those Westerns that doesn’t have cowboys, horses, or cattle. And it takes place in Mexico during its Revolution rather than in the American West. But there are lots of guns, explosions, and battles; a bang-up score by Ennio Morricone, and stellar performances by James Coburn, as the outlaw Irish Revolutionary Seán (John) Mallory trying to “get it right” in Mexico, and by Rod Steiger as Mexican thief and father to a large family Juan Miranda, who doesn’t want anything to do with the Revolution because he just wants to fulfill his life’s dream of robbing the biggest bank he’s ever heard of: the Mesa Verde National Bank.

Despite the film’s constantly being edited (too politically sensitive, too violent, too much profanity), despite its being marketed variously as a comedy or a satire of westerns (it’s neither), despite its rather strange title, which is apparently a bad translation of the Italian Giù la Testa, and despite the film’s subsequent release under various titles such as A Fistful of Dynamite (Irish John is an explosives expert, and the alternate title is an allusion to Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars), and Once Upon a Time… the Revolution (since it is considered the second film of Leone’s trilogy which contains Once Upon a Time in the West and Once Upon a Time in America), this film — the last Western Leone directed — is one of his best.

Bear in mind that I’m saying that as a huge Clint Eastwood fan, one who grew up more familiar with Clint and Leone’s “Spaghetti Westerns” than with some of the Hollywood classic Westerns.

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What makes Duck, You Sucker one of the best  is the chemistry between Coburn and Steiger who, as “John and Juan” form a bond that forces each of their characters to change. The experienced intellectual John begins to see the human element in any revolution while the cynical and amoral Juan, who initially cannot be trusted by anyone, stops thinking of himself and his own selfish gain, learning to care about his family as individuals (he doesn’t even know how many sons he has in the beginning of the film),  his friend John, and his country.

Despite its setting, Leone claimed he never intended the film to be political, and despite its setting, Leone succeeded, due in large part to the chemistry between its stars. Coburn and Steiger make you believe in their evolving friendship and commitment to each other, not just as voluntary/involuntary revolutionaries, respectively, but as people. No longer physical or emotional loners, they become genuinely attached to each other.

The film’s original reception was lukewarm, but it has gained popularity in recent years. Justifiably so, since its excellent treatment of the themes of the individual vs. society, loyalty to personal codes of conduct and honor, private justice, wandering protagonists, and conquering the Wilderness are all prominent in the Western genre.

Duck, You Sucker is available from for $2.99  Amazon and for $3.99 (under the title A Fistful of Dynamite) from iTunes.


Unforgiven
(1992)

images-9One of the darkest Westerns ever made, dealing frankly with the uglier aspects of violence and how, when glamorized, violence makes “myths” and “legends” out of trigger-happy drunkards and bullies, Unforgiven, directed by and starring Clint Eastwood, as “retired gunfighter” William Munny, takes the prize for the best Western.

In Unforgiven, the simplistic myths of the Old West are revealed for the complex combination of lies, exaggeration, and terrible truths that they are. Archetypes abound, but in stunning new ways. The “Kid” (Jamz Woolvett) who wants to attain fame by killing some “cowboys who cut up some whore,” recruits master gunfighter William Munny (Eastwood) “who’s killed women and children” and who repeatedly claims that he “ain’t like that no more” to help him track down the “bad guys.” Munny brings along his partner Ned (Morgan Freeman) who, though surprised by the request, thinks the reward money might come in handy keeping his farm solvent.

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Nothing goes as expected, because this is a Western that shows the truth about the Old West. In the town of Big Whiskey, the trio meets iron-fisted Sherriff “Little Bill” Daggett (Gene Hackman, in an Oscar-winning performance), who has already beaten, humiliated, and banished one hired gunman, English Bob (Richard Harris, in a minor but memorable role) who came to claim the reward money for getting vengeance for the “cut-up whore.”

Honest about violence, humorous and satirical at times, Unforgiven displays the best that the Western can offer: it is a tribute to the genre even as it illuminates its flaws, a loving and respectful homage that never loses sight of the danger of a life without rules, as well as the moral vacuity of  a life ruled by killing others, sometimes for reward money, sometimes for dubious fame, sometimes for no reason at all. Or, as Eastwood’s Munny states, “not for any reason I could remember once I sobered up.”

Unforgivenis available from Amazon and YouTube, and for purchase only ($14.99) in iTunes. Free for subscribers of Sundance Channel.

My original Top 10 Westerns post 
If You’re Going to Shoot,
Shoot: Don’t Talk

is now divided into two posts,
updated with official trailers and film availability:


We All Have It Coming:
Top 5 Westerns

and


I’m Your Huckleberry:
5 More Top Westerns

(originally films #6-10)

Related Posts

It Ain’t How You’re Buried That’s Important:
3 Western Coming-of-Age Films

I Ain’t Never Been No Hero:
More Great Westerns

No One Gets Out Alive:
Why You Need to Watch HBO’s Deadwood

Deadwood Strikes Gold!
Again! Still!

The Sutherlands’ Forsaken Is No Unforgiven,
Though It Tries to Be

My Favorite Film & TV Villains

Share

Leave a Comment

Filed under Actors, Classic Films, Classics, Film Videos, Films, Films/Movies, Historical Drama, Movies/Films, Movies/Television, Official Film Trailers, Official Movie Trailers, Official Trailers, Videos, Westerns

I’m Your Huckleberry: 5 More Top Westerns

No Spoilers

The Magnificent Seven (original) ©

Most of the Westerns I favor fall into what are usually considered the sub-genres, with some of them not even taking place in the American West, for example, but containing the iconic character motifs and themes present in Western films. Sometimes called “Spaghetti Westerns” and sometimes classified as “Action & Adventure,” all these films still resonate with elements that make the Western iconic in Hollywood, and imitated worldwide.

My top Western films and mini-series are sometimes set in the American West; often they are not. But their characters, storylines, and themes make them powerful films that I watch over and over. They don’t always end happily, but they end honestly, with the finale of the movie developing out of the characters’ natures, their conflicts, and the decisions they’ve made previously.

And, yes, Deadwood — the series — is one of my favorite Westerns of all times, and can read about it in detail in No One Gets Out Alive, but it’s a series, and I’ve dealt with it in detail elsewhere. This group of five westerns originally appeared in a post about 10 films, but I shortened that post to update it, including trailers and availability, and so that people might have a chance to explore the films without feeling overwhelmed. The top five films are in I Ain’t Like That No More: Top 5 Westerns. Here are the remaining of my five top Western films.


Red River
(1948)

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John Wayne, Montgomery Clift, and Walter Brennan, Red River ©

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not a big John Wayne fan. Whether Hollywood pushed him into “The Duke” mold or whether audiences simply preferred that role, many of Wayne’s films portray him playing basically the same character. (That kind of thing always leads the viewer to wonder if the actor is acting or just being himself.) But Wayne’s early work in Westerns was much more daring as well as varied. In fact, he should have received Oscar nominations for quite a few of his early Westerns, rather than the token one he received (and won) for playing Rooster Cogburn in True Grit.

One of Wayne’s finest roles and one of his best Westerns is 1948’s Red River, directed by Howard Hawks.

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John Wayne and Montgomery Clift, Red River ©

Starring Walter Brennan (Groot) and Montgomery Clift (Matt) along with John Wayne (Dunson), Red River is a fictional account of the first cattle drive from Texas to Kansas along the Chisholm Trail. As a boy, Matt — sole survivor of an Indian attack — joins Dunson’s group and is adopted by Dunson. Though Matt is his adopted adult son, Dunson is continually forcing Matt to prove himself, leading to many conflicts, as well as to a split in the group on the cattle-drive.

Dunson is tyrannical and angry; Matt, who is fair and stalwart, rebels, taking many men with him. Dunson sends a posse after the group, intending to force his authority on all of them, but especially on his adopted son. The final showdown is stunning and effective.

Red Riversome of the best acting that Wayne and Clift ever did, is available for rent, starting at $2.99, from Amazon, iTunes, and YouTube. Free for Starz subscribers.


Open Range

(2003)

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Kevin Costner and Robert Duvall, Open Range ©

Beginning as a relatively quiet film that deals with free-grazing, or individuals or small groups with small herds grazing on public lands, and who come into conflict with larger corporations or ranchers who want the land exclusively for themselves, Open Range (2003, directed by Costner) is a powerful statement on individual rights, expansion in the west, land ownership, and power.

Kevin Costner (Charley) and Robert Duvall (“Boss”) as the free-ranging partners are the principals, with an excellent supporting cast which includes Annette Benning as the town Doctor’s sister Sue, who becomes Charley’s love interest, and Michael Gambon as the ruthless and powerful Irish immigrant rancher Baxter who “don’t want no free-grazers” and uses violence and murder to terrorize them into leaving the area.

Though Boss, Charley, Sue, and other characters don’t seek violence, it becomes inevitable as they must defend their lives, property, freedom, and individual rights, which incorporates many of the themes of the most enduring Westerns.

Open Range, which was both a critical and box-office success, is available for rent ($2.99-3.99)  from Amazon, iTunes, and YouTube.


Tombstone
(1993)

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Bill Paxton, Kurt Russell, Sam Elliott, and Val Kilmer, Tombstone ©

Concentrating on the story of the Earp family — all three brothers and their wives — and Doc Holliday after their move to Tombstone AZ, this movie usually ranks high in any Western “Top Ten” list, not just because of the historical characters and events, but because of its fine acting and production values.

Wyatt Earp (Kurt Russell) convinces his brothers Virgil (Sam Elliott) and Morgan (Bill Paxton) to join him “for retirement” in Tombstone, where Doc Holliday (Val Kilmer, in his Oscar-winning, and most brilliant career performance) is already settled and winning outrageous amounts at gambling.

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Kurt Russell and Val Kilmer, Tombstone ©

The Earp brothers “acquire” interest in their own gambling establishment, and seem only to want to make money and live comfortably with their wives. Their gunslinger pasts, however, cause them to come into conflict with a red-sashed gang, The Cowboys, and with the Dalton Gang. Once the Earps become lawmen, they are bound for the historical confrontation at the OK Corral.

The film’s unique and interesting interpretation of historical characters and events, along with plenty of action and love interest, make it worth watching. But Kilmer’s Oscar-winning performance as Doc Holliday is mesmerizing. Tombstone is available for rent ($2.99-3.99) from Amazon, iTunes, and YouTube.


The Magnificent Seven
(1960)

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Cast of The Magnificent Seven, including from L to R, Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Robert Vaughn (4th), Charles Bronson (5th), and James Coburn (last) ©

Based on Japanese filmmaker’s Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 film Seven Samurai, these seven are transformed into gunslingers and hired to protect a small Mexican village from a notorious bandit who is extorting money, livestock, and grain from the villagers, leaving them to starve. Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, James Coburn, and Robert Vaughn are among the magnificent seven, each of whom has a past he’s running away from.

Though notorious or shady in their previous lives, they are convinced to help protect the villagers for virtually no pay whatsoever, reluctantly showing their moral side as the film progresses.

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Eli Wallach, The Magnificent Seven ©

As the seven teach the villagers to defend themselves against the bandit Calvera (Eli Wallach) and his gang, the 7 become emotionally attached to their charges. Some of the scenes with the young boys and Charles Bronson’s character are among the most amusing yet moving.

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The Magnificent Seven ©

Set to a rousing score by Elmer Bernstein, the film embodies the iconic Western theme of the strong protecting the weak, and landowners (or townspeople) defending themselves against villainous intruders (or outsiders).

McQueen was apparently envious of Brynner’s mega-stardom [from The King and I] and was constantly trying to upstage him, even standing on his tiptoes to be taller than Brynner [who was shorter than McQueen in any event]. Producers eventually supplied a box for Brynner to stand on when they were in set scenes together, to prevent McQueen’s antics. The Magnificent Seven is available for rent ($2.99-3.99) from Amazon and YouTube. Free for Starz subscribers.


The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

(1966)

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The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, top to bottom, Clint Eastwood, Eli Wallach, and Lee Van Cleef ©

No list of great Western films would be complete without Sergio Leone’s classic “Spaghetti Western” (because shot by the Italian director) The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, supposedly represented by Blondie (Clint Eastwood), Tuco (Eli Wallach), and Angel Eyes (Lee van Cleef), respectively, as each searches for stolen and buried Confederate gold during the American Civil War. They need each other because none has the complete list of clues as to the gold’s burial place.

As you might guess, nobody trusts anyone in this film, least of all the three protagonists who, despite the title and the heavy-handed identification as “good,” “bad,” and “ugly,” are actually all comprised of those characteristics. This combination of good, bad, and ugly in each of the major protagonists makes them some of the most fascinating characters in any Western.

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Lee Van Cleef (back to camera), Eli Wallach (kneeling), and Clint Eastwood, The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly ©

Besides many memorable images and music, Eli Wallach supposedly improvised one of the film’s most famous lines. While bathing, his character is confronted by other gunslingers who argue with him about revealing the gold’s location, and explain repeatedly that they’re going to kill him if he doesn’t reveal it. Wallach’s Tuco raises his gun out of the murky bathwater and kills them all, stating afterward to their corpses: “If you’re going to shoot, shoot: don’t talk.” (In interviews, Wallach still expresses surprise that such a simple line garnered so much attention.)

The final showdown and gunfight in the cemetery, accompanied by an unforgettable score by the venerable Ennio Morricone, make The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly a classic. Available for rent ($2.99-3.99) from Amazon, iTunes, and YouTube.

My original Top 10 Westerns post 
If You’re Going to Shoot,
Shoot: Don’t Talk

is now divided into two posts,
updated with official trailers and film availability:


We All Have It Coming:
Top 5 Westerns

and


I’m Your Huckleberry:
5 More Top Westerns

(originally films #6-10)

Related Posts

It Ain’t How You’re Buried That’s Important:
3 Western Coming-of-Age Films

I Ain’t Never Been No Hero:
More Great Westerns

No One Gets Out Alive:
Why You Need to Watch HBO’s Deadwood

Deadwood Strikes Gold!
Again! Still!

The Sutherlands’ Forsaken Is No Unforgiven,
Though It Tries to Be

My Favorite Film & TV Villains

Share

Leave a Comment

Filed under Actors, Classic Films, Classics, Film Videos, Films, Films/Movies, Historical Drama, Movies/Films, Official Film Trailers, Official Movie Trailers, Official Trailers, Westerns

The Sutherlands’ Forsaken Is No Unforgiven, Though It Tries To Be

Spoilers

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If you’re a fan of either of the Sutherlands, father Donald or son Kiefer, then you probably got as excited as I did upon learning that the two of them had made a film together. With over 300 films between them, the two have never made an entire film together. The Western Forsaken, written by Brad Mirman, and directed by Jon Cassar, and which premiered at the Toronto Film Festival, promised to be an exciting vehicle for the father-son duo. Unfortunately, Forsaken tries too hard to be the Oscar-winning Unforgiven, ultimately failing miserably.

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The Premise

The premise of Forsaken is a tried-and-true one for Western films, so it may sound familiar.

After serving in the Civil War and then becoming a gunfighter in subsequent years, John Henry Clayton (Kiefer Sutherland) retires after a gruesome mistake, returns to his hometown, and attempts to repair his relationship with his estranged father, Reverend William Clayton (Donald Sutherland). While attempting to patch up the father-son bond, John Henry reconnects with his love Mary-Alice (Demi Moore), who has married and borne a son despite still loving her old beau. John Henry discovers that the town in being terrorized by villainous land-grabber McCurdy (Brian Cox), who has hired a gang to help him.

That’s a bit longer than the brief snippet provided by Showtime, which is airing the film, but it sounds like the usual Western film fare, right? The only problem with a formulaic plot for any film, but especially for the iconic American film genre, the Western, is that everyone involved in the project has to be wary of was falling into clichés.

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The Critics

 I have to say that most of the professional critics, and a majority of the reviewers on IMDb, think Forsaken is wonderful, if only because, according to Joe Leydon of Variety.com, it is “refreshingly and unabashedly sincere in its embrace of Western conventions and archetypes,” and is a “pleasingly retrograde sagebrush saga.” If “embracing Western conventions and archetypes” means piling on the clichés, then Forsaken embraced them with a vengeance. Unfortunately, none of the worn-out character motifs or plot devices added anything to the genre. “Retrograde” does not equal “quality,” unfortunately. Most reviewers, whether professional or not, seemed so thrilled to see the Sutherlands paired in Forsaken that the film’s weaknesses, which were many, were overlooked. Perhaps many of the films viewers who wrote good reviews were too young to have seen the ground-breaking Unforgiven, which embraced the Western genre’s tropes and clichés but turned them into something breathtakingly new.

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The Backstory

The film actually begins with a man holding a dead son, and a bloody-handed woman screaming. Cut to the face of Kiefer, stepping back into the darkness. Uh-oh, somebody made a boo-boo, and that somebody is Kiefer’s character, and that kind of Big Bad Mistake seemed like a reasonably good way to start the film. If only we’d gotten a bit more of that scene or of the Big Bad Mistake.

But we didn’t.

I read that the film was originally three hours long, concentrating much of the storyline on the parallel story of the mother and father of the boy whom Kiefer’s character mistakenly killed, and that most of that original version of the film was left on the cutting-room floor. Unfortunately, that opening scene that was all we got of the life-altering backstory, and it simply wasn’t enough to understand Kiefer’s character. Though Kiefer’s John Henry mentioned it in a “confession” to his father, we never got any explanation about why it devastated him so much that he abandoned his life and career as a gunslinger.

The Acting

Donald Sutherland, as the patriarch Reverend William Clayton, started off the film fine. He walked onto his porch with an expectant look on his face, frowning when he saw that the visitor was son Kiefer, playing Clayton’s son, John Henry. “Your mother’s dead,” he stated before he turned and went back into the house. It was a good set-up: the father looking forward to a visitor, unhappy and disappointed that it was his son, a son who’d obviously been absent long enough not to know that his mother was dead. Kiefer’s John Henry followed father Reverend William into the house, and Donald got to deliver a few more relatively interesting lines, many of which alluded to the fact that John Henry was such a tremendous disappointment to his parents, who wondered what they’d done wrong to have their son turn into such a killer.

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Kiefer Sutherland, as the prodigal son John Henry, seemed to be trying his best to live up to father Donald’s acting in many of the scenes. Maybe Kiefer would have done a better job had the screenplay not been filled with so many trite characters, predictable scenes, and unmemorable lines. Though John Henry took off his guns because of a mistake, and though he claimed he was trying to change his ways, no one could have watched that film without knowing that, eventually, John Henry was going to put those pistols back on and have the Big Bad Gunfight. Too bad Kiefer’s character spent so much of the film clearing a field and occasionally visiting with his old flame, Mary-Alice (Demi Moore), who had almost as small a part as her film-husband, whose name I can’t even recall.

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I’m not sure why Demi Moore was in Forsaken, since she had so little screen time. Anyone could have played her part, which was unmemorable. Demi, thinner than she’s ever been in her life, and looking unhealthily gaunt, played her “I waited for you” lines with about as much excitement as she she could muster, which isn’t a compliment. Her character could have been edited out of the film, letting the movie concentrate instead only on the father-son relationship, and no one would have missed anything. After all, the relationship between Mary-Alice and John Henry was rated G, and there was none of the electricity that Gary Oldman provided opposite Demi in The Scarlet Letter, so Mary-Alice was a real throwaway.

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Brian Cox played the villain McCurdy, who, for some unexplained reason, wanted all the land of the ranchers and farmers in the unnamed area. Despite using f-word more often in Forsaken than in his entire career (and I’m counting Deadwood), Cox had some of the best lines in the film, and he delivered them with his usual aplomb.

McCurdy: I’m sorry for your loss.
Woman: No, you ain’t… [When the day comes that someone stands up to you], I want to be here to spit on your grave.
McCurdy: Feel free to do so, provided you can find your way to the front of the line.

Mary-Alice’s husband: I’ve decided not to sell to you.
McCurdy: (laughing so well, it sounds genuine) … Words were spoke. Hands were shook.

McCurdy: Your husband and I have spoken about his selling his farm.
Mary-Alice: I’d be surprised if my husband entertained such an idea.
McCurdy: Well, Ma’am, if that surprises you, then you’ll be dumbstruck to learn he’s agreed to the sale of the property.

Mary-Alice: I don’t believe you… I want you off my land… If we’re still here [after the sale deadline]…
McCurdy: Then I’d start looking for a black dress.

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Gentleman Dave Turner (Michael Wincott), the loquacious hired gun, tried a little too hard to imitate, if not replicate, Val Kilmer’s Oscar-winning performance in Tombstone, complete with Southern accent. I expected Gentleman Dave to pop out with “I’m your Huckleberry” through most of the film. Despite the actor’s best efforts, he failed to become interesting. I’m not sure why this character was in the film either. He provided a bit of menace, but not enough to keep building the tension. Further, when the Big Bad Gunfight came around… well, I don’t want to give anything away… yet.

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The Plot

You know this story: Relatively good boy goes off the Civil Way, is devastated by the killing, becomes a gunslinger, makes a bad mistake, decides to come home and start over, vowing never to strap on his guns again. Boy gets repeatedly taunted and mocked by local bad boys, gets beat up pretty bad by said bad boys, stays humiliatingly passive in the face of increasing violence, is devastated when his father gets stabbed in the back (literally), and finally retrieves his gun to have the Big Bad Gunfight.

Plot Problems

We never got the real story behind John Henry’s mistake: maybe too much was left on the cutting-room floor, but the brief snippet we got was unsatisfactory. The mistaken shooting started the film with intensity, but then Forsaken degenerated into a meandering, predictable story.

All the members of the gang know John Henry. What? They all grew up together or something? Even the villain of the piece, McCurdy, knows Reverend Clayton on a first-name basis: the Reverend tries to get McCurdy to stop his land-grabbing, calling him “Samuel.” It made little sense that everybody knew each other for, like, their whole entire lives.

Everybody and his brother knows that John Henry is eventually going to put his guns back on, so delaying the moment for 70 minutes of a 90-minute film was really dragging things out. I mean, d-r-a-g-g-i-n-g-t-h-i-n-g-s-o-u-t.

And that big gunfight the audience is waiting for? It never happens. At the crucial moment, John Henry abandons the hired killer in the street, claiming he has to have a Colt to fight fairly, then runs into the hotel/saloon and, instead, kills Villain McCurdy.

Does John Henry come back out with the Colt to kill Hired Gun?

No, he does not.

They chit-chat in a really unbelievable way, then wounded Daddy Sutherland limps out of doctor’s office to Son Kiefer who’s on horseback, preparing to leave again. Daddy Sutherland, in a genuinely moving moment, sobs and begs Son Kiefer not to leave.

Cut to him riding out of town and off into the metaphorical sunset (heading westward), with a Voice-Over courtesy of the Hired Gun, regaling all the reported sightings of Son Kiefer, who’s never seen again.

And that’s the end of the film.

And, no, I’m not kidding.

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Unforgiven Wannabe

 Forsaken clearly wanted to be another Unforgiven, the Oscar-winning film directed by and starring Clint Eastwood, and Forsaken even modeled scenes, character behavior, and lines after Unforgiven. Considering the fact that Unforgiven was examining and overturning the very clichés and tropes it was presenting, Forsaken would have had a difficult time re-examining those tropes. Forsaken failed to give us anything new or interesting in the Western film genre.

Part of what made Unforgiven so brilliant was that, despite the presence of standard Western characters and clichés, the audience never really knew what was going to happen. Despite the presence of the gunfighter, the unschooled kid who wants to be famous as a gunslinger, the bully Bad Guy, all the characters did unpredictable things. Morgan Freeman’s Ned is anxious to kill the cowboys who cut up the whore so he can get the reward money, but at the last moment, with the cowboys in his sights, he cannot pull the trigger. Little Bill, the Bad Boy of the film, is building his own house, and not doing very well at it.

In some of the best scenes of the film, Little Bill mocks the biographer of English Bob (Richard Harris, in his best role) — another gunslinger who’s come to kill the cowboys — calling English Bob the “Duck of Death” rather than the Duke, revealing a marvelous and completely unexpected sense of humor. I realize that actor Gene Hackman came up with those details, often surprising director Clint Eastwood as well as fellow cast members, but that’s what I meant when I said that the actors themselves have to beware of clichés when making a film that includes standard Western tropes: neither of the Sutherlands pulled off an Oscar-winning performance in Forsaken, if only because they didn’t add anything unexpected to the tropes.

Throughout Unforgiven, Eastwood’s hired gun William Munny keeps insisting, “I ain’t like that no more,” referring to his violent (and sometimes glorified and exaggerated past). When the final showdown arrives, featuring “known killer” William Munny and the film’s Bad Boy, Sheriff Little Bill (played by Gene Hackman in an Oscar-winning performance) no one in the audience knows whether William Munny really isn’t “like that no more” or whether he’s going to kill Little Bill.

Unforgiven has other strengths: it’s a “dark Western that deals frankly with the uglier aspects of violence and how complicated truths are distorted into simplistic myths about the Old West.” Despite aspiring to be like Unforgiven, the Sutherland film, through no fault of the lead actors, simply didn’t have any deep messages or startling characterizations.

I like Kiefer Sutherland. He’s a pretty good actor. He does a reasonably good job in most of his films. But he tried too hard to be another Clint Eastwood in Forsaken. I know Keifer can’t help the fact that he’s only 5’8″ but when all the other characters — except for Brian Cox and Demi Moore — literally tower over you and make you look like a little kid, then it’s really hard for you to pull off the Big Bad Gunfighter, complete with frock-coat and squinty eyes, heading off to whip all the Bad Boys.

But the worst part of the film was when Kiefer’s John Henry stole lines right out of Unforgiven in the final saloon shootout. It was just sad. Unforgiven’s Little Bill became Forsaken’s Little Ned, but the audience didn’t even know who Ned was, let alone that he was Little Ned, so I kept thinking of Unforgiven instead. The shootout in the saloon wasn’t anything at all compared to Clint’s bad-ass shoot-fest in his Oscar-winning film, so Forsaken became sad, really.

Ultimately, Forsaken, despite uniting the talents of father and son Donald and Kiefer Sutherland, and despite the Sutherlands’ obvious on-screen chemistry, was a complete and utter disappointment, which you never would have guessed from the film’s official trailer.

I hope someone re-unites these two actors in a film with a brilliant script.

That would be something worth seeing.

My original Top 10 Westerns post 
If You’re Going to Shoot,
Shoot: Don’t Talk

is now divided into two posts,
updated with official trailers and film availability:


We All Have It Coming:
Top 5 Westerns

and


I’m Your Huckleberry:
5 More Top Westerns

(originally films #6-10)

Related Posts

It Ain’t How You’re Buried That’s Important:
3 Western Coming-of-Age Films

I Ain’t Never Been No Hero:
More Great Westerns

No One Gets Out Alive:
Why You Need to Watch HBO’s Deadwood

Deadwood Strikes Gold!
Again! Still!

The Sutherlands’ Forsaken Is No Unforgiven,
Though It Tries to Be

My Favorite Film & TV Villains

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Clint and Bradley have a Winner in AMERICAN SNIPER

No Spoilers

american-sniper-5

Clint Eastwood’s latest film, American Sniper, has been causing a lot of controversy, mostly about snipers, in general, and about the protagonist, Chris Kyle, in particular. Some reviewers are complaining that Eastwood mixed up the wars in Vietnam and Iraq, that he mistakenly identified America’s getting involved in a war with Iraq due to the 9-11 attacks, and that the film is causing anti-Muslim sentiment around the world. Some reviewers compare protagonist Chris Kyle’s interviews and book with his portrayal in the film, which are, apparently, not similar, and those people are complaining that the film version of Kyle isn’t the one they saw in the book or in television interviews.

I’m not saying that it’s a perfect movie. Overall, however, American Sniper is a very intense and emotional action film, and I can see why crowds are filling up the theaters to see it.

Based on the autobiography by sniper Chris Kyle himself, the screenplay was written by Jason Hall, who alternated “War” — when Kyle (a bulked up but not necessarily more muscular Bradley Cooper) was in Iraq — with “Peace” — when he was home with his wife (Sienna Miller) and children. Like Tolstoy’s famous novel, War and Peace, the War parts of American Sniper are very intense, while the Peace parts are so slow they make you keep looking at your watch, hoping Kyle will go back to the war.

It’s a relatively patriotic movie, portraying Kyle as a hero, at least to his fellow marines (he himself is a Navy SEAL), whom he protects as they’re evacuating Iraqi neighborhoods. Kyle keeps watch for enemy bombers and snipers by positioning himself on a rooftop in whatever vicinity the marines are working. If he suspects that someone is a danger to the marines — whether that person be a man, woman, or child — Kyle is supposed to take that person out.

Many veterans also view Kyle as a hero in this film. I didn’t. I saw his flaws, and found them interesting. In fact, I would have liked to have seen more of his psychological defense mechanisms with his role as a sniper in the war. We only got a hint of his psychological defense mechanisms near the end of the film, with the psychologist/psychiatrist, in a very brief scene. Adding more of Kyle’s character would have made the film more interesting for me, but it may have also turned it into an art film instead of the patriotic, action film that it is, making the big bucks. To date, American Sniper has made more than $200M at the box office.

Yes, American Sniper does simplify the Iraqi War into one that seems to be directly caused by the terrorist attacks of 9-11, which is not why America went to war with Iraq but why it ostensibly went to war with Afghanistan, looking for Osama Bin Laden. The movie also simplifies the Iraqi War into a battle between Us — the good guys, represented by Kyle (Cooper) — and Them — the one-dimensional bad guys, represented ultimately by an Iraqi sniper named Mustafa. That being said, the War parts of the film, “subtitled” Tour One, Tour Two, etc. are very intense and had the audience at the showing we attended hushed in silence, holding its collective breath.

The movie begins with a very psychologically complex scene (a portion of which you can see in the official trailer below), followed immediately by approximately 45 minutes of personal relationship development between Kyle and his wife, and boot camp training for Kyle. No offense to Clint, whom I respect as an actor and a director, but Gunnery Seargeant R. Lee Ermey — originally hired as a professional consultant on Full Metal Jacket — did it more brilliantly, improv and ad-lib, in the Kubrick film.

Nothing new was added in the boot camp training scenes of  American Sniper, and, in fact, much of the dialogue was difficult to understand.

Any time Kyle was home, with his wife and family, there were lots of clichés, including the wife whining a lot about how she and “the kids”needed him, asking him what he was “doing over there,” etc. But I did mention earlier that the “Peace” parts of this film, meaning the parts not directly concerning the War, were not very exciting or interesting. I understand that you cannot have a film that is non-stop action and ferocity, but plenty of war films have sustained intensity without slowing down the “action” and while keeping the characters In Country. Apocalypse Now and Platoon are two that do this successfully.

Those minor flaws aside, I’m guessing that most viewers find American Sniper as intense — in the “War” parts — as my boyfriend and I did. They are well-made and, except for the one poor CGI scene with a bullet that is not spinning through the air, they leave the viewers breathless.

Clint took a hint from Oliver Stone’s final battle scene in Platoon, which some viewers complained was difficult to follow, and made the ultimate battle scene in American Sniper also intentionally difficult to follow or even see well. It was stupendous cinematic symbolism for what soldiers must experience in war, though I assume no film could ever give viewers a taste of the heart-stopping fear, adrenaline rush, and overwhelming confusion that is experienced by combatants in real war.

Bradley Cooper did an excellent job as sniper Chris Kyle, given the material he had to work with, and Eastwood did a fine job directing. After all, this is clearly a patriotic action film, not an art film (despite the one allusion to Keyser Söze from screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie’s and director Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects — and I’m not sure how many of the audience members got that allusion since there was no response, whereas, in the final battle scene, at the “appropriate” moment, the audience applauded and many viewers cheered).

Is American Sniper worth seeing? Most definitely. And see it on the big screen. But get there early to get good seats. We were there 25 minutes before the start of a late afternoon matinee showing and were almost in the front row.

Will American Sniper win any of the Oscars for which it is nominated? Not likely. It’s an action film, and it’s not up for CGI effects, since there are virtually none. It’s not like Eastwood’s Unforgiven, which was not only a ground-breaking Western, but a film that made sophisticated commentary on the Western film genre even as it was defying yet fulfilling audience expectations.

Should the real-life Mrs. Kyle stop going around giving interviews saying that she “approves” of the film “especially given how Chris Kyle died”? Yes, yes, she should. I would never have known that sniper Chris Kyle had died if she hadn’t been saying it in interviews. (I’m still not sure exactly how he died since the film doesn’t show it or reveal the circumstances of his death: it simply states the fact that he died.)

And, frankly, I don’t care if Mrs. Kyle approves of the film. She signed the film option and made plenty of money for her husband’s story, so it’s irrelevant whether or not she likes what Eastwood did with the material. Besides, I’m guessing she likes it because too much of the film concentrates on her, including a really poorly done phone conversation during the middle of a battle scene.

Should people like documentary film-maker Michael Moore keep their mouths shut about snipers and war? Yes, they should. Snipers and war have been around for ages. Snipers are not cowards: they are highly trained, proficient gunmen, and no one should insult our veterans, not matter what their roles were during their respective wars. Especially not people who have never been in war and have absolutely no idea how they themselves would behave under similar circumstances. They should keep any insults about snipers and veterans to themselves. If they post them on The Twitter, as Moore did, they’re liable to get this kind of response (and this is one of the “kinder” ones).


American Sniper is an openly patriotic action film about one sniper and his role in the Iraqi War, based on his own autobiography. Nevertheless, viewers are obviously enjoying it, and, despite its minor flaws, I highly recommend it. American Sniper may not win any awards, but it’s winning the hearts of its audience.

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Filed under Actors, Film Videos, Movies/Films, Violence

“If you’re going to shoot, shoot: don’t talk”: Top 10 Westerns

My original Top 10 Westerns post If You’re Going to Shoot, Shoot: Don’t Talk is now divided into two posts,
updated with official trailers and film availability:

We All Have It Coming:
Top 5 Westerns

and

I’m Your Huckleberry:
5 More Top Westerns

(originally films #6-10)

Related Posts

It Ain’t How You’re Buried That’s Important:
3 Western Coming-of-Age Films

I Ain’t Never Been No Hero:
More Great Westerns

No One Gets Out Alive:
Why You Need to Watch HBO’s Deadwood

Deadwood Strikes Gold!
Again! Still!

The Sutherlands’ Forsaken Is No Unforgiven,
Though It Tries to Be

My Favorite Film & TV Villains

Share

Leave a Comment

Filed under Actors, Movies/Films, Movies/Television