2019 Film Essays

The Western Enters the 70s – Part 4: The Iconoclast’s Dilemma

Faced with the death of its utopian hopes, the remnants of America’s counterculture split into two tendencies: the pastoral and the criminal. Its despondency was turned inwards and outwards; one side sought to build alternative structures in line with a higher authority, while the other strove to rearrange the wreckage of the existing order. For the dropout and the dissident, civilisation at the end of the 60s had become untenable; the only remaining options were escape or attack, to turn away from the iniquities of the modern world or strike out against it. In the climate of the early 70s, one had to choose to become an Indian or an outlaw, to seek solace in nature or take up arms. As Dennis Hopper puts it in the revelatory 1971 documentary The American Dreamer: “Society has made me a criminal.”

The New Left coalition splintered in manifold directions: some ploughed their energies into the Democratic party machine, the “back to the land” movement grew in popularity, membership of the Black Panther Party peaked in ’70 (only to be crushed by the FBI’s COINTELPRO program), the Weather Underground began its bombing campaign in ’69, while the Yippies of the ’70s summed up Guy Debord’s thesis: “Opposition to the spectacle can only produce the spectacle of opposition.” This embattled spirit was spread across the culture, with the Western acting as a forum for grappling with the best way forward. The wilderness was calling yet again; there was the possibility of a fresh frontier to be settled; it was merely a matter of whether it would be forged in autonomy or anger.

Little Big Man and A Man Called Horse (both 1970) depict central characters who have been removed from their cultural context, and who gain insight from their displacement, calling into question what seemed steadfast cultural certainties from the liminal sphere they occupy.

Yet this insight comes to define the protagonists in dramatically different ways. On one level, Little Big Man is a counterculture exercise in poking fun at the shibboleths of the Old West — premised as it is on subjectivity — but on another, it is in deadly earnest. Director Arthur Penn and writer Calder Willingham seek to deconstruct the mythmaking of the “old timers” through the guise of 121-year-old Jack Crabb (Dustin Hoffman), “the sole white survivor of the Battle of Little Big Horn.” Penn and Willingham concede from the outset that the story they are presenting is dependent on its senescent teller; Crabb’s memories frame what is excised and what is privileged in his picaresque narration. In using such a framing device, Little Big Man challenges the subjectivity of history, how the idea of the West has been constructed.

In the white man’s world of Little Big Man, identity becomes contingent on the demands of the milieu. One’s ultimate position in the Western pantheon is largely a matter of which costume fits best. Jack goes through a series of periods in which he tries on different versions of himself based on a new garb — the religious zealot, the gunfighter, the snake-oil salesman, the respectable shopkeeper, et al. Jack’s unease in these roles is palpable, and this is mirrored in the film’s other marginalised characters. This is particularly true of Mrs. Pendrake (Faye Dunaway), who begins the film as a pious preacher’s wife and ends it as “a fallen flower” plying her trade in “a house of ill-fame” under the name Lulu. It is only the Indian world which offers any ontological solidity. The Cheyenne tribe in which Jack grew up is accepting of Little Horse, who is a Heemaneh (or Two-Spirit, a Native American third gender), and Younger Bear, who is a Contrary (a warrior who does everything in reverse). Willingham’s screenplay contrasts the values of the Cheyenne and the white man without romanticising or infantilising the Indian: they are not the white man’s childlike dependents; their lifestyle is beset by hardships, their beliefs are not merely a spiritual panacea for the white outcast.

The openness of the Indian world is constantly in tension with external pressure; the collective refuge exists in the shadow of the white man’s expansionist designs. The white world is characterised as a culture of rapacious extraction. Jack is told by his Cheyenne grandfather, Old Lodge Skins (Chief Dan George), that the white man “believe everything is dead,” that “they do not seem to know where the centre of the Earth is.” Viewers are given a glimpse of this acquisitive spirit when Buffalo Bill arrives in the town laden with the latest commodity, buffalo skins. The “swindler” Llardyce T. Merriweather (Martin Balsam) speaks to the nihilism at the core of this endless quest for profit. He informs Jack that Old Lodge Skins “gave you a vision of moral order in the universe, and there isn’t any.” Merriweather literally loses parts of himself in the pursuit of wealth, but every pound of flesh extracted only intensifies his belief that one day he will be favoured by the gods of competition.

Little Big Man’s anti-imperialism stems from its critique of the “great man” theory (which is somewhat ironic given Penn’s elevation to the status of auteur, a theory which was formulated on many of the same characteristics). Little Big Man chips away at the edifice of legend; the great men of history are exposed as vainglorious, vindictive and conniving. When Jack — decked out in the costume of gunfighter the Soda Pop Kid — witnesses Wild Bill Hickok (Jeff Corey) gun down an adversary in a saloon, he is aghast that “he’s really dead”; the sight of the blood brings home the grisly foundations of the West’s most august monuments. General Custer (Richard Mulligan) is a malignant social climber who brands Ulysses S. Grant a “drunkard” and complains that “we can’t have a man like that in the White House.” To Custer, each military victory brings him closer to the presidency, each “Custer decision” carries the weight of history. But Custer is undone by Jack’s alien status. Jack is hired by Custer as a “reverse barometer,” a tracker whose judgements are assumed to be the opposite. When Jack is consulted on whether to advance into Medicine Tale Coulee, thus initiating the Battle of Little Big Horn, it is his moment of agency, and he uses it to empower the Indians to victory. It is in stark contrast to the decision taken by John Morgan in A Man Called Horse.

Morgan (Richard Harris) is an English aristocrat who has embarked on a hunting trip of the Dakotas in search of something more profound than “family titles, family property, family positions.” He disdains being called “your lordship” by his guide, Joe (Dub Taylor), telling Joe that “Everything I ever wanted in life I bought,” that “In England, I look up to God and royalty and down on everybody else.” Morgan is the personification of the anhedonic rich; he is “looking, just looking” through the bars of his gilded cage. Morgan’s camp is attacked by Sioux warriors, his guides are killed and Morgan is dragged naked back to the Sioux village. Morgan’s capture is a form of release; it is the thing he secretly yearned for, the fate he had been goading by his listless presence in the wilderness. Morgan is stripped of the signifiers of his status, his power and his language no longer matter; he is thrust into a new context in which he is regarded as little more than an animal; led on a leash, ridden by children.

But Morgan ultimately squanders his ingress into a collective existence. Morgan berates Batise (Jean Gascon), a half-French fellow captive, for his lack of curiosity — “Five years you’ve lived here, and you’ve learned nothing about these people” – but Morgan’s forays into Sioux culture are motivated by selfish desires. Morgan wishes to marry Running Deer (Corrina Tsopei), the sister of chief Yellow Hand (Manu Tupou). In order to do so, Morgan must “earn his scars” by participating in the “Vow to the Sun” initiation rite. As a member of England’s elite, Morgan has an innate respect for ritual; these symbolic acts, be they religious or royal, are the things which hold social hierarchy in place; power is reified in their performance. A Man Called Horse falls into an historical trap which Little Big Man eschews: Morgan becomes a white saviour. Although Jack Crabb’s white skin saves him on occasion, he is coded as an outsider, and defers to the wisdom of the Cheyenne elders. When the Sioux village is attacked by an enemy tribe, Morgan’s patrician spirit kicks in; he marshals the Sioux forces and takes control. Morgan does not fight alongside the tribal warriors; he leads them, and once again finds himself assuming his position at the apex of the social order.

John McCabe strives for a similar degree of authority in Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), but is fatally undermined by a faulty self-perception. McCabe (Warren Beatty) rides into the ramshackle Pacific Midwest town of Presbyterian Church — captured beautifully by Vilmos Zsigmond, whose work here ranks alongside The Hired Hand (1971) — and throws off a capacious fur coat like he is shedding a skin. He immediately seeks to ingratiate himself with the patrons of the saloon run by Sheehan (Rene Auberjonois), laying a red cloth over one of the tables and encouraging the assembled miners to gamble with him. From the outset, McCabe believes he is in control of “the holy game of poker,” but the deck is stacked against him; the house will always win. Sheehan is convinced that the stranger is gunfighter “pudgy” McCabe, a man with “a big rep,” but McCabe informs Sheehan he is simply a “businessman.” Presbyterian Church is not a place to prosper, but to hide; a wilderness yet to be fully formed, where a modicum of dominance can still be purchased. Sheehan seeks to form a partnership with McCabe, but is informed by McCabe that “Partners is what I come up here to get away from.” McCabe has his own designs for the town, and sets about implementing his plan.

McCabe embodies the industrious but guileless spirit which animates the American pioneer; he exudes a hollow largesse, flashing a gold tooth, positioning himself as every inch “a man to be reckoned with.” But there is something tentative and unfocused in McCabe’s presentation of himself, a ferment behind the eyes which professional madam Constance Miller (Julie Christie) immediately detects. Miller sees McCabe for what he is: a “fancy dude” doused in “cheap jockey club cologne,” content to hide in his tiny domain and reap the benefits of his privilege. McCabe lives in the realm of abstraction, while Miller is entrenched in material reality. Miller offers to help McCabe turn his new brothel into “a proper sporting house with class girls and clean linen”; she is driven by a desire to ameliorate the working conditions of the girls, but McCabe is content to provide the bare minimum. Miller grasps the privations of the powerless; be they the “chippies” who are traded like horses, or the Chinese underclass who perform lethal duties in the mines (and whose killing is punished with a $50 fine).

McCabe is visited by Sears and Hollander (Michael Murphy and Antony Holland), who represent the Harrison Shaughnessy mining company. They inform McCabe that deposits have been found on his land, and the company would like to purchase his holdings for $5,500. McCabe turns them down, telling Miller he is playing it “as smart as a possum.” Miller does not share McCabe’s false sense of security; she understands the terms upon which such deals are conducted: if we can’t buy you, we’ll destroy you. She knows that McCabe will only be tolerated to the extent that he submits. She sees through the pabulum promulgated by the Lawyer (William Devane), who inflates McCabe’s ego by invoking the myth of the great man who ventures into the wilderness to create “with his bare hands” an outpost of “this free enterprise system of ours,” throwing around concepts like “fair play and justice,” so seductive to those with an interest in couching their historical advantages in the language of morality and munificence. The interest of big business is the death knell for the community; the emissaries of capital make way for the company’s bounty hunters, led by Butler (Hugh Millais). Murder is merely the next phase of Harrison Shaughnessy’s acquisition strategy.

These are not men McCabe can woo with cheap cigars and free drinks; these are the shock troops of capital. They have not come to make deals, and McCabe finally understands his place at the table. Like the town’s miners and prostitutes, his historical role is to be crushed under the wheels of growth, his body churned up to fuel the consumption machine. The community cannot be permitted to sit on its wealth. McCabe has a moment of revelation when he admits to Miller “I ain’t never been this close to nobody before.” He has broken through the veil of superficial relationships which capitalism engenders; he finally sees something worth preserving. But Miller knows it is too late. She understands that she will forever be “a station on your way,” there to be used and discarded, her gifts unappreciated, her contribution unacknowledged, contending with the hubris of the propertied men in power.

Altman keeps his distance from the showdown between McCabe and Butler, using medium shots to capture McCabe’s shooting. For Butler, McCabe is nothing more than game scurrying through the woods, a trophy to be bagged for his paymasters. When the church, the town’s symbolic centre, catches fire, the town is unified in trying to save it; but it is a fait acompli, they are attending to the wreckage. The spirit of the town is already gone, and Miller knows this; all that remains are assets to be extracted in the name of free enterprise and “good common sense.” Miller tries to dampen the pain of loss in an opium haze, as McCabe’s body is buried in the snow. Leonard Cohen’s songs are integral to McCabe & Mrs. Miller, and no line better sums up the feeling that these characters were playing with a losing hand from the start than: “You chose your journey long before you came upon the highway.”

If escape is a losing proposition, then attack is the only option left. Yet the criminal path in many early 70s Westerns increasingly takes on an air of desperation. The divide between the outlaw and society is made manifest in Barquero (1970), which hinges on a stand-off between the denizens of a fledgling town and a band of mercenaries over the use of a ferry barge which will transport the mercenaries across the river into Mexico. Barquero plays out the political polarisation of the era (and the dynamic of the ongoing culture war): with the owner-operator of the barge, Travis (Lee Van Kleef), assuming the position of the authoritarian strongman for the imperilled community; and the mercenaries, led by Remy (Warren Oates), ensnared in the internecine struggles of the sectarian left. The “squatters” — so called by inveterate woodsman Moutain Phil (Forrest Tucker) — and the mercenaries stand on opposing banks of the river, with both Travis and Remy attempting to quell internal dissent.

Both men grasp that they are relics of a barbaric epoch, that the squatters will ultimately prevail, drive them from the land and put a fence around it. They carry the ineradicable mark of the renegade; they have spent their lives among “the other kind.” Travis’ belonging to the community is conditional upon his ability to harness his physical strength in service of the town. Remy dreams of “money, power, an empire,” but he knows his window is closing, he increasingly feels like a dissolute monarch in a lopsided crown, sliding into marijuana-induced paranoia. Phil equates the squatters to ants; their relentless work ethic and hive mind make them “useful critters,” but “if you don’t eat them, they’re gonna eat you.” Travis fashions himself into a conservative avenger, protecting the status quo with which he is provisionally aligned; a diminished form of the men “taming the wilderness,” who were “statues people could look up to.” He knows that this is his last chance to pursue a settled existence, that he can no longer exist “out there,” in the “space between” where “grizzlies and heathens” dwell.

Dennis Hopper’s journey through the early 70s was a dispiriting one; he was the first New Hollywood icon to fall from grace, and he seemed to relish his renegade status, sliding into a miasma of addiction and self-sabotage after the commercial failure of The Last Movie (1971). It is not a stretch to read Kid Blue (1973) as a reflection on Hopper’s ostracism from the industry. Following a comically botched train robbery, Bickford Waner (Hopper) tells his fellow bandits that he intends to “go off and find a town and get a job.” Bick ends up in Dime Box, a town dominated by the Great American Ceramic Novelty Factory Co., and immediately falls under the suspicion of sheriff “Mean John” Simpson (Ben Johnson). Bick cannot secure a job at the factory, and has to take work sweeping floors, shining shoes, emptying spittoons and plucking chickens before he is hired to shovel coal into the factory’s kiln. Bick sums up his predicament when he tells Simpson: “I ain’t got no gun, I ain’t got no wife, all I got is a bed and board and a job. And I’m trying to be as good a citizen as I can.”

Like Hollywood, Dime Box is an industry town centred on a single product, and Bick must atone for his past sins if he is to be admitted into the community. Bick develops friendships with the town’s marginalised and precarious: Reese Ford (Warren Oates) works on the production line at the factory; Preacher Bob (Peter Boyle) tells Bick that “destruction is coming,” and is building an “aerocycle” as his means of escaping the impending tribulations; the Indians Bick finds living in a barn refuse to go and live on the reservation. Of all these figures, it is Reese who is positioned as being truly lost; he tells Bick that “I think sometimes I was born in the wrong time,” expounds on the “old timey Greeks” who “didn’t have a lot of dumb rules” and advises Bick “If I were you, I wouldn’t get married.” Reese has betrayed “the whole beautiful life inside your head,” which Preacher Bob and the Indians have honoured to their detriment. Reese cannot reconcile his feelings with his conduct, regarding himself as “no man at all” in his capitulation. Bick sees “something unmanly” in the strictures of wage labour, wherein a man who loses control over his own time is beholden to the demands of the clock.

The dynamic between Johnson and Hopper is that of Old Hollywood and New Hollywood in conversation, with Johnson’s autocratic sheriff as the gatekeeper for the old guard, barring Hopper’s way back in to respectability. Simpson informs Bick that “This is a good, honest town full of hard-working folks,” and it is his duty to “protect them against any white trash that might be moving in.” Bick understands that thriving in the factory setting represents the “last chance around here for me,” but the deeper into the heart of Dime Box he goes, the more he understands that he can never be complicit in its hypocrisy. He hatches a plot with the Indians to rob the factory’s payroll. The robbery descends into farce, but it represents the reassertion of an inner-spirit inhibited by the need to adhere to society’s demands. Bickford Waner once again becomes the notorious train robber Kid Blue. As travelling actress Janet Conforto (Janice Rule) avers: “You can dress him up in any fancy suit you like, but it’s still Kid Blue looking out of them eyes.” Or as Bick puts it: “A man’s gotta kill his own snakes.”

D.M. Palmer (@MrDMPalmer) is a writer based in Sheffield, UK. He has contributed to sites like HeyUGuys, The Shiznit, Sabotage Times, Roobla, Column F, The State of the Arts and Film Inquiry. He has a propensity to wax lyrical about Film Noir on the slightest provocation, which makes him a hit at parties. The detritus of his creative outpourings can be found at waxbarricades.wordpress.com.

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