Sunday, January 7, 2018
HOSTILES – A Film Review
A decade ago, Christian Bale played the reluctant temporary deputy escorting outlaw Ben Wade (Russell Crow) to a train in the remake of Elmore Leonard’s 3:10 TO YUMA. In HOSTILES, he’s more than reluctant; he’s defiant. A heroic, much-honored veteran of both the Civil War and Indian Wars, Cap. Joseph J. Blocker (Bale), is ordered to escort captive Cheyenne Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) back to his homeland in Montana, presumably to die. Having lost many friends at the hands of Yellow Hawk and his men, Blocker refuses, and it is only the threat of court martial, and loss of his pension, by Col. Briggs (Stephen Lang), that induces Blocker to transport Yellow Hawk and his family through deadly territory.
Jonathan Majors & Wes Studi
The movie becomes, in a sense, a ‘road picture’, with Blocker and Yellow Hawk gradually coming to grips with their intersecting pasts and their terrible memories. There are chance encounters along the way. En route they meet up with Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike, Oscar-nominated for GONE GIRL), a settler whose husband and three daughters have been piteously butchered by Comanches. Her mind shattered by her pain, she is brought along, and begins healing along the way. Soldiers and Cheyenne must do battle with Comanches, enemies of both. They’re also asked to transport a soldier to a court for trial and presumably a hanging – Sgt. Charles Wills (Ben Foster) hacked a family to pieces with an axe. Wills has a history with Blocker – they soldiered together – and Wills is eager to convince Blocker that his crimes are no worse than Blocker committed, and that they’re a pair of angels next to Yellow Hawk. Interestingly, Foster, who all but walked away with last year’s HELL OR HIGH WATER, as the bank-robbing brother with no off-switch, has a history with Bale, as he played Crow’s obsessively-loyal right-hand in 3:10 TO YUMA. Come to think of it, he all but walked off with that movie as well.
HOSTILES, written and directed by Scott Cooper, based on a manuscript by the late Donald E. Stewart, an Oscar-winner for 1983’s MISSING, is a deeply felt story, peopled by soldiers, Indians and civilians who express their feelings with utmost caution. Despite the familiar premise, the flow of the story, and the people who populate it, are happily unfamiliar. The cavalry soldiers assisting Blocker include a young Frenchman (Timothee Chalamet – currently starring in CALL ME BY YOUR NAME), a sergeant recently treated for melancholy (Rory Cochrane), and a loyal black corporal (Jonathan Majors) ironically in charge of chaining the Indians. It’s full of both quiet passages, and jarring, unflinching violence – in some ways it’s the SAVING PRIVATE RYAN of Westerns.
Christian Bale & Adam Beach
Scott Cooper made CRAZY HEART with Jeff Bridges, but his Western credentials go back further, to his acting career, in GODS AND GENERALS, with Stephen Lang, and the excellent miniseries BROKEN TRAIL. Cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi, who also shot Cooper’s BLACK MASS, makes full, beautiful use of the New Mexico and Arizona locations, and at times effectively thrusts the viewer deeper into the action than we want to go. There is also frequently a classical look to the images – his doorway compositions are not merely an homage to John Ford, but a jumping-off point.
My one disappointment is that the excellent Adam Beach, who plays Yellow Hawk’s son, has virtually nothing to do. But with a performance by Bale that runs from barely contained fury to understated grace, and a story that is frequently grim, but never without hope, HOSTILES is one of the finest Westerns in several years. From Entertainment Studios Motion Pictures, it opens in theatres on January 19th.
TOMBSTONE – RASHOMON – Alex Cox at the O.K. Corral!
There is probably no more polarizing incident in the Old West than the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral or, as those involved demurely referred to it, ‘the difficulties.’ 132 years after the Earp and Cowboy factions faced each other, all that can be agreed upon is that 30 seconds after it started, Billy Clanton, and Frank and Tom McLaury were dead. There is no consensus as to whether or not it was avoidable, and who was at fault.
“I was a kid at grammar school in England, and in the school library was a copy of Stuart N. Lake’s book, WYATT EARP -- FRONTIER MARSHALL,” remembers wildly-independent filmmaker Alex Cox – whose previous Westerns include 1986’s punk neo-Spaghetti STRAIGHT TO HELL and ‘87’s classical WALKER. “I read that, and of course it’s a total hierography of Earp. But it was well-written, entertaining, and it got me interested in the subject.” His favorite of the films on the subject is John Ford’s 1946 MY DARLING CLEMENTINE. “It’s so beautiful. It doesn’t have a lot to do with the events; it’s a made-up story, for the purpose of entertaining and myth-making.” He also liked 1971’s DOC, “the anti-Earp version. And I kinda like TOMBSTONE – it’s a bit long, but it tells a bigger version of the story, so you know who Johnny Behan is, and Curly Bill Brocious, and all these guys who don’t normally make it into the story.”
Christine Doidge as Kate, Eric Schumacher as Doc
To tell his own version, Cox took inspiration from Akira Kurosawa’s RASHOMON, 1951’s Best Foreign Film Oscar-winner. The story of a crime is told repeatedly from several different perspectives, and it’s up to the viewer to decide what to believe. RASHOMON, whose title refers to the gate of a walled city, was remade as a Western, THE OUTRAGE, in 1964, starring Paul Newman in the Toshiro Mifune role.
The premise is explained in the film’s opening title: “On 27 October, 1881, a time-travelling video crew arrived in Tombstone, Arizona, to film the gunfight at the O.K. Corral. Realizing they were a day late, they started interviewing the survivors.”
Adam Newberry as Wyatt
Cox’s research is as journalistic as his premise is whimsical. The various tellings come directly from Judge Spicer’s hearings, and the coroner’s report. Those who testify include Wyatt Earp, Ike Clanton, Johnny Behan, and saloon-owner Roderick Hafford. Cox also uses newspaper interviews with Doc Holliday, and a letter ‘Big Nose Kate’ Haroney wrote to her niece. Talking-head interviews lead to filmed versions of each participant’s memories, which overlap, and oppose each other. Among events leading up to the shootout, Wyatt offered Ike Clanton a reward for turning in three men for stage-robbery and murder. But their versions of the proposed deal, and involvement of Doc Holiday, differ radically. And when it comes to the walk-down, and Sheriff Johnny Behan’s words, do we believe Wyatt’s version, that Behan said he’d disarmed the Cowboys, or Behan’s version, that he said he was there to disarm them?
The casting-for-resemblance is striking: Adam Newberry as sulky Wyatt, Eric Schumacher as manic Doc, and Benny Lee Kennedy as Ike seem to have emerged from the pages of The Tombstone Epitaph. Kennedy’s Ike is unexpectedly sympathetic, but Christine Doidge, as Kate, walks off with the movie as a character who is by turns hilarious, tragic, savvy and innocent. Doidge recalls, “Alex had given (Kate) a real space to be herself. Which is great, because he could have easily written this film without her, or with her in one scene; I think having Kate’s perspective is important.”
Hafford's - Richard Anderson as Hafford,
Benny Lee Kennedy as Ike
It wasn’t a film easily put together. After a “disastrous” crowd-funding campaign, Cox spent a month preparing at Old Tucson, accomplishing the impossible. “We shot a five-week movie in a week.” Having recently taught a learn-by-doing film-production class at University of Colorado Boulder, making the feature BILL THE GALACTIC HERO, he hired several ex-students as crew.
The real Hafford's Saloon
Cinematographer Alana Murphy remembers, “I was an assistant camera for HERO. I suppose I made an impression. When I graduated in 2015, Alex said, hey, I’ve got a project I might want your help with - very mysterious.” A year later she was cinematographer on her first feature. She loved working with Cox. “He starts with a lot of inspiration; he gave me a lot of homework, a lot of films to watch, that inspired. That’s how I got to know him, through the source material.” The biggest challenge? “The heat. We were having technical issues with batteries not lasting very long. And we were working on a bigger scale then I’m used to.”
Production Designer Melissa Erdman marveled at Cox’s ability to pull it off. “Alex really had great planning skills in the way that the film was structured. So we had an ‘A’ unit and a ‘B’ unit operating pretty much the entire shoot: the B unit was doing the interviews, and the A unit was shooting the various reenactments.” Recreating the interior of Roderick Haffords’ Corner Saloon, famous for hundreds of pictures of birds on its walls, required major planning. “We had a pretty limited team – it was me, and my art director, who helped to construct the inside of Hafford’s. We had two days of load-in, and most of the stuff came pre-painted, and then putting the bar together, and then getting all the birds put up. I had three people cutting out birds for two days.”
Cox, like Kurosawa, has no intention of telling the viewer if any version of the shoot-out is the unvarnished truth, but he gives each speaker, without pre-judging, a chance to state his or her case. While some differences are flagrant, some are surprisingly subtle. Doidge remembers that after the shootout, as Kate remembers it, “When Doc comes back, grazed by a bullet, I’m there, and I’m horrified. And in Doc’s version he’s just sitting on the bed by himself. I’m not there.”
TOMBSTONE – RASHOMON will be available on video in 2018 – stay tuned for details!
SILENTS DESCENDS ON THE AUTRY - AND OTHER AUTRY NEWS
For years The Autry has had their monthly ‘What is a Western?’ screening series – they’re showing STAGECOACH on January 20th -- and every second month they screen a Gene Autry double feature. They’re now adding a new film series, The Silent Treatment, featuring silent Westerns with a live piano accompaniment by Cliff Retallick, starting on January 27th with James Cruze’s epic, THE COVERED WAGON (1923).
Also at the Autry, on Tuesday, January 16th, Rob Word’s Cowboy Lunch and Word on Western series, Rob will look at the role of women and children in Western films, and Rob always gets terrific guests.
HENRY PARKE WINS WWA'S 'TWEET US A WESTERN' CONTEST!
I don’t mean to brag, but like Ralphie’s old man, I just won a Major Award. I won first place in the Western Writers of America’s ‘Tweet Us A Western’ contest, where you were challenged to write a complete Western story in 280 characters or less – the length of a tweet. My winning entry was as follows:
“Eureka!” shouted the old sourdough, sluicing the last of Columbia River silt from his pan to reveal the glitter of color. He straightened.
'Thwack!' The Indian's arrow pierced his back between the shoulders. For a moment he knew his gold rush was over. Then he knew nothing.
...AND THAT'S A WRAP!
...and my New Years resolution is to get the Round-Up out a lot more frequently in 2018. I've got a huge backlog of stories and interviews, and books and movies to review, and I'll get to them as soon as I can. In the meantime, please check out the February 2018 True West, where we asked readers to help us choose the Most Historically Accurate Westerns. And in my column, I take a look at continuing popularity of The High Chaparral series. Have a wonderful 2018!
All Original Contents Copyright January 2018 by Henry C. Parke - All Rights Reserved