Tuesday, November 11, 2014


THE HOMESMAN – a Film Review

Tommy Lee Jones’ film of Glendon Swarthout’s novel THE HOMESMAN is a revelation.  The novel itself is a remarkable and beautiful telling of a heroic and tragic tale, and one that had never been told before; in a Western, that’s remarkable in and of itself.  The trials, tragedies and disappointments of frontier life have driven some women mad.   A successful yet lonely spinster, Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank), a victim of her too-charitable view of human nature and her strong sense of honor, finds herself -- rather than any of the husbands -- responsible for transporting three madwomen across the endless Nebraska Territory to Iowa, where a generous minister and his wife (Meryl Streep) are waiting to get them help, whether it be to take them in, or reunite them with their families back east. 

Though competent as a man with gun or horse – perhaps too competent and bossy for a woman hoping to attract a man – Mary Cuddy quickly realizes she is not physically capable of single-handedly driving the wagon and caring for three volatile women, when providence provides her hope, in the form of low-life claim jumper George Briggs (Tommy Lee Jones).  She saves him from a noose only after securing his promise to help her with a difficult undertaking: she wisely doesn’t tell him what it is ahead of time.  Having cheated death by inches, he is overwhelming grateful, but dubious about the journey, and resentful of her attitude towards him.  He agrees to go, but neither of them thinks he’ll follow through to the end.  As an inducement, she arranges a reward to be waiting for him, should they reach their Iowa destination. 

The two travel to the three homesteads, gathering their charges, and observing a bit of what made the women what they have become.  Mary and George’s adventures begin as they cross the seemingly infinite prairie, dueling over whose view of humanity should guide their journey.  They travel, surrounded by dangers, facing their own remarkable hardships, and under each other’s influence, they both grow and change as individuals.  Jones and Swank are by turns endearing, infuriating, and ultimately heartbreaking.  Playing people who always keep a tight rein on their emotions, their performances are wonderfully restrained, yet you always know what they are thinking and feeling.  George and Mary Bee are both strongly opinionated people.  Jones’ George knows in a practical sense what must be done to survive in this savage world, moral or not, and tries hard to hide any misgivings.  He is a man of surprising dignity and pride, and when insulted is a force of the devil.  Swank’s Mary Bee aches for a kinder world, like the one she was raised in.  She so longs for culture that when she sings, she plays her accompaniment on a keyboard of needle-point; she confides that she’ll soon die without real music.  Additional Oscars may be in both of their futures.

Author Glendon Swarthout holds a hallowed place among novelists, Western and otherwise, having had previous successes, both book and film adaptations, as diverse as WHERE THE BOYS ARE, THEY CAME TO CORDURA, BLESS THE BEASTS AND CHILDREN, and the unforgettable THE SHOOTIST, which was John Wayne’s last film, and one of his finest performances.  One senses that Tommy Lee Jones sees THE HOMESMAN as his SHOOTIST, certainly not as a final film, but as the crowning achievement of a career in Westerns that has included triumphs like LONESOME DOVE and THE MISSING.  HOMESMAN is his third western as a star-writer-director, his two previous being the exceptional THE GOOD OLD BOYS and THE THREE BURIALS OF MELQUIADES ESTRADA.

The script adaptation by Jones, Kieran Fitzgerald and Wesley A. Oliver is an excellent paring down of a story that fortunately was just about the right size to begin with.  There must always be cuts – the novel has four madwomen rather than three – but all that is crucial is retained, as is much of the novel’s dialogue, and the visuals match the novel’s descriptions impeccably.  There is an effort to cut to the heart of scenes which, in the book, had extensive build-up.  There are effective additions as well.  An early scene with Mary Bee serving dinner clarifies elements of her personality.  The three women, played by Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto, and Sonja Richter, are more fleshed out than in the book, and the structure of their flashbacks is more effective than in the book.  But ironically, the women’s specific issues are often not as clear on the screen as on the page.   Most remarkable is a story-turn in the novel which is as justified as it is unexpected and daring.  I was sure it would never reach the screen, and happily, I was absolutely wrong. 

Among the effective though brief supporting performances are Barry Corbin as an honorable townsman, John Lithgow as troubled minister, James Spader as a man who will regret his unaccommodating decisions, and in one of the several very effective action scenes, Tim Blake Nelson as a freighter who tries to spirit away one of the women. 

The cinematography and shot compositions by Rodrigo Prieto are unselfconsciously beautiful, too efficient to show beauty for its own sake, instead being breathtaking while in the service of the action.   Editor Roberto Silvi brings the skills for cutting to the chase that he demonstrated collaborating with Jones in THREE BURIALS, and in TOMBSTONE.  Also from THREE BURIALS, production designer Merideth Boswell and her crew have a wonderful eye for period detail.  Early on in their journey, the audience gasps as George, who has been complaining of being cold at night, steals a buffalo skin off a corpse on an Indian burial platform.  Just for a moment we glimpse that the blanket beneath the pelt bears the design of The Hudson Bay Company.  These filmmakers know their stuff.


Tonight my wife and my niece each reached into my up-turned Stetson and pulled out a slip of paper bearing the name of someone who had correctly matched Franco Nero’s co-stars to the correct movies.  The winners, Thomas Betts of Anaheim, California, and Shawn Gordon of Bonney Lake, Washington, will soon be the lucky recipients of beautiful Blue Underground Blu-Ray editions of COMPANEROS, starring Franco Nero and Tomas Milian, and directed by the legendary Sergio Corbucci. 

Here are the correct match-ups:
1. DJANGO STRIKES AGAIN b. Donald Pleasance
2. THE MERCENARY e. Jack Palance
3. KEOMA f. Woody Strode
4. CIPOLLA COLT c. Martin Balsam
5. DON’T TURN THE OTHER CHEEK a. Lynn Redgrave

Fellow Western writer C. Courtney Joyner and I had a great time doing the audio commentary on this stunning film, and I’m grateful to the good folks at Blue Underground for providing the Blu-Rays for this giveaway.  They have a wonderful catalog of Westerns, thrillers, Gialli, zombie films, Christopher Lee - Fu Manchu movies, documentaries and more.  Check out their website HERE.  


I must admit that I did not like this movie when I originally saw it – I found the humor too broad and too unfunny.  But over the last several years, so many Indian friends have told me it is their favorite, or one of their favorite films, that I’m looking forward to giving it another chance.  Directed in 1970 by Arthur Penn, LITTLE BIG MAN stars Dustin Hoffman as a 121-year-old man reliving his adventures during an interview with a journalist – adventures that include being the only survivor of The Little Big Horn!  His co-stars include Faye Dunaway, Richard Mulligan as a demented Gen. Custer, and Chief Dan George in the role for which he was Oscar-nominated.  Scripted by the great Calder Willingham, from a novel by Thomas Berger.  Dick Smith’s aging make-up on Hoffman is fabulous. 

LITTLE BIG MAN is presented at 1:30 pm, free with museum admission, as part of the continuing monthly ‘What Is A Western?’ film series, with an introduction by Jeffrey Richardson, Gamble Curator of Western History, Popular Culture, and Firearms.  Following the movie, you can visit the Journeys Gallery and see artifacts related to The Little Big Horn. 


In celebration of Native American Heritage Month, Raindance and Whirlwind Studios are presenting a concert at the Ernest Borgnine Theater in Long Beach, featuring two-time Grammy winner Rita Coolidge, Shelley Morningsong and Fabian Fontenelle, blues artist Tracy Lee Nelson – I loved his work at the Santa Clarita Cowboy Fest, World Champion hoop dancer Lowery Begay, and traditional Native American dancers from all over the country.  The program begins at 6pm, ends at 10pm, and will include a red carpet with famous Native American actors, including many from the cast of YELLOW ROCK, and Saginaw Grant from THE LONE RANGER.  Visit these sites for more information, and to buy tickets: https://Facebook.com/nativeharmonies


I’ve got the feeling Quentin Tarantino watches INSP.  In Mike Fleming’s story in DEADLINE: HOLLYWOOD, Tarantino spoke at the American Film Market about HATEFUL 8 at a panel, surrounded by producer Harvey Weinstein, flanked by cast members Walton Goggins, Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, and Jennifer Jason Leigh, and in addition to announcing new cast members Channing Tatum and Oscar-nominated Demian Birchir, revealed his inspiration for the Western’s plot.

“It’s less inspired by one Western movie than by BONANZA, THE VIRGINIAN, HIGH CHAPARRAL.  Twice per season, those shows would have an episode where a bunch of outlaws would take the lead characters hostage. They would come to the Ponderosa and hold everybody hostage, or go to Judge Garth’s place–Lee J. Cobb played him in THE VIRGINIAN, and take hostages. There would be a guest star like David Carradine, Darren McGavin, Claude Akins, Robert Culp, Charles Bronson or James Coburn. I don’t like that storyline in a modern context, but I love it in a Western where you would pass halfway through the show to find out if they were good or bad guys, and they all had a past that was revealed. I thought, what if I did a movie starring nothing but those characters? No heroes, no Michael Landons. Just a bunch of nefarious guys in a room, all telling back stories that may or may not be true. Trap those guys together in a room with a blizzard outside, give them guns, and see what happens.”  Sounds like Quentin’s been watching SADDLE-UP SATURDAY on INSP with the rest of us.  And how about Barbara Stanwyck on THE BIG VALLEY?  Didn’t Victoria Barclay get kidnapped every third episode, usually by L.Q. Jones?


I'm just back from THE HOMESMAN Press Conference, where Tommy Lee Jones and Hilary Swank had plenty to say about the making of this outstanding Western movie.  I’ll have details in next week's Round-up.  

Happy Trails,


All Original Contents Copyright November 2014 by Henry C. Parke -- All Rights Reserved


  1. Thanks Henry. I really look forward to the Companeros DVD and your commentary along with C. Courtney Joyner. If it's as well done as The Big Gundown I know I won't be disappointed. Thanks one again.

    1. Thanks for the generous words about The Big Gundown! I'm glad you won!