Throughout the 1960s, the world began to turn around and look at itself from a different perspective. It was in this time that the “Revisionist Western” came to maturity. From the stark “Spaghetti Westerns” with Clint Eastwood, or the violent rhapsodies of Sam Peckinpah, to feminist satires like Cat Ballou (1965), the West would never be looked at through a single lens again. Key elements in the revisionist mindset were respectful portrayals of Indian life; modernized views of women’s roles; unromantic representations of the male hero; a paradoxical increase in raw sex and violence; a rethinking of American destiny; and an attitude of ironic humor. What follows is a sampler of the gamut of these cultural revisions. Though not everybody agrees with my choices, I stand by them not for the quality of the movies, but for their utility as examples.
Cat Ballou (1965)
This prototype parody Western features 28-year-old Jane Fonda in her pre-protest prime. A musical set-up, with Nat King Cole and Stubby Kaye on banjos, establishes the year as 1894, and the place as Wolf City, Wyoming. While the balladeers sing, a gallows is being erected and tested. Cat Ballou is to be hanged for shooting the most powerful man in the territory. As she sits in jail sewing a pretty white dress for her hanging, she recollects the events that led to this pass.
Catherine Ballou is a proper young lady just out of finishing school and on her way home to her aging father. On the train, she meets two engaging desperadoes who will become part of her gang when she undergoes the transformation at the core of this drama. Some greedy villains are trying to take away her father’s ranch, and have hired a sadistic gunfighter with no nose (Lee Marvin) to help make it happen. Catherine resolves to find a gunslinger of her own to equalize the situation. She hires the legendary Kid Shileen (famous in dime novels), who turns out to be a drunken and shiftless has-been, also played by Lee Marvin. The familiar theme here is the last gasp of the gunslinger in the West. Times have changed. When the no-nose bad guy shoots Catherine’s father, and the men in town support his alibi, she is driven to become an outlaw, calling herself Cat Ballou. Jane Fonda would undergo a similar transformation in the years following the filming of this movie. She would renounce her conventional movie star status and become the most famous public radical of the 60s.
Cat and her gang, including Kid Shileen and a very likable young Indian man, rob a train and pursue those who are responsible for the death of her father. Toward the end, Shileen realizes he must face his no-nose nemesis. Likewise, Cat feels compelled to confront the rich and powerful man who wanted possession of her family farm. There is a predictable surprise as Cat reaches the end of her rope. The film has run out of creative steam at this point and there was studio interference on the final cut. Lee Marvin’s memorable moment comes when the gang gathers for the big finish. He is drunk and asleep on his horse; both are leaning against a wall. The image became the logo for the film. This is not so much irony as its predecessor, irreverence.
What I remembered most from seeing this film in a theater were the song motifs of Stubby Kaye and Nat King Cole, which continually remind the audience that this is legend, not reality. Cole was ill with lung cancer during the filming and died in February, 1965. It was a bold move to hire a black man for a feature film at this time. Lee Marvin was having serious marital difficulties during the filming and was drinking heavily. He won the Academy Award for Best Actor.
True Grit (1969) / Rooster Cogburn (1975)
As it happened, it was in the year 1969, year of the Moon landing, that John Wayne did a turn-around and played his legendary persona for humor, even a touch of irony. There are parallels to Cat Balou here. In True Grit, a young girl named Mattie Ross seeks out the legendary gunfighter, Rooster Coburn (John Wayne), to help her avenge the death of her father. Cogburn turns out to be a has-been and a drunk. Mattie must take charge in order to get the results she requires. The role of Rooster brought a late-in-life triumph to Wayne, earning him the only Academy Award of his career. He returned to the role again in 1975 to play in a star vehicle for himself and Katharine Hepburn. A key element in the postmodern humor of this film was in the appropriation of many elements of Hepburn’s film, African Queen, made with Humphrey Bogart. Suffice it to say they must run the rapids together.
The epicenter of this period of cultural reversal was the year 1970. Here are some highlights of what rose up from the deluge in that time.
Little Big Man (1970)
Expectations were high for 32-year-old Dustin Hoffman’s performance after nailing the Ratso Rizzo character in Midnight Cowboy (1969), but I remember it as a success tinged with disappointment. The rules for making movies were now up for grabs. Maltin and Ebert each gave it four stars and it has become a classic of its genre.
It opens with Dustin Hoffman done up as 121-year-old Jack Crabbe, who remembers the Battle of Little Bighorn, or Custer’s Last Stand. He is being interviewed by a silly news reporter (Bill Hickey) and decides to set the story straight. There is a flashback to earlier frontier days when the young man and his sister are the sole survivors of an Indian attack on their wagon train. They are carried off by a friendly Indian of a different tribe and the boy is raised as a brave, eventually achieving the name of Little Big Man. The ups and downs of his childhood find him bouncing back and forth between life as an Indian and life among the white population. As he grows up to be young Dustin Hoffman, he joins the company of a medicine show run by Martin Balsam.
The essential problem with this film is that most of the scenes are played for satiric humor against a backdrop of historical atrocities. It is a self-defeating mix of irreverence and indictment. What is deeply lacking is the opportunity for Hoffman to frame these conflicting agendas in the experience of a believable and empathic character. A dash of irony might have helped. Instead, he must play an ineffectual hero who cannot seem to master his fate. When Crabbe witnesses the brutal deaths of his family and many others of his tribe at the hands of Custer’s men, there is some incongruity with an inept comic scene that immediately precedes the massacre. Custer (Richard Mulligan) is played as a blond fop driven by unsubtle ambition. The Battle of the Little Bighorn is a comic horse opera with tragic undertones. The Vietnam parallels in the arrogance of General Custer are heavy-handed but perhaps apt for their time.
When the battle is over, Crabbe returns to the tepee of his grandfather (Chief Dan George) and goes with him to the mountain when the old man determines it is his time to die. The scene where the grandfather calls upon the spirits to aid him in his quest for death is profound and affecting, and it is touchingly funny when he fails to die. “Sometimes the magic works, sometimes it doesn’t.” This marvelous moment came too late to save the film. The old man does die in the novel by Thomas Berger. The Indians call themselves “Human Beings” and contrast themselves to the whites, who are not. Chief Dan George deserved an Academy Award. Quite appropriately, he received the only nomination accorded to this film. He can also be seen to advantage in The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976). Ebert says Little Big Man is about “two ideas of civilization.”
Below is the official trailer for Little Big Man, which may be just enough to explain why it did not do well at the box office. Clearly, the intention is to get Americans to pull their heads out of the historical sand and look at their past from a different angle. Like most movies touching on the low points of history, this one serves less for entertainment and more for lifting a rock on human nature. It can be difficult to watch.
Soldier Blue (1970)
Advertised as “The Most Savage Film in History!,” this movie had a difficult time finding acceptance in the United States while it did much better in other parts of the world. Starring Candice Bergen, Peter Straus, and Donald Pleasance, it is a contentious love story played out against the backdrop of the atrocities of the Indian wars in North America. Wikipedia says it is inspired by events of the 1864 Sand Creek massacre of a Cheyenne village in the Colorado Territory. There has been ongoing debate about whether the grotesque massacre scenes were also meant to mirror the 1968 Mỹ Lai massacre in Vietnam. The screenplay is based on Theodore V. Olsen’s novel, Arrow in the Sun. Buffy Saint Marie recorded the song, “Soldier Blue.”
The trailer gives us the love story and soft pedals violence.
A Man Called Horse (1970)
Richard Harris stars as an arrogant English aristocrat who is captured naked by a party of Sioux Indians. He is at first treated as a beast of burden but gradually he earns the respect of his captors. In part, he must do this by adopting what he considers to be the barbarian ways of the savages, even taking a scalp. Dame Judith Anderson plays an old Indian woman. Inevitably, Harris falls in love with a pretty Indian girl with a pert little nose. To be accepted as marriageable within the tribe he must endure the sun worship ceremony. In a large lodge with all the males present (the chief wears a headdress that could only be the work of a Hollywood designer), his breast is pierced with talons and he is suspended and spun in circles from leather straps until he falls unconscious and hallucinates. He sees himself running naked across a stream to his love. After his wounds heal, there is a big wedding and a fire-lit wedding night. There are many prayers to Wakan Tanka. He settles into Indian life and begins to raise a family. When a raiding party from another tribe attacks the village, Harris fights like a warrior even moving into a leadership role. His wife is killed in the battle and he is devastated. After the mourning, the tribe moves on and Harris is allowed to ride off to the east eventually to return to England. The End. This film was said to be, for its time, a remarkably authentic representation of Indian life and possessed of less bias than Westerns of the past.
NOTE: I could not find a trailer that would allow for embedding. Maybe it’s just as well. The scenes of the sun worship ceremony are fairly gruesome, but they are also exceptional if you have the stomach for them. Just Google man called horse trailer.
Dead Man (1970)
Written and directed by Jim Jarmusch, a pioneer of the Independent Film Movement, this is a black-and-white film. The year is not identified but it must be sometime around the turn of the century. Johnny Depp and Gary Farmer, a First Nations actor from Canada, take the lead roles. Depp is a greenhorn accountant from Cleveland who arrives by train at a town called Machine on the promise of a job. His name is William Blake. He is turned away at gunpoint by the owner of the factory (Robert Mitchum in his last film role). Blake gets himself shot by a jealous lover and escapes into the wilderness. He needs a heavyset Indian (Gary Farmer) whose name is Talks Loud But Says Nothing; people call him Nobody. In his youth, Nobody was captured and exhibited in cities of the US and Europe. He became a devotee of the poetry of William Blake and thus was honored to meet the poet in person. The two travel through the woods toward the Pacific Ocean encountering murderous desperados along the way. One of them is a cannibal and is seen gnawing on the arm of a man he has killed. Arriving on the coast, William Blake is shot once again and Nobody takes him to a village of the Makah people. Blake is put into a wooden canoe and pushed out to sea to die. On the shore, he witnesses Nobody and the cannibal shoot one another dead. Classified as a Revisionist Western, this film subverts the familiar elements of the John Ford tradition. The hero is not heroic at all although he does become a cold-blooded killer; the Indian is overweight and highly educated; the desperados, though cruel and violent, are played for comedy; Robert Mitchum is played for irony and is a link to the Hollywood past. Wiki says that the film is notable for its attention to authentic details of Northwest Indian life, but there is little of it in evidence. If you like John Ford movies, you would probably find this one inadequate.
Addendum: International Revisionism
In my search for what was instructive in Hollywood’s revisionist westerns, I made an unexpected discovery. There are other countries that have made these films, apart from Italy where they were pretty much invented. My friend in California, who enjoys Westerns of all kinds, recommended The Last of the Renegades as an addition to my archive. There was some strangeness to it and I had to get to the Internet to find out what was going on.
Last of the Renegades (1964) – German
Lex Barker, second best-known of the actors who have played Tarzan, gets top billing in this film. This is one of his several outings as Old Shatterhand in a German-made series of “Winnetou” movies, drawn from the works of novelist Karl May, Germany’s best-selling author. The character of Winnetou is a handsome Apache chief who enjoys a popularity with the German public akin to that once enjoyed by Tarzan in the United States. Played by a French actor, he is a protector of his people, and a friend to the white man when appropriate. Shooting was done in Yugoslavia while it still existed. Targeted at family audiences and action fans, these movies are pretty good.
The Sons of Great (Mother) Bear (1966) – German
This German film achieved great popularity among the younger generations in countries under Russian domination. It lives on today as a cult classic. The most immediate innovation in this film is the positioning of the lead character, a muscular Indian man, called Tokei-Ihto, at the center of the drama. He is forced to watch as his father is murdered in a barroom over a few fragments of gold. True the rest of the movie, he does all he can to stand up to the greed and violence of the whites who want to push his people from the lands where they pitch their tents. Defeated in the end, they form a long migratory procession moving toward the north from whence they came.
Equating the saga of the West with Aryan destiny, the Plains Indian tribes take on a primal Teutonic look connecting them with the nomadic bands of early Europe. At the end of this movie, the Indians are heading toward Canada, trying to go back in time. It’s an inverted metaphor, I know, but perhaps it appealed to the Germans in this time as they attempted to reposition themselves in Western culture. I remember, I was there. There are as well some Westerns made in Russia, which raises an even more complicated paradox.
NEWS UPDATE: On August 18, 2014, the New York Times ran an article and documentary video about the continued popularity of the works of Karl May in Germany. There is a Western pageant staged each year in an outdoor amphitheater north of Berlin, featuring the characters of Old Shatterhand and Winnetou (Americans say Win-eh-too; Germans say Vin-eh-too). The positive portrayal of heroic Indians is noted. The article included a report on contention between an American Indian organization and the Karl May Museum in Germany, involving the repatriation of Indian remains for proper burial.
Mounds & Plains Related Posts:
- Movies of the Great Plains
- Final Battles on the American Plains: Custer
- Revisionist Westerns
- Buffalo Bill & the Movies