REVIEW: Deadwood (TV series 2004-2006) – David Milch, Timothy Olyphant

Deadwood distinguishes itself in a number of ways. Firstly, it bases itself fairly closely on real events, in the frontier town of Deadwood when it was an outlaw gold rush settlement on a Lakota reservation on the fringe of the Dakota territory. Secondly, it is full of complex, memorable, and richly realised characters like Wild Bill Hickok, Seth Bullock, Al Swearengen and Calamity Jane, an even greater achievement when its conformity to actual biographical details is taken into account. Perhaps most compellingly, Deadwood manages to say something about the very nature of civilisation in a more complete and satisfying way than any other Western.

The series opens in 1876, with Montana Marshall Seth Bullock under siege by a lynch mob, who want his prisoner for themselves. Bullock, despite his well-advanced plans to leave for Deadwood, refuses to compromise on his duties, holding the mob off at gunpoint while he hangs the prisoner himself, ‘under colour of law’.

Bullock, the unbending lawman, contrasts sharply with the villainous saloon owner Al Swearengen, who in just the first episode is arranging to sell salted claims to rich fools with gold fever, arranging the murders of failed miners returning in frustration to the territorial United States, and disposing of the body of a violent john slain by one of his prostitutes.

Traditional Western logic would indicate that the two would be destined to eventually confront and destroy each other. Deadwood, however, has something more to say. Producer David Milch knows that civilisation is built not when natural enemies destroy each other, but when they compromise and build together, which is so much of what Deadwood is about.

At the time of its first run, Deadwood was better known for the extraordinary profanity of its language than for the complexity and subtlety of its storytelling, which is a real shame. Cut short at just 36 episodes, possible new life in telemovies was briefly on the cards, but the plans fell into development hell before the sets were broken down and put in storage in late 2007.

Deadwood Swearing (language warning, obviously)

Deadwood holds a lot more for viewers than anything normally within the bounds of the Western. It’s graphic, harsh and certainly not suitable for shrinking violets, but for those willing to look past that, it’s a human drama of rare depth and genius.

Get the first season here, or the complete series here.


REVIEW: Red Hill (2010) – Patrick Hughes, Ryan Kwanten

Red Hill theatrical poster

It’s a complaint about Australian film that never goes away – thoughtful, some would say pretentious, dramas can get funding, but no one wants to watch them. Well-executed genre films can pull in the punters, but can’t get funding. The accusation is that arts funding is controlled by snooty inner-city elites, who know what movies they want made in Australia but happen to disagree with 90% of the viewing public.

No film is cited more in the debate than 2005’s Wolf Creek, written and directed by Greg McLean. The brutal but compelling and brilliantly executed film, loosely based on the killings of serial killer Ivan Milat, gave Australian film a stunning commercial success that also made waves in the UK and North America, while telling an authentically Australian story in an Australian voice.

This is perhaps the best starting point to talk about Red Hill. Like Wolf Creek, Red Hill borrows genre conventions and slick execution, but is telling a story with its roots deep in Australian culture.

The film follows a young police officer, Shane Cooper (Ryan Kwanten), on his first day working in the eponymous small town of Red Hill. Cooper is treated with open contempt by his new boss Old Bill (Steve Bisley), but is soon drafted into service when the town gets news that Aboriginal convicted murderer and former local Jimmy Conway (Tom E. Lewis) has escaped from prison and may be on his way to town.

There’s endless potential in combining Australian elements with Western conventions, as Nick Cave’s The Proposition showed in 2005, and Red Hill writer and director Patrick Hughes is clearly keenly aware of this. Shooting in Omeo, Victoria, a town which once had a population in the thousands and now has less than 500 residents, he blends themes of rural decay and isolation with the hot-button issue of Aboriginal revenge, to make a tight revenge thriller with a cathartic conclusion

The production values are fantastic, considering Red Hill’s AUD$3 million budget. The performances are all compelling and convincing, although some of the scripting feels slightly contrived and hokey, and the town hall scene early in the film feels particularly clunky, underwritten and undershot.

These are minor quibbles. Red Hill is both compelling and enjoyable, and tells a story that deserves a hearing at the same time. A worthy use of time for any Western fan, and a must-see for anyone with an interest in the direction of Australian film.

REVIEW: Young Guns (1988) – Christopher Cain, Emilio Estevez

Young Guns - image property Lionsgate

Young Guns… just doesn’t work. Loosely based on the events of the 1878 Lincoln County War, this high concept blockbuster fills a roll of doomed outlaws with shallow young actors who were the time’s teen heartthrobs. It shoots for something between an action movie and a buddy comedy, but misses both marks and fails to hit any sort of happy medium.

The film opens on the ranch of English rancher John Tunstall (Terrence Stamp), who we are to believe is some kind of benevolent collector of lost boys. This group of supposedly loveable misfits, including actors Charlie Sheen, Kiefer Sutherland and Lou Diamond Phillips, call themselves The Regulators and act as cattle guards for Tunstall, who treats them as family he must educate and civilize.

They are joined by budding young outlaw Billy the Kid, Emilio Estevez at the height of his brat pack-era success and good looks.

Estevez and his character are the biggest problem with the film. Estevez’s Billy the Kid is clearly a psychopath, gleefully escalating their situation at every opportunity and executing armed and unarmed men alike. It seems there is an erroneous presumption that Estevez himself has the charisma to make the character relatable, but he’s never even close to making it work.

This wouldn’t be so bad if Young Guns aspired to be a grittily realistic period piece, but a sense that it thinks of itself as a light-hearted romp, a kind of Mighty Ducks with guns, runs disturbingly throughout, even in scenes where major characters are being shot down like flies. The horrible ‘80s rock soundtrack does nothing to help, with some truly inappropriate musical cues.

Overall, while some might look to Young Guns with a certain amount of nostalgic affection, it is not a movie which will make a substantial contribution to anyone’s life, and should be avoided if possible.

REVIEW: Unforgiven (1992) – Clint Eastwood, Gene Hackman

Ned, you remember that drover I shot through the mouth and his teeth came out the back of his head? I think about him now and again. He didn’t do anything to deserve to get shot, at least nothin’ I could remember when I sobered up.

– William Munny, Unforgiven

Unforgiven. Image property Warner Bros.

Clint Eastwood has made a lot of grim Westerns. His entire career was built on grim. So you’ll understand I mean something when I say Unforgiven is a whole new kind of grim.

Only the third Western to ever receive the Academy Award for Best Picture, Unforgiven deconstructs many of the agreed conventions of exactly the terse gunfighting films that Eastwood made his name in.

Eastwood’s character, William Munny, plays a “known thief and murderer, a man of notoriously vicious and intemperate disposition”, who settled down as a farmer after falling in love and getting married. Years later, his wife is dead, and theKansaspig farm he depends on to support his two children is failing.

In these dire straits, when a young braggart styling himself the ‘Schofield Kid’ (Jaimz Woolvett) comes to enlist his help collecting a $1000 bounty on two cowboys who cut and disfigured a prostitute in Big Whiskey, Wyoming. Munny refuses at first, but eventually enlists his former partner Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman) to take the job.

In Big Whiskey, however, town sheriff and former gunfighter Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman) is determined to maintain the peace, no matter who he has to brutalise or kill.

At its core, Unforgiven is an indictment of the conventional Western’s portrayal of violence. There are no clean, fair fights in this film, and the losers do not simply drop out of frame with a pained expression – nor do they generally deserve to die. Morality is always ambiguous. For example, of the two cowboys Munny set out to kill, only one actually disfigured the prostitute, while the other actually tried to stop him, and is genuinely remorseful, trying to give her a prize pony to make amends. He, of course, is the one who dies the ugliest death, with a bullet through his belly, screaming at first for water and then just from pain. The message is that vigilante justice is sloppy justice, and doesn’t deserve the glory it has been assigned.

An inspired element is the inclusion of Saul Rubinek as W.W. Beauchamp. Beauchamp is a chubby, bespectacled writer who has come from the east with fanboyish stars in his eyes for the Wild West of the dime novels. Initially following gunfighter English Bob as his biographer, he soon loses his innocence about the noble duels he had expected to see, and is too terrified to ever touch a gun himself, which could itself be taken as a rebuke to Western fans.

The film also uses Beauchamp to explore an element of human nature often ignored in the Western – the natural inhibition against killing. This is a point the film makes again and again, as often the difference between living and dying is simply the reluctance to kill another human being. At Unforgiven’s heart is the overwhelming weight of taking another human life, a weight which settles heavily on all the film’s characters.

Clint Eastwood actually saved the concept for Unforgiven for over a decade, and has said it “summarised everything I feel about the Western.” It is certainly a great achievement, with a cutting edge production and shooting style for its time that presaged The Proposition, Deadwood, and indeed all recent Westerns with any gravitas.

The question is should Unforgiven’s devastating deconstruction of the Western affect our appreciation of the rest of the genre? It’s worth remembering that Eastwood did some of his best work knowing that Unforgiven was in his future. As much as it has something important to say about mortality, about guilt and the value of human life, that’s not to say it should detract from the escapist value of the Western in general. Still, Unforgiven is a must-see for any Western fan.

REVIEW: Paint Your Wagon (1969) – Joshua Logan, Lee Marvin, Clint Eastwood

Eastwood and Marvin, Paint Your Wagon

Eastwood and Marvin, Paint Your Wagon

Ben Rumson: “I have read the Bible, Mrs. Fenty.”

Mrs. Fenty: “Didn’t that discourage you from drinking?”

Ben Rumson: “No, but it sure killed my appetite for readin’!”

Going from Dances With Wolves to Paint Your Wagon is skipping from the pinnacle of self-seriousness to the heights of libertarian farce. Part Western, part musical and part satire, Paint Your Wagon has gained a certain cultural notoriety as the Western with singing instead of shooting, notably spoofed by The Simpsons.

Paint Your Wagon is the story of a hastily formed mining partnership between the scruffy, drunken mountain man Ben Rumson (Lee Marvin), and newcomer Pardner (Eastwood, who is not named throughout the movie, in a wink to his iconic role as The Man With No Name). In the mountains of the California gold rush, Rumson rescues Pardner when he and his brother plunge down a mountainside, and they hit a goldstrike together at the brother’s burial. Soon, a mining encampment of 400 springs up, dubbed ‘No-Name City’.

When a Mormon and his two wives enter the all-male town, the affection-starved populace go into a frenzy, and it is soon resolved that the second of the two wives will be auctioned to the highest bidder. A falling-down-drunk Rumson stumbles into the auction in progress, doubles the going bid, and passes out cold, $800 poorer and a wife richer.

It soon becomes clear that an encampment with one woman is very different from an encampment with none, as Rumson’s new wife Elizabeth (Jean Seberg) becomes a major tourist attraction, and demands a permanent cabin rather than a tent. Meanwhile, a jealous Rumson, driven to madness by the hundreds of jealous eyes upon him at all times, persuades the townspeople to found a brothel, quickly turning No-Name City into a thriving boomtown.

Despite Paint Your Wagon’s refusal to take itself seriously, its beautiful scripting and permanent tongue-in-cheek hide a movie with something real to say about the Old West. It masterfully portrays its characters mix of libertarianism and misanthropy with winking affection, and shows how essential some moral flexibility and willingness to adapt is to life on a muddy and frigid frontier, while at the same time handily explaining the conflicting urge to civilise.

One recurrent criticism of Paint Your Wagon is that the central love triangle is under-realised, with Eastwood and Seberg’s relationship mainly established in a much-decried montage. In a way, though, that’s part of the point – the film simply takes the predictability and universality of human nature for granted, and lets the viewer do so, too.

In fact, for a movie dealing with such potentially grim themes, Paint Your Wagon is remarkably good-natured and fun. You know you’re in safe hands when the confrontation of two women by 400 lawless, horny men is handled with such aplomb. There’s a particularly sweet moment when the town’s blacksmith offers to pay $50 in gold dust for the chance to hold the Mormons’ baby. Other moments carry a vicious edge, like when a pastor rides into town howling about sin and damnation, before introducing a Native American girl who is tied to his saddle and looks no more than 12 as “my wife, Princess Hummingbird”.

The production and staging on Wagon is glorious, the repartee is sharp, and there’s some fantastic physical comedy on offer. However, many of the songs are forgettable, and it’s quite a time sink at 164 minutes – points which should take none of the shine off for anyone willing to give it a chance. For the patient, Paint Your Wagon is an underappreciated wonder, and a canonical addition to the Western genre no real fan should miss.

REVIEW: Dances With Wolves (1990) – Kevin Costner, Mary McDonnell

Nothing I have been told about these people is correct. They are not thieves or beggars. They are not the bogeymen they are made out to be.”

 – Lieutenant John J. Dunbar, Dances With Wolves

Dances With Wolves

The epic revisionist Western that was Kevin Costner’s directing debut clocks in at a hefty 175 minutes, or three and a quarter hours. Or at least the sellout theatrical version does. The director’s cut doesn’t concern itself with such crass commercial pandering and pulls out all the stops, sauntering in at 236 minutes.

It’s become somewhat fashionable to criticise Dances With Wolves in the two decades since its release, and even to despise this. While we’ll get to the criticisms in a moment, they should not be allowed to totally eclipse the real achievements of this film.

Dances With Wolves opens on Lieutenant John J. Dunbar, a Union officer in the American Civil War, in a medical tent. WhenDunbar realises his foot is to be amputated, he instead takes a horse and rides out in front of the enemy stockade in a suicide attempt. When he miraculously survives, and unintentionally inspires a charge, breaking a stalemate and winning the battle.

Cited for bravery and offered his choice of posting,Dunbarelects to be posted to the western frontier, saying he would “like to see it before it’s gone.” Once there, he finds the fort to which he’s been posted deserted, but chooses to stay and man it alone while he waits for reinforcements.

As he waits, he slowly grows closer to the local Sioux Indians (more correctly known as Lakota tribesmen), eventually marrying one of their tribe, Stands-With-A-Fist (Mary McDonnell), an orphan of European settlers who was adopted by the tribe as a child, while developing an animus toward his own people as he witnesses the dark side of encroaching white settlement.

In terms of production, Dances With Wolves in many ways works in the finest traditions of the open plains Western. With its sprawling plot, a soaring orchestral score over glorious location shots from Dakota andWyoming, in many ways it’s reminiscent of the John Ford horse epics of which it is the polar opposite in politics and sentiment.

Its core love stories, between Dunbar and Stands-With-A-Fist, Dunbar and the Lakota, andDunbarand the frontier, are hauntingly affecting, as all are doomed by the steady onward flow of time, and the knowledge that all of them are doomed to pass into history.

In a sense, Dances With Wolves is the extreme end of an arc of moral development in the Western that began with the doubts and subtexts of The Searchers 34 years previously. For the first time in a mainstream film, a native American tribe were the heroes, and all of European settlement the villain. While most Western films had moved well away from tradition of using Indians as antagonists during the 1960s and ‘70s, they had (excepting 1970’s Little Big Man) simply avoided the issue of the American genocide, whereas Dances With Wolves grappled with it directly, as the tragic, brutal and aggravated erasure of entire peoples and their way of life.

But it is an extreme. The main reason it has been so criticised is that it sounded the bell on an entire decade of mawkish and worthy film-making, at the same time earning a great deal of ill-will by beating out Martin Scorcese’s brilliant and uncompromising gangster story Goodfellas.

There is some substance to the criticism. Just as the Indians of the 1950s were two-dimensional merciless murdering savages to be held off by the heroic United States Cavalry, Costner’s Sioux are a pure and spiritual tribe of beautiful, healthy and somehow spotlessly clean noble savage archetypes, while all the white characters other than the thoughtful and ethically anachronistic Lieutenant Dunbar are leering caricatures, greasy, violent and deliberately wasteful.

Not only are the Sioux treated as qualitatively superior to whites in every way, but so are the animals. Costner bonds with both the horse he rides throughout the film, who we are to believe is so faithful and intelligent that it thwarts multiple attempts at theft throughout the film, and a wild wolf Dunbar dubs Two Socks. Both are given fairer treatment and a deeper characterisation than any non-Costner European character throughout the film.

It’s a bit rich to feel too persecuted by this, of course. In more than a century of Westerns, Indians have been soulless villains in perhaps thousands of films and many other manifestations, so leaping to arms after seeing European characters treated the same way in just one would be incredibly hypocritical. More egregious, however, is how Costner circumvents the need to depict occasional villainy on the part of native Americans.

For this purpose, the Pawnee tribe becomes the all-purpose antagonist, murdering any innocent Europeans who need murdering, and attacking and slaughtering the Sioux to add drama and give Dunbar a chance to be their saviour. This is aggravated by the historical fact that the Pawnee were as much victims of Lakota aggression as the other way around.

Despite its flaws, Dances With Wolves is a triumph, and its claim to be the Best Picture of 1990 is an honest one. It marks an important point in the moral development of Western civilization, and should be viewed in that context. Indeed, so successful and significant was Dances With Wolves, it actually persuaded someone to finance and authorise Costner’s next film, the history-making bomb Waterworld.

REVIEW: Brokeback Mountain (2005) – Ang Lee, Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenhaal

Brokeback Mountain was Ang Lee’s second feature film after the smash international success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Lee’s

Brokeback Mountain theatrical release poster. Image property Paramount Studios.

action movie mastery was put him on the list of A-list directors, so a lot of studio executives must have been very disappointed when he played 2003’s Hulk for pathos rather than thrills, with the effect of creating the infamous emo-Hulk and barely breaking on domestic box office, even without including marketing costs.

Lee’s moody, lingering shots and penchant for thickly emotional scoring work much better in Brokeback Mountain, the tale of two cowboys and their doomed love. Brokeback was a sensation; combining character archetypes at the very centre of red-state identity and mythology with the already touchy issue of homosexuality meant it broke over the American national conversation like a tsunami, becoming an instant, ever-present punchline. It became the go-to move for every lazy hack comedian and launched a thousand think pieces in print and online, to the point that far more people were talking about it than ever saw it in a theatre.

As an actual film on the screen, Brokeback is an achievement. Based on a short story by Annie Proulx, it tells the story ofEnnisDel Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal), two cowboys who take a job tending a sheep herd on the titular mountain inWyoming over the winter of 1963-4. After months of long, lonely nights, the two are sleeping in the same tent when Jack drunkenly makes advances on Ennis. Although Ennis resists at first, the two start a relationship.

Although they part ways at the end of winter and both marry and have children, they continue to meet in remote locations for vacations and weekends, with Jack always wanting to run away together, and Ennis always warning of the violence they could face if they were found out.

The genius of the film is that it makes no attempt to differentiate the love story at its heart as a gay love story. Gyllenhaal and Ledger play their characters completely straight, except for the part where they have sex with men. The love scenes between the two heterosexual actors are both compelling and natural, and both play their relationships with their respective wives (Anne Hathaway and Michelle Williams) perfectly as substantial relationships nonetheless damaged by submerged truths. Ledger’s performance in particular is brilliant and compelling, despite much mockery of his character’s mumbling speech at the time. It’s the genius he showed in this role most of all that made him so keenly mourned by film lovers when he passed away in 2008.

Shot against the spectacular backdrop of the Canadian Rockies, Brokeback is not only a stunningly beautiful film, it is exceptional in performances, scripting and conception. Even its occasionally syrupy scoring is eagerly soaked up by the frigid open spaces against which it is set. It was widely awarded, winning three Oscars, although notoriously losing the 2005 Best Picture statue to the execrable Crash, a loss widely blamed on conservative academy voters who either refused to see Brokeback, or were willing to vote for anything else, although this still doesn’t explain how Crash won against the other three clearly superior nominees.

Many of the jokes made about the film indicated that Brokeback Mountain profoundly changed the way people saw Western tropes and archetypes. The solitary lifestyle and the exclusive company of men took on a new and sinister tone to those prone to seeing such things as sinister, making the film profoundly important as a revisionist Western. Perhaps its most significant legacy, however, is that at a time when the Bush administration was attempting to amend the US Constitution to ban gay marriage, Brokeback Mountain made a spectacular commercial success out of a gay love story.