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JIMMY Stewart recently criticized Support Your Local Sheriff on the grounds that the movie had purposely set out to violate the western myth and "when the myth becomes legend I believe in printing the legend." The quote is a bastardization of a line delivered to Stewart in John ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and in its original context is a very bitter statement of an author (Ford) attempting to reevaluate his entire system of values. Stewart's recent use of the quote is not only far more common, it derives from a very dangerous assumption: that there is something which can be called the western myth, complete with characters conflicts, and values.
Many critics have tried to prove this proposition (the most famous of these is Robert Warshaw's essay "The Western" included in Dan Talbot's Film: An Anthology). Their reliance either on not calling a film a western merely because it does not fit a presupposition or on setting up as many as ten distinct types of westerns (the lone man western, the calvary western, the adult neurotic western, etc.) should be evidence in itself of the dubious quality of this theory. However, what concerns me more at this moment is the effect this idea has on filmmakers themselves. It seems to be often reflected by men who do not wish to do their own thinking, using the myth as a set of values too sacred to challenge. This attitude is evidenced by the appearance of True Grit, the most recent work of Henry Hathaway.
True Grit is a particularly obnoxious piece of hack-work about the attempt of a fourteen-year-old girl (Kim Darby) to take revenge upon "a piece of white trash" for the murder of her father. To accomplish this she buys the services of a murderous U.S. marshal (John Wayne) and is forced to accept those of a young Texas Ranger (Glenn Campbell) who has offered the marshal a some what better for the same man.
The girl Maddy Ross is front and center in the film as are her values. Her education consists mainly of her realizing that her prejudices are indeed correct. She objects to her father taking Tom Chance along with him on an errand because Chance has not been appreciative enough of the Ross family's housing him in a tool shed. And, just as she expects, Chance goes ahead and kills the elder Ross. Later he tries to push Maddy herself into a pit full of rattlesnakes.
THROUGHOUT the film the girl espouses a true belief in the capitalist west. "I am Maddy Ross from Yellow country--my family has property so I don't see why you are mishandling me," she says when she falls into the hands of an outlaw band. (Like every other utterance she makes this emerges as what can only be described as cultivated Indian--speech entirely devoid of conjunctions and intonation.) She is cold and resistant to Campbell's obvious sexual interest in her until Campbell is safely dead, at which point she strokes his hair, thus demonstrating her felling for him which she probably felt for some time but didn't deem proper to acknowledge. When she arrives at the two in which her father was killed, a hanging is in progress. The hanging has all the attributes of a county fair--people spreading picnic baskets, hawkers threading through the crowd, and all stores closed for the main event. When the trap is pulled, Maddy momentarily stops munching on her peach to murmur "Goodness!" and decides that this town has the right judge for Chance. Grit indeed.
Hathaway's attitude to this girl and her companions' actions is one of complete neutrality. His cutting and composition is completely functional. When Wayne is giving testimony in court as to why he was forced to kill three men, Hathaway cuts between a two-shot of Wayne and the examining attorney for their dialogue and a two-shot of Wayne and the judge for theirs. Maddy at the hanging is present head-on and medium-close against a background which is a neutral as the courtroom. Because nobody in the film shows any development or chance in their attitude and since nothing "wrong" results from the characters' actions, Hathaway's shooting forces us to believe that he condones these values, that he is in favor of them, presumably because these are the values of the west.
As an audience, these are values which I particularly despise. By never questioning the values he presents, Hathaway removes from the audience all responsibility of evaluation. Either one is with him and for the film or one is against him and his product. Our values remain unchanged and, since we have not had any confrontation, unconfirmed as well.
True Grit does have to redeeming factors and they are large enough to demand mention. John Wayne gives an absolutely magnificent performance as Rooster Cogburn, the old marshal. His characterization is a modification of the familiar Wayne walking through the action unperturbed, but is so subtle and full of things peculiar to Cogburn that one is forced to marvel at the ability of an actor to take and archtype and mold it to fit a particular situation.
The other prime virtue of True Grit is the photography of Lucien Ballard. Having, I suppose, nothing better to do than play games, Ballard has created incredible patterns of color and light for every shot in the picture. Were it not for the overriding unbearable quality of Maddy Ross one could well sit back and enjoy pretty pictures for all the two and a half hours that Truse Grit runs.
LUCIEN Ballard is also on the credits of The Wild Bunch and with the exception of a few props and backdrops it is about all that the two films have in common.
The pretty patterns which Ballard was allowed to establish in True Grit are absent in The Wild Bunch since, unlike the Hathaway film, Sam Peckinpah has directed half to three-quarters of this epic in close-shot. The major exception to this rule of composition comes in the slow-motion orgies of violence which punctuate the film at various crucial points.
The style of The Wild Bunch is one which I have found myself opposed to almost as much as the set of values implied in True Grit, but here Peckinpah has forced a reevaluation. For once all those close-ups work.
The Wild Bunch is the story of a group of men whose only communal experience is killing. They whose only communal experience is killing. They are always shown alone (hence the preponderance of close-ups), divorced not only from their surroundings but from each other. Devoid of any real personal identity, they live only for the moments when they are "in action," presumably revelling in the beauty of spurting blood.
The three principal characters (William Holden and Ernest Borgnine on one side, Robert Ryan heading the group out to stop them) are something of an exception to this. They seem to have more of ideal of what they are doing than the rest do, and Peckinpah shoots Holden and Borgnine in two-shot and has Ryan made up to look like Holden. They alone fight for dominance of the frame once the battle has begun, but they too are overcome once the battles get fully underway.
It is the main irony of the film that the men who so desperately try to establish an identity through their collective action become overwhelmed by it. Peckinpah's vision of battle is total chaos. Uncompleted zooms are followed by cuts to entirely unrelated images. Pursurers are confused with pursued. At the end we are left with nothing but a sense of the beauty of it all.
These scenes of death are the only things of real beauty in Peckinpah's world. Men are incredibly ugly and women valueless except for a night's sex. The railroad controls the law and does not mind massacring an entire town. IN contrast, the battles are composed of magnificent single images, images which upset us because killing is not supposed to look that good.
Violence emerges as a primordal force, edging most of the men on and trapping the three principals. It brings us closer to blood which, after all, is the fundamental element of life. It is not, as the final track to a high angle demonstrates, a liberating force. This force of beauty is one which will not let go. At the end of the film Holden and Borgnine are dead and Ryan is left to become part of a revolution which has no meaning for him.
The Wild Bunch is at its worst when it is either moralizing (dialogue which nearly screams "Vietnam, Vietnam" at the audience) or when it is tentative (nostalgic close shots superimposed over the final track). But for the most part Peckinpah is honest both to his audience and himself. Rather than attempting to establish a mythical west, Sam Peckinpah has given us a segment of his own world, and it is a far more vital one indeed.
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