I kind of feel the same way about these new Marvel Star Wars films, as I do about J.J. Abrams’ new Star Trek films. Whatever keeps the idea alive can’t be so bad, can it? And Rogue One wasn’t so bad. But on closer analysis, it was bittersweet in a way that could only be properly digested and identified by a 70’s era child of the Original Trilogy.
It’s like this: while those films were made from a place of strong storytelling that recalled many well told cinematic stories of the past, this new film was designed to be a fresh take on the Star Wars universe, supercharged by modern cinematic techniques. But because they ignored the original intent of the Original films, they wound up with a diesel engine, as opposed to a linear aerospike. And it’s for this reason, that I think I had very little of an emotional response to this story. Or its characters. And that’s sad, given how good the acting is among the principal cast. If anything the director did right it was work with the actors to build memorable characters. Even if all they did was stand there most of the time. I mean, at the very least, the director did a very fine job of directing these actors to give their lines the proper inflection. Something Lucas never even gave a passing thought about doing with the Prequels. But maybe this film, and its audience, would be better served by a plot that involved the Rebels rounding up a group of criminals, one by one, and somehow getting them all to cooperate with this mission. Would’a, could’a, should’a.
To me, this film really felt like a long, twisted, confusing journey to find some sort of a weaving plot that justifies the happenings within it. And the audience isn’t supposed to even be this aware of something like that while watching a movie on an initial viewing. If your story is constructed correctly, the audience is completely preoccupied with the movie’s storyline, in the vault of their own imaginations. But here, we don’t have a thrilling plot that unfolds, much less a mystery. Heave ho, the art of distraction; all which is required is the overlong, episodic tale of how to get from point A to point B. Fuck points C through Z, we don’t need those; we can feed ‘em 3D, hyperbolic videogame gobbledygook for the cerebral cortex, throughout the second half of the film, and they won’t know the difference. This makes Rogue One a hollow meal that makes you wish for a better restaurant, or better yet, home cooking. Unlike some movies where it seems like bits and pieces of junk-ideas and leftovers have been heaped into a single script and sloughed onto the audience’s plate, this movie seems more like a by-the-instructions, hard won recipe for nothing more than a lunch of the week special of very expensive and well-made pasta — covertly removed from the refrigerator, and microwaved to proper room temperature before serving to an unsuspecting patron, at the most expensive restaurant in town.
So it’s truly confusing how to feel about this movie. While I cannot say I didn’t enjoy the movie Star Wars: Rogue One, I can definitely say that too many things about it seem all but completely distanced in my imagination from the universe of the Original Trilogy. Much like the Prequels. And that breaks my heart, in light of how much they got right with Rogue One. Don’t misunderstand me, the film is a vast improvement over the Prequels. As was Abrams’ own film, The Force Awakens. However, while I have issues with Abrams’ film, I did feel it was connected to the essence of Star Wars. It felt connected. But with Rogue One ... there’s something missing. Maybe it’s a simple spark of creativity. Maybe it’s that the intended connection — the face of Princess Leia — is a dodgy effect at best; and the audience required better, in order to complete that illusion and generate the intended emotional response. (Perhaps it would have been better if clearly CGI Leia didn’t fully face the camera.) Or maybe it’s too gritty. Perhaps the filmmakers didn’t realize that a little grit goes a long way with this type of film. Or maybe the film’s simply not intended by the filmmakers to truly belong within that universe the Original Trilogy of films inhabit, in the first place. And that’s an issue with me. They make a shit-ton of money off of these things. And they likely always will. No matter what kind of films they make. And they know that. Which begs the question, do they even care about the longevity of these stories? Or are they only playing pretend on behalf of the public. Yes, in addition to wanting to separate you from your money, we also care about Star Wars. But do they?
Since the filmmakers, and I’m sure numerous Executives, could not figure out how the magic of Star Wars worked, they merely reinvented it. Makes sense, doesn’t it. They simply went back to the drawing board. Question is, is that a sufficient enough copout for not trying to genuinely achieve the grand illusion that audiences require?
I knew something was off with the opening titles. Which were designed to place the film on another track. An adjacent track to Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi. The film opened with simply a prologue. A dark and gritty scene that portrays the abduction of the female protagonist’s father when she was a child. A scene that any experienced screenwriter will tell you, is unnecessary. In fact without it, her story would have unfolded much better in bits and pieces of information as the film went on. And there would have been more of a mystery surrounding her, as well as her Father. The entire sequence is not only unnecessary, but it plays much too long. As does pretty much the entire first half of the movie. In circumspect, the entire set-up of the film is handled the way today’s movies (many of them not theatrically released) are routinely tasked by today’s filmmakers and their crews. Lots of ‘you really need to take this seriously’ bullshit cinematography, complete with the customary shaky cam, and unending exposition. It’s a general tone we’ve all come to accept, and a modus operandi now seen repeated in film after film, since Casino Royale introduced it in 2007. And to some extent the filmmakers miraculously manage to make this work. But once you get beyond that, there are issues with this film that could never have been resolved, due to the way the story is constructed. And it all points to a singular idea, intended for a single sequence in a larger story, being padded out to fill the entire runtime of this one movie. Almost as if they looked at the original script’s structure and decided, ‘well we could make FIVE movies out of this,’ and earmarked the other five parts of the story, for five more movies. And personally, I dread the recognition of familiar material in subsequent films. I’ve seen this before, and it genuinely gives me a headache. I was the one who thought it was too easy and obvious that Lucas reused the Death Star in Return of the Jedi. Now we have a total of 4 films, count ‘em, FOUR, featuring the freakin’ Death Star. (I’m including the planet killer in The Force Awakens; which was essentially the same plot device.) And while this one film does have a good excuse for that, given the conceit of the story, it manages to make the Death Star far less interesting, this time around. How the hell do you make a planet killing moon-sized space station, blasé and disinteresting?
And here’s a few more little touches of insanity that fell upon my head while ingesting this film:
When Diego Luna’s character (the Clandestine Rebel Agent) killed a trusted informer in one of the very first scenes … I knew the movie was in trouble. Because that could only mean certain doom for any protagonist character in any kind of Star Wars film. This was something that nagged at me for the entire first half of the movie. And to be fair, it is possible that his character, being who he is, was ordered to kill that individual by his Rebel Commander. But A) that was not conveyed, and B) that makes the Rebellion no better than the Empire.
Did they expect that the film would only be seen by audiences in 3D, is that the reasoning behind the slightly dodgy Liea and Grand Moff Tarkin effects. I mean, I appreciate the effort, I really do, but come on, man. They can do better than that on TV Commercials. You expect me to believe …
It was nice to have the cameos from the original film. Certainly in light of this film’s place in the timeline. But am I the only one who noticed a few issues with that? Where the hell are the characters from the wonderful, animated Disney show Star Wars: Rebels? When the impromptu Rebel Council – or whatever they called that inept roundtable debate – made a decision to surrender to the evil empire, and the female protagonist decides to go it alone, and suddenly Diego Luna’s character approaches her with volunteers … would this not have been a perrrrrfect opportunity to introduce the Star Wars: Rebels characters into the live action arena? In my opinion, that would have elevated the film to a B+, as opposed to a C-. And by the way, why is Walrus Man’s head so much larger in this film that it was in the original Star Wars? Did he get bit by a giant Fucking mosquito shortly before the events of this film, or something?
The score was ho-hum. Michael Giacchino is clearly no John Williams. To be fair, Giacchino was not the original composer, of record. Pun intended. The original composer was replaced, and Giacchino had to do a rush job on this one. But he ain’t no J.W. ‘Nuff said.
Why did the Game of Thrones mentality of ‘everybody dies,’ have to influence this film? I mean even the Robot dies. That’s overkill. Another pun intended. And placed within context – it sends a not so nice message to children that a bunch of ragtag, dirty, homeless, rogue rebels went through hell and died acquiring the plans to the most destructive weapon in the galaxy, so that pretty little rich kid Princess Leia Organa didn’t get her white robes messy.
Too much contrivance. I loved the small Rebel ship crashing into a Star Destroyer, causing it to collide with another Star Destroyer, and have both fall and crash into a shield generating spaceship, thereby destroying all ships involved, and deactivating the shield. Really made me laugh. There’s just one problem. Well, two if you want to get anal about it. There’s not enough gravity that far up in orbit to cause those ships to fall downward. Duh. 2. It’s too much of a stretch to believe that the Rebels didn’t know that shield ship was going to be there, and work out a method of dealing with it, beforehand. Maybe this would have worked in a more playful film, but positioned as a plot contrivance within a story told with the gritty tone this one is told with, it just stands out like a sore thumb.
There is really no main character, functioning within this plot. They’re ALL supporting characters, and only one of them even has an arc. Am I honestly the only one who noticed this? I was very excited to see this film. The premise seemed to be withholding much in the way of imaginative storytelling. And some of the critics who saw early screenings touted that the film did in fact hold surprises. But this was merely the Wizard behind the curtain. This new kind of movie seems to be the norm these days. Please don’t look to close, just enjoy the pretty pictures. It wasn’t dumb, by any definition. But it was an expert example of how to skip over the hard parts of telling a story.
They still haven’t fixed the issue of how easy it is to kill a storm trooper, even though they are supposedly wearing armor.
In summary, I did enjoy the film, Star Wars: Rogue One. Just not as a Star Wars film. I had trouble accepting that. And in the end, there were a few little things I did like. And Diego Luna’s character arc was one of them. At the beginning of the film, he kills indiscriminately. Possibly because he’s been ordered to. After all, he is a clandestine operative. But when faced with a moral dilemma, he chooses not to kill; which rings true with the morality that Star Wars was originally designed to impart to children. And while that doesn’t correct the problem of his character’s initial introduction, it does give his character a proper arc; whilst none of the other characters even have an arc. The female protagonist walks through the film and dies a martyr, whose name is only spoken of in hushed whisper, off camera for the remainder of the serial. The Blind Guy (really the best character) who really believes he’s one with the force, walks through gunfire, flips a switch then dies walking back — guess an actual Jedi would’ve seen that coming. The stoic rifle toting broad shouldered long haired guy … charges the enemy, gets shot, has a grenade roll his way, then just stares at it go off and dies, needlessly. The Clandestine operative is content with having accomplished his mission and dies. The former Empire pilot who just wants to make things right, has a grenade thrown at him, then just stares at it and gets blown to bits, too. And the Robot is given a blaster (apparently his life’s ambition is to hold one) moments before he gets to use it, then gets himself shot. Gets shot a lot, actually. Matter of fact, I think the last one went right through the center of his head. Guess those toys won’t be flying off the shelves. Oh well, everybody else dies, why not the stepin fetchit, right.
**Actually, I liked the Robot. Didn’t like that he was given artificial intelligence that practically acquaints to human intelligence, and then treated like a ‘sophisticated spanner,’ as writer Harlan Ellison once termed R2-D2. That dehumanizes the character. Another negative aspect of the storyline.
THIS is a tough one for me. I cannot really hold with the massive mob of current critical acclaim, and yet, I felt the movie succeeded on a number of minor levels. I looooved the darker tone of the film. Been a while. And the action was well planned and executed. However, I sadly cannot confirm, as many critics have stated, that this film is, ‘an immediate action classic,’ or ‘one of the greatest action films ever made.’ Pardon my French, but THAT is utter bullshit.
However, the movie has some bragging rights, here and there. Charlize Theron’s character was a wonderful slow-burn of a surprise. And the fact that the story just kept moving — almost literally — was fun. Especially in lieu of my ever-fresh memory of having sat through the languid Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome in 1985, waiting patiently for the action to begin, only to be cheapened in the third act by a single 7 minute sequence, that really added zilch to the already well-established action pallet of Mad Max films. That … yea, that was aggravating.
But this film makes up for that. There was plenty of action here. Closer in spirit to The Road Warrior (1982); still the most popular film in the serial. And across the expanse of what is actually a very thin storyline, there were some acceptable, rich touches of absurdity to behold. Such as the rock guitarist who played during the racing battles. The strange characters that inhabit the Citadel. Bad guys flying around on poles. Even Max’s minor role in the film, turned out to be a nice touch. One that should have been accompanied by additional narration. After all, the story’s construction is begging for creatively descriptive information in places, and Max would have been the perfect person to deliver it. In this case, Max the Explainer would have been an asset, rather than a hindrance.
This, for example, would have been a welcome bit of narration:
We drove across the terminator.
I told her what I knew. She told me what she knew.
I told her I was a cop. After the first wars. Before everything turned to dust.
I told her I went deep underground when I saw the mushrooms, again.
I told her I went mad.
She said when she was young there was a place of hope.
She didn’t have to say more.
Then she told me about their leader. Immortan Joe.
That he had been in charge of building big things, before the world ended.
Things for mining. Like the Citadel.
She said that thousands of days ago, he was sometimes a rational man.
But now he was just a dumb animal.
The wastelands play games with every living thing.
And these people and things were lost among thousands of miles of it.
They were trapped here.
They would live or die here.
Just like the rest of us.
Hope was their enemy.
None of them understood that.
And it would have passed in the wink of 30-odd seconds. But alas, this was not the case. And I got more where that came from, but I will spare you the all-around torture, dependent on your chosen point-of-view.
I liked the cinematography, the music, the direction. I liked the small surprises in the way some of the images were presented. There was even a neat little connection to The Road Warrior that I really liked a lot. One of the characters in the film is playing with a small wind-up music box, which ‘Max’ fans will recognize is later seen in the hands of Max, in The Road Warrior.
Now we come to the films faults. The picture opens with imagery similar to that The Road Warrior. Trees being blown down in an atomic blast, etc. Seen it. And although there is no pavement in this film (presumably because it has been scavenged for other uses by survivors,) the initial chase is indeed similar in style and theme to that of The Road Warrior, as well. If you were hoping for something earth-shatteringly original, based upon those glowing reviews by the critical mob, forget it. And all such chases, merely repeat that motif. It’s like an a single action sequence from that second 1982 ‘Max’ film, plays out over and over again, in digital photography, complete with heavy helpings on CGI compositing.
The only mistake I caught in the film, is a single bad guy who is revealed to be hiding under the ‘War Truck,’ after our heroes have gotten away. He’s never seen again, and he never falls off the bottom of the truck. WTF !? And then there’s Tom Hardy’s voice, which sounds suspiciously exactly like ‘Bane’ in The Dark Knight Rises. And every word of it, looped. You can tell.
As stated, at the heart of the film, is a simple, fast storyline. And for all of it’s attributes and possibilities, Mad Max: Fury Road really is a solid entry among the franchise of ‘Max’ films. However, the story seemed to be headed toward somewhere profound, and on a complex level that would pair the visceral with the poignant in a wonderful ‘hindsight is 20/20’ kind’a way. But the film never quite reached said destination. Albeit a good solid action film, there is something missing here. Opinions will vary. Many will proclaim it perfect. And to each his or her own. But as a writer, myself, I can easily tell when a storyteller is holding back. Instead of planning the road ahead, director Miller should have been more focused on the road beneath our feet. Although those vehicles are tearing across a desert landscape at 90 miles per hour, we, the audience, are seated solemnly, awaiting the story to be told, in complete; right now. And much of that information is missing. Apparently planned for inclusion in another movie.
I ‘liked’ this movie. And I hope that it will grow on me. I truly do. Sadly, though, without those wonderful little nuggets of necessary STORY, an action film is always sub-par. Wish I could give it a better letter grade, but instead …
Never saw White House Down. No longer falling for Roland Emmerich’s con that he’s both a director and a movie watcher. Don’t get me wrong, I’m just as interested in seeing the trailer for the Independence Day sequel, as anyone else is. I just cannot see how someone could make The Day After Tomorrow, 2012, and 10,000 B.C. and actually be watching movies, as well as making them. And it is a requirement that in order to make a good movie, you have to be a movie watcher. Otherwise, you should find something else to do with your life. So I only have the experience of seeing Olympus Has Fallen to offer, without comparison to it’s similarly themed competition, White House Down. And in a 1980’s B-movie kinda way, I enjoyed Olympus Has Fallen. It definitely has its faults. The special effects are not very well rendered, it feels like a hastily made Die Hard clone. My God, how many of those have we had now. And the script seems to be pasted together from various independent drafts of the same central concept, however, the movie is entertaining. The action sequence when the White House is initially taken is much more visceral and frightening than you expect, the characters are likeable enough, and the structure of the story is predictable but enjoyable.
Jurassic Park 3D 04/06 Grade: A-
I was very happy to get the chance to see this in a theater again, and the 3D was much more fun than I expected ! A lot of fun. When I came out of the theater, I felt compelled to text the following as a post on my Facebook page: “Saw Jurassic Park 3D. Great 3D conversion. A little more respect for the movie now than in 1993. The kids kept wowwing at the dinosaurs and I know it’s not the effects they’re thrilled by — it’s the way Steven tells the story. Holds up better than expected. Well played, Steven Spielberg. Very well played.” And that comment — some seven months later — still sums up my memory of that screening.
Oblivion 04/21 Grade: B+
I remember enjoying this one in general. The tone, the music … the chick in the pool. It was an interesting science fiction story concept and had a somewhat realistic ending, when mirrored against the rest of the film. And it didn’t have the long list of lingering issues that the director’s previous film, Tron: Legacy had, either. So that was good.
Iron Man 3 05/04 Grade: D-
In the last act of this film, the movie seemed to be building to a rather clever action climax — which let’s face it, is really what most people went to see the movie for. Definitely what the kids wanted to see. In this sequence, lots and lots of robot Iron Men were coming to the original Iron Man, Tony Scott’s rescue. If this sequence had really worked, that set-piece, together with the stuff between Robert Downey Jr. and the kid, would have helped me enjoy the pic a little more, and definitely left me with a better memory of the experience of watching the film. But alas, my hopes for such a clever action set piece were dashed rather unexpectedly, and quickly at that. As the multitude of Iron Men arrived, the CGI and the editing collided in what can only be described as a cluster fuck. For those who’ve seen the film, please note that I never complained about the Mandarin situation. It seemed novel to me to twist such expectations of comic book fans, in such a way. But a clumsy action sequence cannot be forgiven. Not only is not hard to write, storyboard, plan, and execute a legitimately novel and fun action sequence — many industry pro’s have commented that it is also easier to accomplish than any other aspect of a movie’s general paradigm. I left this movie a little embarrassed and said not a word about what I thought of it for the longest time. But I should have. To date the film has grossed one billion, two-hundred and fourteen million, seven-hundred and thirteen thousand, nine-hundred and ninety four dollars, worldwide. I should’a blabbed when I had the chance. And by the way, you can always tell how much the kids like these movies by how well the toys are selling. Next time you’re in a Wal-Mart or Target, take a look down the action figure toy isle and note the dense confabulation of Iron Man 3 toys still sitting on the shelf.
Alien (1979) 05/08 Grade: A+
It’s always nice to revisit a tried-and-true classic from your childhood. And it definitely helped me get rid of my disappointment over Prometheus, which was lingering from the preceding summer. And that was the principal reason I wanted to watch the original on the big screen again, when I saw it was being screened mid-week. It was a hasty departure for the local Cinemark, and I got there just in time to relive something really cool, and really well crafted. Actually, the more I think about Prometheus, the more I don’t ever want to think about Prometheus again.
The Great Gatsby 05/12 Grade C-
This one was not my choice, I was with a group. But I wasn’t entirely disappointed. The modern urban music concocted to play during the party sequences was really a nice touch. But I had seen the Jack Clayton version before, from the 1970’s, and the story is essentially the same. Rich, well-to-do individuals expostulating on their status in life. Utter nonsense and total bullshit, if you ask me. But like I said, the music was nice enough to warrant the letter grade I grant the film and the experience of watching it. Never did like that book. And to be fair, I’m not really a Baz Luhrmann fan, anyway.
Star Trek Into Darkness Imax 3D 05/15 Grade: A-
I enjoyed this one. Now a little background on my point-of-view going in.
There’s only so much these movies can be, given the way J.J. Abrams constructed his new alternate Star Trek universe. And I didn’t really feel impressed by the first one, although I did enjoy the music and the new dynamic given to the crew. My first issue with Abrams’ initial 2009 film, was the stuff with Kirk as a small child. It seemed like it was a waste of time, and the meat of it could have been covered in dialogue — and personally, I don’t even see that as being necessary. And I hated the bad wig they put on that kid. The only scene which I did enjoy was in the bar, where Kirk gets his ass kicked and Pike comes in and says a variation of, “I couldn’t believe it when the bartender told me who you are. You’re father was Captain of a Starship for 12 minutes. He saved 800 lives. I dare you to do better. Enlist in Starfleet.” But we already knew this from the trailer, and the rest of the film deteriorated into very basic sci-fi contrivance and exposition; none of it with any real merit. Not “science fiction” mind you, not premium ideas, novel concepts, and the appropriate level of writing to accompany all of that, but rather fodder for the Syfy Channel, overproduced on a massive scale in order to compensate for the lack of quality on the page. (What they should have done was start the film with Tyler Perry’s character in front of a full audience of cadets stating what Starfleet is, what Starfleet stands for, and what their principal duties and responsibilities are as representatives of Starfleet, before revealing that all of them have been accepted into Starfleet. Gasps, followed by Thunderous applause, then cut to a brief opening title and then straight to the sequence in the bar. They could’ve saved the prologue involving the death of Kirk’s father for later, somehow.)
In the 2009 Star Trek film, they even sucked Spock’s home planet Vulcan into a black hole and killed his mother. A terrible plot point which only reminds me of The Core mentality. That sloppy 2003 sci-fi film about people having to tunnel to the Earth’s core in order to save the planet and humanity. You remember, the one where once they all get into the craft that drills them down, every time the screenwriter’s needed another plot point, they simply killed another character, because they weren’t good enough writers to envision any other way of moving the story forward. It’s a ‘let’s destroy something or someone, because we can’t think of what should come next at this point in the fucking movie’ mentality. And please notice that when I mentioned “Spock,” I didn’t say “Mr.” Spock. Yea, the Quinto guy isn’t bad, actually he’s quite good, but he doesn’t have that stone, solemn, withered-by-life face that Nimoy had back in the mid 1960’s. Mainly because Nimoy had been through much more in his life and career than Quinto has. And Nimoy was a bit older, as well, if memory serves.
Paramount originally intended the 2009 Star Trek film to be Starfleet Academy, a proposed story Producer Harve Bennett had pitched to Paramount following the regretfully bad Star Trek V: The Final Frontier in 1989. Unfortunately, the only aspect of it the Studio liked was bringing in a new, younger cast to replace the old guard. And the age range for recasting the crew apparently remained constant over the 20-year stretch before the reboot finally got greenlit after the turn of the Century. (For the record Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, which in 1991 followed The Final Frontier, and ended the original casts 25 year run, was an exceptional film.) Karl Urban, Zoe Saldana, and Simon Pegg are all over thirty. But the two most important actors on the show are just a tad too young to be taken seriously in their roles. Too bad, really. Pine and Quinto, are solid actors, but they’re just kids, really, and it’s hard to believe that anyone under thirty would have the maturity to handle the kinds of situations that a Starfleet Captain and his First Officer would be dealing with. And Starfleet would know that, right ? (I think this is what Abrams and his writers were trying to accomplish by establishing that Kirk and Spock had each lived through a tough childhood, thereby establishing that each would have what it takes to handle the events of the 2009 film. It didn’t work.) Oh well, perhaps as these actors grow, they will mature into their characters, and these new Star Trek films will get better and better. Nothing wrong with more Star Trek movies. Nothing at all.
So, onward. At the end of the 2009 film, Kirk is back at Starfleet Academy — but wait a second, now Kirk is back on the Enterprise — and then the ship shoots off into space. So inevitably the next film should have taken place at the beginning of that five year mission, right ? Well, either A) that’s not what J.J. wanted, because he’s selfish, or B) neither J.J. nor his writers knew how to write science fiction without soap opera. Because guess what ? That’s right, we’re back in Earth’s orbit for about three-quarters of the story of Star Trek Into Darkness. And although I expected to not really enjoy the film, mainly due to all the reported homages to the original television series, and the films that followed it, I nonetheless enjoyed the story of Into Darkness much, much better than Abrams’ original 2009 outing. And that completely took me by surprise.
I don’t want to spoil too much, but I will advise you that I was personally disappointed that Benedict Cumberbatch turned out to be … well, Abrams’ reinterpretation of a classic villain. Why couldn’t they have made him “Q”? I mean they’ve reinvented everything else in this alternate universe, why couldn’t Q have showed up much sooner in the timeline. Anyway, between the story and the scale of the film and the action and the general sci-fi mashup, I cannot lie and say that it wasn’t a fun Saturday matinee. Although for the record, I actually saw an IMAX 3D sneak preview of the film. And it was actually worth waiting in line for. When was the last time anyone said that about one of these big budget summer tent-pole craptastic extravaganza movies ? They even gave us a limited edition free poster on the way out. Nice.
Man of Steel 06/14 & 06/15 Grade: A-
The issue I had was not the damage done in Metropolis during the climactic fight scene. The issue I had was not with the billions of people who reportedly would have died during that whole sequence. The issue I had was that the effects during the fight were sped up so fast, that I could not tell who was hitting who. Don’t get me wrong, I loved the movie. Loved the music, too. Even thought Costner was really spot-on as Jonathan Kent. But the filmmakers seemed to feel in the end that in order to really “effect” the audience, they needed every punch, shove, hit, and skybound flying squirrel to just be really, really fast, and too blurry for audiences to actually see what was happening. Clearly, they didn’t want audiences to discern to much, or criticize the fight moves. At least I guess that’s why they sped it up that way. I mean that’s the only explanation I could come up with. Rest of the movie was really great, easily holds up to Snyder’s work on Watchmen. But he’s got to do something about his fight scenes in the next film, Superman Vs. Batman. I still can’t tell you that I saw that fight, because I didn’t. It was moving so fast, and there was so much digital blurring, I have no idea what I was looking at. I did love the last line when Kent starts his job at the Daily Planet. “Welcome to the Planet.” As a huge fan of the original Superman: The Movie, the hairs on both my arms stood straight up.
The Heat 06/30 Grade: C+
Disgusting but funny. The plot was a bit too thin, but there is talk of a sequel and hopefully they will rectify that issue next time. Very much enjoyed the dynamic between the two characters, and the vulgarity was hysterical. Again, this is one I saw with others, so it wasn’t really my choice. But nonetheless, I laughed a lot. That’s enough for me to recommend someone watch it on cable for free.
Disney’s The Lone Ranger 07/04 Grade: D+
To begin with, Lone Ranger was too long. With more film snippets and elements, and access to Avid editing software, even I could make Disney’s Lone Ranger into a better film. Mainly by removing around half an hour of its running time.
On another note, one of the critics complained that, “…there is a limit to what can be accomplished with Johnny Depp and a bucket of makeup.” Although a funny quip, this was not an accurate assessment of the film’s issues at all. Depp did a very good job, even with the script that he had. Some who followed the film’s development commented that they should have left in the Werewolves. Perhaps that would have helped, I dunno. But if you intend to make a fantasy of it, you might as well go for it. And I saw none of the things the Lone Ranger stands for really evidenced in this film. Lots of obvious mistakes on that front. Then there was an issue with some wrong casting (or merely a bad choice of how to take the lead character, you decide,) a script that needed another pass, the overbloated running time, as I mentioned … and don’t think I ever heard a single character state that Barry Pepper’s character was supposed to be Custer — not even once. Then there’s that shot at the end where Tonto just walks into Monument Valley for no apparent reason. This could possibly be intended to imply something in connection with a statement on the tragic slaughter of the American Indian, but it’s so vague, most of the audience won’t even pick up on it.
Then there’s Helena Bonham Carter’s character — who’s name I don’t even care to recall. She seems not to have much of a purpose other than to add a spot of colorful character. If so, they generally failed in that respect. Which in my opinion, applies to every ancillary character in the damn movie. And then, there’s the kid at the sideshow. An idea which partially works, and partially doesn’t, mainly because several times you’re left with the general impression that Tonto was simply lying to the kid about a lot. As though the story he tells is how he wished it had happened. Especially since he leaves the sideshow wearing the lawyer brother’s suit, and these clothes appear to be A) the clothes Armie Hammer was wearing during the ambush in the canyon, and B) appear to still be covered in some of the same dirt Tonto buried him in — and that was before he was brought back to life. Which, just perhaps, never really happened. Frustrating. How nice to reach the end of the film and be left with the possibility that the filmmakers are laughing at you, because they conned you into buying into a story that never happened. Gee, I love it when they do that, don’t you.
If point of fact, the only thing I really enjoyed was the train sequence at the end. Reportedly, the filmmakers really fought hard for this action set piece. And now I realize why. Without it, they don’t have much of a movie. Guess you can tell, I didn’t really like it all that much. I did, however like the white horse. Although it was a little on the fat side. And I really appreciate the fact that a major studio spent the kind of dough on a western that they did on this film. Perhaps they’ll try again and get it right next time. The LEGO sets seem to have sold really well, maybe someday we’ll find out the kids liked it.
It’s been so long since I taught myself how to write a script, that I looked up one day and realized that there is no simple training tool out there for instructing a newbie how to actually write a damn script. Many of the programs out there (which format for you) don’t really teach you what any of the formatting actually means. And at some point during the writing process of a screenplay, trust me, you will need to know, and understand all of it.
So, I came up with the idea of simply spelling it out; plain and simple. From there, of course, you’re on your own. But for now, here’s how it all begins.
I won’t dwell on margins and formatting to much, mainly because it is likely you will be using a software program that does that for you. However, I will give you my old typewriter margins from wayyyy back. This is from around 1987, I believe. And I recently discovered they are still Industry standard.
Left Margin — 20
Dialogue — 33
Parenthetical Directions — 42
Character who is speaking — 51
FADE TO:/CUT TO:/DISSOLVE TO: Directions — 78
Page Number — 87
Right Margin — 90
And make sure to leave a ONE INCH margin at the top and bottom. And regarding the right margin, a trick I used to use when I was still using a typewriter was to take a ruler and a pencil and lightly draw the margin down the right hand side of several successive sheets of paper, exactly one inch from the edge of the page. Trust me, you’ll want to know that’s coming as you’re typing across the page and you’re really on a roll.
But most of you are going to be using software, so now let’s skip ahead. In order for filmmakers and studios to approximate the intended running time of the finished film, the length of a screenplay is measured by the following method: one page per one minute of screen time. Given that movies generally run about two hours, that would mean 120 minutes = 120 pages. And most lower level execs in Hollywood prefer that you actually keep it at around 110 pages. So keep that in mind and use it as a general target. Don’t slave yourself to it, by any means. But definitely keep it in mind.
The top of the first page of a script typically looks something like this:
EXT. HOUSE/YARD – DAY
Wet golden retriever happily jumps back and forth in lawn sprinkler.
Look at that bitch go.
FADE IN refers to the camera. Camera direction is now being mostly frowned upon in the industry, unless it is absolutely necessary, so I would suggest avoiding it. To be honest, you will nonetheless see it on a lot of scripts, but I can tell you from first hand experience that if you put it there, 9 times out of 10 the lower level development executives at studios and production companies, will simply remove it.
Now I’ll break down the Slugline. A Slugline is a general description of the location and time of day. Piece by piece, it can be simplified as follows:
EXT means EXTERIOR, and typically outside. If (INT) is used, that means INTERIOR and thus inside.
HOUSE/YARD … this is somewhat tricky. You have to establish where you are and you need to be direct and specific. If you are in the driveway, you need to type HOUSE/DRIVEWAY, or OFFICE BLDG./DRIVEWAY, etc. The reason for this is mostly obvious, but many would ask, ‘Why not just type EXT. DRIVEWAY ?’ Because it’s not specific enough. EXT. DRIVEWAY could be a driveway separated from a residence or business by many miles. Middle of nowhere. So be more specific.
– DAY should be obvious. It’s either NIGHT or DAY or MORNING or EVENING or NOON or MIDNIGHT or MAGIC HOUR … MAGIC HOUR by the way is sunrise or sunset. In the film industry both sunset and sunrise are interchangeable as long as the audience cannot spot whether they are looking into the West or the East. So MAGIC HOUR is a good substitute for EARLY MORNING or EARLY EVENING, or even TWILIGHT. It gets the point across that you are still seeing daylight peek over the horizon.
A good example of how to also place the time of day above the Slugline, would be TITLES. Originally, in the script for the movie Outland, writer/director Peter Hyams placed a time Title there, underlined. This indicates a TITLE CARD, which means the information will be read on the screen by the audience. It looked like this:
TUESDAY, 4:15 P.M.
If you want, you can even place the time of day in the Slugline. But that’s only if you can’t find another way of getting that information across fast enough.
EXT. HOUSE/YARD – DAY (2:00 PM)
Most of the time, you don’t really need to do that. You can simply add the time into the following exposition,
At around 2:00 PM, a wet golden retriever happily jumps back and forth in lawn sprinkler.
… or even include it in the dialogue.
It’s after two o’clock, and look at that bitch go.
Following the Slugline, you will want to give a brief description of the subject. This is referred to as Exposition.
Wet golden retriever happily jumps back and forth in lawn sprinkler.
You will notice there is no ‘A’ at the beginning of that sentence. That’s because it isn’t really necessary. However, remember to be consistent. The script should be written in the same voice, throughout. If you start by using one style of writing, keep it consistent. Same with the voice, unless you’re experimenting — and even then — be careful with the ‘person’ you are writing in. As in first person, second person, third person. If this changes and confuses the reader, they’ll put your script down and probably never pick it up, again.
Again, this initial line of Exposition could give the director and cameraman an infinite volume of possible camera set-up ideas, but in general, they’re going to do exactly what you think they will: put a Steadycam harness on a cameraman and let him follow the action of the dog playing in the sprinkler. This, after they’ve spent half a day coercing the mutt into actually jumping through the sprinkler. If you want them to do something other than that, you will need to be more specific, and without using camera directions. Herein lies the art of screenwriting. For example, if you picture the camera stationary and the dog leaping back in forth in and out of the audience’s view, you might want to type:
Wet golden retriever leaps happily back and forth, in and out of view, through lawn sprinkler.
Also keep in mind that if the dog has a name in this script, you want to use that up front. So in that case, the sentence would read something like:
FIDO, a thoroughly wet golden retriever, leaps happily back and forth, in and out of view, through a lawn sprinkler.
Once your story gets going and you have characters doing a walk and talk and changing rooms, it isn’t always necessary to add Exposition. Dialogue can suffice, following the new Slugline. Especially if your Characters are in the middle of a conversation and you don’t want anything to interrupt it. But …
When it comes to the opening page of script, some will choose to simply start with dialogue, instead of a line of exposition — and this can be verrrry tricky. My only word of advice in this area is this: when the Cinematographer/Director of Photography looks at the script, he needs to know where to put the camera. If you omit the description in a new location, you’re going to cause confusion. And I can promise you, it will only result in someone else writing the opening Exposition line to your script. And you’ll also piss off the cameraman.
BOB (O.C.) is of course the name of a character, but the O.C. acronym which follows the name of the character, stands for OFF CAMERA. Also known as O.S, or OFF SCREEN, this is a good example of where camera directions become necessary. If you have a character who is actually talking in the scene and OFF CAMERA, you have to be specific about that. If it’s a VOICE OVER, such as a character talking to the audience, without the actor currently speaking, then you would use V.O. instead. Try not to overuse this unless it is a necessary component to telling your story.
(sarcastic) — this is called a Parenthetical. Also try not to overuse these. You will find with experience that they become a nuisance.
There is also an interesting trick you can pull with bringing a Character into a scene. That is, if the Character has already been established. Take a look at this small paragraph from the script for Michael Mann’s film, Heat. And keep in mind the Character’s name, is “Waingro.”
EXT. MACARTHUR PARK – WAINGRO
Waits. His shell jacket is in a tight roll under his arm.
Then a garbage truck – a Dempsey Dumpster (the kind with a
power forklift on the front) – pulls up.
Notice how the presence of the Character ‘Waingro’ is simply a part of the Slugline. Instead of being mentioned in the exposition. It’s one of the many fun little tricks you’ll pick up, the more screenplays you read.
Here, I should mention something else very important. The very first time a speaking character in your script is mentioned, his or her name must be CAPITALIZED. In other words, if BOB had been mentioned in the Exposition before speaking, his name BOB would need to be completely Capitalized, as follows:
Wet golden retriever happily jumps back and forth in lawn sprinkler. BOB, a twenty-two year old college drop out, stands idly by.
And only the initial instance, after that, just type ‘Bob‘ instead. And remember, character names are always CAPITALIZED and centered while speaking. But that’s easier to remember than Capitalizing the full name on opening mention. Something that slips by a lot of writers and can cause havoc during production. When a character’s name is CAPITALIZED, it’s the introduction of that character into the story. And everyone in production needs that reminder, throughout the production process. Enough miscommunication runs rampant during film and TV production, as it is. Any Script Supervisor involved in the making of a film or TV show will usually catch this, but occasionally they don’t and you would be shocked at the consequences.
DISSOLVE TO: — is not really used as often as it used to be. It means exactly what it says. It’s an instruction to DISSOLVE from one scene to another. Often indicating a passage of time. Another instruction often used is CUT TO: — but only when it makes sense or is necessary; modern scripts don’t really use this anymore, because it’s pretty much a foregone conclusion that you’re cutting to another scene, anyway.
Other examples of Camera Direction that are used would be ANGLE ON, ECU (EXTREME CLOSE UP.) WIDE, TIGHTER, PAN DOWN, PAN UP, PAN ACROSS, etc, etc. You should really read more scripts to see the multitude of these options; I don’t want to confuse you more than I have to — but keep in mind, you should use these Camera Directions very sparingly. You will see them in produced screenplays of major motion pictures, but it’s called “Directing on Paper.” Neophyte screenwriter’s are never allowed to do it. Those Camera Directions are solely reserved for, and generally placed in the script by, the Director. It’s the Director’s discretion to use that verbiage, so you might as well leave it to him or her to place it there.
Now, let’s look at some examples of how the structure of a script can really work well when done properly. I reference the following example for it’s use of dialogue. The following is taken from the script for Casino Royale:
M sees she is never going to make a dent in his armor, tries a different tact.
Bond, this may be too much for a
blunt instrument to understand,
but arrogance and self-awareness
seldom go hand-in-hand.
So, I should be half monk, half hitman ?
Any thug can kill. I need you to
take your ego out of the equation
and judge the situation
dispassionately. I have to know I
can trust you, and that you know
who to trust. And since I don’t
know that, I need you out of my
sight. Go and stick your head in
the sand somewhere and think about
Because these bastards want your
head. And I’m seriously considering
feeding you to them.
(as BOND EXITS)
And Bond …
(he pauses, looks)
Don’t ever break into my house
Wouldn’t dream of it, “M”.
Notice the economical use of dialogue and parenthetical information in this exchange. (re: newspaper) = references newspaper. The (re:) abbreviation just came into use in Hollywood within the last decade. The old school method was to spell out the entire word “reference(s).” Also notice the use of what is called Stage Direction within Character Dialogue. And it’s not even intended for the Character that is speaking. In the middle of “M’s” Dialogue there is this: (as BOND EXITS). And then a beat later, there’s another one: (he pauses, looks). Neither of these parenthetical directions can be attributed to the Character speaking — but the writer used them anyway. This is also something new in the recent years. The old school rules say never do this. However, in modern scripts, it is acceptable, no matter what you read in any of those 20-year-old screenwriting books.
Another thing I should mention briefly is what is commonly referred to in the film world as a negligible difference in the ands and buts. Meaning that actors will often reword a statement, because it rolls off of their tongue easier. So, although the original script reads …
So, I should be half monk, half hitman ?
… The line as spoken by actor Daniel Craig in the movie, was in fact:
So you want me to be half monk, half hitman ?
And you will notice the (amused) has also vanished. That’s because the way Craig played it on camera, Bond is clearly not amused. In addition to these small differences, also note Bond’s last line is not the same in the script as it is in the film. In the script, Bond says this:
Wouldn’t dream of it, “M”.
While in the film, he refers to her as, “Mum.” Possibly a sarcastic ‘Mom’ reference, but more than likely — given earlier dialogue in the scene — ‘Mum’ is her actual last name. Mum is an English name. Guess we’ll find out when Skyfall is released — reportedly that film’s plot deals heavily with the character Judy Dench plays.
Another thing you should be aware of, in respect to Dialogue, is when it should be labeled: “Continued.” A “Continued,” or “Cont’d” should be applied when a character is speaking, and that Dialogue is interrupted by either exposition or action, or even a turn of the page. If you’re using a typewriter, if not software typically handles “Continued’s” for you. Some writers place this in a parenthetical, others will place it right next to name of the Character speaking. For example:
I can’t tell if it’s orange or mauve.
Will inspects the bizarre paint, revealed underneath gray primer on the old car.
But whatever color it was before they painted it,
it sure as hell wasn’t black.
But whatever color it was before they painted it,
it sure as hell wasn’t black.
Now let’s look at a brief example of the opening description of both the Scene and the Main Character. The level of exposition necessary in introducing your Main Character, is entirely up to you. Here is a good example of a complete character sketch. And notice how this takes a full paragraph and even includes Voice Over (V.O.) Narration. The first page from the Pilot script for the Television show Burn Notice:
EXT. KAZAKHSTAN STREET CORNER – DAY
A crowded street in Qaraghandy, Kazakhstan. It’s a decaying
industrial city of crumbling Soviet-era architecture. Street
vendors haggle with housewives and oil workers, and ancient
cars negotiate the chaotic traffic.
MICHAEL WESTON (40) stands on a corner. He’s good looking,
clean-cut, with blue eyes and a crooked smile. He’s athletic,
but not huge… like a college professor who goes to the gym.
His Western attire attracts a few looks, which he ignores. As
he checks his watch, we hear his dry, sardonic voice in V.O:
Covert intelligence involves a lot
of waiting around. Know what it’s
like being a spy? Like sitting in
your dentist’s reception area 24
hours a day. You read magazines,
sip coffee… and every few weeks
someone tries to kill you. That’s
what it’s like being a spy.
Notice how the writer also snuck in a reference to the character’s voice without having to use a parenthetical: “… we hear his dry, sardonic voice in V.O:” You should always try and seize these opportunities, if at all possible. Too many parentheticals can make a script appear unprofessional and written by a neophyte. And you don’t want that.
Now here’s an example of a slightly briefer opening Character description from the screenplay for the 1983 film, WarGames:
CLOSE UP – DAVID LIGHTMAN
Seventeen, pale, carelessly dressed in torn T-shirt and jeans that hang loosely on his lanky frame.
Rather economical, isn’t it ? That’s often the idea. In the case of Burn Notice, you’re meeting a character that you may be stuck with for several seasons, therefore a longer description up front is often necessary. (In fact, you’ll see much longer if you read enough scripts) It can even come in handy when the Casting Agents are trying to find someone to fit the role. As is often the case in Television, once the Pilot is given the go-ahead, the producers are required to cast the lead as soon as possible. Whereas with a film, there is a very long development period, therefore a more descriptive Character sketch isn’t really necessary yet.
Also notice “CLOSE UP”. This is a Camera Direction. Try and use this sparingly. Often, it is completely unnecessary, given that the Director and Cinematographer will most likely change it, anyway. CLOSE UP means exactly what it implies: the camera is Close Up on the actor’s face.
Most of the structural stuff you will really get from reading scripts, but there is a fun one I came across a long time ago, that will actually help you keep your script shorter. It’s called ‘Staccato,’ and it involves typing your exposition like poetry in one line increments. Take a look at this passage from the opening page of Walter Hill/David Giler’s draft of ALIEN:
SOMETIME IN THE FUTURE:
INT. ENGINE ROOM
INT. ENGINE CUBICLE
Circular, jammed with instruments.
All of them idle.
Console chairs for two.
INT. OILY CORRIDOR – “C” LEVEL
No other movement.
INT. CORRIDOR – “A” LEVEL
INT. INFIRMARY – “A” LEVEL
Distressed ivory walls.
All instrumentation at rest.
INT. CORRIDOR TO BRIDGE – “A” LEVEL
Two space helmets resting on chairs.
Lights on the helmets begin to signal one another.
Moments of silence.
A yellow light goes on.
Data mind bank in b.g.
A green light goes on in front of one helmet.
Electronic pulsing sounds.
A red light goes on in front of other helmet.
An electronic conversation ensues.
Reaches a crescendo.
The lights go off, save the yellow.
Maybe this style of writing is right for you and maybe it isn’t. Maybe the style is right for your script and maybe it isn’t. Often, writers have far too much exposition for this style of writing to be of any actual use. Admittedly, it can be a nuisance if you require a lot of exposition, and using this style only makes your script longer. Could be that you’re simply in that kind of mood, could be that you simply write better at that rhythm. Either way, Staccato is perfectly acceptable as a legitimate format for screenwriting in the industry.
Well now, wasn’t that fun ? I think that’s enough for you to get started. If you have any questions, feel free to place them in the comments section below. And remember, the best thing you can be doing if you want to write one of these things, is reading scripts. Google is your friend now. You want to read a script, Google the name of the movie and right behind it ‘Screenplay’ or ‘Script.’ A lot more scripts than you would expect are available on the internet. The more of them you read, the more tricks you’ll learn.
(UPDATE:11/07/2011. Almost finished with adjustments. The Minnesota Historical Society recently digitized certain documents, which give further testimony by eye-witnesses into the gunfight. This information, along with conflicting testimony by Younger in both a separate hand-written letter, and his personal published autobiography, is being incorporated into my book’s prose.)
(Please Note: The screenplay for “Western Legend” is registered with the Writer’s Guild of America West and has been Copyrighted with the Library of Congress.)
Nothing too elaborate today — just a mess of type for your reading pleasure. Thursday’s post on My Summer Box Office included so many pics and YouTube links, that every time I log onto my blog, it takes two minutes. So, I decided to replace the main blog page with an excerpt from the original screenplay from which my novel “Western Legend” is based on. Below the scripted scene, you will find the corresponding passages from the novel, for comparison and reference.
This script, originally titled “American Western,” began with a one page treatment I fiddled with in 1992 while watching the Pilot episode of The X-Files. After I saw “Tombstone” and “Wyatt Earp,” I added to the treatment. I had no way of knowing that I would eventually write eleven drafts of this sucker between 2003 and 2007. Let alone the various drafts of the novel which followed.
Below is much of the Northfield sequence. This incident has been portrayed in films and on cable, but unfortunately, never this close to the way it actually happened. You can click WESTERN LEGEND PHOTO GALLERY at the top of the blog page for pics that will give you visual reference of the town of Northfield, Minnesota in 1876.
For those who’ve never read a screenplay before, keep in mind (EXT.) means “Exterior,” in other words, Outside. (INT.) means “Interior,” in other words, Inside. The SCENE HEADINGS have all been underlined. Additional HEADINGS which are NOT labeled with EXT. or INT., are merely separate set-pieces of the same location.
Everyone has their own script style based on the various “accepted” current formats. I learned in the 1980’s, so my own style mirrors the accepted formatting guidelines of that era. Pay not attention to the little Astrix that keep popping up on the left; those are only there because WordPress kept giving me issues with the formatting.
EXT. OUTSKIRTS OF TOWN – 4’TH STREET BRIDGE
The Eight Men mount eight horses and fall into formation in three separate echelons: the first comprised of three men, then two, then three again. Spacing each echelon apart by roughly forty yards, the first five men ride to where they can see Mill Square beneath them, past Ames Mill and the 4’th Street Bridge.
A signal is given, and the initial echelon pass the Mill and ride across the Bridge at a leisurely clip: THE FIRST JAMES BROTHER (identical in appearance to the SECOND,) SAMUEL GEORGE WELLS (alias CHARLIE PITTS), and ROBERT (BOB) EWING YOUNGER. WE SEE them split up …
EXT. SCRIVER BLOCK – DIVISION & 4’TH STREETS
… Two arriving from Division St., & One from 4’th, meeting up at the ‘First National Bank of Northfield,’ housed in Scriver Building. Local CITIZENS stare, curious.
GEORGE E. BATES & C. O. WALDO, standing in doorway of Bates’ Store. They note the First Three Men arriving, and marvel at their noble appearance.
DIVISION STREET – 4’TH STREET
The Three Men dismount, tie up their horses, and walk down to the corner of Lee & Hitchcock Dry Goods Store. Once there, one Man sits on drygoods boxes stacked in front of the store, while the other two lean against the staircase banister.
EXT. OUTSKIRTS OF TOWN – 4’TH STREET BRIDGE
TWO more of the Eight Men now rode up to the foot of the Bridge. THOMAS COLEMAN (COLE) YOUNGER & WILLIAM McLELLAND (CLELL) MILLER. Cole looked back at the third echelon, and nodded. The nod was reciprocated by THE SECOND JAMES BROTHER.
Cole snaps his pocket watch shut, nods to Clell, and they cross the Bridge.
The last THREE immediately ride up and replace them at the foot of the Bridge: The Second James Brother, JAMES (JIM) HARDIN YOUNGER, and WILLIAM STILES (alias BILL CHADWELL).
EXT. 4’TH STREET – DIVISION STREET
The First Three Men spot the second Two of their party approaching down Division St., and begin walking toward the bank.
VOICE OF CITIZEN
It’s a St. Albans raid …
J.S. ALLEN & SON (HARDWARE STORE)
J.S. ALLEN has followed the First Three, a few steps to the corner of Scriver Building — there he watches them enter through the wide open folding doors of the Bank — and he watches those doors close behind them. He looks around the street, others have seen this as well, and stare, curious. Allen’s breathing becomes erratic. After a beat, he moves past the corner of Lee & Hitchcock’s, walks toward the bank.
INT. FIRST NATIONAL BANK OF NORTHFIELD
The Three rush the counter, pulling their heavy pistols. The First James Brother hurdles the desk at the left, and Pitts & Bob Younger through the two foot window, their boots scratching the counter …
Placing the barrels to the heads of JOSEPH LEE HEYWOOD (seated on cashiers seat at end of counter,) ALONZO E. BUNKER, and FRANK J. WILCOX (both seated at the desk, center floor).
The smell of alcohol on their breath, clearly makes one or two of the bankers queasy.
Throw up your hands, for we intend to rob the bank, and if you holler we will blow your God Damned brains out !
FIRST JAMES BROTHER
Which of you is the cashier ?
He is not in …
Instantly, the two men upon the counter jump down and get close enough that the Bankers can smell alcohol on their breath.
EXT. DIVISION STREET – BANK
In the street, the Second Two Men, Cole Younger and Clell Miller are now tying up their horses at the bank. They watch traffic in the street, closely. Division Street is 80 ft. wide, and crowded. Clell lights a pipe, unconcerned.
DRUG STORE – DIVISION STREET
DR. HENRY M. WHEELER is seated in a rocking chair outside the Drug Store, talking to friends. His eyes range the street, locking on Cole Younger and Clell Miller, conspicuously standing near their horses, looking around. Without saying a word, Wheeler stands, steps into the street. Then he spots J.S. Allen approaching the bank doors, peering with profound interest.
INT. NORTHFIELD BANK
CHAOS. OVERLAPPING SHOUTING as the Three Robbers accost the three bank employees, with ‘You are the cashier,’ each time provoking a denial out of Heywood, Bunker, and Wilcox. Bob Younger orders Bunker and Wilcox on their knees, and demands the location of the cash drawer. Wilcox points, and Younger open the drawer, finding only nickels, he drops them to the floor.
EXT. DIVISION STREET – BANK
Wheeler, giving the bank a wide birth, eyes Cole and Clell. He’s starting to put it all together. He makes eye contact with Clell, and Clell spins around, placing his back to Wheeler. Wheeler now moves to where he can see inside the bank, just as …
… J.S. Allen makes it to the bank doors, and reaches to open them, just as Clell’s gloved hand reaches out, and closes them, softly. Now Clell grabs Allen by his collar, aims muzzle of a .44 caliber pistol right in his face —
What’s happening here ?
(past pipe, low)
Don’t you holler, If you do, I’ll blow your damned head off.
Allen catches breath, backs off quickly.
Get your guns boys, they’re robbin’ the bank !
Cole reels, draws and points a pistol at Wheeler –
Get outta here, dingus !
Wheeler runs to the Dampier Hotel, screaming ‘Robbery !’
SEVERAL CITIZENS appear before them with shovels, boards, anything they could find handy; SHOUTING, and making quite a racket, trying to drive the Two Men away.
Cole and Clell exchange a look, mount their horses, and ‘in tandem’ FIRE in the air ! Citizens in the street scatter. And J.S. Allen runs back toward his store as …
EXT. OUTSKIRTS OF TOWN – BRIDGE
Jim Younger, Bill Chadwell & the Second James Brother, pull their firearms, and ride at full gallop into town …
EXT. DIVISION STREET – BANK
Clell steps his horse close to the doors, pleads through the glass —
Hurry up, boys —
INT. NORTHFIELD BANK
— they’ve given the alarm !
WHIP PAN to the First Three Men, still getting nowhere, they glance around at one another … eyes of all three eventually landing on Heywood, still at Cashier’s seat. The First James Brother levels his long barreled navy colt at Heywood’s head –
FIRST JAMES BROTHER
You are the cashier; now open the safe you goddamn son-of-a-bitch.
(references safe in vault)
It’s a time lock and cannot be opened now.
INSERT OF SAFE AND THE ‘YALE CHRONOMETER TIME-LOCK’
First James Brother steps into the vault to take a look at the safe inside — and Heywood lunges, closes the door on him; catching his hand and an upper angle of his shoulder in the door. Pitts and Younger are in shock at this action. Bob Younger grabs Heywood by the collar, pulls him away and opens the vault door. James Brother steps out, his eyes wide and locked on Heywood. He wrings out his wrist in pain.
FIRST JAMES BROTHER
(to Bob Younger)
Seize the silver; put it in the bag.
First James Brother pushes Heywood down to the floor, steps over him, places a knife across his throat, drawing blood.
FIRST JAMES BROTHER (CONT’D)
Damned liar ! You’ll open that safe, or I’ll cut your damned throat; you understand me !?
Pitts has stepped inside the vault, removes a grain sack from his pocket, marked H.C.A. He weighs the silver, disregards it, removes $12 in scrip and pockets it. Spotting a locked tin-box on the bottom shelf, he aims, shoots it open. The SHOT ECHOES. Pitts covers his ears, in pain. Inside the box are only papers.
EXT. SCRIVER BLOCK
The last Three Raiders gallop past, joining Cole and Clell, all FIRING into the air and at the ground, zigzagging up and down Division & 4’th streets SHOUTING: “Go back inside, you sons-of-bitches !”, “Get inside !”, “Get back inside, you sons-of-bitches.” Elias Hobbs and Justice Streeter throw rocks at them each time they pass.
INSERTS – VARIOUS POV’S
from inside establishments, at the ensuing melee. Shocked Citizens scatter all over Scriver Block SCREAMING !
GEORGE E. BATES’ STORE – FRONT DOOR
Mr. Bates runs into his store, quickly grabs a shotgun, appears at the door and pulls the trigger. The weapon misfires. He rushes back, reappearing quickly with an old, empty six-shooter. Using the pistol as a ruse, he aims at two of the Robbers as they pass.
GEORGE E. BATES
Now I’ve got you !
In response, both men turn, firing. SHOTS pierce and shatter the glass behind Bates.
drunken, walks out of an underground pub, and down the street into the line of fire. The Five Robbers shout at him, but he shakes his head, speaks only Swedish. A STRAY SHOT grazes above his eye.
INT. J.S. ALLEN & SON (STORE)
INSERTS: J.S. ALLEN is passing out firearms to the CITIZENS OF NORTHFIELD, many with price tags still attached.
EXT. SCRIVER BLOCK
ANSELM R. MANNING runs into street with a breech-loading Remington rolling block rifle, hastily aims and his shot goes wild. Manning aims, fires again, and his rifle jams. He fiddles with it. G. E. Bates calls out to Manning …
GEORGE E. BATES
Jump back now, or they’ll get you !
Manning turns, running back to his store to fix the rifle …
J.B. HYDE and JAMES GREGG now appear in the street, both with ineffective shotguns.
ELIAS STACY fires upon Clell Miller with a shotgun loaded with Birdshot, and peppers him in the face and upper chest. Clell is knocked from his horse, but quickly remounts, blood smeared upon his face. His horse spins around and around, and Stacy aims and fires again, this time hitting Clell in the back.
INT. DAMPIER HOTEL – UPSTAIRS ROOM
WE HEAR Wheeler’s footsteps pounding the stairs, fast. He races into the room, with an old Civil War Army Carbine Rifle. Going straight for an open window, turns finding CHARLIE DAMPIER right behind him, feeding him ammunition. Frantically, Wheeler loads the weapon, rests the rifle on an open window-sill, aims … His first shot is a miss. Quickly, he reloads.
EXT. SCRIVER BLOCK
George E. Bates hears a REPORT over his head, and flinches as Clell is hit just below the left shoulder … by Wheeler’s rifle.
Bates turns, sees Wheeler up in the window reloading, turns again, watches Clell’s horse makes a faltering plunge forward and then suddenly stop. Clell pitches over with his face to the ground. For a moment, he attempts to rise up on his elbows, then rolls over dead.
Cole dismounts, with his horses reins still in his hands. He moves to Clell and jostles him. Within the moment, Cole takes Clell’s pistols and cartridge belt, rolls onto his back. As his own cover fire, he repeatedly cocks and fires the pistols, in both directions. Then, remounts his horse.
Manning reappears, creeps to the corner. MR. WALDO calls out to him …
Take good aim before you fire.
Simultaneously, Cole is fired upon from both sides of the street. Manning hits Cole in shoulder — Wheeler (from the window) shoots off his hat.
Manning now climbs the outside stairway at the corner of Scriver Block, aims carefully 70 yards away at Chadwell — farthest south on Division St.
Chadwell is shot through the heart, and his horse starts up the street. Chadwell begins to reel to and fro in the saddle, and falls to the ground, opposite Eldridge’s store.
INT. NORTHFIELD BANK
First James Brother struggles with Heywood. Bob comes to his aid. Heywood gets loose, runs around the counter –
First James Brother grabs Heywood, slams pistol over the back of his lower neck, drags him back to the vault –
FIRST JAMES BROTHER
Open it !
He fires off a wild shot ! Bunker goes for a small derringer pistol off a shelf below the teller’s window, and Pitts snatches and pockets it. When he turns away, Bunker sprints around the corner, and heads for the back door …
HALLWAY – BACK ALLEY
Pitts races after Bunker … Standing in the open back doorway, he aims at the fleeing man, and fires — hitting Bunker in the collarbone, and quickly turns away. Bunker is seen stumbling, running toward Water Street, terrified … He runs toward Dr. Combe’s Office …
They’re robbing the bank ! Help !
Before returning to the bank lobby, Pitts pauses. He hears the echo of gunfire. And it’s a jarring racket.
The game is up and we are beaten !
Bob moves to a window, peeks out, spots a riot outside. Pitts re-emerges and joins Bob at the door. A second later, both reluctantly head outside. Behind them, the First James Brother hurdles the counter — but with one hand on the counter, he turns …
As Heywood staggers back to his desk, sits, opens a drawer, the James Brother fires a shot that misses Heywood. The banker had quickly ducked under the counter.
Now the James Brother lunges across the counter, places the pistol near the top of Heywood’s head, and fires; striking the banker in the temple. Heywood pops up, spills blood on the desk blotter, staggers forward, and falls.
EXT. DIVISION STREET – SCRIVER BLOCK
A BARRAGE OF UNENDING GUNFIRE THUNDERS, SHOTS RICOCHET EVERYWHERE. The First James Brother is the last to step out, and ZING — A SHOT goes right by his ear ! The Three have stepped out into a war zone.
Several SHOTS daisy-chain, striking the ground around the Men, with increasing rhythm. Bullets WHIZ BACK & FORTH. The Men find DOZENS OF CITIZENS firing from windows up and down the street, and the ground on both ends of the street. The Men are under fire from below and above …
– RIFLES (PRICE TAGS ATTACHED) FIRING FROM WINDOWS !
– THE MUD BEING RIDDLED WITH BULLET HITS !
– BUILDING FACES ARE DEFILED AND WINDOWS SHOT OUT !
– CHILDREN, WATCH FROM BEHIND BARRELS, HOLDING THEIR EARS.
BACK TO SCENE
The First Three Men quickly mount their horses …
J. B. HYDE arrives on scene with double barreled shotgun, fires off both barrels, striking Pitts in both the shoulder and wrist, and retreats to reload …
Manning fires on Bob Younger, and Bob hides behind his horse. So Manning shoots the horse in the head. Bob jumps behind some boxes stacked underneath the stairwell, at the corner of Scriver Building. (where the first echelon had waited earlier)
Bob and Manning play peek-a-boo for a few seconds, until Manning fires a shot that shatters Bob’s right elbow. Bob scrambles behind the crates and under the girders. Then Wheeler, up in the window across, fires, hitting Bob in the right thigh. Bob winces, his pistol changes hands, he grips his right leg in pain. He returns fire a few times.
Fatefully, Bob steps out and begins limping back up the street. Spotting Bates aiming at him, he strains to keep a steady hand, fires a shot which grazes Bates’ cheek and nose.
SECOND JAMES BROTHER
We’re beat; let’s go !!
The James Brothers (now both on the same horse,) head back across the Bridge. Right behind them, Charlie Pitts, Jim Younger are following, when Jim is hit from two different angles, in the left shoulder and the back of the right leg. He continues on, with Cole following up the rear …
Suddenly, Bob Younger reaches opposite Mr. Morris’s Store –
My God, boys; hold on ! Don’t leave me; I’m shot !
Cole turns, rides back for brother Bob. Pulls him up onto his horse, rides across the Bridge.
SIX MEN RIDE OUT OF TOWN, speeding across the Cannon River Bridge …
SERIES OF SHOTS OF SCRIVER BLOCK
Drifting Gunsmoke over a broken Crowd …
Damage done to area …
William Stiles (Bill Chadwell) lies dead in the street …
Clell Miller lies dead in the street …
And from CHAPTER 9: NORTHFIELD
Eight men mounted eight horses and fell into formation in three separate echelons. The first comprised three men, then two, then three again. After spacing these echelons apart by roughly forty yards, the first five nonchalantly rode for-ward to where they could see much of Mill Square beneath them. A horseshoe shaped blending of two streets, Division and 4th, also known as Bridge Square due to its approxima-tion to the 4th Street Bridge.
The first echelon included a James Brother—both were reportedly favoring a mustache, and were difficult to tell apart—Samuel George Wells, alias Charlie Pitts, and Robert “Bob” Ewing Younger. The three rode on, passing Ames Mill, crossing over the 4th Street Bridge, and riding down into the Square.
Splitting up rather quickly, these first three horsemen were seen taking alternate routs toward a mutual destination. While two took the long way around, eventually arriving at the bank via the opposite end of Division, the third simply fol-lowed 4th directly across the Square. And when all three ar-rived, they tied their horses in front of the bank and strolled several yards alongside the large Scriver Building to the cor-ner of Lee & Hitchcock Dry Goods Store. One sat atop a dry-goods box stacked there, while the others leaned against the banister of a staircase that ran up the side of the building di-agonally. This large, prominent building faced Division to the South, and along with other businesses, housed the bank.
Catching sight of the three men, a few local citizens took second and even third glances at them. Their appearance was remarked as, “marvelous”.
The aforementioned George E. Bates, and another man, C.O. Waldo, a “commercial trav-eler” from Council Bluffs, were both standing in the doorway of Bates’ Store located across the street when the men rode in. Bates and Waldo had a brief, trivial discussion regarding the appearance of the men whom town scuttlebutt had la-beled cattle buyers. And following this, they withdrew to the far end of the store to look over sample trusses, which are structural frameworks designed to hold up a roof or building corner.
* * * *
Elsewhere, the second echelon, including Thomas Cole-man “Cole” Younger and William McLelland “Clell” Miller, was now stationed a few feet behind the Bridge. Cole turned his head, and nodded at the men of the last echelon, several yards back. The nod was reciprocated by one of the three men.
Years later, Younger credited this “third man” as “Woods.” Research has revealed that both Jesse and Frank ap-pear to have used the aliases, “Woodson,” and “Howard” on numerous occasions, and even appear to have traded them routinely, so as to confuse specific identity, in case said aliases were discovered.
Cole snapped his pocket watch shut; nodded to Clell.
And with that, the two galloped across the bridge into town.
Behind them, the Second James Brother, along with James “Jim” Hardin Younger, and William Stiles, alias Wil-liam Chadwell, began riding forward to replace them at the foot of the bridge.
* * * *
Not a moment later, the first three men, already posi-tioned at Lee & Hitchcock’s, spotted the second two ap-proaching and began walking toward the bank. The voice of a citizen was distantly heard, shouting, “It’s a St. Albans Raid!” But due to the sound of street traffic, few heard this muffled plea.
J.S. Allen, in apron, had left his nearby hardware store and walked a few steps to the corner of Scriver Building—the very spot where the first three men had been seconds earlier. Once there, Allen watched as the initial three entered through the wide open folding doors of the bank, and then watched as those doors suspiciously closed behind them.
It took a beat for it to sink in. But once it had, Allen slowly moved past the corner of the dry goods store, and be-gan walking toward the bank. He looked around the street and saw a few others looking toward the bank as well. His breathing quickened, and incrementally, his pace quickened.
Meanwhile, inside the First National Bank, Charlie Pitts, Bob Younger, and the first James Brother pulled their heavy pistols and rushed the bank counter. The first man immedi-ately hurtled directly through a narrow two-foot teller’s win-dow, flanked by a thirty-inch-high glazed rail, while the other two men jumped upon the counter and squatted, preparing to pounce. Their heavy boots left lasting scuff-marks on the counter, which remain visible today. Each man quickly ex-tended an arm and placed the barrel of his pistol close to the head of one of three men—Joseph Lee Heywood, seated upon a cashier’s seat at the far right end of the counter, Alonzo E. Bunker, and Frank J. Wilcox, both seated at the adjoining counter to the left.
“Throw up your hands, for we intend to rob the bank, and if you holler we will blow your God Damned brains out!” barked Charlie Pitts.
“Which of you is the cashier?” the James brother de-manded.
Heywood was defiant, and said, with almost disinterest, “He’s not in.”
Instantly, the two men upon the counter jumped down and got close enough that the bankers could smell the alcohol on their breath.
Out on the noisy street, Cole and Clell had dismounted and were tying up their horses near the bank, while also watching traffic in the eighty-foot-wide thoroughfare. Younger was on the lookout for trouble. While Clell, sport-ing a white linen handkerchief around his neck, a new shirt with gold sleeve-buttons, a matching gold ring, and a John Hancock felt hat, began to pack his pipe, completely uncon-cerned.
On the porch of a drugstore not far away, twenty-two-year-old Dr. Henry M. Wheeler was seated in his father’s rocking chair, talking to a couple of friends. As his gaze fell upon the street, it locked on Cole and Clell, both of whom were suspiciously standing near their horses, ranging the street around them. Without saying a word, Wheeler stood and stepped into the street—and soon spotted J.S. Allen moving closer to the bank, evaluating the bank’s closed doors with profound interest.
Inside the bank, there was only chaos.
The three robbers were repeatedly accosting the three bank employees with, “You are the cashier,” each time pro-voking a denial out of Heywood, Bunker, and Wilcox.
Bob Younger ordered Bunker and Wilcox on their knees and demanded the location of the cash drawer. Wilcox pointed, and Younger opened the drawer, finding only a roll of nickels; which he promptly removed and dropped with a clunk to the floor.
Back outside, Wheeler continued moving slowly across the street, glaring at Cole and Clell. Cole instantly turned his back to him, so he focused on Clell. Anyone could see that Clell Miller needed a shave. But many initially missed that in spite of Miller’s finer clothes, he was wearing two different types of boot—one of finer leather, the other a cheap brand. Wheeler was starting to put it all together now. Clell spotted Wheeler staring at him, and spun around. Wheeler continued walking. He wanted to see inside that bank.
J.S. Allen arrived at the bank doors, reached out and opened them—and Clell Miller’s gloved hand reached out and closed them again, softly. Instantly, Clell grabbed Allen by his collar, pulling him close. Allen’s gaze was filled with Clell’s blue eyes. Then it was filled with the muzzle of the bandit’s .44 caliber pistol.
“What’s happening here?” Allen demanded.
“Don’t you holler,” Clell said in heavy whisper past his pipe. “If you do, I’ll blow your damned head off.”
Allen caught his breath and backed off quickly.
At that instant Wheeler’s voice was heard among street traffic, shouting, “Get your guns, boys, they’re robbin’ the bank!”
Cole reeled. He drew and pointed his pistol point blank at Wheeler.
“Get out of here, dingus!” Cole shouted.
Wheeler began running to the Dampier Hotel at the near opposite side of the street, screaming, “ROB-BERY!”
Several citizens were now in the street with shovels, boards, and anything else they could find handy, shouting and making a lot of racket. It was a futile attempt to drive the robbers away.
Cole and Clell looked at each other, mounted their horses, and in-tandem fired their pistols into the air. Citizens in the street scattered. And fast. J.S. Allen began running back toward his store.
The last three men at the Bridge heard the dual gunshots, pulled their revolvers, and galloped into Mill Square.
At the exterior bank entrance, Clell stepped his horse close to the doors and pleaded through the glass, “Hurry up, boys—they’ve given the alarm!”
Back inside the bank, the initial three men were still getting nowhere. After hearing Clell’s message, they glanced around at one another, before all turned to stare at Joseph Lee Heywood, still upon the cashier’s seat. Charlie Pitts lev-eled a long-barreled pistol at Heywood’s head, and in a harsh voice said, “You are the cashier. Now open the safe you god-damn son-of-a-bitch.”
Heywood referenced the safe within the vault. “It’s a time-lock and cannot be opened now.”
It was later revealed that the time-lock had never been set. If any one of the men had tried to open the safe door, they would have instantly discovered this. How much, or how little currency was actually within the vault at the time, was never publicly revealed.
The men focused their attention on the Yale Chronome-ter Time-Lock mounted onto the safe, and visible through the open vault. The man noted as being slim and dark skinned, with a black mustache, probably the James brother, confi-dently stepped inside to take a closer look at the safe—and Heywood suddenly lunged forward, closing the newly in-stalled Detroit Safe Company’s door on him; catching his hand and an angle of his upper shoulder in the door.
Pitts and Younger were truly shocked.
Bob Younger grabbed Heywood by the collar, jerked him from the vault door, and opened it. Released, the James brother stepped forward, his stare locked hard on Heywood. Ringing out his wrist in extreme pain, he reportedly refer-enced the interior shelves of the walk-in vault, motioned to Bob, and said, “Seize the silver—put it in the bag.” Then he pushed Heywood to the floor with little effort. He stepped over him, pulled a knife and placed it across the banker’s throat, drawing blood.
“Damned liar!” he said. “You’ll open that safe, or I’ll cut your damned throat! You understand me?”
Bob, meanwhile, had promptly stepped inside the vault, and procured a two-bushel flour or grain sack marked H.C.A., from his coat pocket. And though initially he weighed the fifteen dollars worth of silver with one hand, for some unknown reason his head shook with belligerence, and he disregarded it. Instead, he chose to remove twelve dollars in scrip—paper money—from a shelf, before spotting a curi-ous locked tin-box on another lower shelf. Stepping back, he aimed carefully, and shot the box open. The blast echoed within the small space, and Bob belatedly cupped both ringing ears with gloved hands. Shaking it off, and angry as hell, he flipped open the lid of the busted box. Inside were only pa-pers such as land deeds.
Out in the street, the last three men galloped around a corner onto Scriver Block, joining Cole and Clell. This made five raiders now firing in the air and at the ground, while zig-zagging up and down Division and 4th, shouting variations of: “GET BACK INSIDE, YOU SONS-OF-BITCHES!” And Elias Hobbs and “Justice” Streeter were throwing rocks at them each time they passed.
Northfield’s more prominent took cover in establish-ments as gunfire tore through windows and partitions, just missing many of them. The wife of George E. Bates was a good example. She was standing in the second story of Messrs. Skinner & Drew’s Store, when a .44 ball crashed through the wall within just a few inches of her. Others like her watched helpless from behind broken windows as their neighbors scattered all over the block, shouting and screaming at the sight of the raiders.
Mr. Bates went into his store, quickly grabbed a shotgun, appeared at the door and pulled the trigger. The weapon mis-fired, and he rushed back inside, reappearing quickly with an old, empty six-shooter. As a ruse he aimed the weapon at the two of the men as they passed, shouting, “Now I’ve got you!” In response, both of the men instantly turned and fired upon him, their shots piercing and shattering the glass window be-hind him. Bates apparently repeated this action several times, each instance achieving the same response from the various men on horseback.
Down the street, a man named Nicholas Gustafson stepped right into the line of fire as he exited a pub intoxi-cated, with curious, yet ubiquitous interest. The men on horseback variously shouted at him to get out of the way, but Gustafson was a recent arrival to Northfield, as well as the U.S., and spoke only Swedish. Members of the James-Younger Gang barked orders and shouted obscenities at him while waving their guns in the air. But Gustafson had little comprehension of the meaning, and a moment later he was grazed above the eye by a stray shot. A shot which wouldn’t immediately kill him, but strangely put him in critical condi-tion less than a day later, and result in his death within a week. In a later interview, Cole Younger attributed that shot to “Woods.”
While J.S. Allen passed out firearms—many with price tags still attached—to citizens within his store, forty-three-year-old Anselm R. Manning exited his own hardware store with a breech-loading Remington rolling block rifle. Aiming hastily at one of the men on horseback terrorizing the street, he fired. But his shot went wild. Then Manning aimed and fired again. This time, his rifle jammed. As he fiddled with it, Mr. Bates called out to him, “Jump back now, or they’ll get you!” Manning instantly turned, and ran back to his store to repair the weapon.
Additional citizens now appeared in the street, armed and eager to find a target. J.B. Hyde and James Gregg, both with ineffective shotguns, attempted to aid in the town’s de-fense. A reverend named Ross Phillips, his weapon unknown, and Elias Stacey who was armed with a shotgun loaded with birdshot, each appeared, firing upon the raiders. And finally, Stacey’s shot sprayed much of Miller’s face and upper chest, and penetrated one of his eyes, off center. The result was de-scribed by one eye-witness as, “…a bloody mess.” The blow had even knocked Miller from his horse. He quickly re-mounted with blood smeared across a very stunned expres-sion. But Stacey had only fired one barrel, and as Clell’s horse spun around and around, Stacey fired again, this time closer, and hitting Miller directly in the back.
At this moment, Wheeler was speeding up the stairs of the Dampier Hotel with an old Civil War Army carbine rifle he had possibly obtained from the hotel lobby. It was re-ported that he requested the hotel’s owner and operator, Charlie Dampier to obtain some cartridges for the rifle. Now, racing into an upstairs room, he first found an open window, then turned to find Mr. Dampier handing him cartridges for the old rifle. Wheeler loaded a round quickly, rested the rifle upon the open window sill and searched for a target. His first shot was a miss. Quickly, he reloaded.
Down in the street, Mr. Bates was moving past the Ho-tel, when he heard a report over his head and flinched, seeing Clell Miller hit a third time just below the left shoulder. Bates turned sharp and looked in the direction of the previous re-port, finding Wheeler in the open hotel window, loading the rifle a third time. Bates turned sharp again and watched as Clell’s horse plunged forward, then suddenly stopped, re-mained on its forelegs, and allowed its rider to pitch forward and fall face first into ground still muddy from previous rain. Once on the ground, Clell attempted to rise up on his el-bows, but then merely rolled over, dead.
Cole arrived, dismounted, hit the ground and crawled to Clell. He jostled Miller several times, but quickly realized Clell Miller was already gone. Cole quickly took Clell’s pis-tols and cartridge belt, rolled onto his back and in two direc-tions, gave his own cover fire. After several shots, he jumped up and mounted his horse, which hadn’t strayed far, its reins still within his grip.
Manning reappeared in the street, creeping to the corner of Scriver Building. Mr. C.O. Waldo called out to him, “Take good aim before you fire!” Cole was then simultaneously fired upon from both sides of the street. Manning’s rifle finally found a target, striking Cole in the shoulder. Wheeler had re-turned to the hotel window, having run out of cartridges and “hastened” for more. He was just in time to shoot off Younger’s hat.
Manning now proceeded to climb the outside staircase which hugged Scriver Building. Halfway up, he carefully aimed seventy yards away, at Bill Chadwell, farthest South on Division, and fired. He shot Chadwell through the heart, sending his horse with Chadwell still on it up the street in Manning’s direction. Chadwell’s body began to reel this way and that, and fell to the ground directly opposite an estab-lishment known as Eldridge’s Store. His horse then bolted all the way to a local livery stable. Citizens of Northfield would later remove unspent cartridges from a belt around Chad-well’s waist, and many more from his pockets.
Back inside the bank, and concurrently, the first James brother still struggled with Heywood. Bob Younger came to his aid, but Heywood still managed to get loose and run around the corner toward the entrance, screaming, “Murder!” The James brother quickly followed, grabbing Heywood and slamming his pistol over the banker’s lower neck, dragging him back to the vault.
“Open it!” he said, firing off a wild shot, hoping to in-timidate Heywood.
At that instant Bunker went for a small Derringer pistol on a shelf below the teller’s window. But Pitts snatched it before Bunker could get to it, pocketing the little gun in his coat. Pitts then turned away, and Bunker dashed off; stum-bling around the corner into the narrow hallway adjoining the bank lobby, and racing for the rear exit. Pitts made chase, and when Bunker exited onto Water Street, Pitts fired, hitting Bunker once in the upper shoulder. Now utterly terrified, and possibly in shock, Bunker ran for the office of a doctor by the name of “Combe,” screaming every step of the way, “They’re robbing the bank! Help!”
Before returning to the bank lobby, Pitts paused. He could hear the echo of a jarring racket coming from around front.
In the bank, the men all turned to see Cole ride up to the doors and shout through the glass, with desperation, “The game’s up boys and we’re beaten!”
Cole’s brother Bob moved around the counter to the front doors and peered out the windows. What he saw alarmed him. The men inside the bank had simply assumed that regardless of the noise, their brothers in arms outside had the situation under control. When Pitts re-emerged from the rear of the office, he ran straight to join Bob at the door. Both men now knew their attention had wavered. Reluctantly, the two men exited through the folding doors and onto the side-walk. Behind them, the first James brother hurtled the side counter. But then, with one hand remaining on the counter, he turned back and watched as Heywood staggered back to his desk, sat down, and opened a drawer. In pure spite, the James brother fired, and missed. Heywood had spotted him a second before, and quickly ducked, almost under the counter. The James brother lunged, leaning across the teller’s win-dow, placing his pistol very near the top of Heywood’s head, and fired, striking Heywood in the temple. Heywood popped up. Then turning, he staggered a step, and fell. Drops of his blood were later found on a desk blotter.
He lived a few moments, breathing easy, but unable to speak.
The three robbers had left behind the grain sack, and a linen duster; possibly torn from its wearer during the preced-ing scuffle.
Out on Division, a barrage of unending gunfire thun-dered, and shots ricocheted everywhere.
The first James brother, the last to step out, found him-self witness to a war zone. He was truly shocked. With a quick look around, the men spotted dozens of citizens firing upon them from windows up and down Division Street, many using rifles with price tags dangling from their barrels and trigger guards. Adding to the gang’s dilemma, there were ad-ditional citizens firing from behind cover, on the ground all around them.
Quickly, the ZING of a shot went right by the James brother’s ear, and the three men moved to take horses, with a daisy-chain of shots striking ground all around them.
Now J.B. Hyde returned to the scene with a double-barreled shotgun. Quickly, he fired off both barrels, striking Charlie Pitts in both the shoulder and wrist, before retreating to reload.
It was during these confusing moments that Manning’s aim found Bob Younger. But just before Manning fired, Younger spotted him, dismounted, and used his horse as cover. In response, Manning shot the horse in the head! Find-ing his back to the Scriver Building, Bob turned and lunged behind some crates stacked underneath the stairway. Then, for several seconds, Bob Younger and Manning played a pecu-liar game of peek-a-boo, with Bob using both the crates and the steel girders of the staircase for cover. Manning fired a shot, which shattered Bob’s right elbow, and Bob began scrambling to keep any part of himself out of Manning’s line-of-sight. This, however, left him vulnerable to Wheeler, who up in the window across, fired and hit Bob in the right thigh. Bob winced, shifted his pistol to his other hand, and gripped his leg in pain. In his defense, he fired two, maybe three shots through the girders of the staircase, but shots continued in his direction, unabated, and soon Bob realized he was sur-rounded—and worse—separated from the other men. Fate-fully, Bob Younger simply stepped out and began limping up the street in the direction of his party. And swiftly spotting Bates aiming at him, Bob strained to keep his hand steady, be-fore firing a shot which grazed Bates’ cheek and nose.
The voice of the second James brother was heard stress-fully shouting, “We’re beat—let’s go!”
Due to Frank having been shot in the calf at some point during the shooting, he had difficulty mounting on his own, and thus the James brothers would share a horse. At this time, they galloped from Division, across 4th, and headed over the bridge and out of town. And Charlie Pitts and Jim Younger, both on horses, were right behind them. But as Jim galloped away, he was hit in the left shoulder and the back of his right leg.
Cole Younger was the last to follow. As he raced to catch up, he heard his brother Bob shouting, “My God, boys! Hold on! Don’t leave me—I’m shot!” Cole then rode back to the area opposite an establishment referred to as Mr. Morris’s Store, leaned over, and pulled his brother up onto the horse.
J.B. Hyde then reportedly fired a reloaded shotgun at Bob Younger, striking him in the wrist as the men fled; possi-bly shooting off his thumb.
The remaining men fled through Mill Square and back across the 4th Street Bridge. Now on the run, they left behind the dead bodies of two of their party, drifting gunsmoke propagating all over Scriver Block, extensively damaged and defiled building faces—a large area of town, up and down both Division and 4th Streets, resembled an actual war zone—and the legacy of a melee which would be well re-membered by history.
(OCCASIONAL SPOILERS BELOW; IF IN DOUBT, DON’T READ)
CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER
(07/24 – 2:25 pm)
*stresses in the voice of Pee-Wee Herman* I Liked It ! LIKED It!
I definitely didn’t love it. But I wasn’t too disappointed and didn’t leave bitter or feeling cheated or … ya know that funky feeling you get when you leave the theater after seeing a movie you just didn’t like at all ? Like you need a shower ? And a nap ? Yea, it didn’t do that to me, thank Christ.
Now, moving forward, let me say this: being a definite improvement over Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, in the milieu of “Adventure” film, Joe Johnston’s movie of Captain America, is still essentially a kid’s movie. A fun one, filled with toy tie-ins and heroics and general contrivance to facilitate serial-like adventure, the movie manages to hold its own magic, while still remaining slightly inferior to Johnston’s other comic book movie attempt, The Rocketeer. Johnston’s 1991 film may have its flaws, but it manages to reach and move its audience a bit better, by successfully romanticizing adventure.
Next, this IS NOT a film that attempts to compete with Tarantino’s Inglorious Bastards. A wrong assumption I’ve read by many bloggers and critics, who are clearly disappointed that this was not a darker film. I mean really dark — have you seen Inglorious Bastards ? Holy shit, not even the same genre — or ballpark for that matter.
What Captain America is, is clearly an improvement over some of the other comic book movies you’ve seen [some this very summer,] as well as an improvement over many of the updated attempts at period serialized adventure you’ve seen over the years. [In addition to the aforementioned Indiana Jones film, this film also seems to be a lot closer to the kind of film audiences were expecting in The Shadow (1994,) and The Phantom (1996).] Just don’t expect to be wow’ed or try and take this movie too seriously. This is a generic matinee, only filled with lots of high-tech CGI hi-jinks. One with a “watch carefully or you’ll miss it” moment, that attempts to cleverly tie its mythology into Raiders of the Lost Ark; still the film to beat in this genre. I reference the comment made by the Red Skull regarding Hitler searching for trinkets in the desert, in lieu of perusing bigger fish, so to speak.
Next, it should be noted that there are certain … “resemblances” to the 1990 21st Century Film Corporation (not to be confused with 20th Century Fox — roflmao) release of Captain America. Specifically: the lab where Cap is given his special serum is again entered via a Diner, and again the camera reveals the woman behind the counter has a gun handy. There is the saboteur which attempts to kill Cap immediately after his creation. There is Cap and the Red Skull on a catwalk together, there is this, there is that. Some of these similarities are from the original comic book origin. Some, are definitely not. The point being, the filmmakers definitely viewed the 1990 version, and made themselves a list.
As an aside, I should address that there are certain things which define this movie as inferior to a previous Marvel outing this summer, X-Men: First Class. Namely the writing, which is clearly inferior. The dialogue is at such a level that a kid with a writing hobby could easily have accomplished it. [Probably not the fault of the credited writers, given that they were being instructed what to type by Development Executives.] Also, the themes, while important, are barely visible in any mature way. By this, I mean for example, the theme of patriotism. It is nice to see a movie that is generally unafraid to show its patriotism. Actually, it’s unavoidable; it’s all over Cap’s body — and that shield is a wonderful analogy for America as a County defending itself against attack, as opposed to a Country designed “to” attack. But … it would have been more exciting to have seen these powerful ideas brought to the surface and lead to something other than comic book hijinks. It would have been powerful to watch these ideas illustrated for the world. Without being insulting to other Nations, and including them at their leisure. To remind people everywhere what this Country stands for, how this Country started. To remind them that it’s worth it to come here, unafraid and proud to be a citizen of the USA. That they can be an American like any other, if they choose to be. And if not, that we will still be there for them, to do what we can to stick up for the little guy. No matter what.
It sounds ridiculous to some, even smelling of “Flag Waving.” But where does concern over “Flag Waving” end, and remembering actual American principals vs. politically argued American principals begin ? You see what I mean ? Not only an intriguing conversation, but a wonderful core idea for a film called Captain America.
And, of course, I’m leaving out the more modern invasion and infestation of crass commercialism now covering every nook and cranny of every Country in the known world. Please forgive me for that, and try and remember, I’m trying to only reference ideals of the Nineteen-Forties, and attempting to demonstrate how they could have been made palpable in this film without too much controversy.
End of Rant.
By the way, no one will blame you if you elect to forgo the typical Marvel “button” after the credits, which turned out to be nothing more and nothing less than a corporate product placement ad for another in-production movie, having very little to do with Captain America. Just lots of very, very brief cuts, yelling out, “BUY OUR PRODUCT AGAIN !”
Yes, if feels like that much of an insult. Yikes !
I give it a solid B — for B-movie. And three stars for effort and entertainment. But it’s never going on the American Film Institute’s most important list. Not gonna happen. Could have … but didn’t. I say this in advance, praying that the AFI list doesn’t yet again get longer. We have to have standards, people.
HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS, PART II
(07/17 – 2:30 pm)
I was impressed, and enjoyed it quite a bit. I read through comments in forums, and I have to agree that I would have liked to have seen a bit of Harry repairing his own wand with the elder wand before he destroyed it, along with the three girls going against Bellatrix — and the house elves fighting. More intercutting during that whole prolonged sequence would have generated a better response from the audience. And made certain deaths more dramatic and meaningful. However — this is part II of an interlocking picture, and given what it is, I think it’s the best of the series. (Though my personal favorite will always be the first one)
I enjoyed the CGI; thought it was some of the best I’ve ever seen. I did “not” see it in 3D, and am very happy I didn’t. I hope the blu-ray has extended footage, allowing more time for the peripheral characters. I still don’t understand why Malfoy’s mother said what she did when she leaned over Harry’s body. I’ve read quite a bit of vitriolic argument on the net over this, but from my own p.o.v., it certainly didn’t sound like a question about Malfoy, but rather a question “put to” Malfoy himself. And he wasn’t even there.
I wish John Willaims had scored it. Nothing against De SPLAT, but his music just didn’t quite do it for me — especially at the end. I didn’t buy the make-up, or CGI, or whatever that was they used to attempt to age the kids to “pushing forty”
It was a very involving story and very well produced, in my opinion. And I am unexpectedly sad that it’s over. I saw the first one not long after 9/11 and the magic of that children’s film really brought me back to life. Now they’ve graduated to a mainstream fantasy/thriller, and I think they’ve done it very well. I give it an A- and four and a half stars !
(06/26 – 2:25 pm)
Who’s driving these cars ?? That’s seriously all I kept thinking all the way through the movie. I’m sure every five year old in the world enjoyed it. There’s not really much else I want to say about this one. Though I suspect even 6-year-olds were insulted by the generic mentality of this movie.
I “would” consider this an embarrassment for Pixar, but truthfully, I don’t personally consider this their first misfire.
GREEN LANTERN … Sort of
(06/26 – around 4:30 pm)
You see that look on his face, that was the look on mine. I stepped in after CARS 2 and watched the final 10 minutes of this one — and normally, I would never comment this negatively or try and influence anyone’s opinion on that basis of that brief experience, but I’m sorry, that movie looked like a total steaming pile of shit to me. Nuff said.
(06/19 – 2:00 pm)
Guess I should’ve known when the trailer used the music to Cocoon, and the fucking poster turned up sideways, that the movie would just be a gimmick. I was dubious and rightfully so. Marketed as an homage to Spielberg’s early work as a director, the actual film was an homage to movies Spielberg “Executive Produced” in the mid 1980’s — and that was oddly paired with a sort of prequel to the J.J. Abrams produced “found footage” film, Cloverfield. A film I only saw once and on cable, and even that made me nauseous. For more of my personal impressions and criticisms of Super 8, please click the highlighted link below. And to get back here, just look in the calendar for August 25.
Would it surprise you to hear that after watching this one on home video a couple of times, I’ve changed my mind about it a little ? Well, I have. As long as I watch it as a B-level Spielberg, or rather, the kind of movie that Steven produced in the mid 1980’s … I seem to fall right into it and enjoy it just as much as anyone else who liked it. Not sure what that says about me, or what is says about the movie, but I believe in being honest about these things and the truth is the truth. It’s grown on me.
X-MEN: FIRST CLASS
(06/12 – 2:10 pm)
Completely took me by surprise. I went in to see this one, expecting little more than another X:-Men: Origins – Wolverine. That one was a real piece of useless cinema. But Wolverine certainly cheered me up. Probably cheered up every wannabe filmmaker alive, as a matter of fact. Given how bad it was, “we” were most likely the only ones in the audience not entirely dissatisfied with that experience. But forget about the Wolverine movie.
Matthew (Kick Ass) Vaughn’s X-Men prequel is filled with enough verve and humor, and just enough creativity, that it was legitimately (in my opinion) the best of the big summer movies. And it has a good lineage. There is ample evidence in previous 1990’s interviews that this was the story that Bryan Singer wanted to tell with the original X-Men movie, but he eventually wound up being overruled on it. Which is fine, really. His initial film was good enough and served its purpose. And he had quite a bit more fun, and a lot more creative control with X2, anyway. And that pic worked out just fine. But this prequel, is … distinctive. It stands on its own, and while it doesn’t really reinvent the X-Men movies, it nonetheless acknowledges the universe, before rocketing off on its own tangent. Like a good comic book !
I’ve read about complaints over January (Mad Men) Jones’ performance, as Emma Frost. I don’t completely understand their protest. I mean, she was playing an aesthetic character and did what she was told. Why the F would you blame her ? And besides, within the context of the story, her performance works fine. The same can be said for Kevin Bacon. Not the best performance of his career, but he did what he did well, and what he did was dictated by the screenplay. So wtf is the problem??
Among the stand outs, there is of course Jennifer Lawrence, a really too-sexy kid — also in the upcoming film, The Hunger Games — who was really well cast in this as the young Mystique. (Who’s character btw turns out to be a lot older in the original X-Men film than her appearance would lead you to believe.) Then, there was James McAvoy as the young Professor X, and Michael Fassbender as the young Magneto. Two men who clearly started out as friends, and due to diverging sociopolitical stances, became enemies. And there are cameos by Hugh Jackman and Rebecca Romijn. Both of which are really well timed; come out of nowhere in fact, and serve their purpose without being superfluous.
My favorite scene was easily Eric’s killing of the German’s in the bar. Very effective. And sadistically funny, given what he experienced as a child. The movie actually begins as more of a film and becomes a “comic book movie” along the way. And this helps. Some of the more comic bookey stuff seems to build exponentially, and with greater impact, as a result.
Loved the devilish Azrael character, the way the 60’s era in general was portrayed (some critics likened this to the 60’s Bond films,) some great montage’s, and a really wonderful music queue at the closing credits. Which was well primed — and leaves you wanting a sequel, specifically about Magneto. (This film began in development as a stand alone Magneto movie, before they merged it with Singer’s original 60’s script for X-Men, and voila.)
Like I said, I really liked it. As comic book movies go, this is easily one of the best. A real Godsend.
(Sometime in May; Lost the Ticket)
I’m still not sure what to make of this one. It felt like one-part Epic comic-book movie, and two parts circa 1999 made-for-Sci-Fi Channel TV movie.
I do have a feeling that my opinion of it will improve (mainly because I saw it in 3D and the 3D was really bad,) but I don’t think it could ever improve by much. It just isn’t a very good movie. And my suspicion is that over time, everyone who gave it a recommendation will figure this out on their own. Personally, I felt all the way through it that there was a much better movie in there somewhere, so maybe the deleted scenes on the home video package will reveal the filmmaker’s original intentions. Shit, I dunno, maybe not.
Director Kenneth (Dead Again) Branaugh’s rolling in his grave, guy’s not even dead yet. It seems to be a conceit among filmmakers now that if it’s a “comic book” movie, then the bad cliche’s rapidly associated with such films are the norm, to be accepted, and possibly even to be intentionally placed among the DNA of the film. And even “Valley Girls” are utterly horrified by that. “Like Oh Ma God, they’re just gonna keep making STUPID comic-book movies, when they could be making GOOD comic-book movies; Like Oh Ma God !”
The film had a few scant attributes. I’m told it was much more atmospheric in 2D. And there was some humor and storytelling involved. But I myself noted the clone-like appearance of a film, which simply looks and feels too much like other comic book movies of late. In fact, a lot of the Marvel stuff now seems to be, as Corporate America would put it, “on the same page.” And that is killing these things, whether they realize it or not. The bottom is gonna drop out of this cash cow, trust me. The public will have enough and stay away in protest, or someone will provide a more worthwhile replacement. i.e. another studio with another tent-pole franchise, or lo and behold SOMETHING NEW ! Hey ! That would be nice.
I haven’t heard whether or not the kids liked it. And that’s really the acid test. And from what I saw, the toys didn’t sell really well. But then neither did the toys for Captain America or Green Lantern.
PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: ON STRANGER TIDES
(May, Lost Another Ticket)
Just about everyone who went to see this movie had high hopes. Will this make up for the over-bloated contrived plotage of the previous 2 sequels ? Will it be more Captain Jack Sparrow and less those two kids nobody really ever gave a shit about to begin with ? Will it be as clever and inventive as the initial film, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl?
The answers to these questions were not what many had hoped — BUT, to be fair, there is plenty of argument on the topic of this movie. Quite a few people liked it. That’s obvious by the fact that it made a billion bucks worldwide. And it is filled with some great set pieces. The problem is that they are all linked together by an all-too-thin storyline, without much purpose, or meaning, or relevance, or consideration for the audience’s intelligence, or even random common sense. It’s a very contrived movie. Not too complex, mind you. Just not a focused story.
Johnny Depp is adequate here, though he doesn’t offer anything fresh in terms of his character. Probably something he was intrinsically aware of. He initially demurred when asked if he’d already signed to do a 5th one, citing concern over the quality of the “story” for a fifth film. Smart guy. There’s also an issue with questions the audience still has which have yet to be answered. This film would have been a perfect opportunity to answer those questions — that in fact, could have been the story. What’s with that compass ?? Why is the Black Pearl Captain Jack’s beloved ship ?? What is the secret behind that ship, where did he get it, and why does he always want it back, as opposed to just stealing a new one ? Where are all the rest of the pirates we’ve read about. Yea, ya showed us Blackbeard, but can you explain the absence of others ?
Reportedly, the movie was based on a Pirate novel, titled “On Stranger Tides,” and material in the book was adapted to the already existing Pirates of the Caribbean Universe. And it’s obvious that the adaptation didn’t go quite as planned. ROFL There’s no real sense of drama in this movie, mainly because the mentality is that of a story in which the plot and character relationships play second banana to the happenings on the screen — which are mostly dumb action. In fact, with the exception of the aforementioned set pieces and the mermaids, the story is … pretty lame. Still a step up from Indy 4, but not by much. Captain America had more of an actual story than this film did. And Captain America seemed to go by really fast without much happening at all.
These movies all have the same primary issue in common: lack of depth. There’s no real reason for the movie to exist, other than commerce. The filmmakers aren’t really into it; they’re into a paycheck. And the audience gets left holding the responsibility of “pretending” that this is enough to entertain and fill them up. Which many fanboys and people who power-watch too much TV are more than happy to do. The rest of us, are just left hanging. In want of a much better movie, and leaving the theater with that sluggish, drunken, dazed feeling, like we’ve just given blood.
Probably play endlessly on cable TV, because that’s mainly what it feels like. More bad TV.
COWBOYS & ALIENS
(Blew It Off, Completely)
My disinterest in this movie, is very much a curiosity to me. Why didn’t I want to see it ?
I wrote a western. At the very least, you’d think I would be more willing to watch the film. If only to write a review and cross-post my blog on other websites for better traffic, and hence, more publicity for my book. But when the time came, I just did not want to watch Cowboys & Aliens. And I don’t really know why. In fact, I wrote an entire blog post on it: https://jamesallder.wordpress.com/2011/08/04/why-is-cowboys-aliens-not-doing-better/
And as I told others, I will probably see it when it airs on the USA Channel, or TNT. Mainly to study the film, against it’s marketing campaign. And that will be just fine. However, I was surprised that the same audiences who paid to watch certain other films in previous summers, which I won’t name (which I thought were shit,) — also chose not to see it.
Most of the people I talked to who saw it, liked it. So what happened ??
I still don’t know the answer to that one.
Below, you will find a frivolous list of “my” top 25 favorite Western Movies — all of which provided inspiration while writing my novel. Each entry in the list includes a comprehensive commentary/summary — but feel free to just scan all that. You’re welcome to add your own opinions, suggestions — or even your own list in the comments box at the bottom of the post.
#1 The Searchers (1956)
Based upon the 1954 novel of the same name by Alan Le May, The Searchers is the story of an over the hill Civil War vet who spends several years searching for his niece who has been abducted by Native Americans. The plot successfully examines racism toward the American Indian while also utilizing the Vista Vision camera to breathtaking effect. (My only complaint would be that opening shot in Monument Valley, which we are told is Texas!)
The American Film Institute named this one The Greatest American Western of all time in 2008. I can’t argue with that. It’s also #12 on the AFI’s list of the 100 Greatest Movies of All Time, and it was voted into the National Film Registry in 1989.
The story is similar enough to an actual 1836 historical incident (almost identical in fact,) that it is probable that the novelist derived much of his inspiration from it.
David Lean watched this film several times while prepping Lawrence of Arabia, and Steven Spielberg has stated that The Searchers is always one of the films he watches before he begins work on his next film.
#2 Stagecoach (1939)
John Ford’s first sound film after making uncountable silents and serials, is still a textbook example of economic storytelling. The first of several productions Ford would shoot in Monument Valley, Stagecoach was based upon a 1937 short story by Ernest Haycox called “The Stage to Lordsburg.” (Although there were reportedly other fiction sources which served as inspiration as well.)
The story centers on a group of stereotypical strangers who board a stagecoach headed through dangerous territory, inhabited by angry American Natives. Escorted through much of the story by the U.S. Calvary, they are joined early on by a fugitive known as The Ringo Kid, embodied by now legendary actor John Wayne. And this is pretty much where that legend started. In fact, the shot that introduces Wayne was so iconic, it literally skyrocketed him to superstar status overnight. Although this was not his first role, Stagecoach was thereafter referred to by the press as the movie that formally introduced John Wayne to the public.
The film uses the same dynamic of multiple character examination used by the equally successful Grand Hotel, in 1932. And it additionally exhibits many of the techniques and “isms” that Ford invented during his silent years making serials. All of which only add to a tight plot that moves at a brisk pace.
The famous stunt performed by Yakima Canutt, involving a man run over by a Stagecoach in a very dangerous manner, was repeated with rousing success by stuntman Terry Leonard in the film, Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Ford had made numerous films before this — so many in fact, that many are lost. And John Ford is today considered by many to be the most prolific director in cinema history.
Stagecoach was a massive success with the moviegoers and critics, and was nominated for several prestigious awards. Orson Welles admitted to watching it approximately 40 times while making Citizen Kane. And both Alfred Hitchcock and Akira Kurosawa each named Stagecoach as one of the films they greatly admired for it’s economic storytelling, and technical virtuoso.
#3 High Noon(1952)
So many writers have cited this film as a truly great example of perfect character examination in film, I wouldn’t know where to start. The film’s story is told in real time, hence the use of the clock. And its story centers on a town Marshall fated to face a group of killers he previously defended the town against, who got off on a legal technicality and are now gunning for revenge. The catch ? Due to the cowardliness of local residents, he’s on his own.
If you haven’t seen it, and it sounds a bit familiar, that’s because the story was regenerated in 1981 by writer/director Peter Hyams for his film, Outland. High Noon is also that film John McClane and Hans Gruber discuss via walkie talkies in the movie Die Hard.
“…well this time John Wayne does not walk off into the sunset with Grace Kelley!”
“That was Gary Cooper, asshole.”
Carl (The Guns of Navarone) Foreman wrote it while under scrutiny by (HUAC) The House Un-American Activities Committee, and channeled much of his frustration over their witch-hunt into his screenplay. Many have pointed out the allegory of people afraid to stand up for what they believe in, and for a long time, the film divided many people. Self-proclaimed anti-communists (typically conservatives) shunned it for many years. As late as 1971 John Wayne even labeled it, “The most un-American thing I’ve ever seen in my whole life,” in an infamous interview with Playboy magazine.
But as time passed and people began to question the utterly bizarre and misdirected grilling by HUAC and the blacklist in general — High Noon lost its controversial status. In time, several American Presidents found the film prescient enough to screen at The White House, including Dwight D. Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton.
The film won numerous Academy Awards but in a major upset, lost Best Picture to The Greatest Show on Earth. High Noon was selected for the National Film Registry in 1989, and the AFI ranked it #2 in their list of the ten greatest westerns ever made.
#4 The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)
More compelling character study. This time with the unique twist of a wraparound narrative that involves an elderly U.S. Senator (James Stewart,) known for being the man who shot a notorious gunfighter named Liberty Valance. Upon returning to a small town for the funeral of an old friend (John Wayne,) Stewart is met by a reporter eager for an interview. And the newsman gets more than he expects when Stewart begins relating his remembrance of how he knew Wayne’s character, and all which that entails.
This is the film that originated the phrase, print the legend. It all started with the following line of dialogue: “This is the West, Sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” And in accordance, much of the film’s substructure is built on the notion that much of what we believe about “The West,” is nothing more than hearsay.
A few who worked on the film stated in interviews that it was a miserable experience due to director John Ford’s behavior. Sergio Leone named The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance as his favorite Ford film. The film was nominated for an Academy Award for best costume design. And the film was placed into the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 2007.
#5 My Darling Clementine (1946)
Henry Fonda plays Wyatt Earp in a dramatized study of the man, his family’s battles with criminals and corruption, and his relationship with the love of his life; here renamed Clementine, to further facilitate the purpose of the song in the movie.
It was based very loosely on the story of the street fight in Tombstone, Arizona, known popularly as The Gunfight at the OK Corral. But like so many other films, it has practically no connective tissue with the documented facts of that gunfight. And although it drew material from the book “Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshall, by Stuart Lake — a book publicized as being written “with” Wyatt Earp himself — it should be noted that Lake fictionalized most of Wyatt Earp’s life in his writing. This was also not the first film to use Lake’s material. There were entire scenes repeated from another previous incarnation, titled, Frontier Marshall. In fact, it doesn’t work to watch the film for only it’s historical accuracy, so don’t even try. A Fact Checker would get stressed out in ten minutes watching this thing.
But that’s not really why you’re watching. Featuring some of the most striking photographic compositions Ford would achieve in his entire career — with any Cinematographer — My Darling Clementine stands out as one of John Ford’s more distinctive works of pure cinema. Thanks partly to cinematographer Joseph MacDonald. It plays like Blade Runner in the old west meets a Terence Malick film. The pacing, the tone, the mood, the quality and purpose of the visuals, everything shouts cinema. And loudly.
Now for the bad news. When the film was screened the head of 20 Century Fox felt it was too long, and hired another director to shoot coverage so that Fox could cut it down to 97 minutes. The original version has since been lost, ala The Magnificent Ambersons, but Ford kept a pre-release cut of 103 minutes, that contained a few large chunks of his cut footage, as well as the original score. The version now available on DVD is unfortunately the 97 minute version. My hope is for a “restored” version on Blu-ray, soon.
Director Sam Peckinpah (The Wild Bunch, Pat Garret and Billy the Kid) considered My Darling Clementine his favorite western.
#6 Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)
Stylistically epic. A lot goes on in this movie, and yet it’s all at the service of the film’s style, it’s mojo. Leone had no intention of making another western after finishing The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, in fact, he was planning Once Upon a Time in America, but could not get independent financing or a greenlight from the Hollywood Studios on anything other than a western. When Paramount offered him a sizable budget and the chance to work with his favorite actor, Henry Fonda — Leone relented. He then spent several months watching classic Hollywood westerns and constructing a film filled with references to them.
He also omitted the humor he had come to rely upon in his previous work. This left a very somber, dead serious tone, which plays well with the story’s deliberately labored pace. Lots of quiet moments here represent reality. And that seems to work for Leone more than any other director.
Seen above is a perfect example of the film’s astonishing use of composition available when using Panavision anamorphic lenses. It was also one of the many aspects of the film that influenced some really notable filmmakers. Today Once Upon a Time in the West is considered Leone’s best film, and one of the “finest” westerns ever made. Many directors have cited this one as one of their favorite films of all-time, including Lucas, Scorsese, and Tarantino. Along with directors John Milius and John Carpenter, both of whom can be heard on the audio commentary for the DVD and Blu-Ray releases.
Leone called Bronson: “The greatest actor I ever worked with.” The film also features yet another in a long list of highly popular scores by legendary composer Ennio Morricone.
#7 Red River (1948)
Just a great story, really — once it gets going, anyway. The first 20 minutes include some rather lame moments which can be blamed on the era they were filmed in. I’ve actually seen Red River many more times than any of the others listed here. The only reason it’s not at the top of the list is because I haven’t learned as much from it. My sensibilities are too close to the meat of it, so it’s like I’m on autopilot when I’m watching it.
The film’s not as cotton candy as Stagecoach. But it has a cut-and-dried quality about it that smells of popcorn like few westerns ever made. Something about it, and I mean every step of the way, just feels constructed to bring pure joy to a kid on a Saturday afternoon. Ray Harryhausen’s long-time producer co-wrote the screenplay, and Howard Hawks directed it, so with a combination like that it was bound to emote some element of “serialized storytelling.” And it does, and often.
The film starts with a young Tom Dunson (John Wayne) dealing with the unexpected death of a woman he just agreed to marry. She was a part of a wagon train attacked by Native Americans. Dunson and his driver separated their wagon from the train earlier in the day. There is a nifty, yet brief night-time attack on Dunson and his driver by Indians, here — the only real bright spot in the initial moments of the film. The following morning Dunson adopts the only survivor, a young boy named Matthew, who’s clearly in shock from the experience, has a gun, and doesn’t want it taken away from him. Kid has a specific kind of personality, right from the start. And yet, while these scenes are very well designed, they are badly executed to the point of being laughable. Their relationship is rather unbelievable at first (like I said, the first 20 minutes are a bit awkward,) but in time, Dunson starts a ranch, and Matthew is there to pull his weight.
Cut to several years later, and the story quickly develops into a tug-of-war between cattle baron Dunson, and his adopted son Matt (now Montgomery Clift,) during a lengthy cattle drive. Wayne has a tyrannical way of dealing with the men on his cattle drive, and Clift is increasingly sympathetic — this is where much of the conflict develops. The original story by Borden Chase, which appeared in The Saturday Evening Post, has Matt kill Dunson at the end. Which truthfully, would have been the better ending. To see this story get really good and dark and conflicted, only to wimp out and the end, is kind of a bummer.
Bits of action and adventure pop up along the way, and just at the right moments. The cinematography shimmers silver (probably the nitrate decomposing,) and it adds to the distinctive feel of Red River, immeasurably. Director John Ford was so impressed by Wayne’s performance that he was reportedly quoted as saying, “I didn’t know the big son-of-a-bitch could act!” Though some sources claim he said “lug” and not s.o.b.
Production took place in 1946, although the film didn’t get a release until ’48. The film was nominated for multiple Academy Awards, and in 1990 was selected by the Library of Congress for the National Film Registry. The AFI has additionally listed Red River as the 5th best western movie of all time. Director John Carpenter, a huge Howard Hawks fan, also lists this as one of his very favorite Hawks films. Like I said, it gets better after the initial 20 minutes. One more thing, you wouldn’t notice by his performance, but this was Montgomery Clift’s first movie.
#8 Rio Bravo (1959)
Here we come to another perennial John Carpenter favorite. He remade it twice. First as Assault on Precinct 13, and then many years later as Ghosts of Mars. Assault was a pretty good low budget action film. Mars, unfortunately, was not. Rio Bravo has the unique distinction of being one of those westerns that have been remade several times. The original director, Howard Hawks, even remade it — Twice ! First as El Dorado, and then as Rio Lobo — with original screenwriter Leigh (The Big Sleep) Brackett redesigning the story each time.
The story takes place in Presidio County, Texas. The town Sheriff, played by John Wayne, is assisted in the arrest of a wanted fugitive by a Sheriff’s Deputy who’s also the town drunk. He’s played perfectly by Dean Martin. Once they get the fugitive in jail, the bad guys arrive and begin a campaign of intimidation to force Wayne to let their brethren go free. The Sheriff knows it’s only a matter of time before the bad guys storm the jail, so he gathers a motley group, deputizes them all, and holds up inside the jail, awaiting the Calvary, so to speak.
On the surface it’s a great American western, with an aura of adventure all around it. But Rio Bravo has dealt with occasional controversy over the years, really as a result of Wayne and Hawks “intentions” with the film from the outset. Both men were insulted by the film High Noon, and admitted frequently that they only made Rio Bravo as a conservative statement on how they felt the story should have been told. Director Howard Hawks had this to say: “I made Rio Bravo because I didn’t like High Noon. Neither did Duke. I didn’t think a good town marshal was going to run around town like a chicken with his head cut off asking everyone to help. And who saves him ? His Quaker wife. That isn’t my idea of a good Western.”
Wayne supported the blacklist during the McCarthy era, and even helped run the screenwriter of High Noon out of the Country as punishment for its bold stance on McCarthyism. Being an ardent supporter of Joseph McCarthy, Wayne naturally hated one specific aspect of High Noon: everyone abandons the local Sheriff — just like everyone abandoned those who were questioned during the hearings. But in the case of High Noon, the everyman stood up for himself and won. Conservatives who mindlessly supported Joseph McCarthy out of fear of the phantom Communist agenda lol were naturally not comfortable with the message sent by High Noon. So Wayne and Hawks designed Rio Bravo so that the Sheriff is instead joined by a motley group of supporters, which itself grows as the story evolves. I guess John Wayne’s logic was supposed to be rat out your friends and you’ll be supported for it, and we’ll all be friends. Or something like that; people who supported Joseph McCarthy were never really clear on their reasons. Many have targeted the fear of fear itself.
In any case, the movie generated a good story with a fresh structure. And like all the others on this list, it was a terrific influence.
#9 The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (1966)
Fresh and often inventive (as Leone’s films often were,) The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly starts by introducing the three main characters, one at a time, and each with a title card and distinctive musical note, which follows a unique entrance. Stylish fun, really. The film is really a dark comedy from beginning to end. The plot follows Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, and Eli Wallach, as they separately search for a cache of Confederate gold. And there’s an epic sense to it all, thanks mainly to Leone’s constant shifting of the narrative and multiple set-pieces. There’s even a statement on war in general, as the characters each navigate the death and destruction of the American Civil War, while searching for the hidden plunder.
Most of the dialogue is out of sync, because many of the actors clearly aren’t really speaking English, and because much like director John (The Tailor of Panama) Boorman, Leone choose not to record dialogue on set. The relationship between Leone and Eastwood was reportedly strained from the beginning, and Leone’s refusal to record dialogue on set didn’t exactly help. But Eastwood was primarily aggravated by Leone’s insistence on shooting multiple takes (ala Kubrick) from multiple angles.
The original script title was The Two Magnificent Tramps. And although the studio wanted to call it The Man With No Name to better capitalize off the success of the previous two films, Leone’s “chosen” title, The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, remained. In addition to other problems between Leone and Eastwood, Eastwood was not too happy about sharing screen time with Wallach or Van Cleef. And Wallach complained that director Leone wasn’t too preoccupied with the safety of his actors, and cited numerous instances where he was almost severely injured during shooting. This may sound sadistic on my part, but knowing all of this makes much of what happens even more humorous.
The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly was voted one of the 100 Greatest Movies of the last Century by Time Magazine. Director Quentin Tarantino has called it the best directed film of all time. And author Stephen King referenced the film, along with Eastwood’s portrayal of The Man With No Name, as the principal inspiration for the character of Roland Deschain in his Dark Tower books.
#10 The Wild Bunch (1969)
The plot of The Wild Bunch concerns an aging group of outlaws facing retirement, who plan and implement one last crime — the robbery of a railroad office, holding a cache of silver coins. But, they’re set up by a former gang member who’s now a railroad detective. Members of the gang are killed, and the survivors escape across the border to a Mexican town, in the grip of a General in the Mexican Federal Army. And everything goes literally South for our central characters from there.
The themes of betrayal, and of outlaws from the Nineteenth Century finding their place in the Twentieth Century is clear by the end of the film. And the later has been copied endlessly since. (Including by this author. There’s even a scene where the Outlaws inspect an automobile. It’s the old world meets the new. Something I had the character of Tom Horn do in the first draft of my novel “Western Legend,” ignorantly believing that it had never been done before. After screening The Wild Bunch, I left the passage in — along with various other passages with similarities to other notable westerns I had yet to watch. It happened again, and again. By the time I had finished the seventh draft, I had found similarities to scenes in at least 11 classic movies, and one TV movie. I chalk it up to homage, but it was really ignorance of the genre and medium that caused such similarities to stack up along the way.)
The film was at the time of its release (and is still today) known for repeated ballets of visual violence, with buckets of blood thrown in for good measure. It was one of the films labeled a “revisionist western” by critics, because it dodged some western cliche’s to the great consternation of many western fans. And in the process, created a great work of cinema, notably appreciated by students of film as art.
The director was reportedly sick of the lack of realism in westerns and given the current state of the world, came to the conclusion that something had to change. Some of the techniques director Sam Peckinpah used involved bizarre editing, eventually acknowledged as revolutionary in film. And in tandem with undercranking and overcranking the camera. (slow motion, speeded up motion) This, at the time, was a technique not often seen by American audiences. And it was partially influenced by a young editor the director had worked with in Television. The editor showed Peckinpah some footage from a one-of-a-kind slow motion sequence he had cut together for TV, portraying a character being shot.
It was visually arresting, and Peckinpah enthusiastically took the technique a step forward once on location in Mexico. He instructed the camera men during the action sequences to adjust the frame rate, sometimes down, sometimes up. What he ended up with were shots of varying speeds. Some slow motion, some slower, some faster. This decision briefly haunted the director once in the editing room. He needed a succession of shots to tell his story, but he hadn’t storyboarded for the excessive time wherein the slow motion would play out. As a result, a gunfight only a few pages long, would be edited together and clock in at 20 minutes. And in some cases, it was impossible to re-cut the sequence without creating confusion. However, when these shots were cut together, it created a very unusual ballet of motion and violence. And all of it would one day become synonymous with Director Peckinpah.
But probably the most quietly revolutionary thing the director did (ironically) was require that new gunshots be created for the soundtrack. A separate sound for each gun.
Warner Bros. and Seven Arts practically rushed the film into production once Peckinpah had agreed to rewrite and shoot the spec script of The Wild Bunch — mainly to beat Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid to the screen. The two scripts were reportedly very similar in theme.
The film was nominated and won several awards, and in 1999 was placed in the National Film Registry by Congress. And the AFI ranked it #6 in its list of the best westerns ever made. Film critic Roger Ebert saw the film as a part of a Warner Bros. press junket in 1969 and immediately claimed it a “masterpiece.” In 1993 Warner Bros. resubmitted the film to the ratings board, expecting to get an “R” and got an “NC-17” instead.
#11 Unforgiven (1992)
While The Wild Bunch ended with a statement on aging gunfighters, Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven embodied that statement from beginning to end. The story starts simply and quietly. We are given information and we surmise the rest. Eastwood plays a former outlaw and cold blooded murderer who was turned around by a woman he fell in love with. Now elderly and a widower, he’s not the same person he was when he was younger. He’s a father now. And he’s more mature, thoughtful about his actions, and reluctant to embarrass himself by repeating his past actions or worse, fall back into a dangerous pattern of violence — which we deduce was fueled by a change in his personality when under the influence of alcohol. Never get this guy drunk, that’s the best way to put it.
The script was originally titled The William Muney Killings, and written in the mid 1970’s by David Webb Peoples, the co-writer of Blade Runner. And it is ironic that both films use the conventions associated with noir cinema, to great effect.
Regardless of Eastwood’s feud with Sergio Leone, he dedicated this film to both Leone, and Don (Dirty Harry) Siegel. The film won numerous Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Note that Unforgiven was only the third western to win the prestigious Best Picture Oscar, behind Cimarron and Dances With Wolves.
The film was listed at#4 on the AFI’s list of the top ten western films of all time, and was admitted into the National Film Registry in 2004. And after the film’s release, the poster you see above won an award given out by The Hollywood Reporter, called the “key art” award.
#12 Pat Garret and Billy the Kid (1973) Director’s Cut
Probably the best example of the now typical Corporate response of tampering with anything that resembles high art — and instantaneously cutting the chances the film has at making a profit, by two thirds. (And as icing on the cake, sabotaging their own investment.) Pat Garret and Billy the Kid was pretty much the dawn of that disgusting shit.
Peckinpah sought to make this film the third act of a trilogy that included Ride the High Country, and The Wild Bunch. Thus book-ending a visual novel. And he really put his heart into this. The story, very simply, is loosely based on historical information available concerning Pat Garret’s killing of his friend and fugitive, William “Billy the Kid” Bonney. Peckinpah re-wrote an original script by Rudolph Wurlitzer himself, and turned it into an epic tragedy of two friends, who wind up on opposite sides of the law. (Shades of The Wild Bunch) It’s sounds close to the authentic history, but it’s not intended as an historically accurate film.
People have complained about the casting choices, but those people aren’t really getting the point. Bob Dylan as “Alias” is a wonderful addition to the substance of the film. Yes, in truth, he has no fucking reason for being in there whatsoever. However, this is a Peckinpah film, not a history lesson. So Dylan’s purpose is merely aesthetic. And on that basis alone, his character works wonderfully — in fact, the film has a wonderful cast. And, this is the director’s last truly great film. In my opinion, anyway. An artistic accomplishment as visually disgusting as it is beautiful. Which was precisely what made a Peckinpah film a Peckinpah film.
It’s sad that at the time of its release, the behind the scenes turmoil was more well known than the film itself. Sam Peckinpah unsuccessfully fought interference by the head of Metro Goldwyn-Mayer on this film. I mean that guy just harassed the hell out of Peckinpah; gave him hell. And this was right on top of both technical problems, and much of the crew coming down with Influenza. And what was worse, the more the studio harassed the director, the more heavily he drank. And he was tough. There were no slimy corporate methods of intimidation that worked on him. The studio even spread false rumors about him and the production of his/their film, making it sound much, much worse than it really was.
But Peckinpah persevered, somehow. He managed to just barely complete the picture with the footage he needed, it took almost two million dollars and 21 days more to get him there, due to all the difficulties during shooting, but he got there. And the studio promptly removed him from the picture during final editing, completely re-cutting the film, releasing a very embarrassing movie and actually blaming Peckinpah for it.
Peckinpah had finished his Director’s Cut by 1973, and just before being fired by the studio, screened it for critics. Martin Scorsese was present and called it Peckinpah’s best film since The Wild Bunch. But this version of the film would not be seen by the public for many years. The head of the studio ordered the film cut from 124 minutes to 106 minutes. If you round off those numbers that’s almost 20 minutes of excised footage !
The film naturally flopped and critics universally panned the hell out of it, calling it “incoherent.” When Roger Ebert reviewed the film, he gave it two stars, and noted that the studio would have been better off releasing Peckinpah’s version. The picture was completely disowned by the cast and crew once they saw the studio’s version of it. And while Peckinpah had in his possession his own director’s cut, which he often screened for friends in his own defense, Pat Garret and Billy the Kid was a massive blow to his career. He practically made this film coming off The Getaway, a massively successful film for Peckinpah. And now … now he was considered a land mine by Hollywood.
In 1988 the director’s cut was finally made available to the public on home video and the response was very enthusiastic. In 2005 the DVD was released, which is when I first saw it. Even though I consider myself a moderate fan of the director’s work, I was amazed by it. There is also a “third” version included on the DVD, which includes various elements of both the theatrical and director’s cuts. It’s worth checking out, as well.
#13 The Professionals (1966)
A wealthy man (Ralph Bellamy) hires a weapons expert (Lee Marvin,) an explosives specialist (Burt Lancaster,) a horse wrangler (Robert Ryan,) and a scout with Apache skills (Woody Strode,) to rescue his wife (Claudia Cardinale) from a Mexican bandit (Jack Palance.)
Not as much an “Oater” as an action/adventure film, The Professionals has been a mainstay of critics lists for many years. I viewed it initially as a study in cinematography, after having watched Visions of Light: The Art of Cinematography on Laserdisc, back in the early 1990’s. (Conrad W. Hall was nominated for an Academy Award for his work on this one.) But I came back to this film when turning my screenplay “Western Legend” into a novel, and I now believe my book greatly benefited from that second round of viewings.
There’s a lot to inspire in this one, just be default. Richard (In Cold Blood, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Blackboard Jungle) Brooks, who wrote and directed the film, imbued it with strong dialogue, creative, yet hard action, great performances by the actors, and a twist ending.
And there’s a lot more going on here than you expect.
Great movie — I highly recommend it !
p.s. Claudia Cardinale has great breasts.
#14 How the West Was Won (1962)
Spectacular All-Star Old-Fashioned Epic Thingee ! This movie is still one of the most anomalous, yet ambitious movies in cinema history, for multiple reasons. I mean there literally is no other western like it. There were only two films made using the Cinerama process. Some people even argue that it was nothing more than a “stunt.” But trust me, seeing it up on a big screen opens your eyes.
Inspired by a series of articles in Life magazine, the film follows four generations of a family on their westward expansion across the Country in the Nineteenth Century. Split into several segments, these sequences were variously directed by John Ford (The Searchers, Stagecoach,) Henry Hathaway (The Sons of Katie Elder, True Grit,) George Marshall (Destry Rides Again, Houdini) and Richard Thorpe (The Prisoner of Zenda, Jailhouse Rock.) The story goes from The Rivers in the 1830’s, to the Plains in the 1850’s, to the Civil War & The Railroad in the 1860’s, to The Outlaws in the 1880’s. And it’s quite a ride. The movie ends with some of the stock footage showing L.A. and San Francisco in the 1960’s, evidencing the molding of a raw Country into a modern civilization. And there are so many celebrity actors who pop along the way, you need a notepad and pen to keep up.
The film was advertised as being shot in the Cinerama process, although some of the Cinerama footage is actually stock footage acquired by the studio. But forget that, this is a film which involves a triple-camera process that spreads across a screen so wide that you feel like you are literally there. And that has a massively visceral effect on the viewer. I saw this thing in a theater in L.A. once and man, you can get drunk watching it, but what an amazing experience ! Kevin Costner cited this as one of his principal influences as a director, and talked repeatedly in interviews about the Cinerama process. For years I wondered if he was just nuts, or what. But seeing the film on a big enough screen, changes anyone’s perspective instantly.
A new Blu-ray transfer was released not long ago, which fairly accurately replicates the curved screen effect and removes the two process lines which strip the screen in-between the three separate camera shots. There’s special feature on the Blu-ray called “Smilebox” which curves the image to replicate the Cinerama experience. I haven’t screened it yet, but I’ve read it approximates the experience. Worth checking out. Here’s a screenshot I got off blu-ray.com:
The film was nominated for several Academy Awards and won a handful.
#15 The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976)
Travel this Country, bring up the topic of the movie western, and pull out a stop watch. Twenty-five to thirty seconds — at the most — and you ‘ll hear “The Outlaw Josey Wales“; you can clock it; I shit you not.
Being yet another example of the revisionist western, the film tells the story of a simple farmer, who following the violent murder of his family by pro-Union Jayhawkers during the American Civil War, is initially driven mad, then driven only by revenge. He joins up with Bloody Bill Anderson’s Bushwackers. (Guerrillas on the Confederate side of the war.) And presumably spends many years with them. His name is known by Union Soldiers, and they are hoping for his surrender. Right off the bat, the film does a good job making Josey Wales a mythical character, by elevating his status as a dangerous individual above that of historical blood-letter, William T. “Bloody Bill” Anderson.
As the war comes to a close the Union entices these men into surrendering and giving up their fighting in exchange for amnesty. Several of the men go into a Union camp, but Wales watches from a distance. When he realizes the men will be executed, he sneaks into the camp, and creates a diversion using a Gatling Gun. And in the skirmish that follows, he manages to save some of their lives. But he winds up a fugitive with his face on wanted posters all over the Country.
Now on the run from Union Militia Men and bounty hunters, Wales heads for Texas with the hope that he can make a new life there. Along the way, he has several encounters that test his character and his metal. And he also accumulates a motley group of followers, also looking for a place to plant their feet. Eventually, all of these characters end up barricaded inside a small ranch house built withstand an Indian attack — with those hunting Josey Wales doing the attacking.
Wales survives to face his pursuer in a bar. The man chasing him for the Union essentially gives him a head start and lets him go. Wales rides off.
Here’s the truly NASTY part, so let me get this out of the way. The film was based upon a book written by a man named Asa Earl Carter, who “claimed” to be a Native American Cherokee, and A) who was also a member of the “Klan,” and B) a controversial “anti-Semite” speechwriter for Governor George Wallace. He wrote the book “The Rebel Outlaw: Josey Wales,” also titled, “Gone to Texas,” under the pseudonym Forrest Carter. No shit. The guy who wrote the book Outlaw Josey Wales was based on — was a wacko racist. Weird, man. Almost makes you wanna never watch the fucking movie, again. If his estate got one penny from it, I probably wouldn’t.
The script was worked on by four separate writers, including directors Michael (Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, The Deer Hunter) Camino and Phillip (The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid) Kaufman. The picture actually started with Kaufman as director, but he and Eastwood had a personality conflict that got worse and worse, until Eastwood instructed his co-producer to fire Kaufman. The Director’s Guild of America fined Eastwood $60,000 for it and instituted a new union rule that disallowed a producer from firing a director and replacing him with himself. How much of Kaufman’s footage remains in the film has never been disclosed.
Most critics praised the film on its release and Eastwood has referred to The Outlaw Josey Wales as one of the high points of his western making career. Thematically, Eastwood has referred to it as an anti-war film. In 1996 the film was selected for the National Film Registry, and it was also listed as one of Time magazine’s Top 10 films of the Year in 1976.
#16 The Magnificent Seven (1960)
Mexican villagers are being terrorized by a bully and his company of bandits. Members of the village approach a professional gunfighter, and persuade him to hire six others to help protect the residents from the bully and his men. Very little payment is offered, yet six capable men are recruited. Maybe they’re eager to stand up for those who cannot stand up for themselves, maybe they’re eager to test their metal, maybe they’re bored. In any case, all are ready for Action ! You really don’t want me to spoil the rest do ya ? Great action, great exposition between the characters, great music — see it, you’ll like it.
Sometimes “Hollywood” movies can be a bad thing. We all know that. But sometimes, they can be a GREAT thing. And The Magnificent Seven remains one of those great occasions. Sequels were made, none this good. The Elmer Bernstein score was so good, it was nominated by the Academy. And it was instantaneously so memorable, many over the years chose to license it and reference it. Commercials, TV Shows — a bit of it can even be heard in the 1979 James Bond film, Moonraker.
And the referencing didn’t end with just the music. Michael Crichton wrote and directed a film called Westworld, which utilized Yul Brynner in the role of a highly advanced robot made to interact with tourists in a futuristic theme park. The robot was based on the character he played in The Magnificent Seven. If you’ve seen Jurassic Park, then you know the plot — things go wrong, robots start attacking people. (Crichton admitted he pretty much recycled the structure and plot of Westworld, for Jurassic Park. As a side note, there has been some suggestion that Jurassic Park originally started as a sequel Crichton offered to MGM as a follow-up to Westworld. However, this was never confirmed to be anything other than rumor.)
The Magnificent Seven also inspired (along with The Seven Samurai before it) a low-budget Roger Corman produced Sci-Fi film, called Battle Beyond the Stars. The film’s structure and plot are essentially identical to the two films that came before, and actor Robert Vaughn more or less repeats his character here, in a more Sci-Fi incarnation.
Brynner complained that McQueen spent most of the film not merely “trying,” but successfully upstaging him every time the two were on camera together. McQueen quit his own TV show Wanted: Dead or Alive, as a direct result of the success of The Magnificent Seven.
#17 Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)
William (Harper, Maverick) Goldman’s screenplay was based on the story of Robert Leroy Parker (alias Butch Cassidy) and Harry Longabaugh (alias the Sundance Kid) and the numerous train robberies committed by their “Hole in the Wall Gang,” before the Pinkerton Detective Agency literally chased them out of the Country. Eventually realizing they have no where left to run, Butch and Sundance take off for South America with Sundance’s girlfriend initially accompanying them. She leaves, they start robbing payroll carriers all over Bolivia, and eventually, the two outlaws are cornered by an entire garrison of South American troops. And I’m sure you know the rest.
My principal interest in this one was the centerpiece of the film — a very long pursuit, wherein Butch and Sundance evade a Pinkerton Detective named Joe Lefors, and his Native American tracker, Lord Baltimore. This sequence is completely original in it’s simplicity and overall integrity of economical storytelling. There’s so little dialogue, I’m sure the studio people were wondering why the hell this was done and if they should try and force the director to reshoot it. But it works its magic, so it’s a good thing they didn’t cause a ruckus over it.
Goldman was initially a novelist, who researched Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid for eight years, before he decided he didn’t really want to write the book. So he turned it into his first screenplay and sold it for a record $400,000.00: his asking price. He felt the years of research and the potential the script had, justified his asking price. It was bold and cocksure, I’ll give him that.
The pairing of Newman and Redford was magic and resulted in some truly great comedic moments on film. At the time of its release, it got good reviews, it got bad reviews, but it quickly became a phenomenon, regardless of any of that. And Newman and Redford and their chemistry together, were cited by many as the reason. For this reason, they repeated their unique pairing in the film, The Sting.
Steve McQueen, Jack Lemmon, Warren Beatty, and Marlon Brando were all offered one of the two parts in the film, and turned it down before Robert Redford accepted. The actual name of Butch Cassidy’s Gang was “The Wild Bunch.” This was changed to “The Hole in the Wall Gang,” to avoid confusion with Sam Peckinpah’s film, The Wild Bunch. Financially, the film’s gross is wedged in between Goldfinger and Thunderball. Not a bad balance sheet for a western to be hanging out on. A prequel called Butch and Sundance The Early Days was released in 1979, directed by Richard Lester, and starring Tom Berenger and William Katt. It cost $15 Million and made only $5 Million. William Goldman did not write it, in fact the film was written by a writer of television sitcoms. But nonetheless, noted author and film critic Harlan Ellison has voiced his opinion that the prequel film is a vast improvement over its predecessor.
The film was nominated and won a handful of Academy Awards, it also won a handful of British awards, and the Writer’s Guild of America awarded William Goldman their Best Original Screenplay of the year award. In 2003 the film was placed into the National Film Registry, and it sits at #7 on the AFI’s list of the top 10 Best Westerns ever made.
#18 Lonesome Dove (1989) TV Mini-Series
The production was derived from two sources. The first was the best-selling novel which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1986. The other was the original screenplay which the book was based on. Writer Larry McMurty had originally drafted the script in the early 70’s, as a starring vehicle for actors John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, and Henry Fonda. That “original” version of this film was proceeding when John Wayne backed out, and the entire project fell apart. Wayne had apparently been advised by director John Ford not to take the role. After the novel was published in the early 80’s and won the coveted Pulitzer Prize, directors John Milius and John Houston each attempted to get it made, but were unsuccessful. Finally, McMurty partnered with a television writer and turned the material into a mini-series.
The story is a lengthy, ever-changing soapy drama about a group of retired Texas Rangers driving cattle across Country, and everything that happens along the way. (I will not give away any turns in the plot, that’s half the joy of this one.) It really doesn’t sound all that enticing when you sum it up so simply, but the way it plays out is really grand, and with great atmosphere. It was shot entirely on location and gets by with enough authenticity to suspend your disbelief throughout its entire run time.
Just about everybody who ever watched it, enjoyed it. And almost everybody watched it when it premiered in February of 1989 on CBS. I eventually saw it in a re-run; I was in boot camp in the U.S. Marine Corps. when the series originally aired. But when I finally got a chance to catch up, I was thoroughly absorbed by it; just like everyone else. It was a fresh take on the western, and a welcome one. The show was even credited with once again regenerating the western genre. And industry accolades rained on this thing so heavy, I refuse to redundantly list them here — that just isn’t necessary when everyone knows how good it is.
Some have claimed that the friendship between the two main characters, is based on a similar friendship between real life ranchers Charles Goodnight and Oliver Loving. Writer McMurtry has disputed this. It runs just over six hours, but if you have the opportunity to do some “power watching” one weekend, I would highly recommend Lonesome Dove.
#19 Tombstone (1993), Wyatt Earp (1994)
I was very entertained by many elements of each of these films when I initially saw them. However, I was also massively disappointed that the infamous gunfight in Tombstone was not portrayed as accurate as I felt it could have been. And it took some time for me to get over that. Time enough for me to write up a screenplay treatment, eleven full drafts of a screenplay, (originally titled “American Western,” and eventually changed to “Western Legend,”) and almost as many drafts of the novel which followed.
Since then, I’ve viewed each of these films multiple times, and am happy to say I can now enjoy them for what they are, without condemning them for what they are not. Mainly because any contempt on my part ended with the publication of my book; the centerpiece of which is a much more accurate retelling of the street fight in Tombstone. Therefore, I guess you could say the influence these film had on me was rather profound.
Tombstone (released during the 1993 holiday season) comes off as more of a theme-park attraction, with heavy doses of in-your-face machismo. Very much 1950’s Hollywood High-Adventure, intentionally contaminated by coarse language, and slight touches that resemble the work of Sergio Leone. It’s story centers on the subject of its title: the events surrounding the Earps adversarial relationship with the Cow-boys Gang while in Tombstone, Arizona.
It has a cast list that reads like a guest list for an industry event of some kind: Sam Elliot, Bill Paxton, Billy Bob Thornton, Powers Boothe, Michael Biehn, Charlton Heston, Jason Priestley, Stephen Lang, Thomas Haden Church, Dana Delaney, Billy Zane, Michael Rooker, John Corbett. And that cute chick from Fletch — she’s in there somewhere, too.
The film has over time become a mainstay with western fans, due to it’s action sequences, it’s use of Robert Mitchum’s voice at the open and the close of the film, and several iconic moments in the film surrounding actor Val Kilmer’s portrayal of John Henry “Doc” Holliday. Additionally, the film is very clearly inspired by a number of films that came before it. Along with the work of Sergio Leone, others include: Gunfight at the OK Corral, Hour of the Gun, and even The Magnificent Seven.
Tombstone was one of those movies that defied the odds to fall under the category of, “lucky it got made.” According to a great interview with Kurt Russell in True West magazine, he was told about the original script in 1989 by his former agent, whom he still had a relationship with. And at that time, writer Kevin Jarre was going to do the picture with Kevin Costner. But Costner left, preferring to redevelop the idea into a sprawling bio pic, broadening the scope to refocus on not merely events in Tombstone in 1881, but rather on Earp’s entire life. And he was keen on working with Lawrence Kasdan, whom he had worked with on Silverado. So Costner left to develop his own movie. But, once off the project, he managed to shut down all avenues of Tombstone getting released. No studio in town would touch the film — except Disney. This from Russell: “He (Costner) was powerful enough at the time, which I always respected. I thought it was good hardball.”
With Costner gone, Russell moved into the Earp role, and he and Jarre brought in Willem Defoe to play Holliday. Russell described Defoe’s version of the character: “(he was) absolutely brilliant in his conceptualization of it.” But Disney didn’t want Defoe. Various sources claim this was due to his part in the controversial Last Temptation of Christ. So Russell and Jarre brought in Val Kilmer. Then, two weeks before filming, Russell was called into the office of the mogul who financed the film. According to Russell, he was asked if he would step aside and play Doc Holliday, and allow Richard Gere to play Wyatt Earp. Russell said no, stating that he and Jarre were happy with the situation they currently had.
Filming began, but there were problems with Jarre’s inability to recognize the limitations of their budget. According to Russell, the script needed to loose 20 pages and Jarre never would loose those 20 pages. Russell warned Jarre that those in charge of financing and distribution had the legal right to fire him for his stubbornness, but Jarre wouldn’t listen. Quickly thereafter, Jarre was fired. And to make matters worse, there was fallout. According to Val Kilmer over 100 people quit or got fired after Jarre left. “(and) that’s gotta be some kind of a record.”
Soon after, Kurt sat down to somehow remove 20 pages, from what he termed a Western-Godfather. He knew he wanted a talented cast, and they would want and deserve more screen time, so Russell made the drastic decision to cut his own part (that of Wyatt Earp) way down, and make it, in his words, “more of an ‘aura’ character.” Meaning you meet and see Earp, he’s your subject of interest, but other characters fill in the details. Either while he’s off screen, or in the third person right in front of him. Russell: “But it wasn’t fun to do that. It wasn’t fun to cut out eight of the reasons you wanted to do the movie.”
From there, the film needed a director. Those in power actually offered the reins to Kurt Russell, even though he had never directed a film before. Russell turned it down. He has since stated that he didn’t want his name on it. And though he hasn’t stated why, it’s a good bet that industry politics are to blame. So he called Sylvester Stallone and said, “I need a guy.” Stallone recommended Geroge P. Cosmatos, director of Rambo: First Blood Part II, Cobra, and Leviathan. Stallone had used him as a surrogate, or “ghost” director twice.
So Russell met with Cosmatos, and laid down the law. He would come to his room every night and give him a shot list, and Cosmatos could not deviate from it. And no one on the production could know. “George and I had a sign language going on,” Russell explained. And though a few of the actors and crew did catch on, there were apparently no problems for the remainder of the shoot. But under a tight budget, it was grueling. Russell has stated that it was the hardest work of his life, and that he only got 4 hours of sleep a night. Which to those who’ve seen the film, explains that look in Wyatt’s eyes through most of the movie.
Once the film was completed, Russell’s role was diminished. Possibly by union rules. “I didn’t get a chance to edit the movie, which I thought was unfortunate because it would have been once of the greatest westerns ever, ever, ever made. And it’s pretty damn good. We had a great cast. A phenomenal script.” He was, however, allowed access to video of all footage shot, and maintains that he intends to someday edit together the longer version of Tombstone.
Although the film cost $25 Million and made only $56.5 Million, it was deemed a success by Disney Executives. Actor Robert Mitchum, who narrates the film, was originally brought in to play Old Man Clanton. But he was in a horse riding accident. Instead of recasting, the role was cut from the film. Actor Glenn Ford was originally cast to play Marshall White, but dropped out of the project. Critical reaction was mixed, though True West Magazine called it one of the 5 greatest westerns ever made.
Wyatt Earp (released June of 1994) is stylistically different in every way from Tombstone. While Tombstone is garish, Wyatt Earp is conservative. While Tombstone is abrupt, Wyatt Earp is meditative. The two films are as different as night and day. Personally, I’ve never been able to decide which one I like better. Both films have their charms, and their faults. Therefore, it’s a tie !
Written by Dan (Passenger 57) Gordon and Lawrence (Raiders of the Lost Ark) Kasdan (who also co-directed with an “uncredited” Costner,) the film is pretty much what Costner wanted it to be: a sprawling bio pic, spanning the life of one of the most legendary lawmen of the American West, Wyatt Earp.
And on the surface, it seems like it would be closer to historical fact than Tombstone. But do your research and you’ll find it isn’t. At least not enough to brag about. There are a few interesting variances which slightly angle this picture toward historical accuracy. But almost all are aesthetic. A few of the set pieces, such as the size of the lot where the street fight in Tombstone took place, are drastically more accurate than anything you’ve seen before. There are also some well researched wardrobe choices, bits and pieces of dialogue here and there, and the incorporation of a legendary supposed incident involving “Tommy Behind the Deuce” — which like that Tyrannosaur in Jurassic Park, pops up just before the movie ends, just when you want it to.
But make no mistake about it, Wyatt Earp uses as much of the Earp mythos as anything else ever has, and the filmmakers have made it clear that they have no intention of apologizing for that. They set out to make a bio pic and a big event movie, at the same time. And while they claim they succeeded, audiences and critics begged to differ. There are some pretty boring moments in this movie. Rather prosaic moments in fact, that only the elderly truly appreciate. And that is sad, given that there is so much great stuff to love here.
On a personal note, I really wish Warner Bros. would see fit to re-edit the deleted scenes available only as a special feature on home video, back into the movie. They are great scenes and help balance everything out, nicely.
Much like Tombstone, Wyatt Earp benefits from a great supporting cast. The credits boast the likes of Gene Hackman, Mark Harmon, Jeff Fahey, Isabella Rossellini, Michael Madsen, Jobeth Williams, Bill Pullman, James Gammon, Jim Caviezel, Tea Leoni. And Costner is great here as Earp; in fact this is one of his very best performances. You can feel the cold, burning anger when he looks at people, suspiciously. And Dennis Quad literally gives the performance of his career. How he didn’t get nominated for a single award is one those great mysteries I’ve discussed with others, many, many times. Makes no fucking sense whatsoever.
Wyatt Earp also joins the club of being yet another western nominated for an Academy Award for Best Cinematography.
#20 The Shootist (1976)
Directed by Clint Eastwood’s friend, mentor, and frequent collaborator Don (Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Killers ) Siegel, The Shootist was Wayne’s final film. Boasting a really great story and concept, the film nevertheless suffered a lukewarm reception from audiences, due mainly to its pat, television-like sensibility — which was growing stale with the public. Critics on the other hand gave it mostly positive reviews. The Shootist was named one of the 10 best films of the year, along with All the President’s Men and Network by the National Board of Review. And was additionally nominated for an Oscar and a Golden Globe.
This was the movie that really caught me by surprise. And I don’t mean that in a nice way. Here’s how it happened. In ’77 or ’78 when I was 6 or 7 years old, this film aired on CBS. It didn’t do well at the box office, so I guess they sold it to TV fast. Anyway, my Dad pleaded with me to watch it, and I respectfully declined. Well … maybe not “respectfully.” I remember my words being something along the lines of, “Does a man ride a horse through a spaceport?” And my Dad responding, “Jimmy … nevermind … just nevermind.” Yep, I was a Star Wars kid.
Cut to many years later. I was on the seventh draft of my book when I finally sat down to watch it. I got through around a half an hour of it, when I began to spot similarities between the substructure of the plot of The Shootist, and my book, Western Legend. I felt like I’d been decked like the Ace of Spades. After agonizing over it, I decided to embrace the similarities. Screw it, anyone asks I call it homage. Now ‘ya know. Eventually, after repeated viewings, I fell in love with it. But is was a terrible first date, lemme tell ya.
The film, based on a 1975 book by Glendon Swarthout, begins with a very exciting montage of footage of John Wayne, as other characters in older movies. Including several on this list, and all narrated by then actor Ron Howard. The function of this is to introduce these separate characters as a single individual — a real historical person — who is about to exist before our very eyes. That type of thing. And it works, initially. But the film quickly falls into the mentality of using many traditional production methods to tell its story. “And.” there’s no action in this movie. There’s a shooting at the end, but it’s not much of a gunfight. On the positive side, THAT’S EXACTLY THE POINT ! The film’s message is that a real gunfight in the West was never what it was thereafter cracked up to be. Nor was a day in the life of a real gunfighter.
Wayne’s character arrives in Carson City, Nevada in 1901 to see an old friend of his. A doctor played by Jimmy Stewart. (An obvious play on their relationship in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.) Wayne’s character has come for his diagnosis — and sadly, it is cancer. Soon after, a young man played by Ron Howard recognizes Wayne as a legendary gunfighter he idolizes. It doesn’t take long before word gets out, and it’s just a matter of time before The Shootist is forced into one last confrontation. It ends with an anti-gun message.
Wayne found out about the movie after it went into development and campaigned for the role, winning out over George C. Scott. Wayne had his personal horse “Dollar” written into the script (it was the young horse seen at the end of the film True Grit in 1969,) and he also had the ending changed. In the original ending his character unexpectedly shoots a man in the back. The Shootist shared certain story elements and themes with The Gunfighter, a 1950 film that Wayne had wanted desperately to star in. The project had circled Hollywood for a bit before it landed at Columbia, and Wayne refused to work for Columbia due to a grudge against the head of the studio. So Gregory Peck got the role.
There was an erroneous belief that Wayne actually had cancer when he made this film. He was known to have been ill before the film went into production, and many just made the leap of assumption that it was cancer. It was not. Wayne had had cancer a decade before and had beat it. Three years after this film came out, his cancer returned and he died soon after diagnosis. His death in 1979 ended a career that began in 1926, in silent film. He was one of the few actors in the silent era to have the chance to meet the legendary Wyatt Earp. Spielberg had begged him to play one last role as General Stillwell, in his film 1941. But Wayne turned him down.
#21 Dances With Wolves (1990)
Dances With Wolves started out as a “spec script” written by author Michael Blake. In 1986, Kevin (Silverado) Costner suggested to Blake that he turn the material into a novel, thereby increasing it’s chances of getting it made as a film. The book was published in paperback in ’88, and Costner immediately optioned the rights, with the intention of directing the film himself. Somehow Costner used clout in Hollywood gathered from his successes as a bankable star, to get the movie into development. And he got a budget of $15 Million to make it. But due to complications during filming, the weather, and a few accidents, the film went over budget and Costner had to add $3 Million out of his own pocket to cover the expenses. Many in Hollywood began terming the production, “Kevin’s Gate.” A satirical play on the Michael Cimino film Heaven’s Gate; which cost a fortune, went way over schedule, and completely bombed at the box office. Costner was in fact already being discussed in Hollywood as a failure. The most difficult obstacles a director faces are as follows: being a first time director, working with children, working with animals, making a 3-hour epic as a first film, making a film with subtitles, making a film on location, and making a film in a genre that is considered a risky investment — i.e. a western. And Costner had it all to contend with.
The story, which gradually becomes epic in scope, concerns a Union Lieutenant during the American Civil War, who boldly attempts suicide on the battlefield, fails, and later gets assigned to a post somewhere out on the frontier by a Senior Officer who’s himself suicidal.
Once reaching his post, Lieutenant Dunbar finds it abandoned and sets about to clean the place up. It isn’t long before he garners a curious visitor in the character of a wild wolf. And soon after, Dunbar is surprised by another visitor: a Lakota Indian. The two men frighten the hell out of each other, and quickly part ways. Afterward, Dunbar realizes that the Native American meant no harm, and boldly initiates further contact.
Over several months, the Lakota teach him their language, name him “Dances With Wolves,” introduce him to a “white woman” who’s family was murdered by another warring Indian Tribe and adopted by the Lakota, take him buffalo hunting, etc. etc. And all of it happens beautifully, thanks to some wonderful cinematography and truly grand music by John Barry. And the score greatly contributes to the adventurously romantic feel of the movie.
Eventually, things get much more dramatic. I won’t spoil the plot from there, but let’s just say Dunbar can only have his head stuck in the sand for so long, before someone comes looking for him. And this results in the viewer getting a fly-on-the-wall perspective of what what it is to have your basic human rights violated by an invading force.
Costner was vindicated when this film was released like no other put-upon director in history. It made a literal fortune, in comparison with it’s total budget. And it won numerous Academy Awards, including Best Director, and a Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture — Drama. In 2007 the film was placed in the National Film Registry. Dances With Wolves quickly became yet another film credited with revitalizing the western genre, and thus, is termed a revisionist western.
An “Extended Director’s Cut” has been available on DVD for several years and is now available on Blu-ray. Costner claims no involvement with the extended cut, and maintains that the theatrical version is the only cut he prefers people see.
#22 Silverado (1985)
Silverado has always been a unique western. Co-written and directed by Larry (Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Wyatt Earp) Kasdan, the film was intended by Kasdan and his brother Mark (who co-wrote) to be a loving homage to the type of western they grew up with as kids. A western the whole family could enjoy. A western that embraced and honored certain cliche’s. And with the exception of a brief moment or two, which I’m sure many would agree would be inappropriate for smaller children, they essentially achieved their goal.
The film was released weeks after Clint Eastwood’s Pale Rider, and the same weekend as Back to the Future. Ouch. The film cost $23 Million to make, and although it only made just over $32 Million, Columbia considered the film a success. Perhaps they got a better deal than the theater chains on the revenue stream, I don’t know. Doesn’t make sense to me, their claim doesn’t add up when you break it down, mathematically. But I love the movie, so let ’em lie forever as long as they’ll keep it active.
The story centers on a group of four strangers who band together to fight a corrupt Sheriff and his Rancher business partner, in the town of Silverado. It’s one of the only westerns I’ve seen that features a black man as character in a role of equal standing. It’s kind of fun to see something different for a change. And it was Costner’s first visible role. (He had played ‘Alex’ the friend who committed suicide in The Big Chill, but Kasdan cut him out.) The movie was entirely shot on location, and the atmosphere that results is really awesome. Truly one of those great outdoor adventure movies, thanks in part to some great cinematography. And it really feels like as much of a fantastic adventure film, as as it is a western. I used to read Starlog magazine religiously when I was a kid, and I noted several times that the magazine staff remarked that based upon the mail they were getting, Silverado was clearly the favorite western of Science Fiction fans.
But the film got mixed reviews. Critics either loved or hated it. Didn’t seem to be an in-between at all. Roger Ebert commented that due to the film being made by the writer of Raiders of the Lost Ark, “it has some of the same reckless brilliance about it.” In fact many critics cited the film’s resemblance to several old Hollywood westerns, and added that here the filmmakers have managed to bring a new sense of energy and fun into the mix. One critic added that while many westerns tend to take a revisionist view of their material, Silverado fully embraces the old conventions with open arms. Thereby making it one of the most original westerns in many, many years. Ironically.
Many of the critics mused that if you did not enjoy the kind of adventure abundant in Raiders of the Lost Ark, along with small doses of the character relationships on display in Kasdan’s The Big Chill — then you probably would not enjoy Silverado. The Big Chill ?? I actually read that on Wikipedia, and went, “huh ??” But eventually my memory returned, and I remembered reading those same reviews back in ’85. Several critics did contrast and compare the film this way. I find that funny now. Just the idea of a writer standing in a pitch meeting at a studio: “Just imagine, it’s Raiders of the Lost Ark … meets The Big Chill.” Critics are sometimes so stupid, it’s palpable. The only reason they were bringing up The Big Chill was because Kevin Kline was in the goddamn movie. Other critics panned it, just calling the development of the character relationships the sinking of the ship. They really didn’t get it at all. Of course most of those people didn’t take their families to see the movie, either.
But there’s a reason why Raiders just keep popping up. That film’s unique style of action and adventure is sampled in Silverado, and quite often. And it works really well, actually. I always preferred the film over Pale Rider — and as inferred above, so did most fans of the 1981 Spielberg/Lucas collaboration. Too bad the studio didn’t (or couldn’t) use that to their advantage in the marketing of this film. Raiders style adventure in the old west. That’s half of what the film is.
The film was nominated for Academy Awards in Best Original Score and Best Sound Effects Editing. By the way, the film features a very interesting cameo by Monty Python comedian John Cleese, that many still believe is one of the best performances of his career.
#23 Open Range (2003)
Kevin Costner not only keeps popping up in my own list of favorite westerns, but if he maintains his occasional involvement in the western genre, he could someday catch up with to Clint Eastwood’s own track record. Seems to be his intention.
I saw this one and thought it was not merely a good western, but a very good film. And I had high hopes that the astonishing use of actual gunshots in digital surround sound would create a word of mouth that would generate a renewed interest in the western genre. What the hell, something’s gotta work eventually, right ? Didn’t really work out that way.
Based on the novel, “The Open Range Men” by prolific author Lauran Paine, the story focuses on an isolated incident during the “range wars” in Montana in 1882. Yet another common man against a wealthy bully and his hired thugs kind of a deal. There are all kinds of relationship themes and realistic character in evidence here. Some nice throw away moments, like Costner going after the dog in the rain. LOL And some really nice jarring moments, like the incident in the bar and the gunfight in the third act. I really like everything about this one, including the late Michael Kamen’s score. Just a great movie.
The film won several awards and got a really good response from critics. The film cost $22 Million and made close to $70. It broke even and made a profit — Hey ! Nice change of pace.
#24 The Long Riders (1980)
The Long Riders, director Hill’s first western, isn’t all that accurate, historically. Although four writers are credited (including the Keaches,) on imdb.com, Hill is also unofficially credited. And it’s probable that he completely revised the script to his liking. And Hill picks and chooses his historical accuracy, as he likes it. Very much like a salad bar.
But it still makes for a very distinctive movie about the James-Younger Gang. And the centerpiece is the Gang’s attempted raid of the First National Bank of Northfield, Minnesota in September of 1876. A unique historical incident, wherein the Gang was in the process of robbing the local bank, when the town citizens unexpectedly fought back, and won.
As stated, much of what is shown to transpire isn’t quite the way the bank raid happened. If the newspaper accounts had been followed by Hill more closely, this sequence could have been so much more of what Hill clearly intended. The true nature of what happened step by step, was material tailor made for a Walter Hill film. But this wasn’t the first film to portray the incident inaccurately, either. The same can be said for director Phillip Kaufman’s earlier The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid, in 1972, and before it, Nicholas Ray’s The True Story of Jesse James, in 1957. To this day, this incident still hasn’t been translated to the screen accurately. It’s only been generalized. Which is why I did the research myself and wrote a more accurate version in Western Legend.
All of that aside, the film is a terrific example of Walter Hill’s distinctive and ultra-dynamic filming style. And a great inspiration to any writer or filmmaker. Like it or leave it, this is indeed one of those “auteur” films you hear about. Yet another case where you’re reminded that true cinema is a director’s medium. And not a medium that functions on the basis of a committee.
The director also made the unusual decision during pre-production of casting 4 separate sets of brothers, to play the actual brothers portrayed in the film. The Keach brothers, the Carradine brothers, the Quade brothers, and the Guest brothers. And the gimmick was used quite effectively in the film’s marketing. View the trailer below to see what I mean.
The music score by Ry Cooder won the 1980 Los Angeles Film Critics Association Award for best music. The Long Riders cost $10 Million, and only made just over $15 Million.
#25 Tom Horn (1980)
Tom Horn was directed by a veteran television director named William Wiard, who may have stood in on-set only, as a surrogate for McQueen himself. This was a project McQueen had been developing for years, along with his motorcycle in the jungle, gold hunting adventure Yucatan; which never got made. And he had used actual journals kept by Tom Horn while he was in prison, awaiting his execution. Like so many other westerns before it, McQueen designed Horn as a character of the old world, attempting to acclimate to the new.
It’s not really an action film, or a thriller, or even a drama, really. It’s a story told in great little character moments. But it’s central character isn’t just an aesthetic prop. He’s the real deal, not a phony. And that’s a very interesting element here.
I initially took a look at the Wikipedia article on the film, and something jumped out at me immediately that convinced me to stay away from it. Tom Horn is listed as a gunfighter on Wikipedia. Something he never was, by literal, and even metaphorical definition and illustration. And that’s one of the things this film gets very, very accurate. McQueen may not look anything like Tom Horn, much of what is portrayed may involve composite characters and stray from the facts. But McQueen made sure to get his authentic impression of the authentic man, right. And those who’ve done the research will tell you, it’s pretty damn close. There have been others, here and there, but this is a studied, measured performance of the man’s psyche. And it’s often very haunting.
The film manipulates information to composite the last few years of Horn’s life. Including his arrest and hanging for the death of a teenager named Willie Nickell. It gets really complicated from there, so I’ll just say that if Horn did kill young Willie, most historians agree that he only did, because he mistook the younger Nickell for the elder father. Historically, rustling allegations had nothing to do with this incident. In the film, though, Horn is hired to assassinate the father, who has been accused of rustling. Horn does the job, only discovering in the immediate aftermath that he has shot a young boy and not his father.
The movie has great cinematography, and almost all westerns do, but it’s also very much in its tone and pacing, a 70’s film. And that’s sad, really, given that audiences were done with that and the time, and so eager to move on to the 80’s. Tom Horn cost $3 Million and made $9 Million, thereby recovering its cost and making a profit. Not a large one, but the film was financially solvent. McQueen had one other film released after this one: The Hunter. It was sort of a modern-day western, where he played a real life bounty hunter. It had its moments, but it wasn’t the final bow McQueen deserved. Tom Horn is.
Well, that’s my list. A number of films got pushed off, to make room for honesty. Such as Mark Rydell’s terrific film with John Wayne, The Cowboys, Quigley Down Under, the HBO TV Series Deadwood (mainly because I’ve still haven’t had a chance to watch beyond the initial 3 episodes,) Buffalo Bill and the Indians, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Pale Rider, High Plains Drifter, Hang ‘Em High, A Fistful of Dollar & For a Few Dollars More, Mustang Country … and I still haven’t seen either Shane, or Little Big Man for that matter.