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“Appaloosa” and what the Western is about

I recently saw Ed Harris’ Western, Appaloosa (2008), a traditional and unshowy contribution to the genre.  Whereas many Western of the past twenty years have attempted to be “revisionist” or “deconstructive”, often quite successfully, Appaloosa takes the staples of the genre and works through them with commitment and detail.

This is to say, I liked Appaloosa just fine.  It had a solid setting, decent story with strong characters, and fine performances from Harris, Viggo Mortensen, Renee Zellweger and Jeremy Irons (though his Boston accent sounded very odd).  It did not flinch from its portrayal of violence, which I think is a key ingredient to the Western, on which more later, and balanced that with a pragmatic sense of honour – a man gives his word in this world because it is in the interests of his own self-preservation, and another man accepts the word of the first because it is in the interests of his own self-preservation.  This way, the film gets around the potentially hokey idea of men trusting each other simply because “a man’s word is his word”.

The honour system is one of several genre clichés that Appaloosa deals with very effectively.  Another is the skill of the gunslinger – Virgil Cole (Harris) and Everett Hitch (Mortensen) are good at what they do because they have lived long enough to become good at it, and similarly being good at it has enabled them to stay alive.  Described as “peacekeepers”, they do not simply wander into town in search of someone to kill or avenge themselves upon, such as Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name in the Dollars trilogy, or (sticking with Sergio Leone) Douglas Mortimer (Lee Van Cleef) in For A Few Dollars More and Harmonica (Charles Bronson) in Once Upon A Time in the West, or Eastwood’s other incarnations such as The Stranger in High Plains Drifter (Clint Eastwood, 1973) or William Munny in Unforgiven (Eastwood, 1992) (my personal favourite Western).  For Virgil and Everett, killing is what they do for a living, within the remit of the law, simply because in a lawless land, it is a good way to use one’s skills.

What worked especially well for me about Appaloosa was the parallel between the external struggle of Virgil and Everett attempting to bring down the crooked rancher Braggs (Irons) and the internal struggle of conflicted loyalties between the two partners and the woman who enters their lives, Alison French (Zellweger).   The film presents this struggle as a love triangle of sorts, initially appearing as a romantic triangle with both men vying for the woman’s affection.  The first scene featuring all three characters frames Ali in a shot between the two men, suggesting that they will compete for her.  Yet romance blooms between Ali and Virgil very easily, while Everett’s own relationship with Katie (Adriana Gil) suggests he is no worse off.  The only encounter between Everett and Ali seems a calculated attempt on her part to make Virgil jealous, but as Everett explains, “We’re both with Virgil.  What emerges therefore is a triangle that features Virgil as the object of desired association rather than Ali.  Everett could be read as homosexual but the film offers more evidence to support the importance of a homosocial relationship.  In different ways, both Ali and Everett value their relationships with Virgil very highly and each poses competition for the other.

This competition is the central thread that runs through Appaloosa, and the external conflict with Bragg ultimately serves to resolve it.  In the film’s final scene, Everett calls out Bragg to a shoot-out that Everett wins, and the film’s (perhaps unnecessary) final voiceover clarifies why: by killing Bragg, Everett outlaws himself from Appaloosa, leaving Virgil as town marshal and the responsible man who can be with Ali.  Everett himself has no place in this civilised town so must leave, the cliché of the Western given voice as Everett describes himself heading off towards the setting sun.

The different routes available to Virgil and Everett demonstrate what has been argued by critics as the central theme of the Western, and what I believe is the fundamental theme: the tension between wilderness and civilisation.  What a Western is is one of the most debated questions in genre studies, largely because it should be an easy question to answer.  Yet it remains contentious and any definition is open to attack.  I am not attempting to end this debate (where’s the fun in that?), but throwing my Stetson in the ring (because Stetsons are cool), I believe the conflict between civilisation and wilderness is the defining feature of the Western genre.  If a film does not have this theme, then it is not a Western.  Both classic and revisionary Westerns from Stagecoach (John Ford, 1939) to The Searchers (Ford, 1956), from High Noon (Fred Zinnemann, 1952) to The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (Ford, 1962), from Once Upon A Time In the West (Sergio Leone, 1968) to Unforgiven all feature this central concern.  Sometimes it is blatant, such as Ethan Edwards standing in the doorway but unable to enter the homestead.  Other times it is more subtle: what civilisation do we have in A Fistful of Dollars (Leone, 1964) when a town is run by opposing gangs?  It’s a town, everyone in it is oppressed by the gangs, and it takes a man like them in the form of No Name (or Joe) to free it – but of course, he has to leave, there is no place in a town now made civil for a man such as he.  Stagecoach has been described as a microcosm of American civilisation travelling through the wilderness; High Noon has the sheriff who defends the town against savagery but then decides it is not worth saving; Once Upon A Time In The West features the coming of the railroad which should be civilising but demonstrates that capitalist exploitation is just as savage as the wilderness; Unforgiven depicts a totalitarian civilisation that is torn down in the name of brutal revenge.  The conflict between civilisation and wilderness takes many forms: sometimes one is supported over the other and other times the conflict is not resolved at all, but this is the thematic debate that Westerns participate in. I have heard Star Wars described as a Western and I must disagree: it’s a war film (saga) in space.  There is no clash between civilisation and wilderness – it is a struggle for freedom from oppression much like The Lord of the Rings or even Snow White and the Huntsman.

To return to Appaloosa, Harris’ film has a parallel between its central characters similar to that of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.  Just as Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) is a representative of the law (read: civilisation), so is Tom Doniphon (John Wayne) a force of savagery, ostensibly taming the wilderness but therefore a manifestation of it.  Doniphon acquiesces his position of authority in the town of Shinbone to Stoddard, knowing that it is time for civilisation.  Similarly, Everett performs the act of savagery that disqualifies him from civilisation, necessitating his departure from Appaloosa (Viggo Mortenson choosing exile?  Where have I seen that before?).

Throughout the film, Everett is presented as less intimately involved with civilisation.  He follows Virgil’s lead, allowing the other man to determine their involvement with the establishment of Appaloosa.  He lives in the town’s hotel, while Virgil takes the house under construction with Ali.  The fact that the house is under construction is highly significant – Virgil is literally building a new life, in his position as marshal, with Ali, and in their home.  Like Ransom Stoddard, he has built his place within society.  It is also Everett who rides out to meet the Apaches and present them with a horse, ending their hostilities.  Any Western can easily invite charges of racism, but the Apaches in Appaloosa are not presented as wild savages, simply people operating under different systems of civilisation than white settlers.  Everett’s easy interaction with them demonstrates less of an engagement with the law – while Virgil is very much committed to his job, returning Bragg to prison, Everett is more flexible and adaptable to their circumstances, which he demonstrates again when he calls out Bragg.  As noted above, the depiction of violence in a Western is crucial, and I think should be brutal and unflinching, as the engagement with violence is central to the theme of wilderness VS civilisation.

Like Tom Doniphon, Everett reaches a point at which he no longer belongs in civilisation (or is it the other way around?).  Unlike the earlier film though, it is love of a friend rather than love of a woman that motivates Everett.  In a very real sense, he loves Virgil and wants him to be happy, so he sacrifices his own place within the town so that he can let Virgil go.  The two men represent a force for civilisation in a wild, savage environment, but it is Virgil who ultimately accepts a role within civilisation.  For Everett, the place is still out there, a place on his own without his partner, who will now share his life with Ali.  As for Everett, and “for the unforeseeable, well, it was out there waiting for me”.  Civilisation or wilderness, it seems, will always be available for the Western protagonist.


Bat Memories Part Two: The Dark Knight That Rises In Us All


A little late, I complete my ruminations on the cinematic excursions of the Caped Crusader, with consideration of how Christopher Nolan and his collaborators re-constituted Batman after the quality vacuum that was Batman & Robin, as well as offering my thoughts on The Dark Knight Rises.

When I read that the reboot of the Batman franchise was to be directed by the man behind Memento and Insomnia, I was pleased because those films impressed me (indeed, Memento clarified that my favourite type of film is a good thriller and I haven’t gone wrong with that approach yet).  Just how impressive Batman Begins turned out to be took me (as well as others) quite by surprise.  Not only did Nolan (along with brother/co-writer Jonathan, as well as David S. Goyer, DoP Wally Pfister and producer/wife Emma Thomas) deliver a detailed, consistent and plausible reboot and reinterpretation of the Batman mythos, they also created the best superhero movie made up until that point.  The superhero sub-genre had been growing since Blade in 1998, got better with X-Men in 2000 and really exploded with Spider-Man in 2002.  Blade II, X-2, Daredevil, Hulk and Spider-Man 2 followed in quick succession, so when Batman Begins arrived in 2005 (along with Fantastic Four), the superhero stage was already crowded.

What Batman Begins managed to do was delve deep into the psychology of a superhero figure, and strike a balance between character interplay and thematic exploration with spectacular action.  Not that others had not done this as well – Spider-Man 2 and X-2 especially have plenty of action and plenty of character – but Batman Begins actually made the action sequences the least interesting parts of the film.  Which is not to say they were bad: the explosive escape from the League of Shadows’ lair; Batman’s first appearance at the docks; the attack on Wayne Manor; Batman’s rescue of Rachel Dawes and the finale in the Narrows and aboard Gotham’s elevated train are all masterfully handled set pieces.  In a year when Spielberg’s War of the Worlds was more Run of the Mill, and Lucas’ Revenge of the Sith went too far into CGI flamboyance, it was most refreshing to see a relatively new director stake such a claim in the blockbuster field.  Yet despite the impressive set pieces, the inter-personal dramas between Bruce and Alfred, Jim Gordon, Ra’s Al Ghul and the Scarecrow, as well as the careful development of the Batman persona, make Batman Begins a remarkable investigation into identity, in relation to one’s own ideology, family background and social position, not to mention a varied exploration of the theme of fear.  No other superhero film managed to accomplish so much and so efficiently.

With the superhero genre effectively deconstructed and reconstructed, Nolan could go to strange new places with the sequel, which is why The Dark Knight feels like something different and special.  It is a superhero film only by virtue of having names, costumes and a few gadgets; otherwise, it is effectively a straight crime thriller.  Except it is also more than that, as crime thrillers seldom have a criminal as malevolent and uncontrollable as the Joker.  The Joker truly is the trump card in The Dark Knight, as discussions of motivations and objectives go out the window: as Alfred tells Bruce (and as we were warned in the teaser trailer), “Some men just want to watch the world burn.”  Nolan shows us the world burn in The Dark Knight – rather than Batman being a resource for law and order, Gotham becomes more violent and chaotic than ever.  Much of the Joker’s power has been credited to Heath Ledger’s incendiary performance, but both as a character and an element within the plot the Joker serves to elevate the film into a thought-provoking philosophical discussion on chaos and order.  The most dramatic sequences are, again, dialogue scenes such as the confrontation between Batman and the Joker in a police interview room, which infamously turns into a torture sequence, as well as the final stand-off between Batman, Gordon and Harvey Dent.  That these sequences stand out despite the tremendous opening bank robbery, the gripping battle between massive truck and Batmobile/Pod, and the high rise assaults in Hong Kong and Gotham, is testament to Nolan’s mastery of the cinematic craft, blending high octane thrills with serious themes and characters that can explore these themes in uncompromising ways.  More than the best superhero film ever, The Dark Knight is a true genre-blender, merging elements of crime and political thrillers into a potent and compelling cocktail.

It would be fair to say that my reaction at the end of The Dark Knight Rises was one of relief: relief that it managed to live up to expectations.  It did not supersede them – I think after the extraordinary nature of The Dark Knight, the expectation that it would be topped was unreasonably high.  However, being aware of this, my hope was simply not to be disappointed, so I was relieved not to be.  Earlier this year, my local world of ciné were nice enough to screen Batman Begins and The Dark Knight in a single programme, so I got to see both on the big screen again before The Dark Knight Rises.  Therefore I was well prepared to compare Christopher Nolan’s trilogy climax to his previous instalments.

The Dark Knight Rises succeeds as a trilogy closer because it builds upon yet does not deviate from what came before.  We have much of the same: Alfred being regretful, Bruce being committed, Lucius being supportive, Gordon being fretful, and we have much that is new: Selina being deceitful, Bane menacing, Blake simultaneously idealistic and realistic, and Miranda being vengeful.  I also expected Nolan’s remarkable ability to deliver superb action sequences, yet make these sequences the tip of the iceberg, two characters talking being even more dramatic than attack vehicles shooting at each other.  Combining the two is effective as well: Bane and Batman taunting each other while they fight helps to draw the viewer in, feel the emotional as well as physical blows.  Speaking of emotional blows, it was on the second viewing that I actually welled up during Alfred’s final speech, as he grieved for the Waynes and told Bruce’s parents how sorry he was that he failed to protect their son.  Clearly, the film was powerful.

A key part of this power, like the previous installments, are the ideas that feature so heavily (but not heavy-handedly) in The Dark Knight RisesSlavoj Zizek gives a very interesting discussion on the politics of the film, concluding that it is in some ways impressive and in others ham-fisted.  Other reviews comment on the film’s engagement with the Occupy Wall Street movement and the potentially disturbing politics the film suggests.  For me, a great element of the trilogy as a whole and its finale in particular, is the presentation and engagement with a debate over a type of heroism that is surprisingly egalitarian.

In my last post, I discussed the failures of the previous Batman movies to deliver a truly compelling take on the Dark Knight.  I think a key reason was a specific failure to explore the character of Batman/Bruce Wayne in much depth.  Crucially, this was what Nolan indicated he would be doing with his reboot of the franchise, so that was another reason I had high hopes for this re-interpretation.

When first conceiving of his vigilante persona in Batman Begins, Bruce describes an incorruptible symbol.  Alfred tells Bruce in The Dark Knight what the “point” of Batman is: “He can be the outcast, no one else can”.  For Nolan/Bale’s Batman, that is indeed the point of Batman, he can be and do what no one else can.  In The Dark Knight Rises, Bruce explains to John Blake and Jim Gordon that Batman is a demonstration that anyone can be a hero.  I think this may be the reason Batman has always resonated with me, and why my work on the character thus far has focused upon discussions of heroism.  Nolan’s trilogy is distinguished from the previous interpretations of the Dark Knight through its emphasis on “realistic” feats and devices rather than more outlandish events in such franchises as Spider-Man (Raimi and Webb) and The Avengers.  Critics have pointed out the implausibility of such features as the Bat, Bruce’s trip from wherever the prison was back to Gotham without passport or money, and Selina Kyle’s heels, but nonetheless the films still take place in a world far-removed from genetic mutations into lizard creatures and devices that open portals to distant parts of the galaxy.  However, being closer to our reality extends beyond the gadgets and the vehicles.

In my previous post, I argued that Batman Forever impresses me the most of the earlier Batman films, because we have an internal and external struggle for Bruce Wayne.  This dramatic tension is played out on a far wider scale across Nolan’s Dark Knight Legend, as we focus upon Bruce’s attempts to deal with his past, present and future.  Batman is a form of therapy, but ultimately lacks catharsis: he can make a start of helping the people of Gotham, but when it all goes horribly wrong in The Dark Knight, he gets stuck, as Alfred identifies, he never moved on.  Yet by the end of The Dark Knight Rises, he has moved on, “rising” out of the pit of depression that made him a recluse by the start of the film.

Bruce’s rise is only one of a number of appearances of the trope of rising in the film.  Once imprisoned by Bane, Bruce literally rises out of the hole in which he is imprisoned, as did the previous inmate of the prison, whom both viewer and protagonist believe to be Bane, but turns out to be Talia/Miranda. The components of Bruce’s lair rise out of the water in the Batcave, a walkway rising under Alfred’s feet as he approaches his master/charge.  In his final act of sacrifice, Batman rises out of Gotham in order to carry the bomb out of harm’s way.  This final rise is also Bruce’s way of moving on, as he effectively “kills” Batman.  The film’s finale might have benefitted from the ambiguity of not seeing the reverse shot of Alfred’s POV in Florence, when he sees Bruce and Selina, free of Gotham, but I choose to believe it is what he sees, allowing us the viewers to share in the catharsis of all three characters: all have risen from the darkness, the anguish and the pain that we have spent three movies sharing with them.  How fitting that we share their rise as well.

Metaphorically, not only does Bruce rise out of isolation, but Batman rises from the state of pariah, and Gotham must rise above the state of martial law imposed upon it by Bane.  Selina rises from cat burglar to freedom fighter, James Gordon rises from the depressed and injured state that he has fallen into, while John Blake rises from the rank of uniformed cop to something more distinguished.  Indeed, the final shot of the film both presents and expresses rising, as it is filled by the platforms of the Batcave, rising with Robin Blake (the new Dark Knight?) upon them, literal and metaphorical rising encapsulated in a shot that both ends this legend, yet allows us to imagine what more could happen.

This, perhaps, is the final point of Batman: we can all be heroes in one way or another.  We need not put on costumes or fight crime, but “A hero can be anyone. Even a man doing something as simple and reassuring as putting a coat around a little boy’s shoulders to let him know that the world hadn’t ended.”  So perhaps that is the message we can take from The Dark Knight Legend – whomsoever, in whatever circumstances, helps out fellow people, is a hero.  That is the power of the Dark Knight Legend, taking the idea of heroism seriously, both as a dramatic device, and as an in-depth thematic exploration.  To that height, Nolan rose, and certainly delivered me the Batman I always wanted.