A spur of the moment decision over summer to watch Howard Hawk’s 1959 Rio Bravo, led to me view a number of Westerns I hadn’t previously seen.
A so-called classic that regularly appears on best of lists of Westerns, Rio Bravo is the story of a small town sheriff (John Wayne) who enlists the aid of a cripple, a drunk and a young gunfighter in his efforts to hold the brother of a local outlaw in his jail.
A lot of people I know love the film but I found it overlong, wooden, and there was zero chemistry between Wayne and Angie Dickinson. I watched Hawk’s earlier effort, Red River (1948), which I enjoyed more, especially Montgomery Clift’s performance, and John Ford’s The Searchers (1956), in which an embittered racist civil war veteran (Wayne again) embarks on a journey spanning several years to rescue a niece (somewhat unconvincingly played by Natalie Wood), stolen in a Comanche raid. It is a terrific piece of story telling, as much for what is not said and shown as what is.
Also on the list was Lawman (1971), a pretty average effort, in which a sheriff (an ageing Burt Lancaster) arrives in a town to arrest all the cattlemen whose celebration in his town the year before resulted in the death of an old man, and the excellent 1959 Andre de Toth film, The Day of the Outlaw. Set in a small Wyoming town in the middle of a harsh winter, it opens with a cowboy, Blaise Starrett (Robert Ryan) arriving to settle a long standing feud with a rancher whose wife (Tina Louis – Ginger grant in Gilligan’s Island) he has been sleeping with.
Soon after Starrett arrives, the town has more visitors, a gang of outlaw Confederate soldiers led by Jack Bruhn (Burl Ives). This is a wonderfully layered film, which includes conflict between the townsfolk, the townsfolk and the outlaws and within the outlaws. Bruhn is wounded, lessoning his authority over his men, who have their own ideas for what to do with the town, its whisky and, particularly, its women.
Good or bad, these films had one thing in common – they all told the story of the ‘West’ from a male perspective. To a greater or lesser extend they contained female characters, some of them very strong, but the men were the main focus. Even most revisionist Hollywood Westerns, like Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven (1992) are overwhelmingly masculine in tone.
This is what makes Tommy Lee Jones’ fourth directorial effort, The Homesman, which opened in local cinemas today, so interesting. Based on a 1988 novel by US writer Glendon Swarthout (who also penned the 1970 book, Bless the Beasts and the Children), it is the first Western I can recall that looks at the reality of the West mainly from a woman’s perspective.
That woman is Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank). Cuddy lives a hardscrabble solo existence on a farm near an isolated town, eking out a living while trying to find a husband from the shallow gene pool of eligible local males. In the latter endeavour she is singularly unsuccessful due to the fact she is too opinionated, pious and too threatening to the males.
When three of the local women go insane (one of whom is played by Miranda Otto), the town pastor (John Lithgow) asks for a volunteer to take them to a large town where they can be looked after better. It is clear the women have literally been driven made by the savagery of their lives and the brutal actions of their husbands who, for the most part view them as no better than cattle.
The women’s husbands refuse or find excuses not to undertake the long, dangerous journey, so Cuddy agrees to do it. She enlists the aid of George Briggs (Jones), a drifter and claim jumper who she rescues from being hanged in return for accompanying her.
On the trip, Cuddy and Briggs have to deal with Comanche Indians, rogue male settlers and the harsh climate. The ordeal seals them as team of sorts, but just when the film appears to be going in the obvious direction, a romantic liaison between them, two thirds in it takes a totally unexpected turn of events. You will either agree or disagree with this shift but I guarantee you will not expect it.
In interviews, Jones has denied the claim, made by some reviewers, that this is ‘the first feminist Western’. Indeed, that would require much more than simply looking at the West from a woman’s perspective. But it is a fascinating and intriguing film that is well worth seeing.