23 posts categorized "Western"

August 18, 2012

HEAVEN'S GATE — THE CRITERION COLLECTION

   Groupthink doesn't live here, critical thought does.

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ColeSmithey.comSo much has been written about Michael Cimino’s torpedoing of United Artists studios, and his own career, with this legendary, disastrously over budget epic Western, that it takes some doing to separate the quality of the much maligned film from the mythology surrounding it.

Heaven’s Gate” (1980) was originally budgeted for $7.5 million, and wound up costing over $36 million. It made less than $3 million at the box office during its theatrical release. It was only due to Jerry Harvey’s Los Angeles-based cable “Z Channel” that “Heaven’s Gate” began to be viewed with the respect it deserves.

Heaven's Gate

Coming on the heels of his overwhelming success with “The Deer Hunter,” Cimino set out to make a European-styled Western full of carefully orchestrated crowd scenes to rival the climatic ballroom dance sequence in Luchino Visconti’s “The Leopard.” His casting choices would be unconventional.

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The film opens with Kris Kristofferson’s lead character James Averill running to catch up with his Harvard classmates for their 1870 graduation ceremonies. Joseph Cotton’s reverend/doctor speaks to the Class of '70, of the “influence” they may exert toward the “education” of a hostile nation.

Screen Shot 2022-12-23 at 11.20.23 PM

Commencement speaker William C. Irvine (John Hurt) squanders his opportunity to address his peers with any such lofty aspirations, and thus sets the tone for the irresponsible attitudes of an organization called the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, which, 20 years later, creates a 125-name “kill list” to eradicate Casper, Wyoming of most of its immigrant settlers. Now serving as a federal Marshall for Johnson County, Averill stops off in Casper to woo his French madam girlfriend Ella Watson (Isabelle Huppert) with a brand new horse carriage.

Heaven's Gate

The film’s title derives from the name of a large canvas-roofed rollerskating rink dance hall operated by John Bridges (Jeff Bridges), a European immigrant entrepreneur. The spacious venue allows for the film’s centerpiece, a music-and-dance sequence in which the town’s immigrant community gathers to dance, rollerskate, and cavort.

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For all of the exorbitant cost attributed to the scene, it serves an important function in the story. Here, we are informally introduced to a community of impoverished migrants with a joyous lust for life. It is this exact type of cultural richness that a tight knit group of wealthy white cattle barons wants to wipe out. Inevitably, a small-scale war of ideologies is brewing.

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“Heaven’s Gate” examines a rarely glimpsed vision of the Old West. It is not one that American audiences at the time of the film’s release were happy to receive. To be sure, the movie was not promoted with the kind of energy attributed to mainstream fare.

Nonetheless, “Heaven’s Gate” is an unforgettable film full of heartfelt sincerity and pointed commentary about America’s bloody history of hypocrisy, greed, and racism. It is worth every penny spent on it, and every bit of an audience’s time watching its three-hour-and-forty-minute running time.

Rated R. 217 mins. 

5 StarsBMOD COLE2

Cozy Cole

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February 06, 2012

THE WILD BUNCH — THE CRITERION COLLECTION

  ColeSmithey.comGroupthink doesn't live here, critical thought does.

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ColeSmithey.comIn 1969 Sam Peckinpah made the greatest example of the western genre in cinema. Not many American audiences at the time could recognize it as such, in part, because Warner Brothers edited down Peckinpah's original 144-minute version to allow for more theatrical screenings in the United States.

Set in 1913, on the eve of World War I, the episodic story follows the robbing, drinking, and whoring exploits of a gang of middle-aged outlaws out to make one last bank heist that will enable them to retire.

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Peckinpah sets the gritty tone for the violence to follow with an opening credit scene of children gleefully watching a swarm of red ants attacking a couple of defenseless scorpions whose large claws and stinging tails are of no use against such a large number of pernicious insects. A primordial aspect of history repeating itself is at play.

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William Holden's Pike Bishop leads his gang of renegades dressed as American soldiers into a Texas border town. Their military uniforms blind the local citizenry to the group's wicked threat. Little do the thieves themselves realize that a posse of bounty hunters line the roofs of buildings facing the town square where the bank in question awaits.

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Inspired by Arthur Penn's "Bonnie and Clyde," Peckinpah orchestrates a speed-shifting ballet of bullets in a bloody gunfight that leaves bystanders lying dead alongside posse members and dudes from Pike’s gang. Never before had a western shown such a potent version of gunshot violence and gore. Informed by the realities of the Viet Nam war — televised nightly at the time — Peckinpah sought to bring such realism to his audience with a vengeance.

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Upon their escape, the remaining gang discovers insult added to injury in the guise of worthless steel washers that fill the bank bags once believed filled with gold.

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Pike and his right-hand man Dutch (Earnest Borgnine) ride off toward Mexico with their cohorts, the outlaw brothers Lyle (Warren Oates) and Tector (Ben Johnson) and their Mexican comrade Angel (Jamie Sanchez). After crossing the Rio Grande the gang find that the Mexican Revolution has devastated the region where Angel was born. A local despot called Mapache (Emilio Fernandez) rules the region with the support of the Mexican Federal Army. Angel is none too pleased when he finds his wife has run off to play girlfriend to Mapache. Angel’s subsequent act of revenge indebts the gang to Mapache. A deal is brokered for the gang to rob a U.S. Army train transporting weapons.

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Famous for its breathtaking bridge explosion sequence, “The Wild Bunch” is a western layered with social commentary about war, codes of honor among men, and humanity’s childish nature that bends equally between violence and pleasure. The film’s brilliant cinematography (courtesy of Lucien Ballard) and dynamic editing (by Lou Lombardo) impeccably serves Peckinpah’s uncompromising vision. “The Wild Bunch” is a post-modern western that represents the passing of an era. It is an epic masterpiece that changed cinema forever.

Rated R. 135 mins.

5 StarsColeSmithey.com

Cozy Cole

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November 21, 2011

STAGECOACH — THE CRITERION COLLECTION

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ColeSmithey.comWith his first sound Western in 1939 director John Ford invented the template for the modern Western form. Every character archetype is on display, as is every plot movement of cause and resolution that would become well-worn clichés in the most prolific genre of 20th century American film.

“Stagecoach” was also the first collaboration between John Ford and his star actor John Wayne. Their personal friendship and professional alliance would span four decades , including such other milestone achievements as “The Searchers” (1956).

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Wayne plays Ringo Kid, an escaped prison convict who gets captured by Marshal Curly Wilcox (George Bancroft). In the absence of a calvary escort through dangerous Apache country, Wilcox rides shotgun on a stagecoach full of passengers headed from Tonto, Arizona Territory to Lordsburg, New Mexico Territory. Monument Valley provided the iconic location Ford would return to again and again throughout his career.

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Reports of attacks led by the Indian chief Geronimo and his Apache tribesmen instill an atmosphere of tension and dread. Andy Devine steals numerous scenes as Buck, the jovial stagecoach driver whose high-pitched voice penetrates through the clamor of dust-up action and petty squabbles.

Along for the bumpy ride is Henry Gatewood (Berton Churchill), a blowhard banker carrying a bag stuffed with $50,000 of embezzled cash. Dallas (Claire Trevor) is a well-mannered prostitute abruptly run out of town. Naturally, sparks of romance fly between Ringo and Dallas during the unpredictable journey. A wedding proposal from the prison-bound Ringo is in the offing.

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Samuel Peacock (Donald Meek) is an effeminate whiskey salesman whose bag of samples provides a seemingly bottomless supply of booze for Doc Boone (Thomas Mitchell). Doc is an alcoholic physician capable of rising to the occasion when Lucy Mallory (Louise Platt), a calvaryman's faithful wife, unexpectedly gives birth. On board too is a smarmy gambler (played by John Carradine) with a keen interest in taking care of Mrs. Mallory. In spite of his arrest, Ringo has unfinished business with Luke Plummer (Tom Tyler) over the murder of Ringo’s father and brother. No Marshall can prevent Ringo from his sworn showdown if the stagecoach ever reaches its destination.

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Integral to its authentic atmosphere of the 1880’s Wild West are the film’s Oscar-winning adaptations of American folk songs that supply an aural tapestry of vibrant cultural experience. The film’s centerpiece cowboys-and-Indians chase scene is peppered with some truly terrifying stunts performed by men and horses alike.

Orson Welles famously said he watched “Stagecoach” 40 times before he made “Citizen Kane.” It’s easy to see why.

Not Rated. 96 mins.

4 Stars“ColeSmithey.com”

Cozy Cole

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