****/**** Image B- Sound B
starring Burt Lancaster, Denise Darcel, Sarita Monteil, Cesar Romero
screenplay by Roland Kibbee and James R. Webb
directed by Robert Aldrich
by Jefferson Robbins One mistake in looking at the U.S. Civil War is to assume it began at Sumter and ended at Appomattox. If the wars of living memory have had such tremendous social and personal repercussions, how much could that war among countrymen have? Western movies, for better and often worse, have plumbed this question in the same way noirs and horror movies inquire about their own present moment. Think about the sheer number of greedy killers and dead-eyed psychopaths required to populate "the West" as we came know it through our cinema; what else but a national trauma could create so many murderers and flush them out to the frontiers.
What fascinates me about the western is how, at the end of its own cycle, it began to reckon with its mythologizing of bloodshed, blending genres to do so. Robert Aldrich's 1954 Vera Cruz is a western, a heist flick, and a noir all at once, tearing down its idols before they can even try to stand erect. Under a narrative crawl that places him with the American mercenaries who ranged into Mexico after the Civil War, displaced plantation owner Benjamin Trane (Gary Cooper) rides into frame on a limping stallion, then dismounts to lead the beast to water. This early unhorsing of the cowboy second only to John Wayne in the popular imagination is a signal: Vera Cruz isn't welded to the dictates of its form. Another clue is the presence of Burt Lancaster, 'til then known for crime dramas, melodramas, adventure films, and the then-recent From Here To Eternity. As grinning, black-clad lunatic Joe Erin, he tests and taunts Trane (clothed not in white, but tarnished grey) to decide if he's worth killing. When $3 million in gold is dispatched from Emperor Maximilian's palace in Mexico City to buy guns and soldiers from his patrons in France, both men--along with Erin's extended gang of pistoleros, which happens to include Jack Elam, Ernest Borgnine, and Charles Bronson (née Buchinsky in these credits)--are recruited to steer it secretly to the port at Vera Cruz.
The gold is an unknown factor at first--the mercenaries believe they're simply escorting Countess Marie Duvarre (Denise Darcel), under the watchful eye of the Marquis Henri de Labordere (Cesar Romero). Marie often fondles the gunmen's pistols while they're holding them, as shorthand for sexual dominance, and has no problem with personally shooting a fella in the face. Once she offers to double-cross Labordere and split the wealth with Erin and Trane, the interpersonal dynamic so often seen in noirs--between cutthroats and the women who'd manipulate them--comes into play. Erin, his grin never brighter than when he's stabbing a man to death with the Mexican flag, wants the gold because he's hardwired to kill people and steal their shit. Trane wants a cut so he can rebuild the Louisiana plantation he lost in the war, and presumably reengineer his former slave-owning lifestyle into a new sharecropping arrangement. Are we supposed to root for either of them? Who has the purer motives? Then there's the wider question of the Mexican rebels, loyal to deposed president Benito Juárez, who could pry the French out of power with the gold secreted in Marie's coach. They have their advocate in junior fatale Nina (Sarita Montiel), a seductive pickpocket who courts Trane's favour. And Erin's mob of gangsters is an ever-present wild card, ready to shift to whichever side offers the highest reward.
Co-produced by Lancaster, whose first screen role was the noir touchstone The Killers, Vera Cruz understands that practically no one would behave as people do in westerns unless they were unbalanced, amoral, or broken inside. (Aldrich was only a year away from releasing Kiss Me Deadly, a movie that caps the noir era with the very same sentiment.) The men who ride with Erin are his echoes, not one of them worth a damn--notwithstanding the black man, Ballard (dancer/actor Archie Savage), who saves a Mexican woman (Montiel) from being raped by the white brutes in Erin's gang. Erin uses Ballard's presence as one more platform from which to tweak the Confederate Trane, who seems less ashamed of this than of having to take on mercenary work to raise his fortune. His spasms of decency, misdirected or not, mark him as an adversary Erin must hold close. "He likes people," Erin says. "You can never count on a man like that." With a Gatling gun duel later appropriated for The Wild Bunch and a harmonica solo by Bronson that defined his entire character in Once Upon a Time In the West, Vera Cruz would have probably proved an influential gem even without Aldrich's impressive sense of pace and space. Ending with Cooper in tears and women searching for their men among the dead, the film acknowledges that while war may sanctify slaughter, it can't expunge the shame of it.
In Clint Eastwood's audacious, essential The Outlaw Josey Wales--perhaps his best film as a director overall--former rebel Captain Fletcher (John Vernon) muses about his endless pursuit of the titular antihero, which has wound from the Civil War's guerrilla bloodbath in Kansas to the last-chance silver town of Santo Rio, Texas. "I think I'll try to tell him the war's over," Fletcher says, yet there stands Wales before him, still bleeding. It's a quiet gutshot of a moment. Eastwood too is equally interested in the ways war tears down a man's psyche for rebuilding and in how to make a movie out of it. In a video piece with Kevin B. Lee for SHOOTING DOWN PICTURES, Matt Zoller Seitz identifies pieces of Wales as "a filmmaker's jokes about the process of watching movies." Eastwood with the sun at his back, Chief Dan George's narration of the hero's steps as he rides into action--this is the film commenting on itself and its tropes. I'll go one better: When Wales meanders into Santo Rio, he's essentially wandering a disused studio backlot, the outer shells of buildings. Behind the swinging saloon doors he finds a complete array of non-gunfighter western types--the barkeep, the good-hearted hooker, the kind of local yokels who tend to flee when the black hats and white hats square off in the street. Once inside, Wales shoots a bounty hunter and sends him flying out those same swinging doors at an angle that should be impossible--but this is a western, Eastwood seems to argue, and ludicrous as it may be, that's just the way it goes.
By then the star of six films in the genre (seven if you count Paint Your Wagon) and the director of one (1973's High Plains Drifter), Eastwood was poised to query the western from the perspective of both the man behind the camera and the actor who inhabits the focus. In touches like those mentioned above, he first dismantles the "classic" westerns; by other routes, he comments on the genre post-Leone. Unlike Eastwood's character in A Fistful of Dollars and A Few Dollars More, Josey Wales has a name...by God, does he have a name. Everybody knows it, well in advance of his coming, and that's a speedy rate of transmission for a frontier legend. Like the refugee killers of Vera Cruz, he's displaced and damaged by the Civil War and the murder of his family at the hands of Union raiders under Captain Terrill (Bill McKinney). The early minutes of Josey Wales pass like a Batman origin story, transforming the peaceful farmer from Missouri (a tenuously Union state) into a steel-eyed, hissing vigilante through bereavement, vengefulness, and steady practice. (His first handgun is pulled whole from the still-smoking coals of his burnt homestead, as though forged in that fire.) He throws in his lot with Southern sympathizers and eschews truce when it comes, though he's not a proud Confederate necessarily. "Ain't one of my generals," he says of a Southern commander; he's an outlaw in the true sense, pledging no allegiance. This, plus the roots of his anger and his humble (i.e., slaveless) condition before the war, ameliorate Wales's Confederate stigma in a way that Ben Trane's plantation dreams in Vera Cruz do not.
It's a Pilgrim's Progress from there, with Wales meeting and reluctantly accumulating hangers-on in need of his protection. Naive young rebel Jamie (Sam Bottoms) stands by Wales in his rebellion and catches lead for it--the death of idealism. Cherokee refugee Lone Watie (Chief Dan George) exemplifies for Wales a life punctuated by tears, loss, and defeat that's nonetheless fully lived. Navajo captive Little Moonlight (Geraldine Keams) and deer-eyed maiden Laura Lee (Sondra Locke), the two women Wales observes in the midst of rape or molestation, represent a reawakening to sexual possibility--Laura Lee as a virgin in white offering absolution, Little Moonlight as something of a survivalist wanton. Grandma Sarah (Paula Trueman) wants to bring Wales to Jesus in her little promised land at Santo Rio. Each offers some component for his reconstruction, and they're always talking at him.
It's all a bit ridiculous, as Eastwood recognizes and highlights with some absurdist, borderline hallucinatory visual jokes--an upright piano standing alone in the desert, a dog anointed, as so many targets are, by the outlaw's tobacco spit. (After shots are fired in a frontier trading post, Wales's spittle seems to act as the coup de grâce for a grievously wounded man.) Wales squirms against Laura Lee's hippy-dippy daydreams and Grandma Sarah's proposed communal life, but by that point he's rehabilitated enough to face down Comanche headman Ten Bears (Will Sampson) on their behalf. It's a scene that gives Wales his talkiest moment, a screed against governments meddling in the affairs of men--but there's Eastwood subverting tropes again, as the Dixie warrior manages to make peace with the Indians rather than massacring them. Save the massacre for his own kind, and for his best joke of all, when the killer with the unemptying guns finally finds himself without a bullet to murder his greatest foe. The Outlaw Josey Wales is Eastwood the icon as Eastwood the iconoclast, questioning his own image and the medium in which it was made.
THE BLU-RAY DISCS
Vera Cruz makes little impression in terms of its Blu-ray presentation. Despite a clean or well-restored source print, there's a fair amount of obtrusive grain in its 1.99:1, 1080p transfer, no doubt owing to the post-production "Superscope" process--a primitive precursor to Super35. The overall effect of the grain is a softening, however, while textures remain detailed enough to read the grime on shirtsleeves and in the seams of riders' faces. No edge-enhancement crops up, although it would almost be welcome. There's also a distracting flicker when Aldrich's camera goes into motion in one of his graceful circular pans, his long tracking shots (there's a nice, two-minute example at a riverside Juarista camp), or his orbits along the periphery of a scene. Given the way Aldrich used visual space, one imagines how a 5.1 remix could complement his camera, but it may not have been possible with the flat audio elements available in a 1950s western. The 2.0 mono DTS-HD MA track on offer is perfectly fulfilling besides, allowing me to note how often Aldrich relied on the same Foley effect of a body hitting the ground. There are no significant supplements save the film's three-minute theatrical trailer (which capitalizes on some of Aldrich's best shots), and in fact there's no menu--it's straight into Vera Cruz upon startup, with chapter and language options accessed through a pop-up interface.
In a testimony to Eastwood's clout as a respected, still-living director, The Outlaw Josey Wales gets a real prestige treatment in its venture to Blu-ray. (It was released on his birthday.) Impeccably clean and well-restored, the 2.40:1, 1080p image pays loving attention to cinematographer Bruce Surtees's magic-hour lighting schemes. Watch Wales sip coffee at dusk with Lone Watie, setting sun on his brow, and be moved. Overall, it looks nearly as crisp and warm as a western made today might, and the landscapes are especially beautiful as Wales crosses over from the settled states into the Indian Territories. (There is a probably-unavoidable spike in grain to be noticed in bright desert environments, such as the valley where Wales meets the rape-hungry comancheros.) The film's remixed sound design calls on sudden bursts of violence out of quiet, as with the razing of the Wales home or really any of the gunfights, and the 5.1 DTS-HD MA track rises to the mission. Horse charges and gunfire assaults burst through all channels with full presence, as does Jerry Fielding's woodwindy score.
Richard Schickel, who introduces himself as "a film critic, and historian, and also Clint Eastwood's biographer" (there can be only one!), provides an unhurried commentary track that's mostly light background on whatever scene is before him at the moment. Long silences pervade, and he doesn't tackle the film's sexual politics--the fact that every woman Wales encounters is welded to him by his intercession in some act of violence. (And it's not always clear that Wales means to act out of anything but self-interest.) The closest Schickel comes is in putting his finger on a reason, if not the reason, that screenwriter Philip Kaufman was dismissed as director early in the filming: Eastwood didn't like the way Kaufman allowed his paramour Sondra Locke to be brutalized in her near-rape scene. (Other soundbites scattered throughout the disc's bonus material suggest that Eastwood bristled at Kaufman's methodical, time-consuming approach.) Some of the lensing as Locke is pulled from her wagon and stripped of clothing definitely rings closer to Kaufman's style than to Eastwood's, and the scene is brutal, but is it more oppressive than the rape of Little Moonlight, undertaken in shadow by two savage frontiersman wearing what appear to be bearskins? And did Eastwood not have final cut? His later casting of Locke as a rape victim out for revenge in Sudden Impact, or as a singer who goes to bed with his character in Every Which Way But Loose despite, apparently, hating his guts, seem worthy of dissection here. But that might mess up the dynamic between star and scribe.
The Outlaw Josey Wales carries a raft of standard-def special features recycled from previous editions, in addition to an exclusive and perhaps overly breathless documentary, "Clint Eastwood's West" (29 mins., HD). Still, it's not unappreciated, since it works to set Wales in a context that the included 1999 doc "Hell Hath No Fury: The Making of The Outlaw Josey Wales" (30 mins.) overlooked. Eastwood is a presence in the new featurette alongside fellow filmmakers James Mangold, Kevin Costner, John Lee Hancock, and Frank Darabont, plus spaghetti-westerns scholar Sir Christopher Frayling, Unforgiven screenwriter David Webb Peoples, and more. Darabont draws the in-retrospect-obvious line from Wales to Unforgiven, which similarly features an antihero pulled from his farm life by violence as well as a target-practice scene that's humorous instead of foreboding. Frayling assesses what Eastwood took from his directors Sergio Leone and Don Siegel and judges the results a successful synthesis. In Mangold's voice, the doc points out that the very TV westerns that gave Eastwood his big break with "Rawhide" helped strangle the theatrical cowboy picture.
"Hell Hath No Fury" is interspersed with really fun, vintage B-roll of Eastwood leading his fairly minimal crew through camera set-ups, with a special focus on the Redlegs' raid on Santo Rio. I like Eastwood's take on the autumn light as a shooting element, one that pops up in nearly all his work as an auteur. "Eastwood in Action" (8 mins.) is a contemporary promo reel for the film with more such behind-the-scenes banter about story, locations, and performers. These extras, for what it's worth, have been upgraded with full ten-language subtitle options. I received the DigiBook release for review, whose packaging is handsome but, again, a little breathless, and has the feel of well-designed filler. (The one nugget I did enjoy was finding out Forrest Carter, the author of the privately-published novel that inspired the screenplay, was a segregationist and speechwriter for George Wallace. The Outlaw Josey Wales dusts itself clean of such sentiments like dandruff off the shoulder.) The film's original theatrical trailer rounds out the platter. Originally published: September 21, 2011.