dubdobdee (dubdobdee) wrote,

more notes on oaters

When I was a kid there was a toy manufacturer called Britains — actually I think it still exists — which made a type of little plastic soldier called “swoppets”. These were cowboys and indians (and knights and others) with legs, torso and heads that came apart and could be swapped, along with various detachable heads, helmets, headdresses, guns, swords, shields, lassos and so on. So in addition to playing out the stereotypical little battles you could — if you were so inclined — you could create hybrid time-slippy creatures of mixed identity, and er play out murderous battles with them instead.

1: the sheriff of fractured jaw
(d.Raoul Walsh, 1959: w.Kenneth More, Jayne Mansfield)
Kenneth More is NOT my idea of a role model, but this likeably flimsy minor comedy Western does a pretty good job up-ending a series of the form's cliches, simply by injecting a very English, semi-silly-ass young man into the set-up, and having him solve the usual conundra with a mixture of blithe obliviousness and practical pursuit of his own project (which is arms-sales, unexpectedly enough). The town of Fractured Jaw is burdened with a family feud and the threat of injun invasion: More sells fancy guns to to cowboys, indians, etc, playing role entirely straight, and unleashes the Swoppets-based hilarity of cultural misunderstanding! Also: brings peace without himself firing a shot, gets girl with aplomb (= Jayne Mansfield, who has to sing, luckily with Connie Francis's voice). Treatment of Native Americans is hmmm: on one hand also somewhat up-ended -- they're very much not the dark savage unknowable menace, and much more sensible and civilised than the (American) white foax present — yet obviously they also remain tidily within comedy stereotype territory, Carry On-style. Selling them arms solves all More’s problems -- they become More's police force, in effect, plus also his relatives when the chief adopts him. Hardy says it was all shot in the UK; wikipedia says Spain. Walsh’s next film was The Naked and the Dead, which must have been a bit whiplash-inducing.

2: the alamo
(d.John Wayne, 1960: w. john wayne, richard widmark, laurence harvey, FRANKIE AVALON)
Only watched this Wayne-directed would-be auteured epic from the moment when -- facing catastrophe -- Jim Bowie frees his slave, and the slave, to demonstrate he now understands what freedom truly means, opts to fight alongside his old master against the totalitarian Mexicans. Which is (to say the least) a cheek, since slavery was declared abolished in Mexico in the 1810 revolution and (after the war of independence) outlawed constitutionally in 1829 — with Texas [EDIT:, then still part of Mexico,] granted a year’s exception. Texas of course declined to be told, revolted, and turned itself into a slave-owning US state, which is (partly) what the battle depicted (1836) was actually about. The one slave AT the Alamo (who actually belonged to commander William B. Travis) was spared and freed by the Mexicans, as were the women. The scene itself -- once you forget it's offensively historically dishonest -- is reasonably affecting, but the battle scenes that follow (which drew praise at the time) seem clumsy and uninvolving, made odder, though this is hardly Wayne's fault, by the fact that the foe are vast hordes dressed up Napoleonic-style. Santa Anna was actually somewhat obsessed with Napoleon. (Also -- and this is irrelevant but fascinating -- he is generally held to be the person who introduced chewing gum to New York 30-odd years later, when he was hiding out there trying to gather an army.) Swoppets summary: the side speechifying about freedom was fighting against it, as far as slaves went, and the collision of western-style clothes on the defenders with Napoleonic battledress is curiously disorientating. So, actually, is Wayne as Crockett.

3: the magnificent seven
(d.john sturges, 1960: w.yul brynner, steve mcqueen, charles bronson, james coburn, robert vaughn)
It's on the telly a lot but for no very clear reason I've always avoided it (except perhaps that I sort of semi-muddle it with The Wild Bunch, which I’ve watched much more often). A very attractive film, almost dream-like in its formalism, and in this quite similar to the SpagWests that will follow (where its adobe architecture will also become very familiar). Brynner and McQueen, the one masked and wooden, the other masked and wisecracking, somehow fuse into the future Eastwood persona: it's actually better unfused and two-fold, in buddy dialogue. Terrific cameos from Robert Vaughn -- the all-time emperor of the jittery side-eye -- and James Coburn, laconic knifethrower reduced down very nearly to a profile silhouette, body whip-thin and relaxed, large hat tipped down over his eyes... Eli Wallach, as a gangland leader who's all bright-eyed captious charm, is also superb -- capable of the sudden magnanimous gesture when it amuses him, not because he's remotely good, but because doing bad would be a chore at that point. Those of the seven are who don't survive are also having a kind of purgative, redemptive fun of course -- at impasse, trapped or bored or deluded, they throw themselves into this as a kind of game-changer. The Mexican peasants aren't differentiated much as except as necessary types -- but still, the film has an interest in their viewpoint — which switches around sharply, despite their setting the action in motion -- and a not-unkind admiration for their stoic toughness and the unglamour of their world. (It’s based of course on Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai, which I haven’t seen for years — which perhaps brings it some of its dreamy strangeness.) Swoppets summary: Wallach’s hold over his men is the (evil) fun he gives them to; the “Seven” aren’t really a bunch you’d want to belong to — but this is surely a strength in the film.

4: the man who shot liberty valence
(d.john ford, 1962: w.james stewart, john wayne)
Probably not much new to say about this--fighting liberal John Ford's sardonic fable about the violence that creates a space for peace and civilised life. Jimmy Stewart the idealist lawyer-turned-politician who wants to talk gun-law into non-existence; Lee Marvin as the gangster-for-hire, in the pay of the cattle barons but a psychotic law unto himself, with back-up-goons to boot; and Wayne as the whitehat gunman who scorns Stewart and the law and its books, but in the clinch [SPOILERS] fires the shot which enables Stewart's idealism to take domain, Wayne losing his girl and his world and role and purpose with one self-willed act [END SPOILERS]. Almost perfectly formed as a fable, no fat in it, and good backing players (the German settlers who run the bar, the feeble frightened sherriff, Wayne's black manservant), within a highly effective flashback structure: we see several characters old as well as young. Bonus superb comedy performance by John Carradine as Stewart's political rival, all carney eloquence and cynicism. Very obviously stage-sets at most points, but melancholy, dark feel and look in all of them: of course it's it's about the passing of the old West—not an unusual topic in the 60s—but it's about the passing of something else as well, the cultural world that Ford and Wayne straddled. The bite of the idea isn't so much that civilisation and gentility are a lie, a veneer over a crime—though clearly there's strong sanction for this claim in US history—as that the happy-ever-after (the element of this story most deliberately undermined by the structure) is only possible as an element in a tale when you're at a distance in time or space. Close up everything is suffused with loss and despair: and the vanishment from the story of those who made it so. Swoppets summary: Ford’s conception of the interlock of the two roles — the two modes of law, if you like — is exactly about what can and can’t be switched about, and how the two only have social value because of each other.
Tags: westerns
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