This week, we’re digging into the western. I’ve covered western’s here and there before, and a handful of Japanese samurai films, which are essentially westerns themselves, but never focused on the genre. This week’s films are:
John Huston – The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)
John Ford – The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)
Two of the greatest titles of all time. And neither really falls into the classic idea of a western. In a standard western, we have a mysterious stranger coming into town, and taking on some injustice that the locals are facing. We have some elements of that in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, but it subverts that trope in a really interesting way.
We’ll talk more about the Western genre as we go on, but let’s get into it.
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)
This film centers on Dobbs and Curtin, two homeless men living in Mexico who decide to go prospecting for gold. Since they don’t know anything about it, they enlist the help of Howard, an experienced prospector. As they go out into the wilderness, they discover all the dangers inherent in their enterprise: the challenge of finding water, the federales, bandits, other prospectors, but most of all, each other. Will they find gold, and will they survive the experience?
The film is directed by John Huston and stars Humphrey Bogart, Walter Huston, and Tim Holt. We’ve covered some Bogart films before, and he’s one of the all-time great actors. Tim Holt is lesser known, but had a pretty good career. Walter Huston also had a great career, but is probably best remembered for this one, in which he is being directed by his own son.
This is a film that has a setting like a western, but it doesn’t really feel like a western. I questioned whether or not I could reasonably call a western. I’m still not sure. The plot is fairly complex, and I don’t think there’s even a hero in the film. There’s no love story, which is a staple of the western. In fact, I don’t think there’s even a woman with a speaking part. But we’ve already watched it, so we’re digging in.
Bogart as Dobbs is fascinating in this film. He’s playing a down and out bum, begging on the street for his meals. It’s a role I think most actors of his stature wouldn’t have taken. Keep in mind this was long after Casablanca. At this point, he’d already done half a dozen classic movies, and he was a big star. And in this film, he’s wearing tattered clothes, with a week-old beard, covered in sweat and grime.
He meets Tim Holt’s character, Curtin early on. They spend their days waxing philosophical about their plight, and how bad they have it. The film is really clever here, as it explains what Dobbs and Curtin’s mindset is, and also gives us a taste of their daily lives.
They hang around each other, and meet Howard who tells them all about prospecting, which they ignore at the time. They take a job together building an oil rig. They expect to get paid when they return, but the contractor skips out on them. They find him a few days later, and beat him up to get their money. It bonds the men, and as they talk about the windfall they have, Dobbs suggests they go hunting for gold. Curtin agrees, and talks Dobbs into taking Howard with them, since he knows what he’s doing.
Now Bogart was one of the biggest actors in the world at the time, but Walter Huston is the star of this film. He just jumps off the screen. If you ever see someone doing a comedy sketch as an old prospector, they’re essentially doing an impression of Walter Huston in this film. His voice, his mannerisms, his language, it’s all iconic. From the first moment he appears, you’re thinking about him.
As they go out on the trail, Dobbs and Curtin, who earlier had questioned whether Howard could keep up with them, find out just how unprepared they are. They can barely make a day’s walk, and Howard is running ahead of them, climbing hills and running back down to guide them. They also find out how little they know when Dobbs is certain he’s found gold. He and Curtin yell excitedly and call for Howard. But Howard knows it’s just pyrite, fool’s gold. A rock that glitters like gold, but has none of the other valuable properties of gold.
When they do find gold, Howard is the only one that recognizes it. It doesn’t look anything like what Dobbs and Curtin expected. They let him take the lead, while he assures them that they’ll know everything by the time they’re done. They set up camp, put together their equipment, and start mining.
Everything goes well until they start making some real gains, and Howard talks up how much gold they might be able to find. Dobbs is the source of friction, as he becomes more and more paranoid about what the other men plan. He starts imagining plots they might have against him, and demands they split up the gold each night, and hide it from each other.
This is never clearer than a scene where Curtin and Howard imagine what they’ll do with their money. Howard knows he’s older and doesn’t have a long time left, so he just needs enough to live on until he passes. Curtin talks about buying some land and planting a fruit orchard, reminiscing about good times he had as a younger man. It’s a classic western scene, sitting around the campfire, talking about home.
But then Dobbs comes in with his own fantasy. He describes taking the money to a fancy spa, and spending it only as a way to humiliate and abuse others. He wants revenge for all the people who he feels wronged him. Not by confronting them directly, but by paying it forward to other people who are just struggling to get by. He plans to blow all the money on fancy things until it runs out, and he’s destitute again. The other men are uncomfortable, and we the audience are uncomfortable too. He’s so unaware, and we immediately begin to distrust him.
Dobbs gets more and more paranoid, even pulling a gun on Curtin when he tries to get a lizard out from under a rock that also happens to hold Dobbs gold. Curtin dares him to reach under the rock and grab his gold, talking up the danger of the lizard and how vicious it is. He hesitates and is disarmed. When Howard pries up the rock and he sees the lizard on his gold, he calms down a bit, but it’s setting up where he’ll go in the future.
The internal dangers are significant, but then the external dangers start appearing. When Curtin is in town, he meets another man who seems far too curious about what he’s doing. He tries to lose him, but he follows him all the way back to camp, demanding to be made a partner in their operation, or he’ll tell the authorities what they’re doing, which is illegal. The three men decide to kill the man, named Cody after some discussion, but then see a line of bandits coming to find them. They have to fight. They decide to join forces for the time being.
In the confrontation, we get the other most iconic character from the film, the bandit with the gold hat that accosts the men. The actor’s name is Alfonso Bedoya, and he’s unforgettable as the dangerous, yet simple bandit leader. He has some great iconic lines, and his gap-toothed smile is unforgettable. He also seems to bring a real joy to his work as a bandit, which is strangely charming, even when he’s doing awful things.
The four men scare off the bandits, who are then chased by the federales, but Cody has been killed. The men who were ready to kill him just a few hours before suddenly feel remorse, and look through his belongings to find out where he’s from and give him a burial.
After some disappointing mining days, the three men decide to stop mining and head back into town. I won’t bother rehashing the rest of the plot, but it all starts falling apart when Howard is separated from the group to help a local boy recover from a near drowning. Without his influence, Dobbs gets more and more paranoid, putting Curtin in danger, not to mention the gold. Seeing how this plays out becomes an intense experience for the audience.
It’s a pure joy to watch this film. Bogart plays the paranoid, loathsome Dobbs perfectly. The character barely needs lines, Bogart is able to produce these unsettling crazy eyes that would take anyone back. But when you include that with Bogart’s delivery, and the nonsense lines and conspiracy theories he keeps spinning, you get a truly amazing character.
This is what I love about Bogart, even at this point in his career, when he could theoretically choose whatever roles he wanted, and play the hero in every film, he still spent months out in the desert, covered in sweat and grime, playing the villain of a film. It’s a huge credit to his taste in roles. Clearly, he wanted to play the most interesting character, and Dobbs is it.
But is it a western? Or is it a thriller? I think it’s both, and that’s great. I think it was Spielberg that said that the modern obsession with superhero films was similar to the Western craze of the early days of film. And what we see with those films is that they have started to take on other genres to mix into their own to stay fresh. For example, Captain America: Winter Soldier was in fact a political thriller. Deadpool was a screwball comedy. I personally like this development. If we’re going to be stuck with superhero movies every other week for the forseeable future, at least let them branch out.
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)
In this film a famous senator comes back to the small town where he got his start for the funeral of a friend. The local newspaper requests an interview and has no idea who this man is who was so important to the senator. He sits down and tells them the story of how he came to the small town of Shinbone, dreaming of bringing law to the wild west. But when he arrives, he discovers that bringing law and order will be harder than he expected. Will he make it? Will he survive? And who shot Liberty Valance?
This film is directed by John Ford, and stars Jimmy Stewart, John Wayne, Vera Miles, Lee Marvin and Andy Devine. Like our previous film, it has an amazing title, and this is actually my favorite film title of all-time. It just raises this air of mystery. How can you not want to watch that movie?
The cast is amazing. Likely one of the best of all-time. As far as I know, this is the first time John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart had worked together, and the only time Ford ever directed Stewart (again, as far as I know. I might have missed something). It’s an interesting pairing, because Wayne is known as the old school tough guy, while Stewart was known as the everyman. They play to those types here. When Stewart first appears in the flashback, he is being robbed and beaten, helpless against the man we will later learn is Liberty Valance, played by Lee Marvin. When Wayne appears, he is rescuing Stewart’s character, Ransom Stoddard(another great name) from the side of the road where he has been left for dead. Wayne’s Tom Donaphon brings him into town into the care of Hallie, played by Vera Miles. Hallie and her parents run what appears to be the only restaurant in town. After nursing him back to help, Rance sticks around to wash dishes to pay them back.
What’s fascinating to me about this film is that there’s essentially two films playing. One is a classic western about good vs evil. Tom is protecting the town from Liberty Valance. Rance also wants to protect the town from Liberty Valance, but with wildly different methods. This is where the second film comes in. This one involves Ransom Stoddard trying to be a lawyer in a world largely without law. When he opens his law book, and tries to explain jurisdiction, he is ridiculed by people like Tom. The local law enforcement, Link, played by Andy Devine, is a coward. He won’t stand up to Valance.
He genuinely believes that law and order is the solution to the worlds problems. But Tom Donaphon believes that without strength and force, people like Liberty Valance will rule the west. This is all wrapped up in the battle for statehood. We’re never told which state this is, and the capitol is simply called “Capitol City”, but it tells the story of a major transition in American history. The birth of the modern America.
Liberty Valance is the villain in both stories. While he plays the heavy against Donaphon, he also works for the cattle ranchers trying to keep the territory intact, as statehood would lead to more regulations and cities, losing them valuable free cattle grazing land.
Ford uses this film as not just a western adventure, but as a civics lesson. Ransom doesn’t just practice law, he also begins teaching the locals how to read and write, and about the voting process. What comes across is a film that really champions the power of democracy. In fact, it shows the pillars of democracy, education, voting, and the press. Valance attacks all three. There’s something really interesting about watching this film in the current political climate. Seeing how leaders are supposed to act compared to how our leader currently acts.
There’s an amazing scene when the people of the town are nominating their delegates for the convention for statehood. Valance has a plan to intimidate the voters and insert himself as a delegate. He barges into the meeting, trying to disrupt it, but he just doesn’t have the power in this room that he normally has. He uses his goons to get nominated, and when it comes time to vote he stands at the front staring down the voters, threatening them. But not a single person votes for him. He’s furious, but he can’t do anything. The people have spoken.
The political message here isn’t subtle at all, and I’m sure that is by design. Tom Donaphon has an African-American sidekick named Pompey, and during class, Rance has him stand up and read the opening lines of the Declaration of Independence, including the lines “All men are created equal.” There are a lot of other little moments along those lines as well. The film’s progressive values are clear.
As the film continues, Rance and Tom have various run-ins with Valance, their responses to those showing even greater contrasts in their character. Tom prefers showdowns and confrontation, while Rance tries to defuse the situation. But after the voting incident, Valance has told Rance that he will find him that night and fight him, whether he’s ready or not. Tom offers to take him out of town, but Rance decides to stay, taking the small gun he’s acquired with him. He’s been practicing, but we’ve seen he’s a terrible shot.
That night, Rance goes out to face Valance, and Valance simply toys with him. Shooting him in the arm, disarming him, and waiting for him to pick up his gun before mocking him even more. Just as Valance is about to kill him, Rance takes one last desperate shot, and Valance goes down. He’s dead.
The traditional western would have a short epilogue, and then end there, but this film has a bigger storyline to cover. And in order to do it justice, I’m going to have to spoil the hell out of the film.
Rance goes to the Capitol City to vote on representation for the territory. The cattle ranchers have their candidate, a stuffed shirt with a fake grin. Their pitch includes a man riding in on a horse and doing rope tricks. It’s all flash, no substance. The statehood side gets their time to talk, and they nominate Rance. Rance leaves, disgusted that he might end up making a name for himself off that back of a murder. But Tom catches up to him and reveals the truth. Rance didn’t shoot Valance, Tom did. We see the scene again from Tom’s perspective. He was standing off to the side, and as Rance fires, Tom does at the same time, killing Valance, and leaving without saying anything, letting Rance take the glory.
Rance decides he can accept the nomination, and goes back in. We return to the present, and the newspapermen are shocked. Ransom Stoddard’s entire career was built on that moment. They decide not to print it, giving one of the most iconic lines in cinema. “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend. ”
This film is definitely in my personal top 10 films of all time. It’s so rich and complex. The acting is perfect.
The surface of the film is all about the transition from old and new, but I wonder if Ford is reflecting on his own career here. The film was made in 1962 and was his last great film. I think this film is about Ford looking back at his career and realizing that the world of film had moved on. Tom represents Ford, an old school guy, looking at the world change and knowing that he can either support the people making the change or fight against it. The one fighting against it is Valance, the villain. And he’s overwhelmed by the changes coming.
Ford doesn’t want to be Valance, fighting and clawing and humiliating himself in the face of change. He will do what he can to support and advise the people making changes, and then fade into the background.
Ford was a great filmmaker, and going out on a high note was one of the greatest moves he ever made.
The Double Feature
These are two of the greatest films of all-time, and watching them together was a great pleasure. They’re both westerns, but because they’re so different they make great companions to each other. But honestly, you can’t go wrong with Bogart and Stewart, no matter what the configuration. This one is a no-brainer. ‘Nuff said.
I did some reflecting on my last year. It was pretty intense. I had a pretty significant mental crash that made me question everything I was doing, some of my own health problems, and some even more serious health problems in my family.
But this week, I really thought about what I’ve accomplished in that time. I’ve written 46 of these blog posts, finished my coursework, and now I’m done with my qualification exam. Looking back, I’m not totally sure how I did the things I did while feeling the way I did. But here I am. And it doesn’t matter, I know I can do it. And I’ll keep going.
So what about next week’s films? I’m super tempted to go back to Luis Bunuel, because FilmStruck just added a bunch of his films. But I just covered him, so maybe we’ll look to someone else. How about some classic foreign film? Next week’s films will be:
Jean Renoir – The Rules of the Game (1939)
Henri-Georges Clouzot – Diabolique (1955)
Two French films, one of which has been called the greatest film of all time. Should be fun. See you then.