I continue to study the Western genre. I have now launched a podcast about the making of Western films. Listen here

I first saw this Ron Howard-directed Western when it hit theaters nearly twenty years ago. It felt like it was time for a reassessment (and the film expires from Amazon Prime in a couple days). The second viewing improved upon my memory of this film but it unfortunately fails to live up to its potential. Here are some of my thoughts on its strengths and weaknesses:

1. Cate Blanchett. She gives the film’s weakest performance and I credit that to her origins. A majority of actors from the UK and Australia are not a natural fit for the Western genre. There are exceptions of course but Blanchett, best suited for stiff period pieces, is out of her element here. Placed side by side with Tommy Lee Jones, one of the most well-suited Western actors, and the terrific Jenna Boyd (playing the young Dot), Blanchett’s Magdalena seems phony and forced. Ironically, the lead actress Jones would direct years later in another Western, Hilary Swank in The Homesman, would have been a better fit for this role.

2. The cinematography. It features some of the most breathtaking sequences for Western films this century. Much of this adds to the story instead of just showing off the landscape. Howard and his DP Totino make great use of a variety of locations, making us feel like the heroes have traveled far and wide to accomplish their mission. There are also times, as a filmmaker, where I wanted to tell them to turn off some lights and let it go darker, especially some bizarre shots which are strongly front-lit.

3. The bad guys. Howard fails to make the group of villains memorable. Beyond the lead witch doctor (more on him in a second), the rest are just an indistinguishable mix of white and Apache killers. I never could tell one from the other and that makes them far less effective. The spooky medicine man is definitely memorable but a little too pure evil for my taste. I think the film needed a villain counterpart with more layers to balance him out, one that he could eventually turn against when the going gets tough.

4. The mysticism. One of this Western’s strongest elements is playing with the supernatural in ways that most of the genre never has. It’s quite effective and adds great suspense to a few sequences, specifically the one involving the curse on Blanchett.

5. The length. This is probably the film’s greatest flaw. It’s just way too long! After an extended opening (it’s a half hour before the action really gets going), the movie has a strong middle that unfortunately leads to several climactic scenes, each of which could have been the movie’s ending. Howard, who is usually economical, indulges too much here. The film should have finished on Tommy Lee and his Native counterparts first attack on the bad men or at least that one could have led to the standoff in the mountains. Instead, we have a few skirmishes and things start to get tedious. The filmmakers also miss a great opportunity to put guns in the females captives’ hands. If I was rewriting this script, I would have Jones or Blanchett free the girls and tell them “You’re going to have to fight if any of us will survive”. Outnumbered already, this would have logically led to a victory for our heroes and also given an incredible dramatic moment for these women who have given so much to enact a savage revenge. Alas, the film really misuses the captives, making them incapable, sometimes stupid, and even forgetting a few on screen for a majority of the picture. Back to length, Howard should have studied the Westerns of old that hardly ever over-stayed their welcome or became repetitive like this one does.

Overall, I am happy that I watched this again and admire the effort much more. There are some very strong scenes, including a great Val Kilmer cameo and the best flash flood I’ve ever seen in a film, that hint to what this film could have been. It remains one of the many promising but disappointing Westerns of the 21st century.

Watched on Amazon Prime.