Each Monday, I continue to share Western movie reviews. I have now launched a podcast about the making of Westerns and the overall filmmaking process. Click here to listen.
Week 168: Welcome to Hard Times (1967)
Burt Kennedy’s adaptation of E.L. Doctorow’s novel is misguided. I haven’t read the book but from what I could tell from the film (and the wikipedia page), it’s an allegorical tale that needed a more poetic touch. It needed the mythical tone Malick brought to Days of Heaven or Altman gave to McCabe and Mrs. Miller. It did not need an old Hollywood treatment, especially one without good choices.
The biggest bad decision is the casting of Henry Fonda. Blasphemy? Well, just because Fonda was a great actor doesn’t mean he was right for every role. From the start, it’s difficult to believe that the man who played Lincoln, the man who shot the Clantons down at the O.K. Corral, and the man who stood up to eleven other angry men would lie down like a dog while his town got ripped apart. Fonda couldn’t play the reluctant hero, at least not this one. His presence speaks of too much natural honor, like Gregory Peck, for him to play a “coward”. So there lies the film’s problem: from scene one, I don’t believe the leading man. The role should have been played by Anthony Perkins or perhaps Jason Robards who was strong but showed weakness well in films like The Ballad of Cable Hogue and Something Wicked This Way Comes. Or even Warren Oates, who appears in this film as a buffoon, would have made a good swing at it. I feel like Fonda was a little lost during this period of his career, directionless like some movie stars such as Brad Pitt as today. He chose roles that he wasn’t right for, perhaps out of boredom, and didn’t play them much differently than he’d played the others.
Back to the film, unfortunately the rest of the picture is not helped by a heavy handed treatment from Kennedy. Every dramatic moment is played with a loud orchestral note and a pairing camera exclamation. The opening devastation of the town, which could have been shocking, is overplayed and then the picture settles into Burt’s most familiar territory (broad comedy) until it returns to drama for an even worse climax which does not earn its tragic tone. I was reading that some people called the film “nihilistic”. It could have been. In the right hands, it might have been a bleak statement about good, evil, and human nature but in these ones it’s just a mess.
Watched on Amazon