Each Monday, I share reviews of Westerns I’m studying to prepare for making 12 Westerns in 12 Months during 2020. I am watching these films not from an audience perspective but as a filmmaker, as a student of the genre.
Week Eleven: The Ballad of Lefty Brown & China 9, Liberty 37
The Ballad of Lefty Brown
The concept of Bill Pullman’s new Western is an interesting one. I say “Pullman’s” because the film feels conceived as a vehicle for the actor, whose work has often been overlooked. The idea here is to flip the character conventions of the Western around, making a sidekick that might have been played by Walter Brennan or Gabby Hayes the main protagonist.
Sadly, the problem is a misunderstanding in casting. Pullman isn’t Brennan. That’s not close to his type. Therefore he has to play at it; he has to act it instead of being it. That spoils the whole concept. It’s as if Jimmy Stewart (much closer to Pullman’s core) was asked to play Stumpy in Rio Bravo… umm, no.
So what we’re left with is an interesting attempt at something with a misguided approach. Pullman does his best and his performance grew on me throughout the film but never quite felt real. The other casting is off the mark too. For instance, to truly pull off this concept, the villain needed to be played by the equivalent of John Wayne. Of course, there is no current John Wayne but if this role had been cast with someone like Tom Hanks or Harrison Ford (out of the price range I’m sure), it would have worked. The film needed a full reversal, not a half-hearted one. Even Pullman would have been more interesting and fitting as the antagonist.
So why am I giving the film a positive rating? I like the ambition. I like many of the scenes including the long johns fight in the field (never seen that before!). The film, despite its flaws, entertained and moved me.
China 9, Liberty 37
Warren Oates makes any film better. His presence elevates every scene. This film is no exception. He takes the film to another level. Fabio Testi, on the other hand, almost ruins it. He drags the film down minute by minute with a flat, hunk of a performance.
This odd crossbreed of the “Hippie Western” and “Spaghetti Western” is worth a watch, though it often doesn’t work. I liked Monte Hellman’s Ride in the Whirlwind quite a bit and that’s what drew me to watch this one. It has some interesting things going for it: Warren’s presence as mentioned above, its themes of male friendship and betrayal, its unusual ending, its fantastic cameo from Sam Peckinpah.
But what cripples the film, beyond Fabio’s wooden performance, is the love story. It has no basis in character or feeling. It’s pure physical. Fabio takes off his shirt and she’s in love. What the hell? It couldn’t be more shallow and her characterization never works. I never felt a sliver of sympathy for her because the motivation to leave and go with Fabio just wasn’t there.
Some of that is the script, some is Monte’s direction, and some goes back to the casting. I wish someone like Monte’s Ride collaborator Jack Nicholson had played the role. Then this could have been something! I’ve never been a fan of spaghetti westerns, finding them to be hollow imitations of American classics and over-stylized variations of the genre. This film, a sort of hybrid movie, suffers from the weaknesses of the latter and somehow survives on the strengths of the former.
Seen on Amazon Prime.