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 Thirty One: Hondo & Molly and Lawless John
This Wayne Western has been hovering in my periphery for years and the other night I finally decided to give it a watch. It is certainly not the star’s weakest film but it definitely does not belong in the list of his best.
Wayne is actually the most successful part of the movie. He proves, once again, to command the screen in every scene but also to give his character different flavors and nuance. It’s hard for me to take anyone who says Wayne wasn’t a good actor very seriously. For me, it’s the ultimate indicator that they don’t understand two things: 1. The difference between film acting and theatre acting. 2. The meaning of “star” acting and character acting. Wayne was an incredible film actor, making us feel so many things without being act-y, without pushing it too much. He can communicate a variety of emotions in roles like Hondo while barely changing his facial expression. Also, he is a movie star and this means that films were designed around his persona. That doesn’t mean he isn’t acting… he just means he’s acting within a range of who he is and who the audience wants to see, whereas a character actor would be bouncing all over the place in their role choices.
I digress. Unfortunately, the film around him is not very good in this instance. I could never really get behind the romance. The situation with the dog (no spoilers) is so poorly handled. And it has majorly confused messages about Native Americans. It is as once sympathetic and racist, not in a designed way, but as proof of bad writing and bad direction.
Seen on Amazon Prime.
Molly & Lawless John
Now this movie took me my surprise. I watched for out of curiosity, to see a young Sam Elliot. In the first ten minutes, I was hooked because the basic set up has similarities to my upcoming production, She was the Deputy’s Wife: a lawman’s lady falling for a jailed outlaw. And then I got hooked by Vera Miles performances. After that, the narrative started to go in directions I didn’t expect it to. For instance, the moment between Vera and the Native American woman is shockingly disturbing but very real. Also, I was continually surprised at how much of a believable jerk the writer, director, and ultimately the actor created in Sam’s character.
I won’t spoil the ending but it sealed the deal for me: this is another underrated gem of the late 60s/70s era Westerns. Gary Nelson (who I just realized did some cool movies like Black Hole) does a fantastic job of shepherding this story of a woman finding herself. The movie is “feminist” on paper but just feels authentic and true in its delivery. It has made me an admirer of Vera Miles, an actress who certainly gives this role her whole heart.
Seen on Amazon Prime.