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 Twenty Two: Special Western Festival Edition with Bite the Bullet, Man of the West, Monte Walsh, and High Plains Drifter
This week, I am focused on four of the films I showed at my Men of the West: Western Film Festival last weekend in Vicksburg at the Strand Theatre.
Bite the Bullet
This is the second time I’ve seen Bite the Bullet and this time the viewing took place at my recent film festival, Men of the West in Vicksburg.
I programmed the film to honor the memory of Jan-Michael Vincent who is quite good in the film.
I won’t dive into a deep review of the film. Here are a few thoughts I had while watching it again:
1. Richard Brooks does a great job of capturing the energetic, wild atmosphere of the race.
2. I loved the trick shot with the combination of slow motion riding and regular motion riding.
3. The film feels rushed near the end and gets a little silly from the twist with Candice and onward.
4. The biggest mistake in the movie is one casting choice: the rider who has the champion horse. Because this person is not a well-known movie star like the others, it’s immediately evident that he is no competition for the other riders. This decision totally removes any tension that he might win the race and spoils the suspense.
Man of the West
This was also a second encounter with Anthony Mann’s Man of the West, partly the reason we named our festival “Men of the West”. Here are some additional thoughts I had watching the film again:
1. I love the use of the lanterns to motivate light when Cooper first returns to the outlaws’ cabin.
2. The comparisons to King Lear and Oliver Twist felt more appropriate than ever.
3. I think there’s a missed opportunity in that cabin scene I mentioned above. If Cobb had asked Cooper to kill the wounded member of their crew to re-establish himself, it might have been an interesting moment. Plus the wounded fellow could look up and recognize Cooper as having been a train passenger, further motivating Cooper to kill him and plunging him further into darkness.
I believe Monte Walsh to be one of the very best Western films ever made. The screening at the festival only reinforced that. Some additional thoughts:
1. I was stunned that this film, probably the most intimate we showed at the festival, was the one that had the most impact being on the big screen. The reason for this related back to the intimacy, seeing these subtle moments with such power in the theatrical environment.
2. I noticed scenes that didn’t stand out before like the one where Jeanne won’t let Lee Marvin roll and light cigarette. It’s such a delicate, charming moment that most Westerns would never take the time for.
3. The shootout at the end had much more power this time. It’s effective in how disorienting it is. I found myself confused by the geography of the location but that only helped the scene get better. According to Mitch, it was Lee Marvin’s idea Mitch’s character lower his gun. That choice is what solidifies this film as a classic.
High Plains Drifter
High Plains Drifter is a film that gets less and less effective the more I see it. The ambiguity plays as the filmmakers truly not knowing, rather than leaving it “open”. The supernatural, almost Twilight Zone element, is intriguing but not very well thought out.
Some additional thoughts:
1. The “rape” scene near the beginning was mentioned by one of my female friends and is surprising by today’s standards. I find it continuously amusing at how much some filmmakers get picked on for things like this (like Peckinpah with Straw Dogs) whereas Eastwood gets a complete pass here.
2. So many of Clint’s Westerns might have been stronger without him in them. Like Stallone and Schwarzenegger, these films are overcome by the action star persona. This even happens in Unforgiven at the end, which sucks because it’s almost void of that kind of macho bullshit for most of the runtime.
3. The best scene on this viewing was the one where Eastwood rides out of town, leaving them to fend for themselves.