"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Jesse James: the silent movies


The American Robin Hood


"He stole from the rich and he gave to the poor,
He'd a hand and a heart and a brain."


Jesse Woodson James (1847 - 1882) was a young Confederate guerrilla accused of committing atrocities, then a robber of banks, stagecoaches and trains, and murderer. He was shot dead by a fellow member of his gang wanting fame and reward. He was possibly a psychopath, certainly a sociopath and racist (even by mid-nineteenth century standards), a proto-terrorist, and definitely a criminal.

No, no! Jesse James was a hero of the West, a Robin Hood figure and a martyr. Dashing and brave, he stood up for the small man and the South against Northern corporate interests and the railroads. He was unjustly hounded by the Chicago Pinkertons who brutally attacked his sainted mother’s home, maiming her and killing Jesse’s simple-minded brother.
 
Jesse James
 
Jesse James the legend is far better known than JW James the nasty little thief. Countless books, songs and movies have convinced generation after generation that Jesse James was a great figure of American history, someone to look up to and admire.

There is of course no doubt whatever on which side of this debate Hollywood stood. Recent depictions have redressed the balance a little. Colin Farrell in 2001 was no saint (the slogan of American Outlaws was ‘Bad is good again’) and Brad Pitt in 2007 in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford was distinctly dangerous. However, even they were hardly dyed-in-the-wool racist psychopaths, and most film versions avoid the Civil War altogether (though there are exceptions). And for most of cinematic history the various Jesses were dashing, spotless heroes.

And it started right from the very first depiction of Jesse, in silent movies. There were three in the 1920s.
 
Jesse James Under the Black Flag

Jesse James Under the Black Flag in 1921 was a silent in which Jesse E. James, known as Jesse James Jr. (1875 – 1951), starred as his father. Jesse James Jr. was an interesting character. The E in his name was for John Newman Edwards, the Missouri journalist and champion of the outlaw. In his youth Jesse Jr. went by the name of Edwards in order to conceal his identity but later on the name Jesse James became more attractive and valuable. He studied law and owned a pawnshop in Kansas City, practicing law there. In 1898 JJ Jr. was arrested and stood trial for train robbery. Exciting stuff. But he was acquitted. He moved to California in the 1920s and ran the ‘Jesse James Inn’.
 
Jesse James Jr.
 
He appeared in and produced two 1921 films with his sister Mary: Jesse James Under the Black Flag and Jesse James as the Outlaw. The only extant version (as far as we know) is an edited 1930 release of the two films, under the title Jesse James Under the Black Flag, with narration taking the place of most of the original inter-titles, plus musical accompaniment and sound effects. It lasts 69 minutes. Each of the two original films has been shortened to approximately half its original length.

Today, it’s only watchable as an historical document. As a Western movie, it’s pretty hard going. Partly this is because of the narration, which is plodding, dull, and badly delivered by someone who is far from a professional. As it accompanies the action throughout, it becomes fairly tiresome by the end.

Jesse Jr. is hardly believable as Jesse Sr. He was certainly no actor and he was in his rather podgy late forties at the time, so not terribly convincing as a seventeen-year-old guerrilla.

Intro text on screen announces that we are about to see:

Jesse James Jr.
In an authentic life of his father
JESSE JAMES
Under the Black Flag
And as the most hunted outlaw in American History.

We are then told that it will be:

A play based upon Facts [I notice Facts has a capital letter; I don’t know if that’s significant]

Written and Directed by
Franklin B Coates
With the valuable assistance of
Jesse James Jr.
Harvey C Hoffman
And William Grimes
[We are not told who Messrs. Hoffman and Grimes are or what they contributed]

Then The Ballad of Jesse James is heard, with some of the lyrics on screen.

We open with Jesse Jr. in his very palatial home in California, where he is visited by writer Franklin B Coates (played by himself) who has come to discuss the final chapter of Jesse’s book about his father. We meet also “Mrs. Jesse James Jr.”, also played by herself, but only in a walk-on and then immediately walk-off part.

At the same time, Jesse Jr.’s daughter Lucille (Diana Reed) has fallen for a handsome aviator, Robert Standing (Jack Neil), who asks dad for her hand in marriage. Jesse says that Bob must read the book first, to understand who her grandfather was, and if he still wants to propose afterwards, he can have her hand. So he starts leafing through the pages, the screen goes all blurry, you know how they do, and we are in Civil War Missouri with a 17-year-old Jesse.
 
Harry Hall as "Charles William Quantrell", presumably William Clarke Quantrill
 
Jesse is joining up with “Charles William Quantrell” (Harry Hall). He shows Quantrell the scars on his breast where Federal soldiers have tortured him and he swears allegiance to the black flag. Right from the outset it is clear that the “Federals”, as they are called, are the treacherous atrocity-mongers and the guerrillas are noble and true. The pedantic voiceover fellow tells us that “Federal soldiers burned homes, and Missouri settlers organized under the able leadership of Charles Quantrell.” Bill Anderson (FG McCabe) appears but there is no ‘Bloody’ before his name and he is a brave ally of Jesse’s.
 
Harry Hoffman as Cole Younger
 
We see the family of Cole Younger (Harry Hoffman) driven from their home and their farm burned. Cole, impotent to stop it, also joins Quantrell. They make a raid on Plattsburg and ride in, wasting all their ammunition by shooting their pistols in the air, and the Federals, with good cover and rifles, do not hit a single one. “Jesse James risks his life to save his pal,” we are told. Later, Jesse is shot from ambush and badly wounded, and goes home to his ma to be nursed.

General Order No. 11 is highlighted as a great injustice. It’s a bowdlerized version and though the camera zooms in on it the print is anyway such now that you can’t read it, so you have to know. It concentrates on the first part:

All persons living in Jackson, Cass, and Bates counties, Missouri, and in that part of Vernon included in this district, except those living within one mile of the limits of Independence, Hickman's Mills, Pleasant Hill, and Harrisonville, and except those in that part of Kaw Township, Jackson County, north of Brush Creek and west of Big Blue, are hereby ordered to remove from their present places of residence within fifteen days from the date hereof.
 
Those who within that time establish their loyalty to the satisfaction of the commanding officer of the military station near their present place of residence will receive from him a certificate stating the fact of their loyalty, and the names of the witnesses by whom it can be shown. All who receive such certificates will be permitted to remove to any military station in this district, or to any part of the State of Kansas, except the counties of the eastern border of the State. All others shall remove out of the district. Officers commanding companies and detachments serving in the counties named will see that this paragraph is promptly obeyed.

So we see families packing up miserably and leaving.

There’s an evil half-breed, Murdock (obviously the bad guy would be a half-breed) who is expelled by Quantrell for being a half-breed and after the war takes up bank and train robbing, pretending to be Jesse. A woman train passenger does not believe Murdock: “It could not be Jesse James because he would never insult a lady", she tells a companion. Naturally, Jesse is entirely innocent and only wants to be a “useful and law-abiding citizen”. Still, there are wanted posters out for him.
 
The end of Murdock

He is nearly captured when he goes on a heroic mission to a neighboring farmhouse to fetch the “dolly” of a sick baby. Luckily, he evades capture and brings the doll safely back to the ailing child, who then duly recovers. Phew.

It really is a low trick by Murdock to pretend to be Jesse but he is soon unmasked and “hanged from the highest tree”, so that’s alright. He was only a half-breed anyway.
 
There’s a dance and an overlong rodeo (you get the impression that they wanted to use up the footage) and they both look rather silly with the speeded-up film of the day.

The Pinkertons bomb the James place and Ma James is wounded and Jesse’s poor little half-brother slain.

It’s only now, when he is proved to be the upright citizen he always was, that Jesse proposes to Zee Mimms. Then all rather suddenly they are married, have two children (Jesse Jr. looks about ten) and live a happy domestic existence.

Then we get the raid on Northfield, Minnesota. Now, so far throughout the story, both in the war and afterwards, Jesse has been nothing but a shining hero, gallantly saving friends and enemies alike (he helps a Pinkerton detective out of a ditch) and by no means guilty of any banditry whatsoever, perish the thought. Yet suddenly, and with no explanation, he, Frank (uncredited actor) and the Youngers try to rob the bank in Northfield but are expected there and driven off. Why is that? We are not told. Anyway, they get away, though the Youngers are taken after a valiant and bloody gunfight.
 
Frank James (uncredited actor) at Northfield
 
In the final reel, the Ford brothers arrive and are trusted by Jesse (though not by Zee), Jesse straightens the famous picture and Bob Ford shoots him in the back with a pistol Jesse had given him as a present. Thus died “an American Robin Hood”, says the narrator.
 
Bob Ford, Charlie Ford and Mr. Howard
 
The movie ends with bad grammar as Standing reads the final words of Coates’s book which say that Jesse could not live “in a world which belongs to you and I.”

Well, e-pards, it really is the most dreadful tripe.

In fact, it’s one of the worst Westerns I’ve seen.

Still, it’s a fascinating historical document and important to see if you are a serious Western buff (and if you aren’t, why are you reading this blog?)

Fred

The other silent movie of the 1920s which featured Jesse James starred Fred Thomson as the outlaw in the 1927 Jesse James. This Paramount Jesse was again bold and true. Directed by actor Lloyd Ingraham (162 Westerns!) and written by Fred’s wife Frances Marion, it had Nora Lane as Zee, Mary Carr as the redoubtable Mrs. James-Samuel and James Pierce as Frank. I’m afraid I haven’t seen this silent. Both IMDb and Lost Film Files have this movie as being lost although silentera.com states that a print exists. I hope it does. Jesse E James is billed as “technical advisor”.
 
 
When I’m a billionaire I’ll have agents scouring the globe for a print and my own private movie theater where I shall watch it and gloat and not invite you.

 

Thursday, October 29, 2015

The Kansan (UA, 1943)


Not bad, as far as 40s RKO Westerns go




 
 
The Kansan was Richard Dix’s last Western. Dix had been RKO’s leading man since the days of the early talkies and was very well known. In 1931 he had been nominated for Best Actor Oscar for this part in the soap-epic Cimarron. His Westerns had begun back in 1923 when he starred in Paramount’s Victor Fleming-directed Zane Grey tale To the Last Man, and he followed this up with two more Zane Grey stories, The Call of the Canyon, also directed by Fleming, and The Vanishing American. He was the eponymous Redskin in 1929 and then came Cimarron. Several Westerns followed (he was in 19 altogether, good, bad or indifferent). He was Wyatt Earp in Tombstone, The Town Too Tough To Die in 1942. His stocky and imposing build and craggy jaw were immediately recognizable.
 
Earpish Marshal Dix
 
In The Kansan he plays an Earpish marshal who has to clean up the cow-town of Broken Lance, Kansas which has been treed by crooked banker Albert Dekker. I always liked Mr. Dekker. One thinks of him in particular as the double-crossing gang boss in The Killers, as Mr. Reynolds in The Furies, and, as a much older man, as railroad detective Harrigan in The Wild Bunch, his last role. The Kansan was his sixth of 17 big-screen Westerns.
 
Dekker, Wyatt, Jory - nice cast
 
He has a brother, and as the bro is played by Victor Jory, you immediately think that the two of them together will be corrupt town bosses. Jory does indeed wear a frock coat, gamble and have a derringer, and he steals $25,000, but interestingly, this time he is a good badman, and his character is nuanced and quite subtle. So well done screenplay writer Harold Shumate (Blood on the Moon, AbileneTown, Little Big Horn, all good), who worked up the script from Frank Gruber’s novel Peace Marshal, and well done director George Archainbaud (director of huge numbers of fast-paced Westerns and loads of Gene Autry and Hopalong Cassidy ones). And well done Victor, of course, always a joy to watch in any Western.
 
Victor holds a derringer on a lady, the cad
 
OK, The Kansan is an RKO b&w oater of the 1940s, with all that that implies, but it definitely has its points. It’s pacey, actionful and not at all badly acted. The music is 1940s Hollywood-slushy (and the cowpokes croon a cringeworthy close-harmony ditty out on the range) and much of the action is studio-bound (as was usually the case in ‘town’ Westerns) but there are also some good scenes shot out on location (Russell Harlan was DP) and the blowing up of a bridge.
 
Quite a lot of fun
 
Jesse James appears too, though only for the first 60 seconds of the movie. He tries to rob the bank but Dix is a crack shot and shoots down the gang one by one. Jesse (George Reeves, uncredited) doesn’t get to say anything and immediately disappears so we can’t really count this as a Jesse James movie.

Eugene Pallette is the husky-voiced cattle boss Tom Waggoner. He was no sylph, Eugene. Always entertaining though. Francis McDonald is the evil bandit Hatton, and I spotted Douglas Fowley, Rod Cameron and Glenn Strange the Great in bit parts. It’s a good movie for Western-character-actor-spotting. Jane Wyatt is the owner of the hotel who is wooed by Jory but predictably falls for Dix. It was her second Western and she was to go on to be Randolph Scott’s squeeze in Canadian Pacific.
 
Action too
 
There’s a regrettable cowardly ‘comic Negro’, Bones (Willie Best) but I suppose that was considered highly amusing in those days (by white audiences).

There’s a giant saloon brawl in the classic tradition and a big final shoot-out in Main Street between the bandit gang and the forces of law ‘n’ order under Marshal Dix. It ends rather suddenly, as such pictures were wont to do, but all in all it’s quite a bit of fun. Don’t expect greatness, but don’t expect to be bored either!

Hotel keeper and marshal hit it off


 

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

The Westerns of Henry Hathaway


How the West was Filmed


Directors were clearly key people in the production of Western movies, as they have always been in every genre. The great directors have stamped their own character on their films and you can see a personal style in them. John Ford Westerns or Sam Peckinpah ones are usually recognizable as such. This was especially true if the director also had a role in production, writing and casting a movie. Some directors also had more of a say than others over the work of the director of photography, and visually their films are more ‘theirs’ – one thinks immediately of Ford. Still, I tend not to refer to “John Ford’s The Searchers” or “Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch”, as many do, because this plays into the auteuriste’s hands: as if one person, even a powerful director, were the only one responsible for the quality of a film. The Searchers was just as much a John Wayne Western as a John Ford one, and indeed it was just as much the film of its other actors, its writers, its producers, its DP, and so on, even of its crew.

Having said that, it’s interesting to look at the movies of one or other director, just as it is to discuss the work of one or other Western actor or cinematographer. In this blog I have already done an overview of the Westerns of directors such as Howard Hawks, John SturgesBudd Boetticher, Delmer Daves, John Ford, Anthony Mann and Sam Peckinpah. Others, I hope, will follow. Today it is the turn of Henry Hathaway.
 
Henry Hathaway (1898 - 1985)
 
True Grit

Mr. Hathaway will always be remembered as the director of True Grit. It was certainly his best Western and perhaps his best film altogether, and it won an Oscar for John Wayne (Duke's only Academy award). It is a perfectly splendid movie and an excellent treatment of a fine book. But Hathaway also directed many other Westerns, with a variety of stars, from 1932 to 1971. They weren’t all great; some in fact were pretty ropey. But there were some very good ones too, as we shall see.
 
Hathaway's masterpiece
 
Early career

Hathaway started his Western career in 1919 aged 21 as a propman on a Samuel Goldwyn-produced silent movie, Jubilo, starring Will Rogers. He propped on another Will Rogers flicker, Honest Hutch, in 1920 and on Paramount’s The Call of the Canyon and To the Last Man in 1923, which were directed by Victor Fleming. These last two were to be important because Fleming became Hathaway’s mentor and Henry learned his craft from the director of The Virginian. They were also Zane Grey stories (Jesse Lasky had bought the rights to Grey’s novels) and when Hathaway finally did get into the director’s chair, in 1932, it was to make another Zane Grey tale, Heritage of the Desert.  

Before then, though, in 1925 Lassky promoted Hathaway to be Second Unit Director on the silent The Thundering Herd, with Jack Holt, Noah Beery, Tim McCoy (so a very good cast) and a young Gary Cooper in an uncredited bit part. It was directed by William K Howard, who did a good number of commercially successful and often quite spectacular Westerns. Hathaway must have learned from him.

Hathaway then had the good fortune to be assistant director on the talkie The Virginian in 1929, followed by Redskin, The Wolf Song (with Gary Cooper again as lead) and, yet again with Coop in the lead, The Texan in 1930. It was an excellent apprenticeship.

Director at last

From 1932 to ‘34 Hathaway directed eight Zane Grey stories for Paramount, seven of them with Randolph Scott in the lead. They were one-hour talkie programmers, remakes of previous silent movies (and using some of the old footage), well made but with no pretensions, and quite a lot of fun. Yes, some were a bit on the clunky side, even for those early days, but overall they are still enjoyable today. Try To the Last Man (1933) or Wagon Wheels (1934) as examples.
 
Early 1930s Zane Grey pictures
 
Certainly we can say that by 1934 Henry Hathaway was an experienced Western director who had learned his craft.

He later wrote, “With Fleming I did ‘The Virginian’. I did all those early Westerns, all those Zane Greys, the ones I did over again. I mostly learned from them how to handle people. I would take a script home and think: what would I tell these people to do to make the scene, how would I start it, where would be the climax, how I could get out of it, how do I get rid of the people, where would I do it - in front of the fire or on the couch, what would I do? And I'd make up my mind, and I'd make a lot of notes and then I'd see what they did. Entirely different! But you'd learn! ”
 
A younger Hathaway
 
There was then a Western pause, and in the late 30s Hathaway made no Westerns but did some successful non-Western pictures like Peter Ibbetson and The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (both with Gary Cooper). The latter got him Academy Award nominations for best director and best picture. In 1940 Hathaway directed the rather turgid biopic Brigham Young, if you call that a Western (I don’t, really) and in 1941 there followed another semi-Western (the best you can say), Shepherd of the Hills with John Wayne and Harry Carey. Then there was another pause, until 1951. So, with 17 years without a proper Western, it seemed almost as if Hathaway had forsworn the genre, the dolt.

The 1950s

In the early 50s, however, Henry Hathaway made two superb Westerns for Fox. The first is underrated, hardly known even by Western fans, yet is an outstandingly good noir (Hathaway had made some excellent non-Western noirs in the 40s). It was Rawhide, in 1951. It starred a surprisingly good Tyrone Power (not the most obvious of Western stars, despite Jesse James) and a first-class Susan Hayward, a fine Western actor. It’s a siege story, about bandits led by Hugh Marlowe who take over a remote stage waystation, killing the owner (Edgar Buchanan) and holding the others hostage. It’s dark, tense and very well done (and Jack Elam is superb as an absolutely manic gunman).

The other was Garden of Evil, in 1954, yet again with Gary Cooper in the lead. Hathaway had a rep for being hard on actors (“To be a good director you've got to be a bastard,” he said. “I'm a bastard and I know it.”) but he held Coop in high regard. He said, “Gary Cooper was the first actor to believe you didn't have to mug to act, if you thought of what you were doing, it showed -- and he proved he was right.” He also said that he thought Coop was the very best of all the stars. They worked on many films together. Hathaway was a pallbearer at Coop’s funeral.
  
Coop
 
Like Rawhide, Garden of Evil is also a tense and atmospheric film. It used exotic Mexican locations (Hathaway often used colorful settings in his films), it was the first Western in CinemaScope and was beautifully photographed (by Milton Krasner). These two early-50s Westerns are among Hathaway’s best.

In 1958 Hathaway directed another oater, again for Fox, From Hell to Texas (an oddly titled movie for it has nothing to do with Texas, or Hell for that matter, and is set in New Mexico). It’s a ‘small’ film, by which I mean it has a modest cast and has a confined plot (Robert Buckner and Wendell Mayes screenplay from a Charles O Locke novel) about few people. That was also true of Garden of Evil. It is an economical story with a spare, hard plot. It could have been by Luke Short (it’s that good). It is also extremely well directed and finely acted. Hathaway did an excellent job of reduction and Johnny Ehrin also edited tightly and effectively.
 
Good movie
 
The acting is top notch. You wouldn’t automatically put Don Murray in the highest league of Western actors. Up till then he had been a TV and B-movie character actor. Still, in From Hell to Texas he is very good. He underplays and succeeds in projecting in a convincing way as a young, rather naive but still courageous loner.

In the movie the young Dennis Hopper tried to assert himself artistically on the set. He forced Hathaway to shoot more than 80 takes of one scene before he agreed to Hathaway's demands. This was a mistake. After the shoot, Hathaway reportedly told the young actor that his career in Hollywood was over. Hopper was forced to make a living doing TV for the next few years. It was not until 1965 that Hathaway forgave him and he landed another movie role, in The Sons of Katie Elder.  Hopper also worked on True Grit. Hopper later admitted he was wrong to have disrespected Hathaway as a youth and called him "the finest director I have ever worked with".

John Wayne

After From Hell to Texas Hathaway made a picture with John Wayne, North to Alaska in 1962. It was a 'lusty' gold-digging comedy with semi-Western credentials. It’s far from special but Hathaway went on to use Wayne a lot. Duke was General Sherman (but in the John Ford-directed part) in How the West Was Won, and Wayne pictures Circus World (1964) and The Sons of Katie Elder (1965) followed, as well as True Grit in 1969.
 
Hathaway with Duke
 
Three directors were used on MGM’s galumphing How the West Was Won, which may best be described as a gigantic turkey - though a big hit. Hathaway, however, was responsible for more of it than John Ford or George Marshall, and to him therefore goes more of the credit/blame. It wasn’t all Hathaway’s fault: the studio insisted on every conceivable addition and inclusion. They wanted a truly epic and seminal picture. They got something to feed a very large family at Thanksgiving. The less said about the movie here, the better.
 
 
Meleagrian
 
Circus World was not really a Western (John Wayne takes his Wild West show to 1900s Europe) but The Sons of Katie Elder was. It was the first of the series of big commercial Westerns that Wayne made down in Durango and it’s fun. Clearly Wayne had a lot of input but you can see Hathaway touches too. The cast list is also a roll-call of great Western character actors and this alone makes the movie worth a watch. (But not a Rolex).

Late 60s

Katie Elder was, sadly, followed by three very ordinary late-60s Westerns, Nevada Smith with Steve McQueen, extrapolated, as it were, from a segment of Harold Robbins’s potboiler The Carpetbaggers; then An Eye for an Eye, a revenge story (as the title gives away) starring Robert Lansing in his only Western movie (though he had been in many TV oaters, including being Custer in Branded) and Duke’s son Patrick; and 5 Card Stud, in which both stars, Dean Martin and Robert Mitchum, sleepwalked through the whole shoot. These movies were undistinguished, which is the best we can say, really. In fact the last really good Western had been back in 1958 and one had to wonder if Hathaway, now 70, was, Westernwise, washed up.

Nay, for then came True Grit, back at Paramount, a veritable marvel of a Western. How I love this movie. If Hathaway had made nothing else he would still have gone, on departure (he died in 1985) straight to the Western Mt Olympus, somewhere up in the Rockies. Really, there’s nothing wrong with this picture. Glen Campbell, maybe, but I forgive even him and his song. It showed that Hathaway was a Western lover; that much is clear.
 
A great creation
 
It’s a pity, in a way, that Hathaway tried to remake it, for Universal in 1971, his last Western. Shoot Out wasn’t bad – it couldn’t be bad because it starred the great Gregory Peck. But when you get an aging gunman paired up with a young girl, hunting the bad guys, filmed in Inyo National Park locations, you do kinda get the sense of been there, done that. It might have been better to finish on a high, with Duke (or his double anyway) freeze-framed leaping the wall on his hoss. Still, Shoot Out is OK, and most definitely (mos def, as they say nowadays) watchable.

So there we have it, the Western career of the Marquis Henri Léopold de Fiennes (Hathaway inherited the title from his maternal grandfather). 20-odd Westerns directed (depending on your definition of a Western), some good, some ordinary and one great, but all, I would say, showing an enjoyment in the genre and the love of telling a Western tale.

So long, e-pards.

 

Sunday, October 25, 2015

The Homesman (Europacorp, 2014)


A mid-Western




 
 
Glendon Swarthout’s 1988 novel The Homesman was in my view his best Western work. It deserved a high-quality film treatment (in fact all four of Swarthout’s Western stories got very good movie versions) and in many ways Tommy Lee Jones was the ideal person to do that. Mr. Jones was one of the producers, a co-writer and the director (it was his fourth film as director). Oh, and he also starred in it. I think we can say he was a prime mover of the movie.
 
A fine American novel
 
Jones is a thoughtful man and a reader as well as being a, by now, old hand at the Western. In the making-of documentary on the DVD he discusses whether the picture belongs to the genre of Western, saying he doesn’t really know what a Western is or indeed the meaning of genre. It is true that while Jones starred in undoubted Westerns such as Lonesome Dove or The Missing, he was also prime mover in films which occupied a less sure Western ground such as No Country for Old Men or The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada. Co-writer Kieran Fitzgerald says, “The Homesman is not a Western. It’s a mid-Western.” Mr. Jones, when interviewed in Cannes (the picture was nominated for the Palme d’Or), defined it as “a movie about American history.”
 
Tommy Lee Jones as Briggs
 
Well, for what little it’s worth, I think it’s a Western. Westerns don’t all have to be about gunslingers and stage robbers. They can also be about frontier life. An essential ingredient of the Western, indeed, was often the battling with the terrain and this film has that in spades. And it also strongly features the classic Western notion that a man (and in this case also a woman)’s gotta do what … etc. We are in Nebraska Territory in the 1850s. There are wagons and horses and Indians and shooting and big hats. It’s a Western alright.

As is perhaps unsurprising about a 2014 movie, this one concentrates on the plight of women at that time, and indeed a woman is essentially the hero (we tend not say heroine these days), Jones’s character notwithstanding. This concentration on the woman was more admirable in 1988, when the novel came out, but even by then feminism had made great strides and academic attention was being turned to shining a light on the hitherto obscured part that women played in the history of the West. But I do not mean to belittle the movie or book because of that; au contraire.

The film reunited many of those involved in Three Burials. It has the same director/star; Luc Besson and Europacorp were again producers; Marco Beltrami did the music for both; and many of the crew were the same too. That and the arid landscape give The Homesman and Three Burials just a little of the same vibe, though the setting and story are much different.

The landscape (as so often in Westerns) is a key element, almost a character. Shot in north-east New Mexico (God’s own land), it represents 1860s Nebraska with glowing, if daunting landscapes. The cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto is one of the strongest points of the movie and enough time and silence is allowed for us appreciate the vistas too. As well as the wide, empty plains and winter wildness there are also stunning set pieces such as the hotel in flames at night. It is Mr. Prieto’s only Western (he was not used on Three Burials) but I hope it will not be the last.
 
Fine photography
 
Full marks also to all the costumes, props and set design people because the look of the thing shouts out authenticity. I’m not sure who these folk are because their names are lost among the absurdly-long list of credits. Movies these days have ten-minute credits that insist on telling you who supplied hamburgers to the driver of the assistant to Mr. Jones’s hairdresser.

The acting is top notch. Jones himself is reliably superb in Western movies and is especially good as tough but ornery type with more grit than Rooster Cogburn. He is no spring or prairie chicken these days (in fact he’s even older than I am) and he shows it in his walk, but who cares? Rooster himself was no boy. Jones plays the reprobate Briggs (or so he calls himself for the moment) as a picaresque character certainly, and an outwardly coarse and crusty one, with all the laconic style appropriate to Western heroes, but the book had him develop as a character, softened by the good woman who accompanied him and with decency and sensitivity gradually emerging (or perhaps an original but lost decency re-emerging), and Jones does this very well in the movie. It’s a fine performance.
 
Hilary Swank very good indeed
 
And Hilary Swank as the noble but essentially tragic Mary Bee Cuddy is outstanding too. I didn’t know Ms. Swank, though she is an Oscar winner (for Boys Don’t Cry) and had appeared in the likes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The Next Karate Kid. These aren’t my kinda movies, I’m afraid. But she’s superb in The Homesman. It was a brave choice in some ways because she is supposed to be an increasingly desperate spinster, with “a viper in her mouth” and “plain as a tin pail.” Not every actress would have jumped at that role. But Cuddy (as Briggs calls her) is of course also a strong, independent woman who acts nobly out of compassion and in fact it’s a great part to play. And Hilary’s a Nebraskan too.

There are similarities with The Missing in that the central theme is a strong frontier woman teaming up with a disreputable but skilled and tough frontiersman on a mission to save. You see something of Samuel Jones in George Briggs.

Supporting these two principals we have Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto and Sonja Richter as the women driven out of their minds by the physical and mental strain of frontier life, who are taken back East in a frame wagon by the homesman (and homeswoman). These actors (there are three in the film, not four) had a hard job as they had to play madwomen throughout but they did it very well, and they talk articulately about it in the making-of.
 
Good old Barry Corbin is the wagonwright
 
Good old Barry Corbin appears as the wagonwright (always a pleasure to see him) and notably good too were John Lithgow as the Reverend Mr. Dowd and James Spader (Red from The Blacklist) as the conman in spats, Aloysius Duffy. They got Meryl Streep to play Altha Carter, the wife of the (unseen) Methodist minister, and she does a predictably good job in her small part. In fact I don’t think there was an unconvincing actor there.
 
James Spader
 
They got Meryl Streep, no less
 
The film does leave some things out from the book, and it also adds little touches (I loved the thimble) but it is perfectly entitled to do so, and importantly, it remains entirely true to the spirit of the novel.

In the same way that the novel is a must-read, this movie is a must-see. Trust me.