Unforgiven (1992)

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Okay, so I’ll admit that I have a pretty small sample size, but if these two movies are any indication, I’ve come up with a definition for a Western film:  it’s a movie in which women are treated like crap and men live out some crazy revenge fantasy.  Hmm…  That probably doesn’t narrow it down enough.  Also, it takes place in the late nineteenth century in what becomes the western U.S.

Maybe it’s just because I, too, am a woman, but I can’t help but watch Unforgiven wondering more than anything what the deal is with all the women in the story, whose stories are mostly untold.  First, we hear tell of two women, never seen on screen – the beautiful young woman who married a terrible man (who hasn’t been there?), and the mother who let her go.  The younger woman’s death is what triggers the action of the movie in some way, though she’s been dead for some time already.

Then there are the brothel women, one of whom is disfigured in an attack by another terrible man.  Instead of harsh punishment, the local sheriff lets him off because he’s a good cowboy – as long as he pays the male owner of the establishment some compensation.  Good thing we don’t have to worry about women getting sexually assaulted without the promise of swift justice these days.  Meanwhile, the disfigured woman (who, let’s be real, has a few scratches on her face but is hardly disfigured) becomes a social pariah, because there’s certainly no man who would want to have sex with her, not in a place where there are hardly any women and even fewer hot showers.  Her fate is to gaze moony-eyed at Clint Eastwood, who’s far too hung up on his dead wife to ever consider sex again.

Inexplicably, Clint Eastwood’s terrible-man-turned-upstanding-farmer-mourning-his-wife’s-death decides to join a bounty hunt for the cowboy who committed this act, despite all his assurances that he’s not a killer anymore.  It’s clear that he’s trying to atone for his previous sins, but less obvious why this is the response that’s going to save his soul, especially when it involves abandoning his kids (and his sick pigs).  Along the way, he brings his buddy, who also abandons his disapproving Indian wife, not that she actually expresses her disapproval in, like, words or anything.  Just another of the womanfolk, and they don’t have much of a place in the wild west.

We’re supposed to see Eastwood as the hero of the story, because he now eschews violence – though if that’s true, why is he on this pleasure cruise?  Spoiler alert:  the body count is pretty high in the movie, and Clint doesn’t hold on to his virtue for long.  Is this what justice is, after all?  You are only as good as you appear in comparison to the guy next to you?

The missing wife doesn’t get a voice – we only see her as the angelic force who mystically transformed Eastwood’s alcoholic criminal into an upstanding citizen.  How or why doesn’t matter (to say nothing of who she was as an individual separate from her husband).  Nor does it matter, really, that the film finds it necessary to explain to us that the departed wife’s mother returns to visit her daughter’s grave, sometime after her grandkids and their murderous father are long gone.  We’re expected to feel sympathy for the woman who’s lost a child, not because she was important herself, but because she married a particular man.

That is the Western story.

 

Theme:  Western

First Time Watching?  Yes

Final Verdict:  Not willing to forgive

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Cimarron (1930/1931)

 

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There is no scene in this movie with a ripped shirt.

What is it that makes a Western a Western?  Is it purely matter of a location – that is, a movie that takes place somewhere in the Western United States?  Or in a particular era, in that nebulous time of the “wild west,” when Europeans spread westward over indigenous lands, claiming the “unspoiled territory” as their own?  The time of pre-state lawlessness and exciting gunfights, which are the sorts of things that make good stories on film.

Surprisingly, in the decade or two that I most associate with the Western film genre (1950s-60s, let’s say), there were no Oscar winners for Best Western.  Wait, that’s a hotel chain.  Granted, most of the Westerns I’ve seen fall into the realm of today’s superhero flicks – maybe an entertaining way to spend an evening, but probably not something that’s going to stick with you.  This week, I’m going to look at the films that bookend the Western movie era.

Cimarron starts at a moment of literal Manifest Destiny, in the first great land grab of Oklahoma in 1890.  The U.S. has apparently decided that the various Indian tribes they shunted off to a barren land aren’t making good enough use of the territory, and there’s all these white people who’ve worn out their welcome back east.  So we join Yancy and his new wife, Sabra, as they start out on a new life in the boom town of Osage.  Eventually, the film takes us through decades of their life (together, and not) amid the changing times of Oklahoma, from territory to statehood.  It’s like Gone with the Wind, except that nobody remembers this movie.

If you’re interested in playing a fun/cringey game when watching old movies, you might try “Count the Stereotypes.”  We have a loyal black servant boy (and a watermelon joke, in case that wasn’t enough for you) who I desperately hoped would strike out on his own once they reached the wilderness, but instead met a bleaker fate.  And you’d be lucky to find a Native American with a voice, despite the film’s (and Yancy’s) supposed “Indian-lover” sympathies.  Trump would probably appreciate the short-lived Mexican character’s representation.  It’s possible the minority that comes out the best is the Jewish guy – and I was totally shipping him with Sabra later in the film, after Yancy flakes off somewhere for an unexplained five or twenty years.

I wish the movie had put a bit more effort into exploring Sabra.  As wife to the adventurous Yancy, she initially likes the idea of setting off for new territory, but gets quickly overwhelmed.  Finally, though, she takes over Yancy’s abandoned business in his absence, and ends up a member of Congress by the film’s end, in the late 1920s.  You might wonder how all that happened, but you would again be disappointed, because the director found it more imperative to show us where Yancy ended up after twenty years (but didn’t deign to explain why the hell he was such a flake).  Women are great and all, but really, wouldn’t you rather watch a dude die horribly?  Well, come to think of it…

What does Cimarron refer to, you might ask?  You’ll be disappointed to know that Yancy’s son, a minor character at best, is named Cimarron, perhaps in honor of his father who may or may not have used the name at some point.  But otherwise, it’s a complete mystery!  Maybe read the book if you want some kind of answers.  I certainly don’t care enough to find out, though, so let me know what you discover!

 

Theme:  Western

First Time Watching?  Yes

Final Verdict:  Smiling as a basket of chips

Dances with Wolves (1990)

 

Speaking on behalf of white people, I can say that if there’s anything we white people love, it’s pretending to be just like a non-white person but without any of the inconvenience of actually living their lives. The Oscars seem to be particularly big on the white-person-being-non-white narrative. I’d say that choosing this as my theme this week was random and unrelated to the controversy around this year’s nominations – but to be honest, any two Best Pictures could as easily illustrate the lack of diversity in Oscar history.

As in Lawrence of Arabia, non-white characters – even those with some degree of development – exist primarily as tools for the white man to find some sort of deliverance. Lawrence’s tribal leaders essentially ceased to exist for us once he left the desert. And do we know anything about Wind in His Hair now except that he will always be Dunbar’s friend? No, because he is not Kevin Costner.

I first saw Dances with Wolves in an anthropology class in college called “Native America Today.” One component of the course was to watch a series of movies spanning several decades and discuss how Native Americans were portrayed, and how that differed over time. I don’t recall most of the films besides this one – except that most were Westerns because that is the only acceptable genre in which a Native American can appear.

At the beginning of the semester, we were assigned an essay in which we had to describe our impressions of Native Americans based on our encounters with them in the media – movies, TV, whatever. I really struggled with the assignment, and to this day, I’m not sure why. Perhaps in part because I recognized that we were being asking to be reflective about stereotypes and acknowledge that real Indians weren’t like Chief Wahoo, which seemed too obvious a thing to say. I knew that I should admit to having perceptions in defiance of reality, but I couldn’t find the “right” way to reflect on that idea.

I grew up in upstate New York, where there are small reservations made up of Iroquois tribes. I’d learned about the Five Nations of the Iroquois in school, and was actually interested in learning about their history (hence, why I was taking that class), but I didn’t know any Native Americans personally. Was my interest nothing more than a fetishized fascination with whatever I’d constructed as a modern Native American, that mystical figure who held a special bond with nature?

My professor had suggested we talk about the popular movies of the era – modernized Westerns were kind of big in the nineties – but, as you’ll recall if you’ve read my introductory blog, I didn’t grow up watching many movies. Instead, my impressions of Native Americans came from disparate sources: old comics from my dad’s childhood featuring the bright red people in feathers saying “How”; the children’s book series The Indian in the Cupboard that literally objectified Indians as little figurines that came to life; the Indian Village at the New York State Fair, where tribe members across the state gathered in some mix between authentic and tourist-trap that I still don’t fully understand. I didn’t know how to put all that into one 3-page essay.

I don’t recall exactly what we discussed when we watched Dances with Wolves. Now it’s blatantly obvious to me that Dances With Wolves (the man) is this white hero figure, who even beats the Lakota at their own game. He rescues wounded women, he kills buffalo, he battles U.S. soldiers and Pawnee warriors alike (let’s not even get into the good/evil dichotomy of Lakota and Pawnee). At least there are a few Native American characters with some depth, but this is ultimately not about them: it’s about the white man who only “found himself” by adopting (appropriating?) another culture.

To be honest, I was expecting to be more disappointed by the film than I actually was. In terms of the three-hour films I’ve watched so far on this journey, it definitely dragged less than most. And it’s neat to Graham Greene in this role compared to what he’s been in recently. I’ve been watching Longmire, which has gradually been exploring interesting, nuanced characters on an Indian reservation in Wyoming. Granted, the show’s still named after a white guy, but there’s some hope that we’ll continue to see more Native actors in solid roles.