The traditional Western is perhaps not known for subtlety, nor for its interpretive qualities, nor for self-awareness, and yet Pale Rider has all of those things and is very much a late-game classic of the genre. “Classic,” here, should indicate that this is not a revisionist Western, despite being released long after the genre had been declared dead. The plot concerns a fledgling California village under the thumb of a ruthless mining corporation, and Clint Eastwood’s mysterious loner rides into town and kicks ass in the name of the little guy. This, as you may have heard, is about as classic as the plot of Western gets (see also: Shane, Django, A Fistful of Dollars, Eastwood’s own High Plains Drifter, etcetera).
Of course, none of those frontier tales double as a ghost story. By the end of Pale Rider, the implication is that Eastwood’s nomadic preacher is in fact not of this Earth (Higher Plane Drifter, maybe? Sorry). In the context of pretty much any other genre, such a twist would play out as little else: a twist, a cheat that we might have seen coming. Heck, the title signals in no uncertain terms that we’re about to behold a figure of otherworldly nature. If Pale Rider were a cop drama, or a crime noir, or a war film, we’d spot Preacher’s true colors from the start, spoiling that tantalizing ambiguity along the way.
Continue reading Pale Rider (1985)
Long before James Mason was cast in the role of Stodgy Old Man in every movie ever, he once played Young Hunk in Hero’s Island. This somehow has nothing to do with his age – Mason was 53 when he played the island-bound Jacob Weber, which is far older than today’s Young Hunk standards – and instead has everything to do with Mason being one hell of an actor. In fact, he appeared as Humbert Humbert in Kubrick’s Lolita in the same year, a role which definitely leans more toward Stodgy Old Man than toward Young Hunk. One can imagine a remake of Hero’s Island casting Chris Hemsworth or Chris Evans or Chris Pratt – basically any of the Marvel Superhero Chrises – in the role of the brawny Jacob, sandy hair and strategically tattered shirt and all. This would be an entirely different kind of film (Superhero’s Island) because Mason’s Jacob is hunky, sure – but is he a hero?
Set on Bull Island in 1719, we meet the Mainwaring Family as they arrive on their new waterlocked home. The deed in Father Mainwaring’s hand entitles him to ownership of Bull Island, but standing on the dirt for the first time he states with a sense of wonder that “it doesn’t feel that I own this”. Ownership, of course, is entirely a matter of opinion – and in the opinion of the fisherman who’ve lounged around the island for years, the “right” of the Mainwaring Family’s presence is no right at all. They’re essentially Crusoe’s savages in the context of Hero’s Island, though their depiction in the opening scenes hews closer to this comparison than their actual function once the film is fully fleshed out. One of the first things the Mainwaring Family sees to is the construction of a large cross, which they kneel and pray in front of once it stands tall. The “savage” fisherman watch from afar, and before we hear them say anything more than a few words we see them bless themselves with the sign of the cross upon seeing the Christian symbol rising from their dirt.
Continue reading Hero’s Island (1962)
Sam Peckinpah is nearly always divisive in his filmmaking, but perhaps never more so than with Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. Unlike The Wild Bunch or Straw Dogs, Alfredo Garcia (or BMTHOAG, as it may be lovingly referred to) isn’t necessarily controversial because of the level of violence. While other Peckinpah films seem set as classics even in spite of their explicit scenes of brutal violence, most people just can’t decide whether Alfredo Garcia is any good or not.
The set-up comes in the wake of the proclamation that serves as the film’s title. Alfredo Garcia has impregnated a young girl, and her powerful father offers a million dollars to the man who delivers him from the neck up. Warren Oates plays Bennie, a piano player in a rundown bar who eventually becomes tangled up in the hunt for Garcia at the prospect of a large payoff. His girlfriend, played by Isela Vega, comes along for the ride – and needless to say there are vicious consequences. Soon the head of Alfredo Garcia is in Bennie’s possession, but a darker drive swells up within him and his plans change.
Why would people dislike Alfredo Garcia? For starters, the set pieces from the first half of the movie leave a lot to be desired. In fact, there aren’t very many set pieces at all between the initial “Bring me the head!” scene and a mid-movie altercation with two biker thugs. This altercation serves a) to begin to show a few cracks in the otherwise happy-go-lucky demeanor of Bennie (as Warren Oates brilliantly snarls “you two guys are definitely on my shit list”) and b) to show the promiscuity of Bennie’s girlfriend. Both of these revelations are compounded and built upon in later scenes, but during the scene in question the sense of urgency and pacing of Garcia seems lost.
Continue reading Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974)