By Peter Lenihan
The name of this series is half-borrowed from a very short post of screen captures I did for Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s A Screaming Man a while back that I entitled “Rediscovering John Ford in the Twenty-First Century”. That’s the purpose of this post as well, and I hope you all forgive its somewhat digressive nature.
2010 saw the release of two superb oaters—Kelly Reichardt’s defiantly allegorical Meek’s Cutoff and the Coen brothers’ endearingly eccentric adaptation of the Charles Portis classic True Grit. I’m not interested in elevating one of these movies (or a particular style of filmmaking) at the expense of the other—they’re both great, and although more different than similar (it’s instructive that the two films are set on virtually the opposite sides of the country), they do share an awareness, if not a pre-occupation, with their cinematic forbearers, even as they supposedly distance themselves from a “classical” approach (…which they don’t, but that’s a discussion for another time). True Grit’s most obvious point of reference isn’t Henry Hathaway’s uneven, disappointing 1969 effort as much as The Night of the Hunter (which had been explicitly alluded to in several of the boys’ previous productions), but the palpable, almost omnipresent sense of giddiness has nothing to do with Laughton and everything to do with the fact that they’re working on the same terrain that Mann and Boetticher once did. As such, they’re less interested in referencing specific films (although both Ride Lonesome and The Naked Spur are at least suggested) than doing justice to a certain milieu, and their refusal to go for the easy landscape shot or the obvious “lonesome violin” soundtrack cue is an unusual, old-fashioned choice that should be celebrated.
Reichardt’s film is a bit more complex in this regard—although its scenario shares a lot with those of Wellman’s Westward the Women and Ford’s own Wagon Master, they probably aren’t the best points of reference, and even comparing it to a kinda-feminist western like Richard Pearce’s neglected Heartland paints a less-than-accurate picture. The “existentialist” (can’t believe I’m using that word) finale owes something to Hellman, certainly, and while the modesty of the plot could be compared to that director’s spaghetti China 9, Liberty 37, the bleak, ambiguous framings of an unknown desert stretching out into infinity has far more to do with the amorphous, mysterious landscapes of silent cinema. There’s nothing enigmatic about the Coens’ Arkansas; it’s rough, unpredictable country that has given birth to rough, unpredictable people, but it’s geographically and historically grounded, and the directors’ (or, more accurately, Portis’) emphasis on Greil Marcus’ oldweirdAmericaisms guarantees that for all the moral disorientation (articulated most clearly in Bridges’ magnificent “I bow out” soliloquy), the characters still know the way back to town. Meek’s Cutoff, by contrast, seems to use the word “lost” in every line of its not exactly verbose script, and we’re never completely certain that the characters are in Oregon or, for that matter, on Earth. Generally, dialogue contextualizes and familiarizes and grants a sense of realness that moves beyond the physical; by making a talking silent picture, Reichardt foregrounds the material that makes up this world, and generates an uncanny atmosphere that seems more tied to the films of Victor Sjostrom or Mauritz Stiller than the aforementioned Boettichers and Manns.
Connecting a John Ford film to Stiller or Sjostrom (& implicitly distancing it from Boetticher or Mann) might seem counterintuitive, especially when one considers Reichardt’s unambiguous rejection of macho western iconography—however, 3 Bad Men captures the sense of spectral presences wandering across an unfathomable land better than even The Wind does, and its timelessness and placelessness has more in common with Meek’s Cutoff (or The Turin Horse) than the brands of conventional genre filmmaking it’s often compared to. Reichardt is working towards the landscape Ford reached, and here the great director was able to capture the American landscape as it was even as he turned it into something alien and still unknown.
It’s like this—the three bad men of the title, unrepentant murderers and hustlers and thieves, interrupt a vicious hold-up, killing the bandits they catch and firing away at those that escape across the horizon. The spoil is a batch of thoroughbreds and Bull, the trio’s leader, turns to the only survivor and gets ready to execute him. The he turns out to be a she however, and the bad men instead decide to protect her against the vultures, of which they are proudly or not-so-proudly among. And yes, these are what they call plot mechanics—there’s a lot of them in 3 Bad Men, and they all work. So you get the sister who abandoned her family running into her brother just before she dies, and of course the villainous gangster / sheriff that everyone has every reason to kill is the man who led her to a sinning life to begin with. We know this, and these conventions are so plainly employed it almost seems like the film is begging you to view it as just another twenties oater. Which is frankly impossible.
These are shootouts at the end of the world—the dust never clears and the characters never escape their histories, or each other. I mean, this just doesn’t look like anything else. Ford always talked about watching the eyes and that was never more apparent than here; every actor has the kind of possessed quality one tends to associate with Dovzhenko, and in its most frenzied sections, which in their imagery and editing suggest a bizarre kind of active religiosity, it’s hard not to see the film as an early inspiration for the Soviet director’s Earth (also: that shot of waving grass towards the end). A priest lifts up his arms, a cross on fire burning behind him. Is this what it all comes to? Is this what we have built? There is madness here.
It’s paradoxical (and Ford is nothing if not paradoxical) that a silent made in ’26 remains one of the director’s most modern and accessible works, but so it is; these bad men ain’t his later godfathers, and there’s a searing violence to the images that transcends the (minimal) homespun sentimentalism of the domestic scenes. The film concludes with a series of shoot-outs that you’ve seen even if you haven’t—which is to say that they’ve appeared in several thousand westerns and action pictures since, but there’s still a singularity to them that kicks your ass the second you let down your guard. Ford doesn’t play it elegiac, despite the ghostly epilogue; that three hard, drunk, occasionally noble men have to die isn’t sad yet, and Ford suggests there might be relief in this. Like a great scene a bit earlier—Bull stands over his sister’s grave as thousands of men, horses and caravans move across the frame in the background. He doesn’t want to re-join that rat race, to hunt down Layne Hunter and whatever awaits him in those canyons. He goes, of course. But he’d rather just sleep.