Sunday, October 26, 2008


by Pa Rock
Cultural Commentator

Appaloosa is a new film by, for, and about Ed Harris. It is a western, my father's favorite movie genre, but it is far from the type that he was weaned on.

When my father was a young man, westerns starred people like John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, and Randolph Scott. The good buys wore white hats, the bad guys wore black hats, and somebody usually had a guitar. There were saloon girls with no hint that they did anything other than serve beer or flirt with dusty cowboys. And there were also pretty maidens who were the virtuous daughters of wealthy ranchers or bankers, or were the school marms. There were even western series on television: Saturday nights were reserved for a hired gun named Paladin (Richard Boone), and the adventures of Marshall Dillion (James Arness) and his saloon gal pal, Miss Kitty (Amanda Blake), in Gunsmoke. There was also Wagon Train, Big Valley, Wanted Dead or Alive (with a very young Steve McQueen), and Rawhide (with a very young Clint Eastwood).

A more realistic type of western emerged from Italy in the 1960s - a place where they could be made more cheaply and away from the dictates of the large American movie studio system. These new cowboy dramas were referred to as "spaghetti westerns" out of respect to their country of origin. Clint Eastwood exposed the United States to these rough and realistic movies with three classics: A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a Few Dollars More (1965), and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966).

Appaloosa was written by Ed Harris and others, produced by Ed Harris and others, directed by Ed Harris, and starred Ed Harris. It is rough and gritty in the Clint Eastwood tradition. Ed Harris and Viggo Mortensen are a pair of vagabond lawmen who hire their services out to communities in need of law and order. When the marshall of Appaloosa, a small town in the territory of New Mexico, and two of his deputies disappear while trying to arrest a couple of thugs who are in the employ of local crime boss, Jeremy Irons, the town of Appaloosa contracts for the services of Harris, who becomes the marshall, and Mortensen, who becomes his deputy.

Harris and Mortensen have been partners for years and present almost like an old married couple. That relationship becomes imperiled when Renee Zellweger arrives in town as a pleasant widow who only has one dollar to her name. Harris, ever the charmer, asks her matter-of-factly if she is a whore. She assures him that she is not, and a day or two later they are having a house built. Ms. Zellweger, not satisfied with having the marshall, also makes a move on his deputy. The deputy, to his credit, pushes her away with the cautionary note that they both belong to the marshall.

The duo of tough lawmen manage to arrest Jeremy Irons, who is then found guilty of the murder of the missing marshall and his two deputies, and sentenced to hang. Zellweger is kidnapped to be traded for Irons, and is soon found playing naked in the creek with one of her abductors. Jeremy Irons is pardoned by the President of the United States and becomes a successful businessman in Appaloosa. And then it starts to get interesting.

Marshall Dillion never asked Miss Kitty if she was a whore, but a saloon girl in Dodge City probably knew her way around the upstairs rooms at the Longbranch Saloon. What used to be quietly understood is now spelled out. What used to require a bit of imagination now only requires good hearing and passable eyesight. The romance has faded, the guitars are gone, hat color no longer means anything, and today's audience is awash in the realities of life in the Old West - the good, the bad, and the ugly.

I liked this movie, but I miss the miss the ones that I used to watch so many years ago with my Dad. The old west of Clint Eastwood and Ed Harris is undoubtedly more historically accurate, but it's not a place that I can take my grandsons for several years to come.

No comments: