The Wild Bunch: Set in the Mexican Civil War, a bunch of renegades weigh-up the options in a fluctuation of allegiance typical of westerns. Untypically the wild bunch side with the revolutionaries. Though noted for its ‘sadistic’ slow motion violence the dominant theme of outlaws bored by the pursuit of loot and favouring a peasant honour was much ignored at the time. The famous suicidal sequence of the final shoot-out is both a forewarning of the heroics of revolutionary sacrifice and a glum indication of the minority position of the wild bunch’s longing to surpass instinctual cruelty.
Still: “In time-sequences when everyone is bored, an event occurs which, for no obvious reason, changes the outlook. An unexpected process brings out different universes of reference; one sees things differently…”
Once Upon a Time in The West: Capitalism in its territorially expansionist stage is on offer here as rail-road barons hire long coated killers to eradicate the homesteaders who stand in the way of a profitable improvement of communication. The opening sequence, with its scenes of patient waiting providing a commentary upon our expectation of ‘action’, is not only a thrilling exposition of the imperceptible, elevating what is habitually ignored into the status of content, it is stunningly soundtracked by the perception of extraneous noise: tweaks, creaks, flies, water drips become refrains that add tension. These rhythms of waiting make anticipation tangible as a prologue and latent momentum for events that are never quite as epic as we are led to believe. The accompanying array of cinematic shots make the ‘nothing’ we are watching brimful with transformative possibilities.
Winchester 73: There is nothing if there is no chase. Goals are only platforms for further aims as Jimmy Stewart and Dan Duyrea travel as the sun sets and rise again. In pursuit of what? Not the idealism of a new life away from the exploitation of the shanty-cities but this wandering in the plane has unleashed the wild untameable instincts of fratricide as Jimmy Stewart pursues his brother who has killed their father. Oedipus raises its triangle but who has slept with the mother? The hunt is pursued with a venom and often in the silences that cross the screen we are confronted with the suspicion that we are watching a Shakespearean western: all morality is suspect and there is little guilt on show.
Still: “The Western presents not only action-images, but al#so an almost pure perception-image: it is a drama of the visible and the invisible as much as an epic of action… “
McAbe and Mrs Miller: Altman takes a stab at a frontier western where a new town is developing around a brothel. As he tells a story of ill-expressed love he develops the communistic technique of the wide frame. The ‘stars’, Julie Christie and Warren Beatty, are hidden not only in an ensemble picture but in ensemble shots, kept to one side or buried beneath other conversations. They interact but they never meet. However, as Leonard Cohen moans and Beatty dies in the snow, we come to realise again and again and again that capitalism makes all struggle for success into a warfare of competing egos.
Ulzana’s Raid: All American westerns can be allegories for Vietnam Here the pursuit of Ulzana raises issues of the terrain of struggle, of how few can create so little even if it is a start. The dissensions within the command accrue around Burt Lancaster’s portrayal of an Apache guide whose respect for Ulzana unnerves the greenhorn cavalry commander, undermining his authority by a mixture of glance and terse sentences. It is as if Lancaster, doubting the reasons for the mission and disconnected from the purposeless blood lust and superiority of his peers, slowly begins to unconsciously subvert the discipline of the pursuing pack until it becomes a disarrayed rabble that is cornered and pursued by Ulzana.
Still: “A film that could shake itself free from adaptational drugging could have unimaginable, liberating effects, effects on an entirely different scale from those produced by books or literary trends”
El Topo: A movie made away from more than just the studio-system. This is a desert-trip of massacre and retribution, a religious allegory that holds onto the proto-revolutionary thesis that the ‘meek shall inherit the earth’ whilst its director, script-writer and lead actor says blankly to the camera “I am not God”. Beginning with a ‘dark-rider’ avenging various crimes committed against the people it quickly moves everywhere except were genre-convention says it should.The latter scenes of the film, set in a town adorned with masonic imagery, give rise to the powerful symbolism of a church congregation playing Russian-roulette as a confirmation of their insane faith. That the town is paralleled by a subterranean cave-dwelling community of banished cripples and lunatics (born out of incest) that long to return ‘home’ gives the film its finale as this ‘return of the repressed’ ends in slaughter and self-immolation. El Topo is a movie so overladen with signification that its pretentious over-saturation, its ‘all-at-once’, becomes something that overawes, de-centres and offers a sensuality of risk.