Tuesday, September 09, 2008
No Politics Week (Hopefully*)
The Biden-Palin Debate
Skip to 7 minutes, 15 seconds in to see the outcome.
ENTERTAINMENT. Just kidding. We all need a breather from politics, don't we? Not that we're going to get it. Or even deserve it. This is our quadrennial duty, after all. Still, we've got plans to talk about other things for a few days. If something comes up, we'll deal with it. But in the interim we got to thinking of simpler schemes, where good battles evil in the most direct possible terms. Which led us to wondering which of all the thousands of western gunfights that have occurred in the movies were the very best. Any such list is largely subjective, though if you think the one up top belongs on it you're an idiot and should go away.
The hard part is coming up with a Top Ten that isn't all or even mostly Clint Eastwood. John Wayne rarely played the role of the man who walks onto the street (or into the saloon) to gun down a villain via the fast draw, and truth is, he was so big and bulky that a six-gun mostly looked like a toy on his hip. And the fast draw is what we're concerned with here, which is why we had to exclude classic westerns like the Magnificent Seven, whose climax involved other kinds of intense exchanges of lead.
And, yeah, we know that this is the kind of ranking that starts fights. Great. At least they're fights that don't involve McCain, Obama, taxes, and earmarks. Well, not those kinds of earmarks anyway. So here's our list of the ten greatest gunfights, from tenth best to Numero Uno. Feel free to disagree. Unavoidably, Clint is on the list multiple times, but he's not the majority, and (gasp) he's maybe not even the grand prize winner. That's our small nod to suspense.
First, some Honorable Mentions. It's unthinkable to leave John Wayne completely out of the mix. Or Jimmy Stewart. That's why we have to give a nod to The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Even though the gunfight wasn't really a gunfight but a kind of put-up job. There was also Jimmy Stewart's painful showdown with Henry Fonda in Firecreek, which violates every rule of fast-draw gunplay but still produces a certain dramatic impact. (Stewart did get his licks in in Destry Rides Again and other westerns, but nothing that belongs on the Top Ten list.) And after his shoddy treatment in Liberty Valance, Lee Marvin does earn a tip of the hat for his comedic, and Oscar-winning, role as the drunken gunslinger in Cat Ballou. Anyone else? Well, we'll always love the sawed-off Winchester rifle Steve McQueen carried in his holster in Wanted: Dead or Alive, but that was a TV show and we can't remember a single individual showdown, so it's just an asterisk. Now for the real contenders.
The pacifists will love this one. Nobody got killed, which is why it comes in so low on the list. But this scene from Tombstone is still an iconic reminder of just how close to death gunfighters (and gamblers) lived. It's funny and nerve-wracking simultaneously, as well as charmingly subversive of the notion that cowboys were all illiterate idiots. Doc Holliday versus Johnny Ringo:
(Skip to 1 minute 7 seconds in.)
I know a lot of you are thinking of the spaghetti westerns. I looked at Fistful of Dollars. It's still highly entertaining, but it's got nothing that belongs on this list, as I think you'll agree if you give it some objective scrutiny. Clint's victims for the most part are reminiscent of small boys pretending to be shot, cartoonish and enjoyable but hardly convincing if you're not a native Italian. On the other hand, Bruce Willis's remake of Fistful (which was itself a remake of Yojimbo, so don't be a snob about it) contains an outstanding rework of Clint's response to the humiliation of his mule. If you haven't seen the whole movie, do so. Last Man Standing is dark -- in lighting as well as tone -- but it's got Christopher Walken in addition to Bruce, and it all winds up being great grim fun. It would rank higher but for the fact that it's been updated to the 1930s and therefore can't qualify as a true western. (That won't happen again on this list, promise.) Bruce versus the guy who vandalized his Model A.
I admit I'm not a big fan of the next movie, Unforgiven. I understand why Clint made it, and I don't have any particular objection to his theme. The idea is interesting, and it's the most ambitious of his trilogy of reinterpretations of classic westerns (the other two being High Plains Drifter (High Noon but darker) and Pale Rider (Shane but darker). Unforgiven, unlike the other two, is nothing close to a remake of its inspiration, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, but a very dark examination of the same subject, the popular mythologizing of wild west violence. My only problem with the movie is that I don't think it's a very good movie. It's long, dull, and a definite slap in the face to Eastwood's own fans. That's why it earned so much praise in lefty Hollywood and its Oscar represented Clint's acceptance into The Club of Serious, Socially Conscious Directors, where he already belonged. I have called it in other contexts "The Last Western," because nobody's made the kind of movie that made Clint a star since.
Still. The climactic gunfight has real power and cinematic stature, if only because it represents Clint Eastwood's final bow as the deadliest gunslinger ever to appear on the silver screen. Here it is. Clint versus Gene Hackman and his supporting thugs.
(Skip to 2 minutes in.)Number Seven.
I know, I know. This one should rank below the previous one. Take it as a measure of my irrational dislike of a movie that for me remains stubbornly "unforgiven." Quigley Down Under isn't even set in the American west, but in Australia. I like it, though. When it comes on, which it does often in our cable universe, I watch it. There have never been more than a couple dozen movies I can say that about (On the Waterfront being the all-time champ). So I suspect it of being a better movie than the two stars it gets in the listings. It has excellent performances by Alan Rickman, Laura San Giacomo, and, yes, Tom Selleck as the nineteenth century equivalent of a world-class sniper. His weapon is a state-of-the-art long rifle requiring special shells that enable him to shoot the wing off a fly from a mile away. He comes to Australia from America in response to an ad promising big money for his skills, only to learn that he is expected to shoot aborigines like, well, flies. His villainous employer is, in a clever twist, a wannabe American gunfighter himself, and the final showdown between them is curiously satisfying. Maybe it's the totally unexpected reference to another favorite of mine, Zulu, that occurs after the climactic gunfight. (Not shown in this clip. Sorry.) Tom Selleck versus Alan Rickman and his two sidekicks.
Time for a spaghetti western yet? Yes. For a Few Dollars More. But the showdown isn't one of Clint's. You fans may not have not have noticed this, but the unpleasant fact is that Clint's spaghetti trilogy -- all eight hours worth -- contains only one gunfight that has any real emotional subtext. It's the one between Lee van Cleef and El Indio, the psychotic bandit who raped and murdered Lee's sister. The siblings were close; each owned an identical chiming gold watch, and Lee carries his everywhere as a reminder of his loss, while El Indio is demonically obsessed with the sister's watch he took from her body as a trophy. Clint does wind up playing a key role in the final confrontation, but not as a shooter. Rather, he chimes in as a, um, timekeeper... Lee van Cleef versus El Indio.
By now you may be starting to understand the criteria. A gunfight really shouldn't be just about killing. It has to have meaning in some context if it's to be really great. (Mostly.) The movie in which Clint finally enters the countdown is The Outlaw Josie Wales, which is the closest Clint ever came to making an epic western. It's the beginning of his increasing ambivalence, as a director, toward six-gun justice, and he does a brilliant job of reinvigorating the cliche of the burned-out gunfighter who wants to settle down peaceably but can't. This scene presents that bitter fate as a kind of kabuki dance. The big name gunfighter can't stop defending himself against glory hounds and bounty hunters, and they can't stop pursuing him. So they perform the necessary, stylized ritual. Josie Wales against a no-name hunter.
This one's here because it just can't not be here. For the last forty years it has reigned as the all-time, iconic, operatic gunfight. You know the one I mean. Never mind that there's no real reason to care who wins. All three are there for the money, disdainful of even the American Civil War through which they wander back and forth as if it were no more substantial than the shadows on the wall of Plato's Cave. Underneath the macho glamour and the sensational music, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is probably one of the most despicable westerns ever made. But there is this scene. Clint versus Eli versus Lee.
Clint again. This time for Pale Rider, his interesting remake of Shane, deliberately uglified in its depiction of violence and even in its major characters. The people who need saving are not homesteaders but gold miners, many of whom are seeking the easy score rather than roots and a life on the land. And Clint's character, The Preacher, doesn't ever seem to bond as completely with his charges as Shane. He has his own score to settle with the posse of villains who threaten the miners. The scene in which he does so, however, represents a striking blend of the mythic Eastwood image with vivid physical and period realism. How many hundreds of times in the movies has it seemed that the giant-caliber .44 revolvers of the wild west killed without generating more than a sharp pain in the tummy and a neat little spot of blood. Not so in Pale Rider. (To be fair, Altman tried something similar in McCabe and Mrs. Miller, which may well be the better movie, but it's just too depressing to watch.) What happens to the Marshal is not pretty. Nor should it be. The Preacher versus the Marshal.
Pale Rider was a remake. This is the real thing, a masterpiece of cinematography, scene composition, and poetically spare dialogue. Shane can be hard for young people to watch, I suppose, because we never learn how good Shane is until the very end. Despite its violent theme, it contains remarkably little violence. But there are compensations of the sort Clint Eastwood failed to provide in Unforgiven. Shane is an essay on life, the value and costs of dreams, the difficulty and unfairness of the decisions life sometimes requires of us. The real test Shane passes is not his showdown with Wilson, but his honorable choice not to consummate his love for Jean Arthur (unlike Clint's 'Preacher'). When he leaves the valley, it's not because his work and justice have been done; it's because he knows he doesn't belong there. But all that aside, the gunfight itself is still extraordinary -- brief, shockingly sudden in such a lyrical movie, and by the standards of its day, realistically violent. It's our only glimpse of the old Shane, the one he so yearned to lock away in a trunk forever. But it's all we need to see of him. He was a pro, a killer, and someone to be feared. Shane versus Wilson.
(Skip to 3 minutes in.)
What would make one movie gunfight the best? It would involve characters we have come to know something about, neither wholly good nor wholly bad, a mythic context perhaps involving some degree of historicity, drama but not melodrama, realism without voyeuristic reveling in gore, and a terrible, close-in intensity that makes the confrontation inevitably a fight to the death. Well, here it is. It's the other shoe dropping after the initial encounter we showed you in Number Ten above. Val Kilmer's performance in Tombstone was brilliant. In fact he steals the movie from Kurt Russell and Sam Elliott. And this scene is a movie in miniature of the complex character of the wild west's most famous consumptive. Doc Holliday versus Johnny Ringo, Part II.
There you have it. Your first day off in a while. We'll see if we can't muster a few more along the way to November.
*Unless we can't help it.