Showing posts with label Westerns. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Westerns. Show all posts

Tuesday, June 06, 2023

Film Review -- Winchester '73 (1950): Anthony Mann and James Stewart's First Partnership is an Interesting Commentary on Morality


A Grittier James Stewart?

“Hell, I don’t think the leading newspaper reviewers even go to see most of the Westerns. They send their second string assistants. And their supposed to be very nasty and very funny in their reviews. Well it’s a shame, because it makes it a crime to like a Western.”
— John Ford, 1964

Winchester ‘73 (1950) marks the first of nine films that James Stewart would make with director Anthony Mann. Of these films, five were Westerns and critics often discuss how Mann’s Westerns featured grimmer and more morally ambiguous characters than the roles James “Jimmy” Stewart was known for playing. For many, it’s hard to imagine Mr. Smith, Elwood P. Dowd, Alfred Kralik, or George Bailey as a narrowly focused avatar of vengeance or even as an amoral bounty hunter.

It’s less hard to imagine for fans of the Thin Man films. In After the Thin Man (1936), Stewart was cast specifically to play off of audience’s expectations of him being a nice guy. Instead, he portrays one of the best villains of that series. Cynics like me who ironically present the hot take that Mr. Smith is actually the villain of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and who genuinely believes that George Bailey isn’t a nice person at all, have a much easier time accepting Stewart in more morally ambiguous roles. The fact is that as likable as Stewart is in all of his roles, he’s a skilled actor who has long brought moral complexity to his characters.

I don’t think it is that Stewart is playing these darker, almost noir roles in some cases, that is what makes the Mann-Stewart Westerns stand out. I think what modern critics and audiences are responding to is that Stewart is playing a morally ambiguous character, in a Western. Westerns aren’t supposed to be sophisticated narratives after all. In the minds of many critics, they were merely “horse operas” that were devoid of real depth.

In a March 1964 Cosmopolitan interview with Bill Libby, director John Ford responded to these kinds of criticisms. He said, “The people who coined the awful term ‘horse opera’ are snobs. The critics are snobs. Now, I’m not one who hates all critics. There are many good ones and I pay attention to them and I’ve even acted on some of their suggestions. But most criticism has been destructive, full of inaccuracies, and generalizations. Hell, I don’t think the leading newspaper reviewers even go to see most of the Westerns. They send their second string assistants. And their supposed to be very nasty and very funny in their reviews. Well it’s a shame, because it makes it a crime to like a Western. Sure, there have been bad and dishonest Westerns. But, there have been bad and dishonest romantic stories, too, and war stories, and people don’t attack all romantic movies or war movies because of these. Each picture should be judged on its own merit. In general, Westerns have maintained as high a level as that of any other theme.”

Fans and scholars of Western films know that there have been many fine entries in the genre that go well beyond the stereotype. John Ford’s archetype establishing film Stagecoach (1939) has a number of complex characters incorporated into a very simple narrative. But Stagecoach, like Destry Rides Again (1939), came toward the end of the first wave of Westerns. Stagecoach attempted to exemplify what was great about those old Westerns and it succeeded. Destry Rides Again attempted to parody those earlier films. It too succeeded. But like the best parodies, it also ended up becoming one of the best exemplars of the genre and this is is one reason it helped inspire Blazing Saddles (1974).

Just as Stagecoach and Destry Rides Again marked the zenith of a prior era of Western films, Anthony Mann’s Winchester ‘73 marks the transition from the white hat/black hat era of heroes and villains into one influenced by the noir films that began to dominate the box office in the 40s and 50s.

I say that Winchester ‘73 marks a transition from the classic Western to something new because it is a film that incorporates numerous tropes from the older Westerns and then uses the symbolism attached with those tropes as cues that something a little different is going on in this particular film.

The first, and probably most iconic of those tropes, is the way that Winchester ‘73 uses the white hat/black hat dynamic as a way of introducing its audience to its anti-hero. When Lin (James Stewart) and his companion High Spade (Millard Mitchell) walk into town asking if anyone has seen a man called Dutch Henry Brown, Lin is wearing a white hat. It’s a white hat that is stained with sweat giving it an overall gray appearance. This is a good man who has been pushed to the limit and that has led him onto his quest for revenge. High Spade, his sidekick, is wearing a black hat. So too are Dutch Henry Brown and Marshal Wyatt Earp.

Speaking of Wyatt Earp, Will Geer makes for one of the most unique versions of the character to hit the screen. Geer’s portrayal has an almost comedic quality to it and the Earp of Winchester ‘73 is not hero. He and his brother may be “the law” in Dodge, but they aren’t much of it and Earp seems more comfortable fraternizing with Dutch than he does with Lin. It’s a take on the character that is suggestive of the complexity of the real Wyatt Earp and that predicts more morally ambiguous portrayals of the character that will come later in Hour of the Gun (1967), Tombstone (1993), and Wyatt Earp (1994).

Winchester '73 (1950)

Earp is not a hero in any form in this film, a fact slightly surprising given that the film’s story credit is Stuart N. Lake and he was the major promoter of the Earp story. In Winchester ‘73, Earp is a catalyst of a sort, the shooting contest he runs is how Lin acquires the eponymous Winchester ‘73, but when that gun is stolen Earp plays no part in the attempts to regain the weapon or to uphold the laws that Dutch Henry Brown has broken. I won’t go into Dutch’s crimes here as those are a reveal worth discovering narratively. The film may be over 70 years old, but a review should be more than a synopsis.

While Dutch’s crimes are the inciting incident that lead Lin to Dodge City, it is Lin’s loss of the Winchester to Dutch that is the inciting for the audience. An incident that splits the narrative into two storylines that diverge and converge several times over the course of the film as the gun makes its way from one owner to another. This continual shifting of ownership of a perfect “1 of a 1,000” Winchester rifle allows the film to introduce an interesting array of characters, but it is the way it is done that is most facinating.

Because the Winchester moves from one owner to another, the film’s narrative flow feels less like a single story than it does a series of vignettes united by a single through arc. The through line is Lin’s quest for revenge as he pursues Dutch up and down the central United States, the foothills and plains that come prior to the Mountain West. This through line intersects with several vignettes where various characters encounter and acquire the Winchester rifle before it, like the One Ring finally finds its way into the hands of its true master.

Each of the vignettes of the film is a moral commentary on what it means to be a virtuous person in a lawless land. Who upholds the good when there is barely a society to enforce mores?

The first vignette is the gun shooting contest wherein the best shot in Dodge City will win the perfect rifle and the key focus for moral critique here are the Earps. Wyatt is morally suspect and Virgil is nigh incompetent. As Marshal of Dodge, one would expect Wyatt to enforce the law not just in Dodge, but in the surrounding area as well, but he has no real interest in that. He just wants to keep Dodge calm and he does that in a style that cozies up to the black hats. Once Lin is ambushed and the Dutch has stolen the gun, Lin’s pursuit becomes double pursuit. He wants both to get his revenge and to be made financially whole by the return of his weapon, but his driving focus is revenge. In Anthony Mann’s West, it is up to the individual to enforce the rules of justice (a trend that continues through all five Mann-Stewart Westerns).

Each of the vignettes that follow provide commentaries on the conflict between liberty and license, civilization and lawlessness. The first vignette focuses on avarice and gluttony and intoxication all of which lead to the loss of the weapon to a crooked gun trader. The second deals with economic exploitation and shows what happens when you don’t have law to defend contracts. You have bad faith actors like the gun trader who come to a bad end because the only guarantee of contracts being upheld in a lawless society is to kill those who violate them. This is followed by a really interesting analysis of marriage and family in the untamed West and Shelley Winters performance as a prospective frontier wife, and the cowardice and villainy of the man she had agreed to marry, could make up entire volumes.

Lin’s pursuit of Dutch leads him to come into contact with the aftermath of each of these small morality tales and he judges them as one would expect a moral man to do. He takes no joy in killing for necessity. He knows the costs of cowardice and advises forgiveness. But when his pursuit finally leads him to a place where he can have his revenge, when he re-encounters a Shelley Winters character who has succumbed to despair and is now accompanying a true villain, he is finally given the opportunity to release all of his rage. First he releases it on one of Dutch’s henchmen and finally gets to try and have revenge on Dutch himself, all while still trying to maintain a level of respect for civilization. He’s a white hat, to be sure, but he’s a white hat stained gray with the strain of moral conflict. Does he save someone or get revenge? Does he uphold the principles of law and order or does he focus on revenge?

Winchester '73 – Senses of Cinema

In Anthony Mann’s vision of the West, there is only one answer to that question. Revenge comes first, especially when it is vengeance guided in re-establishing moral order, only then will families be safe. Only then can civilization be built.

I highly recommend the film. It has some elements that date it, badly, but it is a morally complex Western with interesting characters. They aren’t quite as realistic as the characters in later Westerns will be, but this film marks a real transition from a more fairy tale Western to the more morally complex Westerns of Budd Boetticher (Seven Men from Now, Ride Lonesome), Sam Peckinpah (Ride the High Country, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid), and more recent directors.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

[Gaming History] Power Gaming -- Boot Hill NPCs

As a fan of Westerns, I've always wanted to play Boot Hill. I've owned a copy of the Second Edition of the game -- the one that came in the box and was published in 1979 -- for many years, but I have never had the chance to sit down and actually play a session of the game.

This isn't to say that the players I have gamed with over the years haven't been up for Western themed gaming.  I've played sessions of Avalon Hill's Gunslinger (not an rpg) and sessions of Deadlands.  We've always had a good time.  I've just never had a chance to play Boot Hill.  This being the case, it wasn't until recently that I began to read the rules to examine them for play.  The Old School Renaissance, combined with the recent release of Dungeon Crawl Classics, got me into a nostalgic mood.  So the other day, I opened up the rulebook to learn how to play so I could pitch a session to my gaming group.

The first thing I noticed was that while Boot Hill is a role playing game, it is largely a Tactical Tabletop game.  The campaign elements while "role playing" oriented also allow for players to play against one another -- but doesn't require it.  Some players will play "law men" and others "outlaws."  This isn't to say that one couldn't create a more "PCs are a team" style campaign, just that the rule book is written to allow for player dictated storylines where other players can react.  The campaign system is set up so that the individual players can play their own individual stories regardless of other players' activities. I think that this mode of campaign play is interesting and definitely echoes the style of a Braunstein game more than the D&D rules did.  

One of the things that many in the OSR community find appealing about old school games is the lethality of the systems and the lack of "superheroic player characters."  OSR players often want the characters played by players to feel some what mortal.  This sentiment likely stems from the fragility of 1st level characters in D&D, especially Magic Users who are notoriously fragile at low levels.  PCs in a 1st edition D&D game are often one small mistake away from death.  In fact, in the first D&D rules set while characters where rated for their physical and mental attributes, having highly rated attributes had little effect on game play in comparison to later games.  A Fighter with a high Strength score gained very little immediate benefit from the score, though that character would gain experience more rapidly than his/her compatriots.

It didn't take long for that to change though. It was in the Greyhawk supplement that added ability score modifiers for combat.  And once a character's strength score affected one's combat ability, every player wanted to have a higher strength score.  After all, who doesn't want to hit opponents 10-15% more often and to deal 2 to 6 more points of damage per hit?

The 1979 rules of Boot Hill definitely demonstrate the transition from ability scores being primarily a measure that influences speed of advancement to things that immediately and directly affect combat.  D&D used a bell curve that was close to a Normal Distribution with a range of 3 to18.  The bonuses roughly falling along lines of standard deviation especially in the Moldvay/Cook edition.  Boot Hill, on the other hand, has different distributions for Non-Player Characters and Player Characters based on percentile rolls.

Player Characters are far more proficient than randomly generated NPCs.  Take a look at the following two tables illustrating the probability of a character having a specific "Speed" rating.  The first illustrates the chance of a randomly generated NPC having a given modifier.  These range from - 5 to +22 and 0 is described as "average" in the descriptor.  The second illustrates a Player Character.  Once again, 0 is "average."

NPC Speed Probabilities

PC Speed Probabilities

Two things stand out to immediately.  The first is that the character generation system doesn't generate "average" characters on average.  An NPC has only a 10% chance of being "average," and has a 15% chance of being "above average" or "fast."  PCs are even more powerful than NPCs, as they are completely incapable of being "average."  Given that the -5 to +22 is a modifier to initiative, and that one sees similar though not identical distributions for Gun and Throwing Accuracy, one wonders why the game's mechanics didn't scale down toward average actually meaning average.  This could have been done by deciding that a majority of NPCs have a speed of x, and that the majority of PCs have a speed of y.  The speed of x could have been called average and have provided no bonus or penalty.  Instead, Boot Hill uses a counter intuitive system where an average roll (50.5) results in a "quick" NPC (+4) or a "Very Quick" PC (+6).

A part of me could forgive the non-intuitive use, if it wasn't for the section of the rules listing "The Fastest Guns That Ever Lived."  According to this chart, Billy the Kid has an unachievable Speed of +23 and even Ike Clanton has a +12.  All of the "Fastest Guns That Ever Lived" are extremely fast and seem to me to reflect a kind of power creep in the rules.  What is most remarkable is how many of these characters have Speeds of 18+, with many having more than 22.  One might say, "but they are the 'fastest' aren't they?"  Okay, but does the name Bob Younger really bring to mind speed with a pistol?  Besides, the point of having these gunslingers listed is for use in the game.  If all of them are so quick, then there is no real distinction among them.  The slowest of the fastest guns has a +6.  Why not set +6 as average?  It seems to be the average of the NPC distribution -- or at least close.

I can say that the first thought I had looking at these numbers was that none of my players would want to even try a character who didn't have at least a +9 in their Speed Stat.  I think that a system having bonuses that directly affect the probability of actions makes players more likely to worry that their stats aren't high enough, and to try to power game a system.  As time has gone by, I'm becoming more convinced that maybe statistics should matter less mechanically than they do.  Players might obsess a little less about what their Speed score is if they aren't worried about someone with a +25 (Wes Hardin) bringing the gun to bear.

Oh...and the list completely leaves out Bass Reeves.  How can you leave out Bass Reeves?

Friday, September 18, 2009

Hulu Recommendation Friday: Angel and the Badman

John Wayne didn't receive formal accolades for his acting ability until his 1970 performance as Marshall Reuben J. "Rooster" Cogburn. It is often argued that the reason the Oscar, and Golden Globe, was awarded is due to the fact that in playing "against type" John Wayne finally proved that he was a capable actor. Those who make this argument often point to the John Wayne film, The Shootist, as another example of how the "usually cardboard" Wayne was able to bring another powerful performance to screen.

Those who believe that John Wayne only came into "deep" acting later in his career are wearing some fairly narrow blinders and have to ignore a long list of worthy performances.

Wayne's performance in The Quiet Man is simultaneously vulnerable and powerful, passionate and reserved, melancholy and puckish. The film is a joy to watch for a wide variety of reason, but John Wayne's wonderful performance is one of those reasons.

In The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, a movie where Wayne simultaneously plays the stereotype and breaks it wide open, Wayne's performance uses the audience's knowledge of his past films to good effect. Audiences were used to seeing the tough Wayne who met challenges head on, kills the bad guy, is fawned upon by the community, and who often ended up with the girl -- a perfect example of this character is Wayne's performance in Rio Bravo or Stagecoach. But Tom Donophon, Wayne's character in Valance, only accomplishes two of these line items. Donophon does that most remarkable of things. He gives credit, and all the rewards due to the individual to whom credit is given, to another man -- a man he believes to be better than himself. The film is a perfect argument against Machiavellian style politics, and a presentation of true heroic virtue. Donophon refuses to take any credit for a heroic deed, even though it means he must live without the woman he loves. He does this because the community needs him to do it. Wayne's performance is powerful in this film, and his heartbreak is palpable.

There are several other examples in Wayne's career of great performances, The Searchers and Red River also immediately jump to mind, but one of those performances that is often overlooked is Angel and the Badman a film in which we see glimpses of the actor's potential to break free from the cardboard hero in a screenplay were the audience, like in the later Valance, can see that there is more to the Western than good guy kills bad guy.

In Angel and the Badman, we see Wayne without the scaffolding of Howard Hawks or John Ford. This time, Wayne is directed by James Edward Grant who is better known for his screenplays than his directing, and who no one would argue was an auteur. The film is a vehicle for Wayne as "John Wayne," but it ends up being much more than that.

The film's story is a simple one. Quirt Evans is a man of the West. He largely lives outside the law, taking what he wants, and living life to its hedonistic fullest. Quirt isn't a purely evil man, but he is an amoral one and his flexible morality has come into conflict with another outlaw named Laredo Stevens.

So far, the names and character types are almost caricatures from a bad dime novel. Quirt? Laredo? These aren't names of characters one expects in a film of substance. That's typically true, but Grant -- who also wrote the screenplay -- is about to take our expectations of a cardboard tale and throw it for a loop.

As might be expected, Quirt gets injured in a rundown with Laredo. Quirt's injuries are not small and he ends up demanding to be cared for by a family of Quakers named Worth. Penelope Worth (Gail Russell) -- again with those obvious names -- takes a high interest in Quirt and the two eventually develop an emotional attachment. In the end, Quirt must choose between love and violence, between living a moral life or defending those he has come to love by murdering the villain Laredo.

This would all be typical stuff, and the audience can see which way the wind is taking Wayne by the color of his hat in a given scene as it alternates between black and white, except that Grant is making a more sophisticated argument than one might initially expect -- and Wayne is able to portray the moral complexity of the character required to advance that argument. Grant doesn't merely give us a tale where pacifism equals moral virtue and violent action equals moral vice. The film is as complex as High Noon in the way it balances legitimate authority and pacifism.

The Worth family, while happy, is suffering due to their religious practices and it is only Quirt who can convince their neighbor to give them the water they need to thrive. It is the threat of implied violence that accompanies Quirt that initially changes the mind of their Scrooge like neighbor to share water with the Worth family. The neighbor shares because he is scared that Quirt will kill him if he doesn't comply. What makes the scene powerful is that Quirt went to the neighbor unarmed, and with good intentions, and that the bond of neighborly friendship is cemented by the kindness of the Worth family. There is another scene where the threat of Quirt using violence saves the lives of the family.

Grant's argument in the film seems to be that violence, and the threat of violence, isn't in itself evil, but that the application of violence is only moral when done through proper authority. There are some great parallels between this film and the earlier mentioned High Noon, of particular interest is a comparison of the endings of the two films, and both films require subtle performances from underrated actors. Wayne's portrayal of Quirt begins as you might expect a Wayne performance to play out, but as it continues and Quirt transforms from Badman to Man it is Wayne's performance that makes it work. One can see glimpses of the performances Wayne would later bring to the screen, and one also gets to see how a writer can use the clich├ęd tropes of a genre and manipulate them into a more complex tale than one usually expects.