I had forgotten this for years, but they do. Something about recreating violent places in America’s past. We watched Appaloosa the other night, a Western starring and directed by Ed Harris, and, I’ll partially review the actual movie (which was okay, about a B-), but mostly write about the nuances of cowboy movies. First and foremost, there are no purely good people; the lawmen are all killers for hire. The west was settled by psychopaths willing to slaughter Native Americans and live in isolated groups of sociopaths. So, against that backdrop, how to make a cowboy movie “light-hearted?” I don’t think it can be done. Ed Harris tried; his character, Virgil Cole, is a traveling lawman who comes to Appaloosa (a fictional town in New Mexico, 1880’s) and, for a fee, rids the town of the Jeremy Irons’ gang. Harris is not a likable character, he’s a tyrant with a badge; but as director, he set up some interesting shots of the town (if it was his work and not the cinematographer’s). His deputy is played by Viggo Mortenson, better known as King Aragorn in the Lord of the Rings movies. And, as a calmer, more intelligent man, it’s to Mortenson that people appeal for sanity, not Ed Harris, who knocks out a guy’s tooth for looking at him funny. Still, if you were to follow Mortenson’s story to its logical end, he’d die by violence too.
Are cowboy movies supposed to be depressing? Probably not, but they all depress me, which is why I stopped watching them a long time ago. Whoever shoots fastest, has the most guns or the best poker face, is left standing. There’s not much to develop beyond that, and such is the trouble for Appaloosa–the plot sort of stalls out halfway through. Harris does a half-ass job of wooing Renee Zellwegger, a widowed organ player, but romance is always a subplot in a Western; this movie was forty-five minutes longer than it should have been. Oh yes, and since it’s a guy movie, the woman ruins everything, Ed Harris can do no wrong; Renee, the lady he finally falls for, is judged harshly for her actions. Moving right along, Jeremy Irons plays a shady ranch owner with a big gang of thugs. It was touching to watch him trying to suppress his high diction British English to be a cowboy—”Where you going with my hooo-rse?!” he yells, stretching out the “o” to hide his mother tongue. And the only way you knew he was actually a bad guy was that he shot three lawmen in the first scene; after that, he was the most interesting and intelligent character.
Which is why Westerns depress me. The United States has a bloody and rather recent history of “development,” and, living in Colorado, I’m more aware of this than when I lived in the eastern part of the country. There’s only one scene in the two hour movie that deals with Native Americans (Apache, maybe? can’t remember), and they are treated, by the film makers, with dignity; but it’s an unrealistic, silent and peaceful meeting—not how an actual exchange between settlers and natives would have gone down. Also, none of the “Apaches” were actually Native American; in the credits, the tribesmen included Matthew Moyoto, Bud Connelley, etc…guess the casting agent couldn’t find any actual Native Americans willing to participate. Is this because they’d rather not recreate such awful times for their people.
That’s the main reason I can’t stomach Westerns, spaghetti or otherwise: they gloss over the worst parts of history, stupid brawn is rewarded over brains, and the plots are identical. So what’s left? Fancy shooting and sexy costumes, which Appaloosa had in spades. That and the panoramic shots of New Mexico, I guess that’s why I sat through the whole thing. Did I give it a B- before? Let me revise that to a C.