Monday, February 15, 2010

'Run of the Arrow' (1957)

"Perhaps his best movie is Run of the Arrow (1957): a story of longing, epic scenery and romantic music. Desire and violence are incarnated in some of the most beautiful erotic male nudes since the Renaissance – Indians, savage, strong and free. It starts “April 9, 1865” with the South’s surrender at Appomattox."
- Tag Gallagher

First we have a cheap, ugly RKO logo in colour(this is a 50s RKO film, post-Howard Hughes' rape of the most creative of the big 5 Hollywood studios). Then before anything else, we are inside the world of the film. Like all Fuller films, it does not begin it starts. The credits will come soon of course. The film begins in a long take. The camera pans slowly and deliberately from right to left, showing the remnants of a battlefield, one by one we come across small details. We come across a fallen corpse, his bag says C. S. A.

Titles form on the screen slowly in synch with the rhythm of the tracking shot...telling us inch by inch...

...the day...

...the date...
...the place...

..and then we are told the significance of this day. We got the hint from the the C. S. A. mark stitched into the bag. But the shot's not over. As slowly as it pans left, a horse moves in parallel across the trail of corpses and beneath the legend of the titles.

And right before the cut, we see the horse and its rider in side-profile. From the C. S. A. stitched on the dead soldier's bag to the U. S. branded on the black stallion's rear end. In between we have red-lettered legends that tell the audience the significance of this day. Significance imposed on the reality of the morning of the last day of the Great Civil War by layers of posterity. For the men who died on that morning, all latter-day significance was irrelevant, what mattered was their survival. The same is true for the exhausted Yankee soldier who droops on his saddle. The atmosphere around the opening scene is stark and primal. The legends on the screen specify the event but the landscape could be set on the Trojan plains of antiquity for all we know, save for the markers on the bag and the horse and the costumes.

After the credits, we see the surrender of General Lee to General Grant. We see it from the point of view of O'Meara(Rod Steiger). O'Meara is the Confederate soldier who shot the last bullet in the Civil War. His target was the drooping Yankee soldier on the black horse(Ralph Meerker who returns later on in the film). His bullet hit but not fatally and he brings the wounded soldier to a CSA medic tent wherein he observes the histroic surrender. As he witnesses the surrender, he takes aim with his rifle towards General Grant only to be held back by the medic in the tent where he's placed. It's a scene that is quintessential Fuller, whom Serge Daney perfectly described as "war correspondent and mad educator". Run of the Arrow explores one the most perplexing of all questions - What is America? and by extension What is an American? and of course "What makes a man wander?/What makes a man roam?/What makes a man leave bed and board/and turn his back on home?"

Fuller disliked most Westerns and his four films in that genre attack and deconstruct the genre from the ground-up. He had nothing but loathing for Jesse James and the myth-making and aggrandizing piled up by decades of pulp writers, so he made the best Jesse James film, I Shot Jesse James wherein the "dirty little coward" Robert Ford is elevated into a tragic hero worthy of Brutus and Judas; The Baron of Arizona concerns the manner in which a brazen conman converts a democractically governed state into a private feudal kingdom through the creation and manipulation of false documents. Forty Guns explores the twisted sexual politics of gunplay and cattle-ownership in black-and-white 'Scope. Run of the Arrow, the only one in colour(Technicolor to be precise), is both the most traditional and the most modern of the four films.

Steiger's O'Meara is from the Deep South but after the Civil War, he is too full of hatred to conform to the Union into which his people are being reluctantly accomadated into. So he goes West, to the land that has not yet become part of the Union. Along the way he comes across Walking Coyote(Jay C. Flippen, excellent). Walking Coyote is like O'Meara, a renegade who walked away from his land, his people, his tribe. He could have become chief of his Sioux clan except for the fact that - "I can't stomach politics!"

The key scene is when Walking Coyote and O'Meara rest under the night skies. It's a single take, a two-shot held for 2 and a half minutes.

In this exchange, a Christian White Confederate finds a common bond with a Sioux wanderer who became a Scout for the Union. They discuss music, love-songs, the possibilities of female companionship and then O'Meara asks Walking Coyote, "What does Sioux mean in your language?"/"It's a French word, means cutthroat". Coyote tells him that the Sioux which have many tribes used to be called Lakota until the Chippewas described them as "Sioux", cut-throat, to the French on account of their practise of cutting throats of their fallen enemies before scalping came into fashion. In Fuller's film, this historical evolution of ethnic identity becomes a moment where two renegades from their own tribes become comrades.

He rhymes this scene with a later exchange between Captain Clark(Brian Keith) and O'Meara. This starts as a medium shot before resting to where Clark and O'Meara are seated on a wooden table. This take extends to four minutes and 30seconds.

In his exchange with Captain Clark, who represents to him and the audience, the tolerance and virtues of the Union career soldier he lets forth his bitterness and angst at being a sore loser. Clark calls him out of his attempt of becoming a Sioux to vent his feelings for defeat :"You're not the only Johnny Red fighting a one-man war against the United States, you know? Some of them went down to South America."(John Ford of course made a film about one such figure in 1956, one year prior to Fuller's film)

It is in these two conversations which rhyme dialectically with each other that one finds the essence of the film and the essence of Fuller. The first one is about O'Meara's fascination with the romanticism of finding a new people, a new community and becoming one of them and the second one is the pragmatic consideration of the new reality of Post-Civil War America, where Lincoln's Union is fit for all. America is a land where people come to create new identities and find their own home. O'Meara fights the Civil War because of what he sees as Yankee tyranny of telling the South how to live their lives(the issue of slavery doesn't enter into his mind at all) whereas Captain Clark sees the United States' promise as being refreshed with Lee's surrender. With Walking Coyote, a fellow-renegade-from-his-own-people he shares the dream of being an individual, of charting out one's own course.

In Fuller's pessimistic examination of tribal identity, both of O'Meara's spiritual comrades die. Walking Coyote dies with nobility. When cornered by a gang of angry wild Sioux hunters, he initiates the Run of the Arrow; a ritual where condemned men may retain their lives if they can outrun, barefoot across the wild plains, their chasers armed with arrows. Old and overweight, Walking Coyote borrows some time for O'Meara to run ahead until he dies from exhaustion, his corpse catered over by a Sioux who wears Coyote's Union hat.

There's no heroism in Captain Clark's death. It happens suddenly without warning and with no immediate outcry from his unit until he falls off his horse with an arrow in his chest. In the wake of his death, Lt. Driscoll(Ralph Meeker) takes control of the unit. Driscoll, when he is introduced to us, turns out to be, logically enough in Fuller's dialectical use of rhymes and repititions, the Union soldier on the black horse in the pre-credits scene. In that scene, O'Meara shoots him with what turns out to be the last bullet of the Civil War inflicting what is a non-fatal wound which he then brings to the medic thereby saving Driscoll's life. Driscoll is a "frustrated Custer" as per Captain Clark's opinion. While the Army wants to negotiate with the Sioux so that they can make a Fort in a reasonably alloted plot of land, Driscoll wants to charge on and plunder the field and give the "injuns" a piece of his mind. Upon Clark's death, he does just that. (If this turn in the story seems overly familiar it's because James Cameron stretched the plot of the third section of Fuller's 85 minute epic to the entirety of a 3hour 3D science fiction film currently playing in theatres). The death of Clark, the ascension of Driscoll allows for a bloodbath-in-the-making.

Yet as he has always has done all his life, Fuller surprises us. It's not as we would expect, a denouement where the evil Driscoll leads a massacre charge against the persecuted Sioux who have a right to defend themselves and we are allowed to identify with the persecuted people in their battle against the bad guys. It's Driscoll and his fort that is attacked. And it takes the point of view of the bad guy. After a montage showing the construction of the Fort over land not alloted in the negotations, O'Meara enters the Fort under a white flag and urges Driscoll to see reason and leave the Fort. Driscoll doesn't, he knocks out O'Meara but before anything else, the Fort is attacked. For the final battle, the ostensible hero of the film is unconscious lying beneath a heap of corpses. The violence that ensues is in its intensity and rhythm with few parallels in Westerns.

Even if the Sioux are right and the army is wrong, the sheer chaos and insanity of the battlefield is what registers over and above the ethnic and group conflicts. When the film cuts to O'Meara's point of view through his bleary eyes, we see shaky images that we understand reminds O'Meara of the earlier war he had fought. The film comes full circle when after the slaughter, Driscoll is tied around a pole and for his insults to the Sioux people he has to be skinned alive before everybody else.

The Sioux warrior bearing the knife intones to Driscoll, "I saved your life for this ceremony!" But as the cross-cutting with O'Meara turning his eyes away from the screams of Driscoll indicate, he's speaking for O'Meara.

O'Meara shot Driscoll with the last bullet of the Civil War only to take him to a medic and save his life. The bullet which was gifted to him as a souvenir is tied around his neck.

In the exquisite cutting of the scene, we watch O'Meara slowly loading his rifle as Driscoll continues screaming. Chief Blue Buffallo(Charles Bronson) watches this but does not stop him perhaps because he understands that this action performed by O'Meara is the key ritual of the entire film, the one where he truly defines his identity.

He fires and kills Driscoll out of mercy, the bullet-which-missed at last entering Driscoll's thick skull.

By performing this action, O'Meara has cast himself out of his new community, the Sioux. Once again, O'Meara has to leave his new family and his new identity behind, he leaves with his Sioux wife, Yellow Mocassin(Sarita Montiel, dubbed by Angie Dickinson) and their adopted son Silent Tongue(Billy Miller). But he parts ways with the Sioux in friendship and accompanies the survivors of the massacre back to their army camp. A better way of parting than he recieved at the end of the Civil War. That's the small hope that Fuller finds in this otherwise brutally violent and pessimistic film. One doesn't walk away with all the answers but one leaves without asking the wrong questions and think about the troubling unanswerable ones.

* This piece was written as part of the online Film Preservation Blog-A-Thon which began on the 14th of February and ends today. The Self-Styled Siren is one of the hosts of this event and if you wish to help in the restoration of rare, neglected films such as this one(which was released on DVD in the UK, though now out-of print) or others just like it, then...proceed here... I had contributed earlier to the event with a piece on two of Walsh's best films. Among the films which I would like to see restored and re-issued(it's presently available on TCM channel's broadcasts) is Vincente Minnelli's The Cobweb, on which I wrote about last year.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Walsh and Friends

Which movies do people mean when they say, "they don't make 'em like they used to"? Among the old films, that is to say the classical Hollywood films, there are some film-makers whose works have retained a vogue. Their films have a certain feeling for modern life that touches audiences as directly as they did in their first runs. One thinks of Preston Sturges, Billy Wilder, Elia Kazan and Howard Hawks. Then there are those film-makers whose works have a cult appeal like the westerns of Anthony Mann, the crime films of Otto Preminger, Samuel Fuller and Nicholas Ray, the RKO horror films of Val Lewton, Vincente Minnelli's musicals or Sirk's 50s colour melodramas. Then of course there are international treasures such as John Ford and Alfred Hitchcock.

Where does this leave a film-maker by the name of Raoul Walsh?

Walsh is known and admired for his crime films - The Roaring Twenties, High Sierra and of course, White Heat. A masterpiece like The Strawberry Blonde, starring James Cagney, Olivia DeHavilland and a Rita Hayworth-before-she-became-Rita Hayworth; while still little known is at least available via the Warner Archive stable and its cast is sure to attract attention.Just last year, The Man I Love one of the greatest films about the immediate post-war American society was made available and the response to the film has been good. There are his silent films, like Regeneration - an early post-Musketeers of Pig Alley-pre-Scarface gangster film and then the first The Thief of Bagdad. Unfortunately many films are lost, including The Honor System which John Ford ranked as one of his favourite films.

Me and My Gal and The Bowery were made in the space of two years, 1932-1933, a significant period in American film history. The early sound pre-code period was not as we were led to believe by early historians a period where cinema stagnated due to the influx of theatrical-minded writers of the East Coast, it was also a period where film-makers jumped at the chance to let audiences hear how Americans actually talked and through that how they behaved and lives with one another. These films are all about the love of language, of saying things for the first time and this is reflected in the vitality of the rhythm of these two films. In Walsh's films one gets the feeling of invention, that he is making films like it was in the old American Biograph days. Walsh of course was there, he learnt it all from the "Old Man" himself.

In Me and My Gal, listen to the casual off-hand manner of Spencer Tracy's waterfront cop Danny Dolan in his conversation with a stevedore.

Frank talks about the new Pagliacci production at the Metropolitan Opera. Danny says that he was thinking of going to see a burlesque show(pronounced bur-le-cue show) himself. They then talk about the Depression as Frank reads about the latest left-opiniated writer's rant against the breakdown of the capitalist economy. Frank agrees. In the background of course we see a great crowd of people engaged in making the waterfront function. Walsh's film is arranged in a series of vignettes about Danny's interactions with the people in his beat. An Irish-American peasant, he approaches people without any pretentions of authority and interprets his position as a keeper-of-peace with devilish amusement. When a drunk approaches him, Danny regards him with the same amusement as Bogart and Co. do Walter Brennan in To Have and Have Not. Then we see kids play a game. One of them hits a ball straight into a glass window and there's a fight between them as to who did it. When Danny approaches them, he asks one of them, "You think you can take him out?" and lets the fighting continue as before.

Then of course Danny walks into a bar...

At the counter is Helen Riley(Joan Bennett). Danny again finds the same drunk he accosted earlier sitting at the table at the right edge of the frame. He then moves to the counter and buys some bread. He then turns to the register.

Danny - Hiya, red. Here's half a buck!
Helen - Yeah, I know what it is. And my name's not red...and besides my hair is blonde.
Danny - Well whatever you are, you have very beautiful hair!

The way the actors move in the frame, the way they interact and the delivery of the lines in a Walsh film is what creates his special magic. The same can be glimpsed in The Strawberry Blonde in the relationship between James Cagney and Olivia DeHavilland. That is the heart of Walsh's films. As Tag Gallagher notes, in a characteristically astute and intellectually passionate examination of Walsh, his cinema is interactive. The working class New York waterfront of this film becomes in the course of the film a place of which we retain memories. And Danny and Helen become in the course of the film a bunch of regular pals. And of course the film also finds time to invent the heist film genre along the way courtesy of the gangster ex-boyfriend(George Walsh, Raoul's younger brother) who raids a bank.

The Bowery was made in 1933, the same year as Sailor's Luck(which I haven't seen). It's protagonist is Chuck Connors(Wallace Beery), who runs his own bar in ''The Bowery'', a New York district known for ethnic strife. The film is set in the "Gay 90s" and the film after a dull title card plunges us straight into the days of old.

Needless to say, today's audiences won't appreciate The Bowery for what it is, a nostalgic reverie of Walsh's childhood in an Irish-American ghetto. It's hard for today's society of ethno-social correctness to share the film's fascination for a society as brazenly racist, sexist and violent as the one on display in this film. It's a work of urban folklore that very few American films have touched on or revisited. After this there was of course Samuel Fuller's Park Row which was set in roughly the same period and revolved around the early days of journalism. Then of course there's Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York which directly "quotes" the most famous scene of this film. The heroes of The Bowery are two brutal rivals - Chuck Connors(Wallace Beery) and Steve Brodie(George Raft). Neither actor were ever better. Like many Walsh characters, they are fabulists, fibbers and performers. In the case of Chuck, he's an old-time kingpin of the street. He shelters the orphaned and abandoned of the street and takes them under his wing. He's a local hero. But he'll be superseded by Brodie.

The way both of them fight and maintain their hold is through spectacle. In a boxing-match between both of their respective gangs, Brodie wins by secretly slipping in real-life boxing hero John L. Sullivan(George Walsh, the brother again) to defeat Connors unwitting chump. Then Brodie decides to one-up everyone by faking a jump off the Brooklyn Bridge(Brodie is a real figure who apparently did gain infamy for doing this). Of course when the time comes, he has no chance to back out. So he'll have to jump for real. The Bowery is about a world, a culture with all its flaws that will be wiped away and the gutter feudalities of the two heroes will go with it. The world of The Bowery is one where the characters are trapped in self-made myths, and self-told tales.

In both these films, Walsh creates whole worlds filled with people. In one case, the people of the present day New York and in the other, the New York of his childhood, as nostalgic and inaccurate as it always is. And the creation of this world has the same spirit of discovery as in the early Griffith films because now it's wedded to a personal aesthetic and viewpoint. Walsh was a fabulist to the core, an adventurer who at the age of 15 travelled and drifted far until he came across Griffith and became a film-maker. He started as an actor until a jackrabbit jumped through his car window destroying his right eye(this incident is homaged in High Sierra).

Both The Bowery and Me and My Gal(among other Walsh films) are films filled with a spirit of invention and discovery. In that sense, it's not the kind that's made anymore. Not in terms of subject matter but in the approach of the film-maker to his actors and through them his audience. This makes it all the more necessary for a film such as this to be restored and re-issued. It's a cinema of excellent craftsmanship, great performances and wonderful dialogue. It's also a cinema in the spirit of fun and adventure. In today's world, you don't often feel the people who made it had any fun making it, with Walsh at his best, you always do.

So if you'd like to ensure that films such as these ones by Walsh and others just like it can be seen around the world then...proceed here...