A Film of Two Halves
As a child I liked Randolph Scott and I liked all of the Ranown cycle of westerns. They were regularly shown on British television and they pleased me in the same way that The Virginian pleased me. A resolute good man stands up against engaging bad men and wins. 90 minutes of satisfying story in an inspiring (if bleak) landscape with a few shots of horses and cows thrown in. Scott was affable and engaging, at times humorous if not exactly funny. All was right with the world. It’s the sort of thing televisions seemed to have been invented for in the fifties and sixties.
I came back to the films in the knowledge that these films have a stronger reputation than that. That the Budd Boetticher/Randolph Scott/Harry Joe Brown westerns were regarded as some of the greatest ever made. That Scott is up there on the very top table of western film stars with William S Hart, Gary Cooper, Henry Fonda, John Wayne, James Stewart and Clint Eastwood. That Boetticher is ranked as highly as John Ford, Anthony Mann, Sergio Leone, Sam Peckinpah and Clint Eastwood as a director. I’m going to focus on this single western from the Ranown Cycle (named after the company set up by the principals to make the films) to see if it reveals just why the films are so highly regarded. As I say, my memory is of a series of satisfying rather than inspiring films. Did I miss something? Were they really great? Was their greatness in the fact that they disguised their greatness.
It is sometimes said, in educational circles, that everyone can tell a good teacher but the truly great teacher often passes under the radar. I have considerable experience of teaching and can confirm this. It doesn’t mean that great teachers are ineffective but it does mean that they often go unrecognised and invariably unrewarded for their special skills. In football, I’ve long been a huge admirer of the much maligned French player, Didier Deschamps. Derided by supposed experts as a “water carrier”, he was at the centre of many of the truly great teams of modern times. Was he simply lucky? It’s very difficult to see him doing anything other than being in position and making passes (invariably to his own player). Football is a complex game at the highest level. The killer pass often goes un-noticed by those who think it is the pass immediately prior to a goal. Great players of the game are like chess grand-masters. They are thinking many moves ahead. They know that the killer pass can be the one that draws an opponent fractionally out of position a full minute before the attack on goal. It’s the one that has the significant consequences and those consequences are often difficult to analyse. Deschamps was one of the most influential players of the last twenty years. He was astonishingly good but you had to be bloody good to see just how good he was.
Budd Boetticher is like that. Randolph Scott is good and most people can see that (it takes most people a second look and an opportunity to reflect to see just how good), Budd Boetticher is great.
The Tall T is the second in the series. It doesn’t matter which order you see them, unless you are studying how a real artist refines his work. The films get better and better but there is no narrative continuity nor do the same characters appear. The series is linked solely by the people making the films. They can be compared to the work of Clint Eastwood in that they consist of a number of first class films leading up to a masterpiece (The Unforgiven). They (Renown and Eastwood westerns) follow the same type of characters, the same issues, similar storylines and settings.
To bring The Tall T down to its bare bones you have a good man trying to do the best he can yet finding himself caught up in an unintended kidnap and ransom drama. He keeps a cool head despite those around him losing theirs (At first viewing he is very much the sort of hero Kipling is seeking in his poem If), saves the damsel from the bandits and walks off into the sunset.
This précis is accurate but incomplete. It only deals with the second half of the film but the first half really does only show a good man trying to do the best he can and putting up with the ups and downs that life, and the script, put in his way.
In fact the film is almost a film of two separate halves. Two halves that are so different as to appear not only parts of different films but actually parts of different genres. The first half is almost a comedy and ends with the hero being thrown from a bucking bull and seeking refuge in a water trough; emerging from it with a crooked smile of stoical acceptance and looking like the scarecrow off The Wizard of Oz after a dousing.
The opening scene of the film could almost be described, in modern parlance, as being Shane-Lite. The opening credits are shown over a rugged foreground with high mountains in the distance and a single rider, dressed in desert colours, approaching the camera. The lettering of the credits is in the same rusty wheat coloured, scratchy, woodblock lettering as the earlier masterpiece. Once the credits end, the similarity to Shane continues, with a round faced small boy watching the rider arrive and, recognising him, showing an almost hero worshipping affection. His dad, like Van Heflin in Shane, is protective but welcoming. Unlike Shane, we soon find out who the rider is and about his past. There remains a great deal unspoken. The man is Patrick Brennan (Randolph Scott) and we can see, through his almost jaunty exterior into a background that contains enough hurt to have bought his stoical amiability.
This scene is almost lyrical. These are people who live apart from society. These are the western characters that Wordsworth would have written about had he been American. The second scene takes us into the town of Contention. The amiable lyrical qualities slowly turn to a gentle cynicism (brilliantly led by Arthur Hunnicutt) and a sense of comedy, as the films heroine and tragic buffoon (as newly weds) are introduced. (In a way which underplays the importance they will have in the later parts of the film).
The third scene takes us onto the ranch where Brennan used to work and where the owner wishes to lure him back. We get two scenes of fast moving rodeo style action; the first with a stirred up corral of horses breaking free despite our hero’s best efforts; the second where Brennan is offered the bull he seeks as a bet against his horse. He’s wise enough to turn the wager down until taunted by the man who took his job. We see in this moment (beautifully played in silence on screen using a slowly breaking smile) where his previous problems may have come from. The bet is to ride a bull to a standstill and he can have it. Fail and he loses his horse. It’s good hearted, all-action comedy. It’s the clowns in the rodeo. It’s a lot of fun to watch and it ends with a drenched and resigned Brennan leaving the ranch with considerably less than he arrived with. (Not before socking the jeering foreman on the jaw and into the trough).
The fourth scene ends the comedy section. It’s back in the desert where he flags down the stage containing the people we met in town. He gets a lift to the swing station and jokes to the driver (Hunnicutt) that he’s never been on a honeymoon before. The honeymoon period of the film is about to end in horrific style.
A comparison could be made with Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The first half deals with serious issues but in a way that suggests that the entire play is going to joke its way to a happy ending. The funniest character (Mercutio) then dies in an unforeseen manner and the play turns dark. Here the funniest character Rintoon (Hunnicutt) is about to die and the film is about to darken. And darken in a way I’m sure Shakespeare would have approved of.