Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Johnny Guitar and Will Penny

When a child in the 1940’s I had a common view of the Cowboy Western, looking forward to those films in colour with battles between the military and Indians, and playing with cap guns. It was only decades later that I appreciated the truth of how the indigenous people were slaughtered, their lands stolen and their culture destroyed.

I still watch the Western film but with some discrimination and as part of Sky Wall to Wall film week 2 came across the classic Johnny Guitar with Stirling Haydon as Johnny and Joan Crawford as Vienna. The film is based on the novel of Roy Chanslor and directed by Nicholas Ray and has been selected for preservation in the United States National film Registry of the Library of Congress as being culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.

The film is set outside a wind swept Arizona town where a former saloon gal Vienna has built an iconic isolated gambling and drinking establishment having acquired information that the site is on the route of the railroad which is making it way shortly. This angers the local cattle men and in particular Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge) knowing that the railroad will bring hordes of settlers who will want to fence in the range and farm. Vienna also has antagonised the locals by sharing her bed with a local wild boy called the Dancing Kid, and his cronies use the saloon to let off steam once a week when they come from their secret location alleged secret silver mine.

On his way to join Vienna, her former lover and gunslinger, Johnny Guitar witnesses the holding up of the stage, at a distance, as does not intervene. He arrives at the saloon when Vienna is entertaining a railroad man offering him a share in the saloon which struggles because of the boycott by the rest of the town. Vienna and Johnny pretend they do not know each other, although Johnny is quickly involved in the situation when first the Dancing Kid arrives and one of his sidekicks (Ernest Borgnine) resents the intrusion of the outsider, and then Emma, the Sheriff and others arrive because they are convinced the Dancing Kid and his men are behind the stage hold up with the knowledge and support of Vienna. Borgnine resents the fact that the Kid is not wearing guns and takes the view the man is a coward and they have a fight outside which Johnny wins with his fists. Emma is presented as a tough but deranged woman who is obsessed with bringing the Kid down because she wants him and he has turned to Vienna, which also makes Vienna her enemy. She gives Vienna 24 hours to close the saloon and leave.

Vienna and Johnny overcome the past and he persuades her to cash in, pay off the staff and retreat with her, selling up when the railroad arrives and she goes into town to draw out her deposit from the bank in notes for the staff and for their immediate future together.

Unbeknown to her the Kid and his men, wrongly accused for the stage robbery decide to take revenge on the town by robbing the bank and they arrive while Vienna is still there, do not take her money but take everything else while the rest of the towns folk are attending the funeral of Emma’s brother killed in the stage coach hold .

The gang make their way to the mountain retreat and worked out mine which involves a passage way under a waterfall and log cabin built strategically on a hill overlooking the only entrance from the town, with the only other route over the mountains which becomes closed when the railroad workers use explosions as part of brining the line closer. The gang decide to make their way across the desert but encounter Emma and the posse. The youngest of the gang is wounded and makes his way to Vienna’s saloon where she has decided to stand her ground against the advice of Johnny who leaves after a row about their respective futures.
The other three return to the lair where Borgnine want the money to be divided and for the three to take their separate chances. Emma and the posse find the injured youth at the saloon and persuade him to confess that Vienna was involved on the basis he will not be hung. They lie of course and against the wishes of the Marshall who is killed, they take the two prisoner and burn down the saloon. The youngest is hung but the men then refuse to kill Vienna saying that Emma has to do it which she does. However this has given Johnny time to untie the fixed end of the rope so he is able to ride away with Vienna and make for the hide out where they receive a mixed reception.

Unfortunately for them. A stray horse leads the posse to the entrance of the lair and they do a deal with Borgnine to let him keep a share of money in return for giving up the others. This plot is discovered and there follows a dramatic show down between Emma and Vienna in which Emma accidentally shoots and kills the Kid, before she is killed having previously wounded Vienna. The rest of the posse decide there has been too much killing and leave the two alone.

At the time of its release in 1954 the film was only moderately successful with Crawford criticised for moving away from her roles as a siren of the modern city and because the plot was standard with the characters also standard despite the quality of the acting. The film was recognised by other filmmakers notably Francis Truffaut who has commented on the poetry of the dialogue and its theatrically while Almodovar used a clip from the film in his Portrait of a woman having a nervous breakdown and has a similar ending with an obsessed woman shooting the main female character. My main problem is with Crawford who has never appealed as a woman to die for.

There is a very different quality feel to Will Penny in my judgement which has Charlton Heston as the main character pursued by Donald Pleasance after Heston has killed his brother. The main story is that Will takes on a job to ride a boundary of a large cattle ranch, keeping the stock from straying and preventing travellers from staying on the property. He finds an attractive young woman and her son using a remote cabin to over winter having been abandoned by the man paid to take her to join her husband. Will allows her to stay and then when he again encounters Pleasance and is left to a slow death he is able to make his way back to the cabin where he is brought back to health by the woman. They establish a close relationship, especially over Christmas and they commence to live effectively as a family unit with Will realising what he has been missing by his nomadic life and also developing fatherly feelings towards the boy.

However he is in a dilemma torn between wanting to settle but also recognising that because of his age and experience he is unlikely to be content with domesticity for long. He then encounters Pleasance and his gang again and only survives with the help of men from the ranch who then query his loyalty and question why he did not bring the woman to the ranch for a decision about her future. They would have allowed her to stay until the Spring as long as she agreed to move on with the next wagon train. Will decides it is time for him to move on and leaves. The woman and her son are allowed to stay on and look towards him as he rides away hoping he will look back and return. He does not.

I liked the film more than Johnny Guitar although neither reach the heights of others or are overall as satisfying. This for the future.

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