If you’ve read some of my posts, it is obvious perhaps that I am a fan of the western genre. My almost daily exposure as a child to the oater came byway of the early TV shows from the late 50s through the 60s which were on the air at the time. From Maverick to Have Gun, Will Travel, from Gunsmoke to The High Chaparral, and all the cowboy series in-between. Including the one that helped launch Clint Eastwood’s iconic career, Rawhide.
Still, if I had to name the first western to actually brand me, in a manner speaking, as a fan of the Old West, I would point you instead to one classic film in particular: Howard Hawks’ Red River (1948). Watching the tale, I found myself riveted by its desperate trek along the Chisholm Trail, along with its dark paternal undertones, as I sat up late one Saturday night as a youth. The film helped to shape my appreciation for western lore. Whether or not it had any semblance to real prairie life, the genre’s core motifs of love, danger, and death nonetheless gripped me. Certainly, enough to hook me for life.
Which brings me back to the post’s other consideration. Sam Raimi. The genius of this filmmaker to enthrall, revolt, and generally scare the bejesus out of an audience (especially in his Book of the Dead trilogy), when they’re weren’t laughing out loud at his decidedly headlong humor — all at the same time, mind you — is almost the stuff of legend. As well, there are a number of fine online blog posts espousing the talents of the man who brought The Evil Dead to life to back me up on this regard. Many more will surely come from Bryce’s blogfest.
As it happens, the published reference materials for the all things Raimi might not be as plentiful, but they are thoroughly enlightening. One of best, IMO, was from my friend and author John Kenneth Muir. His The Unseen Force – The Films of Sam Raimi has to be one of the best film-by-film treatises on what made this director, producer, writer, and actor worthy of the acclaim, whether you’re a fanboy or not. And how does my high regard for Raimi dovetail with my love of old six-shooters and those that shoot them? It all comes down to his 1995 neo-western, The Quick and The Dead.
At the time, The Quick and The Dead was not considered a success for Raimi by critics and the box office (IMDB reports out of its estimated $32 million budget, it returned under $19 million in ticket sales). Some cited his frenetic and now familiar camera work, energetic approach, and comical aspects not congruent with the stylings of Sergio Leone and the spaghetti western this feature was obviously paying homage to. My friend J.D.’s excellent contribution to this fest , which I agree with, keenly disputed that by contenting Raimi…:
“… was the ideal filmmaker to re-visit the Spaghetti Western. Like Leone, Raimi is not afraid to inject his own unique style into a film with the intention of breathing new life into a tired genre. Leone did this first with the western and later, the gangster film, while Raimi chose the horror film before tackling the western.”
Sharon Stone, too, as the mysterious gunslinger (in the Clint Eastwood, Man With No Name mold) who came to the town of Redemption for reasons of her own, beside the quick draw contest, came under a similar stony scrutiny. Still does. More than 15 year later, though, that negative tide is pulling away more and more. I dare say, writer Simon Moore (who knows his movie westerns) and Sam Raimi succeeded in presenting the picture from a decidedly different perspective. Even though it received derision for doing so, by allowing a woman (The Lady, aka Ellen*) to shine through as the heroic shootist (a role dominated by males throughout the genre’s history), the filmmakers compelled the viewers to take in the film at an unconventional angle (a Raimiesque one, at that).
For the whole of it, the film pays tribute (in scene and tone, and with a bit of crazed hilarity) to this particular form of drama — even by way of its own title. The Quick and The Dead was a 1973 novel [later adapted to a TV movie] by the famed western writer Louis L’Amour. Besides the many embedded salutes to Leone’s stable of films (TQaTD to be sure lifts its style from A Fistful of Dollars, and the lead character’s revelation directly from Once Upon a Time in the West), many of the scenes, and how they were framed, come from other well-known westerns and were lovingly recreated. Long-time aficionados will spot:
- The Lady’s distant screen introduction on horseback (riding toward the camera) across the prairie recalls The Stranger’s dusty entrance from High Plains Drifter
- in her initial skirmish with Dog Kelly (Tobin Bell), Ellen plays possum and reverses the situation à la the elder John Wayne in many of his later westerns
- the rain-soaked face-off on the town’s street between Ellen and Eugene (Kevin Conroy) harkens to Unforgiven‘s showery bookend scenes in Big Whiskey
- the cloud strewn vista Ellen reveals as she opens the barn door in her, “I’m through” scene has a visual correlation to the classic John Ford westerns and their panoramas
- Herod (Gene Hackman), after their quick draw confrontation, questions if The Kid (Leonardo Dicaprio) was really his son, just like Woodrow Call supposes with Newt in Lonesome Dove
Be that as it may, the real treat for me in this Raimi film were the combination of spirit and upheaval a woman in the lead brings to the grand old western parable, as well as the underlying use of fathers as the pent-up emotional point of convergence in their offspring. While Sharon Stone assumes the role Eastwood made his own with Leone’s foreign westerns, her dynamic in the film is more contrastive (if you want similar, see Kurt Russell as Snake Plissken in Escape From New York — another film in tune with the western since director John Carpenter remains an avid Howard Hawks devotee).
As cool and tough as this avenging female plays it, she’s no killer in the same sense of the men around her — that includes the redemptive Cort (Russell Crowe). Furthermore, in no western universe I know of would a protagonist-antagonist scene exist or be anything like the one involving the dinner at Herod’s mansion between these two. It requires the man/woman propellant (or some twisted father and daughter milieu that’ll send your head reeling) for it to work. And it does here. Both the critics and fans cited it as the strongest dramatic sequence in the entire movie.
Ellen and The Kid (and indirectly Cort) pitted against Herod, as the dark father figure, were the key elements which brought the potent parental undercurrent in the film to a head. Screenwriter Moore’s script foretells this when it aptly names the villainous town honcho after the mad client king of Israel, who was known to have executed members of his own family. Herod was despotic in that fervent manner only the worst of fathers† are — of this, Shakespeare nailed it best. As well, Hackman’s character, while not on par with his earlier and award-winning Little Bill Daggett role, was worth noting.
His displays of that distinct patrilineal disappointment, more than a few of us have experienced, you know the one reserved for progeny that let a father down so thoroughly, were recognizable and better than good. The Kid and the town folk being those on the harsh receiving end of Harod’s displeasure. His true disdain in the story, however, was for his son by proxy, the redeemed Cort, for tuning away from his and Herod’s nature. You’ll notice, there’s hardly a mention of a mother in this story. Any notion of nurturing just isn’t there. And with a title like this one, how could you expect it to be. The closest ones who fostered this to any extent were Ellen and Doc Wallace (Roberts Blossom).
And Ellen was dismissed by Herod almost out of hand because she’s a woman — big mistake.
I believe the film ultimately works because it wasn’t afraid to bend the western a fair bit, but not break it. In point of fact, the director, writer, and producers went out of their way to keep many traditions and concepts intact. There remains a good deal of love for the genre at its core. Sam Raimi’s imaginative spin with the western, as effortless and skillful as Cort’s pistol-handling exhibition in the gun shop scene, remains a plus and didn’t receive the credit he deserved for offering another standpoint for the western staple. Likewise, Simon Moore’s playful use of the genre’s archetypes in his script (even as he was hired, fired and re-hired during the course of the movie making) only added to the attitude that makes the film highly entertaining.
Yet, for all of its diversion and counterpoint, the film offered an unanticipated emotional basis to its narrative, which shouldn’t be surprising since Sergio Leone brought the same to his films. Moreover, his Ellen character remained formidable all the while being vulnerable to an extent no customary cowboy lead could ever have been. For me, it remains a high point for The Quick and The Dead. You either buy into Sharon Stone’s role or you don’t. If you do, this unorthodox western, though not a classic in the long-established sense of the word, remains memorable for its turn-on-its-head premise, Raimi’s visual artistry, and for all its scene-chewing goodness.
Herod: “You’re not fast enough for me!”
Ellen: “Today I am.”
* more name play by the writer? Ellen is also the first name of the redoubtable Ripley in the Alien series.
† please note, I’m not making the case that all dads share this trait. The good-hearted Marshall (Gary Sinise) would have been my pick for a father figure, just that mine was more like Herod.
- Sam Raimi Remaking EVIL DEAD? (geektyrant.com)
- Sam Raimi to do apocalyptic scifi western [This Is Awesome] (io9.com)
- The Quick and the Dead (1995) (screen150.wordpress.com)