A man is riding across the scenery on a beautiful horse. He enters a small Mexican town. A black-and-white shepherd dog takes a dislike to the horse and nips at his heels but the horse and the man pay no attention until finally the man pulls up at a watering trough, dismounts, and stares at the dog. The dog quails and then bolts. This is the dream, that old dream about the powerful wandering man, so dangerous. And the horse he rides in on as well. This time an appaloosa stallion, legendary mount from Nez Perce country. (This particular horse is really and truly outstanding, a famous race horse with bold spots on his glossy rump.)
It’s the dream: the desert, the mountains, the arching blue sky, the small Mexican town, even the watering trough and all the lean, sombrero-wearing, grinning men lounging here and there. The reviewers spoke of this being Brando’s spaghetti Western, but it’s also Chinese — oh, yes! And there must be a version on the Argentine Pampas. A Bedouin version where the man rides in on a camel? It must exist somewhere. (“Lawrence of Arabia?” “The Sheltering Sky?”) It’s the dream of the horseman in the land of the peasant where to own a horse is to be above the rest, a knight. The dream clings to us all, but nowhere more than in the arid borderlands abutting Mexico.
Here is the frontier where the man who can dream anything, endure anything, can prevail against the arrogant oppressor. (But this exceptional man is mangy as a coyote: the worst wig and fake beard I’ve ever seen. It’s a relief when the script asks him to remove them.) He walks into the church, a Southwest cathedral, where his spurs jingle as he crosses the tile floor to the confessional. A beautiful woman emerges from the penitent’s side. This is the dream. Always a princess because next to the horse and the ordeal, the idea is always that a family line must be started, parallel to the horses.
The priest is pretty resourceful. Confronted by this rather urgent man who seizes the bars of the confessional and says he has killed men and troubled women (though he claims they asked for it and who is he to resist?), the priest tells Brando to go to the altar and ask God what penance He will impose to get forgiveness. It isn’t in the movie, but I feel sure the priest quickly made a wise exit as the local wicked prince enters to kill the penitent. The storyline of defiance, punishment, suffering of the innocent, and the worthiness of sacrifice has begun. The ordeal illustrated over and over by the Hero with a Thousand Faces.
I love a Western, even so simple and stylized one as this, going through the moves in its 1966 way, rich with closeups and panoramas, filled with Mexican Indians rather than feathered kind, but nevermind — there are horses and I like adobe as well as lodges. Goat meat and beans instead of pemmican and buffalo hump.
They say that Brando only accepted this job because he was behind on his alimony and he ostentatiously refused to participate beyond the demands of the contract. A stony face. No particular dexterity or charming expressions. But it works. The director treats him like just another animal and that’s fine. This is the Western chess game. We know the moves. Even the costumes: the tight pants with concho-closures on the boot-flares at the bottom, the tight waists and full bodices on the women, the white pajamas of the paisanos, the dragging spikes of spurs like fangs. The blunt heavy face of Brando, like an effigy from Aku-Aku, stands against the greasepaint and mustachios of the almost-pretty John Saxon as a marker for honesty and dependability.
Only the script enforced by the director can press Brando’s arm down on the arm-wrestling scorpion. His is the strength of resistance, focus on the goal, denial of everything else. Yet several times in this story he despairs. The consequences of gunfire are not seen, nor is the hero hung by the neck. We are given opportunities to identify the iconic rifles involved, same as the iconic horse, the iconic woman, the iconic family. Alas, the iconic withered cornfield.
Ironically (what fun would this be without irony?) the shining goal amounts to just the standard bourgeois preoccupation: prosperity, owning land, a big house on a hill, a family. The hero is neither a poet nor an adventurer, so maybe that’s why his strategy of dogged resistance works. Certainly the “citizen” reviewers say this movie is an all-time great, a “perfect” Western. Sidney J. Furie, the director, also directed the television series made from McMurtry’s “Lonesome Dove.” He is Canadian-born, BBC-trained, experienced in many genres, always on time and under budget. He’s a good workman. Bourgeois qualities.
The leisure and predictability of this movie allow Furie to indulge in his trick camera shots from strange angles — one through the loop of a stirrup with a boot in it; another identified by a reviewer as a “scorpion’s eye view” of the arm wrestling, which may be what caused one irreverent viewer to ask whether any scorpions were harmed in the making of the film. Furie is famous for and often criticized for his love affair with the “arty” odd closeup. My favorite in this movie is the shot of a Mexican face along his temple and impossibly high Indio cheekbone to Brando across the room, pretending to drain his jar of pulque.
So this is a fantasy, but a reassuring and patriotic one, if you remember that 1966 was before immigration from south of the border became politically demonized, drug and violence based. This is orderly and gives high respect to formal church-based religion. The woman is not a prostitute; the old Mexican man protects even gringos; in fact, at one point — briefly — a United States Marshall steps out onto his porch with a rifle to restore order, though he doesn’t shoot. This is before the complexification and realism fetish took over Westerns, the obsession with violence and alienation. It’s just a simple story about a simple man. Not that today’s fancy Frenchified theorists couldn’t get something out of the terrifying gaze that sent that dog running or even the horse caparisoned in silver saddle and bridle, shining transcendence. Still, this is John Wayne country — not Eastwood spaghetti.