My review of “The Lone Ranger” is posted at Breakpoint.org
Well, the wait is over and the reviews are coming. My own review of “Man of Steel” is at Breakpoint.org:
The long-awaited “Man of Steel” movie is almost here. Soon, I’ll be posting a review. Meanwhile, here’s my commentary on the hero, “Superman For All Seasons.”
Last night, we watched a quirky comedy from the early seventies, They Might Be Giants. It featured George C. Scott as a man who thinks he’s Sherlock Holmes and Joanne Woodward (Mrs. Paul Newman) as the psychiatrist who tries to cure him. Coincidentally, the doctor’s name is Watson, which “Holmes” gleefully seizes upon. The two follow a labyrinth of clues on their way to find Holmes’ chief adversary, the mysterious, malevolent Moriarty. Dr. Mildred Watson is at first fascinated by a classic case of paranoia, then exasperated by her patient’s dogged devotion to the Holmes persona, and, finally, enchanted by the strength of character beneath the veneer of “insanity.”
It’s a film worthy of review, but that’s not my purpose in mentioning it here. Rather, Scott’s character makes a statement about westerns that I wanted to share with you. On the run from the cops, Holmes and Watson enter a movie theater and climb to the balcony. There, amidst the human flotsam and jetsam of New York City, they sit down to a shoot-em-up. Once Watson calms down and adjusts to her surroundings, she finds herself amused by her patient’s enjoyment of westerns. She asks him about it. As the guns roar and the bullets fly onscreen, he replies:
“There are no masses in Virginia City, only individuals whose will for good or bad can bring them to the ends they ought to have. I like that very much.”
“The ends they ought to have.” It reminds me of a statement the late Roger Ebert made in his review of Kevin Costner’s Open Range: “The underlying text of most classic Westerns is from the Bible: ‘What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world, but loses his soul?’” He talks about the personal values that drive western heroes. He could just as well have mentioned the greed, fear, and ambition that drive western villains. Usually, the bad guys and the good guys get what they have coming to them, the ends they ought to have.
Perhaps paradoxically, I’m a firm believer in the church, a community of believers–and I am committed to that holy community. Such a commitment may seem a contradiction in a man who likes stories about cowboys who ride alone, sheriffs who stand alone, good men and bad men who face each other, mano a mano, on a dusty street. Yet, as anyone with any experience in church (or any group) knows, it’s not simply a mass of people but an
association of individuals, all with different personalities, different philosophies, different agendas. One bad apple can spoil the proverbial bunch. One heroic soul can lift the whole fellowship to new heights. I’ve seen it happen. We may be in this together, but each man makes his own choices, each soul stands accountable to God. No man is an island, but neither is he a moral vacuum. Westerns underscore that truth. And I like that.
Near the climax of They Might Be Giants, Holmes and Watson approach the same movie theater they’d been in earlier. Outside, they find a distraught woman, one of Holmes’ friends. She points to the marquee which now bears the brazen title of a porn film. She’s grieving because “they’re not showing westerns anymore.”
Sigh. Ain’t it the truth.
My friend, John Pierce, has been loaning me copies of a new series from Dynamite Comics, Masks. The plot is simple: In 1938, a shadowy dictator takes over New York City. Under the banner of the “Justice Party,” his aim is to conquer first the state, then the country. He uses his brutish police force to impose his idea of order upon society. Thankfully, the great pulp and comics heroes, the legendary masked men, are there to challenge these fascists: the Shadow, Green Hornet and Kato, the Spider, the Green Lama, a black version of Zorro, and others. Written by Chris Roberson and illustrated by Alex Ross and Dennis Calero, the series has been a great pulp read.
In the latest issue, the heroes confront the mastermind. They tell him that people are decent and able to govern themselves. I was struck by the statement the villain makes, to the effect that decency doesn’t come from within people but it must be forced on them from above. It’d be easy to skim across what he says and read on. Except, there’s actually a lot of truth in the statement. After all, any decent parent knows that kids won’t turn into responsible adults by themselves, but, rather, they must be disciplined, not to say forced, to behave. Broadcaster Paul Harvey used to say that self-government won’t work without self-discipline. Lately, however, I’ve thought that less a bromide and more a prophecy. All around me, I see people giving up more and more freedom to their government. They seem to see the state as a benevolent father, a Big Daddy, but, as history shows, the state can quickly turn into Big Brother–especially when we give it a license to do so.
There is certainly a need for societal order. The Masks villain’s mistake is that of every dictator, to wit, the law can never replace freedom. Or can it? There will always be a tension, a struggle between the law and freedom. At least, there should be. Yet, as another Memorial Day passes into history, as the last words of our great American hymn, “the land of the free and the home of the brave,” fade, I’m asking, “How long?” How long will our land remain free and our home brave?
There’s an interesting op-ed piece by former Superman comics scribe, Greg Rucka, in the Hollywood Reporter. In it, Greg states his misgivings regarding the PG-13 rating given to the upcoming Man of Steel. He raises some good questions. http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/heat-vision/greg-rucka-a-pg-man-448386
I don’t know what the movie will be–I find the trailer inspiring, but, you know what they say about the pudding and the proof. I do know what today’s Superman comics seem to me: too cool for their own good. The writing is intelligent–at least, sophisticated. (Sometimes I think I need a Ph.D to understand it.) The artwork pretty good, though the palate generally seems rather dark. So why do I have so little interest in buying these things anymore–I mean, besides the three-buck price-tag? Is it because they’re in such a big hurry to make Superman palatable to an ever-shrinking fan base, they’ve taken all the fun out of him?
I don’t know. Have Supe’s comics ever really been much better, much more fun? Not always. Occasionally, I buy back issues from what we fans refer to as the “Bronze Age,” more or less the 1970s. (I can’t afford the Silver Age/60s stuff anymore.) With a few notable exceptions, the stories all seem afflicted with a numbing sameness. But that’s the problem with any ongoing series. After a while, you run out of ideas; you get in a rut. Naturally, market concerns have been there from the beginning. And, contrary to the popular notion, Superman hasn’t always acted the bright paragon of virtue, even in “the good old days.”
(Along those lines, I recommend a great column at Comic Book Resources by Brian Cronin, “I Love Ya But You’re Strange,” which examines weird, even disturbing comics stories from days gone by–not a few of them stories from the Superman family. In some of these, the bizarre sexual subtext is so thick you can cut it with a knife. In others, Superman comes off like, well, a jerk!)
So is it the past I’m pining for? Or simply an ideal of Superman
that is more ephemeral than real? I don’t know. We’ve all got our ideas of what Superman should be. Sometimes the comics, the movies, etc., appeal, other times they don’t. Sometimes they do both. In the end, the situation is not unlike that of the TV commentary briefly shown in SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE: “There you have it. True or false? Miracle or fraud? Your guess is as good as anybody’s.”
Even after the movie comes out, that’ll still be true.
The 1950s contained a rich vein of western movie gold. Everybody knows about the big chunks, “High Noon,” “The Searchers,” etc. But if you don’t mind doing a little digging, you’ll find some smaller but equally bright nuggets. While “prospecting” a while back, I came upon a little gem entitled, “Terror in a Texas Town.”
The black-and-white film stars Sterling Hayden, Sebastian Cabot, Ned Young, and Carol Kelly. Hayden plays George Hansen, the son of a former whaler who followed in his father’s footsteps. Having come to Texas to join his dad in farming, he learns to his dismay that Sven Hansen has been murdered. George gets the news in a bar, delivered with cold irony by the very hired gun who’d done the deed, Johnny Crale (Young).
Crale is the gun hand of a bloated opportunist named Ed McNeil (Cabot), who, after twenty years, has decided to renew his old partnership with the killer. The years have not been kind to either man. Crale is crippled in one hand. McNeil, as Crale contemptuously notes, now carries seventy-five more pounds on his belly. The businessman distracts himself with food and sex (the latter in the form of his “twenty-four hour” secretary), while the black-garbed Crale is eaten up with horror at what he has become. He distracts himself with a longstanding but loveless relationship with a faded blond named Molly. Carol Kelly plays Molly with the listless despair of the damned. “Why do you stay with him?” asks George. She says it’s to remind her that, low as she is, there’s yet someone lower.
To paraphrase the Bard, “Some are born heroes, some become heroes, and some have heroism thrust upon them.” George Hansen doesn’t set out to be a hero. All he wants to do is get back the farm that’s rightfully his. In fact, throughout the film he goes without the traditional accoutrements of the classic cowboy. He doesn’t ride a horse. He never straps on a gun. All he has that might possibly serve as a weapon is his father’s whaling harpoon, which the elder Hansen had used in vain against Crale. The sheriff is in the pay of McNeil. The other ranchers, scared spitless, don’t want George to rock the boat. McNeil’s men beat the poor guy up and put him on a train. They think they’re done with the dumb Swede.
But heroes are made of sterner, and smarter, stuff. Limping back to town, George learns that the ground is full of oil, thus exciting McNeil’s greed and violence. He believes that if he can get the Mexican farmer who saw his father fall to testify, that, coupled with the knowledge they’re sitting on a goldmine, will rouse the farmers to unite and take action.
Jose Mirada is played with almost childlike sincerity by by Victor Millan. Because he fears for his family, he’s afraid to tell what he knows. But, in a crucial moment, he forces the gun hand to realize what he’s always denied: some will die willingly for a good cause. The shaken outlaw forces Molly to sit in a chair while he subjects her to his new litany, a remarkable thing, “Some men aren’t afraid to die.”
I’d never seen Ned Young (also known as Nedrick) in anything before this. From what I’ve read, he was a screenwriter who occasionally acted. He looks much like Humphrey Bogart–and I could easily see Bogie in the role–yet Young does no lisping, shoulder-hitching imitation. Rather, he makes the part of the cruel killer memorable on his own terms, painting a frightening portrait of a man who has not only outlived his time but lost his soul.
All that is left is the final confrontation between good and evil.
It’s a great movie, offbeat, compelling–from the striking musical score to the two-gunned gunslinger who can only use one gun to the Swedish hero who goes into battle with–ah, but that would be spoiling it for you! The screenwriter was none other than the great, eccentric Dalton Trumbo. At the time blacklisted for supposedly being a Communist, Trumbo didn’t receive screen credit. More’s the pity.
I’d never seen a Swedish western hero. The closest I can think of would be a character in John Ford’s “The Searchers,” but he was more of a parody than a Swede. Sterling Hayden’s Hansen is a quiet, admirable man. He gets the job done.