In the UK, this was retitled Southwest to Sonora – which is odd, since the vengeance-seeking Marlon Brando character never mentions Sonora and is in fact travelling to somewhere with an Aztec name like Xhocolatl (similarly, the perfectly-titled A Big Hand for the Little Lady was renamed Big Deal at Dodge City — though it’s set in Laredo). Throughout his career, Brando was drawn to the Western – though he never looked comfortable on a horse, and tended to cut his eccentricities a little too loose as if he were simultaneously playing cowboys and doing silly impersonations (see especially The Missouri Breaks). Here, in scenes which we are presumably supposed to assume are really in Spanish, Brando adopts a Speedy Gonzalez accent to exchange barbed pleasantries with Mexicans, including several long, ominous conversations (about drinking pulque, for instance) that break up the simple storyline — it doesn’t help that he’s verbally duelling with authentic Mexican Emilio Fernandez in one of his pre-Wild Bunch secondary baddie roles, though it’s just possible that Quentin Tarantino cribbed from Brando’s vocal stylings when writing the role of the evil old pimp Michael Parks plays in Kill Bill Vol 2.
The set-up is that strutting (but probably impotent) bandido Chuy Medina (John Saxon) has to buy or steal the valuable title stallion, the property of white-orphan-raised-by-a-hispanic-family Mateo (Brando) in order to save face with his men after his woman Trini (Anjanette Comer) has tried to escape by distracting Chuy into a face-off with Mateo. Chuy, whose name really does sound gigglesomely like Chewie, steals the horse and stubborn Mateo – removing the distractingly false beard and wig he wears in the opening scenes – takes the theft as personally as Richard Todd does the loss of his car in Never Let Go or Lee Marvin the non-payment of a debt in Point Blank. Leaving his corn-growing foster family, Mateo sets off to back get his horse so he can found a stud ranch, even if it means wiping out a whole gang to do it. The masochist streak evident in Brando’s earlier hispanic cowboy film One-Eyed Jacks comes into play when Chuy challenges him to arm-wrestle over a table where tethered scorpions are positioned to bite the loser – Mateo is bitten and does a panicky bit of self-surgery to get the bad blood out. Saxon, born Carmine Orroco, presumably took his bluntly Anglo stage name to avoid being typecast in parts like this – he has the biggest, whitest grin of any screen bandido and layers more friendly menace and scenery-chewing ham into his performance even than Alfonso Bedoya in Treasure of the Sierra Madre, but since he’s up against Brando in full-on mode it was probably his only acting option.
Canadian Sidney J. Furie had been working solidly in the UK on horror films (Dr Blood’s Coffin) and Cliff Richard musicals (The Young Ones), but this was his first international picture following the success of The IPCRESS File – he doesn’t have much of a lasting rep, though he’s made a bunch of films everyone’s seen (The Entity, The Boys in Company C, Lady Sings the Blues, Superman IV, Iron Eagle). For such a journeyman, Furie has an amazingly arch style, with nary a ‘normal’ shot: he loves filming in ultra close-up or with objects in the way of the action or from odd angles, an approach which was apt for the edgy paranoia of IPCRESS but just adds to the weirdness of what might otherwise have been a straight-ahead man-in-the-landscape Western.
The Appaloosa (1966)
There’s a rule of thumb in titling science fiction, perhaps coined by John Carpenter around the time of Dark Star, that if you’re stuck, you can always give the spaceship a cool name and use that on the poster (hence, Red Dwarf, Babylon 5, Serenity). The equivalent rule in Westerns is that you can call the film after the troubled town the lawman has to tame – either cribbing from the suitably dramatic place names littering the map (Tombstone, Dodge City) or making up your own (A Town Called Bastard). Robert Parker used this tactic on his novel Appaloosa (which has nothing to do with the breed of horse featured in the Marlon Brando movie The Appaloosa), and so – some decades ago – did Oakley Hall for his novel Warlock, which was filmed by Edward Dmytryk in 1959 with Henry Fonda, Anthony Quinn and Richard Widmark. The connection is worth making because the first half of Ed Harris’s film Appaloosa (he directs, stars and co-writes) is practically a remake of Warlock (itself yet another loose fictionalisation of the Wyatt Earp/Doc Holliday story). Again, there’s a would-be respectable town out West where the bowler-hatted, quivering local luminaries (Timothy Spall, James Gammon) are cowed by the tyrannical tactics of a nasty local rancher, Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons) – who has shot dead one Marshal already, seeing off an attempt to arrest a couple of his hands for rape and murder. So, Appaloosa hires man-of-integrity lawman Virgil Cole (Harris) and his devoted but slightly wry sidekick Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen) to enforce the law, willingly signing up to Cole’s personal set of rules (including that old cowboy film favourite, a ban on carrying guns within town limits) and swallowing his tendency to dole out instant justice on miscreants who pee on the saloon floor and are unwise enough to reach for their guns when criticised. As in Warlock (and a movies like Invitation to a Gunfighter or even High Plains Drifter), there’s a sense Appaloosa may have brought a worse menace into town by giving Cole all the powers he wants, especially when he is sometimes given to beating up innocents who rub him the wrong way. And, as in Rio Bravo and many variants, crisis comes when the well-connected bad guy is hauled into jail (here he’s even tried and sentenced to hang) and calls in his own hired guns – Ring Shelton (Lance Henriksen) and his brother (Adam Nelson) – to get him free so he can use his pull with President Arthur to get a pardon for murdering a lawman.
By setting up several familiar plots, the story gains unpredictability – at the half-way point, it could be aiming for a final face-off between Cole and the loyal but more adaptable Hitch or an all-out town-destroying battle between lawmen and baddies. Actually, it takes a different route again – with several crises prompted by Cole’s late-blooming love for widow Allison French (Renée Zellweger), a genteel and aspirational woman who gets the action man to build her a house (always an ominous sign in a Western) but becomes the Shelton Boys’ hostage when they need to break Bragg free, and is even willing to transfer her affections to one or more of the villains to get ahead. There’s a bait-and-switch moment where it seems that Allison might have been conniving all along, working on Cole in order to weaken him, but the film veers away from that and plays more on her tendency to cling to whoever’s the boss (‘there’s only one stallion in a herd,’ Cole insists; ‘at a time,’ Hitch reminds). The depiction of an unsympathetic leading woman is unusual in a Western, and Zellweger’s cute-but-pinched look makes Allison a creepy character, even playing on aspects of her screen image many find offputting. It’s a brave thing for a star to do, and flirts with endorsing a brand of homosocial (or even homoerotic) misogyny inherent in buddy Westerns.
The key love, as in all Wyatt/Doc films, is between the contrasting lawmen, with Harris’s cold-eyed, precise, slightly shy Cole coaxed along by Mortensen’s more affable, less ruthless sidekick and top-range film actors bringing warmth, temper and the occasional chill to a complicated relationship (the climax hinges on a shot fired by the sidekick). A running gag has Cole try to improve himself by reading and asking Hitch for the proper word he needs in any given situation; in the sort of thing you mostly see in films directed by actors, Harris lets Irons show with a tiny expression the contempt Bragg has for the less-lettered lawman taking him in. Harris, who once produced and starred in a TV version of Riders of the Purple Sage, is one of those stars (like Sam Elliott, Sam Shepard and Nathan Fillion – and Lance Henriksen, come to that) who have been short-changed by having screen careers at a time when the Western movies they are perfect for aren’t in fashion (it’s interesting that Harris, following Clint Eastwood and Kevin Costner, has seen the Western as a useful venue for being an actor-director). It’s sad that his second film as a director has had so much less attention than his first (Pollock) because it is more easily labeled as a genre movie (as if mad genius biopics weren’t a conventional movie form) because this confident, take-it-easy oater offers all the satisfying elements of the Western and its nice, craggy maturity leaves a warm glow.
Casting quirks – three of the leads have been in David Cronenberg films, and two were in Texas Chainsaw Massacre sequels.