Heroes and Villains?
A Brief Synopsis:
Losing his horse in a bet that he can ride a bull, Brennan (Randolph Scott) hitches a ride on a stage driven by an old friend, Rintoon, which carries The honeymooning Mimses and is mistakenly held up by Richard Boone, Henry Silva and Skip Homeier. Brennan and the woman, who is an heiress, are kept alive while word is sent to her father. Undermining the trust of the outlaws in one another, Brennan separates and kills them. Jim Kitses: Horizons West
There are a number of plays, films and novels that seem to pack much of the key action into the beginning or end. If you only read the opening two chapters of Great Expectations you will read a great novel. Julius Caesar is dead long before the halfway point in the play that bears his name, and the first half of The Tall T is taken up entirely with painting a picture, the purpose of which seems to be, to provide a contrast with what happens in the second.
Very little of what we learn in the opening hour survives for long as the second hour gets going. Almost everybody Pat Brennan talks to in the opening scenes (and they are largely a peaceful, get on with life as best you can, sort of a bunch) meets a violent and unforeseen death in part two. The Kiplingesque hero reveals an altogether darker side of his character. The plain and sexually frustrated woman discovers enough danger and excitement to light fires that hadn’t previously burnt. Most intriguingly of all are the villains. We’ve waited a long time to meet them. So long in fact, that they arrive most unexpectedly, and waste no time in establishing themselves as ruthless, arrogant, cruel and despicable. Yet, when they, in turn, die, we feel as much sorrow as relief.
The greatness of the film is in the way it subverts its own apparent intentions. In the way it veers from the well-trodden path it appears to be following. In the way it engages an extra element in the watching audience; a confused and questioning moral register. There is nothing straight forward here. Everything is both what it seems to be and its opposite at the same time. And this makes for an exhilarating and rewarding ethical ride.
Ethical engagement may well be the difference between art and entertainment. In entertainment the audience are largely asked to accept the moral standpoint. When pushed to extreme it can even arrange your emotions for you. Walt Disney made great films by controlling the audience response. There’s a great deal of pleasure to be had but few educational opportunities. Boetticher is the opposite. There is ethical complexity here and the audience must engage in questioning rather than acceptance. The Tall T gives us the best of both worlds. In the first half we are shown right from wrong. Ninety-nine out of a hundred viewers would reach agreement on where each character and each action fits on a moral scale. In part two there would be no such consensus.
At first it seems easy. Richard Boone and his “animals” (his word not mine) have cold bloodedly killed the swing station manager and his boy. An act of absolute evil and presented as such. They soon kill Rintoon. This time its is mostly evil. But Rintoon was trying to kill them so it has at least an element of self-defence. Yet they almost provoked Rintoon into the action so it seems more like murder. Yet the main villain has nothing to do with any of the killings. There is no evidence at all that he ordered them. He certainly didn’t commit them. I merely open up the debate. Boetticher and his writers, Burt Kennedy and Elmore Leonard, allow the web to become more and more tangled.
Everything the villains do, which marks them as villains, is also done by the hero. They kill, he kills, they entrap, he entraps, they try to force themselves on the woman, he actually forces himself onto the woman and on and on. The main villain shares Brennan’s individualistic desire to have something of his own, craves an honest independence. He points out the terrible upbringings of his accomplices and the twists of fate that have left him on the wrong side of the law. That being on the wrong side has forced him into decisions he wouldn’t otherwise have taken.
This is like The Sopranos and The Wire forty years before their time. Villains we detest and sympathise with at the same time. Heroes we have to excuse when then undertake unethical practices because the end may justify the means.
In the silent ‘shoot-em-ups’ from the Tom Mix and William S Hart days there was a clear distinction. The white hat and the black hat. A tradition that continued and arguably found its finest hour in Shane. In Stagecoach there is no doubt in the audience’s mind who is a good person and who is a bad. The only confusion (and it was a big one at the time) was that true goodness was represented by a drunk, an escaped convict and a prostitute and badness by a Southern Gentleman and a banker. In Winchester ’73 the boundaries are blurring. James Stewart is undoubtedly the hero but is far from being an entirely good man. He’s crossed over the boundary into obsession and is almost as dark and capable of doing wrong as those he is up against. His heroic status saved, in part, by the black-hearted villainy of his adversaries.
Moral ambiguity doesn’t always sit happily with box office success. The Randolph Scott/ Budd Boetticher films were extremely popular. Audiences in cold war America were far more open to questioning good and evil than they have sometimes been portrayed outside the United States. Round about the same time as this film was being made, an even greater western was being shot in Utah. In The Searchers, John Wayne has come a long way from The Ringo Kid of Stagecoach. It is a brilliant and deeply uncomfortable performance that walks a very thin line between hero and villain, between good and evil, between right and wrong.
Two moments serve to define the moral compass of The Tall T. First, Frank Usher (Boone) saves Brennan (Scott) from summary execution on the grounds that there is something he admires in him. The irony is not lost on either the characters, or the audience, that what the villain sees, in the hero, is virtue and an element of cowardice. It was rare for a hero to admit to being afraid. Brennan does so on two occasions. It probably saved his life. In the second, Usher is allowed to escape by keeping his back turned to Brennan who is holding a gun and intending to shoot. A strong code dictates that the worst thing you can do in a western is to shoot someone in the back. Brennan certainly can’t (despite pleadings from Mrs Mimms (Maureen O’Sullivan)).
Is there a moral in the story? Well, the white hat comes out on top. He may even have got the girl (many elements of the relationship are left ambiguous). He walks away with saddle bags full of money and no great need to explain them. But he too has lost. Everyone has lost something of enormous value to them.
When we first meet Brennan he is a jaunty, stoical fellow, ready to endure and make the most of life. And do it with a smile on his face. Yet there is something in his manner that hints at a darkness in his past that has left him a changed man. What he endures in the second half of the movie is as dark as anyone could wish, and yet he emerges as a jaunty and stoical fellow ready to take on life and endure what it has to throw at him with a smile on his face. Life is tough and it doesn’t seem to have a purpose. Fate is a much stronger influence on people’s lives than planning. Everybody seems to be a loser in a game that has to be played. It might appear that Boetticher’s is a cynical view of life but once again appearance can be deceptive. Life is also rather funny. The smile on Randolph Scott’s face at the end isn’t just one of gritting his teeth and accepting his lot. It’s one that has found that the whole episode is better understood as a comedy than a tragedy.
I’ll finish by including the whole of Kipling’s famous poem as much to contradict as to illuminate the heroic viewpoint of the film. And because I like it. It’s a great poem. It’s a great movie.
If by Rudyard Kipling
IF you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:
If you can dream – and not make dreams your master;
If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
‘ Or walk with Kings – nor lose the common touch,
if neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son!