Monday, October 16, 2006

Giving Credit Where Due

by Kevin Wolf

Jon Mooallem, a contributing writer, last wrote for the magazine about pre-sliced apples.

– writer credit for “Pigeon Wars,” page 56, The New York Times Magazine, October 15, 2006

Sissie Binghamton is a contributing editor of the magazine. She last wrote about Ozzy Osbourne’s new line of hair products.

Michael Dense last wrote for the magazine about a cotton candy factory. He teaches creative writing at the Dinesh D'Souza Institute.

Humorist Clare Misanthrope’s last price for the magazine was “Your Shoe’s Untied – Made Ya Look!” She is currently developing a TV series about a modern stone-age family.

Eric Barnyard last profiled President Bush’s left nut. He is at work on a book about rural electrification of urban areas.

Thomas G. Weisskopft contributes frequently to the magazine. His last piece, in April, was about Manson Family shoe sizes.

Emily Herman is the nom de plume of Emma Herman, a senior editor at the magazine. She wrote the forward to David Kaplet’s new book of photographs of bicycle handlebars.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Even the most unfortunate of unfortunate events must end, unfortunately

By Lance Mannion.

I don't like children's stories with morals, but I don't mind if they teach a lesson. Morals and lessons are not the same thing.

A moral is the "point" of a story. It is the usually obvious, usually conventional, usually cliched bit of wisdom every character and incident is in the story to prove, and even when it's not tacked on at the end in bold letters it's explicitly stated more than once throughout by a character or the narrator or both.

A lesson unfolds unobtrusively, often subtextually, along with the story itself. It's a useful fact of life that the characters and events can't help illustrating simply by being what they are. A character who picks up a hot kettle from the stove without using a pot holder and burns her fingers is teaching a lesson. The lesson turns into a moral when she says to herself or another character says to her or the narrator says to us, without irony, "Good little children think before they act and remember what their science teachers taught them about the heat conductivity of metal."

One story can teach many lessons. And usually it isn't necessary for parents or teachers to explain them. Sometimes it's best not to. It's best if the young readers figure it out for themselves or take it in without knowing it and only disover the lesson and its usefulness by having it proved by events in their own lives.

Having spent the last thirteen years sort of immersed in children's stories and forced to watch too many movies aimed at kids, I can tell you. There's an awful lot of excellent children's literature out there these days and some pretty darn good movies for kids, but it's the case that the stories go quietly about their business of entertaining while almost accidentally teaching lessons while the movies hit you over the head, again and again and again, with morals.

Usually the same stupid moral too, one of two trite variants of BE TRUE TO YOURSELF.

Live your dream!


Follow your heart.

Being true to yourself, living your dream, and following your heart are always presented as self-aggrandizing enterprises too. Nobody's true to themselves by being self-sacrificing and self-effacing. Nobody's dream is to cure cancer or work for world peace. Nobody's heart ever leads them away from the crowd, up a mountain, into the dessert, out into space, unless it's going to lead them back to the cheering multitudes ecstatic that the hero or heroine has been true to their self, lived the dream, and followed their heart and ready to make them our society's version of royalty, a celebrity.

Not that I'm recommending it, but if you work your way through the kids' and family sections at Blockbuster you'll be amazed by how many of these movies end with the heroes and heroines surrounded by cheering crowds or somehow shown to have earned universal love and approval.

Our most recent experience of that was the Mannion Family Movie Night feature of a few weeks ago, Hoot, a movie based on the book by the usually reliably cynical Carl Hiaasen.

Listen, children.

My own feeling is this. Back in the days of our earliest ancestors, wehnever some bright homo habilis' heart told him to see what was over the next hill, invent the wheel, or discover fire, art, or agriculture, thus disrupting the status quo for the rest of his tribe, the hearts of all those other homo habilii told them to rise up as one and kill the troublemaker.

I have to bite my tongue to keep from adding this moral to every movie we watch that pushes that other moral.

By the way, one of my favorite kids movies of the last year was Hoodwinked, which steadfastly refuses to preach any moral and pretty much doesn't even bother with lessons except the very useful one of how to set up and tell a good joke.

Fortunately, tongue-biting hasn't been necessary when it comes to the books the boys read and have had read to them.

Among my favorites of these non-moralizing books are the ones in the series that comes to its promised dreadful conclusion today with the release of the final volume, Lemony Snicket's Series of Unfortunate Events. The last book is now on the store shelves, and it's the only one that Snicket didn't title alliteratively. He's simply called it what it is, The End.

Throughout the twelve books before The End, Snicket resolutely resisted morals. Which doesn't mean his books aren't moralistic. What it means to be moral, to be good, is one of the lessons of the series. But Snicket never preaches, and he never makes the lessons easy, and as you can expect from an author who has made sure that all thirteen books have thirteen chapters and is releasing the thirteenth book on Friday the 13th, and who has given the whole series the collective title The Horrendous Heap, the lessons are not always hopeful and they are often complicated by the fact that life is messy and has a bad habit of not letting you be true to yourself, live your dream, or follow your heart; and when it does let you, it will make sure that when you're done there are no cheering multitudes to welcome you home, if you still have a home to come back to, if you make it back.

Not surprisingly, the makers of the movie adaptation of the first three books tried to stick the Follow Your Heart moral in there. It didn't take. The books' essential grimness and dark comedy trumped it in the end.

So, kids, here are the overall lessons of the twelve books so far:

Life is one trouble after another.

Good times won't last.

Neither will the bad.

Some problems can never be solved.

Sometimes, no matter how hard you try, no matter how good and decent you try to be, you will do the wrong thing and you will hurt people you care about.

Everyone you love and trust and count on will disappoint you in some way, if only by dying when you still love them and need them.

Even if they don't die, they might still drift out of your life or be carried away by troubles and adventures and needs of their own.

Keep trying.

Keep going.

Keep faith and keep on hoping.

Keep loving each other and hold on tight.

Cross-posted at my place.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

The Plain People

By Neddie Jingo
The Amish are averse to any technology which they feel weakens the family structure. The conveniences that the rest of us take for granted such as electricity, television, automobiles, telephones and tractors are considered to be a temptation that could cause vanity, create inequality, or lead the Amish away from their close-knit community and, as such, are not encouraged or accepted in most orders. (Source: Amish 101 - Amish Culture, Beliefs & Lifestyle)
An admirable asceticism, too often misunderstood by we English. The Amish don't object to technology per se. What they distrust about it is its inherent divisiveness, its tendency to tempt vanity. If a modern device or technological advancement can be shown to improve life or the common safety without introducing competitiveness or vanity, most Ordnungs adopt it without cavil. Thus vaccination, electric lights on buggies, community telephones, electrically heated homes -- for which they often produce the power themselves, with windmills).

As I say, all very admirable, nearly Buddhist in its rejection of complexity. Were it not for all the silly monotheism, I might be tempted to apply for the straw hat and the chinstrap beard myself. Although perhaps I might not qualify for membership. I lack the requisite forbearance, the humility, the patience. While I'm intensely aware of technology's darker side and sympathetic to those who reject it, I lack the ascetic self-control that would prevent me from attending a funeral unencumbered by the mechanical advantage and efficient leverage afforded by a baseball bat.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Hour of the Gun

By Lance Mannion

Plodding shouldn't be a complimentary way to describe a movie, but offhand I can't think of a better word for the pacing of John Sturges' revenge Western, Hour of the Gun, starring James Garner as Wyatt Earp and Jason Robards as Doc Holliday.

It's as if Sturges set the beat to Wyatt's first, slow, measured steps out into the streets of Tombstone and towards the O.K. Corral, in the opening shots of the film. The pacing from there on, never speeding up, never slowing down, matches Earp's inexorable march towards vengeance and his final showdown with the man who ordered his brother's death.

That's deceptive.

Wyatt's path to that last gunfight takes him all over the map. It moves in fits and starts. There are times when he isn't chasing the bad guys at all, he's off on some other, mundane, or at least non-violent, errand, like taking Doc, who's dying of tuberculosis, to a sanitarium in Colorado, hundreds of miles away from Tombstone, so far off that it might as well be another planet. Definitely far enough away---and he spends several weeks there, looking after Doc---that you begin to wonder if he's given up his vendetta.

But Sturges hasn't paced the movie to keep in step with Wyatt's geographic travels. He's matching the progress of Wyatt's thoughts as Earp changes from a decent-hearted and dutiful lawman into a lawless but cold and methodical killer.

This progress is only seemingly inexorable. The measured pacing, the one foot in front of the other, one step following from the last scene structure---no jump cuts in this movie. Few close-ups too. Sturges shoots mainly in medium and medium long shots and lets the characters' movements provide all the action, and since Garner is in just about every shot, he sets the pace, slow and steady. Too steady. Inhumanly steady. Scarily steady.---what we're being shown is that this change in Earp is not inevitable. One thing does lead to the other, but predictably, and because it's happening slowly, he has time to think about what he's done, where he's headed, what the final results will be.

He could stop himself at any time.

Like I said, there are times when he seems to have stopped; in the scenes in Colorado Wyatt even comes close to looking cheerful, as if he's let it go. But the measured beat of Sturges' drum is relentless. In his mind, Wyatt's never given up the hunt.

It doesn't help that Clanton can't give up his obsession with Earp any more than Earp can give up his obsession with Clanton. Clanton wants to see Earp "cold and in the ground" and just at the moment when Wyatt seems ready to listen to the angel of his better nature, he gets news of Clanton's plottings.

He doesn't have to do anything about the news, though. He just decides that he will.

He gets back on the trail. The killings continue, each one more violent and more unnecessary and more like murder.

There's not much suspense in the plot. The suspense arises from the place suspense arises in all tragedies---from our hope that something will stop the inevitable in its course and our despairing certainty that nothing will.

Hour of the Gun isn't a true tragedy, though. For one thing, we know going in that Wyatt Earp can't die. Not if the movie is going to be as historically accurate as the title card after the opening credits proclaims it will be.

This movie is based on fact: This is the way it happened.

And for another thing, neither Sturges nor his screenwriter, Edward Anhalt, do much to make us care about what happens to the men Earp goes gunning for. They are bad men and their boss, Ike Clanton, is worse.

What Sturges expects us to care about, and to mourn, is a good man throwing away his own soul.

Hour of the Gun has been called a sequel to the movie Sturges made about Wyatt Earp ten years before, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, starring Burt Lancaster as Earp and Kirk Douglas as Doc Holliday.

Sequel's the wrong word. Hour of the Gun is the Wyatt Earp movie Sturges would have liked to have made in the 1950s. The Jimmy Stewart-Anthony Mann problem westerns had already shown that movie audiences were ready for morally ambiguous stories with conflicted, if not downright unsympathetic, heroes, but apparently the Wyatt Earp legends were still untouchable. Sturges did what he could to make Gunfight at the O.K. Corral a more realistic story and not another burnishing of the myth, but it is finally an old-fashined shoot-em-up, set in a romanticized Wild West with an idealized Wyatt Earp as its hero.

Hour of the Gun isn't a revisionist western. Sturges isn't out to debunk the myth he had helped shine. He's really trying to show what the title card says: This is the way it happened.

By 1881, when the Earps confronted the Clanton gang at the O.K. Corral, Tombstone wasn't in the Wild West, it was at the very westernmost edge of the tame East. And Wyatt Earp and his brothers weren't heroes riding in to town to clean up. They were peace officers---cops---hired by the town to maintain an orderliness that was already established. In his bulkiness and stolidity, James Garner's Earp is a little bit like John Wayne. But he's more like the guy who's running for sheriff in your town today, a career lawman who's spent too many nights breaking up fights between drunks and picking up the pieces after an accident and arguing with local politicians about budgets.

Hour of the Gun opens with the shootout at the OK Corral and it's staged fairly close to "the way it happened." It's over in a couple of minutes. I think the real gunfight took about thirty seconds. That's because it wasn't meant to be a showdown. It was four cops going to tell a street gang to break it up. The fact that three men ended up dead was enough of a suprise to everybody concerned and seen as something so heinously out of the ordinary that Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday were actually arrested for murder, although a judge decided there was no case against them and refused to indict.

That's the "wild" west of Hour of the Gun. Showdowns are not a part of daily life and dead bodies in the street are a sign that something went wrong, not that the good guys have put things to right.

You don't need to have seen Gunfight at the O.K. Corral to know what's going on in Hour of the Gun. What you do need is enough of a sense of the legend of Wyatt Earp to accept Earp as a hero at first sight. You also need enough innocence to believe that the legend must have some basis in fact to carry you past any reflexive cynicism that might stand in the way of your seeing Earp as a good guy.

It might help, then, to know that the real Wyatt Earp apparently never killed anybody before the the O.K. Corral. He was a crack shot and could have killed any bad guy he felt needed killing. But his preferred method for dealing with troublemakers was to walk right up to them, snatch whatever weapon they were brandishing out of their hands, cold-cock them over the head with his pistol, and drag them off to jail.

This appears to have worked for the real Seth Bullock of Deadwood fame too.

The real Earp didn't look like James Garner or Burt Lancaster. He was tall, but he was skinny. So it wasn't his size that cowed people. There was something about the force of his character.

Whatever it was that kept him alive and saved him the trouble of having to kill anybody didn't work with the Clanton gang. Gang is the word for them too. They were more like modern gangsters than like the outlaw gangs of the movies or the real life James and Dalton gangs. They were cattle thieves and stick-up artists who ran "legitimate businesses" and bought up local politicians and while some revisionist histories suggest that the gunfight at the OK Corral was actually the result of business and political rivalries getting out of hand, with the Earps being in their way as dirty as the Clantons, it's more the case that the Earps shocked the Clantons by deciding to treat them like the criminals they were instead of the honest ranchers they pretended to be.

The shock caused Billy Clanton and the McLaury brothers to draw their guns---or have their guns drawn, that's never been clear. We don't really know if the Earps knew they were walking into a gunfight and went anyway. The way they just walked straight at the Clantons suggests they didn't, and Ike Clanton may not have been wearing his guns, which would mean he wasn't expecting real trouble either.

The famous shootout was probably a mistake. Both sides miscalculated. What happened in the weeks after, though, was murder. Ike Clanton or somebody associated with the gang ordered a hit on the Earps. Morgan and Virgil were ambushed. Morgan was killed and Virgil left crippled.

Then various members of the Clanton gang began turning up dead.

My second favorite Wyatt Earp movie, 1993's Tombstone, starring Kurt Russell and Val Kilmer as Wyatt and Doc, treats this part of the story as a simple kill or be killed shoot out that takes place over the course of weeks instead of all at once at high noon.

My favorite Wyatt Earp movie is My Darling Clementine, but that's one of John Ford's fairy tales.

Sturges, though, makes it plain that Wyatt Earp does not have to kill any of the men he confronts. He's a much better lawman than they are outlaws and gunfighters. He has the drop on them and the ones who make the mistake of drawing on him do it because he provokes them to.

In every confrontation, except the final one, Earp's former method of handling bad guys---stare them down, take their guns, drag them off to jail---would have worked.

In effect then, Earp murders them all.

Each killing seems less accidental than the last, and with each one Earp grows less and less surprised at himself. When he lets a bad guy live it's only to make him tell him where the next bad guy is hiding out so he can go kill him.

This is the story of a good man who does wrong, but Sturges doesn't ever let us think that Earp has no choice. Wyatt knows that the citizens of Tombstone have been working, successfully, to run Ike Clanton out of town and have effectively disarmed him by breaking up the gang, arresting and buying off those members Earp hasn't caught up with yet.

On top of which, Sturges makes us doubt Wyatt from the start. The opening gunfight is shot almost entirely in longshot and although there's some dialogue we don't hear the words, as if we're being kept out of earshot with the camera. We don't know what the Earps are thinking as they walk down the street or what the Clantons are really planning when they gather at the corral.

But Sturges has James Garner give Earp a moment of pause in which he seems to be re-thinking the situation and even telling himself that this probably isn't the way to go about things and he ought to stop it right now. It's only a moment, but before it passes Garner suddenly looks very sad, as if he has lost something important and is mourning the loss.

And while Sturges' title card insists "This is the way it happened," he's changed an important detail.

In real life, Ike Clanton was with his brother and the McLaurys. The reason he didn't end up dead like them is that when the shooting started he ran at the Earps shouting that he was unarmed---he might have thrown his guns away, he might have dropped them when Virgil Earp ordered the gang to disarm, or he might not have been wearing them to begin with. Whichever was the case, Wyatt Earp shouted at him to get the hell out of the way and even gave him a helpful shove.

In the movie, Sturges has Ike standing across the street with the rest of the gang and then ducking for cover as soon as the shooting starts. He's wearing his gunbelt, but he takes it off before the smoke clears so that he'll appear to have been an innocent bystander.

He doesn't owe his life to Wyatt then. He owes it to his trigger-happy kid brother Billy and the McLaurys who started shooting too soon. The Earps have to deal with them first and while they are shooting it out with Billy and the McLaurys, the rest of the gang scatters and Ike is forced to take cover.

The implication is that Ike meant to be part of the confrontation and that the Earps expected him to be. And since Ike is played by Robert Ryan and is the only star among the Clantons---although Jon Voight appears in one of his earliest roles as Curly Bill Brocius---Ike is the only Clanton of interest at that point. So we can't help feeling it was Ike the Earps were on their way to... what to?

Arrest? Argue with? Interrogate?


That's what I think Garner's little moment of hesitation and sorrow is meant to tell us. As the movie begins, Wyatt Earp has already decided that he's going to kill Ike Clanton. He's concluded that there's no other way to deal with him. The decision is morally wrong because it's wrong for practical reasons. The town has already begun to make moves to get rid of Ike. Clanton himself is desperate because, as he tells his bought politicians later, "The East is coming." He means that the town's honest citizens will finally have the backing of real government and he won't be able to survive that.

Wyatt certainly knows the East is coming too. But he's lost patience. Perhaps it's also a matter of pride with him. He's going to put a stop to Clanton himself, once and for all, and that means he has to kill him. The thing he's mourning the loss of in that moment, then, is himself.

We're not meant to think that Wyatt is driven to murder by passion and an understandable desire for revenge. When Clanton has his brothers ambushed it gives him justification not motivation for a course of action he's already decided upon.

Hour of the Gun is a director's not an actor's movie. There's not much in the way of dialogue. The characters tell each other what they they need to know, never what they are thinking or feeling. Garner isn't called upon to do much more than glower and then glower harder. Robert Ryan's job is to give Ike Clanton the charisma and intelligence necessary to organize, lead, and hold together a collection of thugs, cowards, sociopaths, drifters, and grifters. It's interesting and fun to see him make Clanton into a precursor of Deadwood's Al Swearengen. In his speeches to his gang about the threat from the East he sounds very much like Swearengen ranting about Yankton, without the profanity of course and without the poetry either, but he has exactly the same contempt for his bought politicians as Ian McShane has Swearengen show towards the corrupt "decent" citizens that are his allies.

All the real heavylifting is left to Jason Robards. He only has a couple of notes to sing, going back and forth between world-weary cynic and outraged idealist, but he doesn't go the usual route of having the cynic be the mask of the idealist. He makes the idealist the creation of the cynic.

As I said, you don't need to believe the myth as much as remember it to accept the movie's premise that Wyatt Earp is a good man. But it's clear that Robards' Doc Holliday not only believes the myth but needs it to be true to the point that he drags himself out of the hospital in order to try to get in the way of Earp's self-propelled downfall. If there's killing to be done, Doc Holliday is the one to do it not Wyatt Earp.

Holliday sees himself as having been a bad man, and not just a sinner but a villain. Somehow and for reasons neither man can probably articulate Wyatt Earp became his friend. Holliday has concluded that if someone like Wyatt Earp can see something good in him then maybe he's not as irredeemble as he'd supposed.

Wyatt Earp is Doc Holliday's personal savior and now that Doc knows that he can't fight off his TB any longer, that it's going to take much more time to kill him, he desperately needs Wyatt to be what he thought him to be so that he can die thinking of himself as not entirely damned.

I like it that the dialogue doesn't lay this out for us. We have to see it for ourselves in Robards' anger and anguish at what Wyatt is doing to himself.

The nicest thing about Robards' performance, though, is the calmness that comes over him when he realizes that it didn't matter that he couldn't stop Wyatt.

It's Robards, not Garner, Sturges gives the last scene and the last lines to.

Before leaving him at the sanitarium, knowing that this is the last time, it's the end of the line for Doc, Wyatt has told Doc a lie about himself, a charitable lie, meant to leave Doc with his illusions about Wyatt's heroism. Doc pretends to believe it, but he doesn't and there's a heartbroken look on Robards' face as he watches Wyatt ride away.

But it doesn't last. He turns his attention to a card game he's playing with an orderly and finishes the game and the movie with a rueful but sincere grin.

"Aces," he says as he lays out his winning hand. It's a description of his mood as well as of his cards.

In Wyatt Earp, Sturges is showing us that the seeds of our moral self-destruction are in our own hands.

But in Doc Holliday he is showing us that the corrollary is true too. The agent of our redemption is our own self.

The Bravados

By Lance Mannion

Gregory Peck rides into the town of Rio Arriba, tall, lean, chiseled, the best looking profile in the history of cowboy movies defined in black silhouette under a black hat.

In The Bravados, Peck's playing rancher Jim Douglas and he's come to town to see the four men he believes raped and murdered his wife hang.

He's a stranger here, a stranger to every one but the local heiress and the parish priest, both of whom know him as a very different sort of man than he is now. People are curious about why he's there and when they hear that he's come for the hanging they think he must be the hangman they've sent for. Rio Arriba's a small, quiet town and has never had a hanging before, so they have to contract out the job.

When Douglas tells him he's just come to watch, but that if the real hangman doesn't show he's ready to step in, they're startled, leery, suspicious, a little disgusted. Douglas could put their minds at ease by explaining himself, but he doesn't. He can't. He can barely get two words out. He's been on the trail of these men for six months and you might expect that he's fallen out of the habit of small talk. But that's not it.

Judging by the small changes that come over him the longer he's in town, we can guess that over the course of his manhunt Douglas has learned that every time he stops to talk with people, whenever he allows himself to become sociable again, he begins losing his thirst for revenge.

The kind of anger and hatred Douglas has been nursing in himself, the anger and hatred that are necessary to his mission, have to brew in the dark and in isolation.

Vengeance is an emotion, not a cause, and it belongs to loners, angry, desperate men who have cut themselves off from society. To seek vengeance then is to become a sociopath.

Douglas is by nature a sociable man. In order to do what he thinks he's got to do he's first had to go after his own self. He's had to, if not hunt down and kill, then capture and lock up in a gloomy, haunted jail within himself, an important part of his own soul.

When the bad guys, inevitably, break out of jail, Douglas is relieved. Watching them hang, for the wrong crime---they've robbed a bank and killed a teller; nobody knows about Douglas' wife---wasn't going to be enough. He wanted to finish them off himself and their escape gives him another chance.

I don't remember the movie saying exactly where in the Southwest Rio Arriba lies. The pine forested hills and deep canyons and open meadows---somewhere nearby there's a dessert we hear about but never see---could be in California, could be in Arizona or New Mexico. Doesn't really matter. What matters is that, while not a border town, Rio Arriba is a Mexican town on American soil. In this part of the country Anglos are the minority, a fact that is only important because it means that just about everybody in Rio Arriba is a devout Catholic.

Douglas himself is probably a Catholic too. He knows what to do inside a church when the heiress drags him to a night mass in honor of Mary. He's only going through the motions, but he doesn't need any prompting. The motions are reflexive for him.

The Bravados isn't a religious movie, but it takes religion seriously. The director Henry King and screenwriter Philip Yordan are respectful of Catholic beliefs and rituals, but don't go in for any warm, don't you wish your pastor was like Bing missionary work in the form of comic hokeyness. Andrew Duggan as the priest is a little too much of a paragon, both as a man and a voice of religious authority, but he's not the movie's conscience.

That role belongs to Douglas, which is one of the more intriguing aspects of the Bravados, since Douglas has pretty much buried his conscience, making it impossible for the movie to make easy, moral judgments. The movie does want us to moralize, but with the character that ought to be the spokesman for the righteous cause silenced and the only other characters up to the task not around to do it---the sheriff is gravely wounded in the jailbreak and can't lead the posse that goes after the outlaws, the priest of course can't ride with the posse, the heiress, embarrassed by the resurgence of her old love for Douglas, runs away from him, and the one outlaw with the required intelligence and sophisticated enough conscience naturally keeps as far away from Douglas as he can---the filmmakers have to push us do the job for ourselves. We have to watch it and take in all the facts as they come. It's almost like being part of a jury. Only in the end , when the prosecution rests, are we allowed to pass judgment. And by that point Douglas has become both the prosecutor and the man in the dock.

The Catholicism, religion generally, is, as I said, treated respectfully, but what's really being taken seriously is people's interest in the state of their own souls.

Whether or not there is a God, if there's a heaven and a hell and how you wind up in either place, the exact definition of sin, are all beside the point. The immediate problem is how to be good. In the Bravados, people want to be decent, they want to do right by each other and by themselves, they want to be good, even, it turns out, several of the bad guys.

Being a good man is important to Douglas too, but it's something he's taken for granted about himself, and that turns out to be a tragic mistake.

Goodness and decency turn out to be possible only in the company of other people, which is to say we need each other's help to stay on the straight and narrow.

The movie's not making an authoritarian argument. There is no authority in the movie bossing people around, making them stay in line. Authority here derives from the people and serves the people, the people do not serve it. The sheriff is an exemplary public servant.

And it's not the case that neighbors spy and scold and tattle. It's simply that left to his own devices, it's too easy for even a good guy, a hero, to talk himself into anything, including shooting down unarmed men who are on their knees begging for mercy, while there's a posse on its way ready to take them into custody.

Folks are just stronger, more capable, more decent when they have each other to lean on.

But when he joins the posse, he starts to act like a part of the posse. Although he's the best tracker, the more experienced gunman, a natural leader, he defers to the deputy leading the chase, and when he gives advice, it's good advice, that is he points out ways to capture the bad guys that minimize the danger to the members of the posse and which, if followed, will bring the bad guys back alive, to face the hangman again, that will bring them to justice.

The bad guys are bad but not that bad. They're not evil. They robbed the bank, but killing the teller was a mistake, and they may have robbed the bank on a lark. There's no suggestion that these guys are career criminals. Their association is accidental. They apparently fell in together somewhere, probably at a saloon or a whorehouse, and just sort of drifted into Rio Arriba, with no plans. They clearly didn't think through their plan to rob the bank since they were easily captured by the affable, middle-aged sheriff and his two not particularly dangerous deputies in the process.

There are hints that their plans for after they get away and are safe in Mexico don't include any more bank robberies.

We're not meant to sympathize with them, too much, at least not with all of them. But two of them are definitely not beyond redemption.

And only one of them, the ringleader, played as grinning overgrown naughty boy by Stephen Boyd, seems capable of rape and murder.

In short, there are good reasons that these men belong in jail, but there are also good reasons for us, and Douglas, to doubt that these guys are those guys.

Which means that we can see that the right thing for Douglas to do is to stick with the posse and help bring the bad guys back to jail.

He doesn't do the right thing, of course. He breaks off from the posse and pursues his own course.

The Bravados was made in 1958. Ten years later a movie like this would have ended ironically or tragically for Douglas, as in another revenge quest film, the excellent Hour of the Gun does for James Garner's Wyatt Earp.

Fans of The Searchers, made two years before The Bravados, can jump in here to point out that that revenge quest ends tragically and ironically for John Wayne's Ethan Edwards and argue that it's not a question of when the film was made. But The Searchers was a movie both ahead of its time and out its time, which is to say a great work of art. The Bravados is a good movie and if I was going to compare it to any Western of its period the Anthony Mann-Jimmy Stewart problem westerns, particularly The Naked Spur, would be more useful to the purpose.

The Bravados ends on a hopeful note. The movie settles for a different, more forgiving kind of moral ambiguity.

Like I said, the movie isn't interested in whether or not there is a God, but it does seem to believe in karma. I wouldn't call it a zen western; it's too dark despite its hopefulness. But it does set things up in such a way that we can be glad that Douglas doesn't do the right thing and stick with the posse.

It turns out that by doing the wrong thing, by pursuing his quest for revenge, Douglas inadvertently brings about a more just resolution for the town and the bad guys.

The real villains are punished and one doomed soul is allowed a reprieve.

Douglas is punished for his selfishness and hatred, but he's rewarded for his mercy and his willingness to admit and own up to his mistakes.

The movie ends with the hero neither triumphant nor disgraced. He's still in between, like the rest of us.

I can't think of another film that ends with the hero's next step going to be an act of penance.

This is an excellent time to re-read, or read for the first time if you missed it, Rob Farley's post on The Searchers, American Kurtz.

Random asides:

The heiress is played by the very young but not very convincing Joan Collins.

It's interesting the things the movie presents without a thought or an explanation, as if we're expected to take them for granted, the most important of these is the fact that Douglas and the outlaws and one shopkeeper in town and his daughter are about the only Anglos in the whole movie. Joan Collins' character, the sheriff, his deputies, most of the posse, the other townsfolk are all Mexican, which has absolutely nothing to do with their characters or the plot (except for their Catholicism, as I mentioned above); their ethnicity is a geographical fact. That's the demographic of that part of the Southwest. There's no stereotyping, but no self-congratulation either. And when it turns out that Douglas is fluent in Spanish, that his three year old daughter speaks Spanish more naturally than she speaks English because she's being taken care of by Douglas' Mexican ranch foreman and his wife while Douglas is away, there's nothing made of either of these facts either.

Joan Collins' character wears pants everywhere. No one remarks on this or appears to notice. She's running a ranch, after all. She joins the posse, too, and only Douglas has a problem with this. His problem isn't that a posse is no place for a woman. His problem is that she remembers him too well as he was before he became a man on a mission. She might distract him from his quest by making him remember himself as he was.

Joe DeRita has a small role as the hangman. Yes, that Joe DeRita! He's very good, in an unctuous, smary, sinisterly overly-friendly way.

The colors in the movie are so clean. When did color in movies get muddy? Also the compositions of shots are much less cluttered than they are in movies today. This isn't just a matter of arranging actors. It's the set decorations and what's placed in the foregrounds and backgrounds. Movies now are more realistic---there are as many details in any one shot as there would be in real life, which means it's harder to know what to look at it, and nearly impossible to take everything in. In The Bravados every shot is neat. You can read each one. The details are all comprehensible.

Lots less cross-cutting as well.

This is the first of Gregory Peck's westerns I've seen. He was a much better cowboy than I expected. Better than Jimmy Stewart even. And he wears a hat well.

Who was the first movie or TV cowboy to wear those low crowned, smaller brimmed hats that all TV cowboys wore but which no real cowboys ever did?