Friday, 28 November 2014

From Hell to Texas (1958) - on Hathaway and Levinas

"Wherever this man goes, somebody turns a hand to help him, and they don't even know him. Why?"

From Hell to Texas (Henry Hathaway 1958) begins with a man and his horse coming to a river where they rest for a while, and the man wash the legs of his horse. Suddenly they are attacked by a group of men, who force a herd of horses at them. In the ensuing chaos one of the attacking men is injured by the horses, but the lone man and his horse ride of. It turns out that the men were sent out by Boyd, a rich man who owns the land and the horses, to kill this lone man, Lohman (played by a fine Don Murray, soft-spoken and anguished.) He is to be killed because Boyd believes that Lohman killed one of Boyd's sons, and all through the film Lohman is pursued by Boyd and his men. Yet Lohman is innocent, Boyd's son fell on his own knife. Lohman is a kind and peaceful man who does not believe in killing, not even in self-defence. But his claims about his innocence does not help him.

That is the set-up for this remarkable film, which becomes an exploration of ethics and principles. Lohman does not want to stand and fight, so he keeps running, and when he meets strangers on his way they are both surprised and impatient with his reluctance to defend himself. They applaud his pacifism but they argue that sometimes that pacifism can become self-defeating. "There is a time and there is a place for such things" one of his helpers says, suggesting this is not such a time.

But it is not only those that are friendly towards Lohman who are puzzled by his behaviour. Boyd is too. It was he who asked the question quoted above. To him Lohman is nothing but a simple killer but everyone else embrace him, and help him out. Through his quest for revenge Boyd starts to feel uncomfortable and bewildered by this.

Lohman also struggles, and finally his anger makes him eager to confront Boyd and his men. What pushes Lohman over the edge is when they shoot down a friend of his, a kind older man. But even then he cannot bring himself to kill. Quite the contrary, in the conflagration that is the result of the final showdown he actually risks his own life to save the life of one of Boyd's sons. This is where Boyd resigns and the thirst for revenge is extinguished. He is a broken man, having lost two sons and almost a third, because of this senseless need for vengeance, and he has also lost his self-respect. In the very end of the film he says to Lohman:
Long after we're dead, you and me both, they'll be telling this story, they'll tell it in a thousand different kinds of ways. None of them will favour me. Maybe they shouldn't. Just one thing. I like to be remembered that I gave you your life cause you saved my last son. If you grant me that, I don't mind much going to hell for the rest of it.
Lohman answers "Yes, I'll grant you that."

The switch in power in that scene is very strong, how it has moved from Boyd to Lohman. But Boyd is not asking for forgiveness, what he wants is to maintain some self-respect, and only Lohman can give him that.

The last decade or so film-philosophy has become a popular subject, in which philosophers write about film, films are used to exemplify or problematise philosophical issues and there are also discussions about whether films can "do" philosophy themselves. This can be very interesting although unfortunately it is often about films in which philosophical issues are explicitly stated and dealt with, and argued about by the characters, and so it becomes a rather obvious exercise. (Films by Terrence Malick, David Lynch, Lars von Trier or Jean-Luc Godard are popular here, and individual films such as The Matrix (the Wachowskis 1999) or Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry 2004) among others.) But as I have written before in Filosofisk tidskrift (on paper and in Swedish only) it seems to me that all films have the potential for philosophical discussions and investigations, or rather, film-philosophy is especially interesting when it is open to all kinds of films and not just the self-consciously philosophical ones. A film like From Hell to Texas is excellent for discussing ethics and other important issues, and it can for example be interesting to let the film mingle with the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas. In Totality and Infinity Levinas's suggests that "The Other precisely reveals himself in his alterity not in a shock negating the I, but as the primordial phenomenon of gentleness." and that could be an apt summing up of what happens in Hathaway's film. Lohman is a decent and gentle man who succeeds by staying true to that side of him, and not succumbing to violence, and in so doing he also changes the man who is hunting him, shames him into defeat. To quote Levinas again "Justice consists in recognizing in the Other my master."

In From Hell to Texas the discussion of ethics also involves animals. The most obvious example is after the one time Lohman actually kills a man, despite his reluctance to use violence. A gunman ambushes him among some rocks and Lohman must defend himself. Afterwards he feels guilty, despite him being within his rights, and here something interesting happens. The gunman's horse stands looking at Lohman from a distance as if judging him for the killing, and Lohman tries to scare him off. The horse refuses to budge. After a while Lohman whistles, and the horse comes towards him, and joins Lohman and his horse. Lohman then removes the saddle on the other man's horse and puts his own saddle on it, and then mounts it. It is as if he tries to take the dead man's place in the life of the horse, even though Lohman already has a fine horse, perhaps in order to make amends for the killing he has done. Lohman takes on the responsibility not only of other people, but of horses as well.

There is also another aspect to the story. Lohman is not just running away from Boyd, he is also searching for his father who left home many years ago. Lohman had taken care of his mother but when she died he set out to find his father. The town where he will face Boyd is also the town where his search for his father comes to an end. Whereas Boyd wants revenge for his dead sons, Lohman wants answers to why his father left him.

From Hell to Texas is based on a book by Charles O. Locke called The Hell-Bent Kid which I have not read. The basic story is similar, Boyd wants to kill Lohman because of the death of Boyd's son, but how this develops and how it ends I do not know so what kind of changes have been made and how much of the dialogue is new is therefore unclear, as are the contributions from Hathaway himself and the two credited scriptwriters Wendell Mayes (who has written many fine films, not least for Otto Preminger) and Robert Buckner (who had previously worked a lot with Michael Curtiz). But, as I have said earlier, revenge is a recurring theme in Hathaway's body of work, and it is dealt with in many complex ways. The Shepherd of the Hills (1941) and True Grit (1969) are two examples. The film of his that is closest to From Hell to Texas is Nevada Smith (1966), about a man who seeks revenge on those that killed his parents, a quest that takes a long time and in which he travels through several states, growing and changing along the way. So it is in From Hell to Texas as well, but in a more profound way.

Also, the forceful compositions and overall dynamic visuals are Hathaway's, and he makes great use of the landscape and the Cinemascope frame. One particularly fine shot is of Lohman lying flat on his back, arms and legs spread wide, next to a river in a canyon. Steam is coming up from a hot spring in the background and even further back is a dramatic cloud hovering over a mountain peak. A brief moment of rest and tranquillity.

I have written several posts before about Henry Hathaway.
The first, long article about his whole career is here.
A brief follow-up to the first post is here.
A piece about Spawn of the North (1938) is here.
A piece about Souls at Sea (1937) is here.

Among the books by Emmanuel Levinas are Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority, Time and the Other, Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence and a dialogue between him and Philippe Nemo published as Ethics and Infinity. That is a good place to start, especially considering how difficult his writing can be. Five years ago the online journal Film-Philosophy had a special issue on Levinas. For those who want to read more on Levinas and cinema, Sam B. Girgus's book Levinas and the Cinema of Redemption: Time, Ethics, and the Feminine might be of interest.

1 comment:

  1. The impact of movies mainly depends on us, any movie will have bad and good and it is ourselves who should be able to distinguish between them.