Friday, 24 April 2015

2 x George Sherman: Reprisal! (1956) and The Last of the Fast Guns (1958)

Last year I wrote a long piece about the director George Sherman. Today I will return to him and look closer at two of his best films. There are two things in particular that stand out in Sherman's body of work, the progressive politics and the visuals (sometimes in combination with exceptionally fine use of sound) but the focus this time will be almost exclusively on the themes of these two films. There will be an additional post next week.

The 70 minutes of Reprisal! (1956) is one of the angriest attacks on racism that American cinema has to offer, and of all of Sherman's bitter and polemical films this might be the clearest and most direct. It is so streamlined and focused that it becomes almost an abstraction, turning over all possible angles of racial hatred and pointing out is contradictions, its relentlessness, its stupidity and its costs, and it leaves nobody untouched. In one scene a white man is pointing a gun at an American Indian* lying on the ground after having been knocked of his horse. The man with the gun shouts "Get up!" but the Indian answers "What different does it make if I'm in the dust or standing up? I'm an Indian!" in a voice signalling the oppression and terror, the dehumanisation, his people have suffered through several generations.

The film begins with a slow pan over an inhospitable landscape until it reaches a barren tree, where the camera stops. There are two bodies on the ground and there are two ropes hanging from the tree. Then the title Reprisal! appears in red letters over the tree. There has been a lynching of two Indians, and three brothers are the accused. At a trial, held in a saloon, the crowd is firmly on the side of the accused, and their lawyer's argument is basically that the men are innocent, and the testimony of an Indian is not worth anything, in fact the very fact that an Indian was allowed to testify is a sin, and in any event killing Indians is not a crime. The jury takes ten seconds to come up with the verdict, pronouncing the men innocent (although they are clearly not). 

While the trial has been going on a stranger, Madden, has come to town, surprised by the empty streets, so he wanders into the saloon too, and witnesses the ordeal. He has come to take possession of some land that he has bought, and he befriends the local magistrate and his pretty daughter. The daughter is also a defender of the Indians, an outspoken liberal. Madden though does not want to get involved, he just wants to get his land and start to build a future for himself. But that is not to be. He is clearly torn, filled with bottled-up rage and clearly sympathetic to the Indians. He is a stand-up guy, handsome and brave, a conventional hero of Westerns. After 40 minutes it is revealed that his mother was Indian and she raised him by herself, he is of mixed race, but he only wants to acknowledge one half, the white half, because that is the only way he will be able to live free and have his own land to work on. Or so he believes, but with the town so consumed by racism, with drunken men riding into "Indiantown" with guns blazing and scaring away the Indians' horses, he eventually has to accept that he cannot live in hiding. Especially not when his maternal grandfather finds him, and wants to stay with him. "You are my only remaining kin." he says with sad eyes, the old man only wanting to be near his grandson, even if it means pretending to be his servant, so nobody will suspect that something strange is going on. But the grandfather also asks difficult questions. "Who are your people? Where do you belong? Where?"

In the end the people in the town try to lynch Madden, because he is siding with the Indians and because the townspeople think he killed a man (which he did not). He is saved by an Indian woman, and a few seconds after the street was packed with people he is standing all alone, the rope still around him, abandoned by everybody, including the liberal woman who could not bear the thought of him with an Indian woman, "A, a squaw." she says, ashamed of her own prejudices. (That shot of the street emptying in the blink of an eye, and him standing there alone, has an incredible force, and there are a few such scenes in the film. Scenes with tensions so high you might think the frame will catch fire.)

Finally the man renounces his white half, acknowledges his grandfather, after his death, and rides away, now an Indian. No longer Madden but Neola. All he wants is to be treated just like a man, not a white or an Indian, but just a man. This the world will not allow. At least not yet.

You could read the film as it is, about racism in the old west, but you might as easily read it as an allegory about racism in 1950s America, with African Americans in the place of the American Indians. Of course, by the standards of today Reprisal! might be seen as having flaws in its representation of the Indians, but that does not take away its honest intentions and palpable anger and disgust. 

The Last of the Fast Guns (1958) has a different tone, it is not angry or political in the same way, but it has the same sadness and bitterness that is to be found in most of Sherman's best films. This is a film which is primarily set outdoors, where Sherman is most at home, in some mountains in Mexico, and it opens when the main character Brad Ellison, all dressed in black, arrives in a small town to kill a man. They meet at the square and there is a cut to some graves outside town, which Brad passed on his way, and then some shots are heard. We never see the gunfight; we can just assume that it took place and that those graves will not be wanting for bodies. Then Brad is called in to see an old man, crippled and in a wheelchair. The old man gives Brad an assignment, to find the man's missing brother, who might be somewhere in Mexico. Brad, tired and weary and aware that he will not live for very long (27 is old for a person such as him), accepts the assignment and the money and rides down south to see what he can find. 

On the way he stops at an old ruin in which some men are hiding out. They know each other and when Brad arrives they ask about some friends they have in common. Brad tell them their friends are all dead, gunned down, some have been shot in the back by their friends, such as Jesse James. Even Billy the Kid is dead, killed by Pat Garrett. The men look aghast. "We just found out the sun is setting." one of them says, visibly shaken. It is an exceptional scene, and illustrative of the terseness of the film, where few words are spoken and the words that are spoken are often clipped and hard. 

When Brad has come deep into Mexico he makes some friends, he meets a woman and a wise old priest, yet he continues his pursuit of the missing man, the ghost he is chasing. People speak of him, but they all say that he has died. Nobody has seen him die, but they all seem to know that he has. But where is the grave? "Up in the hills." Brad also meets another man on horseback, Miles Lang, all dressed in white, and they become friends, riding together. They are basically the same person, the white half and the black half, where the black is the future and the white is the past, the man he once was and no longer wants to be, and whom he may have to kill in order to become free.

The priest, a poor, humble man, tries to talk some sense into Brad. "There is treasure to be found in the hills, but it is not gold. It is peace of mind." Because that is what the priest has found. He was living a stressful life like a business man, but now he has peace. It was either that or death, and Brad knows that he too has that choice. Peace of mind in the hills or inevitable death. Yet the choice is surprisingly hard.

The Last of the Fast Guns is a wonderful film, a great film even, unusual in many respects, and with a special kind of poetry. As always with Sherman the visuals are very impressive and the mountains in which the second half of the film is set are put to vivid use. The film was shot in various parts of Mexico, such as Cuernavaca, Tepoztlan, Taxco and the Estudios Churubusco, and the cinematographer was from Mexico, Álex Phillips Jr. The film might be Sherman's greatest achievement.

Reprisal! and The Last of the Fast Guns have not only Sherman in common, they are also both written by David P. Harmon, alone on The Last of the Fast Guns and together with Raphael Hayes and David Dortort on Reprisal!. All of these writers would otherwise write almost exclusively for TV, and at least Reprisal! feels like a TV movie at times, stylistically. The Last of the Fast Guns however does not, and the Sherman touch is stronger on it. But they are both essential.

*There is no consensus on which term to use. Some prefer to be called Native Americans (or First Nations), some prefer to be called American Indians, and some prefer to be called by their own nations, such as Sioux or Cheyenne. Another suggested term is Indigenous, which seems to be the least popular.

A related post is one I wrote last year about racism in American cinema.
Two earlier posts about Sherman here and here.

David Dortort was also one of the writers on The Lusty Men (Nicholas Ray 1952), a film which is rather different from Reprisal! and perhaps Ray's greatest film. Álex Phillips Jr. was cinematographer for over 100 films in Mexico, and sometimes in the US, and one of them was Sam Peckinpah's Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974).


  1. Speaking of Native Americans, I'm sure you've heard about the rebellion of the Native cast of Adam Sandler's latest film. Amazingly, those actors with a sense of humor that doesn't revolve around the antics of aging man-children stayed.

  2. Just caught up with these recent George Sherman posts, Fredrik. I'm glad you got back to him and you wrote beautifully and insightfully on all three of these. TOMAHAWK, REPRISAL and THE LAST OF THE FAST GUNS are all among his very best films, and very representative of what is great about him, especially the last named of these which I agree is his masterpiece.

    It is never too late for any director to be discovered or rediscovered and recognized for their gifts, and he is an especially great example. Hopefully, his movies will be more widely seen.

    1. Thanks Blake! I aim to write more about Sherman.