Friday, 22 April 2016

Day of the Outlaw (1959)

The term "revisionist western" is rather popular, turning up every now and then, for example when the films of Sergio Leone or Sam Peckinpah are discussed. To quote from Wikipedia, "the Revisionist Western, Modern Western or Anti-Western traces to the mid 1960s and early 1970s as a subgenre of the Western movie" and it is used for describing westerns that have a critical/cynical perspective on the frontier and the westward expansion, i.e. westerns that are seen as different from, or perhaps the opposite of, earlier westerns which were allegedly triumphant and romantic.

But although the amount of blood has increased over the decades the other aspects of what is supposed to make a western revisionist, the critique, the highlighting of the death and destruction that is part of American history, the cynicism and bleakness, have a long history. They were perhaps not as prominent in the 1930s but it is not at all obvious that the films of Peckinpah, Leone and others are different from George Sherman's films from the 1940s and 1950s or the westerns by Robert Aldrich, to name some obvious examples. It is instead unclear as to what the westerns from the late 1960 and onwards are to be revisions of; the stories they tell do not differ, they just have more blood (and more bad teeth).

Burt Lancaster and Gary Cooper in Aldrich's Vera Cruz (1954).

When John Patterson in a recent article in The Guardian about Sam Peckinpah writes "[i]t was anything but glamorous – no fancy hats or pearl-handled six-shooters, no dead-eyed gunslingers" you have to wonder which films is he thinking about as being glamorous and filled with fancy hats or pearl-handled six-shooters. Perhaps the series of films with Gene Autry, the singing cowboy of the 1930s? But they were not the norm. From the mid-1940s the majority of famous westerns are critical and/or cynical, and can sometimes be very frank about the costs and the massacres upon which the United States were built.

Gene Autry

I was reminded of this when I recently re-watched Day of the Outlaw (André de Toth 1959), photographed by Russell Harlan in wintertime in the middle of Oregon. It captures an inhospitable place populated by a handful of people who all have their issues and weaknesses. There is no glamour or romance here, this is the end of the line and life is rather Hobbesian. When a bunch a renegade soldiers take the village hostage all simmering conflicts freeze as the villagers have to try to unite in order to survive the siege. But there is a limit for how long the jealousies, sexual frustrations, pettiness, sadism, pride and self-loathing can be kept in check. In one brief but fine scene the strong man in the village, played by Robert Ryan, catches his reflection in the mirror and is appalled by what he sees.

Visually it is also a remarkable film with long takes frequently staged with the camera away from the action to capture the insignificant men and women dwarfed by the surrounding landscape and mountains. There is almost the same feeling that you get in the films of Anthony Mann, of a space at best indifferent and at worst actively hostile towards us humans. The interiors are equally well-handled, with the staging and the camera movements being at one with the subject matter, especially so in a demented dance sequence where the camera is spinning around in 360 degrees pans.

So it is a very fine film, powerful and unforgettable, made at a time when such films were common. Whether you want to call it revisionist or not is irrelevant.

Two earlier posts about George Sherman here and here.
It is peculiar that I have never written anything about Peckinpah, considering he is one of my favourite filmmakers. But Nick Pinkerton has so you can read him until I produce something of my own.
I should also add that the films with Gene Autry are not to be dismissed; they can be entertaining and sometimes interesting, for a number of reasons.


  1. I call it great. DAY OF THE OUTLAW and THE GREAT SILENCE also use snow as a character.

    Foster G

  2. I think a lot of younger people, particularly Americans, have seen very few Westerns but envision the genre as a happy-go-lucky tribute to the slaughter of Native Americans at the hand of John Wayne.

    1. Sure, but not just the young, the same is true for many critics and scholars as well.

  3. Or even filmmakers: take Tarantino's comments on John Ford upon the release of DJANGO UNCHAINED!

  4. Did you hear about one California politician's aborted attempt to declare a "John Wayne day" in the state? Like D. W. Griffith, Wayne is one of those figures who are undoubtedly important to film history - hell, to American history - but too toxic ideologically to honor without a lot of caveats and disclaimers.

    1. I did see some headlines about some John Wayne Day shenanigans but I never followed up on what exactly the story was.