by Marc Glassman
Appaloosa. Ed Harris, director & co-script w/Robert Knott based on the novel by Robert B. Parker. Starring: Ed Harris (Virgil), Viggo Mortensen (Everett), Renee Zellwegger (Allison), Jeremy Irons (Bragg)
I Served the King of England. Jiri Menzel, director & script based on the novel by Bohumil Hrabal. Starring: Ivan Barney (Jan Dite, as a young man), Oldrich Kaiser (the older Jan Dite), Julia Jentsch (Liza), Martin Huba (the maitre d’)
Sukiyaki Western Django. Takashi Miike, director & co-script w/Masa Nakamura. Starring: Hideaki Ito (Gunman), Koichi Sato (Taira no Kiyomori), Yusuke Iseya (Yohitsune), Kaori Momi (Rurika), Ruka Uahida (Heihachi), Quentin Tarantino (Piringo)
Appaloosa is a creditable attempt to revive the Western, a genre that has fallen into disrepute in the past couple of decades. Digital f/x have done in the Western as the go-to form for action and adventure films. Sci-fi and comic book heroes have replaced the Ringo Kid and Jesse James as iconic figures for the youth—and frankly the twenty-somethings—of today.
At their best, Westerns were more than action films: they said a lot about American history, the clash between civilized forces and outlaws and the changing nature of the individual in society. Ed Harris clearly knows this and has crafted his Appaloosa around those questions.
The film recounts the friendship between Harris’ Virgil—a tough, laconic, honourable man—and Mortensen’s Everett—a funnier, more romantic but still tough as nails gunman. They come to a classic Western town to clear out the bad men—for money. Bragg, the worst guy, is a rapacious land baron and latterly a saloonkeeper, played by Jeremy Irons, in a loveably outrageous acting turn. Adding the right amount of complication is the scheming, weak but sexy Allison, played by Renee Zellwegger.
By far, the best thing about Appaloosa is the relationship between those cowpokes Everett and Virgil. There’s a lot of affection and thespian nuances offered here by Harris and Mortensen. The problem, though, lies exactly in those scenes and the less successful ones featuring Zellwegger and irons.
We never fully believe in Everett, Virgil, Bragg and Allison. They’re icons, rather than characters, played by Hollywood stars on a nice holiday out West. Mortensen comes closest to convincing the viewer that he’s Everett but the knowing narration that he has to read over beautifully rendered shots of landscape that look as if it could be from Charles Russell paintings only highlights the difficulty of making a Western today. We know too much—and so does Viggo.
And where are the, um, Indians?
It may not be fair to say so but the Western could be impossible to revive. Appaloosa is the best example of the genre in many years and even this film will find it difficult to make a dent in year-end top 10 critics lists or the marketplace. It tries to honestly be about Nevada but it seems to really be about Malibu.
Sukiyaki Western Django underscores the problems a viewer—and Ed Harris—has with the genre. Takashi Miike, a B-movie Japanese cult director, has made a film that parodies Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars, which itself was a knowing homage to Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo. That’s right—an Italian, adapting an earlier Samurai movie, made the hippest Western of the 1960s.
40 years later, Miike has brought the Spaghetti Western back home, with Japanese actors speaking a weird “Jap-lish,” (poorly accented English) playing out classic action moves in a constructed town called Yuta, Nebada. If you’ve ever seen Yojimbo or A Fistful of Dollars you’ll know the plot of Sukiyaki Western Django. A solitary warrior comes to a town about to explode into a seething civil war. Both sides try to buy him off but the gunman/samurai has his own agenda. In the end, a bloody battle ensues—and a satisfying conclusion is offered the satiated viewer.
Quentin Tarantino, whose Pulp Fiction set the parodic yet affectionate tone towards genres in recent years, guest-stars in the opening scene of Sukiyaki Western Django. As the gunman Piringo, he is fittingly tough as he distracts threatening baddies by telling them the story of the 12th century Battle of Dannoura, which inspired Yojimbo.
So Sukiyaki Western Django begins—and the Western ends. When the parody of a parody of a parody can be successful on its own terms—and Sukiyaki is—how can the Ed Harrises and Clint Eastwoods (ironically the star of A Fistful of Dollars) hope to bring back the Western?
I Served the King of England brings back joyful memories of Sixties foreign films. In Susan Sontag’s memorable words, it was a time of “heroic film viewing” as well as filmmaking. Masterpieces by Antonioni, Godard, Lindsay Anderson, Wajda, Fellini, Chabrol, Kurosawa, Visconti, Pennebaker and Truffaut arrived to critical huzzahs and audience approval from cinemagoers in every major urban centre in North America, Argentina, Mexico, Japan and Europe.
Starting in 1966, a new country was heard from: Czechoslovakia. The Czech New Wave was characterized by its sly, knowing humour, casual cruelty and brazen love of sensuality. The most famous of the filmmakers to came out of a group of young artists living in Prague was Milos Forman, who defected to the US after the Russian tanks crushed democracy and the Wave in 1968.
Over the last forty years, Forman made One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Amadeus, Hair, Goya’s Ghosts and Valmont. Quite a list—and there’s no doubt that he’s an artist of the first rank. But he may not be the best director to emerge from the Czech New Wave.
Ladies and Gentlemen, may I present to you Jiri Menzel? The diminutive director, writer and actor made Closely Watched Trains forty years ago. A black comedy about a young Czech train station apprentice more concerned about losing his virginity than the tragic events taking place during the Second World War, it deservedly won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film. Menzel joined novelist Bohumil Hrabal as a beloved national figure after the release of the film.
40 years on, Closely Watched Trains remains a marvel: funny, moving, sexy and immensely appealing. Unlike Forman, Menzel chose to stay in Czechoslovakia. Among the films he made during those long years when few in North America were paying attention to events there (apart from hockey results) were the Oscar nominated My Sweet Little Village, The Snowdrop Festival and an adaptation of Vaclav Havel’s version of Beggar’s Opera.
Miraculously, Menzel’s adaptation of another Hrabal masterpiece I Served the King of England has now appeared on the international scene. An award winner at the Berlin Film Festival, it is another story of a little man buffeted by the terrifying winds of history. Jan Dite may be small but his ambitions are large—he wants to be a millionaire and make love to beautiful women.
If you know Czech cinema or literature, it will come as no surprise that Dite succeeds in both tasks—but somehow also ends up utterly failing in life. We see him first as an old man released early from a 15-year sentence; he only had to serve 14 years and 9 months. His story is told through a series of flashbacks as the older Dite tries to romance a sensual woman in an isolated formerly German occupied forest and the younger one learns about money, love and how to be a great waiter.
Hrabal’s novels and Menzel’s cinema are full of an appreciation of life’s pleasures, particularly eating and making love. Both are beautifully evoked in I Served the King of England. At 70, Menzel is still stylish and many scenes have a silent era Chaplinesque quality to them.
Sadly, the film has to come to a point. Life can’t be all about sensuality especially in Czechoslovakia, a country that barely survived 70 years and was torn apart by the Nazis and Soviets. In 1938, the Munich Pact and British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain sold out the country to Hitler—and Hrabal and Menzel arrive at their drama.
The little man, Dite, falls in love with a lovely Aryan named Liza. For her, he betrays his country and soul. Liza protects him during the War by giving Dite a job with the Nazis and leaves him a legacy of millions of dollars stolen from deported Holocaust Jews. For these crimes, he must—and does—pay.
This dark tale, held back for much of the film, leaves one bewildered. Is Dite such a fool? Is he a metaphor for Czech middle class survivors? It’s hard to tell, leaving the film a less than successful experience. Still, it’s heartening to see Menzel in good form after all these years. And two-thirds of a cake is surely better than none. I Served the King of England can certainly be recommended—on DVD, next spring.