Monday, May 30, 2011

Reeling Backward: "Monte Walsh" (1970)

As I've gotten older, I've found that I have more appreciation for movies that are not necessarily driven by a story. "Monte Walsh" is an excellent example; I think a twentysomething me would've found it a bit slow and uneventful, especially for a Western.

Yes, there are a few shootouts in this 1970 minor gem based on the novel by Jack Shaefer, who also wrote "Shane." But it's more a contemplation on the end days of cowboys, getting old and letting go of the way things have always been. I'd call it a character study in the mold of "Five Easy Pieces" or "Fat City."

With the relationship between two cowpokes at the heart of the film, it also very much reminded me of "Lonesome Dove." Lee Marvin plays the title character, a taciturn cowpuncher who silently laments the way the railroads, homesteaders and money men have slowly washed away the open freedom of the range.

Jack Palance, in a rare role where he plays a character of good heart, is Chet Rollins, who shares Monte's affection for the cowboy life but recognizes that its time is nearly over. He's been nurturing a quiet romance with a well-to-do widow in town, and eventually marries and settles down to run her hardware store. "Nobody gets to be a cowboy forever," he advises Monte.

Times are rough and work is hard to find. But Monte and Chet have a reputation for being able to do anything on a horse you can imagine, and are able to find jobs at the Slash Y ranch run by Brennan (Jim Davis), an old boss now overseeing the operation for a company back East known only as Consolidated.

The first third or so of the film is a lot of hootin' and hollerin' good times, as cowboys trade warm repartee or flying fists, depending on their mood. The bunkhouse life is comradely, and the cook makes good grub, even if he stinks to high even. In one funny bit, the cowhands forcibly give him a bath, and he retaliates by whipping up a batch of something that sends them all scurrying for the outhouse.

A singular dark note in the early going is the death of Fightin' Joe, an ancient cowboy who fought with General Hooker in the Civil War and took the name as his own. "I've had a good life," he tells Chet and Monte through sun-blasted blue eyes, and he seems to mean it. They see only a pathetic old man consigned to riding fence -- aka repairing the barbed wire line that marks the boundaries of the ranch -- a job the pair, still in their prime, consider beneath any respectable ranch hand.

Joe, apparently reenacting the great battle charge in which he took part, rides off a cliff and is killed. Worse yet, Brennan is forced by the Consolidated to lay off the three youngest cowboys, including Shorty (Mitch Ryan) -- so named not for his stature but his short fuse. Monte and Chet have teased Shorty mercilessly, but they respect his ability as a bronco-buster, and are sad to see him go.

When he comes to town Monte keeps company with Martine (French actress Jeanne Moreau), a foreign prostitute he affectionately calls "Countess." It seems likely that Monte has never considered there to be anything between them other than the occasional haircut and sex, but after Chet marries himself off Monte starts thinking about something more permanent.

Visiting Martine in the town 40 miles away where she has recently moved, Monte asks why they never got married, and is surprised and pleased to find that she has frequently thought of the idea, too. But first he needs a stake for them to get started, and he's at a loss as to how to make some good dough cowboying.

And then, an opportunity presents itself. Spotting a wild gray horse that Shorty had failed to tame that has been sold to a traveling wild west show, Monte resolves to teach him some manners. He rides the frantic beast around town, tearing down storefronts and crashing through a china shop (literally) before finally taming the gray. The owner of the show, having witnessed this display of genuine cowboy mastery, immediately offers him a job paying $30 a day plus expenses -- a fortune. But seeing the ridiculous get-up he would have to wear, he gruffly declines.

"I ain't spittin' on my whole life," he declares.

The tragic elements of the story, which had been hovering around the edges of the film, assert themselves with grim inevitability. Shorty and another wayward cowboy, desperate for money, confront Chet in his store and demand money. After an altercation, Chet is shot dead. Monte, compelled more by the unspoken code of justice of the range than any personal need for vengeance, hunts Shorty down.

Their final confrontation is sad, slow and moving. At different points each man has the other dead to rights in his gunsight, but declines to kill. Shorty and Monte both seem to recognize their roles without really embracing them -- Shorty knows he's done wrong, Monte knows he has to put his friend down.

When he finally shoots Shorty -- after the latter has deliberately holstered his gun -- Monte whispers to him in his dying moments about riding the gray. In the end, the cowboy life that has defined them is the only thing that connects the two men. As their way of life dies off, the fact that only one of them can live seems sadder than deciding which one it is.

"Monte Walsh" was the directorial debut of longtime cinematographer William A. Fracker, who only helmed three feature films -- including the underwhelming "The Legend of the Lone Ranger" -- before turning to television. David Zelag Goodman and Lukas Heller adapted Schaefer's book for the screen, apparently without much fidelity to his text. A 2003 TV movie starring Tom Selleck apparently was more loyal to the novel.

3 stars out of four

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