A study of Film in 1931: Cimmaron

cimarron1931Just as a foreword, this is part of my new series in which I pick a year, and study several influential, successful, or otherwise controversial films from that year, and then essentially summarize it as a whole afterwards. Our starting year is 1931, as I take at look at RKO’s literature based juggernaut Cimmaron (1931).  Cimmaron is a very capitalistic look at the western, ultimately painting it as a land of prosperity and opportunity. It stems from Edna Ferber’s 1929 novel of the same name. RKO highly pushed the film, granting it a contextually large budget of 1.5 million dollars. Given inflation, the state of the industry, and the influence of the great depression, the sum is actually incredibly large for a film.

The film focuses on the incredibly flamboyant and ambitious Yancy Cravat (Richard Dix) as he leads the small settlement of Osage through the years. He’s a lawyer, and newspaper publisher who sets up shop in the newly occupational land that we now know as Oklahoma. The film is well known for it’s depiction of the land rush of 1891.  In contrast to societies views of poverty and the great depression at the time of release, the film tried to bestow quite positive ideas of ambition and prosperity, reinforcing that old stereotype of the ‘American dream’. Yancy has to leave town again to go aid the strip, as he leaves his wife on her own once again, to fend for herself with their child.

LandrushFor such a big epic and opulent film, the script is underdeveloped. A lot of characters don’t particularly have a purpose, and the whole direction of the film feels more like a motif than a message or narrative of sorts. Generally I think Cimmaron is more about the atmosphere than anything else. After all it’s often hard to capture the entire ideals of a book within a narrow 2 hours of cinema. It does depict the scenery and the time span accurately if nothing else. However it’s often said that Werber was very pleased with the adaption, regardless of the book rights being used again in 1960 for the same purpose. Cimmaron isn’t particularly special by any means, often devalued by it’s very ‘goofy’ cast of actors so it’s been said. However it’s definitely useful as a pinpoint for the Sevolution of the grand epic, and where that kind of ambition in cinema stems from.

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Right, now to context. Many people often claim that Cimmaron is one of the most undeserving Academy Award winners there is in the history of the Oscar. But the thing is, it was crowned with the award of Outstanding Production (Best Picture) in only it’s 4th ceremony when none of the candidates were particularly fantastic or outstanding in themselves. It competed against Skippy, Trader Horn, East Lynne, and the Front Page, which were all received as ‘fine’ productions they didn’t have that big impact that Cimmaron did just because of the sheer grand spectacle it provided for audiences in 1931. Interestingly Cimmaron is technically an economic flop as it brought back $30,000 short of it’s budget, but that’s fairly successful considering the ludicrous figure of 1.5 million sunk into it.

It was a fairly slow year for the oscars, with Cimmaron being nominated for 7 awards (every category) with it receiving 3. In addition we can see that directors and producers clearly had big ambitions but the economy at the time had other ideas. Clearly it wasn’t wise for RKO to produce Cimmaron but they did to critical acclaim regardless of the economical turnout. We also see the western creep in the title of Best Picture considering the only other western to do that is Dances With Wolves in 1990. Anyway, i’ll end the history lesson here, and hope you join me next time as I take a look at one of the most iconic horror films ever made, Frankenstein. 

(Unfortunately I couldn’t get my own images for this article, as my edition of Cimmaron was being faulty). 

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Django (1966), Masculinity, and ‘The Man With No Name’.

Django.

Django (1966) is an Italian western directed by Sergio Carbucci. It stars Franco Nero as mysterious ex-soldier Django on his quest to seek revenge for his dead wife. Thus, he returns to the south, where a war rages, but not the civil war. A racial war wages between that of the native Mexican people, and the southern forces. Colonel Jackson and his red-hooded riders seek to rid the land of the Mexicans, while the Mexicans pledge the same. Django is not concerned at first, but is caught in the war as he opts to save Maria, a scorned prostitute from death as some of Jackson’s men attempt to burn her alive.

A remarkably similar font appears in Django Unchained (2012)

A remarkably similar font appears in Django Unchained (2012)

Django is not overly significant for it’s narrative, while the idea of a racial war is definitely an original one in the context of a western. The significance is how it’s formed, the tones, atmosphere and mood of Django are what classifies it as something different and ultimately very appealing. On set as they attempted to film Sergio’s set manager claimed they should clean up the set they intended to film on because of harsh mud, and swamp due to weather conditions, however Sergio claimed it would only improve the harsh macabre mood of the film. The town is unlike most you’ve ever seen in a western, empty, deserted and decrepit. Only the home to whores and murderers, the lighting is always fairly grey and dark to suit this bleak depiction of life, and we never see the sun rise or set over the town. Only a malignant, disconcerting grey.

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It’s also a stand-out for being one of the most violent films ever made at the time of it’s release, though obviously the same can’t be said now in the advent of gorehouse, and tortureporn flicks.Where Django offers a lot of analytical depth is in the reading of it’s primary protagonist Django. Django a fairly atypical male character in juxtaposition of typical western males. The blueprint for traditional western leading males were primarily in the wake of John Wayne and such others, usually an older man of larger stature and of rugged qualities and typical macho or of manly disposition, being the contextual modern idea of what a man should be. However, as the western was gradually converted and subverted in much more opposing forms such as the Revisionist, and Acid western sub-genres (Both of which Django is a part of), we see this ideal of the leading male and masculinity questioned. 

The cowardly racist southerners under a hail of machine gun fire.

The cowardly racist southerners under a hail of machine gun fire.

Django is ultimately a revision of that stereotypical gender role. He’s a much younger man but also much more troubled, enigmatic, and mysterious in his purpose.You could say there are elements of the tragic hero in Django’s construction, particularly in his mourning for his wife, and his inability to love again. Greed is Django’s near downfall as he has both of his hands brutally broken for stealing the gold he and the Mexicans worked so hard to get. Thus he also flawed in his ideology, he is not the traditional do-gooder, but one who has sinned and will continue to sin. This is equally said for his unrelenting brutality in gaining his revenge, most notably in the scene in which he harshly mows down all but a few of Colonel Jackson’s men with his heavy machine gun. In addition the casting of Django and characters like him are typically more attractive and more handsome contrasting to older actors. This was certainly the case for Clint Eastwood in Sergio Leone’s films as ‘The Man with No Name’. 

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Thus this new kind of character that stemmed from the grittier, more violent revisionist westerns became intensely popular. For example, the character of Django appears in over 30 additional films since the original appearance due to the sheer amount of filmmakers wanting to replicate the success and iconography of Django. Franco Nero only played the role once more since his original portrayal in the official sequel made in the 80’s. But the general look and iconography of the character remained. However, Django still remains a prominent factor in popular culture even now with many elements of the film being referenced to in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained (2012). In particular it uses the two tracks from the film’s score, the stylized title card and the name of the film’s main protagonist. Franco Nero also appears in a very tongue in cheek cameo, in a kind of passing of the mantle to Jamie Foxx. 

The new Django, next to old.

The new Django, next to old.

Thus Django is a very significant piece of Italian and Western film culture. It stands for the changing of the guard in the genre, and also it begins to show the slowly turning wheels of the evolution of cinema from the neo-classical, towards the new contemporary with it’s emphasis on characters and style over traditional narrative. As an icon I do consider the coffin dragging ex-soldier a part of significant film culture, and for those who haven’t seen Django I would strongly recommend it. That’s it for today, and thanks for stopping by, and feel free to follow me on Twitter @Sams_Reel_Views.

Race and Culture in Django Unchained (2012)

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The plight and burden of the black man is one not covered well in the western genre, regardless of it’s deep historical roots. Or, on a more larger scale race is not a huge concern of the genre’s topics and tropes other than the occasional revisionist western about native Americans in a very subversive manner. Obviously there are exemptions to this, like Mandingo (1975), and Django (1966) (evidently quite potent inspirations for Django Unchained (2012).  I think some of the backlash regarding Django Unchained (2012) is simply because it wasn’t a harrowing sad tale of exploitation, it was an exhilarating celebration of freedom. It’s because Tarantino used the terrible exploitation of the past, and rehashed them into an entertaining popular culture film which some people don’t respect on that level of ideology and symbolism purely because it’s so sleek, and stylized.  Maybe it doesn’t have the elegance and sympathetic tones of Roots, or as much mourning because Django Unchained is about Django’s (Jamie Foxx) empowerment and his fight to become and be respected as equal.

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The score of Django is a very pop-culture mash of many genres, time periods and so forth. However when you apply thoughts of race and culture in analysis of the film’s theatrical score and soundtrack it certainly has more gumption in it’s overall role. It has a lot of country and western music as you’d expect, the music of the deep south, the setting of the film. But in addition it has Rap, in addition to soul featuring a rather potent appearance of the track ‘Unchained’ a remix of James Brown and 2Pac.

The appearance of two of the biggest names in Soul and Rap, often referred to as the very zenith of black musical culture is not a sheer coincidence. The soundtrack represents the ideological clash, the culture of the uncultured redneck and the oppressive white man, juxtaposed with black contemporary culture which is quite an empowerment in Django’s minor elements.

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The villainous white man, Mr.Calvin Candy

Now, it’s not exactly hard to say the man who enjoys making black people fight to death for his amusement, is racist.  But some of the more subtle elements of scenes containing Calvin (Leonardo DiCaprio) depict him as corrupt, not just his actions. While he may play the dapper gentleman in his suits surrounded by high luxury and decorum nothing can hide his buck yellow teeth, a traditional mis-en-scene sign that someone is of amoral values. Not to mention the literal sense in his name relating to this, candy, sweets, decay etc. He’s also quite intolerant as he likes to be addressed by Monsieur Candie,  yet Mr.Mogli deters King Schultz from speaking French to Candie, as it will anger him and make him feel stupid. The dessert they have after the entree? ‘white cake’. Symbolism doesn’t get much more evident than that. In addition it was Stephen who saw the ruse of King’s plan, as Calvin had completely believed them. Calvin maybe put on a show, but ultimately he’s nothing without the power of slavery.

Somewhat a more focused, and theological review today thought i’d be in depth instead of just reviewing Django as most of us have seen it by now (Except for Spike Lee). Anyway, thanks for stopping by, and please Like/Follow/Comment and follow me on Twitter @Sams_Reel_Views. Thanks. 

IMBD Top 250 Addendum:

Django Unchained (2012) is a fairly notable film. It’s fantastically crafted by Tarantino into a sensationalist tale of exploitation, whilst being a very exhilarating, culturally relevant experience. The screenplay and script are excellent, and they are only elevated by the fantastic cast and performances within Django, particularly that of Jamie Foxx, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Cristoph Waltz.  The score is also pretty fantastic, a mass of homage to the original Django (1966) along with elements of modern music. Particularly that of black music culture, such as recording artists James Brown, and 2Pac Shakur which fleshes out the exploitation motif. Django Unchained is an original, action-packed, cultural and nostalgic experience all in one and truly deserves it’s spot. I’d say 51 is a fair number.

Judgment – Deserving.

A bloodied tale of America’s past. Soldier Blue (1970)

'The most savage film in history'. Really shows the general response to Soldier Blue at it's time of release

‘The most savage film in history’. Really shows the general response to Soldier Blue at it’s time of release

Soldier Blue (1970) is an extremely visceral experience, filled with savagery and hate in it’s brutal retelling of one of the biggest military scandals to ever disgrace the American military. It recalls the events of the 1864 ‘Sand Creek Massacre’ as over 700 cavalry men murdered, slaughtered, raped, and razed their way through a peaceful village of Cheyenne Indians who thought they were under the protection of the United States government.  The film initially didn’t do very well, primarily because mainly people for it was a cruel allegory for the Vietnam war proceeding at that point due to the sheer violence it depicted along with a foreign race being attacked by the U.S military. It was deemed Un-American and some theatres refused to show it, while most film critics praised it as one of the most eye-opening and honest films there are about American history.

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A queue card displayed in certain theatres that aired Soldier Blue. ‘Controversial and Devastating’ indeed.

The film is highly revisionist in it’s ideals and characters, directed by Ralph Nelson, Nelson wanted an intense subversion of the traditional characters and stereotypes we see in westerns. Honus (Peter Strauss) is a very green and naive private in the military as his cavalry unit is wiped out apart from himself and miss Cresta Lee (Candice Bergen). Cresta is a very world-weary type character who knows heavily of the Cheyenne as she was once kidnapped by them. The two attempt to cross Native American land to get to the military outpost where Cresta will be wed with her groom to be. They encounter many troubles, including a band of Indians who challenge Honus to duel and threaten to rape Cresta, along with a corrupt old wagon owner who plans to sell his guns and wares to the Indians in order to profit from the bloodshed. They gradually fall in love despite their differences throughout the journey, as the narrative winds down to it’s inevitable shock and horror.

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Honus (Left) and Cresta (Right). Certainly an interesting subversion, with Honus being the greener, naive of the two, while Cresta is the stern, weary, providing type which really defies Western gender roles.

Admittedly the narrative is mostly padding until it builds to it’s big exposition, but it’s well constructed entertaining padding at that. Soldier Blue is light years away from the original generic texts that portrayed a humble west, one of prosperity and opportunity. The wild west Soldier Blue depicts is just that, wild unpredictable, and savage like the natives that stalk it, or alternatively the white man trespassing upon it. To summarize, Soldier Blue is an incredibly visceral film, a literal account of western slaughter to a harmless minority, but on a less specific scale a harsh critique of foreign policy and invasion in general particularly aimed at the U.S military. While not as gripping as Soldier Blue could be, it’s characters are weary and harshly aware, we feel empathy for them as we feel the clock wind down to the inevitable crime, hoping the cavalry general Chivington will have a modicum of heart as he utters the words: ‘McNair! Raze the village! Burn this… pestilence!’ Soldier Blue deeply moved me, and i’m sure it will you too, so give it a watch.

I opted against the gore, going for this shot instead. Spotted Wolf waves his white flag of surrender, along with the American flag which is later trampled as they assault the village. There was no pride for America to be had on this day.

I opted against the gore, going for this shot instead. Spotted Wolf waves his white flag of surrender, along with the American flag which is later trampled as they assault the village. There was no pride for America to be had on this day.

That’s all for today folks. Watch Soldier Blue, and join me next time, and feel free to follow me on @Sams_Reel_Views for frequent updates. Thanks for tuning in.