Title: Home on the Range
Release Date: April 2, 2004
Director: Will Finn & John Sanford
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures
It’s hard to understand what happened to Walt Disney animated features in the first decade of the century. Hot on the heels of the 1990s Disney Renaissance, when the opening of every Disney animated movie was a big event, suddenly you have a string of around 11 movies that opened with a whimper and are remembered well in retrospect either (with the exception of Lilo & Stitch, which is a masterpiece that arose from low-budget experimentation).
The concept behind Home on the Range, a Western movie from the perspective of cows, is a clever one. And with women voicing the three lead cow characters and the owner of the farm they hope to save, it’s a strong women-lead story as well. The animation style is reminiscent of the Post-Walt/pre-Renaissance features of the 1970s and 80s. But the movie seems unable to decide if it’s light family fare of that earlier era, or if it is the brash ironic comedy of the 1990s with bodily function jokes. I mean, I like a good belching joke, but it has to be good, and a joke, not just belching.
Roseann Barr is surprisingly not irritating as the lead cow, Maggie, a new arrival on the Patch of Heaven farm. When she learns that the farmer Pearl (Carole Cook) may lose the farm due to debt, she enlists the fussy, older cow, Mrs. Calloway (Judi Dench) and a spacey, younger cow, Grace (Jennifer Tilly) on a mission to save the farm. This means hunting down the cattle rustler Slim Alameda (Randy Quaid) who uses his mesmerizing yodeling skills to lure cattle away from their ranches.
There are some good gags here and there, but it’s a bit one-note and feels padded to make very little story into a feature film. My guess is that very young children may enjoy this movie, but it’s not one of those movies with the Disney magic that makes it entertaining for all ages.
Title: The Searchers
Release Date: May 16, 1956
Director: John Ford
Production Company: C.V. Whitney Pictures
Cinematically, The Searchers is a beautiful film, shot in the scenic Monument Valley and featuring shots of the landscape and lead characters framed by a doorway as the opening and closing scenes. Conversely, the subject matter of The Searchers is one of the ugliest things I’ve seen in a movie.
In 1868, Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) returns to his family home in Texas (despite being filmed in Monument Valley which is in Arizona & Utah) three years after the Civil War ended, but still wearing his traitor’s uniform. Ethan is dismissive of the family’s adopted child, Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter), because he is 1/8 Comanche. Soon afterwards, a Comanche tribe attacks the family homestead, killing the adults and abducting Ethan’s niece and Martin’s adopted sister Debbie (Lana Wood as a child, and Natalie Wood later in the movie).
The better part of the movie is Ethan and Martin spending five years searching for Debbie. Ethan continues to mistreat Martin, and I could make a litany of the racist depictions in this movie, the worst among them being when Martin “accidentally” buys a Comanche wife, which is played for laughs. The villain of the movie is Comanche chief Scar (Henry Brandon), who likes like a German man with shoe polish on his face, because the actor who plays him was in fact born in Germany. Worst of all, Ethan’s goal in this obsessive, years-long quest is not to rescue Debbie, but to kill her because he believes she’s better off being dead after being raped by the Comanche.
This is a very ugly movie and I found it very difficult to watch. Critics like Roger Ebert grant a generous interpretation that John Ford and John Wayne were deliberately portraying Ethan as an evil and racist man. There is a lot of plausibility in those intentions. But audiences then and even some now see Wayne as a hero and ideal representation of what Makes America Great. I think The Searchers is far too easy to be taken at face value, and in that it stands as a representation of the ugliest parts of the American character.
Title: The Treasure of Sierra Madre
Release Date: January 6, 1948
Director: John Huston
Production Company: Warner Bros. – First National
This movie is technically a Western but it also functions as a psychological drama and a study of masculinity. Fred C. Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart) and Bob Curtin (Tim Holt) are a pair of American drifters, working odd jobs and panhandling on the streets of Tampico, Mexico. They meet an old man, Howard (Walter Huston), who tells them of the possibilities (and dangers) of prospecting for gold in the Sierra Madre mountains.
The trio put together an expedition and face the physical trials of hiking into the remote mountains and extracting the gold, as well as outside threats from bandits and another American, Cody (Bruce Bennett), who tries to elbow his way into joining their team. But the greatest threat is greed, which most strongly affects Dobbs who goes mad with the paranoia that the others are after his gold. Dobbs is clearly a deeply-flawed character from the start despite being the main protagonist, and Bogart accurately stated “I play the worst shit you ever saw!”
The three leads are all excellent in their roles. Bogart carries off the performance of a man constantly teetering on the brink of madness well. Huston does a great job as the goofy, old prospector but also makes it clear that Howard is also acting, quietly manipulating the behavior of his companions. Holt plays more of the straight man and his acting may be overlooked, but he provides an important balance to Bogart and Huston. He plays a character clearly with a moral compass, and yet he’s still willing to go along with the plan to assassinate Cody. I’d be interested in seeing Holt’s other movies (apparently he starred almost exclusively in Westerns).
The movie feels very modern to me. I’m surprised (and pleased) that it hasn’t been remade recently by someone like the Cohen Brothers, but it definitely would not feel dated. The only part of the movie that doesn’t really work is a subplot where Howard helps a community of indios save the life of a child and then is seen reclining in a hammock being fanned by young women. It smacks of colonialist fantasy.
Otherwise though, the movie is gripping as it both lays out an adventure and deconstructs masculinity. The movie is full of iconic moments that feel familiar from their parodies in movies like Blazing Saddles and City Slickers. I actually cheered when it got to this part with Alfonso Bedoya as Gold Hat after hearing this line (mis)quoted all these years: