Over the weekend I took the opportunity to watch Red River, a classic Howard Hawks western starring John Wayne and Montgomery Clift. I had never seen it before, but it’s been on my list for a while, and it’s on many lists of top westerns. For example, AFI has it listed as the #5 western of all time. Over the past few years I’ve come to appreciate the western as a genre in a way that I never have before. This is probably a subject for another blog post, but I really believe that the western is currently the most under-appreciated genre in modern cinema.Like any genre, there are great westerns and there are westerns that aren’t so great. But what I’ve been discovering over the past several years is that many westerns have strong stories, complex characters with deep relationships, and strong themes that have resonated timelessly within our popular culture.
Red River is one such film that is an example of a good, actually great, western. It has a strong story and strong themes, and it has complex and deep characters, and the complex relationship between the two main characters is the driving force behind the story. Thomas Dunson (Wayne) sets up a cattle ranch with his friend Nadine Groot (Walter Brennan), and they’ve rescued a young boy named Matt Garth (Clift) who was on the wagon train with them when it was attacked by Indians. The ranch is successful enough, but the Civil War decimates the Texas economy and Dunson finds himself broke, but with 10,000 head of cattle. He figures he needs to drive them to Missouri so that they can be sold, so he recruits Matt, Groot and 10 others, promising them $100 each when the cattle are delivered. The trip is fraught with danger, with bandits, Indians and bad weather all along the way. They hear a rumor from a passing cowboy who lost his herd that Abeline, Kansas has a safer trail, but he can’t confirm that they have a railroad, so Dunson obsessively vows to press on. Dunson becomes so obsessive over the trip, that he ultimately loses his humanity and threatens to hang two men who stole some provisions and tried to head home. That’s too much for Matt, who wounds Dunson and leaves him with a horse, telling him to go home and that he’s going to take the herd to Abeline. Dunson then famously delivers the following line. “You should have let ’em kill me cause I’m gonna kill you. I’ll catch up with you. I don’t know when, but I’ll catch up. Every time you turn around, expect to see me. Cause one time you’ll turn around and I’ll be there. I’ll kill you, Matt.”
Here is a clip of the scene.
The rest of the film is spent with Matt trying to get the herd to Abeline and constantly looking over his shoulder while Dunson hires some men to help track him. Dunson started out as the hero of the story, and slowly slipped over to the other side. It wasn’t abrupt, and the audience can see it coming, which adds to the drama of the story. Hawks along with screenwriters Borden Chase and Charles Schnee show us a character right from the beginning who is straddling the line between heroism and villainy. He is a ruthless killer who gives his victims a proper Christian burial. He rides his men mercilessly, but when one of them is killed in a stampede he tells Matt that the man’s widow will receive his full share of payment at the end of the drive. He takes Matt into his home and raises him as his own son, but is ready to kill him over a perceived betrayal. We are presented with a deep character who is not dissimilar to any other hero. Many heroes are given these types of contradictions and have to face similar choices about doing right and wrong. Dunson just makes the wrong choices, and his obsession with getting the cattle to market over takes his senses and causes him to lose his humanity.
All the while we’re also getting to know Matt, and we come to like him as he attempts in vain to get Dunson to come to his senses. At the halfway point of the film, Matt becomes the hero of the story and Dunson has become the villain. This is a classic example of the archetypal Shapeshifter, with the Mentor/Hero becoming the Shadow and the Ally becoming the Hero/Enemy. What’s impressive about it is that it happens in a way that is organic and gradual. The audience watches it happen, and is rooting for Dunson to do the right things, and it creates dramatic scenarios when he doesn’t. Then while Matt is driving the herd to Abeline and constantly looking over his shoulder for the shadow of Dunson, it creates tension and suspense that even if Matt does accomplish his goal, he won’t be able to live to enjoy his success, so complete is Dunson’s descent.
Watching this film recently got me to thinking about other films with characters that have heroes who turn into villains and three of them came to mind immediately, with two of the films being very good, and the other one not so much.
The first film that came to mind was The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Humphrey Bogart plays Fred Dobbs, an American who is down on his luck and stuck in Tampico, Mexico. After nearly getting cheated out of wages for a job-for-hire he and his friend Curtin (Tim Holt) hear that there’s gold in the Sierra Madre Mountains from an old timer named Howard (Walter Huston). Together, the three of them get the equipment they need and head up into the mountains. They do end up finding gold. In fact, they find a lot of gold, and it should be enough to make all of them very happy. Unfortunately, Dobbs starts to lose trust in his allies for no other reason than his own paranoia is taking over.
But what Director/Writer John Huston did that was so brilliant and accounts for the terrific storytelling in this film is that he made Dobbs completely likable and sympathetic in the first act. He’s a man who’s down on his luck and has resorted to begging from other Americans in Mexico. However, he leaps at the chance to earn an honest wage. Then when the contractor tries to get away without paying him, Curtin and Dobbs find him in a bar and beat him up, but only take the money that he owes them, when they could have taken a lot more. We’re shown in this scene that Dobbs is an honorable person who is willing to fight for what he believes is his. With this knowledge, we’re sent on the adventure of the men trying to find the gold, and once they start amassing their fortune, Dobbs slips slowly and surely into oblivion. By the third act, Dobbs’ paranoia has completely taken over. Gone is the honorable man who will fight to aid his friends only to be replaced by someone who sees treachery wherever he looks. He now believes he has to steal from his friends before they steal from him. Here is a scene that demonstrates that perfectly.
From here Dobbs’ paranoia turns into full-blown insanity, and he ceases being the story’s hero, and becomes its villain. Just like in Red River, the ally (Curtin) has now become the archetypal hero of the story and the character with whom the audience will identify for the rest of the story.
The other film that I thought of that does this switch very effectively is The Godfather. We are introduced Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) with his army dress uniform on with the pretty Kay Adams (Diane Keaton) by his side. He is the son of the Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando), the most powerful mafia figure in New York, if not the whole country. But he has not entered that life, and goes out of his way to tell Kay that he’s not involved. Then after an attempt on his father’s life, Michael heroically moves Vito to another hospital room as men are approaching to finish the job, and then even more heroically stands up to the crooked cop (Sterling Hayden) who was going to allow that to happen. He then risks his own life and sacrifices his future to kill the cop, as well as Sollozzo, the crime boss who ordered the hit on Vito. While in exile in Sicily, Michael meets and marries Apalonia, the daughter of a local cafe owner, and we feel sorry for Michael when she’s killed by a car bomb that was meant for him. But when Michael is called home after the brutal murder of his brother Sonny (James Caan), and he’s put in charge of the family business, we see Michael’s sinister nature come to the forefront. He settles the family business in the most brutal way possible.
That is only the beginning of the sinister nature in Michael that will carry the film’s sequel and culminate in Michael ordering the death of his own brother Fredo.
What all three of the above films have in common is that they all had characters that were likable, honorable and sympathetic, and all of the films took their time to effectively take these heroic characters and devolve them in various ways into villains who were willing to kill the people closest to them and the people who helped them attain what they’d been trying to do. The audience can feel the characters slipping away, and constantly root for them not to, and that is where the drama comes from. The fact that these films are so dramatic is what makes them so successful and gives them the ability to withstand the test of time.
The other film that I thought of that wasn’t as successful in this endeavor was Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. Plenty of people have spent the last 17 years bagging on the Star Wars prequels, and for good reason. To say that they were disappointing would be an understatement, and to me there is one reason that they didn’t live up to expectations and that is because they lacked drama. The reason they lacked drama is because Anakin Skywalker was not sympathetic or likable as a character, so as an audience we didn’t care as he succumbed to the Dark Side of the Force. As a matter of fact, we really didn’t care about any of the characters very much, but it was crucial for us to at least care about Anakin in these films, and Director/Writer George Lucas failed to make that happen.
There are many reasons that we couldn’t connect emotionally with Anakin. I will never understand why George Lucas introduced us to Anakin as a boy in the first film, and then by the second film he was a grown man, but no one else around him had aged at all. When Hayden Christensen was introduced to us as Anakin in the second film, his brooding performance made a bad situation worse. I’m sure he was trying to capture the same magic that he had with Luke 24 years earlier, but he totally missed the mark. When we first met Luke, the best way to describe him was as kind of a brat. But what he had was wonder. In one scene, with him looking off to the dual sunset we saw a person who longed for adventure and for a better life. It was classic Hollywood cinema, and we were happy to go on that ride with him. We never got that moment with Anakin, and I think introducing him to us as a child played a part in that.
Personally, I’ve always thought that Anakin needed to be more like Han Solo. He needed to be a character that was witty and cocky. He needed to be a rogue and a scoundrel. He needed to have some type of personality, because the character that we were given had none. Then when you add in the factor that he had absolutely no chemistry with Padme (Natalie Portman) as Lucas tried to wedge a round-hole love story into the square peg of the rest of the film, you have a recipe for disaster. Even then, however, it could have been saved. The most important relationship for Anakin, and the character who was the most betrayed by him, was Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor in the prequels), and we needed to see a bond forged between these two characters that should have appeared to be unbreakable. Near the end of Revenge of the Sith, Obi-Wan, devastated by Anakin turning to the Dark Side, yells to him, “You were my brother, Anakin!” Really? They’ve hardly spent any time together over the course of the three films, and we’ve seen no real development of their relationship whatsoever. That moment should have been soul-crushing and heartbreaking. Despite McGregor bringing out everything he could in his performance it was neither, because the audience just hasn’t been given the opportunity to care about any of the characters or any of their relationships.
Naturally, one of the key components to any screenplay is having a main character with whom the audience wants to follow on his or her journey. If you haven’t developed a hero who is likable or with whom they can at least sympathize, then no one is going to care what happens them, so no one will care about your story. It is especially crucial if you’re attempting to craft a script in which your hero turns in to a villain over the course of the story.
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