Once Upon a Time in the West: Bury the Legend



Directed by Sergio Leone

Paramount, PG-13 (nudity, language, violence)





Did you ever notice that foreigners get American history better than the products of American schools? That's especially the case with Westerns, which American directors treat as star-studded documentaries rather than the legends they really are. Robert Altman was a rare exception, but think of how Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain or Jane Campion's magisterial The Power of the Dog surpass the cowboy junk that littered TV and theaters in the past seven decades. (Lee is Taiwanese; Campion a New Zealander.)


“Spaghetti Westerns” were among the first to shoot the sheen off of Westerns and few did it better than Italy’s Sergio Leone. One of the best was his Once Upon a Time in the West, a certifiable gem. It's something of a spaghetti splatter film as well, but it remains a powerful film whose subtext that the West was more about profiteering than glory is close to the truth.


It starts with a literal bang. Three thugs are sent to an in-the-middle-of-nowhere railway station to make sure that Harmonica (Charles Bronson), its departing passenger doesn't live to ride away. Bringing him down would take more than three! Harmonica will soon learn that the dusters they wear were designed to make others think Cheyenne (Jason Robards) is behind the attempt, though the true culprit is Frank (Henry Fonda), who is preoccupied with slaughtering Brett McBain (Frank Wolff) and his three children.


Meanwhile, enter Jill McBain (Claudia Cardinale), who Brett married a month earlier in New Orleans. Frank didn't find what he was looking for on McBain's land–gold presumably–and is determined to do so. Cheyenne is sniffing around as well, but he has no beef with Frank or Harmonica, so named because he uses one to unnerve those who try to kill him before he sends them to their unjust rewards. We learn that Frank is a gun for hire for crippled businessman/banker Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti). Not that he needs encouragement; Frank is thoroughly amoral.


The plot has nothing to do with gold nuggets or hearts of gold. It builds toward a showdown between Frank and Harmonica with lots and lots of collateral damage interspersed. There's also the matter of trying to figure out which side characters are on, Leone's sly way of deflating American individualism. It's one of many ways in which Leone took standard Western movie devices, turned them on their heads, and left viewers to ponder where the mythical West had gone. (Answer: It was never there in the first place.)


A film like this required topnotch acting from those who could simultaneously play to and against type. Claudia Cardinale made irresistible bait for such a fishing expedition. Is Jill a wronged woman or the high-class whore Frank calls her? Maybe both? Is she ready to settle into domestic bliss with Cheyenne? (Is he ready?) Or is she, in her own way, just as ruthless as Morton or Frank? She's certainly eye candy, which helps keep her alive.


It would be hard, though, even for Jill to be as conniving as Frank. Henry Fonda made a lot of Westerns, but he never before made one in which his blood ran as icy as his blue eyes. Frank has no redeeming qualities and he makes sure everyone he encounters knows that—if he lets them live. Is Frank on anybody’s side? He is, after all, the one who pulls the trigger on a nine-year-old boy.




The biggest surprise is the granite-faced Charles Bronson. He made his reputation as a B-movie hack, but he is note perfect in Once Upon a Time in the West. To call him a man of few words is an understatement. His eerie glassy harmonica notes are alone enough to induce fear, though the purest terror comes when he crinkles his eyes and his face morphs into a slow-motion Mona Lisa smile. That's the moment to make sure your affairs are in order. It was such a stunning performance that it might have garnered an Oscar nomination had it been in a more conventional film. 


If you've never seen this film, do so. Make sure to avoid the PG version which was sanitized to reduce the violence and cover Cardinale's body. Nothing should be kept from view in a film that will never allow you to see a John Ford or Howard Hawks Western the same way again. It took an Italian to do that.


Rob Weir



The Spy and the Traitor: The Precariousness of Democracy




By Ben Macintyre

Broadways Books, 312 pages+




Ben Macintyre’s The Spy and the Traitor made a splash when it first came out. It has been updated and is a must-read. It is a thrilling book, but not idle amusement. In telling the story of KGB double agent/defector Col. Oleg Gordievsky, Macintyre paints a portrait of dangerous brinksmanship during the Cold War.


Would that it were the case that there has been little threat of nuclear war since the Cuban Missile Crisis. What has happened since 1962 is that threats receded from direct public scrutiny. Gordievsky is a big reason we’ve made it this far. He underwent an ideological crisis when the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968. As a British MI6 asset from 1974-85, he revealed the structure of the KGB and passed on invaluable documents that allowed the West to stay a step ahead of Russia. MI6 took care never to reveal his identity to the CIA, which was a good thing as his analyses deflected American fools such as Brzezinski, Kissinger, and Kirkpatrick from convincing their masters that a nuclear war was “winnable.” I seldom credit Ronald Reagan with keen geopolitical insight, but kudos to him for keeping a truly dangerous man on a long leash: William Casey. It drove Casey crazy that MI6’s contact was a secret. Guess who he relied upon to unearth Gordievsky’s identity? None other than Aldrich Ames, the “traitor” of the book’s title. (Ames is now serving a life sentence in a maximum-security prison.) Gordievsky only survived because Ames hadn’t yet delivered incontrovertible proof that he was a mole. Beat-the-clock scenarios are common is spy novels, but Gordievsky had just hours to disappear. To put his danger in perspective, when Oleg Penkovsky was exposed–he the real-life subject of the film The Courier–the Soviets cremated him alive.  


Gordievsky was exceedingly lucky to make it out. In a sprint of great courage aided by KGB incompetence, low-level screwups, and a series of fortuitous flukes, Gordievsky’s British handlers accomplished what was thought to be impossible: a land exfiltration across the Finnish border and on to Norway. (If he had been discovered in Finland, he would have been turned over to Russia under a treaty foisted upon the Finns.) This section of Macintyre’s book is a heart-thumping read that’s better than any James Bond adventure because it actually happened and there wasn’t a bloody thing glamorous about it.


Oleg Gordievsky is a brave man who deserves to be hailed as a savior of millions of lives. It’s not liberal propaganda to view the CIA and certain corners of MI6 as just as thuggish and reckless as the KGB. We see a portrait of a boys-with-deadly-toys games played with acronyms (SUNBEAM, PIMLICO, NOCTON, OVATION, TICKLE), egoism, fanaticism, and disregard of potential fallout. It certainly cost Gordievsky a lot: two marriages, access to his family, alienation from his daughters, an in-absentia death sentence, the animus of Britain’s Labour Party, and a near assassination. (In 2007, he was poisoned, survived, and now lives in an undisclosed location in the UK under an assumed identity. He remains in great danger; he is on the radar screen of a former low-level KGB agent: Vladimir Putin.


It is comfortable to sermonize that socialism is inherently bankrupt. It’s more accurate to say that within Russia, it was betrayed by Stalin and the grey apparatchiks that succeeded him. That list includes Mikhail Gorbachev, who was never as respected in Russia as in the West. The flaw wasn’t within socialism; it lay in the grim life the betrayed masses were forced to live so a handful of kleptocrats could live in comfort. Gordievsky was posted in Denmark in 1966 and realized that the only way the Communist hierarchy could maintain the fiction of a worker’s paradise was to seal its borders. Yet, to play spy-versus-spy required sending agents to the West. In the end, many KGB agents defected for a better life, whereas most Westerners did so for money. That was not Gordievsky’s motive.


Tradecraft is not white hats against black ones. You would be wise to keep an eye on your own leaders as well. Civilian government has been the West’s best weapon of freedom. Imagine what could have happened if Reagan had caved to Casey or if Obama has listened to Hillary Clinton’s war drumbeat. Imagine it, because if you learned nothing else from January 6, 2021, you know what happens when democracy is compromised.


Rob Weir



Muslim or American?



Muslim or American?

This was once thought too controversial


The answer to the question above should be obvious: Both. Except, it’s not.


Explain why Erika López was fired by Hamline University for showing an iconic 14th century painting that depicted Mohmmad. She was an adjunct art professor who took extraordinary steps not to be controversial. Her syllabus stated that some of the semester’s images might alarm students. She gave “trigger warnings” each time she planned to show something that might be troubling, and held office hours to explain her rationale, but no one was forbidden to opt out. In the case of the Mohammad image, López took the further step of inviting students who didn’t want to see it to leave and gave them time to do so.


After all that, a student complained. Images of Mohammad are forbidden in some sects of Islam. This is odd; unlike Jesus for Christians, Mohammad is not endowed with divinity. I support the right of religious people to determine what is sacred and what is profane–within their own faith. That last phrase is crucial. In a democratic society, no religious group can dictate what others create, display, or depict. They have the right to be upset, but freedom of speech extends to images. Recent Supreme Court weakening of religion versus state barriers notwithstanding, at present the United States of America remains a secular society.


Now let’s get to even weirder matters. Hamline University is affiliated with the United Methodist Church. Surely Muslim students would know this, just as someone enrolling at West Point knows it’s affiliated with the U.S. military. Colleges want students to be safe, but for the love of whatever deity you follow, where is it written that education should make students feel “comfortable?” There’s no point to colleges that don’t challenge students to assess the preconceptions they bring with them to class. An echo is not an education and professors should not be parrots.


Let’s go deeper. López wasn’t seeking controversy, but would she would have been fired had she shown Andres Serrano’s 1987 photo “Piss Christ?” For any art lesson dealing with controversy that image and Renée Cox’s “Yo Mama’s Last Supper” would be near the top of the list. Go to Google Images and you’ll find both images and others that offend Christians. None are banned. Try searching for the painting that got López fired; if you find it at all, Mohammad’s face is blurred out. Double standard?


It's not hard to find campus protests against Israel. Many Jews find these offensive and they often are. You can be booted from school for directing Anti-Semitic comments at individuals, but as long as you universalize, the First Amendment applies. It’s also okay for radio shock jocks to rant about Jewish laser beams and Jewish bankers bent on world domination. If you’re not as dumb as a Ding Dong, you find such things ridiculous, but you probably don’t recommend trashing free speech.  


More weird stuff. Why does the quest to “prove” you are not Islamophobic involve acceptance of things Muslim? Like Israeli settlements in Palestine and extremist Christian ministers, Islam has things for which it should answer. Misogynous practices are high on the list and Islamicist extremism is another. How about the appalling assassination of Charlie Hebdo staff in Paris? Or bombings around the globe like one that killed 121 people in Somalia? Should I add 9/11? You’re a humanist, not a bigot, if the Taliban, ISIS, or El-Shabab offends you.  


Hamline’s president, Fayneese Miller takes the Weirdness cake. She remarked, “…respect for … observant Muslim students should have superseded academic freedom.” Wow! Isn’t this akin to what Sen. Joseph McCarthy said when explaining why academic freedom shouldn’t protect those accused of being sympathetic to communism? Miller added that academic freedom, “should not come at the expense of care and decency toward others.” Huh!??? López bent over backward to do that. By the way, Miller is African American. I wonder if she’d support firing a history professor whose rightwing students objected to pictures of civil rights demonstrations, or a government professor who defended taking down Confederate statues?


I had never heard of Hamelin (St. Paul, Minnesota) until the López kerfuffle, but it strikes me as a good candidate to be the next small college to folds its tents. BY the way, it has 178 fulltime faculty, but 215 adjuncts. Future adjuncts would have to be pretty hard up to teach there after what happened to López. Hamelin should immediately lose its accreditation.


If you agree with what Hamelin did, I don’t care what your religion might be; you are an enemy of freedom, the First Amendment, and democracy. For the record, Hamelin’s Latin motto translates as: “Divinity, Writing, Liberty.” It made mockery of the latter. 


 Both of these are among the many works that "offended" people.


The Night of the Hunter Will Freeze Your Blood



Directed by Charles Laughton

United Artists, 92 minutes, black and white, Not rated.




Charles Laughton only directed one film, but his The Night of the Hunter shows up on a lot of lists as the second-best movie in English of all time (after Citizen Kane). It's bit too soaked in mid-20th century Protestant sin to hold up as number two, but it's one heck of a film. The Night of the Hunter is like a mash of Marjoe, Huckleberry Finn, and Cape Fear and had enormous impact on Robert Altman, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and Martin Scorsese. Sly homages show up in films from everyone from the Coen Brothers to Spike Lee.


It opens big, with Ben Harper (Peter Graves in a cameo) with seconds to spare before he's arrested for murder and robbery. He has just enough time to hide $10,000 in his daughter Pearl's doll and swear her (Sally Jane Brace) and her older brother John (Billy Chapin) to secrecy of its whereabouts, as they will need the money once he's dead. They can't even tell their mother, Willa (Shelley Winters). That's just the opening tease. Ben will be hanged but before that happens, he shares a cell with the Rev. Harry Powers (Robert Mitchum) who's in the clink for stealing a car.


The story of Powers is based on a real-life counterpart from 1932 and a 1953 Davis Grubb short story. It was adapted for the screen by a more famous writer, James Agee. Powers is a misogynist and serial killer who slathers on religion like a plasterer with a trowel full of Bible verses. He picks up enough from Ben talking in his sleep to head straight for Clarksburg, West Virginia, when he's released. His objective is to marry Willa and find out where the money was stashed. His party trick is to use his self-inflicted knuckle tattoos to discourse on holiness and sin; one hand says LOVE, the other HATE. He believes in this, just not with the moral he spouts. Since this is a 1955 film, there is an inference that Powers is a closeted gay man, though the historical record doesn't indicate he was. In the film, Powers twice registers disgust for lustful women.


The Night of the Hunter is variously categorized as a thriller, a horror film, or a film noir. It's actually a hillbilly Southern Gothic movie, but it certainly shares noir's love of darkness. Mitchum is one of the creepiest film sociopaths I've ever seen, one who does scarier things with psychological terror than any splatter film could hope to duplicate. He is so evil that he could be Satan's body double. You might find one of the film’s themes of a child's innate intuition a bit hard to take, but it's necessary for the plot. The latter third depicts Ben and Pearl's flight down the Ohio River with Powers in slow but relentless pursuit. It's a half hour of tension that has you watching through splayed fingers.


 The Ohio River sequences are ironic given that Lillian Gish is one of redemptive figures in the film. She plays the Good Samaritan orphan-gatherer Rachel Cooper. Those who follow film history scuttlebutt might have heard that Gish's famed ice floe scene in Way Down East (1920) was widely thought to be the Ohio River. It was actually filmed near White River Junction, Vermont, but never mind. Gish, who was 62 in 1955, is a combination Mother Hen and a rifle-toting spitfire.


Several small roles stand out. Don Beddoe and Evelyn Varden appear as Walt and Icey Spoon, who make the transition from henpecked husband and busybody matchmaker to would-be lynch mob leaders. They would have been the Falstaffian comic relief, were that role not occupied by James Gleason as Uncle “Birdie” Steptoe, a widower with dreams of getting his scow back on the river. If only it weren't as river worthy as a chunk of lead and he were as good at boat repair as he was at drinking. Normally such roles would be out of place in a spine-chilling film like The Night of the Hunter, but the movie needs a few stress reducers.


Parts of The Night of the Hunter are as dated as a Martin and Lewis coloring book, but it remains a powerful portrait of sheer wickedness. It has been called “expressionistic” film making and certainly bears resemblance to the shadows, moodiness, and distressing themes of German expressionist films from the Weimar Republic. Walter Schumann's score is also eerily expressionistic. The film's religion, good and bad, is too heavily applied to make it a perfect Weimar analogy, but when it works, The Night of the Hunter sticks like a switchblade.


Rob Weir