Beyond the Westerns

Hollywood diaries

“I think that the genre of Western in film is defined by having horses and men in big hats,” Tommy Lee Jones said.

 He was talking about his new film, The Homesman, which has horses and a big hat or two, but that’s the closest Jones would come to any categorisation of the movie, which had its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival to generally approving reviews.

The Homesman, based on a 1988 novel by Glendon Swarthout, is the fourth film that Jones, 68, has directed (he also starred in the movie and collaborated in the screenplay) and the first since he won awards at Cannes and plaudits for his The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005). It, too, had horses and men in big hats, but the Texas-born Jones insisted that he had no particular interest in Westerns as a genre. “What I do have an interest in is making movies about the history of my country, where I live,” he said. “Anyone who wants to be an artiste makes work about where he lives.”

Jones said that the genesis of his directing efforts has always been a story that seizes his imagination. The Homesman, which begins in a frontier settlement in Nebraska, around 1835, tells the tale of the courageously independent, unmarried Mary Bee Cuddy (played by Hilary Swank), who undertakes to transport three local women, driven to madness by the hardships of frontier life, back to the care of a church in Iowa. Before leaving, she encounters the hapless and itinerant George Briggs (Jones), strung up in a tree for the crime of claim jumping.

 In return for saving him, she requires that he accompany her on the journey, and their relationship, as they progress across the savagely austere country (filmed with stark beauty by Rodrigo Prieto) confronting Native Americans, harsh weather and even harsher inner truths, is at the core of the film.

“They are not going west to conquer, they are going east to survive,” Jones said. “The Homesman isn’t a Western movie, but a movie that is about the history of women in my family.” He added, “I don’t think there is a woman around who hasn’t been objectified or trivialised because of her gender.”

The influences on the film, he said, included Japanese Kabuki theatre, artists, poets and sculptors. “I had Merideth Boswell, my talented production designer, make a careful study of Josef Albers, Donald Judd and photographs of the period,” he said. “Geometry was important to us in this movie, and the minimalist artists were more appropriate to our visual adventure than any others.” And yes, movies, even some “so-called Western movies,” were important, too.

Jones spoke about five films that have personal significance for him: 

The Ropin’ Fool, directed by Clarence G Badger, and starring Will Rogers (1922)“If you are talking about horses and big hats and authenticity, I would put The Ropin’ Fool high up there. It’s almost not a movie, there is little narrative, but you get a look at what Will Rogers can actually do with a rope. “He was a vaudeville actor and a cowboy and an absolute genius with a rope.

 It’s specially beautiful to me, because ropes have been part of my family’s livelihood for many generations. When I was born, my grandparents got brave enough to take my mother into town, to a little clinic. It cost $40, so my Uncle Charlie took his horse to town and entered a roping contest. He won it, and used the money to pay for my birth.”

Angel and the Badman, directed by James Edward Grant, and starring John Wayne (1947)“I think this is a wonderful movie. It’s a study in moral contrast between the wild child of the West and a Quaker girl. And there is a real issue at stake, which is water. The movie is beautiful to look at, and it’s the beginning of John Wayne’s real acting career. This is the movie in which he shows us the beginnings of what he actually became: a master movie actor.”

The Last Picture Show, directed by Peter Bogdanovich (1971)

“Any movie that gives us the good fortune to observe Ben Johnson on horseback is good to some extent. He was a rodeo world champion and an actor, and he can fill a movie screen just as a figure on the horizon. He shows us, and you see it in The Homesman, how these people related to their animals. It wasn’t anthropomorphic or sentimental. They were partners in the struggle for survival.”

Dreams, directed by Akira Kurosawa (1990)

“There are other good Japanese directors, but Kurosawa’s work is important to me in terms of its composition and movement. Dreams is beautiful, dreamlike and magical, but it’s as real as the back of your hand. We’ve tried for that in The Homesman. George Briggs, when we meet him, staggering around in his underwear after his house has been blasted, his face black from the charcoal, does a little dance you might see on a Kabuki stage in Tokyo. Yet it’s a Western. It’s 1835.”

Unforgiven, directed by Clint Eastwood (1992)

“I admire everything Clint Eastwood does. I like the way he runs a set. I could sit at his feet and watch him work all day. Which I have done. If you’re asking me about Westerns I like, I’d have to include Unforgiven. The movie is entertaining, but there are issues under consideration: law and order, the treatment of women, personal identity. Also, the colour is beautiful, and it’s funny. It’s an all-around wonderful movie. If I had a list of heroes, Clint would be on that list.” 

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