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In his TV documentary How The West Was Lost, comedian Rich Hall charting the decline
in movie westerns, claims that 1976 saw the release of only two, The Missouri Breaks,
and Clint Eastwood's The Outlaw Josey Wales. As this was clearly not the case, 1976
gave us Buffalo Bill And
The Indians, and The Shootist among others, one can only assume that the films
Hall specified met some kind of traditionalist criteria of his own devising. The screen western
was no stranger to revisionist treatment; arguably John Ford's The Searchers challenged
traditional interpretations of the 'old west' as early as 1956. Josey Wales for all its
post-Civil War setting and themes of revenge argued, in a very modern way, for reconciliation
between enemies and the healing power of love. The Missouri Breaks is a traditional western,
with ranchers and rustlers and bounty hunters, and as such is satisfying but undistinguished,
what lifts it above the commonplace is the stellar cast, and particularly Marlon Brando who
seems determined to act like the coyote trickster of Native American mythology.
The film opens in a striking way, rancher David Braxton (John McLiam, M*A*S*H), his foreman Pete and another rider Sandy, meander on horseback to an area of woodland where some of the townsfolk are waiting for them. The scene seems set for some kind of meeting, an open-air church service perhaps, or a celebration of some kind. Swiftly, shockingly, the occasion is revealed to be a hanging, with captured rustler Sandy the victim. Having shouted imprecations at her father, Braxton's daughter, Jane (Kathleen Lloyd), rides away.
Rustler Tom Logan (Jack Nicholson, Batman, The Departed) and his gang mourn their friend, and plot how to hit back at Braxton. Their problem with stealing horses is moving them long distance, across open country, to re-sell them. They propose to find a relay site, to corral the horses before disposal, and Logan suggests they take up a vacant spread on Braxton's land.
Braxton discovers that his loyal foreman has been hanged, in reprisal for his action against the rustlers. During a mock trial, summoned to deal with a local who has claimed responsibility, Logan introduces himself to the Braxtons, verbally sparring with Jane in the process. Logan and his gang take possession of the vacant smallholding, and the rest of the gang set out for Canada to steal the horses from a garrison of mounties, leaving Logan behind to farm. Braxton hires eccentric bounty hunter Robert E. Lee Clayton (Marlon Brando, The Godfather, Apocalypse Now) to hunt down the rustlers responsible for the killing of his foreman.
It is the introduction of Lee Clayton that both stimulates the narrative and confounds it. It is hard to decide if Brando's extraordinarily mannered turn ruins what strives to be a 'realistic' frontier story or reconfigures it into some form of parable. Edward Dmytryk's Broken Lance (1954) is a re-working of King Lear, so a precedent exists for re-casting weighty moral drama as a cowboy picture, and certainly by the end of The Missouri Breaks one is left looking for some form of subtext, if only because the story seems to evaporate like a water-hole in a dry-spell. Whether director Arthur Penn (Bonnie & Clyde, Little Big Man) could have reined in Brando's maverick performance is debateable, allegedly much of it was improvised.
The film follows a haphazard moral compass. Pursued by the mounties back across the US border, the rustlers complain "That ain't even legal!" It is never confirmed that Logan and his gang are responsible for the killing of Braxton's foreman, and certainly they act throughout as if they are the aggrieved party, despite their felonious activities. Clayton is portrayed as some kind of monster, spying on Logan and Jane's burgeoning romance, driving away Braxton's ranch-hands by his very presence, and outraging his employer to the extent that after Logan accosts Clayton in his bathtub Braxton eagerly demands, "Did you kill him?" Sporting a variety of aberrations from the wardrobe department, and affecting a range of accents, Brando seems to wish to suggest his character has stepped into the picture from another plane of being. He is a less demoniac version of Eastwood's stranger, from High Plains Drifter (1973), but his arrival is no less unsettling.
The film rates highly precisely because of the performances. Nicholson and Brando are each in their own way giants, the former practising restraint perhaps precisely because of the latter's excesses. Kathleen Lloyd beautifully captures the brittle hardness that masks vulnerability, and her leading off the course of the romance she craves with Nicholson's Tom Logan is touchingly conveyed. Harry Dean Stanton (Alien), Randy Quaid (Brokeback Mountain) and Frederic Forrest (Cat Chaser) are fleshed-out and believable as Logan's gang and each have their own stories. This is not one of the great westerns but it is a reasonable addition to the genre, and it will always be of interest in its pairing of the two greatest film actors of their generations.