By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
Slugfests, chases, standoffs and shootouts in Walter Hill’s films are the equivalent of dialogue scenes in other directors’ work. From his street-fighting debut, Hard Times with Charles Bronson, through the megahit 48 Hrs. and his myth-cracking Western Wild Bill, the action sequences in a Hill movie tell us all about his testosterone-case protagonists, how they negotiate their environment.
But Hill’s fall from favor as a studio director — one too many box-office misses, no matter the flashes of brilliance in his ’90s films Geronimo, Trespassand Wild Bill — is one of genre moviemaking’s big losses. Television, meanwhile, has gained, and last week the American Cinematheque celebrated this rugged stylist, who won an Emmy last year for directing the pilot episode of Deadwood, with a theatrical showing of his new two-part, four-hour Western, Broken Trail, an original first for the classic-movie network AMC. (It premieres on television Sunday and Monday.) Broken Trail is a handsomely mounted moral yarn about a patriarchal cowboy, Print (Robert Duvall), and his taciturn nephew, Tom (Thomas Haden Church), who, while driving a herd of 500 horses through the Pacific Northwest, cross paths with a quintet of enslaved Chinese girls being trafficked to a mining town. Like the heroes of many Hill films, Print and Tom are uncomplicated men forced to deal with a complicated world, and the 64-year-old filmmaker imbues their perilous and transcendent journey with a poetic grasp of beings traversing land that’s as reassuringly steady as a well-tended campfire. There are killings too, and while this isn’t what Hill terms one of his usual “blood and thunder” sagas, there’s no small amount of emotional brutality considering the Chinese girls’ predicament. But then Hill — a student of two-fisted Hollywood whose instinct for character-driven mayhem is lacking in today’s impersonal multiplex thrill rides — doesn’t separate inner turmoil from physical violence. As this bearish-looking, graceful conversationalist reminded me during a recent interview at the Polo Lounge, “Wuthering Heightsis one of the most violent stories anybody has ever cooked up.”
L.A. WEEKLY:You’re working in commercial television for the first time. How did that go?
TV tends to favor close-ups, but I was grateful for the panoramic beauty ofBroken Trail.
Not to place the characters in the context of the open country — the size and difficulty of managing a herd — would be poor storytelling. I tried to shoot it big. You know, TV screens are getting a lot bigger these days.
This is a fictional story, and your previous Westerns dealt with historical characters: Geronimo, Wild Bill Hickok and the James-Younger gang inThe Long Riders. What attracted you to this material?
This thing came to me. Bob [Duvall] had been developing it, and it was a chance to do something about workin’ fellas rather than great heroes or notorious bad men of the West. What’s the Shakespeare thing? These are men whose greatness is thrust upon them. In the middle of a struggle for economic gain, and facing, if they fail, economic catastrophe — the traditional American dilemma — they become the possible protectors of five young Chinese women. And it’s not convenient for them. These guys are ill equipped but, within the boundaries of their personalities, stand up and do the right thing.
What’s your take on the current state of the Western?
I’ve been answering this question since The Long Riders. The perception is that it’s moribund or no longer relevant. The reasons for the decline are clear. There was probably an oversaturation of them when I was a kid in the ’50s and ’60s.
The number of them on television back then, for one thing.
I think so. And the Western is the most subject to parody, to a celebration of genre tropes, if you will, so that there’s this preserved-in-amber feeling about it, which fights against vital storytelling. But the biggest reason is just generational. People have much less of an identification with the American rural past, the way they have with their urban past. That, and ethnic shifts in our population. But in the last 10 years, it’s pretty clear that the real home of the Western as a continuing force is cable television. AMC didn’t jump on this because they loved our personalities. When they show Westerns, the older films, their ratings go up. The economic arguments against it are pretty weak.
You grew up a Western buff, and started in the movies writing screenplays for famous hard guys Sam Peckinpah (The Getaway) and John Huston (The Mackintosh Man). When you began directing, what had your knowledge and experience taught you about the job?
Let’s invent a term here: the decisive moment. We’re gonna make a story and put it on film. Is the decisive moment when I wrote the script, made sketches at my desk? That’s Hitchcock. Or is the decisive moment “We’re going to go out there and work something out on location”? Well, that’s Ford and Hawks and Huston. Or is it “We’ve got this location, we’re going to stage the actors, we’ve got rehearsal, we’ll shoot from over here and over there, and nobody is so smart that they’re going to figure out how everything fits together, but we’ll have lots of choices and put it together as artistically coherent in the editing room”? For a director like Kurosawa or Peckinpah, it was in the editing room. What you learn is, it’s getting comfortable with yourself. The truest thing that’s ever been said about any of this is, the hardest thing to direct is yourself. It’s not the camera, the actors, not even the horses. It’s “What do I want?”
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