Friday, May 30, 2014

MONTE WALSH, Lee Marvin 1970

I just finished watching, for possibly the tenth time, but certainly not for the last, the 1970 Western, MONTE WALSH. I would be doing my Western-watching friends a disservice if I didn't do a review of this movie for you all.

I don't know how, but director William Fraker came up with what I believe to be THE ultimate cowboy movie when he made this little-known Western in 1970. Don't get me wrong. When I say "cowboy movie," I MEAN cowboy movie. Not gunfighter movie. Not Indian movie. Not WESTERN, but COWBOY movie.

I am told that this movie did not follow Jack Shaefer's novel, and that this is a shame. I can't judge that. I have read Shaefer's SHANE several times, but I have never read Monte Walsh. So I can judge this movie only on its own merits. And I judge it to be THE best cowboy movie ever made.

I don't want this to come across to anyone as a rip on Tom Selleck session for his remake of Monte Walsh. I love Selleck's Westerns. I really do. He makes a great hero. He's a great actor. He has done a lot of great things. But why ANYONE would ever choose to out-do Lee Marvin and Jack Palance is WAY beyond me. I know that I sure would not want to follow in those shoes. The fact that Selleck pretty much used the same screenplay, mostly just changing what was a great beginning and a great ending in the original movie, made the reason for the remake even worse. There are so many great books out there just begging to be made into movies. Not just mine, but many others. Why would anyone remake a proven classic? 3:10 to Yuma. Monte Walsh. True Grit. And now they are going to try doing The Cowboys over. No accounting for brains, I reckon. But, back to 1970's M.W.

The movie deals with aging cowboys Monte and Chet, as the days of the open range are ending. A bad winter has just wiped out most of the neighboring ranches, including the one Monte and Chet were working on, and they have narrowly missed being put out of work altogether. While Monte takes this in stride and just wants to go get a drink, Chet (Palance) is much more realistic, and he can already start to see the end of the cowboy era.

There is a lot of good humor in the movie, but there is a lot of sobering drama and sadness as well, especially if you are a nostalgic like I am. I don't remember the movie having so many tear-jerking moments, and probably for the run-of-the-mill viewer it doesn't. But for a man like me, now aging himself and who grew up on the myth of the cowboy, it was a very sobering movie.

One of the saddest scenes in the movie is when Monte and Chet are delivering barbed wire to an old man who is left now with nothing but mending fences. This old man, who once rode with "Fighting Joe Hooker" in the Civil War, says, "I had a good life." But in his eyes you can see that life is over. Later, he relives his most memorable moment, riding down "Missionary Ridge" to his death. If he couldn't be a cowboy anymore, he had no reason left to live.

The best line in the movie, and one of the best lines in ANY movie, in my opinion, was delivered by Chet to Monte right after he announces that he is breaking up their long-time partnership by getting married and moving to town.

Chet says, "Nobody gets to be a cowboy forever." It could be carved in my tombstone. Nobody gets to be a cowboy forever. To those of us who grew up in the era of John Wayne and Clint Eastwood movies and Johnny West action figures, when every night there was at least one Western series on TV and we could still drive to the local theater and watch John and Clint on the big screen, this is a very poignant line. Nobody gets to be a cowboy forever.

CBS has released this movie again on DVD, and it is as fabulous as the day it was released. With a beautiful song sung by Mama Cass at beginning and end, and a fabulous score by John Barry throughout, with impeccable acting by a score of your favorite Western stand-bys, and with Oscar-class acting by Marvin, Palance, and Jim Davis, this is a movie not to be missed, and not to be viewed lightly. It tells of the end of an era that was quintessential "America," the era of the cowboy.

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