Saturday, Dec 2020

Here at CouchCowboy, we don't like to be snobs, film scholars or purists. But we will go to efforts to champion a movie which we feel is true to the spirit of the Western genre over one which we see as a mere pretender to this noble category of American film. We like to think we'll take all comers and consider them honestly. We won't readily dismiss humor or novelty in our Westerns. We are initially ready to lend all mixtures and sub-genres our eyes and ears. We have standards, but we wish to be democratic as well.

One movie which those on our staff readily and consistently disagree on is that peculiar marvel of American film, Paint Your Wagon, that puzzling 1969 pioneer musical starring Clint Eastwood and Lee Marvin. There are some on our staff who quickly denounce this movie as a ridiculous farce, an awkward attempt at many things which succeeds at none. I most heartily disagree.

By starring its two leads alone, Paint Your Wagon achieves as strong a Western pedigree as any cowboy movie could want. Need I bother to mention the great Westerns Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood both have been involved with? Clint Eastwood to this day stands as the reigning -- and remaining -- master of the form as both director and actor. "But he can't sing," sounds the chorus of dissenters, "Why does he try to sing?" OK, this I may grant you; this, but nothing else. A couple of the songs are near-dreadful, but only a couple. You can't dismiss the rousing opening number, "I'm on My Way." This song puts us right into the spirit of the movie. Aside from the notorious clunkers, "They Call the Wind Maria," and that sappy Clint love-solo, "I talk to the Trees" (which is always good for a head-shaking laugh...) most of the songs are good, some excellent. Consider the baritone pathos of Lee Marvin singing "Wanderin' Star," or the jazzy acknowledgment of my favorite of Clint's numbers, "Gold Fever." Listen to these songs, enjoy them and remember its a Lerner and Lowe score which was nominated for an Academy Award. This is not Clint's finest moment in the Old West, but he does well here and it is interesting to see him in a peaceful role reversal. However, I count Lee Marvin's turn as Ben Rumson as perhaps his finest hour. This is simply the culmination and shining triumph of all of Marvin's previous Western roles and certainly his last good one. Though he won the Oscar 4 years earlier for Cat Ballou, it is clearly as Ben Rumson for which he should have been awarded the trophy. Ben is noble, he is principled but tough. He is lecherous and crude. He is an honorable and determined miner. He is a good husband and a loyal friend. He drinks, fights, gambles and swears with the best. Ben Rumson is complex, fascinating and funny as hell. He is perhaps the foremost of the movie's many fine delights. He is as fine a character who has ever graced a Western. This outstanding role, as with many of the films other fine points, often gets overlooked amongst the movie's smorgasborg of entertainment opportunities.

There is, as mentioned, singing. There is also dancing. There is fighting and shooting. There is mining, gambling and whores. There is the beautiful and captivating Jean Seberg. There is comedy, romance and adventure. There is beautiful mountain scenery. There is one of the great movie friendships of all time. There is one of the great wedding scenes ever captured on film. There is the building and complete destruction of one of the Western's great towns: No Name City. There is this much, believe it or not, and there is more. More characters, more side stories and more genuine laughs than any reasonable film could ever hope to have. But this is no mere reasonable film. This is a rare masterwork the likes of which we will never see again in our lifetimes. Call it a happy accident; call it a lucky mistake. Call it 164 of the most enjoyable minutes you will ever spend in front of the screen.

Many have been confounded trying to categorize this movie. Is it a musical? Is it a comedy? Is it a Western. I like to call it a Western with songs and laughs. This movie only wants to entertain us, we should not pick on it. Who doesn't feel enveloped by the atmosphere and characters of this movie after viewing it? Who doesn't feel as though they've spent some time in No Name City? Who doesn't feel a bit sad when the city falls? Paint Your Wagon arouses these sentiments in us because it is a true epic, a tale which takes us on a journey. However, confounding us again, this journey leaves us right where we started off -- without a No Name City and with Ben and Pardner separated. The West remains once again to be mined, explored and settled. Paint Your Wagon takes nothing from us and it leaves no remains. It only gives. Watch it again, remove your prejudices and enjoy. I guarantee you will be the better for it.

--Jed

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