SHALAKO (Dir. Edward Dmytryk, 1968)

Shalako, a ragged Euro-Western, opens with the bombastic lyrics of Jim Dale, another high point of late 1960s kitsch, before giving the false promise that this is going to be a story about Western imperialism. A detestable hunting party, made up of unpleasant British, German and American imperialists, haughtily enter an Indian reservation, provoking a group of Apache who naturally want to defend what little land they have left. The aristocratic tendencies of the hunting party are crystallised in the memorably bizarre image of Eric Sykes as a butler serving dinner in the desert. Shalako, Connery in another post Bond role, as a conventional outlaw and peace-maker, forewarns the hunting party from going up against the Apache. Naturally, the hunting party refuse to heed the warnings with the aggressive aim of teaching ‘the Indians’ a lesson.

The promise of a political Western which could have critiqued class never truly materialises and instead chooses to frame the narrative as a half-baked cat & mouse thriller, culminating in Connery and Woody Strode (cast as one of the Apache) settling their differences in a mundane spear fight. Shalako refrains from killing the Apache at the end because we mustn’t forget the white man understands the limits of savagery unlike the Native American who is totally abhorrent and resigned to violence. While the film does signify the white imperialists, be they from Britain or America, are no match for the superiority of the Apache, the Native American still remains as the savage Other who rapes and kills indiscriminately. Bardot co-stars along with Stephen Boyd and Jack Hawkins.

SONCHIRIYA (2019, India, dir. Abhishek Chaubey)

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The Dacoit Western is a transnational film genre forged out of a synthesis between the Dacoit film and the Italian Western in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The dacoit in popular culture has undeniably been represented with ambivalence, chiefly as a romantic figure, existing outside mainstream society. Yet the rebellious nature of the dacoit, disregarding law and order has often made the dacoit an oppositional entity, a symbol of counter culture, dissent and even protest. Sonchiriya is a Dacoit Western but it seems so much more political given the age of Modi, with overtures to do with caste and gender that seem altogether absent from the genre in the past. Apart from the songs that are incorporated seamlessly into the narrative, this is very much an exquisitely mounted art film pitched as moderately mainstream. Since genres like horror, science fiction and the Western are perfect vehicles for ideological subversion, allowing filmmakers to smuggle in all kinds of social and political dissent, filmmaker Abhishek Chaubey and scriptwriter Sudip Sharma succeed in delivering a high end genre film, navigating the terrain and conventions of the Dacoit Western with a creative zeal.

Sonchiriya takes place in the valleys of Chambal in the 1970s when the notorious dacoit Man Singh and his band of rebels reigned supreme. A point of real curiosity for film buffs is that actor Manoj Bajpayee had previously played a dacoit in Shekar Kapur’s Bandit Queen who also goes by the name of Man Singh. I’m still not sure if he is playing the same character since the historical timeframes in the two films suggest otherwise. A folklore and mythology has emerged around the dacoits of Chambal in the 1970s and the film is careful not to strip away this mystique. In fact, the film enhances the haunted nature of the dacoit with metaphysical aspects that also connect with the desolate topography. A tactile work, conjuring a sharp sense of the milieu with the camera constantly pushed up against the face of the actors while also going as wide as it can when filming the rugged vistas of Chambal makes you almost taste the dirt and feel the sweat. For instance, the film opens with the sound of buzzing flies on the rotting cadaver of a snake. Such a wretched image of death recalls the cinema of Sam Peckinpah and Sergio Leone in the way in which Chaubey chooses to magnify this particular detail whereby it takes on a larger than life symbolism and acts as a foreboding precursor of things to come, much of it twisted and violent.

In the first major set piece, the gang’s entry into Brahmpuri village is juxtaposed to a radio announcement of Indira Gandhi’s declaration of the Emergency of 1975. The ambush by the police in Brahmpuri leads to a shootout and which the machinations of violent state repression unleashed by the Emergency are realised in the political impunity with which the police act towards the dacoits, massacring them. Later Man Singh’s dead body is paraded through the village, a grotesque spectacle of power and ugly expression of vengeance. It is also worth pointing out the gang see themselves as rebels whereas the police demonize them as dacoits. This is an important distinction since it is only later that we discover that Man Singh is not merely a rebel but has a conscience and lives by a stringent moral code. Thematically, redemption for the dacoit is woven through the episodic narrative structure anchored in the fortuitous device of trying to get a wounded Dalit girl who has been raped to a hospital. While the episodic structure works to mirror the nomadic and exilic state of the dacoit, suggesting how they are doomed to wander, the use of key flashbacks that narrates a past drenched in prodigious horrors and from which no one can really escape returns to Chaubey’s genre preoccupations expressly noir that he deftly mined in Ishqiya (2010).

Nearly all of the characters that populate the film aside from the women are loathsome scoundrels. But that is to be expected, after all this is a Dacoit Western. Lakhna (Sushant Singh Rajput), a mediating figure, often openly questioning their marauding nature, while Man Singh exudes a magnetism that is articulated brilliantly by Manoj Bajpayee, still one of Indian cinema’s most complete actors. The most startling performance comes from Ranvir Shorey as Vakil Singh, the most temperamental of the gang. Shorey has been busily working since the late 1990s but I feel he doesn’t gets the credit he deserves as an actor, especially someone who has nurtured a considerable range. The symbolism of the dacoit is interchangeable and situated on the margins it comes to stand in for many oppositional ideologies. However, I would reason the apolitical nature of the dacoit, erasing the concept of the social bandit in favour of something more mythical shows a reluctance to frame the dacoit as ideological. But the caste dimension does at time negate such apolitical reasoning. Nevertheless, Chaubey and Sharma show little in terms of taking sides in this immoral universe, choosing to enunciate a perverse social order that exists including hierarchal power struggles and an on-going contestation to do with bridari that reduces pretty much everyone to animals. And in the final shot, a twisted coda, it is vehemence and fatalism that prevails, the lifeblood of film noir.

THE MAGNIFICENT 7 (Dir. Antoine Fuqua, 2016, US)

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What if you got the opportunity to rework a contestable classic but had nothing to say? This is pretty much what The Magnificent 7 feels like. One can probably imagine the creative heads that cooked up this idea stemmed from the certified stone cold image of Denzel Washington as a mysterious gunslinger on a horse cloaked in black; an irresistible cinematic construct indeed. But that’s where this idea should have ended.

Fuqua’s re-imagining is a lamentably inert, mechanical Western that refuses to take a breath. Washington’s intro is ace, conjuring a laconic rhythm that Fuqua should have tried to mirror in the rest of the film. Asking that a director slow it down seems like a prosaic request to make these days but even if this was the case then that typically means having something good enough to explicate to fill those silences. Consequently, characters cultivate insubstantial psychological depth, relying on the debatable vestiges of parody. Fuqua may not be the most rousing of filmmakers yet Training Day spasmodically articulated a promise to grow. However, it did not take long for us to discover Fuqua is just as parochial in his approach to big budget high concept cinema as his contemporaries. Perhaps then it would be erroneous to set him apart, deploring his authorial limitations as singular in a cultural practice of artistic habituation.

A paralysing inertness arises from a half-baked script that lingers thoughtlessly on how best to regurgitate a litany of genre clichés. While the elemental simplicity of Kurosawa’s original idea marked The Seven Samurai as a classic, what Sturges got spot-on with his hip Hollywood updating, regardless of the detractors, was the accent on epic moments, something which is altogether absent from Fuqua’s lacklustre updating. The Magnificent 7 may foolishly signal diversity and progress in Obama’s post racial make-believe, but the tired, one-dimensional stereotyping reeks of a regressive cinematic imagination, infecting the lumbering narrative trajectory. Not only does the film refuse to develop the promising austerity tinged ideological machinations alluded to in the opening but points to a political acquiescence rendering both the racial and economic politics of the film a banal afterthought.

An extended opening and an even longer protracted ending means a middle section goes missing. Typical emotional investment by the audience never transpires. Instead relationships, characters and emotions are given to us in digestible bite size anachronisms, amounting to a type of corrosive creative contempt. Such contempt is mirrored in an altogether familiar aesthetic, stylistic monotony. Infuriating hyper edits, a terribly uninspired score by James Horner, stock action sequences and misplaced quips delivered with unusually poor comic timing by Chris Pratt may appear like minor quibbles but the culminating effect is a totalizing self-aggrandizement evident in contemporary popular culture. However, critical observations of this kind are not uncommon for high-end Hollywood cinema. If so, then how can the Western like Science Fiction, one of the few genres that accommodates for a transposition of anxieties, where genre subversion has flourished, come across as incredulous and oblivious to such faculties?

Since this reworking of The Magnificent 7 retains the title and the thrust of the narrative, then why abandon the original theme music for a completely redundant and forgettable score by Horner? I am not sure if this was down to an issue to do with rights or the distracting penance for nostalgic affectations but in my opinion Fuqua should have blasted Bernstein’s mythical music all over the place. At least give us some nostalgic satisfaction. Not only does the absence of the original theme music explain the lack of the requisite gratuitous money shot in which we dispiritingly never see our magnificent seven riding together but points to the absence of spectacle which a film of this scale should have been aspiring to, at least in spirit.

The film opens with a flawed panning shot, moving from left to right, an attempt to draw on the mountainous milieu of the American West and Frontier imagery. But what should have been a shot that lasted for much longer takes place hastily, striking a tone of artistic impatience. This instance points to the wider disjointed design of the film, problematizing the increasingly populist critical position often chosen when big budget Hollywood films fail to deliver, labelling them as passable, great fun, mildly diverting and so on. Even the mammoth shootout at the end is feebly conceived, the problems of filming a half-decent action sequence writ large once again. I should also briefly mention the villainous Bart Bogue; an apparition that lingers indistinctly, dwindling into a puddle of cowardly piss which may be wholly representative of the whoring capitalist tyrant archetype but fails to offer concrete oppositional ideological threat – it is all rendered as cinematic bluster.

If anything The Magnificent 7 is a star vehicle for Denzel Washington (with the long sideburns Washington is a ghostly reincarnation of Henry Fonda’s Frank from OUATITW) and the likely success of the film at the international box office is a continual reminder that he is probably one of the few American film stars who can still pull in a loyal crowd of filmgoers and justify being labelled bankable. Part of me hopes the film does well at the box office. We might get more Westerns. However, if they are all going to be as derisible as this then maybe we should stop right here.

HELL OR HIGH WATER (Dir. David Mackenzie, 2016, US)

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With a title straight out of a Sam Fuller film, Hell or High Water is a delicious neo-noir Western, or a ‘film soleil’ as film writer Adam Batty pointed out to me, unexpectedly emerging as one of the most political films of the year. The political sensibilities of Taylor Sheridan’s very brilliant script tap into a bankrupt American culture. Truly, this is a flea bitten, austerity world sympathetically drawn out through a sinewy, fatalistic narrative so the loathsome political iconography of banks, foreclosures and mortgages aggregates to an undeniably prescient and antagonistic context. As brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster) shoot their way through a series of bank robberies so that they can raise enough money to save their mother’s ranch from being swallowed up whole by a demonic bank, the real monster of our times, one cannot but help feel they are strangely justified in their actions.

While Hell or High Water has a brooding ideological subtext, the film also deals in many of the familiar conventions of the Western genre, notably the archetypal buddy bromance between Texas Rangers Marcus (Jeff Bridges) and Alberto (Gil Birmingham), played out with a piercing beauty all of its own. Director David Mackenzie seems to understand and explicate the psychology of men better than most directors of his generation. And in some ways Hell or High Water is a continuation of Starred Up (2013), pausing to probe at male deficiencies with a suitably philosophical gaze. In addition to all of this, you also get Jeff Bridges, the cinematic personification of self-effacement, expressing a distinctly classic Texas drawl. Hell or High Water, along with The Hateful Eight, reminds us yet again the Western genre is perhaps the one genre that can live and breathe in any era.