Elegiac is a word that has been used more than a few times to describe westerns that began to appear in the 1960s and particularly in the 1970s. While many movies tagged with this term do have a certain sorrowful quality to them, I can’t help feeling that it’s been overused at times. On the other hand, there are occasions where this description is highly appropriate, Monte Walsh (1970) being one of them. This is a remarkable film, a work of gentle and understated power, one which can break your heart and yet fill it up with renewed optimism at the same time. Being well aware of the fact that filmmaking is a collaborative effort, I’m loath to place too much emphasis on the contribution of one individual. However, and despite the fact there’s uniformly excellent work from all those involved in the film, I do feel that a large part of what makes Monte Walsh such an enriching experience comes down to Lee Marvin’s performance in the title role.
The film is split into roughly two halves, with the first part spending less time on plot development than the careful establishment of mood and character interaction. This technique is particularly important in creating believable human beings, people we get to know and consequently care about as the twists and turns of their lives unfold. Monte Walsh (Lee Marvin) and Chet Rollins (Jack Palance) are two veteran cowboys, men starting to feel the sharp bite of age in a world on the brink of huge changes. This fact is apparent right from the outset, when the two friends ride back into town after a hard winter to be met with ominous news. The harsh weather has taken a heavy toll on the ranches, wiping out many and allowing corporate interests to step in. Monte and Chet can count themselves among the lucky ones though; they at least have the offer of doing the only job they really know or care about. Their new masters, never seen and contemptuously referred to as “the accountants”, are an unsentimental breed, however, an owe an attachment to nothing beyond the bottom line. As the need to ensure investments remain profitable rules supreme, the initial group of cowhands is gradually whittled down in the interests of efficiency and cost effectiveness – the tight little community the viewer has come to know and identify with is being broken up before our eyes. To begin with, the younger men, those who have more chances of finding alternative employment are given notice. Still, these chances are few and far between on a frontier that’s becoming hemmed in by both the barbed wire fences of new owners and the economic restrictions of a new era. One of the first redundancies is Shorty Austin (Mitch Ryan), and his departure is significant in that his meager opportunities set him on a path that will bring him into conflict with the law, his former friends, and ultimately shape the course of events in the second half of the picture. Throughout it all, the overriding theme is a sense of loss, and this is seen principally from the perspective of Monte. As viewers, we’re invited to watch as Monte loses first the job he knows and respects, the friends he’s had all his life, the woman he loves, and the only way of life he’s ever experienced. On paper, this should all add up to a pretty depressing time for the audience, yet the stoicism, the determination, the unstinting hope and essential humanity of the lead character means that there’s a kind of life-affirming optimism at the heart of the movie.
Jack Schaefer wrote one of the most famous stories to be made into a western movie when he penned Shane. He also provided the source material for Monte Walsh and thus added another iconic frontier hero. Instead of a wandering gunfighter, although Monte’s no slouch on that score either, he presented a man battling to come to terms with a world that seems to be suddenly passing him by. I guess it all boils down to a meditation on integrity, the determination to remain true to the experiences and life one knows, and ultimately to oneself. As such, the movie is a curious and successful combination of the melancholy and the triumphant. For all the disappointments, and they come thick and fast as the tale goes along, there’s always a hint of hope. John Barry was one of the greatest composers of film scores and although his name isn’t one normally associates with westerns, he created music that’s literally pitch perfect and complements the images on the screen. He was one of the best at conveying a sense of expansiveness and those dusty scenes of the mustang round-up would be a whole lot poorer were it not for his contribution. Still and all, it’s the main theme The Good Times are Coming – with lyrics by Hal David and vocals by the incomparable (Mama) Cass Elliot – that dominates it all. At first, this piece may seem like a paradox, an irony, in such a story but it’s actually entirely appropriate. Monte Walsh is a man who’s been bruised by life, but never beaten, a dreamer who’s both in thrall to the past and in love with the future – the ultimate cowboy perhaps. And then there’s the directorial debut of William A Fraker, that master cinematographer who took the reins in only a handful of films. His eye for landscape, his ability to draw genuine performances from his cast, and his impeccable sense of timing are wonderful and it’s regrettable that he directed so few movies.
Lee Marvin has to go down as of the Hollywood greats. Starting out in supporting roles, he damned near stole the picture from many a legendary lead. By the time he made Monte Walsh, Marvin was in his mid-40s and looked every hard-living day of it. He always had character in his face, his voice and movements – you just knew this was a man who had been around, who had done things and was no stranger to life. Consequently, he fits the role of Monte like a glove, having the looks and experience in the genre to positively demand you believe in him. Despite winning an Oscar for Cat Ballou, I still feel this actor has never received his full due. Even today, he tends to be thought of as an action actor, a villainous character and tough guy. Well, he was a tough guy, but in the real sense of the term – an all-round man. He could play menacing as well as any but there was a whole lot more to him, power and subtlety to be exact. As Monte Walsh, he’s electrifying – you can’t take your eyes off him. Every bad break in life is etched into those craggy features and every sadness too, but there’s humour and tenderness beneath it all. I could pick out most any scene in the movie to prove my point but I’ll mention just two. The aftermath of Chet’s wedding is a sobering moment for Monte; the full impact of the changes to his world have just begun to hit home, and he heads for the refuge of the saloon. But as he enters he gets another shock – the place is deserted, a forlorn shell that’s a world away from the thriving hub it had once been. The realization and subsequent acceptance of this unpleasant truth is clear to see in just a few brief twitches around the eyes and mouth. Additionally, one of the most moving sequences comes when Monte arrives too late and discovers that his great love Martine (Jeanne Moreau) has passed away. His grief is completely internalized and controlled, yet there’s no question about its depth. As he opens her little jewelry box and finds both a lock of his hair and the unused money he once pressed upon her, there’s just the faintest glimmer of a tear in the corner of his eye – far more telling and powerful than any display of histrionics.
Marvin may have been the beating heart of the movie, but he had no shortage of first class support right through the cast. Jack Palance was another performer who could ignite the screen at will, an actor of extraordinary intensity who was capable of exhausting an audience emotionally. This film, however, saw him playing a model of restraint and self-control. Where Monte would not be cowed by the vagaries of fate, Chet was the more philosophical. Recognizing that time was no longer on his side, he took the pragmatic view and settled down to town life and marriage. Palance added a note of calmness and pragmatism to his performance here, more blissful than defeatist. However, it’s worth noting that it’s the ornery refusal to bow down that leads to Palance’s downfall. Monte held onto that quality throughout, refused to succumb at any point, and fares better in the end. Jeanne Moreau also gave a memorable turn as Martine, the woman in Monte’s life – even his lifeline to some extent – who can forgive him anything and would wait for him for ever. Moreau was all sadness and sexiness, a classically tragic figure. The wordless scene where she tries to arouse the interest of her man as he struggles to roll a cigarette is a beautiful moment of humour and sensuality. And the discussion she has with Marvin about their future together is an object lesson in how to blend romance and regret with ever allowing it to descend into the maudlin.
For a long time, Monte Walsh was one of those movies that I feared would never see the light of day on DVD. Then Paramount finally came to their senses and released it in the US. The film is correctly presented in anamorphic scope and looks pretty good with no distractions or damage that I was aware of. The only extra feature offered is the theatrical trailer, which I think is a shame as a commentary track would be welcome and appropriate. Still, I’m grateful to have the movie available on disc so I’m not going to complain too much. I think this is one of the great westerns, not only of the 1970s but of one of the greats period. There is a depth and richness to Monte Walsh that stands the test of time; I think it’s a perfect piece of filmmaking where I cannot honestly find anything to criticize. It’s one of those films that grows on you and draws you further in with each subsequent viewing, improving with age. To those already familiar with it, it should need no recommendation. And for those others yet to experience its magic, well you’re in for a treat. I recommend this one without reservation or qualification – the definition of a classic.