Lawman: Burt Lancaster stars in an intelligent, ultra-violent 1970s Western that raises tough questions about Law and justice

Lawman(1971), directed by Michael Winner and starring Burt Lancaster, Robert Ryan and Lee J. Cobb is a stylish, intelligently written, Vietnam-war era Western that deals with themes of Law & Order and justice.

Before i come to the themes and characters of Lawman, i would like to discuss the visual style of this film, which i found most striking for a film of its time. The stylistic flourishes which British director, Michael Winner, employs in coordination with cinematographer, Robert Paynter, are truly unique, especially in the Pre-Steadicam era. The camerawork is so mobile, fluid and continuous. Almost every scene shows characters in motion and the camera glides into them, then follows them, then semi-circles them, boxes them and move out into another shot or into another scene which again starts off with the camera in motion. Add to that, every scene is rich in depth and detail and framed from very interesting angles. I have seen this kind of visual style in a lot of European art films, especially that of Fellini’s and in American cinema of Orson Welles and later Martin Scorsese. I have never seen this sort of style employed in mainstream American action movies of that time, and definitely not in Westerns, which are all shot very traditionally. This style would become a norm in American action films by the late 1980s with the arrival of directors like John McTiernan and Paul Verhoeven; their films like Hunt for red October, Die Hard, Total Recall and Basic instinct follows this visual style, where we see an entire scene captured with a constantly mobile camera, and also, where the transitions ae also achieved from within a moving shot into another moving shot. Guess the fact that Michael Winner is a British director may have something to do with it; this was his first western, and much like another European director, Sergio Leone, who brought in a fresh approach to Westerns, Winner too brings a new POV to this film, both thematically and visually. The best illustration of the Winner style can be found in the scene where Cattle baron Vincent Bronson (Lee J. Cobb) discusses with his Ranch-hands the serious situation that has developed post the arrival of Bannock town Marshall Maddox (Burt Lancaster) in their town of Sabbath. To give context to their conversation: the year is 1887, Bronson and his men were returning from a hard cattle drive, when they decide to stop by in the town of Bannock and let off some steam. The men gets drunk and start shooting up the place. A stray bullet from one of the cow hands strikes an old man and he falls dead instantly. Bronson and his men are unaware of the death they have accidentally caused; they pack up and return to their town, Sabbath (somewhere in New Mexico). Months pass by and they have all forgotten the incident, that’s until Bannack town marshal, Jared Maddox, rides into Sabbath bringing along with him the corpse of Marc Corman, one of the unruly cowhands of Bronson who was responsible for the drunken spree that led to the death of the old man. That’s not all, Maddox has warrants for five other Bronson men: Vernon Adams, Choctaw Lee, Jack Dekker, Harvey Stenbaugh and Hurd Price, who were all involved in that unfortunate incident in Bannack. Through Sabbath’s sheriff, Cotton Ryan (Robert Ryan). He demands that the five surrender to him within 24 hours or else he will be coming looking for them, and most probably, their fate is going to be the same as that of Marc Corman. Cotton Ryan is a Bronson stooge; Bronson owns everything in Sabbath anyway, and he rides off to Bronson’s ranch to inform him of the situation.

This is the pivotal scene in the movie and it showcases Winners sensibilities to the full. The scene begins with Bronson sitting on his big chair in his Ranch house surrounded by his son, Jason, and all his cowhands. Bronson gets out of his chair and starts walking towards each of the cowhands in turn, asking their opinion as to what should be done. It is a very lengthy dialogue scene, And as he moves the camera moves along with him, circles around him to bring the reverse shot on the reactions of cowhands, glides into other cowhands when they express their opinion, the fluid shot is intercut only for the close ups of the five men as they take turn to speak their mind. Beyond the photography and editing, one is also amazed by the production design and set dressing, reminded me of Carlo Simi’s work for Sergio Leone; the sets and the props are so rich in detail and so authentic to the period. Reportedly, Winner employed American professors to come up and check the locations and sets for authenticity. He also had the crew bring in authentic period oil lamps from England. The American filmmakers usually used new lamps and threw some dust over them to make them look like the lamps of the old-west period.

Apart from the bravura visual style, one is also intrigued by the themes and ‘politics’ of the particular scene. Usually in a traditional western, the cattle baron is an all-black villain, but here, Bronson, though a dictator, is a very benevolent dictator, who rules over the town with kindness, and hence he does enjoy genuine support from the townsfolk. Bronson is very sad to hear about the death caused by his men and he is willing to negotiate with Maddox for providing compensation to deceased’s family. He is even willing to buy off Maddox to avoid a confrontation with him. Even his cowhands (his henchmen) are flesh and blood humans. Bronson offers each of them the choice to surrender and stand trial, but Vernon Adams(Robert Duvall) turns him down because it will be financially ruinous for him as a protracted legal battle will bankrupt his family. Hurd Price (J.D. Cannon) is a coward, and he chooses to abandon his common law wife Laura Shelby (Sheree North) and ride out of town. Only Stenbaugh (Albert Salmi) is the belligerent one among the five who believes that he can take out Maddox in a gunfight. But Bronson resists this, as he had enough of violence and bloodshed, and he sends Stenbaugh with another cowhand Crowe(Richard Jordan) into town to peacefully negotiate with Maddox. But the cocky Stenbaugh has other ideas, and in direct negation of Bronson’s orders he calls out Maddox for a duel, which Maddox- an almost superhuman when it comes to gun fighting – wins very easily, killing Stenbaugh with a quick draw. The death of his close friend Stenbaugh forces Bronson to close all options for any peaceful negotiation and he decides to take down Maddox through force.

Now coming to Maddox, who is the protagonist of the film, he starts out in the typical western hero mold; The honest hard-bitten, no-nonsense Marshall who is out to enforce the law and will get the job done no matter what it takes. He believes in doing things by the book; he always gives a chance to his opponents to surrender and prides on the fact that he never draws first. It’s another matter that all his opponents choose to draw on him, and Maddox is skilled enough with the gun to send them to their deaths. He has racked up an impressive tally over the years, impressive enough to earn him the title “The Widowmaker”. Maddox is unmoved by his reputation and his defense has always been “They didn’t have to draw“. Even after his arrival in Sabbath, he choose to do everything by the book. As protocol demands, he first meets up with the town Sheriff and appraise him of the situation rather than go looking for the criminals himself. He then peacefully waits for a response, even as tension starts building up in the town. The town, which owes Bronson a lot, decide upon themselves to get rid of the lawman from Bannack and they form a vigilante committee under the leadership of local businessman Luther Harris to confront him, but they have to make a quick retreat after their bluff is called by the cool, steely Maddox. After the killing of Stenbaugh, Maddox becomes a marked man in town, and later that night, he is called out for a duel by Crowe. But before they can get down to it, a shot is fired at Maddox by a hidden gunman, Dekker. Crowe swears that he did not set Maddox up for Dekker’s ambush and meets him up again the next day – he follows Maddox out of town into the wilderness – to reiterate the same. Here Maddox has a frank discussion with Crowe about the life of a Lawman. He confesses that Lawman are nothing more than professional killers.

Another great aspect of this film are the dialogues written by Screenwriter Gerard Wilson. It can only be called “Western poetry”, an epitome of the kind of dialogue that people talk in the westerns: tough, masculine, economical. This film is rich in that kind of extended wordplay. Look how Maddox describes himself to Crowe

I’m a lawman. Do you know what a lawman is, Crowe? He’s a killer of men. That’s what the job calls for. There are new ways to put it, but it reads the same. That’s the difference between us, and it’s all the difference I need.”

Or how he explains the futility of what he does

It’s always the same. If you post a man, he has to come into town to prove he’s a man. Or you kill a man, he’s got a friend or kin — he just has to come against you… and for no reason… no reason that makes any sense. And it don’t mean a damn to the man already in the ground. Nobody wins.”

But in spite of this self-awareness he goes on doing what he does, because that’s what he is duty bound to do. As the story progresses, and the body count keeps rising, Maddox’s attempts at law enforcement turn into an obsession. But he always has a ready explanation; of always giving his opponent a chance, never drawing first, enforcing the law at all cost and following the rules, as he tells both Crowe and Ryan:

I don’t care. You say he didn’t have a chance. He went for his gun first. When he does that, he uses up all his chances

” I don’t call the numbers, Ryan. I never drew first on a man in my life. That’s the only way to stay clean – you play it by the rules. Without the rules, you’re nothing!”

But the piece de resistance is the monologue he uses to disarm the citizens’ vigilante committee under Luther Harris that has come to confront him:

Which one has the words? You’re the store keeper – Luther Harris, ain’t it? Let me say them for you. You want me out of your town. What happened some other time some other place ain’t your trouble. I’ve seen men like you in every town in the West. You want the law, but you want it to walk quiet. You don’t want it to put a hole in your pocket. You take courage from each other and you come armed. Well, there are enough of you. All you need is one man with enough stomach to die first. I’m not leaving until what I came for is done. So if you plan to do anything about it do it now or go home.

The irony – in all this obsession with law enforcement – is that even if Maddox is successful in bringing the five culprits back to Bannack for standing trial, there is every chance that they will be let go, because the town judge there is as corrupt as they come and someone like Bronson can very easily buy him off. Maddox knows this, yet he persists in his obsessive quest. All he cares about is doing his end of the duty without bothering about what comes before or after that. He is like an immovable force of nature, even as this steadfastness leads to his moral corruption, which, in a most shocking turn of events in the bloody climax, lead him to shoot one of the victims in the back; he breaks his rule of not drawing first, because by this point he is past the point of even pretending that he follows rules; his hypocrisy is laid bare in this moment – as we see the camera takes a 180 degree spin around him to show his about turn – as he shoots the helpless coward running for his life; the only philosophy he keeps reiterating is :”The law is the law” and he brooks no interference or relaxation in its strict enforcement, even if that means breaking his own rules or his moral code.. By the end of the film, Maddox becomes an anti-hero, who is hated and feared by everyone around, even the ones who loves him, and is left an empty shell of a man with no inner life; just a walking talking machine to kill and maybe get killed for the greater good of law enforcement.

So as Maddox leaves the town of Sabbath at the end of the film, leaving behind a trail of dead bodies and his actions achieving absolutely nothing of consequence, the main question the film poses is “What price justice?”. Is an obsessive enforcement of law and order the only means to attain justice or are they other means?. The film does not give any clear cut answers. The film, released in 1971, was a product of its tumultuous times, when America was torn apart by civil rights movement and civilian protests against Vietnam war; the response of the American law enforcement to these protests forms a pivotal aspect of this film’s political commentary. the three main characters, Maddox, Ryan and Bronson represents three different political point of views. While both Bronson and Ryan are men who undergoes changes in their character, Maddox remains pretty much the same. Bronson was a violent man once, but he now desires peace, but is forced to return to his violent ways when the existence of his men are threatened. Ryan was once a man like Maddox, but has lost the stomach for that kind of tough life, now he has sold his badge to Bronson which enables him to lead a quiet life. He briefly springs back to life when Maddox is shot by Dekker; his disgust for “Back-shooters” finds him hunting down and imprisoning Dekker even at the cost of infuriating Bronson. Maddox, for a brief moment, shows some signs of ‘reformation’, especially when he meets up with his old flame Laura Shelby, who is now the wife of one of the men he is hunting. He even lets go Vernon Adams, whom he wounds in a gunfight; handing him over to Ryan rather than taking him back with him. But just when he is planning to leave town peacefully, in comes Bronson leading his men and challenges him to a fight. Maddox ruefully comments: “Can’t change what you are. And if you try, something always calls you back.”. Even then he tries to avoid bloodshed, but then Luther Harris forces his hand, and he is left with no choice but to join in the bloodbath. Once he is pulled into the action, his former self returns with a vengeance; even the act of shooting someone in the back feels like him overcompensating for the brief period when he almost strayed from his character. Maddox riding into Sabbath and wrecking havoc can be considered an allegory of American intervention in Vietnam, with its policy of combating communism at any cost; Maddox possesses superhuman strength for death and destruction befitting the world superpower, while Bronson’s men are impoverished cowhands and farmers, much like the Vietnamese. In the end, as in the film, this intervention achieves nothing.

Lawman was first in a trilogy of Vietnam war westerns that Burt Lancaster made; Valdez is coming and Ulzana’s Raid are the other two. All these three films showcased Lancaster’s concerns regarding the affect of Vietnam war and the state of Law & Order in the country. Lancaster was a lifelong liberal and he intended these films to be a critique of American society at the time. These three films have him playing cynical warriors setting out on obsessive, ‘Sisyphean’ missions to establish Justice. Throughout his career Lancaster has essayed two different kinds of characters: one the devilishly charming swashbuckling roles where he wins over the audience by flashing his pearly whites and his acrobatics, case in point The Crimson Pirate, Vera Cruz, Trapeze, The Professionals, etc. The other type of roles are of very serious, somber anti-heroes, as in Brute Force, The Killers, Seven Days in May, Sweet Smell of success etc. Lawman is an attempt to fuse these two Lancasters; he is one tough, acrobatic action hero here; there is a scene near the end where the 58 year old Lancaster jumps of his horse, rolls around in dirt and shoots down an adversary, all in a matter of seconds, but he never flashes his pearly whites or unleash his devilish charm here, remaining serious and somber throughout the film; he had already lost a lot of his devilish charm and good looks by this time, thanks to a lifetime of hard living; his craggy face was a far cry from the breathtakingly handsome face that vowed audiences in The Crimson Pirate and Trapeze, but it perfectly suited the hard-bitten, world-weary characters he was playing at this stage of his career. His subdues acting style gives a chilling quality to his performance here and in some instances he comes across as downright scary. Lawman is rightfully considered one of the best Burt Lancaster performances.

The film is directed by (now very controversial) Michael Winner, who was then coming of a string of raunchy British comedies. This was his first western and he shows remarkable ability to adapt to this genre. He will soon become famous (or notorious) for directing the ultra-violent Death Wish movies with Charles Bronson, which will take the depiction of violence (and sexual violence against women) to a new level. Lawman is also very violent; blood flows like water, there are graphic images of carcasses of horses being devoured by dogs and vultures; but thankfully no gratuitous violence against women. Early 70s was a period when he made a lot of films (many of them good ones) back to back. His films from that time had a very polished style, which disappeared after a certain point in his career, and he would end his career by making some truly crude films. After this film, he would reunite with Burt Lancaster in another terrific film, Scorpio (1973), which co-starred Alain Delon. That film, set in the world of espionage, plays out like a modern western, with Lancaster and Delon as rival gunslingers.


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