Monte Walsh: Lee Marvin and Jack Palance at their melancholic best in this elegiac Western

Monte Walsh(1970), Starring Lee Marvin, Jack Palance and Jeanne Moreau and directed by renowned cinematographer, William A. Fraker, is an elegiac tribute to the death of the old-west.

“Nobody gets to be a cowboy forever”

Chet Rollins tells friend, Monte Walsh as their ‘cowboy’ way of life is coming to an end

Set during turn of the 20th century, and based on the novel by Jack Schaefer, whose novel “Shane” was the basis for the classic 1953 western of the same name, the film, Monte Walsh, stars Lee Marvin as taciturn cowpuncher, Monte Walsh, who silently laments the way the railroads, homesteaders and money men have slowly washed away the open freedom of the range; and Jack Palance (in a rare instance where he plays a good guy) as his good buddy and fellow cowhand, Chet Rollins, who shares Monte’s affection for the cowboy life but recognizes that its time is nearly over. Monte and Chet are Winter cowboys who return to the western town of “Harmony” after a particularly long and brutal winter where they were manning a line camp; they return only to discover that the harsh winter spelled an end for most of the ranches in the area. The town is full of unemployed cowboys, as jobs for cowhands are drying out.  A corporation called Consolidated Cattle has bought out many of the local livestock outfits, laying off workers and closing down nearly every operation. Monte and Chet are lucky to get onto the payroll of a prominent rancher, Cal Brennan (Jim Davis), and they enjoy whatever they can of what remains of the old way of being cowboys and free-range drifters; but even they know that nobody stays a cowboy forever. The landscape is getting divided by barbed wire fences and the coming of the railroad; and opportunities for steady and gainful employment are becoming few and far between. “Accountants” are now running ranches owned by Eastern businessmen, who are investing “capital.” ; a sure sign that eastern capitalism has invaded the pristine West: Workers become expendable, vast open ranges are getting roped off, and capitalism’s unseen influence- we never see the faces of these new Eastern tycoons, only the effects of their actions- begins to erode the very nature of their cowboy way.

The cowboy period of the old west only lasted for about 20- 25 years, from about 1865 to 1890, but it come to define much of the American culture, especially the movies; the most popular American movie genre of all time, “The Western,” told stories set during this period. Westerns flourished in the 1940s and 1950s by telling highly romanticized tales of the Cowboy and the lawmen and the outlaws in the old west. But by late 1960s and early 1970s, The Western was dying out. This is well reflected in the kind of stories these films were telling at the time: up until the 1960s, Hollywood had largely glamorized or rather blindly celebrated the settling of the West as part of America’s Manifest Destiny. But the truth of the matter was that it was a hard way to live, and only the strongest really survived for whatever time there was to them before what we know as “civilization” encroached on the landscape. From the latter part of the 1960s onwards – mainly due to the changing socio-political landscape of America as well as the influence of the “down and dirty” Westerns from Europe – the Hollywood Western was getting into its ‘revisionist’ phase, where the films were less focused on the settling and exploration of the American West, and more on the expansion of civilization that led to its demise and that of a certain group of men who made the settling of the West possible and who refused to change. There were certain directors who specialized in this form of “End-of-the-west” Westerns; mainly Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah. Leone’s Once upon a time in the West was an operatic, fairy-tale treatment of the theme, while Peckinpah chose a ferociously violent approach to The Wild Bunch; and a more elegiac treatment in films like Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid as well as The Ballad of Cable Hogue. The other main films that rendered the theme in more elegiac terms were Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Will Penny. Monte Walsh also falls into this category. The existence of Monte Walsh owes a lot to the blockbuster success of “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” released the year before. “Butch” portrayed the end of the Old West’s outlaw culture through the lives of two famous outlaw friends, while this film is about the end of the cowboys, also portrayed through two cowboys who are lifelong friends. “Butch” had a very popular pop tune, “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head.” This one has Mama Cass singing, “The good times are coming. They’re coming real soon. And I’m not just pitching pennies at the moon.” The main difference between these two film is that “Butch” was a more tongue-in-cheek look at the times; while Monte Walsh is a very “straight” film that combines the elements of a traditional western with sporadic bursts of revisionism. There is also very little in the way of conventional action or plot in the film; a gunfight in the rain, a town almost wrecked by an untamed horse; and a climactic gun duel in pitch darkness is all the action that there is. This is an observational western chronicling a lifestyle that no longer seems relevant; an intense character study that follow the lead character(s) as they make a big transition in their lives.

The first 45 minutes or so of the film details the lives of these cowboys at the ranch, Slash-Y. The film unfolds like a documentary, with nothing much of significance happening. We see Cowboys living together, eating together, fighting together, driving cattle together and having fun sessions; mainly involving cleaning up a cook who stinks to high heaven, and the cook’s “revenge” that send the cowboys scurrying to the outhouse. Among the ranch hands that Monte and Chet ride with is an impulsive wanna-be cowpoke named Shorty Austin(Mitchell Ryan, making his film debut)— so named not for his stature but his short fuse, who is intent on breaking a wild stallion, and failing at every turn. The turning point in the film comes when Davis has to lay off some of his hands because the work is drying up quite rapidly, Shorty is one of those he lets go; Monte and Chet gives him some of their money as he rides away, but the writing on the wall is clear to both of them, even though they have managed to hold on to their jobs for now, the end is inevitable. This forces them to reevaluate their romantic relationships with the women in their life: Chet’s been nurturing a quiet romance with a well-to-do widow in town, Mary Eagle (Allyn Ann McLerie), and eventually marries and settles down to run her hardware store; while Monte has been carrying on an “on and off” relationship with a French saloon girl, Martine Bernard(Jeanne Moreau, in her U.S. film debut). Monte’s reaction to his friend’s domestication is understandably conflicted. “Cowboys don’t get married, until they aren’t cowboys anymore.” and he tries for a similar arrangement with Martine, but both of them knows that its hopeless; for one Monte doesn’t have any money and Martine’s “business” is also facing diminishing returns. Soon after this, a traveling businessman comes around and offers Monte a job: to parody his cowboy self in a wild west show; the job would make him more than he ever had, and he will be able to save and buy a house and settle down with Martine. Initially Monte likes the offer, but then changes his mind, as he refuses to become a bastardization of his former self for public consumption, as he contemptuously tells the promoter: “ I ain’t spitting on my whole life.”

In the midst of all this, two moments are standouts that perfectly summarizes this apocalyptic moment for the cowboys: First is The death of ‘Fightin’ Joe: a great cowboy who fought with General Hooker in the Civil War and took the name as his own. Joe is now reduced to being a pathetic old man consigned to riding fence – repairing the barbed-wire line that marks the boundaries of the ranch- a job that Monte and Chet, still in their prime, consider beneath any respectable ranch hand. Soon enough, a dejected Joe, apparently reenacting the great battle charge in which he took part, rides off a cliff and is killed. The second moment comes after Chet’s wedding: Monte walks all alone through the town street; the once bustling town is now a ghost town, the sidewalks and saloons devoid of sounds or people. Time seems to stop, and the excitement of the old west has completely evaporated. This is truly the end of that old world. Then, Monte comes across the wild bronco named “Grey.”, which Shorty has been trying to ‘break in’ for a long time. In the film’s most enthralling moment, Monte jumps atop the horse, which immediately starts bucking violently, and hangs on for dear life. The horse crashes through the coral fence onto the town’s main street, then careening up stairs, ripping out posts, and causing irreparable damage to the town. In that one moment, Monte is back in the ‘rowdy freedoms’ of the old west, ruled by chaos and power, and he loves every second of it; being able to disturb and even destroy the civilized architecture of the town gives him immense pleasure. He has somehow managed to wind the clock back to a time when he was a cowboy riding the open ranges, away from the bounds of ‘civilization’. At the end of this brief “Time travelling” adventure with the Bronco, he expresses his gratitude to the horse by saying “Thanks.”

But that’s the last bit of pleasure that Monte is going to have for a long time, as tragedy strikes one after the other. Shorty, who was let go from the ranch, pretty soon takes to a life of crime, bringing him in direct confrontation with Monte. Monte spares shorty’s life once, when he caught him rustling the slash-y cattle. But that act of generosity by Monty turns out to be a big mistake: Shorty, desperate for money, attempts to rob Chet’s hardware store in the company of another cowboy. In the ensuing melee, Chet is shot and killed. Monte plans to hunt down Shorty; less as an act of vengeance, more as an act of following the old moral code of the range (and also maybe Monte doesn’t have anything worthwhile to do now). But before he confronts Shorty, he is confronted with the news of Martine’s death; the tuberculosis that she has been suffering from for a long time has finally managed to kill her. when he goes to see her one last time, he realizes that she has never spent his money; she has just kept it there as a memento.

The final confrontation between Monte and Shorty that takes place in the darkness of a cattle processing warehouse is sad, slow and stretched to the point of being farcical; this maybe the only climactic duel in a Western where each man is trying his best not to kill the other. At different points, each man has the other dead right in his gunpoint, but declines to shoot. Shorty and Monte both seem to recognize their roles without really embracing them: Shorty knows he’s done wrong, Monte knows he has to put his old friend and ex-fellow employee away. When he finally shoots Shorty- after the latter has deliberately holstered his gun — Monte whispers to him in his dying moments about riding the gray Bronco – the horse that Shorty has ever tried to conquer and failed, which Monte had conquered in his first try : “I rode the Grey down Shorty. You had to sit him high“, he tells Shorty, before Shorty passes away. In the end, the cowboy life that has defined them is the only thing that connects the two men. As their way of life dies off, the fact that only one of them can live seems sadder than deciding which one it is. In the the very beginning of the film, as Monte and Chet are returning to civilization after a long winter, they come across a wolf in the wilderness. Monte raises his gun to shoot the animal, then suddenly lapses into thought, which he verbalizes to Chet. “Do you remember Big Joe Abernathy? He used to wrestle wolves.” Impatient and annoyed, Chet grabs the gun from him and shoots the wolf dead. This immediately defines Monte as a man who lives in the past, and someone afraid of going into the future, while Chet is is keen and eager to get on with things, without wallowing in the golden nostalgia of the Cowboy past. So it is ironic that Chet dies, never seeing the new West, while Monte survives; the final image shows Monte riding off into the unknown; still contemplating Big Joe Abernathy in the company of his horse, still not able to shoot the wolf, but this time it’s not because he is lost in the past, but he realizes that he has better things to do with his life in the new West that’s awaiting him. he is more confident than before in confronting it, and the qualities of personal integrity and hard work that made him such a great cowboy may lead him to prosperity in the new age as well; maybe the good times will still be there for him, he might just get along and prosper. Thus, this deeply melancholic film ends on a relatively optimistic note.

The film marked famed cinematographer, William A. Fraker’s directorial debut. Fraker has photographed everything from Bullitt, Rosemary’s Baby and Tombstone. He had just finished shooting with Marvin on the unfortunate Western musical, Paint Your Wagon, when he embarked on this film. And just as is the case when a cinematographer turns director, the film is visually awesome. It has mood and terrific atmosphere. The visuals are very elegant and there is hardly even a whiff of melodrama. The film is high on visual detailing and character behavior and low on dialogue, and whatever laconic and terse dialogues are there is pure ‘cowboy’ poetry, some of which i already mentioned. But the main reason why the film works so well is mainly due to the cast; Marvin, Palance, and Moreau look extremely relaxed but slightly jaded, just like the characters they play, who have lived for so long in that serene, leisurely environment and realizes that they have no other option but to play the tough hands life has dealt them. Also, actors like Lee Marvin and Jack Palance had paid their dues in westerns over the years, so them taking on the roles of aging cowboys in the changing West was completely believable. Fraker extracts subdued performances from Lee Marvin, who had won an Oscar for his over-the-top performance as a drunken gunfighter in “Cat Ballou” and from Jack Palance, the king of over-the-top acting. Lee Marvin and Jack Palance were known for playing villains in westerns. Palance was the baddie in Shane. Marvin had the dual role as a grizzled drunk and the villain in Cat Ballou; he also famously played the monstrous baddie, Liberty Valance, in John Ford’s own end-of-the-west masterpiece, The Man who shot Liberty Valance. Palance would also go on to win an Oscar later in life playing a grizzled cowboy in the modern Western, City Slickers. The film also shows us just how great Jack Palance can be. Far too often during his career he was locked into villain roles due to his looks, but he’s just a joy, in one of his rare good guy roles. He and Marvin make for very believable friends.  Fourteen years earlier Marvin supported Jack Palance in an excellent World War II film, Attack. Now things have come full circle as Marvin got to be a star via a string of super successful films in mid 60s and Palance has to lend him support. As for Marvin, he gives perhaps his greatest ‘acting’ performance in this film – Point Blank is still the definitive and most iconic Marvin performance. He conveys a lot with very little dialogue. This is his most melancholic performance; he conveys a hell of a lot with very subtle gestures and slight shift of emotions on that grizzled face. The moments of romance and yearning he shares with Moreau is really touching. Marvin was just coming down from the heights of stardom; he had reached its zenith in 1967 with the back to back successes of Cat Ballou, The Professionals, The Dirty Dozen and Point Blank. The failure of Paint your Wagon – for which he refused Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch – had hit him hard. Monte Walsh will also go on to be a big flop. After this film, Marvin would find it hard to get good roles, and his career would decline.

The other big star of this film is composer John Barry. Barry is more famous for his compositions for James Bond films; but as is the case with many of his non-Bond scores, like The Last Valley or Out of Africa, Monte Walsh also boasts of a lush, romantic orchestral score which has strong spiritual undertones. Most of the time, it’s the music that does the heavy lifting in the film to create that melancholic mood. The wonderful theme song by Mama Cass Elliot “The Good Times Are Coming” is just marvelous, and also ironic in the context of this film; You just know that those good times are not coming for any of the characters in the film, they are actually behind them. The splendid widescreen photography by David M Walsh conveys the beauty of such marvelous locations as Mescal and Old Tucson in Arizona. Watching this film, it’s hard to believe that this is Fraker’s debut movie, and that he made only two more movies: one of them hardly made it to the theaters and the other was an adaptation of The Legend of the Lone Ranger – another disaster. Fraker shows a great gift for understanding behavior and the nitty-gritty of cowboy life. The whole film looks like those Fred Remington paintings (that he uses in the title sequence) come to life. He presents a totally honest, non-Hollywood, deglamorized look at the cowboy way of life and its passing; a not-to-be-missed, truly wonderful portrayal of an unambitious and totally honest man who wants to keep on enjoying his times with the boys, riding herds and busting broncos, and refusing to recognize that those days are gone forever.


2 thoughts on “Monte Walsh: Lee Marvin and Jack Palance at their melancholic best in this elegiac Western

  1. The paintings used in the title sequence were by Charles M. Russell, not Remington. Otherwise, an excellent and thoughtful review of one of my favorite westerns.


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