The Appaloosa(1966), starring Marlon Brando, Anjanette Comer and John Saxon, and directed by Sidney J. Furie, is a visually innovative, psychological Western that details the physical and psychological duel between two men, an American and a Mexican, to possess the titular stallion.
Matt Fletcher: I’m having a little trouble getting started, Father.
Priest: You are in the House of God now, my son. Speak from your heart.
Matt Fletcher: Well, I’ve done a lot of killin’. I’ve killed a lot of men and sinned a lot of women. But the men I killed needed killin’ and the women wanted sinnin’, and well, I never was one much to argue.
These are the first words spoken in Sidney J. Furie‘s 1966 Western, The Appaloosa, and it comes about 6 minutes into the film. Like any typical Western, this film too is short on dialogue and long on visuals. The film opens with classical Western images of a lone rider on his horse travelling through the desert wilderness (as the credits are unveiled). The man riding the horse ( the one who’s also confessing his sins to the priest) is Matt Fletcher (Marlon Brando in a horrible wig and beard that seems to be made out of goat’s hair; and a comically small hat on top of that). Fletcher was a dirt-poor, orphaned, white American boy adopted into a Mexican family of impoverished corn farmers in the southwest. When Matt grew up, he decided to go looking for gold, mainly to boost the fortunes of his family; and as he set forth on his journey, his adopted father gave him whatever money he had. Matt wandered the west for a long time, but he couldn’t find any gold; instead, he found war and death everywhere he went. He was on the confederate side in the civil war, and then became a buffalo hunter during the time of the ‘Indian’ wars. One of the prizes he amassed in this period was a magnificent appaloosa stallion. By 1870, Matt’s had enough of the killin’ and sinnin, so he decided to return home- to the sun-scorched border-town of Ojo Prieto. With the money he had made in the interim, and the great stallion in his possession, he hopes to build a horse-ranch on his family farm. This is going to be atonement for his sins and his expression of gratitude to his adopted father and family. On reaching Ojo Prieto, he heads straight to church to confess his sins; he wants to starts his new life on a positive note, by spiritually cleansing himself before he rejoins his Mexican family. Unfortunately for Matt he’s not the only one looking for a fresh start in life, and he’s going to become a pawn in somebody else’s attempts to escape her miserable life: as Matt enters the church and approaches the confessional box, he notices a Mexican woman coming out. Matt gentlemanly wishes her, but she looks disturbed- perhaps by the presence of a leering, sneering old Mexican in a sombrero, who’s standing watch on her. The lady is Trini(Anjanette Comer) and the Mexican is Lázaro(Emilio Fernández), the chief henchman of ‘Cocatlan‘ Don, Chuy Medina(John Saxon). Chuy is a bandido chief who rules most of the Sonora with his army of pistoleros. Trini is Chuy’s women. Chuy bought her from her parents when she was 15, and since then she has been his ‘sex slave’. Chuy’s usual routine is to possess the women he likes at any cost and then, when he’s had enough of her (or he finds someone new to his liking), he gives her to his pistoleros0 and he moves on to the new senorita). Looks like Trini has sensed that her time has come: outside the church she had seen Chuy cozying up to a new woman; and she had decided to escape from the clutches of Chuy.
To this end, she devises a devious plan: after coming out of the church, she tells Chuy that Matt had tried to molest her; an enraged Chuy goes inside to confront Matt- Trini had already spotted Matt’s beautiful Appaloosa, and as it was a symbol of atonement and hope (for a bright future) for Matt, it becomes the same for Trini too, as she plans to escape by riding out on the horse. But her plans are foiled by Lazaro, who catches her in the act of escaping and brings her back. Lazaro then goes into the church to inform Chuy as to what has happened. Inside the church, Chuy has his guns drawn and is heatedly arguing with Matt, who’s quietly praying after lighting candles. Just when Chuy is about to pull the trigger, Lazaro walks in and whispers to him what has happened. Realizing that he has been deceived, Chuy walks out to take care of Trini- who has directly challenged his pride and his masculinity by attempting to walk out on him; No woman is going to dump Chuy, It’s Chuy who does the dumping. So to save face with his men, Chuy devises his own devious plan: he turns the events around to infer that Trini was just test-riding the Appaloosa- to which she has taken a liking- and he was inside the church negotiating with the horse’s owner, Matt, to buy it for her. As Matt comes out of the church, Chuy reminds him of their negotiations inside, and offers him $500 for the horse, but Matt is in no mood to play along, and he insults Chuy in front of everyone by turning down his offer flat, warning him never to threaten him again with a gun, and coolly riding out of town on his horse. Chuy first calls him a cheater for going back on an agreed deal, and then, when he forcefully tries to take the horse away from Matt. he sees the town sheriff closely watching the events from his office, and has to back off. A humiliated Chuy has no other option to grim and bear this double insult; first from Trini and now Matt.
Matt reaches his family farm, and is warmly welcomed by his Mexican siblings, Paco and Ana. They all get drunk to celebrate his return and, in a drunken state, Matt discloses his ambitions for building a horse-ranch with the aid of the appaloosa stallion. But, no sooner has he finished, they notice that the horse is being stolen by Chuy and Lazaro. A drunken Matt chases after them with his rifle, but he can hardly see them to hit any of them. To make matters worse, Chuy ropes Matt, drags him through the stream and dirt, and finally, ties him up to a tree and (literally) hangs him out to dry. As evidenced earlier, Chuy’s pride and ego was battered by the double insult laid on him; the only way he can repair both is by taking the horse away from Matt, and with him to Sonora. But by doing so, and also physically hurting and humiliating Matt, he has put Matt in the same injured position as he was. Now Matt will be going out to reclaim his horse; for pride, for revenge, but most importantly, for atonement. Matt cleans himself up (which means that he simply gets rid of that horrible wig and beard and unveils that mesmerizing Marlon Brando face, Thank god!); darkens his skin a bit with Coffee to pass off as a Mexican; dress up in a serape and sombrero and picks up his gun and rifle, which he thought he had given up for good. So, once again bidding farewell to his family, Matt rides out, this time for across the border; into Sonora, the enemy territory; a journey from which he may not return alive. The rest of the film is all about his Sonora journey- to and back; his adventures and misadventures, his failures and his ultimate triumph.
Marlon Brando hates Westerns, does not like horses (he also hates movies and acting as well, but that’s another matter). So, a ‘Marlon Brando Western’ is a unique event in its own right, especially one that’s named after a horse and in which he goes searching for a horse. For an actor who hates Westerns, Brando has made quite a few of them: Viva Zapata(1953), Burn!(1969), The Missouri Breaks(1976), and his magnum opus, One Eyed Jacks(1961), which he not only acted in, but also produced and directed as well. Brando has also claimed that Gillo Pentorcova directed ‘Tortilla Western‘, Burn\Queimada is the film he’s proudest of in his career. So I suppose Brando’s dislike for horses and Westerns are similar to the one he has for movies and acting- he hates them in principle, but likes doing them anyway for whatever reasons. But one thing has to be said: a Marlon Brando Western is one of its kind, it’s nothing like a John Wayne or a Gary Cooper Western; they are quirky, eccentric and revisionist- long before such Westerns were in fashion, and The Appaloosa(1966), directed by Canadian director Sidney J. Furie has all the hallmarks of an eccentric Brando Western. The film had the misfortune of being released in the mid 60s, when Brando’s disillusionment and cynicism regarding the film business was at its peak. Also, his artistic and box office clout had waned considerably, since the mid 50s, when he was the King of Hollywood and the greatest actor around. This was a Brando who had 5 flops behind him, and he will go on to have 5 more flops before his career would be resurrected with The Godfather(1972). His reputation has been forever tarnished by his shenanigans on One Eyed Jacks and 1962 remake of Mutiny on the Bounty; both films went over budget and over schedule and incurred heavy losses for the studios, all of which was blamed on Brando’s bizarre behavior during the making of these films. So, Brando was forced to sign a five picture deal with Universal Studios at a very low fee of $270k to ensure a steady income; a deal he resented- he considered it as servitude- and he resented every film he had to make under the deal, and to director Furie’s misfortune, “The Appaloosa” was a film that was made under this deal. Naturally, Brando started fighting with everyone right from the beginning; the fact that they didn’t have a good enough script only added to the problems. The screenplay was written by future director, James Bridges, and legend is that Brando took him by his collar and kicked him out of his room (and the film) after one of their script conferences went bad. Furie, who has made a name for himself by directing Ipcress File(1965), both as a great director and an enfant terrible, having fought bitterly with producer Harry Saltzman (another belligerent fellow) on that film, proved to be a perfect adversary for Brando. Things came to such a head that while shooting the climax of this film, both actor and director nearly came to blows. In the end, Furie had to shoot much of the film with Brando’s double, and insert Brando only when he’s absolutely necessary in a scene. So he managed to bring the film within budget and schedule. When the finally released, it was met with mixed reviews, and the film barely managed to make back its meagre budget.
All this being the case, a film like The Appaloosa(1966), makes one wonder about the career trajectory of certain directors, who starts out so promisingly, possessing unique visual and narrative abilities. but who loses their way somewhere in their career; to an extend that people even forget that they existed. I don’t think very many among the audiences or even critics knows Sidney J. Furie that well today; he was someone anointed as an auteur at one point in his career; artists like Kubrick, Scorsese, Bertolucci and Vittorio Storaro were influenced by him. Furie was a unique visual artist, who used to frame, light and move the camera like no one before or after him. This is very evident in The Appaloosa; It is a film that takes great risks with camera placement and exploits the immeasurable opportunity inherent in the wide frame. The film is shot in the cheap Techniscope process, and could very well be misunderstood for a Spaghetti Western, but it’s not. It’s an American production shot in Utah and California, and made by a Canadian director who made his bones in the British film industry. His tight close ups may resemble Sergio Leone’s, but his framing and Leone’s are very different; they generate very different emotions. Furie chooses to shoot through objects, and attempts to fragment the wide frame in various patterns; he uses objects- like hats, fire, rifles or even the faces of people to split the screen into two or three sections, thereby maximizing the viewer’s intimacy with the image that he wants the audience to concentrate on. He often goes out of his way to establish this visual trope as a motif, to give the film a stylistic vitality and a sense of the surreal or ethereal. “The Appaloosa” is a fantastic film to look at; though many of the critics complained about this showy camerawork and called it Ostentatious, but i find it exhilarating; because the story on its own isn’t much, it’s very simple on a physical level; it’s a very psychological story and this stylistic treatment complements and elevates the film to another level. The great cinematographer, Russell Metty, who did the baroque camerawork for Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil(1957) and the painterly visuals for Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus(1960) combines both these elements to come up with the visual strategy for the film. He bathes the screen in a painterly golden glow, which is particularly effective in the indoor and night sequences, where the background is completely in darkness and actors faces are lit up in the golden color. The Appaloosa is undoubtedly one of the most pictorially beautiful, visually innovative films i have ever seen.
What about the film as a whole? well, the film is episodic in nature and it’s slow and heavy going at times; The film moves at a very brisk pace in the opening act, but once Brando begins his journey to Sonora, the film loses narrative steam, which it picks up only intermittently. It becomes more of a road movie with some interesting episodes and some not so interesting ones. It’s interesting to compare the film’s overall quality with the overall quality of Brando’s performance. As someone who has seen almost all of Brando’s films, i would say, there are two types of Brando performances: one, where he puts his heart, soul and passion along with his technique and charisma to good use; the second, where he coasts merely on technique and charisma, without putting much of himself. The first kind of acting can be found in films of filmmakers he respects, like Kazan, Coppola, Bertolucci; films like Streetcar, Zapata, Waterfront, Godfather, Last Tango in Paris etc.. The second kind is in films where he’s at odds with director, and movies he is forced to make only for money or whatever. The Appaloosa is the second kind; starting with that horrible facial hair and funny looking hat, it’s a big ‘F U’ to the director. But i get a feeling that as the film progressed, Brando acquired a grudging respect for his director- who’s undoubtedly a very talented guy- but not enough to feel all passionate about the role. Still, he puts his technique and charisma to good use in several scenes in the film, and Brando coasting on technique is still more interesting than any other actor throwing himself all in. There is a scene at the beginning of his ‘Cocatlan’ journey- set in a border tavern- where a few banditos working for Chuy tries to out him. In this scene, Brando acquires a bizarre Mexican accent- which he has dropped by the next scene- and does some weird double-talk to maintain his masquerade as a Mexican. These are things Brando does when he’s bored with the role he’s playing, but his acting in the scene goes well with the baroque nature of Furie’s filmmaking. This scene features the drinking of a jug full of “pulque” by Brando in just one sip, and what a scene it is; Furie’s camera goes so close in on the jug, and then Brando drinking it, that we feel we are drinking it; not to mention the fact that this is perhaps the first time I’m seeing pulque on screen (or in real life), which i believe is a semi-alcoholic drink fermented from agave juice. This is a scene that’s not very important to the main body of the film- maybe only to show how unmoved Chuy is to hear that Matt is on his way to his hacienda- but it’s a most interesting segment in the film that adds texture and stylistic vitality. Another terrific scene is the scorpion-arm wrestling scene in Chuy’s Hacienda- the one that Chuy challenges Matt to; if Matt wins, then the Appaloosa is his. It’s a long, tense scene played out in silence- no sounds or music- as the two arm-wrestle and poisonous scorpions lay wait on either side to sting the arm of the loser. It’s brilliantly atmospheric, with the performances of the actors adding to the tension. The climax shootout set in a snowy landscape is also great; instead of slam bang action, we get very measured, stately violence, with Matt triumphing the bad guys with ingenuity and skill of a soldier\hunter.
There are some dense monologues in the film that Brando knocks it out of the park; the one where he reminisces about his childhood is terrific; so is another long talkie sequence which finds the characters of Matt and Trini in an unused grave, escaping from Chuy and his men; other times, Brando mumbles so incoherently and acts so stiffly that one can’t make out what he’s expressing. Of the rest of the cast, the actors who play Matt’s Mexican siblings are way, way over the top. It’s left to Saxon and Emilio Fernández to pump up the film; Saxon is terrific- even with Tan face and accent and all- and infuses some much needed energy into proceedings along with the ever dependable Fernandez. The film features an interesting subtext regarding masculinity and impotence, and the appaloosa becoming a sort of symbol for male virility. Trini’s attempts to leave Chuy and escape by mounting the horse is an emasculating experience for Chuy; later, when Chuy steals the horse, Matt is rendered impotent. Then he goes out to reclaim the horse; he fails on his first attempt and is left to die; but then, both Trini and the Appaloosa comes to his rescue and he’s rejuvenated. The climax finds Matt having to make a difficult choice between the horse and Trini, and though he does make the choice, he manages to save them both, and thus, emerging victorious. The roping scene, the arm wrestling scene and the final duel using long rifles are all meant to invoke this sexual subtext. In that regard, Furie’s baroque framing is perfect for translating these weird psychosexual themes that permeate the film. In many ways, Furie was attempting to do to the Western, what he had very successfully done to the ‘James Bond\spy thriller’ film with Ipcress File– that was a visually inventive, anti-James Bond, psychological spy thriller. This is a sort of baroque, anti-western before this kind of film was becoming famous in America; It’s very much an underrated little gem from the most controversial, but interesting, period in Brando’s career that also produced other underrated gems like Morituri, Reflections in a golden eye and Burn!. An apocryphal story mentioned in Peter Manso’s book on Brando states that Brando saw this film many years later and was very impressed with the it, and he expressed his views to Furie when they met again; Brando was quoted to have said, “I thought you were a no-good double-crosser, and I didn’t know if I could trust you, but I saw the film and you have the great sense of the best visual directors. Let’s do another movie together.”, and Furie is reported to have replied, “Never!” . But in his book, Sidney J. Furie Life and Films, author Daniel Kremer insists that Furie refuted this, at least partially; that he ever said “Never”, because Brando was the reason why he made this movie, and despite all the feuds and negative experiences he had on the film, he felt that Brando gave a damn good performance, and he would work with Brando many times over if he had wished it. Well! that’s the magic of Marlon Brando; friend or foe, admirer or hater, everybody respects him. One only wishes that Brando had a little bit more respect for himself and for the craft (of acting) at which he was so good at.