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Monday, July 6, 2015

The Final Word on Appaloosa: A Difficult Western

In Ed Harris' film "Appaloosa," an adaptation of Robert B. Parker's novel, it's easy to understand someone like Randall Bragg, a villain fixated upon his goals, regardless of their cost to others. He speaks well. He demonstrates a better understanding of Ralph Waldo Emerson, and how his essays and poems compare to other writers, than Virgil Cole can ever hope to achieve. He has made influential friends. He knows what he wants, and when he discovers he cannot get it by force, he retools his approach, and works the legal and political system. 

Virgil Cole, Mrs. Allie French, and Everett Hitch

It's more difficult to understand people like Virgil Cole, who doesn't abuse his power and authority, who trusts his friend Everett Hitch completely, and grants Allie an undeserved and unconditional love. It's difficult to understand Hitch, who seemingly has little interest in "the Law," dismissing it as "a way of feeing easy about earning a living as a gunman." It's difficult to understand Allie, who wishes above all to be a lady and be loved, but cannot see farther ahead than the present moment. And no one wants to plunk down their money, and walk away from a movie with more questions than answers.

These days, we also expect lots of action from our films. Instead, "Appaloosa" shows us heroes who achieve most of their goals without the sort of unrealistic, over-the-top movie violence that we can never practice in our own lives. For example:

When Everett Hitch sees Bragg's men approaching,
he races to warn Virgil Cole.

Virgil Cole talks Bragg's men into leaving,
instead of carrying out the violent rescue they intended,
and without a single shot being fired.

Life in the Old West was so full of hardships and dangers that, just like Virgil Cole, Everett Hitch, and Allie French, the early farmers, ranchers, and residents of small towns like Appaloosa were occasionally forced to make significant moral compromises. Today, when we have instant access to information, and capabilities that frontier settlers could only have dreamed of, we don't like to talk in terms of compromises. We don't like to believe that life still demands compromise, that every decision we make and every action we take is a compromise, and that the compromises we make define our characters and futures. Perhaps that's partly why Westerns have fallen out of favor, especially in the cinema. Just like its more action-orientated contemporary "3:10 To Yuma," and the big concept film "Cowboys And Aliens," "Appaloosa" barely recouped its production costs at the box office. Still, it was a labor of love for Ed Harris and everyone else on the production, all of whom accepted less money than they normally charge in order to make this little twenty million dollar movie.

I rarely watch Westerns, and I never read them, but the protagonists in "Appaloosa" make me want to read Robert B Parker's novel and its three sequels. In retrospect, Randall Bragg seems almost irrelevant, whereas Virgil Cole, Everett Hitch, and Allie French continue to fascinate me. Despite their differences, and all the circumstances that should tear them apart, these seemingly simple yet complex characters still make sacrifices for each other. I want to see the world through their eyes, understand the choices they make, and accompany them during the later portions of their lives. I imagine that's the way actor Ed Harris felt, when he committed himself to co-writing, directing, producing, and acting in "Appaloosa," after reading just a few chapters of Robert B Parker's novel.

Dragon Dave

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