Part of the reason is its director Arthur
Penn. He won Broadway’s 1960 Tony Award as Best Director in 1980 and he
directed 8 different movie actors in Oscar-nominated performances, and many
people would regard him as one of the great directors of his time. But Western
fans may not agree with that assessment. The Left-Handed Gun was interesting in some ways but was essentially mannered
and overwrought. Little Big Man teetered
dangerously on the edge of parody. And The
Missouri Breaks was fundamentally a bad Western.
Another reason is Jack Nicholson. I’m a fan of
his in other genres but not in Westerns. Those two low-budget mid-60s Monte
Hellman pictures, Ride in the Whirlwind and The Shooting, were quite interesting,
in an oddball way, but Goin’ South
was unfunny and he overacted in it. And he has a particular very Jack Nicholson
style in The Missouri Breaks but it
doesn’t quite ring true for me. Many people think he’s good in it, but I don’t.
But the principal reason I dislike the film is
because of its star, Marlon Brando. I know I’m in a minority on this, and like
Arthur Penn, Brando is considered by many to be one of the greatest exponents
of the cinematic art. The IMDb bio starts with the sentence “Marlon Brando is
widely considered the greatest movie actor of all time, rivaled only by the
more theatrically oriented Laurence Olivier in terms of esteem.” As a young man
I admired Brando’s Stanley Kowalski in A
Streetcar Named Desire and his Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront. They made a big impression on me.
But as I grew
older I found his performances overdone and even hammy. Grandstanding Fletcher
Christian in Mutiny on the Bounty? Padded-cheeked
Don Corleone mumbling his way through The
Godfather? Col. Kurtz in Apocalypse
Now? Not for me. And in our noble genre his record was less than
distinguished – and that’s putting it mildly. The only Western he was good in
(in my view) was Viva Zapata!, and
that was hardly a Western at all. The other three were poor. The Appaloosa in 1966 was an over-arty
two-revolver picture in which Brando strutted about hammily in a fright wig and
false beard, and we never for a moment believe in him as his character. It’s
just Marlon Brando. One-Eyed Jacks
was similar – mannered, and a curious mixture
of the violent and the soppy. He directed it also – and not very well. As
actor in that, he is not at all credible as a tough gun hand – he is almost
foppish. And in The Missouri Breaks,
as gun for hire Robert E Lee Clayton, he is absolutely awful.
There. Agree with those
judgements at your peril. Peril of character assassination from snooty cinéastes anyway.
Mind, I’m not entirely
alone. Brian Garfield, praise be unto his memory, said this of Brando in The Missouri Breaks:
belongs in some other movie. Brando, at a gross 250 pounds, looks like a hippo
on horseback; his bewildering costume changes (from Buffalo Bill flamboyance to
Mother Hubbard drag) are absurd; he speaks alternately with three odd accents
(Irish brogue, Plains twang, supercilious English twitter) and one can see his
eyes drift towards the off-camera cue cards he uses because he’s too lazy to
memorize lines. It bothers me that a man with so little respect for his own
profession continues to accept enormous sums of money for work that he holds in
contempt. This movie should be held that way too.
properties, though. Nicholson had just won an Oscar for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Brando was still trading on his
1972 Oscar for The Godfather and
nomination for Last Tango in Paris.
The movie isn’t all bad.
It was produced (by Elliott Kastner) on a big budget – it lost money – and it looks good, shot in
attractive and suitably ‘Western’ Montana locations in color and Panavision by Michael C
Butler (his only Western). It had music by John Williams, though I didn’t like
it this time. Too much is irritatingly ‘comic’, signaling to us who are too
dumb to know which bits are supposed to be funny. Harry Dean Stanton is very
good in it – in fact he damn nearly steals the show. And I thought John McLiam was also powerful as the
mighty cattle baron. So yes, it had its moments.
And some people liked it.
The Los Angeles Free Press called it “the
most important film of the year” and called it a “hilariously funny,
disturbingly romantic, picaresque movie.” OK. Chacun à son goût. Tom Dawson of the BBC said, “Brando’s
performance, which accentuates Clayton’s whimsicality, effeteness and sadism,
is enjoyably strange, and deliberately at odds with the naturalism of the rest
of the cast” and added that “this
appealingly eccentric revisionist western highlights the critical importance of
violence in establishing ‘civilized’ society in the American wilderness.” If you say so, Tom.
But the movie is too long, the
thin story (Thomas McGuane and Robert Towne) not being substantial enough for the 126-minute runtime. It
Director Penn said
that Tom Horn was the inspiration for Brando’s character, and writer McGuane is a Tom Horn expert (he would
pen the screenplay of Tom Horn in
1980) but in reality Brando’s lilac-smelling fop is about as far from Tom Horn
as you could possibly get. No, Mr. Penn, that won’t wash.
Vincent Canby in The New York Times makes the point that the story was better done
the year before in Rancho De Luxe,
also written by McGuane. However, in The
Missouri Breaks, “the
characters are just as bored, confused and directionless as they are in 1975,
and they, too, look back to some dimly remembered period when the old days were
I quite liked the bit where Harry Dean and
some friends rustle Canadian Mounties’ horses while the redcoats are dutifully in
church stolidly singing Bringing in the
Sheaves. Afterwards, the RCMP get their mounts back, not all that properly, in the US.
“It’s not even legal!” one of the rustlers complains, like a child, as if his
rustling had been.
It would have been much better if Tom Logan
(Nicholson) had shot Clayton in the bath tub scene. That would have shortened
the film and put a merciful end to Brando’s mug show.
I remember being shocked by Clayton’s eventual
demise, though, and even watching again now it’s quite powerful.
The 1970s, which started with revisionist
Westerns such as Dirty Little Billy,
doing a hatchet job on Billy the Kid, and Doc,
doing the same for Wyatt Earp, as well as Soldier Blue, demolishing the reputation of the US Cavalry, and Penn’s own Little Big Man, lampooning Custer, didn’t
get much better by the mid-decade point. The Western was definitely in crisis. But
at least those pictures weren’t actually boring, like this one.