Independent 70s Western
Shoot the Sun Down was a small independent film which seems to have got a limited theatrical release in the Southwest (and in Norway, bizarrely) but elsewhere went straight to VHS. It was produced, written and directed by David Leeds, his only film project as far as I know (he is a full-time artist). It was shot in six weeks in 1976 and released in 1978. Future Universal Soldier screenplayist Richard Rothstein was co-writer.
The picture had the working title Santa Fe 1836 and that describes the setting accurately. In fact it’s quite unusual as a Western in that it’s set in then-Mexican territory and the gringo characters are some of the many who moved down to find their fortune, in this case looking for gold.
It had a good cast, topped by pre-Superman Margot Kidder, who plays an English servant girl who has indentured herself to a ship’s captain to come to America and seek to better herself. Ms Kidder has a very posh cut-glass English accent for a servant but you have to admire her vowels. She takes a bath in a pool (funny how there’s always one around in the desert when a lady needs to bathe) in a skimpy shift, though of course I didn’t notice that bit.
The captain concerned is Uppsala-born Bo Brandin, so it’s quite a cosmopolitan mix. He says he’s a trader with the Indians but he’s looking for that gold like everyone else.
The young man who falls for the girl is Christopher Walken, still looking incredibly young (though he’d been acting since 1953). It wouldn’t be long before he was picking up an Oscar for The Deerhunter. His character has the curious name of Mr Rainbow, and he was to have worn multi-colored eyeglasses which gave a rainbow effect, “basically hippy shades, which were actually rare, but historically authentic,” says Leeds, but when he tried them on, that idea was abandoned. He’s still named Rainbow though.
But the lead character in many ways is second-billed Geoffrey Lewis, who has the difficult job of providing some comic relief while playing a grisly scalphunter named Scalphunter. His weapon of choice is a crossbow. Mr Lewis was a very good actor (he died in 2015) and carries off this role well. It was a part that might have suited Jack Nicholson. Lewis started in our noble genre in the early 70s with Bad Company and The Culpepper Cattle Company and you will probably remember him in High Plains Drifter and later Tom Horn. He has a constant quizzical look about him.
It is a violent land and the gringos kill each other and the Mexicans too and the Navajos are in brutal conflict with the Apaches (although in various fights I wasn’t too sure which was which). One of the Navajo women is Sacheen Littlefeather, the activist who represented Marlon Brando at the 1973 Oscars where she declined Brando’s Best Actor award which he won for his performance in The Godfather, partly as a protest against Hollywood’s treatment of American Indians.
Rainbow is a goody, definitely (he is kind to his horse) and he bonds with an Indian, Sunbearer (not sure if Navajo or Apache) played by A Martinez, who’s about to be set upon because he’s beating some Mexicans at dice, they want to kill him, obviously, and Rainbow intervenes. Rainbow is called a former Confederate, which is odd for the 1830s. But Leeds said, “The date 1836 is set by the fact that Mr Rainbow is on his way to the Alamo (of course, to die, as they all did) and that he has the first six-shot repeater, a Colt Patterson repeater, which was introduced in 1836 as well.”
The film is oddly disjointed, I think is the word, or fragmented, and it isn’t easy to follow the narrative. You’re not always entirely sure what’s happening. And even at a modest 99 minutes, it’s probably too long. Furthermore, there’s a curious lack of tension. Leeds said, “When the first version was completed the film was still entitled Santa Fe 1836 and was quite a bit longer, and even slower, although much more narratively coherent.”
But there’s some attractive New Mexico location shooting, including at White Sands, so I enjoyed that part. They built a town near Santa Fe which was later used in Silverado and Leeds said, “Silverado, by the way, was a movie I wished I had made.” Yup, who doesn’t. The cinematography is credited to ‘L Strether’, although the Kino-Lorber DVD box claims it is actually shot by Taxi Driver‘s Michael Chapman.
The music, by Ed Bogas and Judy Munsen, starts regrettably spaghetti-ish but improves to some plaintive guitar and modern discordant strings. Leeds said, “We had decided that film needed a more aggressive score to propel the narrative, so I went for a very Kurosawaesgue, more percussive feeling – with a little Spaghetti thrown in.”
Shoot the Sun Down is an oddity, I’d say, and in the trendy 1970s Western class, but it’s worth a look perhaps.