Film review – War Paint (Lesley Selander, 1953)

Lesley Selander was a veteran in directing western films by the time War Paint was released in 1953. From 1936 onwards he had directed at least three features a year, eventually reaching a grand total of 107 by the time he retired with Arizona Bushwackers in 1968.

War Paint is one of his later efforts, and Selander walks the line between showing himself to be a veteran of the genre and showing he has exhausted every foible available to make a film interesting.

It stars Robert Slack as Lt. Billings, who is put in charge of delivering a peace treaty to a powerful Native American chief. He sets off with a party of men, only to be tracked by Taslik (Keith Larsen) and Wanima (Joan Taylor), both Native Americans strongly against the treaty. Taslik joins the party, but leads them in a large circle whilst promising them he will lead them to water. Dehydrated and beginning to hallucinate, the party’s morale unravels as tensions rise.

It is a flawed film for several reasons. One of the more interesting characters is Wanima, portrayed by Joan Taylor. She is a dead-shot with the rifle, successfully killing American soldiers with her accurate aim. She is silent as she tracks the party for miles without being discovered. However, when she is eventually found she loses all of her character and becomes more of a damsel in distress, undoing about an hour of hard work from the script writers and from Taylor.

The stock footage used for the circling vultures appears several times and is clearly from a different reel, with nothing done to hide the cracks in the footage. It is a source of humour, but I suppose was quicker than replicating the shot from scratch.

It was filmed on location in Death Valley National Park, the first motion picture to have done so. It is clearly a wonderful and largely untouched location, and was (and is) home to many Native American tribes, adding an air of authenticity to the picture.

The war paint of the title refers primarily to the paint adorning the face of Taslik, which signifies his achievements in murdering settler soldiers. Unfortunately, the overall impression left by the film is more “War-Paint-by-numbers” than anything more sinister.

A decent film with an exciting climax, but nothing that makes it worth seeking out over anything else in the Western genre you might stumble upon.


Film review – Wind River (Taylor Sheridan, 2017)

WARNING: This review contains moderate spoilers of a good film. Just go watch it. Then come back.

Taylor Sheridan’s first mainstream foray into directing comes in the form of Wind River, a low-budget film that makes good use of some astute casting to harness a subtle script to leave an impact way beyond the sum of its parts.

Part murder mystery, part western thriller, it plods along at a pace that, at times, risks feeling simply like a better-than-average TV investigation drama. Then, with a well-executed flashback as the introduction to the final act, the film turns into a classic western, complete with Mexican stand-off and the resulting bloodbath. It’s the payoff for a steady build-up that is well worth the wait.

The plot centres around an unsettling and mysterious opening sequence, where we follow professional huntsman Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) as he discovers the body of Natalie Hanson (Kelsey Chow) on the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming, USA. Her body is frozen in the snow and there are clear signs of rape. She is without shoes. FBI agent Jane Banner is brought in to investigate, quickly forming an unlikely bond with Lambert to trace and track the truth.

Wyoming is the unorthodox setting for the story, captured beautifully by cinematographer Ben Richardson. Much of the film is set in mountainous terrain and the snow-covered land becomes integral to the plot. But as picturesque as the environment is, the bloody and violent story playing over the top trumps it.

Nick Cave and Warren Ellis team up again to provide a moody and fitting soundtrack, shadowing the film rather than becoming overbearing.

It’s a gritty conclusion to Sheridan’s trilogy – following Sicario and Hell Or High Water – and one that absolutely does its predecessors justice. It may not feel as brash and immediate as either film, but the three films feel like they are a strong body of work and wholly played out in the same universe. As a result, Taylor Sheridan is holding his own with both David Mackenzie and Denis Villeneuve – a sign he has the ability to keep delivering the goods.

Film review – Shane (George Stevens, 1953)

I’ve never been a huge fan of Westerns. It’s a slight bugbear of mine and I hate to be so sweepingly dismissive of an entire genre, but until recently they’ve always seemed so formulaic and lacking in unique characters.

That’s not to say I don’t have many fond memories of Westerns. My grandfather was a huge fan of any films with cowboys in. Growing up, I lived away from most of my family and so getting to my grandparents’ house was a long journey that would usually have us arriving in the early afternoon, by which point my grandfather would often be settling in to watch a good Western. At the time, the subtleties of the character development or the most intense of standoffs was undoubtedly lost on my pre-teen self.

With the trusted Master of Cinema label now lovingly releasing a select few Western films (with the typical smorgasbord of bonus material to help put the films into context), I’m giving the genre a second chance, if nothing else to prove my smarmy little 10-year-old self that he was wrong all along.


Shane tells the story of the titular hero, played by Alan Ladd. As the opening credits play out, he rides into a small isolated town in Wyoming to meet the Starrett family. He has a mysterious past but quickly wins their favour before the father Joe (Van Heflin) invites him to stay on their property to help out on the ranch.

Over dinner, he learns that the entire town is being terrorised by Rufus Ryker (Emile Meyer) and his gang, who are driving out families one-by-one to gain total control over the land in the area in order to better herd their cattle.

Thus, the story plays out with Shane and Joe forming a stern partnership to rally against the gang and save the town for those families already settled. As the conflict escalates, Shane emerges as the classic lone gunman hero in which the whole town’s hopes lie.

Whilst the story itself is quite familiar, befitting of any good cowboy or samurai film, director George Stevens gets away with the over-idolisation of Shane as the all-American hero by the inclusion of the young Joey Starrett (Brandon deWilde). It is through his eyes that we see everything happen. This has one of two effects. Firstly, it allows Shane to be as formulaic as he needs to be by virtue of the fact that the story can be considered as a retelling of the tale through Joey’s memory of the fact. If that doesn’t sit well as an interpretation, then at the very least the saintly actions of Shane can be seen as a means to leave a positive impression on the child – which he certainly does.

He is clearly a man wrestling with the wrongs of his past, and spends most of the film trying to hide this from the Starrett family. When he finally reveals his gunslinging credentials in front of the Joey, he decides it’s time to move on, presumably to the next place he stumbles upon that needs rescuing.

Whether he makes it to that next town is open to interpretation. Indeed, in the final shootout, he does take what looks like a fairly serious wound to the torso. He plays this down for his final leaving speech for Joey, but as he rides off I couldn’t help but wonder whether he was going to survive. After all, he’s spent the best part of two hours putting a brave face on for every other aspect of his life – he certainly wouldn’t let on to Joey that he was about to die.


The romantic subplot between Shane and Joe’s wife Marian (Jean Arthur) adds an interesting subtext to the situation. Clearly she is pining for him, and her interest is underlined in every scene they share. It feels a little shallow, and does nothing for Marian as a character as she follows every stereotype in cinematic history. Alas, it was typical of the time and her only purpose is to add some sex appeal to Alan Ladd’s handsome hero.

Shane may be a typical Western, but it is a fine and pure example of the genre that is rightly being held up as one of the best of its kind.

[Note 1] The second screenshot in this review is how the film should look on your widescreen television, with black bars down the left and right sides of the picture. This is due to the aspect ratio used (1.37:1). There is a second aspect ratio available on the disc, though as Adam Naymar explains in the booklet note “Don’t Fence Me In” this is a controversial version of the film. I’ll let you read it for yourselves should you make the purchase.

[Note 2] Below is the theatrical trailer for Shane. It is proof that cinema goers in 1953 cared not for spoilers, as the critical climax of the final scene of the film is included. Quite why this was done is a mystery to me as it completely ruins the entire film, but since the film is now 63 years old I don’t feel it is fair to be angry towards me for including it in this article. After all, I’ve given you fair warning…


Film review – Day of the Outlaw (Andre De Toth, 1959)

Andre de Toth’s unusually complex Western ‘Day of the Outlaw’ has found its way onto the Master of Cinema label this month as a dual-format release. A forgotten and under-appreciated film, shining the spotlight on it will hopefully mean it finds a much-deserved wider audience.

The film is set in an isolated town called Bitter in Wyoming. The story opens with a couple of men on horses riding towards the camera in a frosty snow storm. It is a clever opening scene by De Toth, setting up the rugged main character Blaise Starrett (Robert Ryan) with the ominous line, “I’m through with being reasonable.” We know he’s got a bone to pick with someone, with the assumption that we’re going to find out who and why pretty quickly. That we do.

What is essentially a boundry dispute about the location of a barbed wire fence reveals a hidden layer of complication when we learn that Blaise is having an affair with Helen Crane (Tina Louise), wife to Hal (Alan Marshal) of said boundry dispute. She seems absolutely loyal to her husband despite evidently being in love with Blaise.

As tensions continue to rise, the two men end up in a standoff that will likely lead to one or both being killed. This is poleaxed by the arrival of an out-of-town gang headed up by Jack Bruhn (Burl Ives), who pose a much greater threat to the men, their wives, their land and their livelihood.


At 92 minutes long and a reported budget of just $400,000 (a little over $3m in 2016), De Toth has to work with what he has and work fast. It’s a great achievement that this was done so well, especially in what appears to be torrid weather conditions. Characters are fully realised despite often not being afforded enough screen time to develop them. A good example of this is young gang member Gene (David Nelson), who goes through an internal psychological journey in what amounts to about 10 minutes of screen time.

The film was cited by Quentin Tarantino as a reference point in the run up to The Hateful Eight and it’s easy to see the resemblance [1]. The opening sequence was a direct homage to Day of the Outlaw, with a long shot allowing the lead character(s) to naturally approach through a snow storm to join the viewer at the front of the screen. The secluded setting in increasingly worse weather, high tensions, conflicting characters having to live side-by-side whilst the story unfolds. Nothing is stolen, but it is clearly a film Tarantino rates.

Ryan’s Blaise makes a fantastic focal point around which the film plays out. He is a man who stands by his own morals. His affair with Helen is justified by him essentially saying he has no respect for her husband and thinks she deserves better. He undertakes an openly noble act of self-sacrifice for the good of the townspeople he thinks little of, though refuses to take any credit for it. He is the film’s only hero and he plays it coolly throughout. It isn’t Ryan’s most celebrated role but one worthy of a second look if you’re a fan.

Day of the Outlaw may be a flawed film but there’s enough on offer for fans of the anti-Western subgenre that seems to have found its way back to popular interest following the likes of Django Unchained, The Hateful Eight and The Revenant. If you liked any of these films then this is worth checking out.

[1] In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Tarantino stated, “I can definitely say that as bleak as our movie is, we are definitely the funniest snow Western ever made. This is funnier than The Great Silence, it’s funnier than Day of the Outlaw.” Quite what he means by this isn’t exactly clear. There isn’t much humour in Day of the Outlaw.


Film review – The Revenant (Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2016)

Watching The Revenant was an ordeal. Realistically gritty, putting the viewed in the centre of the action at all times and not afraid to show a bit of gore, that I felt so uncomfortable was inevitably a deliberate choice and will be one of the reasons it inevitably wins big at the awards ceremonies this year.

The story is set in 1823 in Louisiana Purchase, which the modern world now knows as North and South Dakota. It opens with a good old-fashioned Western movie standoff: the hunters are in the woods stockpiling pelts when they are ambushed by a group of Arikara Native Americans. The scene is one of the grittiest and most brutal opening battle sequences since Saving Private Ryan. People from both sides are blown up, arrows pierce any and every body part and nothing is watered down or censored.

The hunters are led by Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson), whilst the team includes hostile John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) and the experienced Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio). Hostility is felt between Fitzgerald and Glass; the former has been partially scalped by Native Americans and the latter has a son, Hawk, from his relationship with a native.

revenant screenshot

Come on guys. He’s done enough for the award this year.

The most famous scene from the film, in which Glass is brutally attacked by a female bear as he tried to hunt her cubs, is almost betrayed by a lack of convincing CGI. Fortunately if you believe in it enough, DiCaprio saves the day with a wholly convincing portrayal of a man desperately fighting for his life. It’s really difficult to watch but strangely mesmerizing, every grimace making you want to turn away and look closer in equal parts.

Tom Hardy is completely unlikeable as John Fitzgerald, just as he should be. There is literally nothing good about his character and it’s another huge achievement in Hardy’s young career.

As the final shot plays out, DiCaprio looks straight down the barrel of the lens and into our eyes. In the film, Glass is showing a whole range of spoilery emotions. In the real world, it felt like DiCaprio was saying to us “I’ve been attacked by a bear, had valleys dug into my back, been left for dead, thrown off a cliff, almost drowned, shot at, climbed inside a dead horse, eaten raw meat, learned the native Arikara language and almost frozen to death… so can I have an Oscar this year please?” I don’t think anyone who sees this could deny him of it. Not this time around.

The Revenant is on general release now.