Since the beginning of cinema, the western has been among the most durable, in-demand and lucrative of genres.
At one point during the Golden Age of Cinema (the 1930s-’40s), westerns and musicals were the most popular types of movies playing in theaters. Visions of “the old west,” stories about moral codes, heroes and villains depicted in broad strokes (the moral sheriff facing the black-hat sporting villain) and history painted in crowd-pleasingly mainstream, deceptively revisionist tones defined the so-called “horse opera” at the height of its power.
As pioneer silent film actors like Tom Mix gave way to the likes of Gary Cooper and Randolph Scott, the eternally iconic image of John Wayne and his starring vehicles defined the tropes and longevity of the western.
By the late 1970s, the western genre had evolved into something quite different from its heyday. The arrival of Clint Eastwood’s “Man with No Name” and his groundbreaking trilogy of “Spaghetti Westerns” from maestro Sergio Leone is cited as the inciting incident of change, but the metamorphosis of cowboy movies was broader than that. In fact, the Western was going through a vast change to match the impact of the counter cultural movement.
In the shadow of Wayne’s Oscar winning turn in “True Grit” (1969) came Tom McLaughlin’s 1971 flower power-fueled “Billy Jack,” a neo-western/vigilante drama that contrasted what most films in the genre had done previously- defending (and not demonizing) the image of Native Americans.
In the same year, Robert Altman’s “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” arrived, altering the approach and look of the American western; the Warren Beatty/ Julie Christie vehicle showed the “wild west” to be a muddy, unsanitary, morally repugnant wasteland.
The Duke himself was caught in this wave of genre revisionism, as Wayne’s final film, “The Shootist” (1976), depicted its star as a dying gunslinger (Wayne died three years later of stomach cancer). The new approach to Westerns was mostly devoid of classical elements, as contemporary horse operas became studies of moral ambiguity, frontier cruelty, the definition of masculinity, corruption and the suffering of the righteous.
Decades before the arrival of essential neo-westerns like “Unforgiven” (1992) and “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” (2007) (as well as attempts to revive traditional westerns, like “Silverado” and “Tombstone”), 1970s movies about cowboys on the prairie had radically changed and reflected the political and moral unease of the times in which they were made.
Arriving at the center of this era, when Eastwood’s works (in front of and behind the camera) would keep the genre on life support and most westerns would become spoofs (intentional or otherwise), is Arthur Penn’s “The Missouri Breaks.”
Set in 1880s Montana, Jack Nicholson stars as Tom Logan, a horse thief who is stunned by the sudden arrest and hanging of a colleague. The rest of Logan’s gang is played by Harry Dean Stanton, Randy Quaid, John Ryan and Frederick Forrest; they are stalked by a hired bounty hunter named Lee Clayton, played by Marlon Brando.
At times, Clayton behaves by the book and appears to be a reputable and skillful enforcer of the law; once we see him in action, we witness a man displaying sadistic, bizarre methods of dispatching his prey.
Penn, a vital filmmaking force after the breakthrough success of “Bonnie and Clyde,” “Little Big Man,” and the acclaimed “Night Moves,” found himself at the helm of a highly anticipated western.
“The Missouri Breaks” (penned by “Rancho Deluxe” author Thomas McGuane) managed to corral a superstar cast: Brando, in his first film since winning the Oscar for “The Godfather,” and Nicholson, in his first vehicle since the history-making “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”
The opportunity to witness two acting titans and cultural icons together, in no less a western, seemed like a can’t miss project for all involved. Upon its release in the summer of 1976, “The Missouri Breaks” was a high-profile failure that confounded critics and left most audiences irate. Today, it’s a curiosity item that baffles and rewards those willing to embrace a western with no interest in following the rules.
FAST FACT: Ace screenwriter Robert Towne (“Chinatown”) gave “The Missouri Breaks” script a spit polish, including the film’s climactic sequence.
Filmgoers expecting a rousing “High Noon” from two titan movie stars were initially let down. The genre that was already reconfigured substantially by Altman and Leone was given a gonzo, anything-goes approach by Penn; his leads provided novel, if wildly contrasting, depictions of trigger-itchy outlaws. More importantly, there is a visible joy in the performances from Brando and Nicholson, particularly during their playful scenes together.
Brando’s foppish, aristocratic Clayton bears an on-again, off-again Irish brogue, suggesting we never see this man outside of his ever-changing performance mode (indeed, a good fit for Brando). Clayton is an enigma, like the man playing him.
Clayton’s shifting dialects and appearances may have played like acting school wackiness in ’76 but it matches the way the western genre, likewise, avoided gathering dust by taking big chances that countered expectations.
Nicholson’s Logan finds the actor connecting with the rugged, wily aspects of the character, giving a performance that is fine and controlled, unlike Brando’s far more experimental approach. Brando’s touches are self-indulgence personified but, in spite of his unwillingness to give a focused, restrained performance, he puts on a good show.
In the same way: the scene where Brando kisses his horse while reciting Shakespeare should have been left in the gag reel but it’s kind of amazing to see that it made the final cut.
Brando’s flamboyant performance seems a precursor for Val Kilmer’s far more focused, if no less interesting, turn in “Tombstone.” Brando’s own “One-Eyed Jacks,” his 1961 directorial debut/ starring vehicle is, in fact, a far more conventional western with an epic scope than anything in Penn’s film.
While Penn previously directed Brando in “The Chase (1966), his inability to keep his star from restlessly acting out in front of the camera doesn’t doom the film, as many declared upon its release. If anything, this odd, savagely violent film is an early indicator for how the genre would continue to evolve in an unpredictable manner.
By stripping away the traditional aspects of the horse opera, leading with naturalistic performances and allowing barbarity and irony (not justice and a tidy resolution) to be the driving factors of the narrative, this was only another effort to further nudge the genre in a truly wild direction.
The love story that develops between Nicholson and Kathleen Lloyd’s Jane works, even as it begins with a series of insults and an awkward come-on (one of the film’s many avoidances of genre romanticism). John Williams’ peppy score (composed a year before his big breakthrough scoring “Star Wars”) fits the western mode and still matches the film’s brazen idiosyncrasies.
Penn’s approach here is to keep things leisurely, almost Altman-esque in its insistence on being observant over showy. The big set pieces are impressive and skillfully staged, though it’s the quieter, more intimate scenes that linger the most. The tub scene, where Logan furiously lashes out at Clayton while he enjoys a bath, is a great bit on multiple levels; watching Nicholson filled with rage against Brando’s detached whimsy, we can relate to the former actor’s frustration at the latter’s what-me-worry Method acting.
Marlon Brando, Harry Dean Stanton, Jack Nicholson & Kathleen Lloyd having some fun on the set of THE MISSOURI BREAKS (1976). pic.twitter.com/sl1dRNhIVq
— Eyes On Cinema (@RealEOC) June 18, 2017
Nicholson isn’t the only actor who gets the bask in the Brando’s tornado of creative chaos- Quaid and Dean Stanton each have standout sequences, as their character’s traditional gunslinger methods and lack of anticipation are no match for Clayton.
While “The Missouri Breaks” was Brando’s final western, Nicholson made one more -- the amusing but wobbly “Goin’ South,” which he directed in 1978. Unfortunately for Penn, this was the first in a string of unsuccessful films that uprooted his early directorial hot streak. That’s a shame, as his overall body of work (particularly his underrated 1987 thriller “Dead of Winter”) consistently demonstrated his themes of shifting identities and how those wandering in the wilderness take from whomever gets in their way.
Penn’s cinematic roundup with Brando and Nicholson was declared a box office and critical disaster in its day but their odd, shockingly violent and impressively unhinged film is a worthy footnote in the history of its storied genre.