Monday, April 12, 2021

Support Your Local Gunfighter

James Garner stars in Support Your Local Gunfighter and it’s easy to see why he was a star.  His combination of good looks, witty dialog, and charisma carries what would otherwise be a second-rate film.

My introduction to James Garner came with The Rockford Files, which began a few years after this 1971 movie.  Jim Rockford and Latigo Smith, the character Garner plays in Support Your Local Gunfighter, share many personality traits.  In fact, even though Maverick isn’t one of my favorite TV shows, there is a clear line from Brett Maverick to Latigo Smith to Jim Rockford.  It even looks like Latigo Smith’s clothes were the same as Brett Maverick’s, at least as far as shirts and ties go.

There’s a lot going on in Support Your Local Gunfighter and at times, it can be confusing to keep track of who is who and who is doing what to whom.  After an establishing shot, the action starts on a train car, where Smith, as the audience will eventually learn is his name, seems to be on his way to Denver to get married.  However, he also seems to be somewhat unwilling and bribes people to let him get off at the next stop, which happens to be a town called Purgatory.

The reason for the town’s name becomes obvious, especially when Patience Barton, who is anything but, makes her presence loudly known.  Played by Suzanne Pleshette, Patience is a far cry from Emily Hartley in The Bob Newhart Show, the character she played beginning the year after making Support Your Local Gunfighter.

The problem with Patience and Taylor Barton, her father played by Harry Morgan, and Jug, Smith’s sidekick played by Jack Elam, and most of the supporting characters, is that they are all played for laughs.  They talk loudly and act broadly.  Watching Support Your Local Gunfighter through a 21st century lens, which I admit is not really fair, the movie makes fun of Patience in all her scenes, implicitly and sometimes explicitly contrasting her behavior with a stereotypical view of how a young woman should act.  Sometimes it was amusing but it was also grating.

Much of the plot revolves around Latigo Smith being mistaken for a famous gunfighter and using the misunderstanding to his financial advantage.  All the disparate plot lines eventually converge and of course there is a happy ending for the good guys.  Burt Kennedy directed but Support Your Local Gunfighter is not best his movie.  But it is only 1 hour and 33 minutes long so if you’re a fan of James Garner, Suzanne Pleshette, Harry Morgan, or Jack Elam, you’ll enjoy this lightweight movie.

Tuesday, February 9, 2021

Mystery Road and Goldstone

Does a Western have to be filmed in the western part of the United States to be considered a Western?  The Australian movies Mystery Road and Goldstone emphatically prove the answer is no.


Both movies star Aaron Pedersen, an Indigenous Australian actor who has appeared in a number of popular Australian TV shows.  In the 2013 film Mystery Road, Pedersen plays Jay Swan, a detective who arrives in a small town in the outback to solve the mystery of who murdered an Aboriginal girl.  In Goldstone, released in 2016, some years have passed but again Jay Swan finds himself in another speck-of-a-nowhere town in the outback searching for a missing Chinese girl.  The pacing is very slow at the start, especially in Goldstone, but both films climax with a burst of action followed by a denouement which resolves some questions but leaves others unanswered, as all good movies should so viewers can form their own conclusions. 

In both Mystery Road, which runs 221 minutes, and Goldstone, which is 210 minutes long, several Western clich├ęs are present.  However, because of the superb acting, the wonderful and sometimes unusual cinematography, and the unfamiliar setting – to Americans, at least – they do not feel like tired tropes.  

Jay Swan is the outsider who appears suddenly from nowhere – the audience never learns where he is from.  His home life is messy – he’s left his wife, who is very angry at him, and he’s estranged from his daughter.  He works alone – and almost seems to go out of his way to discourage colleagues from getting too friendly with him.  He swaggers when he walks – and does it beautifully, but in doing so he conveys an attitude of righteousness.  He wears iconic cowboy clothing – an Australian version of a cowboy hat, a gun in a holster on his hip, and cowboy boots, which the camera lovingly focuses on many times, especially in Mystery Road but also in Goldstone.  Jay Swan is the loner who stands up to corruption and speaks truth to power – and gets hurt, physically and psychologically, as a result.  

As well, supporting characters embody classic Western traits: the mayor and others on the take, the fresh-faced younger guy who has trouble distinguishing right from wrong, the older woman with almost a heart of gold who is loyal to the wrong person.  The towns that are the settings of both films are dusty with few inhabitants, located in what seem to be the middle of nowhere; they are self-enclosed environments where the law is not really present.  In both Mystery Road and Goldstone, there are shoot-outs; I won’t spoil anything but both of them conform to Western showdowns.  

The victims in Mystery Road and Goldstone are “little people” who have no power.  Through many twists and unexpected turns, Jay Swan saves them.  The bad guys get their well-deserved comeuppance.  The world is made not perfect but better because of Jay Swan.

After Goldstone was released, a TV show was produced with Aaron Pedersen playing Jay Swan; currently, there are two seasons available.  The TV series are set in between the time of the movies and fill in a little of the backstory of Jay Swan.  Each series deals with one overall mystery.  They, and the movies too, also address contemporary issues such as relationships between Indigenous people and whites, the power of the government, land control and use, and family dynamics. Although situated in an Australian context, they will resonate with audiences world-wide.

For a different take on the Western genre, Mystery Road, Goldstone, and the TV series are well worth watching.