The Missouri Breaks deserves more attention than it has received over the years. Apart from the fact that it contains one of the most darkly comic lines ever used in cinema "You know what woke you up? You just had your throat cut,” most reviewers have logically zoomed in on the obvious—the swaggering performance of Marlon Brando at the peak of his career and an overshadowed but endearing performance of Jack Nicholson. Yet the film belongs not to these two worthies but to Arthur Penn, the director.
The late Arthur Penn was more “sinn’d against than sinning,” after he made his third western, The Missouri Breaks, when most critics and viewers felt the film was a disaster. A famous US publication Variety described the film’s achievement as “corned beef and ham hash.” According to reports on the making of this “revisionist” western, a term given to Westerns with anti-heroes, strong women, and a critical approach to re-evaluate established military heroes, government and business policies for the sake of authenticity, Penn was out-gunned in his directorial effort by his two megastars Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson who took a dislike to each other during the filming. But is that a correct evaluation? Perhaps, not so. Most of the scenes in the film in which a viewer could assume the two stars were filmed together were actually filmed separately. Unfortunately, the poor reception of this film with the viewing public sounded the death knell of the Hollywood Western, which until then was considered commercially a safe bet among the many genres.
When a director such as Penn chooses to make a film on any subject he/she believes in, it is inevitable that there is some value addition that the director provides to the written work of the novelist/playwright/screenplay-writer—in this case, screenplay-writer Thomas McGuane and the un-credited interloper on the McGuane script Robert Towne (who had just a few years before in 1974 earned fame with Polanski’s Chinatown, another Nicholson film). And what was Penn’s value addition? It is useful to re-evaluate the film more as a Penn film rather than Brando film or a Nicholson film or even a McGuane film. It is important to note that The Missouri Breaks was made by Penn on the heels of two important Penn films The Little Big Man and Night Moves. Both these films accentuate Penn’s growing interest in studying opposites in human beings, in oxymorons, in duality. The very title of “little big” is an oxymoron that viewers might dismiss as a quaint Indian name or a contribution of the author of the tale, Thomas Berger. And yet the film The Little Big Man is all about a man with unremarkable physique who could not only satisfy four wives sexually but had the wits to out-manoeuvre the strategies of General Custer to a considerable extent. Penn’s General Custer and Wild Bill Hickok are considerably different from other tales about them. They are heroes with lots of chinks in their armour. And almost every other lesser character in the film proves to be different for the viewer as that film progressed. In Night Moves, Penn’s work that followed The Little Big Man, Penn presents another anti-hero tale about a detective named Harry Moseby, played by Gene Hackman. In Night Moves, we have an engaging and yet unusual tale of a man who can solve complex marital relationships of others but inexplicably fails to solve his own. Obviously, Penn was getting fond of making movies that explored the inherent contradictions in humans---physical, mental, and psychological.
Penn’s next film The Missouri Breaks continues to serve the viewer with similar paradoxes of his two previous films. The film opens with a lovely natural scenery that includes three horse riders making pleasant conversation on a 4th of July (the US Independence day) to reach a gathering of men women and children singing “O Susanna”. A few seconds later, the lovely bonhomie gets transformed into a hanging of one of the three horse riders, who we learn subsequently was a rustler being led to his own hanging. One wonders if this cinematic surprise for the viewer is courtesy Penn or if it is scriptwriter McGuane at work. Both Penn and McGuane repeatedly juxtaposes civilized behaviour with violent ones. Much later in the film, the rancher’s daughter, who is against violence. states “We had a famous painter out here last year... did last scenes. That man must have painted ten squares miles of canvas... and not one human face! And I wish he could have been here to paint that boy, Sandy, hanging up there so decoratively against the mountains. Because his pink tongue and his white face would have just set off the green of Montana splendidly. I mean, it would have made the damnedest bank calendar you ever saw!" An American film critic, Robert Philip Kolker, in his interesting book A Cinema of Loneliness, commendably observed that Penn was “always concerned with the contradictions inherent in the presentation of violence.”
Penn seems to be constantly attracted by characters that stand out of the ordinary—those who are constrained either physically or mentally (The Miracle Worker, The Chase, The Little, Big Man, Night Moves, etc.). He loved anti-heroes. In The Missouri Breaks there are three anti-heroes—a rustler, a cross-dressing bounty hunter, and a gay rancher who reads Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy but serves as judge and jury as he metes out death sentences to make his little world better to live in. The film was released with the tag line “One steals, one kills, one dies.”
One would assume in a film studded with such unlikable characters that Penn would paint them black. Penn does the just the opposite—he manipulates the viewer to sympathize with the bad guys. Nicholson's horse rustler is smart—he knows the circumstances when a gun would have a bullet in it. He knows how to court a woman by brewing Chinese tea in the Wild West. Brando's bounty hunter is equally erudite—he carries a book on ornithology while horseback as he watches eagles seek its prey through binoculars, just as he follows desperadoes before he moves in on his own human kill. The ranch owner, with a gay lover on the ranch, is a good father to his daughter and is unusually well-read with 3500 works of English literature in his library. Yet, in spite of his wide knowledge, he hangs rustlers without much of a trial so that his profits grow. What a weird set of anti-heroes! One would have expected good women to balance the bad guys. But the women of Penn’s cinema have shades of gray—The Missouri Breaks is no exception. The leading lady seems to be fascinated by the bad guys and "demands" sex. Another rancher's wife has illicit sex with a guest.
One would wonder why Penn/McGuane would make the rancher choose to read Laurence Sterne’s 9-volume novel Tristram Shandy from a wide choice 3500 works of English literature in his library. In this English novel written in the 18th century introduces the reader to odd and black comedy, just as Penn/McGuane/Brando introduce the viewer to an odd and comic “regulator” Robert E. Lee Clayton who kills rustlers with sadistic pleasure and without remorse and has only one girl in his life--his own horse who he considers to have “the lips of Salome and the eyes of Cleopatra.” The “regulator” kills with incredible calculation and panache, yet he does not know when he ought to leave the stage, which is his undoing. One of the truly rewarding moments in the film is when Clayton makes a brief speech on justice, to drive home the cause and effect of the Wild West modicum of instant justice explained by the rancher in his own words, “he (the man who was hung earlier) was a thief... with probably a million good reasons for being on hard times. The main thing is that we put him out of his misery.” Clayton (Brando) after making the speech on justice takes ice cubes from under a corpse to reduce the pain from a toothache. Can any viewer deny that Penn was not at his best? Clayton cross-dresses and kills without mercy and yet knows well that his arch enemy will not shoot him in his bathtub when he exposes his naked back! Penn/McGuane/Brando makes the viewer briefly confused as to who is the better individual and who is to be less appreciated in this amazing confrontational sequence.
The final sequence of two important characters in the film leaving for different destinations after checking out where they would be 6 months hence leaves the viewer guessing of what would eventually happen in this tale after the movie ended (reminding the viewer of the final scene in Night Moves). Penn's films tend to end with a perspective of a detached outsider, making the characters quixotic and the leaves the films' end open to several viewpoints. Brando was a treat to watch in The Missouri Breaks—only his Quiemada (Burn!) appealed to this critic more than this one amongst all his films. Interestingly, in both these films Brando had problems with the director and allegedly took matters into his own hands at several stages. But if the viewer of The Missouri Breaks agrees with the American critic Robert Philip Kolker, the bizarre killings of rustlers often attributed to Brando actually follows Penn’s signature style of his movies made in the Seventies.
The music and screenplay are in many ways a tribute to the rising fame of the spaghetti Western and, therefore, quite stunning—also because of the very interesting and intelligent use of sound editing. The opening fifteen minutes of the film underline this argument, although this is a Penn film and not a Sergio Leone film.
All in all, this film is a major Western as it has elements that never surfaced in most others—women who were not mere attractions, the effect of carbines on those shot by them, and of course the slow death by hanging, in contrast to the lovely countryside (stated by the leading lady). It is a Western that entertains the viewers by getting them to mull over the spoken words and the visuals that provoke and surprise unlike the conventional Western. It is no wonder that the conventional Western enthusiast found this one difficult to digest. And most important of all, the final scene suggests that it was time to adopt change. This Western entertains in a way most others do not. (The exceptions are three revisionist Westerns: William Fraker's Monte Walsh, Tom Gries’ Will Penny, and Altman's McCabe and Mrs. Miller). Thank you, Mr. Penn and all those who contributed to making this interesting film so enjoyable in retrospect.
P.S. Arthur Penn's The Little Big Man was reviewed earlier on this blog.