Lessons learned by cowboy Lee Marvin as he tries to find his place in a dying West.
Welcome once again to It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Movie Challenge, a series in which two blogger friends (Me and Mike’s Take on the Movies) pick movies for the other to watch & review once a month, hopefully expanding each others’ viewing horizons.
One word that kept coming to mind as I watched Monte Walsh was “real.”* Pretty simplistic I know, but there it is; I never felt that I was seeing anything but real lives unfold against a real backdrop with real actions, consequences and feelings. Part of that vivid and powerful reality is how mature the story and its lessons are. This movie’s themes of loss, choice and maturity are not ones I would have enjoyed, been patient with or remotely understood until a few years ago. I struggle to think of another movie that captures so well the sense of time passing, and that so perfectly depicts that feeling when you go back to familiar things and places that have gelled in your memory and glow with nostalgia, only to find, with a punch to the heart, that they have changed irreversibly or are gone altogether. Yet the next step after that is into maturity, of moving on, rediscovering how to preserve yourself, cultivate hope and appreciation, maybe even create some magic in your present situation, and Monte Walsh also gives you this message to show a way through its depressing and heartbreaking parts.
Lee Marvin and Jack Palance play aging cowboys who, along with most of their kind have less luck finding cowboy jobs. After working at one of the last, faltering ranches for a bit, it too is soon lost to changing economics and landscapes, and the men find themselves having to face that there just won’t be any place for cowboys. They and the viewer are presented with options and alternatives ranging from depressing (the dramatic suicide of an old cowboy who laments what a good life he once had), criminal (their former co-workers turn to cattle-rustling, robbery and eventually murder), hopeful (Palance marries the “hardware store widow” and pivots into the role of a respected retailer), and stupidly soul-sucking (Marvin is offered a lucrative role in a travelling circus as a stunt-riding parody of all that he loves).
This is a sweeping western telling of huge changes in an entire lifestyle, yet the most impactful scenes come from character moments, in many cases case the smallest ones, fleeting and underplayed [here be spoilers]. Moreau getting in the way of Marvin rolling his cigarette, Marvin showing Ryan (and vice versa) how target practice is done, the men having to ambush-wash the offensively stinky cook, and that cook’s culinary revenge. Palance behind his store counter, held at gunpoint by former friend Ryan and Ryan’s partner in crime, and the brief but excruciating few seconds that Palance’s eyes dart back and forth, incredulous and still doubting that Ryan will actually pull the trigger. Ryan’s guilty reaction after the fact, and his acceptance that the code Marvin follows will mean a showdown. Marvin’s guilt that he didn’t off Ryan when he had the chance. Marvin’s quiet but solid love for prostitute Jeanne Moreau, and her adorable acceptance of his marriage proposal.
It’s pure heartbreak when Moreau dies and Marvin is trying to hold himself together. When he finds her treasure box with carefully kept clippings of his hair and money he gave her, and he thinks to return the gesture by clipping a bit of her hair, it’s just terribly moving. And the key to it all, the sad and the tender and tough and hopeful, is Marvin, who measures every example before him, seems to think hard before every action, and is careful with his acting to show the depth of his emotions in both a very touching way and in his usual, highly watchable, cool manner. The metaphors and symbols abound here, not the least of which is the “gray,” aka the wild bronco that won’t be tamed, Marvin’s kindred spirit who takes his rider on a late night spree of destruction through the town.
Wonderful all around, with gorgeous direction by William Fraker; it’s a shame this cinematographer started helming with something this impressive, and then only did a few more movies.
*note: no lie, I wrote my bit about this movie being “real” before I found from a search that it was the very word they used on the advertising!