Double Feature: Counterculture Cowboys of 1971
Double features are a great way to watch movies. Well-selected double features complement each other like food and wine, bringing out hidden flavors or making you realize new aspects of something familiar. If you’re ever in need of a keenly paired set of movies to screen, check out our handy pre-packaged Double Features category– complete with theme breakdowns, aesthetic comparisons, and honest commentary about which movie should be the leading feature.
The Western has one of the longest histories of any genre in film. Many of the early Westerns were about worshiping the land, the lifestyle, and The Cowboy Way. They were initially about fighting in the name of truth and justice, but also searching for fair resolutions. However, as the decades progressed, the Western's values have evolved to reflect the times. The Revisionist Western became prominent in the 1960s, where you started to see more of an emphasis on violence without gift-wrapped resolution. By the time the 1970s rolled in–with the mounting backlash towards Vietnam, mass protests, or even the Attica prison riots–the concept of comfort in the open plains began to feel not only oppressive, but also like a flat out lie. Little Big Man, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, El Topo and even Blazing Saddles became part of the new dream of the west where violence, irony, satire and psychedelics reigned.
My double feature focuses on two westerns that are somewhere in between both Revisionist and Acid Westerns. The first is a psychologically honest stripping down of the lie of cowboy masculinity, while the second is a surrealist romp through the desert in search of the meaning of life. These films came out in 1971, and while the first is a drama and the second is a comedy, they both seamlessly weave 1970s counterculture themes within the western formula.
The Hired Hand is the type of movie that's more subversive than you initially realize. It focuses on the psychology behind classic cowboy themes and motives, telling the true story behind the story. This was Peter Fonda's directorial debut, and if you come into it expecting a typical western you’ll be sorely disappointed. The action has been replaced with slow dialogue scenes, and the love story replaced with quiet gazes of disappointment. Not to mention the continuous artsy freeze-frames set to an excellent minimalist banjo-and-fiddle-meets-gamelan soundtrack by Bruce Langhorne.
The plot itself is fairly simple, Harry Collings (Peter Fonda) and Arch Harris (Warren Oates) are drifters who go from town to town looking for work. Harry is tired of traveling and tells his longtime partner Arch that he’s going to quit wandering, and finally go home to his wife. However, before they leave, their younger travel companion gets murdered for sleeping with the wife of corrupt town leader McVey (Severn Darden). Harry and Arch shoot McVey in the foot while he sleeps before they leave town.
Back home, Harry receives a chilly reception from his wife Hannah (Verna Bloom) who, after Harry’s seven year absence, wants nothing to do with him. She tells Harry she has no interest in waiting around for him and questions why he chose traveling with Arch over her and their daughter. Uncomfortable but undaunted, Harry and Arch stick around the farm as hired hands, doing their best to make amends. That is, until McVey shows back up in their lives and Harry has to make a terrible choice.
I was very impressed with the sexual and emotional frankness of this movie, The Hired Hand certainly doesn't try to flatter its characters in any way. Hannah absolutely steals the show as Harry's deserted wife; from her amazingly feminist speech about why she has no interest in being a kept woman for any man (the likes of which I haven’t seen since Johnny Guitar), to her calling out of Harry's loyalty and love for Arch over her. There's no dramatic blowout, there's no accusations of whether it's a sexual love or not, but whatever it is for Harry, it's refreshing to see the male cowboy dynamic being called out as love.
Then there's the young man who cries out for his mother after being shot (not shown as pathetic, but as an actually sad scene!), the banality of seeing a dead child floating by in the river, the pointless aggressive posturing that does nothing but cause meaningless deaths; The Hired Hand strips away the glory of frontier masculinity and lays it bare in the harsh light of day. It’s pretty much a two-hour psychoanalysis of classic western themes, bringing to light its parallels to the counterculture generation–including emotional love, free love, sexual fluidity, the pointlessness of violence, appreciation of beauty and nature.
The Hired Hand sort of feels like Peter Fonda's self portrait. It’s a western drama made with a critical, counterculture slant by the hippie son of western masculine hero Henry Fonda–there’s no way this wasn’t a personal pursuit for him. While not perfect, The Hired Hand is certainly a fascinating, quietly rebellious film that’s well worth your time.
Remember the good old days of traveling Rock'n'Roll bandits, heavy metal-playing gunslingers, stripper chautauqua towns and wise ol' coots who live in mountain sides and teach you about being zen with nature? ZACHARIAH REMEMBERS.
Zachariah is surprisingly coherent, considering all the aforementioned action. Self billed as "the first electric western," the script was co-written by members of celebrated comedy troupe Firesign Theater, along with Joe Massot, better known the director of Wonderwall. (If you know anything about either of them, that fact alone pretty much tells you what you’re in for.) Loosely based on Siddhartha, the script walks the line between surrealist, spiritual and irreverent–and about half the time not terribly successfully. I would argue that somewhere in here is a flat out hilarious screenplay that was unfortunately smothered by mediocre acting, failed comedic timing and seemingly distracted directing.
The film starts with Zachariah (John Rubinstein) having just received a mail-order gun in the middle of the desert. He celebrates its arrival with his best friend Matthew (Don Johnson) by going to see the wandering bandits rock band The Crackers (Country Joe and the Fish). Zachariah and Matthew get picked on in the bar for not being manly enough, and Zachariah ends up shooting the guy. Despite the fact that nobody seems to care about the man’s death, Zachariah declares "I can't go home” and decides to wander the plains in search of a new life with his buddy Matthew.
They decide to become gunslingers and seek out the infamous Job Cain (Elvin Jones) at his hard-rock country bar (featuring The James Gang as house band). Zachariah proves his worth quickly but realizes that training to be the best gunslinger means there can only be one winner, and he prizes his friendship with Matthew over the glory of being the best. Matthew has a falling out with Zachariah over this, and chooses to pursue gunslinging over his friendship. Zachariah, disappointed, turns to the desert in search of what else life can possibly offer.
I kind of find this movie more amusing to write about than it was to watch. That said, there is a buncha great stuff in here–from a handful of laugh-out-loud one liners, chase scenes that end in losing sight of what was being chased, ridiculously out of place sparkly '70s outfits, over the top Ken Russell-esque sets, and that freaking fiddle player who, had they cast a comedian instead of musician Doug Kershaw, could have been on par with Monty Python's Brave Sir Robin. Alas! Lost potential. It's there, you’ve just got to kind of autotune the comedy in your head if you really want some laughs.
The second half of the film focuses more heavily on the concept of being one with nature. Zachariah meets a wise old man (William Challee) who shows him the beauty in just existing. He speaks mostly in convoluted metaphors–such as "Do you ever look for your bullets after they've left your gun?"–and through him, Zachariah learns that the true joy lies, not in competition, but in inner peace.
Zachariah, though mostly silly, is really about the folly of man and the pointlessness of engaging in competitive behavior. Being ‘the best’ has no meaning if it requires you to crush everybody around you–a sentiment in direct conflict with the black-hat, white-hat morality of westerns, not to mention American foreign policy in the ‘70s. Zachariah taps into that original western spirit, finding peace and happiness in nature. The entire movie was clearly influenced by El Topo, though with some of its themes, Zachariah seems to have beat The Holy Mountain to the punch two years earlier. It's also worth mentioning that the relationship between Zachariah and Matthew becomes also coyly, or perhaps overtly, homosexual–somewhere between satirizing cowboy masculinity and embracing sexual fluidity.
I was delighted to see the Country Joe and the Fish cameo, and the soundtrack in this movie in general is pretty killer and worth a youtube-ing alone (*cough* *cough* *cough*), even if the film doesn't sound like your kind of bag.
Common themes: Critiques of masculinity, 1970s counterculture, free love, sexual fluidity, finding inner peace, appreciation of nature, excellent soundtracks.
Common aesthetics: Beyond the cowboy hats and dust, they're visually about as far apart as can be.