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Apr 2, 2019

The Big Country & The Assassination of Jesse James by Coward Robert Ford

The American West is the stuff of myth and legends. While East coast was all about the original boat people aka the Puritans and the blue bloods, the West was the indefatigable frontier that drew in the itchy feet adventurers and crazy eyed outlaws.I have been enamored by the landscape of the West, despite having no birth-right citizenship connections to it.

The wide brown expanse of semi-aridness playfully taunted by rolling tumbleweed, sweeping hills dotted with cattle or the majestic outcrops of rock that have hid many a vigilante - the once famed frontier of the US of A is indeed poetry in landscape mode.

Recently I had a chance to watch a couple of beautifully shot Westerns, made fifty years apart.

The first one is1958's The Big Country. The wide angle shots of this outdoor epic directed by William Wyler (dir. of Roman Holiday, Ben-Hur,...) makes the title very appropriate. Shot in Mojave desert using a large screen cinematography technique called Technirama, the movie starred Gregory Peck, Charlton Heston, Burl Ives (won the supporting actor for his role) and Jean Simmons. It is often called as a Western for people who do not like Westerns. It even has a New-Englander pacifist - Peck's character James McKay for a hero.

Jerome Moross composed the remarkable score for the movie which has been reused several times in ad campaigns and such - it is a musical piece that captures the essence of all Westerns.



While looking up the shooting locations of the movie, I found an interesting page - Orvis Cattle Company & Ranch.

About the story of the movie, you can watch it yourself if you want to know. I liked Burl Ives' Rufus Hannassey, the best. Peck as McKay was overly Gandhian for my taste, but great performances by all actors nevertheless.
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Then from 2007 came this visual poem of a Western - The Assassination of Jesse James by Coward Robert Ford. This is the first movie I could truly feel sympathy for a character played by Casey Affleck - the anti-hero to Brad Pitt's anti-hero - Jesse James, a notorious outlaw at the time. Affleck is a perfect fit for the hero-worshipping mumbler turned Judas, Bob Ford.

Roger Deakins' cinematography is evocative of vintage photos with blurry edges. The vast wheaty prairies and the still life shots of life in the old West with close-ups of complex characters is a visual treat. The sombre, nuanced nature of the narrative is aided by the intermittent voice-overs, like that of a historical observer.

Directed by Andrew Dominik, the sweeping frames of the movie is one of the few characteristics it shares with the classic westerns. It is a slow-burn film, delving on and developing its characters in an un-predictable way although the ending is self-evident from the movie title.

Maybe because it was the presence of Brad Pitt in the leading role, I felt it had something common with slow sweeping crescendo of the movie, Tree of Life by Terrence Malick.

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