Category Archives: Westerns

Hostiles (2017), directed by Scott Cooper

In my early years in the rabbinate, fresh out of rabbinical school, I tended to view Reform and Conservative Jews as the enemy of my pristine Orthodox ideology. When I saw a newspaper article that expressed what I felt to be erroneous ideology, I wrote to the letter’s author criticizing his remarks and informing him of my correct view of things. My behavior in retrospect was childish, and fortunately was corrected after a few months of immature and insensitive venting.

What changed? I asked myself: did my letters accomplish anything? The answer: Nothing, except create more ill will between people. The ability to let go of anger and begin a relationship anew is at the core of Hostiles, a western throwback to the John Wayne classic, The Searchers.

The story takes place in 1892. After years of fighting the Apache, Cheyenne, and Comanche Indians, the United States embarks upon a strategy of relocating the Indians to their ancestral home in Montana. Joseph Blocker, a war hero and US Calvary Captain, is ordered to escort Yellow Hawk, an Indian who has taken the lives of many white men and who is now suffering from cancer, to Montana. This is no easy task because Blocker despises Yellow Hawk. It is only when Colonel Biggs, Blocker’s superior, threatens him with the possible loss of his pension that Blocker agrees to escort Yellow Hawk and his family.

Along the way, they encounter Rosalie Quaid, who has just witnessed the death of her husband and her three children at the hands of savage Indians. Without a protector, Blocker decides to take her with his group. In the evening, the Indian women in the entourage, in a gesture of compassion for her loss, offer clean garments to her since Rosalie’s clothes are stained with the blood of her children.

Yellow Hawk warns Blocker that the Comanches will attack them, white and Indian alike, and it would be wise to unchain him and his son so they can help fight them. His warning is at first unheeded and when the Comanches attack later that day, several soldiers are killed. When Yellow Hawk and his family fight off some of the attackers, Blocker’s view of Yellow Hawk begins to change. He unchains Yellow Hawk and his son so they can help ward off future attacks.

As they continue on their journey, more raids come; and with each raid the white soldiers and their Indian charges rely more and more upon one another for safety. Slowly their ingrained hate for one another lessens, and they begin to understand that past hatred will get them nowhere.

After arriving in Montana, they are confronted by white men who do not want Indians on their land. That confrontation makes Blocker and Yellow Hawk realize their common humanity.

Jewish tradition encourages us to abandon our propensity to hate those who do us wrong. When people do us wrong, it is hurtful, but we do not always have to respond in kind. We should not allow hatred to determine our future actions.

Aaron, the brother of Moses is the archetypal model of good interpersonal behavior. In The Ethics of the Fathers, a classic of Jewish wisdom literature, Aaron is described as a lover and pursuer of peace. When he saw people responding to one another with ill will, he would be proactive and speak to each of the feuding parties, telling each that the other party was remorseful over the breakdown in communication with the other. His intervention in the service of peace was successful. The people loved his peacemaking efforts, and the Bible records that the children of Israel mourned more for Aaron than they did for Moses.

Blocker and Yellow Hawk ultimately understand that hate only breeds more hate. They arrive at this epiphany late in their lives, but this wisdom remains with them for the rest of their lives.

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

 

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The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018), directed by Joel and Ethan Coen

In the Talmud there is a discussion of intention when it comes to the recitation of blessings. In pronouncing a blessing before partaking of food, for example, one must have in mind the particular fruit or cake one is about to eat. A problem arises when a person at the first part of the blessing has in mind the wrong food that fits the blessing, but when he recites the last part of blessing, he thinks of the correct food. The general conclusion of the Talmud is to consider the last part of blessing as its defining section. Therefore, the blessing is valid based upon the speaker’s intention while reciting the second half of the blessing.

In attempting to review The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, a very unconventional western, which includes six stand-alone narratives, I thought of this Talmudic dictum and realized that my review of the film has to consider the last story as a coda explaining the other five.

The stories are framed within an imaginary novel of the 1870s. Within it are a host of literary conventions of the mythical West: the singing cowboy, the bank robber, the traveling showman, the man prospecting for gold, the pioneer heading to the frontier in search of a better life, and the stagecoach passengers.

All of the segments happen in beautiful outdoor settings except the last, which takes place almost entirely within the stagecoach. The travelers include an animal trapper, a blase Frenchman, and the very parochial wife of a clergyman. They have discussions about the nature of life, and it becomes clear that they are on a trip with a final destination from which there is no return. The essential takeaway from their conversation is that life is uncertain and unpredictable, and we never really know what is in another’s heart in spite of what we think might be there. It is a mournful view of the human experience.

The notion that life is unpredictable is underscored in the story entitled “The Gal Who Got Rattled.” Alice Longabaugh discusses a perspective on life with Billy Knapp, one of the leaders of the wagon train heading West. Speaking about her deceased brother, Gilbert, she observes: “He had fixed political beliefs. All of his beliefs were quite fixed. He would upbraid me for being wishy-washy. I never had his certainties. I suppose it is a defect.” Billy responds: “I don’t think it’s a defect at all. Oh no. Uncertainty. That is appropriate for matters of this world. Only regarding the next are we vouchsafed certainty. I believe certainty regarding that which we can see and touch. It is seldom justified, if ever. Down the ages, from our remote past, what certainties survive? And yet we hurry to fashion new ones. Wanting their comfort. Certainty is the easy path.”

The Jewish approach to life also posits an element of uncertainty; for, after all, how can finite man, whose very intellectual DNA is uncertain, comprehend the ways of the infinite, all knowing God? We humans can never understand why things happen. The only thing we can do is choose how we respond to life’s uncertainties and ambiguities.

The Sages tell us to envision every day as possibly one’s last. This is not to encourage a morbid mindset, but to spur us on to productive living, to make every day count. If today is my last day, then I should think about how I spend my time today. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs does not provide easy answers to life’s insoluble contradictions and uncertainties, but it does remind us that living with uncertainty is part of being human.

Watch this movie on Netflix.

 

Forsaken (2015), directed by Jon Cassar

forsakenI have been having a problem finding films to review that by any definition I can call “kosher.” So much of what is on the screen today is full of unsavory behaviors that I have difficulty recommending them. Indeed, I rarely go to the cinema in Israel. I order movies on Amazon when they become reasonably priced and then send them to my daughter in Lakewood, New Jersey. When I visit the US, I then pick them up and bring them back to Israel where I can watch them at home.

One staple of my reviews is the Western genre. The stories may not be very original, but there is comfort in watching a familiar genre film done well. Such is the case with Forsaken.

The story is simple. John Henry Clayton has returned to his hometown after a ten-year absence, during which he fought in the Civil War and became a gunfighter with a fierce reputation. He hopes to repair his relationship with his father, a preacher at the local church.

When he arrives to the surprise of the townspeople and his father, he learns that his mother has recently died, and his gun-toting ways are an anathema to his dad who sees his son as an embarrassment. There is great misunderstanding between the two and it takes time for each one to overcome his judgmental attitude toward the other.

In his hometown, he finds that a corrupt banker, James McCurdy, is forcing farmers to sell their land so that he can make a profit when the railroad is built. His thugs are vicious, and they are ready to kill anyone who stands in their way. Tensions escalate and good people die until John Henry decides that he must act to stop the villains from terrorizing the town. It is a bloody and satisfying conclusion in which good triumphs over evil.

The triumph of good over evil is characteristic of Jewish history. When confronted with evil, we must act. Rabbi Steven Weil summarizes the approach of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, a great theologian of the twentieth century, to the problem of evil and how we should respond to it. We should “never passively accept evil and suffering; we must fight against it. God endowed man with intellect and resources that should be used to actively and aggressively battle evil or, even better, seek to prevent suffering. Thus, we are obligated to research cures for diseases, build Iron Domes and David’s Slings and heed warnings to get out of harm’s way if all else fails and we are unable to thwart the evil. Passive resistance is not the Jewish way; sanctity and preservation of life is.”

John Henry initially wants to leave his violent ways behind him. Knowing that his father disapproves, he wants to be a good son and follow his father’s instruction and example, but it is challenging to do so when he daily witnesses the cruelty of James McCurdy and his henchmen.

His father, a man of the church, tries his best to remain stoic in the face of constant threats of violence and actual violence. He never changes his moral stance, even when his own life is hanging in the balance. However, he finally understands that his son’s perception of the reality of evil may be correct and he does not stand in his way when John Henry decides to act to protect the innocent townspeople.

Forsaken is a throwback to the westerns of the 1950s, when the bad guys dressed in black and the good guys in white. The lines between good and evil were clearly drawn. Going to watch a western where the good guys triumphed was a cathartic experience in which one left the theatre knowing that good will always prevail, a comforting thought to a person confronted with the existence of evil.

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

Tombstone (1993), directed by George Cosmatos

tombstoneMy parents were not social butterflies. They had many friends because they were good friends to others. They were people who always kept their word and always were there to help relatives and friends during the hard times. For me, they were role models of reliability and champions of kindness. They were the friends upon whom you could count, and that notion of friendship was absorbed by me.

I remember one particular incident when I was in my teens that reflected my view of friendship. The rabbi of our local synagogue in Mt. Vernon, New York, would regularly invite people to his home for Friday night dinner and Torah study. We looked forward to it because we enjoyed the learning and the great meal that the rabbi’s wife prepared for us, especially the tasty desserts.

I made up with a friend of mine who lived in a different section of the city to meet him at a specific street and then we would walk together to the rabbi’s house. Early Friday evening it began to snow. I paid no attention to it because I was focused on meeting my friend. When I arrived at the designated meeting point, my friend was not there. I waited an hour for him expecting him to appear, but he didn’t. I eventually went to the rabbi’s home alone. It never occurred to me that the inclement weather would keep my friend away from dinner with the rabbi.

After the Sabbath, I contacted my friend and found out that he assumed that the bad weather meant our meeting was off. I told him that bad weather never influenced me to break my word to a friend. In a short time, I got over my disappointment and I understood my friend’s perspective. Our friendship survived this bump in the road. The incident, however, did reveal to me that people often have different definitions of friendship.

In Tombstone, there is a powerful example of a solid friendship in the relationship between lawman Wyatt Earp and his friend, Doc Holliday. The story begins after Wyatt has successfully cleaned up Dodge City and has relocated to Tombstone, Arizona, to quietly live as a regular citizen. However, a gang of outlaws, known as “the cowboys,” is terrorizing the community with random acts of violence. This eventually leads to the famous gunfight at the OK Corral. Doc Holliday joins Wyatt in the fight because Wyatt is his friend.

The gunfight on the OK Corral does not end the tyranny of the “cowboys.” There are more shoot-outs to come; and at each one, Doc stands by his friend Wyatt. Wyatt’s ultimate challenge comes from gunslinger Johnny Ringo who is faster on the draw than Wyatt. Here again, it is Doc Holliday who places himself in harm’s way to rescue his friend.

In Doc’s conversation with a friend, Jack Johnson, Jack wonders why Doc puts his own life on the line for Wyatt. Doc responds: “Wyatt Earp is my friend.” Jack then remarks:” Hell, I got lots of friends,” to which Doc answers: “I don’t.” Although this interchange reveals the existential loneliness of Holliday and his desire of human connection, the dialogue always indicates a Talmudic idea of friendship.

The Sages in The Ethics of the Fathers, a classic work of Jewish wisdom literature, tell us to “acquire a friend.” The commentators understand this to mean that we should acquire a friend by helping him, by doing things that make him feel indebted to us. It is not something based only on emotion. We should think of ways to concretize the friendship by doing things for one another that obligate one to the other.

On a purely visceral level, Tombstone is a violent example of the western movie genre. More important, through its depiction of the relationship of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday, it provides an example of deep friendship, an illustration of how far friends should go to help one another.

High Noon (1952), directed by Fred Zinnemann

high-noon-posterThere have been times in my rabbinic and educational career when I tried to enlist the aid of friends to move a particular project forward. I would speak to many acquaintances, all of whom gave me warm expressions of support. But when it was crunch time, they were with me in spirit only, but not in terms of giving me dollars for my project.

I realized then that I would have to go it alone, and I often applied to foundations for funding rather than solicit individuals within the community. The experience of not successfully fundraising for a project was disappointing, but it taught me a valuable lesson echoed in The Ethics of the Fathers. There it states: “In a place where there is no man, strive to be a man.” If there is a critical project that needs to be done, and no one steps forward to help, then you should be prepared to do it yourself.

Such is the predicament of Marshall Will Kane in the classic western High Noon. The film opens as three outlaws ride into Hadleyville to meet the noon train on which is riding Frank Miller, a notorious criminal whom Kane has arrested for murder and sent to prison several years before. Now Miller has been pardoned and he is traveling to Hadleyville to settle old scores with those responsible for his incarceration.

Serendipitously, Kane is getting married to pacifist Quaker Amy Fowler that same day in the morning. At his wife’s wishes, he is leaving his position as Marshall and looking forward to a quiet time in life. The community encourages him to leave town before Miller and his men arrive, and he does. But once on the open road, he turns his buckboard around. He feels that Miller will continue to hunt him wherever he is and the townspeople, without a new marshal in town, will be defenseless against Miller and his cronies.

Kane solicits the help of the townspeople, but to no avail. He walks to the local saloon to get volunteers and they reject his overtures. He then goes to the church, interrupting the sermon, to get help. The congregants are more civil, but again he comes up empty-handed. Slowly, it dawns on him that he will have to face Miller and his henchmen alone. With that sobering thought, Kane writes a will, which he leaves in his desk drawer, to be opened in the event of his death.

When it is high noon, the train arrives and Miller gets off to meet his gang. They walk into town looking for Kane. The camera shows Marshal Kane all by himself on the deserted street. It is an iconic scene, emblematic of the formidable challenge he has to meet: one lonely man against four very bad men who want to kill him.

Jewish history has within it models of reluctant heroism and leadership, the most famous of which is Moses. He does not thirst for glory. He does not want to be the center of attention, but he eventually understands that he is the only man to lead the Jews out of slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land.

When he sees a slave being abused by an Egyptian, Moses looks “this way and that.” The Biblical commentators suggest that Moses was looking for help, for someone else to take action, but no one did. At that moment, he realized that it was up to him to act.

Will Kane in High Noon is tempted to leave town and save his own life, and he contemplates that course of action briefly. But in a moment of moral clarity, he decides to protect the community even though he must act alone. In the end, doing the right thing trumps personal considerations.

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

All the Pretty Horses (2000), directed by Billy Bob Thornton

all the pretty horses posterOn rare occasions, I have been confronted with having to make a decision knowing that if I decide one way, I will hurt someone I care about; and if I decide differently, I will hurt someone else. Either way, I will wind up alienating a friend.

I recall that about 15 years ago, I was faced with such a dilemma and I decided to consult an older man with great knowledge of Torah and a deep understanding of human nature. He gave me a good perspective on my situation, enabling me to live with my decision without the burden of guilt. I continued to call him for advice until one fateful evening when I called his home, only to find out that his wife and family were in the midst of the week of mourning for my friend and mentor who had died only a few days before.

In the days that followed, I reflected on the time spent consulting with him. Although I could no longer speak with him, I learned much from the wisdom he shared with me, and I attempted to incorporate his perspectives in the way I viewed my own quandaries. Senior wisdom is priceless and I tried my utmost to take advantage of it whenever I could not come up with a satisfactory resolution to a problem. Such is what happens in All the Pretty Horses when John Grady Cole finds himself burdened by guilt by making good decisions that, regrettably, did not turn out well. Ultimately, he turns to a senior to put his own problems into perspective.

The year is 1949. John Grady Cole, a young cowboy raised in the wide-open spaces of a Texas ranch, is forced to find new means of employment when his grandfather dies and his heirs sell the property that was in his family for many years.

Together with his friend Lacey Rawlins, they journey south of the border to Mexico to find work. Along the way, they meet Jimmy Blevins, a savvy but unpredictable teenager, who wants to ride with them. Later they find employment with a wealthy rancher who needs help managing his exceptional prize horses. John and Lacey enjoy their work, but things get complicated when John falls in live with Alejandra, the rancher’s daughter.

Things change dramatically when both John and Lacey are arrested by the Mexican police. In jail, they again meet Blevins who is incarcerated for horse stealing and murder, and they learn that they are viewed as his accomplices. John and Lacey are sent to prison where they are surrounded by cutthroat prisoners who threaten their lives. They languish there until Alejandra’s aunt arranges to free them on condition that John never sees Alejandra again.

When John returns to Texas, he is arrested for horse stealing and appears in court to explain his side of the story. Surprisingly, the judge believes John and tells him that he is free to go. Never having encountered such fair play before, John visits the judge at his home, perhaps seeing him as a wise man and father figure. He confesses that he killed a man in prison and did not do enough to save his friend Blevins from being murdered.

The judge listens patiently and gently tells John that he could not have done anything to avoid those tragedies. Moreover, what John should do now is simply move on with his life, knowing that those tragic moments will be sorted out over time. The judge understands that John needs to share these secrets to assuage feelings of guilt. The judge intuits the wisdom of Ethics of the Fathers, which states that a person should not consider himself evil. When a person lacks self-esteem and views himself as a bad person, he may become emotionally paralyzed and give up trying to improve.

All the Pretty Horses depicts a rite of passage for a young man trying to make sense out of a life filled with contradictions. What enables him to survive is senior wisdom coupled with an abiding belief in God, which animates him every day. This sentiment is openly articulated by John at the film’s close: “I believe that God does watch over us, if he didn’t, I don’t see how we could get through each day.”

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

Becoming Bulletproof (2014), directed by Michael Barnett

becoming bulletproofMy sister Carol, of blessed memory, was six years older than me. She had Down’s syndrome, and as a kid I vividly remember going with Carol and my mother to Teen Town, a Thursday night social get-together where developmentally disabled teenagers could mingle socially, form friendships, and plan outings together. It was there that Carol met Sam Berniger, who also had Down’s syndrome.

Carol and Sam were an item in those days, often flirting with one another. At first it was strange to observe because I viewed my own sister as disabled in some way and not capable of romantic relationships. However, after witnessing Carol and Sam’s obvious affection for one another, I realized they were no different from other teens I knew. They wanted human connection. They wanted to feel love and affection, and that desire is common to all people, not just the developmentally disabled.

I thought of their romance as I watched Becoming Bulletproof, an arresting documentary about a cohort of disabled people from all over the United States, who come together once a year to make a movie.

Some background information is in order. Zeno Mountain Farms has an annual project of making a film using people with disabilities of all kinds as actors. Although their disabilities are wide-ranging, the young men and women come together in the service of art, making a movie that somehow transcends the limitations of their disabilities.

The project takes place in their summer camp program, and this year the project is to produce a short western movie by the camp’s residents. Period costumes are used, some paid for and some donated. The key scene is the confrontation between the hero and the villain in a shootout on a deserted street. The entire cast serves as bystanders to the imminent bloodshed. The camera pans over the worried faces of people in the crowd and then focuses on the guns in the holsters of the antagonists, who are about to draw their weapons against one another. It is a scene reminiscent of many classic western movies.

Working with the campers are people without disabilities who relate to the disabled as normal human beings. They see the disabled as significant others; and by doing so, they discover their common humanity, and forget about the disabled label. Watching the residents learn their lines and act their respective parts is both very heart wrenching and inspiring. What is especially noteworthy is how the staff relates to the residents as regular friends and family, even though the disabilities that distinguish them are glaringly evident.

Although there is an implicit message embedded in the movie, the movie is not preachy. The message: the disabled want to be recognized as people of value, who have an independent identity, who want to be taken seriously. This harks back to the Biblical notion that we are all created in God’s image; therefore, we all have infinite value regardless of our physical disabilities.

Jewish law recommends treating the disabled as regular members of the community as much as is humanly possible considering the idiosyncratic nature of each disability. As a synagogue rabbi, I recall vividly a father who painstakingly taught his developmentally disabled son how to recite the Torah portion for his Bar Mitzvah. In the father’s eyes, it was very important that his child experience the same rite of passage as other young men.

Becoming Bulletproof is testimony to the fact that the disabled are part of the human family, and want to be treated as such. Stigmatizing someone as disabled may be a necessity in the world of therapeutics, but labels should not define a person in the world of human discourse.

 

 

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