I Saw a Film!

Starring both the big and little Lebowski (The Dude), this gritty tale of Civil War era (1863) strife and woe follows the lives of a handful of young war dodgers (service back then was pretty much press-gang style, families did their best to hide their service age sons, going so far as to put them in dresses) as they scrape their way by with petty crimes and getting into dust ups with more violent outlaws and the actual law in general. Folks hoping for a rousing shoot-em-up Spaghetti Western style will be sorely disappointed.

The main fellow we follow is played by Barry Brown, who didn’t get past 27 (suicide in ’78) and his association with a band of immature petty thieves and gunmen lead by (The Dude), 1972 era Jeff Bridges. This is a sober film. No uplifting banjo and fiddle music accompaniment Bonny and Clyde style (also written by this director) for most of this tale, though there are a few lighter moments. By the time you see the youngest of the little mob take a shot to the head as they flee from lifting some vittles (blood spray and grunt), you’re well aware that the glorifying of the tale is not the purpose of this film. Starving, lying, manipulation and gang-brotherhood (basically a clan unless something better comes along or something too tempting to refuse causes a change in loyalty) are the rules of the day. In one cringeworthy scene, a homesteader sells the boys time with his wife, who exposes her lovely chest to tempt the fellows.

This is an expertly crafted film. When our draft dodger finds his way to a nearby town, to look for both a Methodist church and/or to book a passage on a train, the camera pans along the street with him in a single shot, he passes merchants and smokers, and the long line until reaching the end of it, he’s face to face with a couple of boy-soldiers his own age, lounging on the steps of some official building or other. They eyeball him with some serious accusation. There’s no sense standing around waiting for the line to move, it’s only a matter of time before those two fellows, who failed to escape the press-gang, are asking him where he belongs.

When the Marshal finally catches up, and we get a taste of his self-assured judgment we are glad we’re not experiencing this old West. A petty criminal is hung by the law, and the job is so uninteresting, men don’t even interrupt their conversation to take in the magnitude of the strangulation, as the fellow swings from the rope. Tough stuff, but I’m sure as realistic as it comes. Of course, we’ve already seen members of the little gang found hung after they splintered off in a mutiny. This is followed by possibly the most realistically filmed gun-fighter sequences in a Western. The rival gang of near “professional” highwaymen, with mugs as distinctive as these (From David Huddlestone (Big Lebowski) to Ed Lauter (a regular TV heavy), and Geoffrey Lewis (from so many westerns and Television)) still manage to to completely botch the encounter and end up in a ridiculous running and ducking gunfight with pistols aimed every which way.

You should also be warned that the boys shoot up a jackrabbit (wasting a lot of ammo on it) and that rabbit is a real kill. In a sequence of utter futility, the leader ends up cleaning the bunny, and horrifies the boys with the blood and guts of the job by way of teaching them how to do it. Soon enough the the poor bloody carcass is tossed aside. A clever sequence has the Marshal asking captured Huddlestone, Big Joe, if he’d seen the remarkable pistol twirling skills of one of his underlings. Seen it? I taught it to him! Says Joe, and proceeds to borrow an empty pistol and demo the by now ridiculously familiar pistol tricks that Huddleston and so many other western players had to learn to do back in the day.

This is running free on Hulu (usa) and is a remarkable document not only of the hell of the 19th century, but also how duress spawns the mythic buried treasure!

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