After 10 minutes of that forced march across a lunar landscape, I popped a six-pack, hoping it would be enough. It wasn't. One thing for sure, producer Corman and company got their meager money's worth. After all, how many other $1.50 movies provoke this kind of reviewer discussion 50-years later.
Now, I'm not going to recap the storyline (what there is of it) nor dwell on its details. Others have done that much better than I can. What I want to offer is a point of view that I think shapes much of the movie, and can be used to maybe understand better its maddeningly elliptical nature.
So which is the movie—profound, pretentious, maddening, boring, or maybe just plain puzzling. At the risk of seeming a mush brain, I think it's all of these. But I'm most in sympathy with those folks who paid to see a conventional western and got this elliptical trip through heck instead. One thing for sure, the dialogue only ate up about a nickel's worth of the total expense. But if the crew was so cramped for funds, I'm wondering how come they went on expensive location. Usually, these cheapo's would film guys riding around LA's scrublands and then into a studio cow town, and then be forgotten. Not so, here. Instead, it's a blinding tour of Utah's purgatory part. A perfect setting for what may or may not be a story.
Be sure to catch the first 15-minutes, because that's where most of the plot questions are dealt with to the extent that they are dealt with at all. The trouble is these hints at answers come before the questions, which causes confusion if you haven't paid close attention. And I should thank those reviewers who took time to clarify many of the more puzzling parts that slipped past me. Anyway, don't expect many answers from the long ride part, which is just that, a long ride and a lot of dead horses—a good, if unpleasant, touch given the heat and exposure.
Clearly, director Hellman and writer Easton have seen a batch of New Wave French movies. The influence here is clear. Theme predominates over story. I suspect that's why so many folks object to the film. Hollywood and commercial movies traditionally emphasized storyline above all, and if themes emerged, that was a bonus. Then too, conventional filmmaking didn't like to leave viewers with loose ends. Outstanding questions got wrapped up in the end, so the audience left unprovoked, with an optimistic view that things always turn out right in the end.
Now, I take the theme here—if there is one—to be an existential one of a particularly French variety. Anyway, if I recall my philosophy class correctly, existentialism means that existence precedes essence, or, at the risk of oversimplifying—sheer existence is basic-- all else like truth or personal identities are concocted afterwards. Now, in the movie, we're confronted with characters whose identities remain puzzling, especially the woman, Billie and the bearded man. Plus we know very little about Coley or Willett. Instead, we're simply confronted with their raw existence, in much the same way as Coley and Willett are confronted by the raw existence of the woman, Billie, and the bearded man. The fact that so little of the personal is explained means that interaction occurs between people who simply exist rather than people who are known to us.
What makes this generic brand of existentialism slant in a particularly French direction are two things. Among other points, the French philosopher J-P Sartre makes two pithy claims, namely that 'Hell is other people' and that 'life is absurd'. Clearly these two themes are not exactly game winners for commercial filmmakers. As to the former, however, given the constant badgering between the characters as they move through the hellish terrain, the first claim is at least suggested by the dour screenplay. Except for Willett's kindly gesture toward the dead Coley, there's precious little kindness among the travelers. And for the generally inoffensive Coley, hell really is other people.
As to Sartre's second claim, that life is meaningless, that's of course suggested by the ultra- bleak ending, as Billie staggers hopelessly down what can be taken as a brutal road of life to no apparent meaningful end. Ditto the others who perish in a similar lack of glory, and we wonder what's it all for. If this sounds pretty bleak, so is a movie that I can't imagine playing in a downtown theatre of the time.
Naturally, viewers don't have to take such claims as true of the real world in order to take the film as reflecting these philosophical points of view. Anyhow, I did find the movie interesting enough to think of it as shaped by these rather esoteric terms. Nonetheless, I certainly don't blame folks for reacting negatively to what I take as an exceptionally non-western western, and maybe even anti-movie movie. Meanwhile, I've got some empty six-packs to discard.
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