Screengrab: Heroism is for suckers

screengrab 1955_Television_advertising_4934882110Richard Lutz forces himself from the flatscreen to give you the best pair of films on the box this week

Deconstruction. Doncha love it…..

In the old days we called it analysis or some other posh word. Was I deconstructing Peter Rabbit when I asked Uncle Harold why the bunny is aways the goodie? Or, if he was, why we accept the concept of good because that four letter word meant a value that was understood and taken as read (or listened to) by a three year old? Could good be something else?

You get the idea. The meaning of what you see and hear is not what it sometimes is. Hmmmm.

Anyway, two films, both from the seventies, ‘deconstruct’ formulaic genres that are usually taken as read. One takes apart cowboy movies and the other re-jigs war films. Both are landmarks. Both from Robert Altman.

The first is McCabe and Mrs Miller(Wed, Sky Select, 8.15am) and what Warren Beatty and Julie Christie don’t know about demystifying the horse opera, I don’t know.

They seem to be winking at the audience all the time and whispering: “Wait’ll you see what we do next to a sagebrush saga.”


Well, there can’t be much sagebrush in this Altman story because it’s set in Alaska. But you do get snow mud, blood, beards, snow and… more mud.

There is no hero. The closest you get to a good guy is a whippersnapper of a cowpoke (one of Keith Carradine’s first roles) and he gets a bullet drilled into his body. McCabe (Beatty), the next in line for being a good guy, is a card-sharp; dishonest, tricksy, and out for himself, though he does kind of fancy Mrs Miller (Christie).

Anyway, McCabe is the great American entrepreneur, ready to help himself with hard work and ingenuity to create a business in the expanding west. And that business is opening a brothel. Mrs Miller (Christie) is just the gal to help run things, though she has an appetite for opium.

Of course. it all goes awry because even bigger business- the mining concerns- simply plough our small businessman under the snow. Big business is the only one that rally can win, after all.

Julie Christie

Julie Christie

The love story between the two stars is suffused with ironic melancholia- all wrapped by a bittersweet Leonard Cohen soundtrack.

It ain’t exactly a John Wayne movie. It is beautful losers with cowboy hats and six shooters. Besides Beatty and Christie, you have  up and coming names from 1971 including Shelley Duvall, William Devane and the aforesaid Carradine.

Anyway (I feel a deconstructionist segue coming up) director Altman wanted Elliot Gould originally to star but couldn’t get him. He was riding high on the hog because of another Altman lollapalooza – MASH ( Wed, Sky Movies Select,14.00), which is next up as the firecracker film that deflated the war films that buoyed up Hollywood in the second half of the 20th century for all its worth.

It doesn’t accept the premise that big American wars are about right and justice. Altman figures it is usually about small people just trying to get by and survive while questioning the whole shooting match. It punches holes in the combat genre. It seems to say:

Heroes are suckers. It’s up to the wise guy to win the war.

Elliot Gould teamed up with chirpy hipster Donald Sutherland to tell the story of the Korean War from the addled perception of a front-line surgical team, knee-high in blood, gore, smart alec jokes and a blasé lack of respect for their elders. It famously spawned the TV series which went on for about 10,000 years with Alan Alda.



But the movie had a depth of cast: Besides the two stars, back-up came from Tom Skerritt, Robert Duvall, Sally Kellerman and Fred Williamson. Actor Gary Burghoff kept the torch burning as the cast member that went over to the TV series as the impish Radar.

It’s estimated that 80% of this movie was improvised – a telling point is that Altman actually hired improv comics to back up the cast so there is, many times, a fertile cross-chat mumble that can be heard in the aural background. There had been no other war film like this, which out and out questioned the viability and rightness of a major America conflict. The heroes are in the backdrop, not centred. The very term ‘war’ is questioned and the fighting is always offscreen, the actors responding to things not happening on the screen.

It’s an anarchic, cheeky movie and the seemingly haphazard style sent the studio nuts. It almost never went out, especially for its implied criticism of the current Vietnam conflict which was in its violent heyday. Altman commented: “This film wasn’t released. It escaped.”