Sunday, April 7, 2024

Don't Make a Scene: Appaloosa

The Story: The most famous gun-fight in the Old West lasted all of thirty seconds.

That was "The Gunfight at the O.K. Corral." A lot of what people think happened is merely myth and accounts of what happened vary depending on which side tells the story. But, it was fast, disorganized and hardly formal. Words were exchanged, disagreed with, followed by bullets (thirty of them) exchanged. It was a petty scrap that escalated into gunsmoke filling the streets, and, almost as soon as it started it was over, the only remnants of its occurrence being bodies in the street. It was not the stuff of Legend. It was a street fight that was gussied up with melodrama and a writer's imagination.

Despite how these things are depicted in the movies—with a long, simmering build-up until an extended third act altercation—these things happen the "shots fired" outside a local nightclub on the evening news. Nothing elegant about it, with few moral considerations. They're spontaneous and random, and certainly not the "heroic" way they're presented in movie Westerns. But, with the aspirations of myth-makers—like the guy who made a bigger deal of the O.K. Corral—all sorts of qualities are ascribed to them that has little to do with getting in a snit and having access to a deadly weapon.

Which is why I liked Appaloosa so much. Based on a novel by Robert B. Parker, its film rights were picked up by Ed Harris, who had distinguished himself with his directorial debut, Pollock. Harris wanted to make an "old-school" Western, but without the puerile "good versus bad" mythologizing of what associates with the bulk of the genre. The characters are complex, sometimes frustrating to expectations and tropes, and sometimes inexplicable, notching it up to the peculiarities of the term "character."

And this gunfight. Harris has a lovely way with composition—without getting "fussy" about it—showing you the architecture and field of play, so you know instantly where everybody is in relation to each other, making it that much easier to present events fast and efficiently, which he does like he'd been making movies for decades. "That stuff's hard to do," said veteran director Howard Hawks, when discussing a similar close-quarter shoot-out in Don Siegel's Madigan.

But, director Ed Harris makes it look easy.
The Set-Up: The town of Appaloosa, New Mexico has lost its marshal after he tried to curtail the illegal activities of rancher Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons), who shot the man and his deputies when they tried to arrest a couple of his rough-necks. The town hires lawman Virgil Cole (Ed Harris) and his deputy Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen) to stabilize the town and do something about Bragg. They're a bit reluctant when Cole imposes his own "Marshal Law" to the town and aims to arrest Bragg for the three murders. But, arrest him they do, and Bragg is tried and convicted and sentenced to be hanged. But, Bragg escapes on his way to prison, when Cole's sweetheart Allison French (Renée Zellweger) is used as a bargaining chip for his release. Cole and Hitch have Bragg recaptured, only to find that the Sheriff temporarily holding brag turns out to be related to the very men that sprung Bragg. Cole and Hitch have no option, but to confront the bad guys and try to recapture Bragg.
Deletions from the script are crossed out. Additions are in green.
We done pretty good over time, Virgil, ‘cause it’s always just been a job. Never been personal... 
we’re going up against Ring because of Bragg, right? 
Can’t be a lawman and let somebody take your prisoner. 
They start down the street toward the stockyards. 
Allie watches them through the second story window. 
Off to their left, 
at the end of the street,
sits the jail. Ring and Mackie step out the door. 
RING: (calling out) Cole! 
Cole and Hitch stop in their tracks and turn toward Ring. 
Like you said, 
you’ve known me a long time...
RING: ...long as I’ve known...
Guess you made your first mistake Virgil: 
locking your prisoner...
RING: my cousin Russell’s jail. 
The Sheriff, RUSSELL, who’s carrying a rifle, appears on the balcony of the jail FOLLOWED BY BRAGG, rifle in hand. 
Vince steps out the door. 
* VINCE * I told you there’d be another time * Cole. * 
Cole and Hitch look to each other. Then, like they are one, they start the slow walk toward their fate. 
Mackie and Ring walk slowly down the steps. 
COLE: (under his breath) I got Ring, you take Mackie, 
...then we’ll deal upstairs. 
Cole and Hitch take a few steps away from each other. 
They walk closer. 
Some thirty feet away and: 
-- Ring and Mackie draw, lightning fast. 
-- Cole draws. 
-- Ring shoots - 
-- Cole’s hit in the left shoulder but barely flinches as he extends his arm, and BOOM! -
-- Shoots Ring in the chest.
-- Cole’s hit again in the leg. Cole fires a second shot, BOOM! --
-- Ring’s hit in the head and falls back flat in the mud.
-- Mackie shoots.
-- Hitch gets shot in his left side, but he shoots Mackie with his shotgun --
-- Mackie flies backward from the blast.
Bragg ducks back in through the balcony door. 
-- Russell shoots Hitch in the side. 
-- Cole’s hit in the leg again 
and goes down in the mud 
but shoots, BOOM! -
-- and hits Russell. 
Russell fires as he drops and -- 
-- Hitch gets shot in his right leg. 
Hitch goes down but...-- Hitch shoots Russell again, killing him. 
Hitch, down, reloads... hears the SOUND of a horse running - 
-- Bragg rides off. 
Hitch tries to stand, aim at Bragg but can’t, 
he topples back... Hitch lays in the mud. 
Cole lies face down in the mud, he doesn't move. 
Cole shows no sign of life. 
Hitch pulls himself through the mud. 
He reaches Cole and turns him over. 
Cole opens his eyes. He’s badly hurt. 
Left knee’s busted. 
Took less than a minute. That was quick...
COLE: Everybody could shoot. 
Cole closes his eyes...

Words by Robert Knott and Ed Harris
Pictures by Dean Semler and Ed Harris
Appaloosa is available on DVD from Warner Home Video.

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