Cowboys & Aliens

Posted on July 28, 2011 at 6:28 pm

The last word I thought I’d be using about a movie called “Cowboys & Aliens” is “realistic,” but what I like best about this film is the way it uses the most speculative of fantasies for thoughtful exploration, not just six-guns vs. laser shooters.  Perhaps “respectful” is a more appropriate term.  Without any snarkiness or irony it shows us the way that frontiersmen a decade after the Civil War would rise to the challenge of an alien invasion the same way they battled nature and each other, making up in determination for what they lacked in knowledge and technology.

As co-star Brendan Wayne explained to me in an interview, we can’t make the kinds of iconic John Ford films his grandfather, John Wayne starred in because “you can’t really do cowboys and Indians without insulting history and culture.”  But a fight against aliens doesn’t require any nuance or sensitivity and that makes it possible to revisit the archetypes that continue to define us as a culture in a way that is both traditional and new.

As for plot, the title says it all.  A cowboy (Daniel Craig) wakes up with amnesia.  He does not know who he is, where he got the injury to his abdomen, or how a strange metal cuff became attached to his arm.  We learn at the same time he does that his fighting skills are excellent and he has no compunction about killing — or relieving his victim of his boots, guns, and horse.  And he has eyes the color of the clear sky over the Rockies.

“What do you know?” asks the preacher (Clancy Brown) who discovers the gunman has broken into his home  “English,” says the gunman.  He seems to know how to survive, or at least how to recognize danger and the vulnerability of those who intend to attack him.

The preacher lives in a town where the hot-headed and arrogant son of the local rancher accidentally shoots a deputy sheriff.  He and the gunman are jailed waiting for federal marshalls — or for the young man’s father.  One way or the other, they will leave the jail that night.

The father, Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford) arrives, determined to take his son home.  The marshalls arrive to take him to federal court.  And then the aliens arrive and even in this land where nothing is certain and no rules seem to apply, this is so far out of their experience they can only call the invaders “demons.”

This middle section is the most intriguing.  The cowboys can’t go to Google or watch old movies to figure out what to do.  They don’t have electricity or automatic weapons.  They have to figure out a way to fight their demons using only the same qualities and resources they bring to staking their claim on the land.

They know how to track their prey.  And Dolarhyde was a Colonel at Antietem.  That means he knows military tactics.  And what it means to lose his men.  The gunman’s memory begins to return and they get help from some unexpected sources in time for a final battle.  The film falls apart a bit here and the long list of writers and producers (including Steven Spielberg and Ron Howard) may have been a factor in a disappointing last act that shows evidence of compromise and lack of focus.   The aliens themselves also seem under-imagined and the reveal of their ultimate purpose caused some laughter in the theater.

Director Jon Favreau (“Iron Man”) likes to avoid CGI whenever possible, and he makes superb use of both the mechanical effects and the Western landscape.  The faces of Ford and Craig are a landscape of their own and both men provide heft and a sense of resolute determination that resonates with our deepest myths and reminds us why so many of them include cowboys.

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Interview: Brendan Wayne of ‘Cowboys & Aliens’

Posted on July 26, 2011 at 8:00 am

Brendan Wayne of “Cowboys & Aliens” is the grandson of movie legend John Wayne.  He talked to me about visiting his grandfather’s movie sets and acting and doing his own stunts in one of this year’s most anticipated blockbusters.  And it was a blast to compare notes with him on our favorite John Wayne films.

I’m so excited about your movie!

We’re in the same boat!  I love the story.  I love the mash-up of the two genres.  It’s a classic Western told the only way we could tell it today since you can’t really do cowboys and Indians without insulting history and culture.  You get to tell the tried and true Western in such an exciting new way, the story we love to tell about the human spirit overcoming greater odds.  It’s really fun, Daniel Craig jumping, riding, and shooting, Harrison Ford, in and of itself making the movie exciting.

The movie takes place in the 1870’s, a small town run by Harrison’s character, Col. Woodrow Dolarhyde.  And Daniel is Jake, a kind of a loner drifter who seems to have amnesia, and we proceed to be attacked.  We don’t know what it is and it is very time period specific so we don’t have electricity or cars or computers to fight back with.  And then these flying objects come in and we have to figure out what’s going on and then take care of business.  That’s where it really gets fun, when we go after them on our horses.

And you did your own stunts!

Every single one of them.  I have to thank two people, Bobby Aldridge for helping me get on a horse and really understand what a stunt guy does and Terry Leonard for making sure I didn’t look like an idiot and making sure I didn’t make my grand-dad look like a jerk. Terry was second unit director and the first film he ever worked on was “Rio Lobo” with my grandfather.  He took care of me like a big brother and made sure that I was safe and willing to challenge myself.  I was riding flat-out on that horse getting cactus stuck on me but having a lot of fun.  I did a lot of stunts that were really just dumb, but it was great.

But you were an experienced rider already, right?

I would never denigrate those real cowboys out there by saying I was experienced.  I had been around cowboys but this was a whole other level of riding.  Taking on these things was a whole different level of physical demand and those guys really helped me understand what it is to be a stunt man.  I barely scratched the surface but a bunch of stunt guys when I did my bigger stunt (I can’t tell you the details!) shook my hand and said they were proud.  I was really proud that they acknowledged it.  You don’t get their respect unless it is the real deal.

I also had a bar fight with Daniel Craig.  He and Olivia Wilde were just great about wanting to do their own stunts.  It was pretty amazing.

How did it feel to look in the mirror and see yourself in cowboy gear?

Our costume designer, Mary Zophres, is incredible.  She was up for an Oscar last year for “True Grit.”  For wardrobe, you just hope it will fit and work right, but she added so much, really helps you create the character, helped the story.  We were able to step into another time period and understand what it was like to wear those clothes and how it affects you.  She was fantastic.

What are your favorite of your grandfather’s movies?

The Shootist,” because he was so dang good in that.  It was his last film and I visited him on the set.  “The Cowboys,” “The Quiet Man,” and “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” is always at the top of my list.  I still am amazed at how good he was.  “Liberty Valance” is such a great story about doing the right thing, not always being the right guy but doing the right thing.

 

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