Big Screen Berkeley: The Missouri Breaks

Marlon Brando in "The Missouri Breaks"

By the 1970s, the western was no longer the happy hunting ground William S. Hart, Tom Mix, and Roy Rogers had populated during the genre’s first half century. Black and white tales of good guys and bad guys were out, and filmmakers began to turn the genre on its head: now the baddies were frequently the characters the audience empathized with. The white man’s injustice towards Native Americans became a popular theme, and spaghetti westerns even introduced the idea that—gasp!—there might be a place for Marxist dialectics in the Old West.

Arthur Penn’s 1976 feature The Missouri Breaks (screening at Pacific Film Archive at 7:00 pm on Wednesday, June 26th) is a typical example of the American revisionist style. The film stars two of Hollywood’s biggest names—Jack Nicholson and Marlon Brando—but neither of their characters are men you’d invite home to meet mother. (Unless, of course, your mother was Joan Crawford.)

Set in the badlands of Montana, the story begins with a hanging. The victim is Sandy Chase (Hunter von Leer), a man accused by rancher David Braxton (John McLiam) of stealing horses. Though Braxton is no lawman, he’s a well-respected man about town who (when not dipping into Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy) fancies himself judge, jury and executioner. By his reckoning, he’s been losing 7% of his herd per annum to rustlers, and that’s got to stop—by fair means or foul.

Sandy’s old riding partners Tom (Nicholson), Little Tod (Randy Quaid), and Cal (Harry Dean Stanton) are part of the problem, but they’re not exactly living large thanks to their rustling proceeds. Moving purloined ponies across the Missouri Breaks without having land on which to rest and water them is a logistical nightmare, so the gang decides to rob a train and purchase some land with the loot. Simple, right?

Wrong. After pulling off the unlikely rail heist, Tom takes a trip into the belly of the beast and cheekily purchases some acreage from Braxton. Whilst the rest of the gang ride north to steal gee-gees from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, Tom masquerades as a simple farmer intent on irrigating his crops. That changes, however, when Braxton’s hired gun Lee Clayton (Brando) enters the scene and immediately senses that Tom’s thumb is not particularly green.

Clayton may not appear until the 30-minute mark, but he dominates the screen thereafter. A bird watching Irishman who douses himself in lavender perfume, Clayton is one of Brando’s most grotesque characterizations. It’s impossible to tell if Marlon was taking the role seriously, and one’s tolerance for his quirky performance will determine how much or how little you enjoy The Missouri Breaks.

In welcome contrast, Nicholson is restrained and subtle—there’s little here of the grinning and gurning Jack of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest or The Shining. The film’s best performance, however, is provided by Stanton as Tom’s loyal and heavily moustachiod sidekick Cal. Though Randy Quaid’s agent somehow got his client third billing, Little Tod is a peripheral character at best: Cal has a substantially bigger and more important role to play, and his final reel demise is one of the film’s most wrenching moments.

John Williams’ score is satisfying and surprisingly complex, cinematographer Michael Butler effectively captures the earthy browns, cloudy grays and watery blues of the Montana badlands, and Thomas McGuane’s screenplay features one undeniably great line of dialogue: “the closer you get to Canada, the more things eat your horses.” As long as you don’t mind watching Brando mince across the screen spouting dialogue in a comic brogue, you’ll find The Missouri Breaks hugely enjoyable entertainment.

Warning to sensitive viewers and members of PETA: the film features a gruesome bunny death that you will find unsettling.

John Seal writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly.

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