The Tracker: a desert Western study of European colonialism and exploitation and its effects

Rolf de Heer, “The Tracker” (2002)

On the surface, a simple story of four men hunting a fugitive who has committed a crime, “The Tracker” is a study of European colonialism and exploitation of Australia’s original people, and the pain and violence these people have had to suffer as a result. The story is set in an unnamed remote part of the country in 1922: an aboriginal man (Noel Wilton) has apparently killed a white woman and is on the run. The police send out four men: the expedition is led by a man known only as the Fanatic (Gary Sweet) with young rookie policeman the Follower (Damon Gameau) and an older policeman the Veteran (Grant Page) in tow. They rely on an aboriginal man known as the Tracker (David Gulpilil) to interpret the trail left behind by the Fugitive to follow and apprehend him.

As might be expected, the plot is simple enough for plenty of psychological inquiry into the Australian character and how it has been (and continues to be) affected by colonialism and the attitudes and beliefs that upheld it: beliefs such as white supremacy over non-white peoples, the so-called white man’s burden in bringing cultural, moral and spiritual enlightenment to others, and the notion that hunter-gatherer peoples are doomed for extinction. The white characters are basically crude stereotypes that express these beliefs but in different ways according to their generation: the Veteran represents an older passive generation that may know better but prefers not to challenge colonial authority, and suffers for that; the Fanatic represents a bureaucratic, hierarchical layer of colonial society obsessed with control to the extent that he is willing to kill others if they obstruct his mission; and the Follower symbolises a young generation that, while having grown up with racist beliefs, is more open-minded, able to change and prepared to acknowledge Aboriginal laws and spirituality.

Thanks to David Gulpilil’s subtle acting, expressive face and mischievous nature and sense of humour, the Tracker is the most developed and complex character. In his ability to use and exploit both Aboriginal and European religion and law to his advantage, assist the Follower, gain justice for the Veteran, and later protect the Fugitive and the Fugitive’s community from the full force of European vengeance, the Tracker combines compassion and cunning in a way that looks completely plausible and natural. It is a pity that the other actors were not allowed the same range of expression in their characters: the Veteran in particular has only one or two lines of dialogue and is essentially a robot. Gameau makes the most of a naive character who comes to respect the Tracker, if not necessarily the cultural tradition he represents. While Sweet does a decent job as the Fanatic, the character is essentially a crude cartoon that would strain the ability of even the finest actors to make human and realistic.

The countryside is a significant character in its own right, to the extent of influencing characters’ decisions and part of the action. The Tracker is at home with the land while the white characters express various levels of discomfort with it: the Fanatic obviously is the most uncomfortable as demonstrated by a remark he makes about dead animals which is cut down by the Veteran, who has made his own pragmatic accommodation with the land. The Follower suffers various reactions ranging from culture shock to wide-eyed wonder and an acceptance that he may never fully understand the spiritual relationship that the Tracker has with the land.

Viewers may have qualms about aspects of de Heer’s direction and his use of composer / musician Archie Roach’s songs about Aboriginal suffering in scenes where the four men travel long stretches of country. De Heer’s use of paintings mainly to express the violence done to individual characters may puzzle viewers also, as this device distances audiences from the brutal nature of colonialism to Aboriginal and white people alike.

While the plot is thin for the film’s length, and the movie is preachy and doesn’t really work well as a psychological study, “The Tracker” is very moving and astonishing to watch, thanks to the landscapes and the actors, in particular David Gulpilil, who surely rates among Australia’s greatest actors.

Paris, Texas: a film of isolation and rootlessness that cannot find purchase in a ruthless machine society

Wim Wenders, “Paris, Texas” (1984)

One of American cinema’s finest yet under-appreciated treasures must surely be the unassuming actor Harry Dean Stanton whose acting career reached its diamond anniversary in 2014. Usually cast in supporting roles, here he is employed in the lead role as the amnesiac Travis in Wim Wenders’ road flick “Paris, Texas”, a meditation on isolation, rootlessness, self-discovery and redemption. The thin plot strains credibility and the small cast is sometimes rather workman-like but what it says about the human condition and the particular social environment that has made Travis and his fellow characters what they are is more important.

After four years wandering lost in the desert somewhere in Arizona or New Mexico, Travis stumbles into a petrol station and a doctor there calls for help. The authorities call on Travis’ closest of kin, brother Walt (Dean Stockwell) and Walt’s wife Anne (Aurore Clément), to collect him. Walt brings Travis back in a somewhat roundabout way (involving a detour to a place called Paris, in Texas, consisting of little more than a collection of derelict trucks in the middle of the desert) to his own home in Los Angeles where Travis is reacquainted with his son Hunter (Hunter Carson). Travis and Hunter gradually warm to each other to the point where Travis, determining to find out what happened to his estranged wife Jane (Nastassja Kinski), is able to take the boy with him on a long driving trip from Los Angeles to Houston in Texas. There, Travis makes an unpleasant discovery about Jane and has to decide whether to reconcile with her or not.

The film is long and meandering, and at times it appears not quite focused, as if to mirror its central character’s struggle to understand himself and the most important people in his life, and how his life came off the rails originally. Stanton underplays his part well: his character veers from child-like to adult, gradually opening up and maturing as he re-establishes a relationship with Hunter and then searches for Jane. Stockwell and Clément play their parts well: in their own way, Walt and Anne are as lost in the urban jungle of Los Angeles which in some respects is as much a vast desert as the one where Travis was lost. Carson is appealing as the son caught up in the trappings of modern Western culture, disdaining walking and close physical and emotional contact for the attractions of cars and video-games. But the best (if understated) acting comes in the film’s climax when Travis talks to his wife on the phone at her place of work where she provides phone sex talk to lonely customers: Travis admits to Jane that his love for her became an unhealthy obsession and led to a strong controlling streak on his part that eventually broke up their relationship and which literally sent him into the desert wilderness.

Supported by fine cinematography that emphasises the flat and open expanses of the desert landscapes, the restless society that has put down shallow roots in this environment, and the drawling slide-guitar soundtrack by Ry Cooder that evokes the stark loneliness of the Texan urban and rural worlds, the film follows Travis’ attempts at rediscovering himself, reuniting his family and finding in the reunion of Jane and Hunter the atonement for his earlier misdeeds that will allow him to move forward without guilt.

Admittedly the film can be hokey in parts and the disruption that Travis could have brought to his brother’s family and Jane is reduced to some misgivings on sister-in-law Anne’s part about the possibility of Travis taking Hunter away from her and Walt. The film could have been edited here and there for length without affecting its distinctive atmosphere and low-key style. Stockwell and Clément are not given much to do and their reaction to Travis disappearing from their home, taking Hunter with him, is inexplicably passive. Having reunited Jane and Hunter, Travis purposely leaves them, perhaps forever, to return where he came from or to pursue his dream of finding Paris, Texas.

The lonely life in the dreary Houston suburb where Jane plies her trade is taken for granted; no-one bothers to ask Jane why she had to take up such seedy work, nor why she couldn’t get a better job in LA with the help of her in-laws. The isolation and rootlessness of people; and the culture and its values that encourage people to continually move around, whether to better themselves, earn more money, pursue fame and riches, and which tout individual freedoms in narrow ways that privilege greed and competition, with the resultant loss of connection and intimacy: all are accepted by director Wenders as they are and are never questioned here. Travis might mature enormously during his quest for identity and need for emotional connection but at the end of the film, he is still at a loss of how to cope and deal with a mostly indifferent, ruthless society. He cannot survive in such a world where work and efficiency for their own sake, where people like his ex-wife and his brother’s family are forced to exist as isolated units, and so he voluntarily chooses to return to the desert. How this voluntary return to isolation is going to aid Travis in further self-discovery and maturation – it could also put him in danger of regression into amnesia – Wenders is unable to say and the conclusion seems half-hearted to the point of defeatism.

Shorn of its excess baggage, “Paris, Texas” would still pack considerable emotional punch, though I suppose it would lose its meandering, lackadaiscal pace .

Becoming a legend through humility and earning grace in “Samurai III: Duel at Ganryu Island”

Hiroshi Inagaki, “Samurai III: Duel at Ganryu Island” (1956)

Inagaki’s third and last installment in the historical fiction drama series on the life and times of master swordsman Musashi Miyamoto is a mellow and almost wistful study of the samurai’s spiritual and mental evolution as he prepares for the fight of his life against an evil challenger. At the end of the second film in the series, the samurai Kojiro Sasaki (Koji Tsuruta) vows to seek out and fight Miyamoto (Toshiro Mifune) and this determination becomes the main focus of the third film as the two characters warily circle each other on their respective journeys through life, knowing that once they have decided to fight one another, they can’t avoid their fate. To this end, Miyamoto requests of Sasaki that he be allowed to spend a year to prepare for the fight, during which time he rejects an offer from the Shogun to train warriors and travels to a village where he devotes his life to farming and defending the villagers against feared bandits. The bandits rope in Akemi (Mariko Okada), one of Miyamoto’s rivals for his affections, to lead them to the village. Akemi’s rival, Otsu (Kaoru Yachigusa), tracks down Miyamoto herself and joins him on his farm. This means that in addition to preparing himself psychologically for the showdown with Sasaki, Miyamoto must fight off the brigands and deal with two women jealous of one another and reconcile with Otsu. What’s an ascetic samurai to do under such circumstances? In the meantime, Sasaki lives a life of ease and easy pleasures, visiting courtesans and courting the young daughter of a noble family at Kokura.

Like its predecessors, the film includes nature as a significant character in the narrative: scenes of flowing water reflect the plot’s concern with the passage of time and past memory and hint at emotions within Miyamoto and Otsu that they are afraid to admit to themselves, much less each other. To be frank, I found the romantic sub-plot and the rivalry between Akemi and Otsu uninteresting: the two characters are too stereotyped as one-dimensional scheming bitch and helpless no-brain damsel respectively to generate any real tension. The film’s attempt to contrast Miyamoto and Sasaki through their life-styles and activities is laudable, and demonstrates Miyamoto’s down-to-earth integrity and maturity – he had formerly spurned the life of a farmer as he admits to Otsu – compared to Sasaki’s glide through fun and luxurious living.

Made for the general public, the film brushes over how and why Miyamoto adopts a more humble attitude to life. The priest who helped Otsu in the earlier films has gone and the film makes no attempt to explain any Buddhist principles that might be relevant to Miyamoto’s inner quest. We see Miyamoto being quite reluctant to fight the brigand leader and various others but the film does not explain his change of attitude from his early eagerness to prove himself. He avoids fame and celebrity but the film does not show how this desire came about. In short, if viewers want to learn something of Buddhist philosophy and what aspects of it influenced Miyamoto’s life, they will not find anything useful in the film to help.

The main glory of the film is the final battle scene between Sasaki and Miyamoto on the beach at sunrise. Framed between two trees and their canopies and branches, the fight is surprisingly swift and brisk. The end when it comes is unexpected and the victor, overcome by the momentous nature of the fight, is saddened at a life’s brief duration, cut off in its prime. Is he also sorrowful that the fight did not need to take place at all, that because of pride and an obsession with fame, a man has died unnecessarily?

The film does flow better than its predecessors and is much more focused due to its plot. Loose ends are tidied up and there is a definite sense of release and freedom at the end of the film. Miyamoto’s life quest is complete and he earns undying fame: the lesson he had to learn to become a legendary samurai was to become humble and to think of others and care for them before caring about himself and his reputation. There might be a lesson there for Japan and other nations to learn.

Samurai II: Duel at Ichijoji Temple – bridging two films capably with character and thematic developments

Hiroshi Inagaki, “Samurai II: Duel at Ichijoji Temple” (1955)

Its predecessor in the Musashi Miyamoto trilogy might have won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film for 1954, but this second installment is a superior film in its characterisation, plotting and cinematography. The plot makes greater demands on its audience’s attention and understanding of pre-Meiji Japanese culture and Buddhist philosophy in amongst the clashing of swords in combat and a sappy love triangle. While the conventions of the American Western film genre are followed in the detail of the lone itinerant fighting hero who forswears love and a normal life in his quest for self-knowledge and understanding, these conventions are extended to embrace and illuminate Buddhist values and beliefs and to impart a message that toughness and stoicism need to be tempered with compassion and love and respect for others, especially those who are weaker than oneself.

Our man Takezo aka Miyamoto (Toshiro Mifune) challenges a swordfighting school led by Seijuro Yoshioka to a fight to demonstrate his skill and underline his reputation as a swordsman. The coming showdown anchors the film and focuses attention. In-between skirmishes with members of the school, keen to set an ambush for him and wear him down before he meets Seijuro, Takezo is pursued by the women Akemi and Otsu, both of whom were betrayed by Takezo’s former friend Matahachi. Takezo’s encounters with the ill-fated women and his feelings for them both are as much a battleground for him as the marshy grounds surrounding Ichijoji Temple. The biggest battlefield though turns out to be his own ego as Takezo slowly comes to realise that his pride, stubbornness and fixation with his reputation as a fighter are a cover for various inadequacies which he must deal with before he can truly be called great.

In real life, Miyamoto probably never had to contend with 80 seasoned fighters at the crack of dawn over fields of swamp but let’s not allow reality to intrude upon gritty and brutal fighting through mud and slush. As expected, Mifune performs capably as the cynical gunfighter … err, swordsman, with not too much required of his acting skills at least until a scene near the end where without words Takezo is overcome by his desire for Otsu. The supporting cast play their roles, stereotyped and one-dimensional as they are, well for the most part; an unexpected and droll little twist is provided by a courtesan’s young assistant with a breathy little girl’s voice.

The countryside becomes a significant character in the film as well with the main battle taking place in swampy, muddy territory during the dying hours of night. Scenes of nature feature throughout the film and perhaps the best use of nature comes near the end where shots of flowing water are interspersed with shots of Takezo and Otsu together, with no dialogue but the camera focused on their faces. The water alludes to the growing affections they feel for one another.

Although the movie falls far short of what the great Akira Kurosawa did with his samurai films – there’s too much melodrama, characters are flat for the most part and the various sub-plots are not handled too well with some minor characters appearing for no other reason than that they appeared in the first movie so we’d better not forget them – “… Ichijoji Temple” performs adequately as a second installment that builds on what the first film established and sets up the framework for the third movie, in which Takezo must meet and fight a swordsman who not only is his equal in skill but may even be superior to him in fighting tactics.

Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto – the early days of a famous swordsman celebrated with ambition and energy

Hiroshi Inagaki, “Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto” (1954)

One of the most famous people in Japanese culture is the swordsman and mystic Musashi Miyamoto, author of “Gorin no sho / The Book of Five Rings”, and one imagines that in a culture that reveres martial stereotypes of the samurai and the ninja, and the sport of kendo, Miyamoto’s life should be well documented. The fact though is that records of his life seem to be very spotty and he has been the subject of many tall tales. This did not bother director Hiroshi Inagaki who undertook to make a trilogy of movies detailing an imagined life of Miyamoto from his early years to his battle with Sasaki Kojiro at Ganryujima. The films star the notable Toshiro Mifune, Japan’s samurai answer to Hollywood’s cowboy heroes of the same time, as Miyamoto.

The first film of the trilogy, subtitled simply “Musashi Miyamoto”, presents Miyamoto as a young and impetuous village youth, known to his family and community as Takezo. Takezo and friend Matahachi eagerly participate in a civil war (the period is the year 1600, just before Ieyasu Tokugawa became shogun and initiated a long peace of some 267 years) but their side loses badly and the two try to return home. They fall in with two women, Oko and Akemi, who make a living by robbing dead samurai of their arms and money. Akemi tends to Matahachi’s wound and Oko tries to seduce Takezo after seeing him fight off a bunch of thugs single-handedly. Takezo runs away and the women and Matahachi later desert him. Takezo returns to his and Matahachi’s home village to tell Matahachi’s mother and his fiancee Otsu that Matahachi is still alive. Takezo is accused of giving up Matahachi for dead and the village elders order his arrest. Takezo becomes a fugitive but the local Buddhist priest Takuan traps him. Takuan intends to take Takezo under his wing and train him to be a moral man. With the help of Matahachi’s fiancee Otsu (who learns that Matahachi has forsaken her for Oko), Takezo escapes for a time but again Takuan tricks him and imprisons him in Himeji Castle. Here for a number of years Takezo undergoes spiritual and moral training, and starts on the long road to becoming a proper samurai.

The film borrows many plot and style elements from the Western genre including the idea of the main character as a strong, silent lone-wolf figure who will travel from one place to the next taking on various villains and learning through his adventures what it means to be a true and virtuous samurai, and that life, being impermanent, must be cherished and respected. The film may lack the grace and choreography that a Kurosawa might have brought to it but this means that action sequences look all the more realistic and savage. Characters are very stereotyped and what character development exists is extremely limited. The acting is not especially skillful and Toshiro Mifune’s portrayal of Takezo seems rather wooden. (He was a thirtysomething actor playing a character who was supposed to be in his late teens after all.) Takezo’s early transformation from wild and restless youngster to serious young man trained in proper samuari skills and Buddhist philosophy occurs off-screen in a matter of minutes in a 100-minute film; Inagaki figured that constant chanting of sutras, daily practice with wooden swords and long hours in meditation atop mountains in the middle of winter might not go down well with audiences thirsting for the quick and decisive actions of Hollywood gangster and cowboy films.

The film seems a little uneven given its plot – there’s no great sword-fight at the end and the climax comes from the romantic sub-plot – and there are great leaps from one sub-plot to the next. Matahachi and his women disappear from the film for a long stretch and are brought back near the end. Inagaki manages to pull the different stories together and the film marches resolutely to its finale with its focus firmly on Takezo.

In the aftermath of Japan’s defeat by the US and its allies in 1945, the film’s themes revolve around identity, redemption, rebirth and finding one’s goals and true purpose in life. The general thrust of the film is to show how Takezo comes to take responsibility for his actions and understand their consequences; he becomes less ego-driven and more aware of what others do for him and to use his strengths to defend others without thought for himself. Compared to other samurai films (and especially those of Akira Kurosawa) that I have seen, this movie might not be great technically but it certainly has ambition and energy befitting its main character.

The Backwater Gospel: a darkly grim Gothic satire on religious fanaticism, mob rule and the fear of death

Bo Mathorne, “The Backwater Gospel” (2011)

In a total running time of just over nine minutes, this raw and stark animation is a superb comment on the combined power of religious fanaticism, mob rule and scapegoating. In a tiny backwater town somewhere in 19th-century Gothic Americana, the Grim Reaper in the form of an undertaker with blazing lights for eyes arrives to the consternation of a fire ‘n’ brimstone preacher (voiced by Lucien Dodge), the local community leader. Death’s arrival brings fear to the desperate townsfolk, already crazed from poverty, hardship and a never-ending drought. The fiery reverend turns his maddened flock against the local tramp (Zebulon Whatley) for poking fun at the church sermons and the people stone and bludgeon the outsider dead. Still, grinning Death does not depart and his continued presence inflames the people even more. His cup soon runneth over with blood and when the rain stops, the sun shines once more and a rainbow forms in the distant horizon, Death pretty much finds his work all cut out in cleaning up Main Street.

The art-work is stunning in its contrasts of blinding light and sinister dark shadow and the tormented comic-book figures, gaunt and angular of body and twisted in face, express broken spirit, passivity and sudden anger and savagery from deep repressed wells of emotion and torment in turns very well. The gradual escalation of tension and hysteria is controlled and the eruption of fury is handled effectively in scenes of violence and horror. The denouement is shattering. The plot is very creepy and there is much grim black humour.

The laid-back guitar music suits the animation, its narrative and theme although I can’t help but think that Nick Cave would have given the short an even better musical soundtrack had he been asked to do one.

This is definitely not something for young children to watch due to the high violence and gore quotient. I found this very enjoyable indeed.

A Tattooed Life: underrated yakuza character study expressing anti-nationalist nihilism

Seijun Suzuki, “A Tattooed Life / Irezumi Ichidai” (1965)

A surprisingly touching and quite emotional drama, told in a traditional way, this is an underrated yakuza film from Seijun Suzuki in which he explores honour and loyalty between two brothers. Hit man Tetsu and his much younger art-student brother Kenji are forced to go on the run when they are suddenly ambushed by rival killers and Kenji, trying to defend his big brother, kills an important yakuza. The two men try to catch a ship to Manchuria but a sleazy hustler fleeces them of their money and they go to work instead for a man, Yamashita, in charge of a construction company trying to build a tunnel. The brothers are accepted by the work crew but it’s not long until Kenji falls in love with Yamashita’s wife Masayo and Masayo’s teenaged kid sister Midori falls for Tetsu. At the same time, one of Yamashita’s employees, a not-very-nice piece of work, has the hots for Midori so there are a couple of very complicated love triangles here. Add to those linked romances the police and the yakuza linked to the man murdered by Kenji hot on the brothers’ trail and you’ve got one slowly yet steadily simmering revenge drama that erupts into a brief but highly intense bout of violence.

The bulk of the film is basically a character-driven straight narrative that establishes the context for the violence for which Suzuki pulls out all the stops for the precious four minutes that underline his reputation for stylish direction: the traditional Japanese house structure provides an unforgettable setting for the interplay of shadow and light, what is seen versus what remains hidden behind paper screens, the use of colour as a dramatic device in its own right, and even the unusual angles at which the camera is held to emphasise the visceral nature of the sword and gun fights. As the fight proceeds, the camera pans along to the left, zooms in on a character running away from the camera lens through a series of rooms, then shifts position to film from above and abruptly jumps to film characters from below! The actual fighting is unforgettable to watch as men slash at one another with swords; it looks precise and graceful thanks to the lighting Suzuki used and the minimal backgrounds in which one colour predominates among the shadows.

Apart from the film’s set piece, the rest of the narrative is not bad to watch: the brothers improbably build up a rapport with Yamashita’s work crew which includes plenty of oddball characters who, even after they learn of Tetsu’s yakuza background and of Kenji’s crush on Masayo, rally behind them both. The brothers have a close relationship which is often strained by Kenji’s impulsive actions and his deeply felt loss of their mother which translates into a desire for Masayo. Kenji’s thoughtlessness leads to tragedy and Tetsu’s reaction is one of the most moving I have ever seen a male actor perform. The brothers provide a strong counterpoint to each other in characterisation. The two sisters are also contrasted in character: Masayo accepts that her marriage is a loveless one and is resigned to living within the strictures of convention while the young Midori ardently declares her love for Tetsu, yakuza or no yakuza, and tries to run away with him in defiance of social convention.

The natural landscape settings are often beautiful and scenes of rolling beach waves appear to suggest something of the impermanence of life and love. There is a nihilism present in the film: Tetsu does what he does for his younger brother’s sake only for the younger, naive man to throw everything away; at the end of the film (spoiler alert), Tetsu leaves Midori for a bleak future and the young woman is inconsolable. What happens to the Yamashita couple is uncertain.

Suzuki expresses a distaste for authority figures and Japanese corporate values throughout the film – the police are no better than the yakuza, the yakuza spread their corruption into legitimate business and corporate loyalty is called into question when it’s directed towards unworthy individuals and causes – and its historical setting in the 1920s hints at Suzuki’s own cynicism about the Japanese government and its conduct in the decades leading up to Japan’s invasion of China and southeast Asia and its attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941. The common people are hearty, honest, jovial and down-to-earth while their “betters” are suspicious and untrustworthy characters. The sleazy hustler, always wearing a white three-piece suit, turns out to be an ultra-nationalistic thug.

Perhaps “A Tattooed Life” is not quite as flamboyant or wacky as Suzuki’s later films but its plot is more highly developed and plausible than some of Suzuki’s later, better known works and deserves wider attention.

 

The Wild, Wild West (Season 2, Episode 20: Night of the Vicious Valentine): fantasy, eccentricity and camp comedy in an original plot

Irving Moore, “The Wild, Wild West (Season 2, Episode 20: Night of the Vicious Valentine)” (1966)

This episode is notable for winning the series its only Emmy award for Best Actress, the gong going to noted actor Agnes Moorehead, better known for her role as Endora the witchy mother of main witch character Samantha Stephens in the famous TV show “Bewitched”.

The story is a murder mystery in that agents Jim West (Robert Conrad) and Artemus Gordon (Ross Martin) are investigating a series of unfortunate and untimely deaths of wealthy industrialists linked by the fact that they’ve been married for several months to much younger women whom they’ve met through a match-making agency run by one Emma Valentine (Moorehead). The episode runs in a narrative similar to the Diana Rigg colour episodes of “The Avengers” series with the agents chasing various leads, trying to prevent more tragedies and nearly meeting with tragedy themselves – Gordon nearly losing his head in a print shop but not over some gaudy stationery – and the colourful, almost surreal and even saccharine sets and the lavish costumes on all characters suggest a Western fantasy-land not far removed from that inhabited by John Steed and Emma Peel a hundred years later. Oh, Grant might be President but then Avengersland also had Queen Elizabeth II and Carnaby Street. A dastardly, eccentric villain with a noble quest to save women from economic and social exploitation that hide an agenda to take over the United States’ wealth and gain power, attended by equally strange and eccentric minions and claiming some bizarre torture and death-dealing devices, including one that looks like a steampunk version of Barbarella’s Orgasmatron. West and Gordon are even equivalent to Peel and Steed: West does most of the strong-arming but ends up spending a good part of the episode tied up and Gordon inveigles his way into Valentine’s love-nest. The climax is one of the highlights with both men trussed up helplessly attached to a glass structure that will collapse on top of yet another hapless industrialist on his wedding day. As ever, improbably the agents get out of that bit of trouble and into another but fight their way out and all good people in that episode live to see another day.

Moorehead is the star of the show here and doesn’t everyone from Conrad and Martin down to the script-writers and technical crew know it: the plot revolves around her, the script-writers give her the best lines, the actors acknowledge her star presence and let her dominate, the sets are as luxurious, spacious and decadent as the budget allowed, and even the folks in charge of furniture and ornaments give her a set of dumb-bells in the shape of love-hearts to exercise with. Moorehead knows she is playing an essentially campy role and deploys all her witchy Endora charm in infusing it with drama, character and wit. The only let-down here is that she doesn’t get enough screen time with Martin’s Gordon so they could parry witticisms; Conrad’s character is clever and resourceful but not allowed to trade puns and double entendres with Valentine while trapped in her creepy touchy-feely contraption which doesn’t get much of a work-out. (What the script-writers for The Avengers could have done with those hands to Mrs Peel!) I tip my ten-gallon hat off to “The Wild, Wild West” for combining the surreal, the campy and the plain bizarre with the spy adventure form in a way that makes this fantasy-land plausible without it looking twee in the way many Avengers episodes do.

The episode is an amusing commentary on the status of women in the US in the late 19th century and also in the 1960s: West’s conversation with Valentine on women seeking political and economic equality with men plays safe so that West doesn’t come off as too conservative or too progressive on the idea of feminism. A minor female characters plays a stereotypical simpering type but shows unexpected courage in the plot’s climax. Perhaps the producers could have done much, much more with the theme but as is, “The Night of the Vicious Valentine” is a real highlight with everyone pulling out all the stops in creative flair, camp comedy and inventive plot devices.

The Wild, Wild West (Season 2, Episode 13: Night of the Skulls): an entertaining plot with surprises and running gags

Alan Crosland Jr, “The Wild, Wild West (Season 2, Episode 13: Night of the Skulls)” (1966)

A really surprising episode this turns out to be, with surprises and gags following after another, all done in such a way as to appear completely plausible in spite of many daft ideas. Firstly Jim West (Robert Conrad) and Artemus Gordon (Ross Martin) fight over a woman, and West shoots Gordon dead. West then goes on the run while Gordon’s funeral, officiated over by Gordon himself in disguise as a priest(!), is held. Turns out the stoush is a set-up to allow West to infiltrate a secret cult that is swallowing up various murderers on the run and the only way West can penetrate this group is to be a murderer himself.

West not only infiltrates the cult but thanks to a bizarre trial in which he is tried by a jury of “peers” – that is, fellow murderers! – for the murder of Artemus Gordon, he is convicted and made a member of the cult. The cult leader (and trial judge) proposes a new trial in which the murderers whittle down their numbers – that is, one another! – to select three people for a special assignment. In the meantime, Gordon in yet another disguise infiltrates the cult and gets as far as contacting West before they’re both discovered by the cult members and imprisoned down a well. By means of an ingenious though the hokeyest of hokey escapes, the two agents emerge from the well and try to foil the cult members’ plot to kill US President Ulysses Grant, his Vice-President and the Secretary of State.

This is an entertaining episode all the way right through to the end with perhaps the biggest surprise of all in the customary tag scene that takes place in West and Gordon’s private railway car. The cult members are rounded up and sent on their way to justice. There are at least three or four fights, the most notable being a swordfight between West and a Japanese samurai: West can’t handle a sword properly so the fight ends with an accidental tragedy. Conrad and Martin act out their parts in the way they’re supposed to, Conrad as the straight James Bond spy type and Martin as his comedy foil; they keep up the running gag of West nearly killing Martin yet again, and moreover include the cult leader who turns out to be a US senator suffering from a bad case of megalomania in a near-murder scene. The climax is cleverly done, taking place the next day after West has despatched the three would-be assassins, when viewers would have expected West to rejoin Gordon in seeking out the ring-leader.

The cheap budget for the episode gives it a clean bare-bones setting in which West has to keep negotiating a labyrinth of passage-ways and cul-de-sacs that end up as a closed maze. The ambience is somewhat austere as a result and the producers had to resort to unusual techniques, like filming one particular scene from a bird’s-eye view, to maintain the suspense and the shadowy nature of the cult.

The narrative of the plot plays with and confounds viewer expectations of how it should proceed while maintaining the series’ usual tropes of West playing straight man who attracts fights and femme fatales like a lamp attracts moths, Martin’s penchant for outlandish disguises, various eccentric villains, a main baddie with a swollen ego and bizarre motifs that reference and question aspects of modern society at a safe distance for viewers. In this episode, the theme is political corruption and the thin division between legitimate politicians who look and act squeaky-clean, and secret crime organisations on whose help those politicians rely. (Ironically President Grant, the ultimate employer of West and Gordon, in real life was sometimes associated with corrupt appointees, especially during his second term.) West’s trial and conviction appear to mock the rituals of court sessions in the US. At times the episode does not feel much like a Western at all, so closely does it depend on the plot and its characters to pull the story along.

Viewers will enjoy the emphasis on a secret cult within the US government plotting a coup against the President and his cabinet, and the various plot twists that advance the plot along, make it look plausible and tie up all loose ends. Surprisingly the plot and the ideas and issues associated with it resonate with modern conspiracy theories about the possibility that a secret government might exist within the nominal US government and the episode feels very fresh and contemporary.

The Wild, Wild West (Season 1, Episode 1: The Night of the Inferno): a cautious start to a classic TV series

Richard C Sarafian, “The Wild, Wild West (Season 1, Episode 1: The Night of the Inferno)” (1965)

With the Civil War over and the period of Reconstruction begun in the South, there is unrest aplenty in the western and southwestern territories of the United States and President Grant needs a man to go undercover and help bring order to these lands and their peoples. Enter one Jim West (Robert Conrad), brought to Grant in disguise as a renegade prisoner, and entrusted with a mission to seek and apprehend a Mexican revolutionary Juan Manolo in Texas. Travelling by private train given him by Grant and enlisting the help of Artemus Gordon (Ross Martin), Jim meets a Chinese informant Wing Fat (Victor Buono) who introduces him to Lydia (Suzanne Pleshette), who turns out to be an old flame of Jim’s.

Gordon and West discover that Manolo is keeping gunpowder in barrels supposed to contain wine in the cellar of Lydia’s mansion. After going their separate ways, West is later captured by some of Manolo’s men and imprisoned with Lydia. West engineers an escape, rejoins Gordon and together they capture the man who they think is Manolo. West takes the man back to his train where he is ambushed by the real Manolo who has been disguised as Wing Fat all along.

There follows a billiards game during which West tries to buy time while Gordon and Lydia, having arrived at the train, battle Manolo’s men. Both agents quickly despatch the baddies and with Lydia ride off into the night on the train. All quite mundane really: but this episode was a pilot episode for the series so it erred on the side of caution.

The episode liberally borrows from the James Bond movie series and the tropes borrowed become part of the show’s regular props: the character of James West himself, a suave undercover agent who’s cool, calm and very collected in even the most dire and dangerous situations; a femme fatale who’s attracted to West but can’t always be trusted; eccentric villains; bizarre plots and plot devices such as the billiards game; and strange settings (a train as a secret hide-out?!) among others. An original touch is the character of Artemus Gordon who’s a dab hand at ventriloquy and outlandish disguises which come in handy in every episode. Conrad plays West as a straight, fairly colourless character, foil to the real star Martin who imbues Gordon with a distinctive cheerfulness and zest: no matter how far-out the disguise is, Martin’s Gordon pulls it off comfortably in a way that treads a fine balance between plausible (and not so plausible) camp and seriousness.

Victor Buono brings flamboyant flair to the episode as the disguised Manolo, enlivening an otherwise run-of-the-mill story-line. America in the mid-1960s being a relatively innocent time, the producers dared to push the boundaries of what was acceptable to American TV audiences by portraying a Chinese character relatively sympathetically and then deconstructing it: in this way, the show called attention to racist stereotyping and the Hollywood tendency at the time to cast white people in roles of non-whites. (The series was unusual for its time in hiring non-white actors to play minor and sometimes major characters, to reflect the reality of the period in which it’s set.) The plot about a Mexican revolutionary thirsting for the return of US territory to his motherland soon after the end of the Civil War and the beginning of Reconstruction might say something about how fluid territories and identities can be at a time when the civil rights movement was in progress and people generally were hit with the notion that what they considered “normal” was really unjust and degrading to people who through no fault of their own were born as social and economic inferiors.

The series was also pushing the portrayal of women just a little: women were no longer helpless but were as capable of throwing bombs or acting off their own bat. Still, compared to the British TV spy series “The Avengers”, “The Wild, Wild West” had a long way (literally and figuratively) to go.

And last but not least – why the Western setting? It provides a comfortable arena for a TV series to comment on and deconstruct familiar stereotypes about American society and history, past and present, and to present an alternate view of how America might or could have evolved. The Western genre had become tired and stale and was in need of a fresh approach in both TV and movies: shows like “The Wild, Wild West” by throwing and blending together the spy and Western genres breathed new life and eccentricity into both genres. Future episodes would feature science fiction and horror elements. Plus it’s just fun to think that “The Wild, Wild West” anticipates sci-fi steampunk about 20 years before William Gibson introduced the world to cyberpunk and all that followed in his 1985 novel “Neuromancer”!

Somehow it’s ironic that I’ve started watching this series at a time when American society in particular and Western society across the world generally seem to be retreating into identity politics and a crisis of confidence in its institutions, values and ideologies. West and Gordon might have been backing the “wrong” side as we moderns see it but whose side is really “wrong”?