Let's Reminisce: The western movie revised

By Jerry Lincecum
Special to the Herald Democrat

Since childhood I have enjoyed western movies, and recently my wife and I chose to watch a number of the classics on the streaming networks. While researching John Wayne’s “Stagecoach,” I discovered that about ten years ago the American Film Institute came up with a top-ten list of Westerns. You can look it up on Wikipedia if you’re interested, but the point for me was that only one of the ten was unfamiliar to me: “McCabe and Mrs. Miller.”

Naturally I needed to fill that hole ASAP, and so we looked it up on Amazon Prime to stream the movie. “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” is a 1971 “revisionist” Western film directed by Robert Altman, and starring Warren Beatty and Julie Christie. Altman referred to it as an "anti-Western" because in making the film he deliberately ignores or goes against a number of the norms for Westerns. But as we quickly discovered, the tensions resulting from the film’s contradiction of standard Western patterns made it more interesting, and the next day we watched it a second time to savor the creativity.

The setting is Washington State in 1902, as a gambler named John McCabe arrives mysteriously in the town of Presbyterian Church, named after its only substantial building. McCabe quickly takes a dominant position over the town's simple-minded zinc miners, thanks to his aggressive personality and rumors that he is a gunfighter. McCabe establishes a makeshift brothel and builds a fancy saloon. Then a pushy British woman, Constance Miller, arrives in town and tells him she could manage the ladies for him more profitably. The two become very successful business partners, opening a high-class establishment and developing a romantic relationship.

The threat of violence thickens the plot after McCabe turns down a buyout offer from a firm that is notorious for having uncooperative people killed. Soon three would-be assassins show up; however, McCabe neither confronts them nor runs away. When a gunfight becomes inevitable, he arms himself and hides in the Presbyterian church during the early morning hours as a heavy snow begins to fall. A broken lantern starts a fire in the church and the townspeople rush to help put it out with a bucket brigade.

While attempting to evade the killers, McCabe plays cat-and mouse with two of them, killing both. He is then mortally wounded by the third one but pretends to be dead in order to kill this last adversary with a derringer. Sadly, while the townspeople celebrate extinguishing the fire, McCabe dies alone in the snow and Mrs. Miller lies sedated with opium.

Obviously, the film’s story departs from the traditional western genre in many ways. In particular, the final scene, a showdown between a reluctant protagonist and his enemies, takes place furtively in the snow during the early hours, rather than at "high noon." Instead of hiding indoors and watching the battle unfold outside, the townsfolk are bustling in the streets and largely unaware of the gunfight taking place in their midst. Neither title character ends up looking either heroic or victorious.

Nevertheless, I believe “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” belongs on the top-ten list of Westerns. In a rare vote of unanimity, two of my favorite film critics, Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel each gave the film four-star ratings because of Altman’s superb storytelling, a result of careful editing (another anachronism, as most Westerns were shot quickly and only lightly edited).

Jerry Lincecum

Jerry Lincecum is a retired Austin College professor who now teaches classes for older adults who want to write their life stories. He welcomes your reminiscences on any subject: jlincecum@me.com.