|"The book was better." Whenever you go see a film adaptation of a beloved text, you could probably put money on the first thing people will say as they file out of the theater. They'll crumple their candy wrappers and slurp the last of their Mountain Dew and shake their heads at the audacity of the screenwriters. "Another piece of literature ruined!" And it's just another casualty of The Studio System. That big, money-grubbing cinema machine, which, unsatisfied with romantic comedy fodder, has seized a beautiful novel and squeezed. In this case, we've gathered here to mourn the untimely adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's All The Pretty Horses (Thornton, 2000). McCarthy’s plot is, for the most part, kept intact throughout the film. Instead, it is the film technique—like close up face shots, hokey music, and clichéd cinematography—that causes the film to become something trite and boring rather than mirroring the lyrical prose of McCarthy’s novel. The film grasps at the conventions of the Western employed by McCarthy, without managing to portray his subtle commentary on the inability of these conventions to apply to the modern American landscape.
All the Pretty Horses: How a book portraying the loss of the West became a convention Western
Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses presents a changing world and a fading way of life, evoked through the character of John Grady Cole, a young boy trying to maintain the identity of a cowboy. Set in post-WWII Texas, the novel follows John Grady from the ranch he grew up on through the beautiful but threatening Mexican landscape. John Grady represents all the virtues of the traditional Western hero: he is honest, brave, steadfast, hard-working, taciturn, and unnaturally good with horses. However, John Grady’s particular brand of heroism no longer has a relevant role in the world in which he lives. The novel begins with the death of his grandfather, marking the loss of both a family member and a lifestyle. John Grady’s mother, more concerned with her acting career and new boyfriend, has no interest in maintaining the family ranch, while John Grady has no interest in doing anything else. The opening scenes of the novel evoke his deep sense of loss, beginning with John Grady standing over his grandfather’s corpse. McCarthy subtly sets the tone for the novel with this scene, repeatedly emphasizing the unfriendly nature of the world in which our hero must now live: the words “cold” and “dark” are used repeatedly. John Grady stands in the “cold hallway” looking into the “dark glass,” holding his hat “like some supplicant to the darkness,” while the phrase “dark and cold and no wind” is repeated twice. The repetition of these two adjectives creates the impression of a barren world where the only sound is the “ticking of the mantel clock,” marking the unstoppable passage of time (3).
This sense of loss permeates much of the novel, extending beyond John Grady’s personal loss to the end of an entire era. The world for which John Grady’s father and grandfather raised him is no longer present, and hasn’t been for a long time. The ranch which John Grady loves so much “has barely paid expenses for twenty years” (15), and his way of life is greeted with surprise and curiosity by most of the people he encounters. His mother’s lawyer tells him, “not everbody thinks that life on a cattle ranch in West Texas is the second best thing to dyin and goin to heaven,” (17) and he, in jeans, cowboy boots, and a hat, gets strange looks from theatre-goers at his mother’s play (21). When he and Rawlins stop for food on their way to Mexico, the woman in the grocery store reacts with surprise when she finds out they have ridden their horses from San Angelo (36). Even the modern landscape itself seems hostile to them. As they meet with fences during their ride, Rawlins questions, “How the hell do they expect a man to ride a horse in this country?” to which John Grady replies, “They don’t” (31). Later, they’re held up by their inability to get across a busy highway in the dark, unable to safely lead their horses across (32). Until they cross the Rio Grande, the two boys seem to be out of place, attempting to live out the masculine ideal of their grandfathers in a modern world. The two boys themselves cannot even live up to the role they’re trying to fill. Their dialogue occasionally sounds like what they believe a hero in Western should sound like, not like a conversation between two teenagers in the fifties. As Susan Kollin points out in her essay, “Genre and the Geographies of Violence: Cormac McCarthy and the Contemporary Western,” the two boys often sound like they’re play-acting:
During their journey to Mexico, the boys act out well-worn scripts of the frontier, "playing cowboy" on the trail but not always doing it well. They call each other "son" and "partner," as if they were imitating their fathers and uncles. At one point, McCarthy gives us a conversation that Rawlins initiates with John Grady: "I'm goin to tell you somethin.... I could get used to this life.... It wouldnt take me no time at all" (35). The dialogue they speak as they perform the roles of the Old West is trite. Rawlins, for instance, tells John Grady: "A goodlookin horse is like a goodlookin woman....They're always more trouble than what they're worth.What a man needs is just one that will get the job done" (89). The comment sounds hackneyed even to John Grady, who responds, "Where'd you hear that at?" Rawlins answers, "I dont know" (89). (572)
John Grady and Rawlins are doing their best to be cowboys in a modern world, but McCarthy manages to convey how overwhelmingly out of place they are while they remain in America. The physical obstacles they face as they traverse the American landscape represent the intrusion of modern society on the traditional Western landscape. The triteness of much of their speech and the discomfort they sometimes express with their inability to fully live out their ideal of the cowboy lifestyle further emphasizes their inability to live in modern American society.
The movie version of All the Pretty Horses, however, falls far short of the bar set by the novel. Directed by Billy Bob Thornton and starring Matt Damon and Penelope Cruz as the starstruck lovers Alejandra and John Grady, the film attempts to tackle many things: create a plausible Western, create a plausible romance, and, overall, create a plausible and entertaining movie. It fails on almost all fronts, but not because of the poor quality of the storyline, which it retains fairly well. Rather, it is in the film-making methods used by Thornton where McCarthy’s themes are lost. For example, the film opens with grand, panoramic shots of the desert and close-ups of wild horses galloping across the land, while the two heroes lie under the night sky, talking about their belief in heaven. Though Billy Bob Thornton eventually gets around to the shot of John Grady’s dead grandfather, it is only after a few minutes of idyllic shots of the Texas landscape. The overwhelming sense of loss and loneliness that opens the novel is completely obliterated; John Grady comes in from the broad daylight to sit with his grandfather’s corpse, accompanied by their family servant. The audience begins the movie more impressed by the stark beauty of the landscape than by any sense of loss, presented with a movie in the tradition of the most overly-done Western film clichés, as opposed to one reflecting the spirit of McCarthy’s novel.
Similarly, the contrast between the end of the book and the end of the movie illustrates how much of the spirit of the original work was lost. In the book, John Grady, after returning to Mexico, delivers Lacey’s horse to him, and his overwhelming sense of being lost and out-of-place is clear in their conversation:
I think I’m going to move on.
This is still good country.
Yeah. I know it is. But it ain’t my country….
Where is your country? He said.
I don’t know, said John Grady. I don’t know where it is. I don’t know what happens to country. (299)
This statement reaffirms the impression given by the beginning of the book; America can no longer provide the lifestyle John Grady is searching for. He is a remnant of a past time, a boy trying to live out an ideal that possibly never existed. Again, McCarthy mirrors John Grady’s mood with his descriptions of the landscape. As the two boys sit in silence, “the dead moon hung in the west and the long flat shapes of the nightclouds passed before it like a phantom fleet” (298). This ghostly landscape supports the impression that, for John Grady, any potential this land had for him is dead. Death appears in the boys’ conversation as well. Lacey tells John Grady that his father has died and that his nurse, Abuela, is dying. The two boys part, and Lacey watches as John Grady “dropped slowly down the skyline” (300).
In the next scene, John Grady watches Abuela’s funeral from across the street, and visits her grave alone after the other guests have left. Weeping, he stands over her grave and thinks of the generations before him, and feels a crushing sense of abandonment and loneliness:
For a moment he held out his hands as if to steady himself or as if to bless the ground there or perhaps as if to slow the world that was rushing away and seemed to care nothing for the old or the young or rich or poor or dark or pale or he or she. Nothing for their struggles, nothing for their names. Nothing for the living or the dead.
John Grady has not only lost his grandfather, father, and nurse (who seems to be a more salient maternal figure than his real mother), but his ties to the world, which the passage of time is taking away. The image of the world “rushing away” from him emphasizes the impression that he is a remainder of an older time, out-of-place and alone. John Grady then sets off alone, riding off into the desert. The novel concludes as it began: with death and with John Grady riding out to discover a new land. The essential difference is that now John Grady rides unaccompanied, aware of how alone he is in the world. He cannot ride off into the sunset with his buddy anymore.
The end of the movie, on the other hand, completely ignores these themes of loss. The movie concludes with John Grady riding up to Lacey’s home with their horses. Lacey exclaims, “Damn, bud!” and laughs as he pets his returned horse. The boys stand against a background of a beautiful blue sky and some happy chickens, not in the stark, phantom landscape of McCarthy’s book. For all intents and purposes, the two boys appear to be happily reunited, an ending that, given the violence and suffering they have undergone, is the best one possible. There could not be a more complete subversion of the book’s message: the boys are fulfilling their cowboy roles, and appear at home on Lacey’s ranch. This impression, that John has “come home,” that he belongs, undermines the entire point of McCarthy’s work.
The film similarly misses the point behind the boys “playacting” at being cowboys, or using phrases heard in a John Wayne film or from someone’s grizzled old grandfather still remains in the film. However, the subtext that facet has in the novel is also completely gone. In the book, the hackneyed lines resonate as the boys imitating a life that is dying out; the reader understands that these are somewhat sympathetic and immature characters that are meant to be cheered on—though the search is futile, it is still noble in its intentions. However, in the movie the search simply seems pointless. The viewer doesn’t understand the “why” of the journey; instead, it seems like two boys wanting to ride horses and talk about things they know nothing about to try and seem brave. The flatness created by the lack of subtext translates like "a boy's adventure story that has mistaken itself for an epic, and it rattles around in its own ambitions like a child's head in a 10-gallon hat" (Times). Not only is the sense of loss not resonant in the movie, the whole point of the boys’ journey also seems to have been abandoned. However, some of the disconnect between the book and the movie are not entirely the fault of the screenplay and adaptation: there is a formula, of sorts, to the historical creation of the Western. It is important to understand the history of the Western as a film genre in order to understand, truly, how various traditional tactics used in creating All The Pretty Horses also contributed to the film’s inadequacies.
The Traditional Western in Film: From the beloved early Westerns to a parody of its cliches
Within the medium of film, the Western genre is as loved by critics as it is by the average American filmgoer. Because the films were so successful during the early years of cinema, there have been numerous qualities and characteristics that appear in many of the same Westerns. The setting of a Western is both obvious and important. Without an environment that captures the barren, tough, vast beauty of the Western United States, there is no framework in which characters can interact. The characters within the genre regardless of film all have similar qualities that identify these individuals as belonging to the West: the lawless, the helpless, the courageous. Furthermore, the stories in which these characters are placed all follow a common framework of hero versus outlaw that have been perfected by various directors. These directors rose to fame through their respective films that were considered timeless and revolutionary in the world of movies. For example, John Ford had numerous Westerns that won both the hearts of many audiences and several Academy Awards. His films such as Stagecoach (1939), My Darling Clementine (1946), and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) complete the holy trinity of Westerns and are lauded as some of the best within the genre. Since many consider Ford to be one of the finest American directors, and the pinnacle of the Western genre, analyzing the similarities between his films will assist in discovering the conventions of this category of movies.
Ford’s Stagecoach is considered by many to be one of the finest Westerns ever made. The film had such a profound impact at home and even abroad, that André Bazín, the famed French film critic, cited Stagecoach as the premier of a Western film and the displayed the complexity of Ford’ style(Grant, 2003)). It is also true that John Ford held a special place in the hearts of many French New Wave directors because of his thematic and visual consistencies between his films. Stagecoach also marked an important distinction from the Westerns that had come before it. It took all the common characteristics from those films and placed them within stories carrying adult themes. The film is the starting point for the “Golden Age” of Western film genre, and has influenced almost all Westerns that come after. Even John Wayne, the staple of the typical Western, had his career launched because of Stagecoach. Another link found amongst Ford’s films and other Westerns are his settings. John Ford made use of the majestic Monument Valley where large cliffs and natural columns made of boulders rose into the air. This setting also found its way into both My Darling Clementine and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (Davis, 1997).
My Darling Clementine is considered a favorite among film-enthusiasts but more importantly it supports a lot of the clichés of the genre. For instance, the first sequence even displays Monument Valley in all its glory then panning over to the dirty, weathered cowboy in his black hat. This cliché of the genre dictates the man with the dark attire is in fact the villain of the picture. An even more usual occurrence in the film is the story itself: a strong-willed, moral Wyatt Earpp runs into the town of Tombstone to find lawlessness. With no order, he assumes the role of sheriff. Of course this similar story can be found in other films including another famous release, High Noon (1952) in which Gary Cooper plays a sheriff returning to town in order to defeat a gang of outlaws.
The story of My Darling Clementine shares much with a later Ford Classic, the Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Of course John Wayne stars but he is accompanied with another star, James Stewart. Ford still relies on the same setting of Monument Valley, a story telling the tale of a foreign hero, and even a shootout on the main road through town. There have been criticisms about Ford relying onto clichés of the Western film genre, but in fact many just don’t realize that Ford created the clichés himself (Davis, 1997). Because Ford was an auteur and his films so popular, his motifs were filtered through the minds of his audiences and contemporaries with rhythmic resonance. His visions embedded on celluloid have produced the crystal clear distinction of the Western film from to any other genre. Ford mythologized the West to his audiences, furthered its expansive allure, and solidified the grandeur of America and its people.
The conventions and clichés of a Western are recognized amongst most movie-goers. There are certain images and story traits that run through most of the films of the genre and indicate to the viewer that they are in fact watching an American Western. While John Ford was the creator of most of these common visual elements and motifs, he certainly was not the only director to utilize these constructions.
During the time period that the Western was popular, from the early 1900s to late-sixties, their was constant within most of the films: they were all set during a time period, “after the Civil War, to the turn of the Twentieth Century,” and in certain geographical area, “West of the Mississippi River and North of the Rio Grande.” Although there have been Westerns set in the more modern period thanks to adaptations of Cormac McCarthy novels, the genre largely stays within the confines of these temporal and spatial constraints.
Besides the specific time period and geographic location, there are numerous clichés found in the stories of many Westerns. Typically, it is hero versus villain or a situation where a band of outlaws have taken over the town. At this point, the protagonist would ride into the picture, which in and of itself is another typical Western cliché. The Western usually contains a central, strong, and masculine character that stars in the films as the protagonist. The lead cowboy—the John Wayne’s and the Clint Eastwood’s are characters that are larger than life and the audience immediately admires for their courage, brawn, and grit. These typical protagonists embody the ultimate man and are the paragon of masculinity. Each protagonist has a call to duty, and a strong moral standard that causes them to run into a lawless town and save the day as in My Darling Clementine, or return to their own town face past enemies (High Noon), or to avenge the deaths of family members as John Wayne’s character attempts in Stagecoach. The other characters in Westerns are typically static characters as well. The citizens of the oppressed towns are typically family-oriented and weak—unable to defend themselves from the antagonists.
When the protagonist and antagonist finally meet in battle, the town is usually the arena in which the two opposing sides wage battle. The duel occurring in the middle of town is a staple within the genre that creates suspense for the viewer and for the inhabitants of the township. The folk usually flee from the streets to the safety of their homes. Peeking out from doorways and windows, they all try to catch a glimpse of the mayhem.
These Westerns created a lasting impression in the collective consciousness of America, employing iconic imagery and conventions that leant themselves easily to parody. “Parody in film can be defined as comic, exaggerated imitation of a given genre, auteur, or specific film” (Cook 284). This play-on-genre type of film started as early as 1916 with the Western spoof His Bitter Pill (Mack Sennett, 1916), which playfully features a cross-eyed, cowboy hero. In the sixties movies such as Thunderball (Terrence Young, 1965) and Cat Ballou (Elliot Silverstein, 1965) can be credited with keeping the Western spoof alive. However, parody, as a lucrative enterprise, did not become mainstream until Mel Brooks’ 1974 films Blazing Saddles. Blazing Saddles is a parody of the classic Western and tells the story of how a black sheriff saves the western town of Rock Ridge from ruination. It's a perfect example of parody because of its “comic, exaggerated imitation” of the Western genre (Cook 284).
The first thing to understand when analyzing Brooks’ treatment of the “classic Western” is how the Western genre is formulated. Film scholar Douglas Pye pinpoints the necessities of a typical Western plot: you need a hero, a small community, a conflict, weaponry, and interaction with nature (Pye 198). It is all these elements, in one way or another, working together that constitutes a formulaic Western film.
Brooks first parodies the Western hero by making him African American. This is ironic both because there aren’t many black people in traditional Westerns and because the societies depicted in Westerns are typically uneducated and racist (if only latently so). By making the hero, Sheriff Bart, black, Brooks makes the audience question why this is such a ludicrous idea. Brooks also makes a mockery of Western society. When trying to inspire courage in the people of Rockridge, Bart tells them to think of “Randolph Scott” and the townsfolk burst into four-part harmony, singing his name. Randolph Scott was the quintessential Western hero in 1930’s-1960’s cinema (“Randolph”). The joke here is how blindly loyal townspeople in Westerns are to the hero. The conflict in the story is the common Bandits vs. Townsfolk plot, but Brooks parodies the typical band of western criminals by adding Nazis, fighter pilots, bikers, Saudis, and KKK members. The weapons used are also unconventional. Sheriff Bart beats the violent Mongo with a small explosive disguised as a box of candy—ala Bugs Bunny. Also, Brooks makes fun of the “fastest gun in the West” with his character Jim, a washed up gunfighter who shoots so quickly he does not appear to move at all. The last aspect of Pye’s typical Western that Brooks parodies is the role of nature in the film. A prime example of Brooks modifying nature is when Bart and Jim set up a freestanding tollbooth in the middle of the desert to slow their enemies down. Obviously the bandits could just go around the booth, but Brooks is pointing out how malleable Westerns make nature when it comes to the Hero’s schemes. Essentially, Mel Brooks twists just about every element of the classic Western to make his parody of the genre complete.
Blazing Saddles was popular (and funny) twenty-six years before Billy Bob Thornton directed All The Pretty Horses (2000) and yet Thornton plays into every cliche identified by Pye and mocked by Brooks. The hero is not only a white American, but he shows a marked ignorance of the society in which he finds himself. I think this is most apparent in John Grady's conversation with the Mexican characters; he cannot even pronounce the name of his beloved, "Alejandra," properly (*VIDEO*). The villains in the film are the Mexican officials and the man who takes Blevins' horse. While, in the book, there's some ambiguity as to who's at fault and who's right, the film expects the audience to align with John Grady. As far as weapons go, the movie is heavy with guns and knife fights.
Much of this could be traced back to the novel, but the interpretation of the book is unmistakable in the film's score and cinematography.
VIDEO: Landscape shots from ATPH, Blazing Saddles, and Hombre
VIDEO: Opening scenes from ATPH and Blazing Saddles
All the Pretty Horses: Making use of these cliches… but not in a good way
The movie makes use of these Western conventions, often in the most trite way possible. A common way to make something “Western” is through the use of soundtracks. Various samplings of country, twangy music are used in order to create the feel of an “authentic” setting. These tactics are mostly used in film at transition points between scenes or during an important moment, to make the audience feel a certain way. This music is used to mold the viewer’s opinions of various things in the film; unfortunately, in All the Pretty Horses the music only makes the viewer amused. The music is so clichéd, and so overused, that it almost becomes distracting. The New York Times review stated that the music was "a tasteful blend of mariachi, norteno and western swing (among other things), [and] covers the movie like wall-to-wall carpeting. Once or twice, it would be good to contemplate the vastness of the desert landscape in silence" (Times). Thornton would have done better to have left the music alone completely and to let the shots of the Western landscape speak for themselves; sometimes silence is golden. In fact, it could be argued that no soundtrack would better mirror the feel of the book and the silence of protagonist John Grady. Contrived music does not add another facet here—if anything, it is a huge detractor.
Another huge directorial flop in the construction of the film was the structure of the shots. There are large, big-blue-sky-of-Texas shots, showing the small size of the riders in comparison to the gigantic size of—in ascending order, of course—Texas, America’s West, the world, etc. It is not a bad way to get the point across. It is a good visual correlation of John Grady’s ponderings on the “wildness” of where he is and “the wildness within.” However, this effect is taken too far with close-up screen shots of characters faces. Perhaps intending to imply that these characters are having deep and meaningful thoughts, Thornton just makes things awkward. The close-ups last too long and continue one after another. In some of the more dramatic scenes of the movie they almost have a voyeuristic quality, making the viewer feel like and intruder that has stared a moment too long. This, combined with the "picturesque landscapes and grandiose gestures utterly lacking in narrative momentum or emotional resonance," create a film that seems to exist purely in the visual, evoking little emotion and creating little depth (Times).