Get Religion: Late-Period Walter Hill

Broken Trail, Wild Bill, Geronimo: An American Legend

I very purposely—more and more so every time I do a script—give characters no back story. The way you find out about these characters is by watching what they do, the way they react to stress, the way they react to situations and confrontations. In that way, character is revealed through drama rather than being explained through dialogue.Walter Hill, as quoted by David Thomson in The New Biographical Dictionary of Film

[In Hill’s Southern Comfort], there’s nothing underneath his characters’ macho masks. Each person is sketched in just a few bold strokes—just enough to give us a stake in what’s going on. … He aestheticizes action, with techniques adapted from Peckinpah and Arthur Penn and the early masters of the genre. Hill is himself a new master, but partly because there were so many good, shallow action films made in the studio period, a movie like Southern Comfort no longer seems enough.Pauline Kael on Hill’s Southern Comfort, in her collection, Taking It All In.

Hill admirers must look back on the nineties with regret. Wild Bill was a mess and disaster, yet it has the makings of a fine interplay of fact and legend.David Thomson, The New Biographical Dictionary of Film

Before I knew anything about Sam Peckinpah, I knew about Walter Hill. Back in 1984, I’d seen—was this an early Betamax rental?—Streets of Fire, and my 12-year-old self had responded in a way that I couldn’t fully articulate at the time. Futuristic yet retro, the film’s use of freeze-frame and slow-motion taught me about Peckinpah long before I saw Ride the High Country and The Wild Bunch in college. stars Diane Lane—the film is the genesis of an adolescent crush that went dormant for several years, resurfacing only when Lane’s career took off again with The Perfect Storm and Unfaithful—Willem Dafoe, and even Michael Pare, at the time hot off of Eddie and the Cruisers.

Pare and Lane, in my favorite Walter Hill film

Pare and Lane, in my favorite Walter Hill film

I remember the performers, I remember the style, and I remember the concert-scene culmination that included a performance of I Can Dream About You, a song that still can be heard on any Adult Contemporary radio station. The film’s now dated music-video imagery is straight out of the early-MTV-era film, now retro in a way Hill couldn’t have foreseen. Yet the film has persevered and now, I’m told, has a cult following, although I know of no one who will admit to seeing it, much less enjoying it. If my peers have seen any Walter Hill film, it’s 48 Hours, which they think of as an Eddie Murphy film.

48 Hours was a hit, but Streets of Fire was a more personal vision realized. Which type of film would characterize Hill’s future efforts? For a time, Hill made dull Hollywood action films like Red Heat, a 48 Hours sequel that no one much liked, then the better received Trespass.

After the success of Kevin Costner’s Dances With Wolves, Westerns were in vogue again, albeit briefly. Hill capitalized on the trend by making Geronimo, but fell on his face. A can’t-miss cast that includes Robert Duvall, Gene Hackman, Wes Studi, Matt Damon and Jason Patric was spread too thin, resulting in forgettable performances characterized by forgettable dialogue—with one exception.

Patric, not Duvall, or Hackman, gets the film's one memorable moment

Patric, not Duvall, or Hackman, gets the film's one memorable moment

Filming a story by John Milius, Geronimo: An American Legend, Hill tells the story of the last tribe to fight the reservation system in the United States. The attention to technical specs is outstanding: The film looks sensuous and sounds amazing: the sonic quality is a knockout—horses sound like they’re riding into one’s living room—but the film’s dialogue doesn’t come close to matching the impact of the film’s aural qualities. A dreadful voiceover narration by Damon’s character is a white flag from the screenwriters (or was it the studio’s call?) that they couldn’t move the narrative forward through competent screenwriting. Instead, we get longwinded exposition straight from the mouth of one of the movie’s characters.

However, there is one bit of dialogue that stands out, and elevates the film, all too briefly, near the end of its running time, long past the point where most viewers will have run out of patience. The dialogue is the closest thing we get to a “message” in the film, and it complements several images Hill uses earlier in the film. The subject is spirituality. Costner’s Dances With Wolves had touched on Native American spirituality, and Hill went a step further, including several scenes in Geronimo of a chanting shaman in full mystic lather. The script doesn’t endorse the Native American’s faith, nor does it condemn it. More interesting is Hill’s decision to offset the implicit condemnation of the Americans’ treatment of the Native Americans with an explicit endorsement of Christianity as a call to follow the Prince of Peace, rather than the easier route of condemning the Christian faith of the officers charged with rounding up and relegating Native Americans to a reservation.

Patric’s Lt. Gatewood, seeking a truce with Geronimo, who continues to wage war against the United States, offers him a crucifix and tells him, “My God is a God of peace. I off this [cross] because it has power for me. Our war must end here.”

It’s a brief moment that might be dismissed as a one-off mention that bears no further thought, but the religious element lingers as the film’s final credits role. Was this a Milius concern, or was the interplay of Native American and Christian religion something that Hill hoped to further explore?

Bridges gives one his best, most overlooked, performances in "Wild Bill."

Bridges gives one his best, most overlooked, performances in "Wild Bill."

The opening shot of Wild Bill, released two years later, suggests that Hill is still interested in matters of faith. A coffin and a funeral, and the singing of Leaning on the Everlasting Arms. Once again, a dreaded voiceover kicks in—this time its John Hurt’s Charley Prince. W quickly learn of a man who wants to fight the “white eye” Bill because of “his religion.” Religion is an appropriate subject for an elegiac portrait of a man who lived in the shadow of death, but Wild Bill doesn’t linger on those early expressed sentiments, leapfrogging instead through Bill Hickok’s life. He becomes a lawman, shoots his own deputy, gets diagnosed with glaucoma and begins to lose his eyesight. Just as the film settles into a particular time frame, it flashes back to two years earlier, and then to Deadwood in 1878, a town that one character likens to “something out of the Bible—the part right before God gets angry.” (Hill would go on to direct some of the HBO series Deadwood several years later).

Hurt gets the Patric role in this Hill film, with his character recommending forgiveness as a solution to a simmering quarrel that takes up the film’s second half. His suggestion is met with a punch in the face. Bill meets his Maker, and Charley concludes, “Like a city in the Old Testament, Deadwood had become a city of prophecy and visions.” The credits roll as Leaning on the Everlasting Arms plays once more.

Eleven years later, Hill’s AMC miniseries Broken Trail told the story of two men who, on a cattle drive, rescue several Asian women being sold into prostitution by a loathsome businessman. Robert Duvall stars as Prentice, much more memorable here than in his Geronimo turn, but the miniseries is most notable for a strong performance from Thomas Haden Church as Tom. Broken Trail, a Western, is about the code men of that era lived by, and the effect of their choices on their personal happiness. Money and profit—not sex and feminine charms—are the enemy. “Never use money to measure wealth,” Prentice instructs Tom, who has learned the hard way that people aren’t commodities. The Asian women suffer rape and humiliation. “I entered the 18th hell long ago,” one victim says, devastated at her new status as a nonvirgin. Prentice, in an effort to save the despairing woman, implores Tom, “If you have any pull with the Almighty, you might want to speak up.” He sums up the lessons learned in saving the women as something that “just happened.” There’s a dignity in his remarks, but his chivalry leaves him lonely. Human and spiritual companionship appear alien to him, but that doesn’t stop him from doing the right thing when it comes to matters of the law. The heart and spirit are another matter.

I don’t know Hill’s religious convictions, but I appreciate the way he has chosen projects in recent years that include the issue of religious identity. Contra Hill’s quote atop this entry, I’d like more explanation of his characters’ faith, rather than strict observation, if only because the few moments where his characters have discussed their faith have proven to be more memorable than the rest of what they have to say.

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