I agree with all of the '10 out of 10' reviews here. This is a superb piece of authentic Americana, and a beautiful meditation on the history of the old West.
There is so much in this magnificent film, and all of it IMHO perfect. It stands far above most contemporary films.
I particularly admire the elegiac tone, which the comically surreal first episode sets up by parodying all the popular dime novel tropes. Once the nonsensical hyperbole of this cheap tradition of stereotypical tall tales is amusingly disposed of, we can proceed with the sheer cinematic poetry that follows.
In so many ways, this film is the definitive Western epic, and the truest and greatest tribute to the heart and soul of that vast American experience that I have yet seen. It captures the grand simplicity of all great things. Yet it is in small, precisely observed details that this Homeric telling of tales channels the immortality of the American West - such details lodging like Indian arrows in the stunned mind.
These recollections are now intimately my own, fixed for all time. At random I see again the hard men, made dangerously irritable by the boredom of sobriety in a ramshackle tavern under the prohibition of their dry County - - - then the burrows of small prairie dogs felling the charging horses of an Indian war-band and thus helping to save a white man's life - - - then the smiling-through-tears of a man condemned by ill-luck to hang for the second time, attempting awkwardly to make conversation with one of his fellows awaiting their fate on the town gallows, who is weeping openly, by asking him, 'This your first time?' - and who in the next moment observes a young woman in the watching crowd who smiles sweetly up at him, as he thinks, 'That's a pretty gal' as if his imminent death were an impossibly distant prospect, whereupon oblivion immediately supervenes - - - then I am amazed and profoundly moved by the spectacle of the performing quadriplegic child-prodigy exploited by a travelling showman, who begins his every performance of literary classics, before unlettered hicks in obscure towns, with Shelley's portrait of total ruin, 'Ozymandias, King of Kings,' until finally this so-styled 'Wingless Thrush' is murderously supplanted when the money-grubbing showman on whom he must absolutely rely for all necessities, owing to his radical handicap, invests in a rival's more profitable attraction, a 'Pythagorean Pecker' of a novelty chicken, who can by trickery be made to seem able to solve mathematical problems - - - then the film takes off Sergio Leone's Italian style of epic Western in an eccentrically contrived bank robbery scene where the bandit is foiled by a cashier armoured by pots and pans hung around his person, as if with the progress of civilisation the domestic use of metals is overcoming the casting of bullets - - - then there is the edible golden yolk of an eagle-owl's egg frying on a pan like that which an ancient prospector in a remote region also uses to pan for crumbs of the mineral that is so much less enriching than the sustenance freely provided by unspoilt nature - - - and then I see that the sole survivor of a tragic household, consisting also of a young brother and sister, who were travelling hopefully West through the savage hazards of the Oregon Trail, is a nervous and unloved little terrier - incongruously named 'President Pierce' after the President who's pro-slavery policies set the stage for Southern secession and the savage bloodletting of the American Civil War - - - and on and on we are conducted along the lost tracks of a America's painful birth, lined with the anonymous and unvisited graves that compose the very soil of it's growth - conveyed, as in a trance, from one breathtaking scene to the next.
The last episode - and they are all linked by Death, as another reviewer here rightly observes - is definitely in it's correct place to sum up, in it's sophisticated and witty dialogue of characters who are trapped aboard an increasingly disturbing stagecoach journey, the sublime tone of our now concluding journey through tragedy, dark comedy and patient endurance, leavened by fugitive glimpses of happiness and hope, glimpsed throughout our progress towards that undiscovered land, indifferently a land of glory and damnation as it is sensed alike by the religious and the profane. This recalls not only Ford's seminal Western, 'Stagecoach,' but even more the European cinema of Victor Sjöström's haunting 'The Phantom Carriage.'
(There is perhaps also something chillingly Kubrickian in the revelation that the hotel at journey's end is an abode of Death, like the 'Overlook' of 'The Shining.' The shooting location for the Overlook Hotel's exterior was in fact Timberline Lodge at Mt. Hood in Oregon - Oregon being of course the destination of the pioneer wagon trains.)
The native Americans are here, as well, of course, in their old, unapologetic guise as efficient terrorists dedicated to the starkly simple and inarguable cause of the survival of their people against the unstoppable destiny of the White Man.
Here is the sad and simple truth of the American experience: It does the troubled dream of America credit, and enriches a wondering world with a deeply humane experience.
I cannot praise this magnificent film too highly.
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