Saddle the Wind

Paul Yim Paul Yim: (paulyim-deleteme[at]-deleteme-direman [dot] com) 2008-08-30 03:49:02

Saddle the Wind - Rank A

When you watch enough movies of a particular genre, you often get pigeonholed into expecting certain themes, characters, or even lines of dialogue from them. Historic epics will show us that the lives of history's giants were not that much different than ours (only with about a thousand extras running around at any given time); the wise-cracking, cigarette smoking gumshoe sporting a trench coat and fedora is an indelible image of noir detective movies; and let's not forget such clichéd lines as "I'll be right back," from the typical Hollywood horror movie. Westerns are by no means an exception to this sedate brand of status quo moviemaking. How many times must the "valiant" cavalry come to the rescue of the "good" homesteaders who are being overwhelmed by the "evil" natives before we've had enough? Lucky for us there are a few exceptional Westerns that stand out like a mirror in the sun.

I bought Saddle the Wind on a whim. I had never even heard of it. I may have seen it as part of some Classic Westerns collection, but I obviously forgot about it. I found it as I was perusing the new releases this week at my local DVD store. What initially caught my attention was the name John Cassavetes on the cover. Cassavetes is something of an underground filmmaking legend from the '60s and '70s, so you can imagine my intrigue at seeing his name so prominently featured on a Western. It was then that I flipped the DVD over and discovered that none other than the highly influential Rod Serling had written the screenplay. It was only $11 so I took a chance and brought it home with me along with a copy of the newly released The Nightmare Before Christmas 2-disc special edition, thinking that I'd watch and review the classic Tim Burton animated musical.

I got home but I still couldn't stop thinking about my new Western. I read the back cover again and seeing as it was only 84 minutes long, I decided to pop it in before watching Nightmare Before Christmas. Saddle the Wind starts typically enough, introducing you to an expansive, lush valley accompanied by a song. It may be an issue with the transfer, but I didn't much care for the color tone as it made everything look over-lit. What also struck me as low-budget were the medium to close shots of intercut scenes (you know, MEDIUM SHOT – man with gun drawn CUT TO: MEDIUM SHOT – hero with gun drawn CUT TO: CLOSE-UP – man with gun drawn CUT TO: CLOSE-UP – hero with gun drawn etc., etc. for dramatic effect) done in studio instead of on location. It dates the movie as one of those transitional releases when Hollywood was drifting away from the assembly line studio movie and moving towards real backdrops and real scenery. Luckily these shortcomings don't take away from the powerful impact of the movie's story, dialogue, character development, and acting.

Seeing Cassavetes ramble around the screen with explosive, edgy energy reminded me of the great Marlon Brando in his little known premier on-screen performance in The Men about a paraplegic war veteran adjusting to life back in the States. Seeing Brando's magnificence juxtaposed with the cardboard cutouts of his supporting cast was how I would imagine seeing LeBron James going balls out against a bunch of 5th graders on an elementary school regulation basket. Cassavetes doesn't quite shame his fellow actors in this way (after all, there's only one Marlon Brando) but he does manage to steal the show from such Hollywood notables as Robert Taylor and Julie London. Taylor's performance is its usual dependable self, but London was a surprise. She really knows how to "look" at her fellow actors even when she's not saying anything.

The characters are well written and delineated. The principals, in particular, are thoroughly created people. So much so that when they say and do the unexpected, you're convinced they would do exactly that given the circumstances. The characters are introduced as typical archetypes of the genre, but soon shed such epithets through the sharply written dialogue and the aforementioned acting.

The story, however, is the most amazing piece of this artwork. The word "conflict" among writers is like the word "fight" among boxers. It's the writer's bread-and-butter. You can see the sparks fly from the moment the principal characters meet. If this is not surprising, consider that most Westerns of the era usually spent an inordinate amount of screen time establishing how happy and tranquil the lives of homesteaders were before introducing the villain. Saddle the Wind starts off with a villain acting like an asshole in a bar for no good reason other than that he can. Check that. He does have a good reason, but that's neither here nor there because you simply have to see this movie.

The only things keeping me from giving it an "S" ranking are the technical difficulties mentioned at the beginning of this review. If it weren't for that, it would easily get an "S" (for "Saddle up!") but it stands strong with an "A" (for AMAZING!!).

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