At times it is quite easy to lose track of all the great films that were made by Hollywood in the 1970s, and the Western genre also saw one of it’s most creative periods with directors like Peckinpah and Eastwood bringing their own love of the genre to films such as Pat Garret and Billy The Kid & High Plains Drifter. Many of the Hollywood westerns produced in the 70s have been appropriately labelled as revisionist. Such a means of categorisation is crucial when you consider how many of these westerns were able to challenge the conventions of the genre by revealing to us an alternative perspective of American society, an uglier and darker side. 1970s westerns represented an ideologically radical view of social issues that seemed to have more in common with the political chaos and widespread sense of disillusionment within mainstream American society than with the genre itself.
Robert Altman’s greatest contribution to the genre came with his 1971 film, McCabe and Mrs Miller, starring Warren Beatty and Julie Christie. This is one of the great Revisionist westerns and Altman could only have made this marvellous film if he had a thorough and knowledgeable understanding of the kinds of representations and ideological themes that have been repeated throughout such diverse genre. This is exactly what Altman seems to attack, traditional and orthodox audience expectations and assumptions that we as an audience bring to such a deeply conventional genre like the western. However, Altman could never have been able to radically depart from the conventions of the western if the genre had not reached a point where it did require some degree of inspired reinvention.
Notoriously difficult to work with, Warren Beatty’s legendary on set conflicts with many of the Hollywood mavericks like Altman have been well documented, and McCabe and Mrs Miller was another production in which Beatty famously clashed with the director. Altman and Beatty’s so called creative differences is touched upon briefly by Peter Biskind in his recent expose of 70s cinema, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. Though such a tension existed, it did little to stop two of the most creative artists in Hollywood from making one of the great westerns of the modern era. By the time Beatty worked with Altman, he had already collaborated with many of the best directors working in the mainstream of Hollywood; Hal Ashby, Arthur Penn and Elia Kazan. Not only was Altman a deeply independent film maker, he was equally dictatorial in how he went about exacting total control over the production of his films. Of course, such a statement was equally applicable to the control and perfectionism Beatty wielded as a powerful star turned film producer.
The film itself is highly unusual in how it represents the male protagonist. Of all the genres, the western is still defined by how it represents male identity, and up until the end of the 60s, the genre continued to present a vision of masculinity that was linked to violence and sexuality. No such stereotype exists in Altman’s vision of the west as he chooses to represent the character of John McCabe as a capitalist entrepreneur who is a liar, an atheist, a coward and somebody preoccupied with exploitation. Unlike traditional western protagonists, McCabe seems only interested in sex if it benefits him financially. Such an impulse never existed before especially in the brutally conservative and patriarchal attitudes espoused by the figure of John Wayne.
McCabe makes a name for himself in a small mining town when with the support of Mrs Miller (Julie Christie), he establishes a brothel (whore house) that becomes a financial goldmine, elevating him to a economically wealthy position. McCabe’s upward economic mobility brings him and his desires for expansion attention in the form of the local mining corporation. When McCabe rejects the mining corporation’s initial proposition to buy him out, outlaws are hired and dispatched to the town to kill McCabe.
Ideologically, Altman uses the framework of the western to provide a critique on modern day capitalism and offer a cynical account of corporate power that was plaguing American society at the time. That is what makes this film so fascinating in terms of genre because Altman uses the conventions merely as a vehicle to work out his own liberally inclined position on corporate power. McCabe’s brief encounter with what we assume is the only lawyer working in the town hints at the ideological conflict between the small business man and the rise of corporate monopolies that was taking place for real within American society.
The killers hired to protect and preserve the interests of the mining corporation finds intriguing parallels with the ideological backdrop of Ridley Scott’s ‘Alien’, another film that has been seen as vehemently critical of corporate conspiracy and corruption. Though no such conspiracy exists in the town, the fact that McCabe is left to face his own doomed fate at the end of the film seems to accuse the people of the town as being somewhat complicit in the death of McCabe, but this also seems to suggest that the corporation’s intimidating methods of violence coerces the town to remain silently disengaged from interfering with the perpetuation of an unjust and unnatural corporate mentality.
What made many of the 70s Hollywood films so special and unique even today is the controlled and perfectly judged nature of the ending. The moment McCabe says no we know where this film is heading, but Altman does not just kill off the central character in a spectacular duel, he chooses to do so in a beautifully staged image of McCabe paralysed by the wintry landscape. It is a pitiful final image that is made altogether more sympathetic with the soundtrack of Leonard Cohen’s melancholic lament. This is one of Beatty’s finest performances and perhaps also Altman’s greatest 1970s film he made in Hollywood for a major studio.