Home About Archive Events Links Submit Contact

A journey through These Thousand Hills

by Blake Lucas

Blake Lucas is a writer and film critic living in Los Angeles. Some of his writing on cinema may be found in the anthologies The Western Reader, The Film Comedy Reader and The Science-Fiction Film Reader, as well as in over 100 individual essays on films, filmmakers, film history and film theory in Magill's Survey of Cinema (English-Language, Silent and Foreign Language) and Magill's Cinema Annuals, and in a monograph on John Ford translated into French for a 1995 retrospective at the Cannes Film Festival.

"These thousand hills...can make a man dream..." (from the title song by Ned Washington and Harry Warren)

By the end of the 1950s, the career of Richard Fleischer was in high gear, even if critical recognition was not coming to the extent we may now feel was deserved. His early films, focused in film noir in common with many other directors starting in B films in the 1940s, had reached a peak with The Narrow Margin (1952), and soon after he had segued into A films at the same time that CinemaScope was becoming current, fortuitously for him as he avidly embraced the process from the beginning--the Disney adaptation of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954). A range of subjects and genres opened up, ones well-suited to wide screen filmmaking and providing good opportunites for Fleischer's talent for composition. Some films admired from this period are Violent Saturday (1955), The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing (1955, Bandido (1956), Between Heaven and Hell (1956), The Vikings (1958), Compulsion (1959), and its culminating work Barabbas (1962). It is in this context that These Thousand Hills (1959) appeared, a work which received little attention then or now, though it was made at an ideal time for the kind of movie it was--and by the ideal director. And "context" is the key word, for it applies not only to the place of the film in a genre--the Western, in what is now widely thought of as the final flowering of classical American cinema, and in Fleischer's own career, but also directs us to a specific gift of this director, which I will call a gift for contextualizing.

My purpose in considering this film is especially to show this gift for contextualizing--by which I mean the way the foregrounded characters and narrative in a screenplay are effectively placed by Fleischer's mise-en-scene within a deeper and more reflective framework; and also to consider how a non-genre specialist--for while he is associated with certain subjects and genres on the basis of some of his other films, Fleischer is barely thought of in relation to the Western--can effectively stamp a genre in a personal way within even one film, without any presumption or pretension to making some definitive statement within or about the genre.

First, let me consider the contextualization of action by reference to some of Fleischer's other films, as well as seeming concerns which have followed him through several phases of his career.

After the adventure film 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Fleischer went to work for Twentieth Century Fox, which had pioneered CinemaScope, and first directed the superb Violent Saturday there. In this film, one sees his mature style blossom, as criss crossing stories and characters, cohering in the eponymous event--a bank robbery in a small town located near an Amish community--give him an opporunity to show us exactly how he sees things, very dramatically but also reflectively, and this is the key to all his most mature work. Here, the man who emerges through circumstance as a hero (Victor Mature) is initially just one more character in the weave of the whole, likeable and sympathetic but we are not more invested in him, maybe not even as much, as another character (Richard Egan), who fights weakness and alcohol and suddenly finds himself attracted to a highly sympathetic young woman (Virginia Leith) while his wife (Margaret Hayes) is pulling away from him into actual affairs. But in the robbery, the wife is abruptly and summarily shot and killed by the robbers, and the film must leave this strand with an unexpected, yet (in Fleischer's hands) very satisfying indeterminate ending, which in a way prefigures that of These Thousand Hills, a resolution leading to an irresolution. At the same time, as stories of the town's inhabitants are woven together, an additional strand dealing with the three robbers also is. Played by experts at these kinds of roles--Stephen McNally, Lee Marvin, J. Carroll Naish--they could be cardboard heavies, but Fleischer plays up the violence and ruthless disregard for life while filling the three out in a humanistic manner; as in a scene in which the "heaviest" of the three (Marvin, of course), unable to sleep, sits and rambles on to McNally about his thoughts and life in a prosaic, even quietly sympathetic way. But if the interwoven material as considered in the narrative terms he prefers is interesting in its own right, and his ideas about the characters and relationships admirable, it is the visual realization that really makes the whole sing. Fleischer tends to keep his camera at enough distance from the action to always be able to move from one story/set of characters to another within a shot if a sequence allows it--this is almost an invariable of the film--and this leads to the profounder implication that for him, things are not separate, they are related. So personal dramas always have a context within the wider world, which has its own palpaple texture, always there, as he tells his story, and that is how we will feel them and experience them in Fleischer's mise-en-scene.

All of this becomes important not only in relation to These Thousand Hills but to four other related films, all outstanding, which I'll briefly take note of here. These are the four true life murder stories--each different but united by the director's sensibility: The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing , Compulsion, The Boston Strangler (1968), and 10 Rillington Place (1971)--the last two made in a later phase of Fleischer's career but hand in glove in his attitudes and to a great extent, his stylistic strategies. It has of course been noted in any account of Fleischer's career that he has come back to these kind of stories over time in these different films, and I am not going to speculate particularly as to why this is, but only how suitable it is that he do them. For not only do they afford him the opportunity for contextualizing individual drama in the way he does so well, but they equally afford the opportunity to display the complementary attitude that he will not judge murderers, but only treat them as human beings, with as much depth as he can, and even compassionately if not with any misplaced sentiment. Strategies in achieving these things vary somewhat through the four films, but Fleischer is always consistent, as in other films, in never narrowing the focus so much onto the murderers that the society of which they are a part is forgotten, and so they are always a part of it. Perhaps the easiest to describe in these terms, and conspicuously successful in its own approach, is The Boston Strangler--exactly an hour (half the film) elapses before the murderer Albert De Salvo (Tony Curtis) is introduced, in an unusually beautiful shot as he sits in complete stillness in his living room, far back in the wide screen frame, the camera slowly circling around him. By this point, there is a whole world outside of him we are invested in, a world in which brutal murders are being investigated, but paradoxically, De Salvo seems neither less important nor less sympathetic because of this--on the contrary, the character, who is schizophrenic and is repressing the murders, is, as played by Curtis, one of Fleischer's most compelling and sympathetic characters. Fleischer never glosses over the horror of murder in any of these films, but the characters are part of a human fabric, and as that is his interest in them, he doesn't judge them. His compositions are elegant and often elaborate, emotion and drama highly present but tending to be diffused through a number of elements, so that one always looks at the characters and the drama with some degree of reflectiveness.

All of this becomes at least as interesting, and even more subtle, when the character is not a murderer, but someone who is at least closer to a conventional kind of protagonist. That brings us to one immediate aspect of These Thousand Hills, and to other Fleischer films as well. In most cinema, and certainly Hollywood cinema, there is always this idea of "rooting interest" that one is supposed to have in some character or characters in a film. In spite of the later idea of the "anti-hero" it has somehow become almost more of a law in later years. But good Hollywood films have always been able to trouble it in some way. Otto Preminger, a director whom Fleischer might call to mind for visual affinities--preference for a choreographed action of a number of characters within a frame rather than close-ups, for example--does this through his fabled "ambiguity." Often, one has to think about what one thinks of a character and may still be thinking about it when the film is over. That's not true of Fleischer, who is more straightforward--the characters tend to be pretty much what they seem to be, while of course evolving through the narrative. But still, in his case, and conspicuously so in These Thousand Hills, a hero may not be sympathetic in the usual way--our investment in other characters and some deeper moral and spiritual concern may make it impossible for us to see the protagonist in so simple a way, and so "root" for them in that way. But I will argue that Fleischer shows us another way, a better way, and that he is not really out to subvert the idea of "rooting interest" but to align it to some greater complexity of response. So in a different way, he comes to something not unlike Preminger, if perhaps less systematically. And though a reflective attitude and tone tends to prevail in the work of both directors--that's the inevitable strength of a certain kind of mise-en-scene perhaps--neither is in any way disdainful of drama and emotion. In fact, in terms of these things in the purest sense, I don't consider Fleischer even to be unconventional. He's pretty traditional, given that he raises the moral stakes of our attitude in the way he does.

Made for Fox as a handsome A film, These Thousand Hills is one of only three Flesicher Westerns. The earlier Bandido, captivating enough and filmed with Fleischer's customary visual flair, is a lesser but likeable movie, while the later The Spikes Gang (1974) is a minor work, coherent but thin. By contrast to both, These Thousand Hills is an exceptionally rich film with all Fleischer's qualities. The genre was in fact at a peak of refinement and emotional suppleness at the time which it has never quite seen again. It was at its most flexible in terms of the kinds of stories that could be told, and so perfect for someone like Fleischer, who could find himself in it with sympathetic material while also benefitting from a rich tradition in which everyone involved--writer, director, cast and crew--had a kind of communal sense of how to lay in the individual elements of the story with the traditional visual and iconographic elements so familiar in so many Westerns of the time. It was a good time for both specialists and non-specialists.

The story of These Thousand Hills is from a 1956 novel by A.B. Guthrie, Jr., the third of a trilogy (all made into films) which cover different, chronologically progressive phases of the history of the West--the earliest The Big Sky (1947) was of an earlier chapter of the frontier about mountain men and trading with Indians, the second The Way West (1949) was about pioneers traveling to Oregon, and the last is about a later, more settled West, its title derived from a biblical source (very appropriately, given its concerns), Psalm 50, Verse 10: "All the beasts of the forests are mine, and the cattle upon a thousand hills." Beautifully adapted into an economical but eventful screenplay by Alfred Hayes (the fairly elaborate narrative makes it to the fadeout in 96 minutes without any sense of rushing--and that's Fleischer's expertise as well as that of the script), These Thousand Hills reflects Guthrie's interest in the West as expansive canvas as well as for intimate stories, in common with the other novels as well as the classic Shane (1953, George Stevens), for which Guthrie acted as screenwriter in adapting Jack Schaefer's novel. The ease with which the story here plays as a Western is surely partly attributable to him, but that does not fully account for how pleasurable a Western this is in Fleischer's hands.

Briefly, the story concerns Lat Evans (Don Murray), introduced into the story as a young, unassuming cowhand, though ambitious to make money. In 1890, he joins a cattle drive from Oregon to Montana, earning extra money busting broncs and later winning a horse race when the drive hits its destination, the Montana town of Fort Brock, while forming a friendship with another young man, Tom Ping (Stuart Whitman). The drive over, the two stay on in town, planning to hunt wolves in the winter, though first forming relationships with women, both prostitutes, easily in the case of Tom and Jen (Jean Willes), but less so for Lat and Callie (Lee Remick), as Lat is shy and as we later learn, sexually troubled by an early experience. The wolfing expedition turns into a nightmare, Tom abandoning it but returning to save Lat after the other has been shot by Indians who have wanted his horse--and all of the wolf pelts are left behind. Callie nurses Lat and later stakes him so he can buy a ranch. A success, he finds himself even more ambitious and craving respectability, and turns from Callie to Joyce (Patricia Owens), niece of the local banker (Albert Dekker), and marries her. Not only does this devastate Callie but makes her more of a prey to the movie's heavy, Jehu (Richard Egan), a complex figure as he is not a conventional villain but another rancher, motivated most by jealousy and also some antipathy against Lat on Callie's account. At the same time, the puritanism of Lat breaks his friendship with Tom after the other tells Lat he is going to marry Jen--Lat's disapproval of her destroys their partnership, which Lat had given to Tom, and Tom later becomes a rustler. Tricked into helping Jehu and the other ranchers, Lat tries to keep Tom from being lynched but is overpowered and sees his friend's death. But afterward, when Jehu has beaten Callie, Lat confronts and fights him in the town, and when Jehu pulls a rifle to shoot and kill him, Jehu is shot and killed himself by Callie. Lat's political ambitions (a run for state senator) are destroyed in the incident, and he almost loses Joyce who leaves with their child but returns. He has had to explain his relationship with Callie to her and to show himself in a truer light, but the honesty seems to set the stage for them to stay together and possibly build a better relationship.

It's an interesting story in its own right, and several things jump out even within a synopsis. One, which indeed has major dramatic and emotional force in the film--is that Lat does not do right by the two people with whom he has the most positive relationships, so troubling the positive emotional investment in him we are inclined to feel (he is clearly identified as the hero, both visually and narratively, at the very beginning of the film). The other is that it isn't the familiar story of a hero performing some heroic task, and even though there is an antagonist, his relationship with the hero is not the usual one, but more oblique. More generally, though, even if the story is unusual, the five principal characters all do fit archetypes--hero, villain, and fallible friend in the case of the men, and a familiar saloon girl/rancher's daughter opposition in the women (here, an actual prostitute and a banker's niece) in which the wholesome good girl is a foil to the sexually freer woman who has more of our sympathy. The presence of these archetypes in the story is absolutely a virtue, because it shows how well the Western at its most mature could still do everything it needed to with these basic archetypes. And this is especially true in the case of the protagonist. Though he is no murderer as in some of the other Fleischers I have alluded to, he might from certain perspectives invite a severe moral judgement, except that Fleischer is so above such things. He sees the space of the screen for what it is--a free space, in which we may suspend judgements we might normally make and look at a character in the wider context of the complexities of life, seeing that he suffers as much as anyone from his mistakes, that he is in fact trying to behave honestly throughout and be true to himself, and that his psychological limitations which cost him so much are a kind of common frailty. In supporting that this is the idea that Fleischer follows we might first look at the casting of Don Murray, an excellent actor and one also innately likeable, whose looks and manner suggest straightforwardness and not the kind of complexes seen in Lat, though he worked hard to create a career in which he could be cast against those expectations--another example is Senator Brigham Anderson in Advise and Consent (1962, Preminger), who is trying to run from his homosexuality and its presence in an actual relationship in his past. Even more importantly, there is the artistic realization of the whole film, which could almost be studied just for the way Lat is placed in each frame and composition in which he appears, to preserve a distance--but a subtly empathetic distance--throughout.

To begin with, there is a very good credit sequence, with a song that is slow and gentle, even dreamy in keeping with that opening line, promising reflection even as the iconography--two riders, Lat and trail boss Butler (Harold J. Stone), slowly traversing a beautiful landscape--seems also to promise some traditional Western action. As the song and credits end, Lat rides in closer to view and the camera then tracks with him, framing him as a character who is on a journey, both literal and poetic, the slow ride toward the page which opens this crucial chapter of his life. The next sequence in which Butler (who seems to have picked him up from somewhere--we never know exactly how or where, giving the opening a pleasing touch of mystery and lyricism) introduces him to the other cowboys in the camp is a superb example of Fleischer's direction, and indicative of his direction for the film. As Butler greets some of the other hands and introduces Lat, a shot finds him center frame, a group of cowboys to the right, and Lat and Tom standing near each other in the left corner of the frame. The all-important relationship of Lat and Tom is introduced into the film with the characters barely looking at each other at first, though within the same wide screen frame, connected visually over the course of several different two shots, and then over a course of several images becoming aware of each other and starting to interact, but without any emphatic close-ups or undue attention, just a part of things, like Lat breaking the bronc, repartee of the other cowboys, normal events of the day. The other characters and relationships will come into play in the same way, and even a fairly important nightime conversation between Tom and Lat as the cowboys bed down is done in three two shots of both men. It's a very discerning touch that the first close-up (and the film is never overloaded with them) comes when Tom introduces the idea of women in the town when the men go to drink in a bar--Lat gets this on the word "women" when Tom's obvious reference to the sexual activity they can expect here is made--while the underlying tension of the sexual aspect of the story is also nicely underlined by the screenplay as Jehu makes his first appearance in this scene, setting up the rivalry with Lat (Jehu backs the other horse in the race) even before Callie has entered the story. But the sequence in the saloon/brothel is even more masterly. A single wide shot finds Tom, Jen, Callie and Let settling into the beginning of these relationships as they sit at a table--and as the scene plays out, there isn't a single close-up or moment of special visual emphasis, not even when Jehu appears at the table to try to make claim on Callie for the night (she refuses), a moment of prefiguring tension for the whole movie but Fleischer remains more interested in the whole setting, the wider flow of the relationships and interactions, the play of feeling within this. And even in the first intimate scene with Callie and Lat, the same style prevails. It should be noted here that even in those first exteriors (the film enjoyed extensive location shooting in Colorado, to great effect), the film, shot by the great Charles G. Clarke, has an exceptional visual beauty, and that here as in other movies, Fleischer is a vibrant colorist as well as a wide screen master. But the interiors are even more expressive--Callie has her own house, earned through a prostitute's money, and it's warm, lovely, very decorous, with a music box to punctuate the lyricism of a romantic encounter that is here ended by Lat's tentativeness. It's a beautifully observed sequence, as one reads the subtle emotions of Callie and Lat within a subtle choreography of looks and movement, mostly in long shot or medium shot, within an artistically conveyed atmosphere and supported by some lovely, discreetly tender scoring by Leigh Harline. Though he wants her, he's too reluctant about it to stay, and her realization that she is the more sophisticated of the two and has found a different kind of man than she's used to is perceptively played by Lee Remick, who uses the moment which ends the sequence to artfully signal her character's dimensionality, and in a way which makes us warm to her without in any way insisting we do so.

Although a feeling for the story, the playing of the actors, and the flow and rhythm within these scenes are all crucial to Fleischer's directorial effectiveness, closer attention to the organization and breakdown of shots here is by itself revealing. After a shot of Lat entering the brothel, there are only five shots there, though the material is important. In the first, Lat joins Tom and Jen at a table where they are gambling, then Tom and Lat walk to the bar, and from there are shown to a table, where Callie and Jen, emerging from the background, join them, and soon after Jehu, who stands at the table as the five interact. The second shot isolates Jehu, Callie and Lat, and third a reverse angle of this, while the fourth is the same setup as the second. Finally, the full shot of the original four returns to end the scene. A more elaborate breakdown of fifteen shots occurs for the next sequence involving Callie and Lat--two shots outside her house, three long to medium shots of the two after they have come inside, three closer shots of the two individually (and these are brief), another two shot, a longer shot as Callie goes upstairs to change into something more intimate while Lat waits alone downstairs, three shots which cut back and forth from the characters in the two separate spaces, lingering on Lat with the music box, and finally a long shot of Callie coming downstairs and seeing Lat gone, with the camera gracefully moving in to meet her as she moves forward to the music box and has that brief moment alone which is so telling, the only instance of such a shot and movement within the sequence. So from the moment in the brothel when Lat joins the others to this one, there are only twenty shots in seven minutes. This is not a lot, and seems to indicate a long take director, but that is only partly true, as a look at other sequences will show. More true is that in these early sequences (and this is consistent with every sequence from the beginning) , he is most concerned with contextualizing Lat's individual story and character, and our sense of the relationships, within a world of which these things are only a part, though a part Fleischer privileges through the nuances suggested.

Before considering further this initial stage in the Lat/Callie relationship, plainly seen as especially significant in both screenplay and direction in ways I want to look at, it may be helpful at this point to look at the overall form of the film as a narrative, and how Fleischer creates something special with it. As realized, there are two arcs in the film, stylistically consistent but with a subtle variation in tone or change of mood. The first of these, about a third of the film, is the opening, which sets all the major characters except Joyce in place. Here, Lat is the eager young cowboy, somewhat innocent, forging a few positive relationships and just beginning to try to follow a chosen path in carving out a place for himself. It begins with him joining the cattle drive and ends with him going back to Callie and beginning his affair with her, and an intimate scene between them. The second long arc, though following soon after as he recovers from being shot, follows him into a quick "maturity," success as a rancher, his political ambition to be state senator, the forging of new relationships and the breaking of the earlier ones, with sad results. Even though a well-wrought montage comes fairly early in that second arc, following how Lat sustains his ranch through a first year and hard winter, this and several other things which suggest the passage of time (like the birth of the baby later) are of a piece within it. In between the two arcs, briefly, is the harrowing wolfing expedition in dead of first winter, concisely told, dramatically and visually vivid and standing somewhat apart in tone if not in Fleischer's manner of composition and his staging of action. The wolfing expedition is in fact a dramatic key separating the two arcs and calling our attention to their relationship, which is both dramatic and aesthetic and does involve a subtle but vital contrast.

In the first arc, there is a kind of magic to experience. Lat rides out of those hills and into the camp with Butler like someone being born into adult life and taking first tenative command of that life. We see his self-mastery in breaking a bronc and later in the horse race (which he wins even though Jehu's Indian rider tries to win unfairly). We see him forge a positive male relationship with a best friend. And we see him become romantically involved with a woman, one who both solicits and gives real understanding and communion. Of course, with each of these things, there is another aspect which will eventually trouble it--Lat's self-mastery comes with ambition, which will come to take precedent over a sorting out of values, something that directly affects the course of those two relationships. The absence of Lat's puritanism in his friend Tom comes with a more free-floating morality, and there are intimations in Tom's early dialogue that he is someone who could become a rustler. And Callie, of course, is a prostitute, though independent enough to put this aside in a relationship in which she is in love. But in the feeling of this first arc, the overriding sense is of something positive in everything that happens. We are watching a narrative which feels essentially warm and gentle, in which life, though unsentimentalized, seems like some beautiful gift, in which tenderness and vitality are in harmony. Moreover, the texture, landscape, pace and mood which come with the genre enhance this magical feeling.

The wolfing scenes tear this tone and change the film, and when the second arc begins, a feeling of melancholy attaches to the narrative that was not there before. To some extent, it is the visual contrast--that white of winter--which gives the sequence an effective standing of its own, but it is also the cross-purposes of Lat and an unhappy Tom, our knowledge that the wolves were poisoned and accompanying harrowing images of dead wolves and buffalo, the physical solitude of Lat which prefigures the spiritual solitude to come, the violent confrontation with the Indians. The wolfing sequence is again played almost entirely in wide shots and long shots--simple and elegant--for maximum effectiveness, and is very concise in its realization (it lasts only five minutes). But the mood is effectively shifted, and the feeling of the film deepens. And crucially, Lat is shot and would be dead without Tom. In a way, coming back to life as it were, he is reborn a second time into adult life, but wounded (or we may say, no longer so open and innocent), he takes command differently. But if some part of him has died--that shy, gentle and sweet cowboy who so readily won the affection of Callie and Tom, and others as well--it was that harder part of his nature, which wanted to go wolfing, which caused it.

Returning to the first arc and its final scenes, we see a prefiguring within it, and a recognition in the realization that its last scenes are key to the film. With his plan for wolfing with Tom in place, Lat stays behind in town while Butler and the others leave, but not before Butler gives to Lat some rather remarkable parting words: "Just remember, people get changed...Men you meet, the way the cards fall, the chippie that rolled you, a friend you trusted. Add them up. Nobody ends like he started out."

By evening, Lat gets the courage to go back to Callie's and their affair begins, presumably to continue until the wolfing expedition, and afterward, when she has nursed him back to health, continuing until he turns from her to Joyce. The most beautiful shot in the film follows their lovemaking--Callie in right foreground looking into a mirror left as she brushes her hair, while between them, back in the frame, Lat lies on the bed, his head on a white pillow which draws our eyes to it and to him near the center of the image, from within the richly organized and very warm color scheme which extends outward to the sides of the frame. The shot sets up Lat's sharing of his personal story with Callie, how his father caught him kissing a girl in the barn when he was young, and whipped them both, and how the incident colors his experience of his mature sexual self. And Callie shares too--her early sexual experience was not interrupted, and afterward her own father sent her away (a common experience for Western heroines who are dance hall girls, saloon girls, and prostitutes!). The careful, sensitive realization of this intimate scene suggests the way in which Lat's puritanism, which he plainly longs to free himself from (as his attraction to Callie shows), is tied to everything he does--as also the relationship with his father, whose own failure as a rancher haunts him. For this sequence dissolves to a shot introducing the wolfing expedition, the warmth of Callie's room, and even that white pillow, becoming the cold whiteness of the chilly winter. Even in the first throes of the relationship, though he surely could have gotten a good ranching job near town, Lat forsakes sex and love for money and ambition. He has made a move to solve his sexual neurosis, but can only go so far with it.

A comparison of this sequence with the earlier brothel/Callie's house sequences is instructive. Though a long take sensibility again seems to be implied by that beautiful shot already described, the sequence is in fact broken down in a manner which seems less remarkable, if not less effective. The first part of it (downstairs as she rushes to meet him when he comes in and they kiss) is a series of shots which here impart a quickening to the film's rhythm, and though the post-lovemaking sequence is only seven shots, only the first and last are that wide painterly image embracing both characters. The middle five are medium close shots--Lat on the bed, Callie looking at him--followed by the final intimate two shot which begins as he comes up behind her and holds her, and closing with a prefiguring line from Callie in which there is an intimation of the course of the relationship: "I haven't cared for anybody in such a long time, Lat." The mood is going to change, and with it, more subtly, an aspect of the film's style, for while it still has its long takes, there are fewer, and none of them are designed to create the kind of aura one feels in those early sequences. Here the first mood is still there, but with intimations of what is coming.

So the second arc is a melancholy one from the beginning, and the magic is gone. Lat puts his relationship with Callie on a money basis after all (the loan later repayed), and is drawn to Joyce. It should be said, to the film's credit, that while sympathy always attaches to Callie, Joyce is not an unsympathetic character--what is troubling about her and Lat together is that one feels they marry without knowing each other, that what Lat shared with Callie about himself he will not share with her. Patricia Owens puts a slight edge of coldness on the character, but it's not so much as to rob her of complexity or even appeal--she plainly loves Lat, wants what he does, and is in a way like him in some touch of self-repression she really can't control. One might wish that Lat had been able to evolve enough in the relationship with Callie--and with his friend Tom's non-puritanical example--to live his life differently (Callie clearly would have married him, even if she says otherwise), for his sake, for the freer self he could know and take pleasure in, as well as for Callie's. But this is the man he is.

"No man ends like he started out." Lat's loss by the end--of Tom and Callie--is effectively brought about, as in many a beautiful narrative, by circumstance of time, place and events (as Butler had indicated would play a part) but equally by his own character. In this respect, Tom and Callie, who may be seen to represent the positive masculine and feminine sides of Lat, double each other, one more reason why the Lat-Tom confrontation scene which ends their friendship is such a dramatically forceful one. The more obvious reason of course is that Lat's condemnation of Jen for her history as a prostitute is inevitably also a condemnation of Callie, who shares that kind of sexual history, but Tom ties all four characters together with his "I ain't so pure myself...neither are you!" The overriding thing one feels in the scene, beautifully conveyed by Whitman, is Tom's absolute shock and dismay--we know Lat, but it's almost surprising to see these judgements made on his friends, and especially, indirectly, on Callie. The sequence is also another example of the visual eloquence of Fleischer's mise-en-scene. It is composed in alternating diagonal two shots of the two men, so sees them both but sees their expressions separately, this visual scheme ending when Tom punches Lat--as the other falls to the street beneath the blow, Fleischer cuts away to a traditional wider shot of the street, with both characters more toward the center of a balanced frame.

Things get harsher at this point. Another highly dramatic scene is the one where Jehu (who is coming to hate Lat not only because of Callie but because the other has made more of a success of his ranch than the other ranchers, who have been there longer) comes to tell Callie that Lat is lingering at the home of Joyce's uncle while she waits with the birthday cake she has made for him. Here again, violence is the more effective for being restrained. We don't see Jehu beat up Callie later, but we almost expect this here. Instead, he takes a knife and in one motion scrapes Lat's name off the cake and leaves, completely unsettling her (and that ending concludes another sequence where a more traditional and tense shot breakdown is impressively displaced by a long take--taking in Jehu's rough attempts to kiss Callie as she moves away from him followed by the cake scraping and his departure). And worse, when Lat does come later, she sees the end of their affair has also come. And though he insists he is honest, she is more honest ("the only place you and I ever got was here"--indicating the bed). And she has an even better line as well, "Everything goes on till it ends...that's all." By this point, breakdown of sequences into shots is something that may now be trusted to serve the drama, in a visually consistent way, not drawing much attention to itself, but no less thoughtful. When Lat turns up at Callie's again before the film's climax, we see a woman who has turned to drinking, her face horribly bruised by her tormentor, seeming no longer to care--a payoff moment with a close-up of Callie all the more affecting because the film has steadily acknowledged the character's feelings while refusing pathos throughout.

Later, the sequence in which Lat is duped by Jehu and the other ranchers into riding out to catch the rustlers, only to find they want him involved so they can get away with a lynching, is the payoff of the friendship with Tom in the same way (and we are always aware that Lat's puritanical rejection of Tom's marriage to Jen is what tore their partnership and drove Tom to rustling). And it cannot be stressed enough that while this sequence plainly is meant to evoke a very famous one in Owen Wister's 1902 novel The Virginian (and all film versions), it is also a rather bracing critique and rereading of that episode. In The Virginian, we are encouraged to accept that the title character is right to participate in the lynching of his old friend Steve--both men accept it with good grace; this is just interesting enough to work in a strange way, but is actually ridiculous, and morally indefensible, and it seems strange to me that the Virginian himself can be seen as such an uncomplicated hero after this event. By contrast, the morally compromised Lat, who is partly responsible, at least physically tries to stop the lynching and is forcibly prevented from doing so, while interestingly, another old friend of both, Carmichael (Royal Dano), does intervene by shooting the rope but too late to save Tom. But no harmonious moment of renewal between the two one-time best friends punctuates the moment. So, consistent with the genre's maturity at this point in time, the hero is here reimagined, and is actually more moving for no longer being so pure, yet more human.

Here, as in the final fight, which appropriately begins in the brothel, there is another thing we can say in favor of These Thousand Hills, as in many classical Westerns. Death has weight--only a few people are killed in the film, but whether it is a sympathetic character like Tom or an unsympathetic one like Jehu, it's a tragic event, coloring the lives of those involved. It's true for Lat, of course, but in Jehu's death, especially for Callie. Jehu's dismayed response as he is shot and falls (neither he nor we had even known she was there) is made even more powerful by the cut to her, gun in hand. Only a few brief shots here, but it's a piercing emotional climax for the character, as we see in her face the sad knowledge that she has given all she has and is out of love for a man who could never respond in kind, but that her own nature made no other choice possible.

Much like the story of the film, the achievement of These Thousand Hills owes to an interaction of things within a certain time and place. First, there is Fleischer's view of character as well as his style, elements interrelated in his work, which were not only mature at this point of his career but interacting with a very rich and creative period in American cinema as well. Let me return for a moment to the notion of "rooting interest" as I've hopefully demonstrated what kind of character we are dealing with in the instance of Lat. I've used this phrase one hears a lot mindful that on another level we are talking about the concept of "identification" which is more commonly used in criticism and is much more complex, because it deals not only with how an audience is likely to respond to a character based on casting, shared values, things we admire in men and women and so on, but also with aesthetic strategies to bond us to them, like subjective shots at the most obvious level, and other kinds of emphasis or "favoring" as well. Seen this way, strategies of identification can align us with characters even in weakness, vice or failure--and it's been done many times. So it wouldn't be amazing if one "identified" with Lat, suspending both approval and disapproval in an emotional cause. And perhaps we do this in a way, but if so, it never feels that the mise-en-scene has manipulated us to do so. In considering some scenes and sequences, I've tried to show how reticent Fleischer is to pump emotions into a scene, how much he prefers the middle, well-composed distance from the action, in which we can see an interplay. This has wonderful effects not only on how we relate to the hero but the other characters as well. Callie is the heart of the film, and Remick and to some extent Whitman have plum roles--they play characters we never lose sympathy for. But the brutal Jehu, as played by Egan, is all-too human in behavior which can be disturbingly familiar in many people's lives, and Joyce is limited by upbringing and environment as well as by her nature in a way which is also given human roundness. So Lat, most of all, is just a man, neither good nor bad--and identification will have to come at a deeper level than one of whether we like him or whether we don't, or whether he finds redemption or not.

Just how much such a character is an ideal hero for a Fleischer movie is made clear if one thinks of the widely-admired Barabbas, the payoff film of this more classical period in Fleischer's career. Late in the film, Peter (Harry Andrews) tells Barabbas (Anthony Quinn) that the inner conflict he has experienced was a way of knowing God. "There has been a wrestling in your spirit, back and forth, in your life, which in itself is knowledge of God. By the conflict you have known him." In the same way, Lat's struggle is also between darkness and light, but within himself, and surrounded by characters who are themselves not simple, whether or not they engage our sympathy. When Lat returns home for that last quiet conversation with Joyce, we may have felt we do not care about them as a couple, but we may care more now, and within this indeterminate end, we may realize that Lat has had our "identification" and even "rooting interest" but in a hard-won way. It's a measure of Fleischer's sensibility as well as his style that the film encourages feeling not only for the relationships Lat abandoned, but for this present one, which, however flawed, is the future for these two people, while also observing that even Lat's shift of consciousness, as much as his belated action, does throw his story into a positive light.

The classical American cinema, in its aesthetic strategies, can be one as much of refinements as of bold strokes, and that is what I have wanted to observe here, in looking more closely at even a few moments and sequences and how they are realized, and in terms of the whole, just how much Fleischer involves us in the story while preserving the reflective gaze. In considering Fleischer and particularly the formal beauty of this film, I've wanted to consider a certain methodology that, if it is not the only one which might be considered classical, certainly is one of those which best fits the description. A mise-en-scene which supports a clear, accessible narrative, but without coarsening our response to it, and which both embodies and encourages reflective but empathetic distance, seems to have the balance of elements we should want to describe as classical. Although I would argue that Fleischer's temperament remained the same later, the prevailing aesthetics of the cinema were not as suited to it. There is that interesting break of four years between Barabbas and his next film Fantastic Voyage (1966), and this later phase of Fleischer finds the same impulse to contextualize, and the director finding the means to do it in some films like the true-life murder films, but not necessarily always, as the aesthetic tendencies of a changed Hollywood cinema (and often, less interesting stories, too) trouble his personal style even as he remains prolific.

In line with this being, as a late 50s/early 60s work (twilight time for classical American cinema in most accounts), made at a time that encouraged such a style, it should also be observed that the time was good for this kind of story in several other ways. The production code in the late 50s was still in place but there had been some loosening, with good effect here (and in many other works, melodramas especially, as well as Westerns-- These Thousand Hills has many affinities with melodramas of the period) on the treatment of sexuality in particular. There is no coyness about the sexual affairs in the film, and the brothel where Callie and Jen work--though it may be a dance hall, saloon and place to play poker, all things a brothel would be--is clearly a brothel. Only Lat's use of the word "tramp" instead of "whore" about Jen in the rupture with Tom intimates any constraint on the film, and given an excellent scene, doesn't hurt it at all. Of course, one doesn't see any explicit scenes of lovemaking--but it's hard to see how they would have in any way enhanced the film and in fact would have been at odds with Fleischer's style. But more importantly, the sexual attitudes the film seems to support are mature and tolerant ones. If it understands the more puritanical attitudes of the time, it takes sex and sexuality, of both male and female, as part of all adult life.

In the fullness of deeper understanding, it will be seen that Westerns of this period seemed to be an especially good place for such freedom of attitude. In the same way, the Western, long and rather simplistically thought of as a masculine action genre, became in the maturity of its great classical years (almost twenty years from the end of World War II, but especially the 1950s) a genre supreme in male/female balance from an aesthetic point of view--in its counterpoint of violence and tenderness, action and reflection, landscape and inwardness--while also offering subtle portraits of women which matched those of its male characters. But beyond this, the Western of this period turned out to be a frame for spiritual as well as moral concerns, though never with any pretension. Something about the vast space, the journeys of the characters, the extreme violent conflicts, encouraged this, as conspicuously reflected in so many eloquently told stories of redemption, renewal, and salvation even within the few years (1958-1959) in which These Thousand Hills appeared. Here, as in Barabbas, Fleischer's emphasis is on spiritual struggle in itself. And here, too, the journey is more within, the conflicts not the usual ones, but that only shows how flexible the genre is. For this is a movie that always plays as an exceptionally satisfying Western, with Fleischer finding just the right tone to unite action and lanscape with a reflective treatment of relationships.

Despite its lack of reputation, I believe that These Thousand Hills deserves to be considered one of the finest films of Richard Fleischer, a masterpiece of the Western, and a model work of classical cinema.


Make a donation to The Film Journal

Search this site powered by FreeFind

This publication is indexed in the Movie Review Query Engine.

All material contained herein is © The Film Journal 2002-2006