Home Video Hovel: The Appaloosa, by Craig Schroeder
The Appaloosa sees Marlon Brando as Mateo, a tormented soul looking for revenge. A buffalo hunter and soldier only a decade or so removed from the Civil War, Mateo (or Matt, as only the credits call him) returns to his hometown of Ojo Prieto, near the U.S./Mexico border, determined to swear off violence and start a new life. But within the first few minutes of his return, Mateo’s prized Appaloosa horse is stolen by a Mexican bandito. Mateo sets out for revenge, much to the chagrin of Brando, who would clearly rather be anywhere else.
The Appaloosa strays from the stagecoach as soon as the actors begin talking. Brando and his co-star John Saxon—most famous for his role opposite Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon—inhabit equal space on opposite ends of the bad acting spectrum. Brando, who’d go on to turn in notoriously subdued and bizarre performances late in his career, is especially muted in The Appaloosa. In The Godfather, Brando’s performance is purposefully understated as the soft spoken Don Corleone, allowing his eyes or the quiver in his lip or his intent mannerisms to betray the fact that a monster lurks beneath his humble quiet. But in The Appaloosa, Brando is sleepy and dull, bringing the energy of a dentist’s waiting room. Saxon, on the other hand—playing the sadistic pistolero Chuy—moves through the film like an errant fire hose. Shouting, whispering, screaming, and laughing, Saxon joyously announces himself as the diabolical villain without ever settling down enough for the audience to meet him. Worse still, Saxon—a white man from Brooklyn playing a native Mexican—is positively caked with bronzer and deploys a Mexican accent that’s nearly too bizarre to be offensive, wedging a “zh” sound whenever possible (“zhu know I mean?”) and speaking in pigeon English with the rhythm of a middle school jazz band. Meant to convey the kind of volatility that has given cinema some of its best antagonists (Frank Booth in Blue Velvet or Reverend Harry Powell in The Night of the Hunter), Saxon’s performance is the kind of arch-villainy found in Looney Tunes cartoons.The Appaloosa is a deeply strange movie, only punctuated by its bizarro stars. In a film where Brando goes “undercover” as a Mexican villager by rubbing coffee grounds on his face (the film doesn’t hold up well already but its blasé attitude towards appropriation is especially glaring) and two characters try to settle a blood feud by arm wrestling (which includes scorpions on leashes), no one seems to be aware of how wild the whole endeavor is. It’s as if the screenwriters—James Bridges and Roland Kibee penned the script based on a novel by Robert MacLeod—can’t quite decide whether they want their revenge story to be of the searing drama or deranged shoot-em up variety. More problematic is the screenplay’s flirtation with themes without ever investing in them. In the opening sequence (the film’s best, more on that later), Brando’s Mateo walks wordlessly through the town of Ojo Prieto, arriving at a church to ask for God’s forgiveness for his bloody past, setting up a story of a violent man seeking inner-peace but forced to resort back to his savage skill-set. Yet horse theft and wounded pride inspire Mateo to redact his newfound benevolence and kill with a sense of dispassionate boredom (made even more obvious by sleepy-time Brando floating through the movie). Setting up a meditation on violence in the first act, the screenplay never gets around to actually saying anything about it. But juggling subtext isn’t something this film is particularly adept at. The titular horse is quite obviously representative of a new life for Mateo, a point the film drives home when Mateo says “It’s not just a horse, it’s…” and then proceeds to verbalize the film’s entire thesis. It’s as if, instead of “Rosebud”, Charles Foster Kane named his sled “Childhood Innocence Gives Way to Greed and Loneliness.”
But the film does build a lot of goodwill thanks to Russell Metty’s gorgeous cinematography shot in St. George, Utah, an area southwest of Zion National Park (for a truly repelling anecdote about shooting The Appaloosa on this otherwise beautiful piece of American landscape, see Brando’s 1994 autobiography Brando: Songs My Mother Taught Me where he writes about sneaking off the set of the film for a rendezvous in an irradiated part of the dessert with a woman he says performed “sperm therapy”). Metty—who previously shot Touch of Evil and Spartacus—beautifully captures the vast prison of the dessert. Metty and director Sidney Furie are much more measured and intent than the screenplay, creating shots that are patient and compelling even when the story isn’t. The film’s opening sequence is its best, wordlessly following Brando’s character through a small village for five minutes, capturing the subtle beauty and dangers around him that have come to represent his universe. Admittedly, much of the film’s visual flair is similar to Sergio Leone’s instantly recognizable technique, wide shots of calm and tranquility juxtaposed with extreme close ups of trigger fingers or menacing glares. At the time of The Appaloosa’s premiere, two of the films in Leone’s “Man With No Name” trilogy had been released and their influence is obvious (Brando even spends much of the time in a wide brim hat and poncho, looking conspicuously similar to Clint Eastwood’s iconic gunslinger).
It’s impossible to offer a full-throated recommendation of The Appaloosa. It’s beautifully shot but there’s not much else to glean from it. But Brando’s performance is an odd specimen that is certainly of interest to anyone with a curiosity for the brand of eccentricity that allowed him to turn in some of film’s most iconic performances and some of its strangest (a pair of remarkable documentaries, Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse and Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau, offer the closest thing we may get to insight on Brando’s idiosyncrasies). While his performance in The Appaloosa is more dull than brilliant or unhinged, it is a curious expedition onto Planet Brando.