Review: The Shooting (1966)

Director: Monte Hellman

Starring: Millie Perkins, Jack Nicholson, Will Hutchins

Release Date: 23rd October 1966

A couple of weeks ago, we looked at the film version of Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood (1972) and wondered if a movie adaptation of a radio ‘Play for Voices’ could really succeed as cinema. As I watched Monte Hellman’s western The Shooting, I couldn’t help thinking whether this film would work as a play or a novel, as Adrien Joyce’s screenplay (Joyce being a pseudonym for Carole Eastman) contains little dialogue, and the setting is as much an influence on the action as the characters’ often mysterious motivations. I doubt if the British modernists or the French Nouveau roman writers ever considered writing a western, but if so, they could have done a lot worse than adapt The Shooting for the printed page. If this sounds far-fetched, then consider the artist whose work has most often been held in comparison to The Shooting is not Sergio Leone or John Ford, but someone who seems as far away from the Old West as it’s possible to get – the Irish playwright and existentialist, Samuel Beckett. For instance, Edward Buscombe, in The BFI Companion to the Western (1996) comments “the film reduces social reality to a minimum, the characters lost in time and space, making this the only Beckettian western on record.”

Westerns, as with science-fiction or horror, often work best when they’re attempting to be something other than what they are, and The Shooting is an excellent example of what a genre film can do when stripped of its customary trappings – and ‘trappings’ is an apt word for the characters, who are caught in a quest damning them to an eternal dead end, where the ‘wild frontier’ becomes both a contradiction and a terrible truth. The spirit of the West is that of freedom, but one can also find freedom in a boat adrift in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, though I wouldn’t recommend it. Of course, the law, a construct of man, serves to bring order to the West, the lone gunman authorized by the state (loathed as it may be) to murder in the name of justice. Yet The Shooting features no such Sheriff or Deputy, merely the idea of revenge as a natural law of nature, an easy concept to cling to when surrounded by a whole lot of nothing.

Ideas of revenge, or more accurately, the instinctive need to know the motivations of revenge and the inscrutable nature of Other People, are what gives The Shooting its drive and motion (and it’s one of those movies which work purely as a motion picture). Someone you know desires to do something and achieves their aim; what is it to us, and what is it to them? And what comes afterwards? We seek an answer behind the answer, and cannot bear the thought that what we seek is unknowable, or long since known but ineffable. Put in such terms, neither appeals, yet we have no choice but to make a choice. As Beckett himself put it in The Unnameable (1953): “You must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.”

The Shooting came into being when B-movie legend (and uncredited Executive Producer) Roger Corman handed his two rising stars, actor Jack Nicholson and director Monte Hellman, $150,000 and instructions to head out into the desert and come back with two western movies. Having spent their proverbial forty days in the wilderness (the Utah desert, to be more precise), the pair returned with The Shooting and the equally intriguing Ride in the Whirlwind (1966), making a virtue of their low budget by challenging the intellect rather than raising the pulse, and in its ‘cheapness’ demonstrating (in the same way as the low-budget 1969 British comedy Monty Python and the Holy Grail) the true nature of life in a romanticized past, often bleak, punishing, and as dry and dirty as Hell itself.

Willett Gashade (Warren Oates) returns to his small mining camp after an absence of a few days. The camp, and its fenced enclosure for the few horses, is the only man-made feature for miles around, a bare collection of rickety fences and a few canvas tents. Gashade calls out for men named Leland and Cohen (critics disagree as to the latter character’s name, giving it as Coin, Coyne or Cohen. I have followed the subtitling of the edition I watched for this review), but gets no answer. Gashade finds a makeshift grave for Leland Drum, his partner in the mine. Cohen, we later learn, is Willett Gashade’s twin brother. The crude epitaph, chiseled into the rock by fellow miner Coley Boyard gives Leland’s cause of death as “shot by I don’t know what.”

Fired upon, Gashade dives for cover, calling out for Coley, but it’s Coley (Will Hutchins) who is shooting, the young man so shaken by events he’s apt to fire on anything that moves. Calming down Coley, a rather naive and childish character, Gashade listens as he explains Leland and Cohen rode off two nights ago to the nearest settlement, Winslow, “for pleasure.” Cohen returned in the early hours of the next morning “drunk and angry,” and took off again on one of Coley’s horses. Leland arrived soon afterwards, explaining Cohen ran down “a man and a small person” in Winslow and had now gone on the run.

Later still that night, Coley awoke on hearing Leland, sat at the camp fire drinking coffee, talking to another, unseen, man. Leland was then shot in the head from some distance, killing him instantly. Coley figures that the killer may have mistaken Leland for Cohen in the dark. Gashade is uneasy with Coley’s story: “my mind’s all unsatisfied with it.” Coley and Gashade bed down for the night, Gashade insisting the younger man give up his gun to him, convinced he has been followed back to camp by an unknown figure.

Morning, and Gashade orders Coley to put away the stores, which he does, singing gaily as he works. “Something’s coming,” mutters Gashade, and we’ve already seen a glimpse of a figure in close-up riding a horse, its hooves clattering awkwardly upon the rocky terrain. Next, the horse is laying stricken upon the ground, as feminine hands stroke its head.

A gunshot rings out. Scared, Coley runs for the mine entrance, leaving behind a trail from a split sack of flour (visibility and the evidence we leave behind ourselves are two themes The Shooting explores; Coley has already spoken of being “scared white”). Gashade stands his ground as a figure emerges from the distance. “It’s a woman!” cries Coley. In the next shot, the woman (Millie Perkins) has arrived at the camp, standing next to the two men, and asks for a horse and shelter.

We learn Gashade was once a bounty hunter, before his current interest of mining. Another sharp cut finds us at the woman’s dead horse. “I need you to take me across the Simplicio to Kingsley,” the woman tells Gashade, who is inspecting the horse for injuries (‘Simplicio’ is the name given to a large desert plain nearby, Kingsley one of the closer, though still distant, settlements). Gashade will consider the offer, but why can’t the woman travel solo? “I’d go mad on a journey like that on my own.” Finishing the inspection, Gashade wants to know why the woman shot the horse when it doesn’t have a broken bone in its body. The woman just smiles. This is one of the many questions raised by the narrative; some are left unanswered, as those questions may not require answers, at least not in any beneficial sense. The Shooting, as with Kafka’s The Trial (1925), is a work where we are always in danger of asking the wrong questions, and not understanding the answers we receive.

The woman tells Gashade he’ll receive $500 now if he agrees to the trip, with another $500 on arrival in Kingsley. Coley has taken a shine to the worldly woman, who ignores the callow youngster’s attempts to impress her. Inspecting Leland’s grave, the woman tells Coley the current month is March, rather that the stated April. Time, aside from the passing of day and night, soon loses its greater meaning to individuals this far removed from usual life, especially if embarked upon a quest with an indeterminate ending, such as Gashade’s mining project. In such conditions, the naming of time, as with the woman’s name, becomes a frustrating irrelevance.

It isn’t always easy to detect what in life may become a dead end. Washing herself, the woman complains of her stagnant bucket of water and Gashade explains, perhaps kidding her, that rattlesnakes are known to mate in such water and leave behind eggs that can hatch inside the body. This exchange could indicate a seed planted to flower later in the narrative, or so become a metaphor explaining itself; alternatively, the discussion is a longueur designed to add a little character to the proceedings. Take your pick, one’s as valid as the other. Gashade agrees to the woman’s offer, on the condition Coley accompanies them on the trip. The woman allows this, but insists they leave at once, and drops the money at Gashade’s feet, where it remains until (we assume) Gashade concedes to leave now rather than the morning. Did he ever really have a choice? Whoever pays the piper calls the tune, and Gashade will soon find himself compelled to go along with events without quite knowing why.

No sooner does the group set off than the woman declares she wishes to stop at Cross Tree, a settlement some 20-25 miles out of their way. Later, at night, the party makes camp and the woman tells Coley he “could be a little more pleasant.” Coley asks if he can address the woman by name. The woman replies by telling Coley he can call her by his favorite feminine name. The young man explains his mother’s name was Hortensia. “Don’t ever call me by that name,” snaps the woman. Perhaps the point here is identity doesn’t matter, or is always false when left to the interpretation of others, but is arguably more personal. After all, “a little person” was run down by Cohen Gashade, suggesting the woman is on a mission to avenge her son, perhaps her husband also, and so objects to the name of a different mother, a role she can no longer claim. Yet we never hear that Cohen definitively killed anyone, merely he “ran them down.”

There follows a strange, brief scene back at the mining camp, where two men inspect Leland’s grave. “Thrown?” asks one. “I got my duties,” replies the other. This could explain several, or none, of the film’s unanswered questions – apply where applicable.

Waking up the next morning, Gashade discovers someone has unattached the party’s mule from its post, and the animal has wandered away into the desert. Earlier, we saw the woman refusing a mule as part of their trail, only for Garshade to insist otherwise, but no more is said about this incident. Taken as part of the whole, it’s possible the woman realizes their journey will take them beyond redemption or hope of return, and releasing the mule and the supplies it carries, ensures this on a physical, as well as metaphysical, level.

As they set off again, the woman praises the “exquisite” nature of the sun, and one jump cut later, curses the blazing heat. The three arrive at Cross Tree, a stark collection of shacks, corrals and a store, looking as if every structure rose out of the dust overnight to expire under the heat of the sun. Gashade tells Coley to buy supplies and to get himself a gun, then questions a Native American (Guy El Tsosie) on the mysterious woman’s identity. The man speaks faltering English and can only tell Gashade “she bought a paper.” Gashade also learns the Native American learned English from “a bear man,” or a bearded man, as Gashade corrects the mistake.

Coley finds his old horse, Shorty, at the corral, ridden into uselessness by Cohen, who arrived at Cross Tree two days earlier. After threatening to leave the woman, Gashade agrees to continue the trek, and the three find further evidence of Cohen’s progress, the ashes of a camp fire between one and a half and two days old.

Further on, Gashade challenges the woman over her name. “Would I know it if I heard it?” he asks. The woman responds in the negative. “Then there don’t seem any point to it,” Gashade surmises, as if starting to learn something of the rules of this ‘game,’ that a name on its own is meaningless, while identity is both important and yet fathomless. The woman queries if Gashade can continue to follow the trail. “That’s what I’m supposed to do, aint it?” “Not if you’re a gold miner, Mr Gashade.” For the man, his occupation is his identity, but we’ve already learned Gashade was once a bounty hunter, a change in roles leading to a possible conflict within the self, provoking Garshade’s interest in the identity of others. In this sense, the woman becomes a perverse Socratic seeker of truth, causing is to look behind the our facade to see what we’re truly made of.

Far off on the horizon, the three see another figure on horseback. “Oh yeah, he’s seen us,” figures Gashade. We see a close-up of the man’s eyes – they do not look friendly. If we’re in the mood to play the film’s game, perhaps this distant bystander represents ourselves, the hostile viewer, squinting to concentrate on the action, hoping to discern closer the meaning to the characters’ actions.

The trail freshens again as Garshade finds a spent bullet. The woman wants to follow the trail, rather than head for Kingsley. Garshade explains the only reason for anyone to head into the direction of the trail is “ignorance or stupidity – or to get themselves lost.”

The next fragment of action sees the woman fire off a few random bullets, ostensibly to improve her shot, but Gashade believes she is signalling to whoever is following them. Seeming to suffer a fainting spell, the woman turns on Coley for assisting her: “it’s just an excuse to touch me.” Coley and Garshade discuss prettiness, with the older man advising to Coley to disregard the woman’s pleasant appearance: “it’ll pleasure you nothing but the eye.”

After another faint spell, the party stops for the woman to recover. Coley makes her tea, from a blend said to aid “sight or eye.” The woman insults Coley, who fires off a bullet in anger. For this, the woman calls Coley “disgusting, stupid.” Garshade guesses her anger comes the woman’s fearing the gunfire will sound an incorrect signal to whoever is following. “Who’s out there?” demands Garshade.

We now find out, as Billy Spear (Jack Nicholson) rides into camp, sharply dressed in white shirt and black hat and waistcoat. Gashade describes Billy to Coley as “a hired gun if ever I saw one.” The woman announces Billy is to join their trek.

The trail freshens once again, with Garshade suggesting this is because whoever is up ahead doesn’t believe they’re being followed. In addition, Garshade can tell this first man has been joined by a second; the news excites the woman, who speeds ahead. However, the woman’s horse is starting to go lame, so she throws off the supplies the horse is carrying, even though Garshade tells her this will make no difference (some burdens are not so easily lifted). Coley retrieves a small box from the supplies. Billy tells him to ignore this, and is angered when Coley ignores him in return. “Did I say something to you, boy?” Billy cries, provoking the immortal response “I don’t give a curly hair, yellow bear, double damn if you did!” the prime example in The Shooting of dialogue spoken out of sound rather than sense. As Edward Buscombe points out, “the terse lines appear spoken for their rhythmic and tonal qualities rather than as communicative dialogue.”

Billy’s response is very terse: “I’m gonna blow your face off,” (and only Jack Nicholson can deliver a line as deliciously as he does here), and we recall Coley’s own description of Leland being shot in the face; Billy has something against physical identity perhaps, determining everyone requires reduction to bloody anonymity, a facet he shares with Frank Sinatra’s John Baron in Suddenly.

By the time we re-join the trek – a split-second in our time, perhaps days for the characters – Coley has lost his horse and rides with Garshade, who becomes annoyed by his friend’s constant talk of the woman. The woman, who has lost the trail, insists they abandon Coley in the middle of nowhere with the barest of provisions. Billy backs this idea up with a click of his gun. Left with no choice, Garshade tells Coley “to bide his time,” and he will return for him. As they leave the bewildered Coley, Billy taunts him with “how’d you like I done Leland Drum?” Billy threatens to kill Coley should he tell anyone this, no matter far away Coley thinks he is, gleefully adding “your brain’s gonna fry out here.”

Later, the woman and Garshade discuss why he didn’t stay behind with Coley. “I could have left anytime I wanted.” So why didn’t he? “I’ve got my reasons…there aint gonna be no kill.” “Mr Garshade, the reason for a hunt is for the kill.” Billy, catching up with the two, asks both the woman and then Garshade if they were talking to him. (“I read a man’s thoughts many times,” states Billy, again reflecting the view of a not necessarily dispassionate observer). The woman claims she was talking to herself, while Garshade responds only to say Coley is in the best place, “safe and clear of you.” This scene strengthens the belief that in attempting to engage with The Shooting, focusing on moments rather than the whole, we present a danger to the film’s integrity. We must somehow traverse its terrain in one go, instead of questioning each footstep. The naive Coley, concerned with toys and passing fancies, cannot risk such scrutiny, representing a more childish view of the western, of Tom Nix and showdowns with the sheriff and so is left behind to ‘age’ under the sun.

The woman spots a crouched figure in the distance and rides out to investigate. As they wait, Garshade talks to Billy about women, but the hired gun remains cryptic. Returning, the woman explains the distant figure is a friend who has broken his leg, and whose horse has bolted. The trek will continue towards Kinglsey, the friend left behind. Soon (?), the party finds the trail freshening, and whoever the woman is after is now less than a day ahead.

Having spotted the loose horse, Coley now finds the bearded man with the broken leg (Charles Eastman). Coley gives the man candy, and one of his games, telling the injured man Willett and he will return later. One presumes this is the ‘bear man’ mentioned by the Native American earlier (it’s a touch typical of The Shooting that the name given pushes us to a ‘dubious certainty’ of identification), yet why he’s stranded in the desert is something of a puzzle. It seems unlikely the Bearded Man is an associate of Cohen and would join him in fleeing through the desert. Symbolically, the Bearded Man represents the futility of ‘book learning’ or education in an environment so demanding upon the body, underlined by Coley’s gifts, hopelessly frivolous in the circumstances. Perhaps the Bearded Man, educated enough to teach the Native American to speak English, wished to escape his loutish environment, but lacking Garshade’s know-how, became lost and was thrown from his horse (possibly explaining the short “thrown” scene).

Garshade, Billy and the woman begin to struggle, running out of water, their horses becoming lame. “How much longer?” asks the woman. “That depends,” replies Garshade, “on who’s going to last, him or you.”

Coley, now on the Bearded Man’s horse, sights the party and gallops towards them, shouting Will’s name. Will rides towards his friend at speed, but is followed by Billy. Drawing his gun, Coley takes aim at Billy, but the hired gun shoots him dead before Coley can fire. In a mockery of his new occupation as a miner, Garshade digs out a grave for Coley with his bare hands from the soft desert soil.

“Why did you do that?” asks the woman of Billy. “He draw on me first, ask him,” replies Billy, death’s figurehead. If The Shooting is, as it’s been said, an existential Western, then Billy Spears is its claim to a center, the stillness at the eye of a deadly, moving storm. Garshade removes the bridle, saddle and saddlebags from Coley’s horse which is now free, but only to die. The loose horse follows the trek for a while as its heads into yet emptier distance.

Night. The unhappy Garshade stares at the camp fire. The emotionless woman chides Garshade for indulging in “the final foolishness of grief.”

Garshade has abandoned his horse and walks wearily behind Billy and the woman, who suddenly announces “we’re heading towards that rise.” The woman gallops ahead, reaching the base of a huge rocky outcrop the size of a small cliff. This panics Billy, who dismounts, and runs after her crying “Judith!” only to be rushed by Garshade, who throws his gun out of reach. The two men engage in a vicious fist-fight, with Garshade overcoming Billy, punching him well after rendering the man unconscious. Garshade picks up a rock to stove in Billy’s head, but pauses and thinks of a worse, and more fitting punishment, and crushes Billy’s shooting hand. Without the ability to kill, Garshade knows Billy is vulnerable to the kind of crisis of being Garshade himself is exposed to, the living death of the loss of identity.

The woman scales the brutal rocks with Garshade closing in behind. Gunshots ring out as the woman fires upon a man further ahead who looks identical to Willett Garshade. The action reverts to slow motion as the man returns fire, and despite Garshade’s efforts, one last bullet echoes through the desert. The woman and the stranger have gunned each other down. “Cohen?” asks Garshade, lifting his head from the dirt.

Down below, Billy stumbles through the desert, clutching his hand, a figure lost in nowhere as the film fades slowly to an obliterating whiteout.

Despite successful showings at the Montreal World Film Festival and the Cannes Film Festival, The Shooting was derided on its brief theatrical release in the US, doubtless in part to an ending typical of a movie which succeeds in being both opaque and transparent. Yet the ending is only a letdown if we expected a typical action-driven western and a story in which the conclusion is granted a special status in that it should explain everything which came before it, when in The Shooting, the ending is only as important in terms of explaining the narrative as each and every ‘clue’  the viewer is given throughout the film. Like the desert itself, The Shooting gives out its pertinent details in a leveling equanimity, part of a landscape where ten miles to the east is just the same as ten miles to the west. In the void, one part is just as good, or as bad, as the other.

Director Hellman has his characters attempt to escape the trappings of the western genre is the same way as Cohen attempts to evade that great motivator of the genre, justice. Yet the characters – the lethal gunslinger, the vengeful woman, the hard-headed miner – can only leave behind the conventional narratives to which they customarily belong, with true escape as unlikely as surviving the desert which surrounds their fragile camps and settlements. They are what they are, no matter where they are, and so their world looks the same in every direction, reducing the characters to points following other points in the empty wastes, and once the purpose of their quest dies, they die also, vanishing at the same time the viewer reaches The End.

The Shooting is a film which offers a commentary on its own nature and provides a bleak take on the human experience, of people grasping anything to secure meaning in an indifferent world. As Danny Peary puts it in The Guide for the Film Fanatic (without which I would not have heard of this film), Hellman’s is a “unusual, interesting West, ugly, barren and godforsaken…a lonely, cruel world,” where “the good guys find themselves in a predicament beyond their comprehension.” The ending may offer no resolution, only another question, it’s answer beyond reach.

Even if we journey into the void long enough, we may only discover a copy of ourselves looking back at us before we die; there is no escape from the self, as we discovered in Repulsion (1965). Perhaps talk of the modernists wasn’t so far off the mark, for in this sense The Shooting is a Wild West take on Joseph Conrad’s classic novel Heart of Darkness (1904), another journey into the interior that ends with the realization of ‘the horror’ at the heart of the human condition. This makes The Shooting the genre equivalent of the great war film Apocalypse Now (1979), and there’s no finer compliment that that.