Comanche Station (1960 USA 73 mins)

Source: Sony Picture Classics Prod Co: Ranown Prod, Dir: Budd Boetticher Scr: Burt Kennedy Phot: Charles Lawton, Jnr Ed: Edwin Bryant Art Dir: Carl Anderson Mus Dir: Mischa Bakaleinikoff

Cast: Randolph Scott, Nancy Gates, Claude Akins, Skip Homeier, Richard Rust

I’m much more interested in my characters than the ideas they stand up for… It’s the ways in which people defend their beliefs which interest me, not the beliefs themselves.
– Budd Boetticher (1)

Budd Boetticher explored the bare essentials of the genre. His style was as simple as his impassive heroes – deceptively simple. The archetypes of the genre were distilled to the point of abstraction…. The choreography of basic human emotions was his forte.
– Martin Scorsese (2)

Comanche Station is the last in a cycle of minimalist “chamber” Westerns tautly directed by Budd Boetticher and starring Randolph Scott, an actor whose “expressively inexpressive face” echoes the ancient “stones” that constantly surround him in these films (3). Boetticher’s direction and Scott’s persona lending these films a reflective physicality that is belied by their B-movie “conventions” and running-times. Most critics have been preoccupied with the consistency of tone, sensibility, theme, character and place when discussing this group of films, making distinctions between them in relation to small variations in production conditions, personnel, dramatic emphasis and genre. Comanche Station is the last of five films made by the Ranown production company (the name combines the first letters of Scott’s and final letters of his production partner, Harry Joe Brown’s, names), the last of seven collaborations between Scott and Boetticher, and features the last of four scripts written by Burt Kennedy for the series.

The term “chamber” has often been used to describe the delicacy and distinction of these Westerns, relying heavily on how such a phrase suggests or connotes a particular kind of interior, largely psychological drama. I think this term is apt, evocative and also somewhat inaccurate. These films rarely stray inside, their often intimate dramas unfolding in the vast terrain (sometimes cathedral-like, sometimes desolate) of Lone Pine in Northern California, and the overly familiar curves and ridges of one of its dominant local features, the Alabama Hills. Also, although these films are, as Boetticher suggests, interested in the way characters defend their beliefs, they do not unfold as conventional psychological dramas. Rather, Boetticher places the fixed, stoic, corporeal, almost cold morality of his central protagonist (a blue-eyed, granite-faced William S. Hart look-alike) in relation to the more complex, human and potentially transformative characters and “moralities” he encounters in his otherwise solitary, and often solipsistically repetitive, journeys.

The term “chamber” also evokes a particular kind of orchestration, a small, intimate ensemble of “players” whose performance is defined by intricate, overlaying themes that are built up from gradually developing variations, pairings of musicians and instruments, and minimal, formally restricted possibilities for soloing. Despite the music of Boetticher’s films being relatively undistinguished – it correlates to the B-movie form, as do many other elements of these films, including duration, commonly used to advantage by the director – this analogy between the form of a film like Comanche Station and a particular type of “orchestration” has much to recommend it. The tension of the film is predominantly created by the gradual and episodic revelation and redefinition of each of the character’s motivations and back-stories. Thus, it is not surprising that several critics, including Andrew Sarris, have relied upon another analogy when comparing the films in this “cycle” (another term which evokes musical performance and composition) to poker games; characters reveal themselves through complex strategies of bluff, inexpressiveness and snatches of emotional revelation and longing (4). Such approaches emphasise the ritualistic, cyclical and modulatory nature of Boetticher’s work with Scott. As Jim Kitses suggests,

The meaning in a Boetticher movie resides less in its bright moments of good humour, its dark moments of violence, than in the continuum, a seasonal movement, a perpetual interplay of light and shade, success and decline, life and death (5).

Comanche Station opens with the image of Jefferson Cody (Scott) riding in silhouette along ridges and shallow canyons. His movement from right to left is echoed and reversed in the final shot of the film (just one instance of why this can be regarded as Boetticher’s most formally “composed” film). The solitariness and loneliness, but also the yearning of this character is immediately emphasised by the riderless horse he is tethered to. This may initially appear to be a conventional image characteristic of the classical, even mythic Western – the solitary, elemental figure riding in from the wilderness to briefly convene with and perhaps “help” civilisation. But the formation of community – so integral to the work of John Ford – barely occurs in Boetticher’s films. Unlike the nascent and privileged formation of community in The Searchers (John Ford, 1956), the grouping of characters in Comanche Station is sparse, expedient and only partially based on camaraderie, shared “values” or romance (the latter barely expressed and never consummated). The “collective” in this film is also broken into parts, compartmentalised, and the family reconstructed at the end of the film seems odd, already broken, and out of place.

After these introductory images, Cody travels into Comanche territory to trade for a white woman he forlornly hopes might be his long lost wife, his bearing suggesting this might be a much repeated action. The woman (Mrs. Nancy Lowe, played by Nancy Gates) he does rescue comes to occupy the saddle of the riderless horse that is his constant “companion”, a physical reminder of all he has lost and is vainly searching for. Only gradually does the frosty relationship between these enforced companions begin to thaw, complicated by the arrival of three riders whose relation to the law, and background knowledge of Cody, further muddies and forestalls their potential bond.

As Paul Schrader has argued, the characters played by Scott in these films are less defined or driven by action, or even accepted notions of morality, than “decision” (6). They have decided to act and exist in a particular manner; and although the people and situations they encounter potentially disturb this individualistic but indivisible worldview, there is little doubt the repeated actions and predefined attitudes defining these stoic characters will never truly change. Boetticher and Scott’s previous Ranown film, Ride Lonesome (1959), did offer the chance of redemption for its characters, the breaking of a circle of repetition that enabled the antagonist to “cross over” close to the exalted realm occupied by Scott’s character. Much of the discussion between characters in Comanche Station vacillates around the question of choice and decision, the possible rejection of social, cultural, sexual and economic forces that otherwise propel characters into the more venal (but understandably human) sides of their nature.

In most films in this cycle such a discussion mostly plays out between a charismatic criminal-type and Scott’s character: they share much, including an impossible longing for “home”. Although such discussions do occur between Cody and Ben Lane (Claude Akins), the central characters in this film – most memorably in the vast terrain that engulfs both characters as they ride side by side – they are mostly displaced onto the two supporting “players”, the young guns who are being inculcated into Lane’s worlds. Much of their laconic dialogue is dedicated to defining their characters, their potentialities, and the forlorn likelihood that they could successfully cross over from the earthly, human world of Lane to the rarefied, almost non-human terrain occupied by Cody. The character of Frank (Skip Homeier) sees little likelihood of change – “well, it’s nothing personal; it’s just that a man sort of gets used to a thing” – but Dobie (Richard Rust) suggests some possibility for redemption (he can also read, “not books, but signs and such”, a source of wonderment for Frank). But Dobie is also markedly softer than Frank and Lane. As Lane puts it “That Dobie, he kinda runs on the gentle side, don’t he?” In a later scene, Cody offers to ride with Dobie, suggesting a potential bond between the two as well as a sensibility informed by “elemental” decisions and actions. It is typical of Boetticher’s work that such an understated offer, and its spare expression of commitment, speaks volumes for the complex reification of characters and the place they occupy in the world. The whole film has the quality of a “weighing up”, the placement and realignment of characters within a complex, but also elemental moral cosmology. Small gestures, brief exchanges and aphoristic lines of dialogue act to align and realign the characters.

As Scorsese suggests, Boetticher was working with the “bare essentials” of the Western genre in these films, refining “archetypes…to the point of abstraction”. The implication of Scorsese’s analysis is that nothing is wasted in Boetticher’s succinct work with Scott, and that it offers a distillation or summation of the genre’s classical forms. This approach has also defined most other discussion of Boetticher’s films in this cycle, seeing his pared-down films with Scott as both the last gasp of classicism and the clear progenitor, or clearing-house, for the revisionist Westerns to come. Nevertheless, the Westerns of Sergio Leone, Sam Peckinpah, and even Robert Aldrich, are much more concerned with the mythic construction of the West. Scorsese’s discussion of Boetticher’s films’ “abstraction” emphasises their most remarkable and ordinary qualities. Unlike The Searchers or Once Upon a Time in the West (Sergio Leone, 1968), both genuinely epic and even revisionist Westerns, Comanche Station is intimate, even minimalist in its scope and spare visual design. Both Leone and Ford use Monument Valley to evoke the West as an image, a pictorial and narrative trope defined and refined by particular conceptions of history. Their characters meet their destiny, but also move through vast, varied landscapes and communities of people (Ford’s characteristically more ordered than Leone’s). In both cases we can sense and even see the creation and critique of myth. Boetticher is much less interested in history, particularly as a narrative process. Comanche Station has many of the conventional trappings of the Western, many of which (such as clothing, setting, iconography and its archaic, curiously “courteous” language) situate its drama in a particular time and place. Even the location used for the film, Lone Pine, places the film in a particular geographic location; the dynamic verticality of Mt. Whitney consigning the film definitively to a small part of Northern California. Nevertheless, Boetticher’s use of a terrain that features in literally hundreds of Westerns, and his underpopulating it with only a handful of characters, adds to the film’s abstraction and partial domestication of the genre. Boetticher’s films were commonly and matter-of-factly shot in about two weeks, and their reliance on carefully measured, somewhat leisurely scenes of characters talking or riding through the landscape (although “action” may be less than central in these films, the actions of the characters, the way they move, is paramount) is reminiscent of many television Westerns. It is the terse quality and everyday philosophy of this conversation and movement that is remarkable.

The final shot of Comanche Station reverses the movement that ushered Cody into the film. The slight possibility of his settling down, of breaking the cycle, has inevitably foundered on the rather clumsy scene of reformulated domesticity that has “concluded” the drama. Although we discover only a little about what motivates Cody, the film’s attitude towards history is carried over into the personal history we are given of his character. Towards the end of the film he off-handedly confesses to Mrs. Lowe that she has allowed him to briefly forget the trauma of his domestic past. Elsewhere, Lane has strategically encouraged the developing bond between Cody and Mrs. Lowe as a means of complicating their passage, and increasingly the likelihood of him collecting the reward. Nevertheless, rather than allowing Cody to move on, Mrs. Lowe becomes a surrogate for his long-lost wife. Thus, rather than breaking from the past Cody briefly – very briefly – entertains the possibility of repeating it. Ultimately, such repetitions, variations and trail-worn philosophies are also the chief pleasures of Boetticher’s films, Comanche Station in particular. They repeat and evoke the archetypes of the genre, as well as each other, while providing endless small-scale variations on character, theme, motivation, setting, and the relation of all these elements to one another. In refining such fundamental elements these films also achieve, reiterating Lane’s final word in the film, a kind of “purity”, an abstraction and elevation of generic archetypes to a metaphysical realm.

Come too far to turn back now…it’s a pure shame, ain’t it. A man will push himself for money. Yes, sir! Pure… (7)

Endnotes

  1. “Budd Boetticher”, John Wakeman (ed.), World Film Directors vol. 1, 1890–1945, W. H. Wilson, New York, 1987, p. 34.
  2. From Martin Scorsese’s voiceover narration in A Personal Journey through American Movies with Martin Scorsese (Martin Scorsese, 1995), co-written by Scorsese and Michael Henry Wilson.
  3. Mike Dibb, “A Time and a Place: Budd Boetticher and the Western”, Jim Kitses and Gregg Rickman (eds), The Western Reader, Limelight, New York, 1998, p. 162. Dibb’s analysis pays considerable attention to the geographic locations used for the films.
  4. Andrew Sarris, The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929–1968, Da Capo Press, New York, 1996, p. 124.
  5. Jim Kitses, Horizons West, Thames and Hudson, London, 1969, p. 114.
  6. Paul Schrader, “Budd Boetticher: A Case Study in Criticism”, Kevin Jackson (ed.), Schrader on Schrader and Other Writings, Faber and Faber, London and Boston, 1990, p. 53.
  7. Ben Lane’s final line in Comanche Station. This line is punctuated by a brief exchange of gunfire that results in the character’s relatively matter-of-fact death.

About The Author

Adrian Danks is Director of Higher Degree Research in the School of Media and Communication, RMIT University. He is also co-curator of the Melbourne Cinémathèque and was an editor of Senses of Cinema from 2000 to 2014. He has published hundreds of articles on various aspects of cinema and is the editor of A Companion to Robert Altman (Wiley-Blackwell, 2015).