Westerns as Contemporary War Parables: Chato’s Land (1972) + Soldier Blue (1970)

June 14, 2016 | By

To screenwriter Gerald Wilson, the western genre is ideal for parables, because all of its underpinnings are so starkly defined, making it easy to slip in messages using dialogue and contrasting circumstances to hammer home stark or subtle viewpoints.

ChatosLand_BRChato’s Land (1972), new on Blu from Twilight Time, was designed by its author to be a container to show the cruelty and futility of the U.S. Government’s efforts in bringing western democracy to Communist-infected Vietnam, and the internal fractures that developed, weakening a slick fighting force and making it easier for the patient Viet Cong to further their cause and conquest.

SoldierBlueSoldier Blue (1970), released in 2006 on DVD by Lionsgate, was also a war parable, and perhaps benefited from the publicity surrounding the horror of the My Lai massacre in which U.S. Army soldiers mutilated, assaulted and killed women in 1968 during the Vietnam War.

Director Ralph Nelson used the 1864 Sand Creek massacre of peaceful Cheyenne by barbaric militia to create stark parallels to the inhumanity of military barbarism, making his film one of the most shocking productions to emerge from Hollywood (albeit under the baton of executive producer Joseph E. Levine).

The nihilism of inhuman actions – stemming from ideology, greed, or sadistic glee – that’s present in these films are still relevant, and one can argue Nelson’s gory finale raised the bar in how much mayhem a filmmaker could put onscreen to show his outrage towards government policies and foreign military interventions.

The commentary within these films and their reputations as effective anti-war statements also make them unique filmic time capsules when writers and directors challenged the relatively newly formed MPAA and tested the degree of violent content to which they could subject audiences. Chato’s Land has a central scene that’s both revolting and reflective of Winner’s sexploitation tendencies, whereas Soldier Blue tries to compensate for the nasty finale using humour in very strange ways. (Another argument could be made for Chato being a partial slasher film, not unlike the CanCon classique Rituals, in which overconfident white campers are picked off by a local using shocks, divisive tactics, teasing cruelty, and hardcore death, but that rumination is for a separate blog.)

I’d say the minimalism of Winner’s film is more successful than the screeching within Nelson’s opus, but the gory finale of Soldier is something else, if not surreal.




Mark R. Hasan, Editor

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