Tell Them Willie Boy is Here

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Thu May 10 17:48:41 MDT 2001

[This is an excerpt from the newly published "A Very Dangerous Citizen:
Abraham Polonsky and the Hollywood Left" by my pal Paul Buhle and Dave
Wagner. Paul, who competes neck-and-neck with Michael Perelman for the
honor of being the most prolific writer on the left, is temporarily
unsubbed from the list until he gets settled in at Santa Cruz, his new
digs. As Paul's guest, I had the honor of meeting Abe Polonsky not too long
before his death at a special showing of "Odds Against Tomorrow," a movie
he wrote in 1959 using a "front". I also met John Lewis that night, who
wrote the film score. It is to Paul's great credit that he has devoted
himself to commemorating the legacy of Hollywood reds like Abe Polonsky.]

In the summer of 1969, Polonsky’s first directorial effort in twenty years
was released to critical praise and condemnation alike. Anyone looking for
a moderation of his views, a gesture of accommodation to his critics or to
the larger society, would find no such compromises in Tell Them Willie Boy
Is Here, his only western and arguably his most vividly political film.
Indeed, the artist-theorist who had returned to the director’s chair at the
age of fifty-eight was still at the peak of his powers. For more than a few
older moviegoers, close-ups of Robert Blake were strikingly reminiscent of
the young John Garfield; it must have been tempting to regard Willie Boy as
in some sense a continuation of the themes in Force of Evil and to imagine
that Polonsky had simply resumed his work where he had left off. Except
that both films lie squarely within the traditions of their genres, that
notion was not widely held and Polonsky certainly did not share it. "Force
of Evil dealt with what they used to call Angst," he said. Willie Boy
"ignores that. This film starts long after we’re used to Angst."

This was a prophetic observation. For the rest of his career, Polonsky’s
defenders were just as likely as his critics to mischaracterize and
misunderstand his work. The one thing that admirers and detractors have in
common has been their reflexive liberalism; conservatives seem to have
ignored Polonsky after destroying his early career. The most famous liberal
critics savaged Willie Boy immediately upon its release. New Yorker staffer
Pauline Kael, who started her career on the Bay Area pacifist-left Pacifica
radio station KPFA and has been paying penance ever since, correctly saw in
Willie Boy something larger than the critique of daily life in Polonsky’s B
films like Body and Soul and Force of Evil. She was horrified to see this
full-blown Polonsky A production, complete with a marketing budget, lay out
the entire American empire for autopsy. Her capsule review of the film ran
for months in the New Yorker. The longer version charged wildly that the
film represents "schematic Marxism and Freudianism and New Left guerilla
Existentialism and late-6os American self-hatred," with a sheriff "named
Coop so that his actions will symbolize the ultimate cowardice and failure
of the Gary Cooper hero figures." Kael also objected to the "woman doctor
(Susan Clark)," who, as superintendent of the reservation, "is a
patronizing-to-Indians liberal ashamed of her sexuality (like all liberals)."

Other reviewers were far more respectful. The New York Times heartily
welcomed Polonsky back to films; Nation reviewer Robert Hatch cheered "the
best Western I’ve seen in years" and "a personal victory" for its director.
Stanley Kauffman reflected more appreciatively in the New Republic,
"Polonsky has done superbly," while Time and Newsweek offered more so-so
reviews. Variety, with its journalistic ears close to Hollywood ground
zero, was perhaps most favorable of all, calling it "the most complex and
original American film since ‘Bonnie and Clyde,’" a movie that mainstream
critics rejected out of hand as too rebellious and dangerous only to
reverse themselves when its impact upon the youth market became evident. It
was indeed a "deeply personal and radical vision of the past and future of
this country," but it lacked the backing to survive the censorial attack.

The excess of Kael’s review is partly explainable by her long-standing if
occasionally inconsistent revulsion at the blacklistees’ work. (She had
cursed the warm treatment of women and Chicanos in Salt of the Earth as
communist propaganda.") But the times were more to blame. The war in
Vietnam raged on with no apparent hope of resolution; the black revolt was
at its peak in the wake of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King,
Jr., and hope for a radical reordering of American institutions was
emerging among white youth. So, aside from her flippant reference to
existentialism, Kael got it about right: Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here was a
historical piece that Polonsky intended to examine the neocolonial system
and transcend his earlier films’ questions about the domestic price of
capitalism. Not least, the movie constituted Polonsky’s testament, as he
called it, to the New Left.

The writer-director gave a flood of interviews after the success of Willie
Boy, including a Johnny Carson Show appearance in 1970. One of the
earliest, frankest, and most spontaneous was with Eric Sherman and Martin
Rubin in 1969. It included Polonsky’s extended remarks about his political
purpose in making the film:

"It had to do with most of the young people I knew today, living in a
transitional period and being driven by circumstances and values they
couldn’t control.. . . I thought I could play around with this romantic
investment we have in the past, along with a lack of comprehension for the
realities of the present, and show these two things pushing one way and
another.. . . This picture is intended for young people not yet committed
to the disasters of history. 1 had one specific intention in my mind, it
was to tell my feelings about this to your generation. Not to mine. . . . I
have a particular feeling about this general problem. Not just because
they’re Indians, but because this is a general human situation. It’s
fundamental to human history—this terrible thing that we do. Civilization
is the process of despoiling, of spoliation of people, which in the past we
considered a victory, but we now suspect is a moral defeat for all. My
feeling about this film, in making it, was to address it to your generation
and say, 'This is what I think about this. This is the way I see it. This
is what this experience is—and you should know it.'"

The story of Willie Boy first came to Polonsky’s attention when it was
proposed that he write a television "long form" (broadcast-film-length)
script based on a western buff’s book. Published by a small press in 1960,
the book was essentially journalism using fictional devices to tell the
story. Polonsky first turned down the assignment because, he said, he had
"no particular interest in the Old West or in the New West, or the Old East
or the New East, or anything like that." Then he caught the story’s scent
of a generation on the run.

In brief, the tale of Willie Boy concerns an Anglo-led pursuit of a
Chemehuevi Indian laborer. Willie had killed another Chemehuevi man in 1909
and then ran off with his victim’s daughter. Although the story is based on
a real incident, there is little agreement on what actually happened or on
the individual motives of his pursuers. Regional-color author Harry Lawton,
who wrote the novel about the incident, saw a saga about the twilight of
the Old West; earlier writers had seen a tale of Indian perfidy; two
scholarly historians writing since the film appear to have seen in the film
the perfidy of Hollywood.

At its heart, Polonsky’s film is a story about four people who find
themselves on the American empire’s fault line at the moment of its
consolidation. They include a western white man and an eastern white woman,
the latter a self-described "bluestocking" who lived on the remote colonial
edge of the American purpose, and another couple, Willie and Lola, who live
next door, but on the Indian side of that considerable arroyo. Although the
Anglo couple are indisputably dominant over Willie and Lola, they can also
express respect, as when Coop, the white man, tells a greenhorn in a bar
that he would be dead if Willie Boy had intended to kill him. They can also
desire intimacy, so long as the Indians accept it obediently, as when Dr.
Elizabeth Arnold, the white woman, first shouts at and then embraces Lola
in the marketplace after the girl has laughed inappropriately at the mayhem
caused by a horse.

Equally important is the gender axis in the two couples’ relationships.
Within those couples, each individual tries to impose on the other a life
that he or she cannot live. Lola cannot accept Willie Boy’s demand that she
live as a traditional Indian wife in the desert, and he cannot accept her
desire for him to become a farmer in Nevada. Similarly, Coop cannot imagine
living in New England at the side of a Brahmin, and Dr. Arnold cannot
accept the notion that she will languish in the wilderness at the side of a
man whose notion of lovemaking is primordial at best. Polonsky emphasized
the importance of these four characters’ intimate lives to the larger story
by relentlessly cutting back and forth between scenes of the two couples’
lovemaking. He explained, "I treat both love affairs as a single affair,
being acted out by different people at different times."

The movie’s central concern is the impositions of empire on the four
protagonists’ ordinary humanity. That was not so easy to see at the time of
its release in 1969. During the age of Che Guevara on American campuses,
the picture resonated as the story of one man in armed revolt. Of course,
that has always been an important part of Willie Boy’s appeal in fact and
legend. For others, the story’s appeal is more the reprise of the ancient
theme of the fading West played out in The Wild Bunch (1969) and in so many
other movies, and perhaps most memorably for the young in the nonwestern
Bonnie and Clyde (1967). For the fans of the western in particular, Willie
Boy remains much as Lawton saw its basic story, with Willie the very last
of the (western) Mohicans. But acute moviegoers then, as now, realized
something much more provocative must be going on when a genuine crusader
like Dr. Elizabeth Arnold disrobes, weeping with disgust at her own desire,
and drives from her bedroom the apotheosis of the Old West, Gary Cooper.
(Kael was correct in this comparison.)

Interesting as the contrast of historical types was at the time—if only to
expose the guilt of a Boston liberal at the height of a war launched and
guided by the Ivy League’s "best and brightest"—the scene retains its
strength for deeper historical reasons. The supervisory class’s ongoing
sexual distortions, for example, which are expressed with wan wisdom in Dr.
Arnold’s amazing, ostrich-feathered Edwardian bonnet, become abundantly
apparent moments later when she cannot take responsibility for her own orgasm.

Doubtless it was scenes like these that earned Polonsky the
"existentialist" sobriquet both from liberal enemies like Kael and from
friendly commentators like Scorsese. Polonsky, however, wonderingly laughed
off that label in several interviews and explicitly rejected it in his
writing. American film critics and historians may simply be more
comfortable using the term existentialist than the more accurate but
discomfiting Marxist.

In any case, Willie Boy seems to invite descriptions like Kael’s "Marxism
and Freudianism and New Left guerilla Existentialism" both as praise and as
disapproval. If nothing else, such descriptions express the idea that this
is an intellectually ambitious film that cannot be reduced to the usual
expectations of the western or, for that matter, to the notion of the
moving picture as entertainment. Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here is a fully
developed work of art that leaves the conventions of the novel behind,
using conscious innovations in music and cinematography to integrate its
themes at a higher narrative level.

Dave Grusin’s music was an intentional departure for that period. Though
its devices now seem familiar because they have been copied for more than
three decades, they were stunning at the time. Rejecting the usual hymns
and marches that earlier composers and music directors had used to evoke
the Old West, Grusin introduced a series of "organic" sounds that suggested
something very remote from the daily life of the Anglo audience. A marimba
frames the running scenes with a tenor twelve-note figure. A bass flute
(often in a tape loop to provide an echo) illustrates the protagonists’
isolation during moments of rest from the chase. Additional instruments
include a soprano flute, tuned drums in ascending tattoos, wood blocks with
rattles, and heavy chords of chimes underscored with pronounced bass notes.

The effect is deliberately nonorchestral and percussive, perhaps for the
nondesert dweller evoking the foreign qualities of desert life forms. The
only recognizably European notes are struck in the scenes between Coop and
Dr. Arnold, when an ascending line in Arnold Schoenberg’s serial style
underlines their alienated sexuality. The film’s influence on Hollywood’s
musical style is evident in Grusin’s having gone on to compose the music
for The Electric Horseman (1978) and Reds (1981). He won an Academy Award
in 1988 for The Milagro Bean field War.

Polonsky asked Willie Boy’s cinematographer, Conrad Hall, to desaturate the
film’s color, lending the sky and sand a shadowless, silvery cast. The
studio was unhappy with the technique because of the additional expense of
treating the film stock and because they were afraid the movie would look
washed out on television and thereby lose air play (and considerable
profits). But Polonsky got what he wanted. Again, the result was worlds
apart from the 19405 noir films, in which single-source lighting created
heavy shadows and the negative presence of things unseen and unseeable by
the camera. Or was it so different from noir, after all? Polonsky’s
comments on the point are provocative but elusive:

"I probably have a natural tendency which is impossible to escape. I
present the contrary in every case, and that lends an air of suspicion to
everything I do. In Willie Boy, unlike Force of Evil—it’s not deliberate.
Force of Evil is bathed in ambiguity; in Willie Boy, the whole thing is
bathed in clarity in order to trap you in the ambiguities; it’s a different
technique, but it’s only technical, the difference, I would say."

In Willie Boy Polonsky consummated his art of cutting from "meaning to
meaning" rather than from scene to scene; that is, from the heart of one
scene to the next without bridges of extraneous dialogue. Toward the end,
this most gifted of dialogue writers began to abandon language altogether.
As Coop chases Willie up Ruby Mountain in the closing scenes, the script
becomes almost entirely an abstraction, little more than written direction
with scraps of dialogue. Yet even within this silent conversation between
the hunter and his prey, the rocks and the sky, Polonsky’s hand is
unmistakable. He once referred obliquely to these scenes as "the
non-dialogue I have in Willie Boy." They are, in part, the realization of
the ideal he described in "Manifesto for a Utopian Cinema."

Louis Proyect
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