Movie review: Welcome to hell: Paint Your Wagon Revisited!by Don Lacey on Jul. 10, 2012, under Art & Culture, Atheism, Christian Self-Righteous Arrogance, Christianity, Critical Thinking, Ethics, Freethought, God & Bible, History, Libertarianism, Reason, Religion, Separation of Church & State
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Jim Wilson recently discovered this 1969 gem of a movie and it impressed him enough to write this review. It came out when I was in high school and my friends and I went to see it at a drive-in. There we saw a western set musical with all of the stereotypes projected on a screen 40 feet tall. The sound came out of a speaker attached to a pole that we hung on the window. I don’t think we really needed to hear Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood singing in high fidelity audio anyway.
A review of an old movie may seem a little far afield from what is normally covered on this blog but consider that the central theme of the movie is summed up near the end when Ben says, “Funny, here we go and build a town just the way we like it…” I can’t complete the quote because it might spoil the ending. The town is build around the desires of Ben, Pardner, and the gold prospectors. At one point, Ben and Pardner decide to share Ben’s wife. He bought her from a Mormon earlier in the movie. While they’re discussing it Ben says, “It’s not like somebody was asking you to do something immoral, like stealing gold.”
Ben and Pardner had found heaven in a town called Hell but it all comes to an end after a parson brings in religion and it spoils everything. Ben leaves and Pardner adapts but there’s a lesson in there somewhere a Freethinker can find…
“Welcome To Hell Parson. No Name City Population: drunk.”
Years back I saw the 1969 film paint your wagon which in case you didn’t know has the unusual distinction of being not only a western starring Clint Eastwood and Lee Marvin but also a full out musical with both actors singing. I remembered the film being referenced in a Simpson’s episode in which Homer rents it and is disappointed that it is not the type of gunfighter or cut-throat story that Clint Eastwood and Lee Marvin are generally associated with. Many younger people I talk to remember the movie entirely from the Simpsons’ episode or think the Simpsons’ writers made the whole thing up. The film was somewhat doomed to obscurity because of inability to fill a clear niche. Big name musicals were on their way out by 1969 and neither Eastwood nor Marvin is much of a singer anyway additionally the film’s subversive subject matter probably also alienated the taste of target audience that big budget musicals tend to go for.
In the film Lee Marvin’s character Ben and his “Pardner” Clint Eastwood become the founders of a gold rush boom town with an all male population. The gender imbalance is corrected when a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints comes through with his two wives. The townsfolk are initially confused and curious but come to the conclusion that it is unfair for the Mormon to have two wives when none of them have any. They convince him to auction of his younger and more rebellious wife to the highest bidder which ends up being a drunken Ben. She threatens to shoot Ben on their wedding night and refuses to be treated as mere property but eventually they find an arrangement that is suitable for both of them.
Eventually the other townsfolk get jealous of Ben for having the only woman in town so they develop a scheme to kidnap prostitutes from a nearby town. Ben leads the kidnapping effort but while he is gone his purchased wife falls in love with Pardner and upon his return they all agree to enter a polyandrous relationship. Meanwhile the kidnapping is a great success and town starts brothel that is visited by men from all over making it a local center of sin.
Eventually a traveling preacher hits town and tries to get its population to repent out of fear that the place will be sucked into hell and then it happens. Ben also corrupts the preacher’s son leading to the exchange: Pop… believe me until you’ve had a good cigar and a shot of whiskey you’re missing the second and third best things in life.” Later it is revealed that “physical education” with a local “floozy” is his number one best thing in life.
Despite the forced marriage, human trafficking, and kidnapping (which probably is not an unfair portrayal of how women lived in the old west) this film is light hearted and some of the dialogue is entertaining. The black and gray morality is thought provoking. Ben is clearly a scoundrel who does many unconventional things in the film but he is depicted positively and makes things work for his wife and his “pardner”. It is also one of the few films I know that depicts a polyamorous relationship in a positive light. The singing is often a little awkward but it features the song the “They Call the Wind Mariah” for which Maria Carey was named.
The film came out at the height of the sexual revolution and much of it seems to be a challenge to the sexual norms of the old guard. It portrays sex with prostitutes, consensual non-monogamy, heavy drinking, and tobacco use in fairly favorable terms while the puritanical religious sorts definitely appear as prudish jerks. I like the film. I’m not sure who I would recommend it to and I certainly recognize that it is a bit dated and a bit weird as a musical but it is over all fun and I love to hear what some of the old guard thought of it when it came out.
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