Saturday, January 26, 2013


In the aftermath of the economic crash of 2008, many people came to (and are still coming to) the realization that the world had changed suddenly and irrevocably. Many lost their homes and their jobs. Many older people who were raised on the old rules that you found a good job and stuck with it till you retired discovered that these old rules no longer applied. Some found themselves unemployed with obsolete skills that were no longer marketable. Some found that technology had passed them by. Many who teased their parents about not being able to work a VHS player now found themselves being teased about not being able to understand I Phones and I pads. Bluray made their DVD collection as relevant as Beta. The world had changed around them and they were forced to face that change and adapt or get left behind. I know people who faced this and even had to deal with it myself to a certain extent after the 08 crash. With this in mind, I found the film Monte Walsh (1970) to be a timeless masterpiece and cautionary tale about old men forced to face a changing world with changing rules. It’s a great western with great performances by Lee Marvin and Jack Palance as well as by the loads of television and film character actors that the film is filled with. It’s a film with a message that transcends the genre.

Jeanne Moreau and Lee Marvin face a changing world in Monte Walsh
Lee Marvin and Jack Palance are buddies and ranch hands who find less and less work available to them as the era of the “Cowboy“ is slowly coming to an end. It seems more and more ranches are selling out to eastern corporations who only want the land and are liquidating the cattle. What makes this film so interesting is that, for the most part, there are no bad guys. Everyone is friends with each other but find themselves at odds and in competition due to lack of work and in an effort to prove their worth to those few employers who are still hiring. The cowboys don't hold it against the ranch owner (Played by Dallas family patriarch Jim Davis) who has to start cutting men due to lack of work because they know he's a fair person who just has no choice. It's compelling to see the looks of fear, sadness and sympathy on the men’s faces when one gets work and another doesn't. They try to distract themselves with good natured ribbing and roughhousing as they all bunk in a sort of Cowboy flophouse. There's also a touching relationship between Marvin and the prostitute (Jeanne Moreau) that he's had a long time relationship with. She is also affected by the lack of work for the cowboys and leaves to seek greener pastures.

From left to right; Lee Marvin, Jim Davis and Jack Palance in Monte Walsh
The cowboys don't know how to articulate what's happening around them as it's more than simply a lack of jobs. They see the world changing and all they can say in response is "I don't know how to do anything else.” The actors portray a deep and profound sadness throughout the film mixed with moments of humor when they kid around with each other in an effort to cope. Marvin starts to lose more and more as his woman must leave to find a town with customers who have the money to pay for her wares. His best friend Palance breaks up their long partnership to marry and learn to adapt to a new profession as a store clerk. At one point, old friends become desperate and start to steal from the only available people that have money; former friends who have made good. Marvin finds he must track down the murderer of a friend and discovers the murderer is...another friend. Which makes it all more poignant and heartbreaking. Ultimately, Marvin releases his frustration with personal loss and his complete lack of control over a changing world by breaking a seemingly unbreakable horse and almost destroys a town in the process. When he is victorious, he is offered the chance to be a show rider in a traveling "buffalo bill" style circus. As he tries on the gaudy, colored leather coat with all the fringe, he looks in the mirror, takes it off and simply says “I’m not going to have my life turned into a joke.”

Jack Palance in Monte Walsh
Marvin is excellent of course in a role that's not all that flashy but more introspective, like his role in The Big Red One for example. Palance is also terrific as Marvins friend, who sees the writing on the wall and has one foot in the past and one in the future and seems undecided at times about which way to go. The film has a rich John Barry score and an opening song by none other than Mama Cass Elliot which is very sweet. It’s a very enjoyable film even if you can’t relate to good old Monte. Turner Classic Movies is showing Monte Walsh on Wednesday, October 2 at 6:15 PM Eastern Time. Don’t miss it!


  1. I've never seen this but I'll watch anything with Lee Marvin and Jack Palance!

  2. I wrote a piece on this myself back in December, if you ever feel like checking out another take on it.
    God, I love this movie; it simply oozes class and that blend of regret and eternal optimism just picks away at me. I'm unashamed in my devotion to the western, the purest form of cinema, and the perfect conduit for so many themes and timeless truths.