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The Missouri Breaks

The Missouri Breaks – 1976

Arthur Penn

Thomas McGuane

Marlon Brando
Jack Nicholson
Randy Quaid


Review by John Rouse Merriott Chard

If I was a better businessman than I am a man hunter, I’d put you in the circus
Starring two titans of cinema in Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson, The Missouri Breaks sees Arthur Penn (Bonnie & Clyde) direct, the screenplay provided by Thomas McGuane (Tom Horn) and John Williams composes the score. In the supporting cast are Harry Dean Stanton, Randy Quaid, Kathleen Lloyd, Frederic Forrest and John McLiam. With all these people in place the film was one of the most anticipated movies of the year. Anticipation that was not met at the time as the film became a critical and commercial failure. However, time has been kind to the piece and now it shows itself to be far better than the iffy reputation that’s afforded it.

The story is a sort of working of the Johnson County War that surfaced in the early 1890s in Wyoming, where newer ranchers tried to settle but were set upon by the more established cattle barons of the land. One of the tactics by the wealthier ranch owners was to hire gunmen to terrorise anyone they saw as a threat. Here in Penn’s movie we see David Braxton (McLiam) ruthlessly deal with anyone who he sees as a threat to his property. However, when someone enacts revenge on him by hanging his foreman, Braxton hires himself a “Regulator” named Robert E. Lee Clayton (Brando) to seek and destroy as it were. This spells bad news for the rustling gang led by Tom Logan (Nicholson), especially since Logan has started to form a relationship with Braxton’s daughter, Jane (Lloyd). Somethings gotta give and blood is sure to be spilt.

The most popular word used in reviews for the film is eccentric, mostly in reference to Brando’s performance. The big man was growing ever more erratic off the screen and sure enough he changed the make up of his character and improvised at his leisure. Yet it does work in the context of the movie. With his dandy nastiness playing off of an excellent Nicholson turn, McGuane’s richly detailed screenplay gets added bite, particularly during the more solemn parts of the story; where patience would be tried were it not for the brogue Irish Clayton. With Penn at the helm it’s no surprise to find the piece is an amalgamation of moods. Poignancy hangs heavy for the most part as we deal in the ending of an era and the need to move on. But Penn also delivers much frontier action and snatches of cheery comedy. Then there is the violence, which doubles in shock value on account of the leisurely pace that Penn has favoured. It’s sad to think that one of the best splicers of moods was so upset at the reaction to his film he quit cinema for the next five years.

The film, well more realistically the reaction to it, possibly sounded the death knell for the Western genre until Eastwood & Costner refused to let it die. The 70s was an intriguing decade for the Oater, with many of them veering between traditional and revisionist. But of the many that were produced, the ones that dealt with the passing of the era, where the protagonists are soon to be relics of a tamed wilderness, have an elegiac quality about them. Penn’s movie is fit to sit alongside the likes of Monte Walsh, The Shootist and The Outlaw Josey Wales. Yes it’s quirky and is slowly driven forward, but it has many qualities for the genre fan to gorge on. 7.5/10

Review by Zetes

Much better than most would have you believe,

This film has suffered some pretty undue criticism. It gets the dreaded `BOMB’ rating in Leonard Maltin’s guide, followed by `The worst film of a great director.’ I haven’t seen more than a couple of Penn’s other films, so I can’t comment on that, but it is hardly a bomb. Sure, it is a little slow moving, and it doesn’t quite feel like the themes of the film were totally panned out, but most of the film is very good.

I’m assuming Brando’s the problem with most of the film’s detractors. Wow, is his performance weird here. If you ever wanted to find the missing link between The Godfather and Apocalypse Now, here it is. He plays a bounty hunter of sorts hired to discover some horse thieves and murderers. This character is very eccentric, and I’m guessing that Brando had a lot of artistic input on this one based on his later career. He’s basically a psycho killer, and he seems much more lawless than the criminals he’s seeking. He also speaks with an Irish brogue, some of the time. Personally, the waxing and waning accent is my only real problem with the role, and I’m not a big accent baby anyway. It’s a tiny flaw in what is otherwise a very interesting performance.

Brando creates a very memorable character. Jack Nicholson plays his rival. He’s almost ready to go straight, having found a nice, small ranch and a girlfriend (Kathleen Lloyd). His performance is subdued, and I really think Nicholson is best when he’s like that. This isn’t his greatest performance, but it is subtle and it’s very good. The flaws of the film are offset by the number of great scenes in it. Almost every single actor gets one scene alone with Brando, and both Randy Quaid and Harry Dean Stanton deliver excellent performances especially in those scenes. Nicholson’s two best scenes are also alone with Brando. I would guess than he had something to do with their co-star; I do think Brando deserves some credit for the excellence of these scenes.

Penn’s direction is nothing to write home about. I love the two other films I’ve seen by him, Mickey One and Bonnie and Clyde, but, let’s face it, he was more or less ripping off the Italian and French cinemas of the time, respectively.

Missouri Breaks is much more straighforward in that respect, and perhaps it is here that it could have used a boost of energy. 8/10

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70s Films

A tour through the great and not so great films of the seventies The seventies saw a huge change in styles and genres from the advent of the slasher horror movies like Halloween and the blockbuster summers films started by Jaws. More...

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