Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Stalking Moon

The Stalking Moon (1968)

For a film which at first seems akin to the traditional captivity narrative, there is a surprising lack of shunning in The Stalking Moon (1968). Sarah Carver, a white woman who was held captive by Apache Indians for ten years, conceiving, giving birth to, and raising a son during that time, is not shunned by the soldiers who find her, nor by the scout who offers to escort her to safety. She is not shunned by the Apache women of her tribe, who stand by as mere set dressing as Sarah chooses to rejoin white society and ask the Army's help in fleeing from her Apache husband, who's on a murderous rampage to reclaim his son. She's given some contemptuous looks at a stagecoach station, where one man makes some hostile comments about Indians, but ultimately this is not a movie concerned with the more complex ramifications of the captivity scenario.

"You can't escape
The Stalking Moon"
The Stalking Moon instead presents itself as a horror thriller, the type where a deadly and inexorable hunter kills everything on its way to a final showdown with the film's protagonist. When this threat is in the form of a giant shark or a masked psychopath, its relentlessness is not questioned — it's a one-dimensional killing machine with no profound motives. But from the viewpoint of the early 21st century (post-Little Big Man, A Man Called Horse, Dances With Wolves, post-Elián González), when that threat is an American Indian who will stop at nothing to reclaim his son, he's not so much a horrific threat, just a dedicated dad. Granted, this father, an Apache named Salvaje, kills every white person along the way, even those not directly connected to his quest. But after decades of films that have changed the portrayal of American Indians in Westerns, this murderous rampage is more understandable, arguably excusable, to today's audience.

I would almost say that this is the main reason the film fails as a thriller, and that it does so only in a modern context, if it weren't for other, more fundamental problems it has in setting up its thrills. The suspense leading up to the eventual confrontation with the film's protagonist, the scout, Sam Varner (played by Gregory Peck), is diminished by one of the techniques presumably intended to build it, namely that Salvaje is not seen, even briefly, until he reaches Varner's homestead for the climactic fight. Successful horror movies often withhold from view the face of the killer but give you increasing glimpses — the silhouette of Norman Bates on the shower curtain in Psycho, for example, or the first flashes of fin and teeth in Jaws — or force the audience to see through the killer's eyes in POV shots. The Stalking Moon does neither, and while we await the arrival of Salvaje, we don't necessarily fear it. (The evident trappings of classic Westerns also dull the tension: in the final showdown, the good guy almost always wins.)

"Aim the gun, dammit!"
The deliberate teasing of the audience also works against the film. The first time Varner leaves his home — and therefore Sarah and her son — only to find that the Apache has taken advantage of Varner's absence to attack, was an acceptable (albeit predictable) contrivance. But when Varner does this again, and nearly a third time, suspense is replaced by amazement at how this man ever found work as a scout. Furthermore, as Salvaje — who arrives in a less silent manner than Sarah (and the movie's poster!) indicates he will — comes through the door of Varner's homestead, Varner is waiting for him, rifle at the ready. But Varner hesitates and waits until the Apache can see him before even lifting his gun to aim. Sure, this delay creates tension, but strains credibility to the point of annoyance. (In his 1969 review, Roger Ebert recalled "mentally urging" Varner to "Aim the gun, dammit! Shoot him!" My reaction was the same, only audible.)

Peck's portrayal of Varner is a bit stiff (more so than the usual Peck), and I'm not convinced that his character really thinks through his offer to bring Sarah and her son home, nor that he is genuinely moved to do so. For me, the emotional high point is when the boy, realizing his father has come for him, runs from Varner's house and tries to reach his father's hiding place. The bond between father and son that this scene implies is stronger than any other interpersonal relationship in the film: that between Sarah and her son, who seems indifferent towards his mother, between Varner and petulant junior scout Nick, who barely conceals his hurt at being left by Varner when the elder scout retires, or between Varner and Sarah, who are paired only out of sympathy and necessity.

Varner's homestead
The Stalking Moon is a nice-looking movie, though, with some fine location shooting. My favorite is Varner's homestead, an idyllic frontier Eden, one of the nicest locations I've seen in a Western. It would have been nice if the scenery had been backed up by some depth to the characters, particularly the Apache pursuer — insight to his thoughts about retrieving his son, about his original abduction of the boy's mother, about his vendetta against the white settlers — and perhaps an ending that reunited him with his son. That would have been interesting.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Happy Birthday, HAL

Good afternoon, Gentlemen. I am a HAL 9000 computer. I became operational at the HAL plant in Urbana, Illinois on the twelfth of January, 1992.