History For Rent

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On June 12, 1901, a Mexican farmer named Gregorio Cortez shot and killed the sheriff of Karnes County, Texas, who was trying to arrest his brother for stealing a horse. Cortez then managed in just ten days to make it across some 520 miles of arid country before the Texas Rangers ran him to ground and he was brought to trial. His defiance of the Anglos made him a mythical hero to Mexican-Americans and the subject of a ballad still sung along the border. This excellent film by Robert M. Young, based on the book With His Pistol in His Hand: A Border Ballad and Its Hero , by Americo Paredes, sorts through the myth and tells both what really happened and why. The cause of the initial tragedy—and by implication a good deal of what has happened in the Southwest since—was the inability of one Texan culture to understand the language of the other. It is a sad tale—virtue does not triumph—and the chase itself goes on at least ten minutes too long, but in the convincing, clumsy speech of its characters, its bumbling lawmen and relentlessly grubby settings, its noisy, inconclusive gun battles, and its refusal either to sanctify the pursued or to caricature his pursuers, The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez creates a remarkably believable Old West whose troubled inhabitants turn out to have been neither more nor less wise or humane or farsighted than are we.

1918 (1985)

The movies of Horton Foote are deservedly successful these days. Tender Mercies and the extraordinary The Trip to Bountiful are not, strictly speaking, historical films, though each draws much of its strength from Foote’s intimate knowledge of the American landscape and our own ineradicable fascination with it. But this lesser-known film, clearly made on a shoestring, and with a cast of precisely thirty-six—extras and passersby included—manages wonderfully to evoke middle-class life in a small eastTexas town in the final weeks of World War I. The subject of the film is timeless —the strains placed upon a small family by tragedies, close-in, faraway, and in the distant past—but the historical backdrop against which the drama is played out is flawlessly rendered: the sweet formality of Southern speech; the especially indignant patriotism of men, young and old, who haven’t quite managed to sign up themselves; the palpable terror spread by the influenza epidemic that tears capriciously through the townspeople (and which killed twentyone thousand Americans of every age during a single week that fall); glimpses of a young mother mourning her dead baby in the tattered town cemetery and of a squad of seven new recruits, bayonets at the ready, panting their way round and round the big pink-and-gray county courthouse in preparation for the German invasion that never came.

Video stores carry a good many films with historical settings, which never got the attention they deserved.

Secret Honor (1984)

It’s hard to know what to say about this very strange film, directed by Robert Altman and billed as a “fictional mediation concerning the character and events in the history of Richard M. Nixon.” Hal Holbrook’s loving portrait of Mark Twain set the normally genial tone for most one-man shows; those performers who have followed Holbrook’s lead, impersonating onstage everyone from Albert Einstein to Theodore Roosevelt, have usually been careful to accentuate the positive in order to keep the audience on their hero’s side throughout what might otherwise be a very long evening. There is precious little that is genial or positive in this portrayal of the troubled ex-President, alone at night in a paneled office filled with mementos of his White House years, shouting into a tape recorder his version of the events that drove him from office. This Nixon is clearly mad—brandishing a pistol, gulping brandy, reenacting scenes from his arid boyhood, talking to the ghost of his mother and to the portraits of other Presidents that hang on his walls. But I kept watching, fascinated, as hints of shadowy plots within plots emerged slowly from his long, agitated monologue. This is not the real Richard Nixon; nor is its weird conclusion remotely persuasive—that Nixon was himself a victim, the creature of a mysterious “Committee of One Hundred” who met in California’s Bohemian Grove to map American foreign policy and whose decrees he finally could no longer bring himself to obey and so engineered his own exit from the Presidency. (It may not even be meant to persuade, of course; Donald Freed and Arnold M. Stone, the authors of the play of which this is the filmed version, may have intended for it to be merely the most inflated product of the paranoia that clearly grips their character’s mind. It’s hard to tell.) But the performance of the actor Philip Baker Hall, who has to carry the entire film, is astonishing: in his turbulent company I was, by turns, appalled and admiring, sympathetic and repelled, and never for a moment bored.