Before waxing on about the world’s first Pavlova Western – New Zealander Mike Wallis’s soon-to-be-released-in-New Zealand movie Good For Nothing – let me first add a little credential building and context setting.
Like any good United States-born and bred urban outdoorsman, I’ve been appropriately conditioned and raised on the stuff legends are made of. I can recite the words verbatim to the themes of Daniel Boone and Davey Crocket. I’m even a sucker for a good (is there such a thing?) John Wayne movie. If Clint Eastwood is involved it’s a must.
Moreover, I have real live (actually, dead now) relatives who helped to win the West. I have blood lines to Buffalo Bill Cody but even closer links to one Jacob Keller. He was a renowned tracker, hunter and ‘Indian killer’ (with some justification, given his whole family were scalped and slaughtered when he, as a young boy, was out tending to the herd).
Because he knew how Indians fought, and treated them with ultimate respect, he was in great demand by various entities including the US Army. In that regard he was one of the few survivors of what turned out to be the worst defeat of an American force by Indians at the Battle of the Wabash. Here warriors of Chief Little Turtle’s Miami tribe took on a force of over 1,000 led by George Washington’s closest friend, General St Clair. Nearly 700 of St Clair’s people were killed -600 were soldiers and the rest women and children. Dozens of other women and children, like Jacob Keller’s ancestors, were taken prisoner. Only 40 Miami tribesman died.
The number of US soldiers killed was more than three times the number the Sioux were to kill 85 years later at the Battle of the Little Big Horn. In relative terms, some historians label it the country’s worst ever military defeat because it left the United States with a total standing army of just 300.
Was I experiencing the same disdain and sense of outrage that tangata whenua might feel when they see people performing the haka to promote a European brand?
This was all part of my cultural meme and the foundation on which a nation was built. It has a sense of sacredness and tradition. So with this imagery and blood-rush flowing through my soul, I settled into a plush cinema chair to be among the first in this country to watch Good For Nothing.
On paper, it ticks many of the ‘boxes’ that constitute a good Western. Scenery-wise the various South Island and North Island vistas are magnificent and the cinematography is stunning. The fact that the film makers got the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra on board to develop a true-to-form Pavlova version of a Spaghetti western sound track adds significantly to the production’s mana.
The ‘extras’ – and bear in mind that this is a self-funded and low-budget production -happen to be sheep farmers not bull riders, and the ‘mangy cur’ is a working sheep dog. But this is all incidental and they actually make not bad desperados.
Story-wise the proposition, then, starts out true to expectation. Beautiful but orphaned English lady Isabella Montgomery (played by Wallis’s fiancée Inge Rademeyer) moves out west to settle with a distant Uncle. En route, her escorts are gunned down by a rugged and suitably named outlaw hombre, The Man (played by Hollywood ‘name’ actor Cohen Holloway). True to his machismo he is one of few words and is suitably grim and grimy to fit the bill.
Passion and innuendo grow between the pair but, at the moment of climax, The Man discovers his ‘pistol’ doesn’t pack. He ‘wants a poke’ (no cows were involved) only to fall prey to erectile dysfunction.
In between seeking cures from various ethic medicine folk (including actor Toa Waaka from Te Arawa, Ngaati Raukawa and Ngaati Toa heritage who plays his character as a Cheyenne descendant with a Crow twist) and being pursued by a doggedly determined posse who believe Isabella is a prostitute, their entanglement takes on new proportions as both rely on the other for survival and mutual discovery.
Then there was a Sheriff who couldn’t shoot, a Mexican tracker who would find trouble following his own nose, and Chinese coolies speaking in foreign tongues rather than Yankee lingo.
This is where, for but a brief moment, there was a feeling of cultural collision as the metaphors didn’t quite seem to mix in terms of genre and expectation. From memory even Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Western characters, for all their faults, weren’t ever candidates for Viagra.
Was I experiencing the same disdain and sense of outrage that tangata whenua might feel when they see people performing the haka to promote a European brand? Was this seeming ‘disrespect’ an affront and insult that needed addressing?
It was then the penny dropped and I saw what was really going on with the movie. It is actually a great celebration on a number of levels: one, the realisation of the dream Mike Wallis always had to make a Spaghetti western; another, proof that even with limited resources and no doubt boundless energy and passion, a credible feature film can be created.
Even if some moments were a little contrived the overall effect was superb. It was true to genre but most certainly didn’t take itself too seriously.
In this age of globalisation and communication knowing no boundaries it behoves us all to put aside knee-jerk protectionism and blinkered visions to see what is really going on. With so much cross-pollination going on the starting point for assessment and judgement should be giving the benefit of the doubt.
Someone embracing someone else’s culture could actually be doing so for all the right reasons. I found this out with Good For Nothing.
The only concern might have been that some of the subtlety and inside innuendo might be missed by those expecting their Westerns served straight.
If overseas reaction is anything to go by, though, much will be made about, and from, Good for Nothing. It received a four-star review after its recent United States release. Film critic Leonard Maltin hails it as ‘lively and original’ and the Hollywood Reporter raves: “imagine a Kiwi Spaghetti Western filtered through the offbeat sensibilities of Sam Raimi or the Coen Brothers. It’s a bit like Beauty and the Beast meets Sergio Leone in this amusing Western import.”
So it’s perhaps fitting that the last word here goes to The Independent, which gives a thumbs up to the farming ‘extras’: “who knew that New Zealand was the best place in the modern world to shoot a Western…?”