In 1971 Robert Altman directed one of the best anti-westerns every made. Not only does McCabe & Mrs. Miller stray from the western genre stylistically but also thematically. The anti-western film is a niche genre, yet it holds a great deal of importance to the history of cinema. This is largely because the western genre has always been a staple of American cinema and the frontier mythology, which it often glorifies, is representative of how Americans like to view themselves. Whereas western films released during Hollywood’s golden age showed a land full of potential, with strong men and women conquering the elements with their own two hands, McCabe & Mrs. Miller shows a harsh frontier from which desperate people attempt to scrape a meager living. It is, in many ways, a movie about the failure of the American dream.
The film begins with a well-dressed and confident itinerant gambler by the name of John McCabe (Warren Beatty) as he first arrives in the small mining camp of Presbyterian Church. It is never made clear how or why he came to this muddy primitive settlement located deep in the mountains. There is a rumor that he killed a man and this might explain his desire to live outside civilization. It is a rumor he does little to confirm or deny. Soon after arriving, McCabe recognizes the need for a brothel in a place where there are plenty of lonely men with money and little to spend it on. He procures some professional ladies from a nearby town and sets up shop, selling pleasure and female companionship. John McCabe is not the only one who sees that there is money to be made here. Constance Miller (Julie Christie), the brothel’s madam, is even more ambitious than McCabe. She talks McCabe into a partnership and what follows is one of the oddest romances in film history.
Money is the basis of McCabe and Mrs. Miller’s relationship as well as the basis for just about every interaction in the town – from the brothel they create, to the opium den, to the bunkhouse/hotel/saloon, to gambling. Although McCabe and Mrs. Miller sleep with one another, Constance never fails to charge him for services rendered. McCabe complains to her, “…just one time you could be sweet with no money around.” This is where the film’s critique of the capitalistic beliefs and practices of American culture and society begins. One of the foundations of our nation has been that if you work hard you will succeed. Success is the natural outcome of freedom and capitalism. What this film demonstrates is that the American Dream is not guaranteed. The end of the film reinforces this point. Though McCabe has tried his best to build a business and remake Presbyterian Church into a prosperous town, his entrepreneurial pursuits fail him and he dies alone in the snow, killed by agents of a larger business that tried and failed to buy him out. Altman’s anti-western has his hero die, not for some noble cause, but for money and misguided trust in the American dream. We can surmise that with McCabe out of the picture the company will quickly take over his business, the townspeople will return to business as usual and Mrs. Miller will return to her opium stupor.
Robert Altman did some very interesting things with his anti-western. For one, he cast two of the world’s most beautiful and trending stars of the time period – Julie Christie and Warren Beatty – in two rather unsavory roles. He used Leonard Cohen music for his soundtrack. Cohen was a very popular singer/songwriter among the cool set at that time. The soundtrack both compliments and contrasts the filthy setting and brutal plot of the film. For example, the music is often slightly more lively and upbeat than what is being depicted and yet the lyrics often mirror the hopes or fears of the protagonists. As McCabe says in a monologue in his room, “I got poetry in me… I gonna put it down on paper, I ain’t no educated man, I got the sense not to try…. You’re just freezing my soul.”
Even the location is unusual for a western. It is set in the Northern Mountains whereas most westerns are set in the wide open southwest deserts, valleys or plains. The scenes in the brothel and in the “saloon” are often chaotic and claustrophobic: people bump into things and each other, and talk over each other’s conversations about boring everyday subjects. With McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Altman created a film that mirrored the concerns of many movie goers during this time period. The late sixties and early seventies were a time of societal change and revolution in which the counter culture was fighting against and questioning the status quo. This movie fights against the status que and the conventions that the western genre so often promotes. McCabe and Mrs. Miller is not a “feel good” movie made by Hollywood studios to appease the masses and/or reinforce the American ideology that hard work will bring prosperity.
I believe that the themes of this film also speak to people today, particularly those who believe that the American Dream is a mirage that gives people false hopes. McCabe & Mrs. Miller shows the tragic rise and fall of a small businessman who believed in the American Dream and lost to the bigger, more ruthless “corporation.” It also presents the flaws of an economy built upon the almighty dollar in which profit comes before solidarity, loyalty, and community. The only time the camp acts like a community is at the end of the picture as they try to save the burning church. When McCabe enters the church – we assume for the first time – he is driven out by a shotgun toting minister. So much for sanctuary! These themes are as relevant today as they were when the film was made.
[On a side note McCabe & Mrs. Miller has been an extraordinarily difficult film to find. Even if you could find a copy, the DVD or VHS was extremely poor quality. The good news is that the Criterion Collection will be reissuing the film with restored picture and sound and all the great supplemental materials we have come to expect from CC].